Review – Launchpad Mini by Novation
In this review, we look at Launchpad Mini, a smaller and much less expensive, but exceedingly capable, version of Launchpad S.
by A. Arsov, Sept. 2014
Launchpad Mini is a smaller brother of Launchpad S. It has the same number of pads, same number of buttons, same functionality, but is smaller and cheaper. It is supposed to be a hardware controller intended to trigger loops and sounds. But as human nature is a bit of a tricky thing, there is one fellow, Henri David, who released an alternative driver (Launchpad 95) for whole Launchpad series, adding some fancy new features making that small Launchpad that you can get it for €99 EUR an all-around monster with some extra functions that you can only find in Push from Ableton that costs over €500 EUR.
So, as you can imagine, I visited Launchpad95 site downloading those alternative drivers the day before I got my Launchpad Mini. Not the original Novation drivers are bad or anything like that – I just simply wanted more than what I paid for.
This hardware is a Novation USB powered controller made especially for Ableton Live and FL Studio, armed with 64 launch pads and 16 buttons. Its main purpose is to trigger so-called scenes, i.e. pre-prepared clips or sounds, launching them in sync with a host. It becomes some sort of standard for live Electro gigs, where you can build your arrangement on the fly, reacting to a response from the crowd. But it is also a good arranging tool in a studio where you can record your Scene improvisation on the fly, triggering various elements. Ableton Live is all about catching the moment of inspiration, and Launchpad Mini or even S is an ideal tool for that purpose. With Launchpad’s pads and buttons, you can select an empty scene cell pressing the record button on Launchpad and record a new clip, audio or MIDI along with triggering all other clips from an arrangement. After spending few days with this tool, I find it almost indispensable, as it opened some new perspectives in my workflow.
Launchpad Mini offers three general modes that you can select through upper row of buttons. The first and most often used is:
In this mode you can select any channel or clip, by pressing the appropriate pad for the Scene’s cell, and if the cell or channel is out of range, then you can browse through the channels or rows of cells up and down, left and right with the first four left upper buttons on the Launchpad, reaching any clip or channel that is out of visible range. With some other buttons that are positioned right from the 64 cells, you can start recording at any selected scene or to select recording enable (Arm) sequencers button on any channel.
The yellow pads shows cells that contains the clip, green represents cells with active clips and, and red represents cells during the recording stage.
In the mixer mode you can use pads to control volume and pan on every channel (using left and right upper buttons to reach more than eight channels). In this mode you can also control the level for two send effects. It would be easier to do that with knobs, but obviously it could be done by dragging with fingers through row of pads changing all those parameters.
User Mode (Instrument Selecting Mode with Launchpad 95)
This is supposed to be a mode where you can trigger some synth or drum notes, playing simple melodies, trying to find which pad represents a particular one, or programming some simple drum patterns, or maybe just spending eons of time programming something more useful if there happens to be no Henri to program some additional functions for you. He made a Cadillac out of Launchpad by adding the instrument selecting mode, similar to one that we can see on a Push controller. In this instrument selecting mode, we have a rank of notes representing only notes that are in a selected scale. So if you choose a C major scale, then the orange pads will represent root note and all further green cells will represent all other notes that are in C major scale. Notes that are not in particular scale are not presented on pads, so there is no pad for C sharp or G sharp or any other sharp or flatted note in the C major scale. Whatever you play will be always perfectly in harmony with C major. Pressing every second cell with three fingers will give you appropriate chord for that scale according to the first cell you pressed in that triad. Both of my sons learned how to play chords with Launchpad in a minute!
At the bottom of the article you will find a table with some essential chords that you can play with Launchpad. It is dead easy and fun. Actually I found that working with Launchpad will lead you to use some different harmonies than when you are playing or programming progressions through a keyboard. It is a great creative tool, allowing you to overcome your old habits and bring some fresh air in your compositions.
The main difference inside the instrument selecting mode in Launchpad and Ableton Push is that Ableton Push supports velocity and aftertouch, giving much more controlled, softer results. Also Launchpad is not the best tool for playing some fast drum or synth sequence as pads need some time to return back in starting position after they have been pressed by finger (a few milliseconds, but enough to miss some fast repeated notes). Cells on Push don’t go so deep inside in the main box when you press them, so it is possible to play some faster passages. Don’t get me wrong – Push still offers plenty of other additional functions that makes it worth the money, allowing you to control a great number of other parameters inside Live effect racks, tracks and instruments. This puts the whole thing on a completely new level, allowing you to make almost entire songs, playing only with Push and almost forgetting that your sequencer is running on your computer. All I want to say is that Launchpad also offers some extra functionality that makes it far more than just a good buy, especially considering the purchase price.
By the way, I find that normal User Mode (with default Novation drivers and not the one from Henri) works even with Cubase. Of course you can’t set any scale or bring in some other extra functions, but it works fine for triggering some wild bass patterns or drum hits. Every pad represents the next note on a keyboard. C, C#, D, D# and so on, with the little twist that higher notes are in a lower rows and not in a higher as it is the case in FL Studio and Ableton Live
Scale Edition Mode
In this mode you can select which scale will be used in Instrument Select Mode. A row of cells simulating keyboard’s black and white keys, pressing appropriate notes will select the appropriate scale. In lower rows we can find a sizable array of additional colored pads in green, representing various scales. The first pad is for Major scale, the second for minor and all other pads represent many other scales, like Arabian, Mixolydian, Dorian, etc., etc. So, all you have to do is to select the root note and the desired scale and off you go – always in tune and always in harmony.
Drum Step Sequencer Mode
This should be User 2 Mode, but here comes a Henri again. It is a mode where you can program your drums in a conventional way, selecting how many bars the step sequencer will have, then selecting various drum elements and programming on the fly by adding notes in one of the pads inside the row representing the step sequencer. After spending some quality time finding how to set the proper number of bars and to find the right kit element (I have not used step sequencers for several years), I found this Drum Step Sequencer thing quite useful and delightful, getting a bit different results than when I’m doing that through the keyboard.
A button away is a multi-note step sequencer mode, where you can build your melodies step by step combining buttons and pads. When doing that, I felt like Pet Townsend in one of those pictures where he was toying with one of the first hardware step sequencers for Who’s Next album. A bit retro, but yes, after you get used to it, it proves to be much easier than drawing notes by hand in any of supported DAWs.
All in All Mode
Launchpad Mini, a younger brother of Launchpad S is definitively a pocket Mercedes on a budget, being small enough to take everywhere you go. Even if you don’t use the Launchpad 95 driver, it is still an ideal tool for trying new combinations during the arranging phase and almost indispensable for performing live. With the additional driver, Launchpad Mini becomes a pure fetish. At first I was a bit skeptical regarding the Instrument mode, being used to inputting every note just via keyboard. I was thinking “why should I need this, as this is more for those who don’t know much about harmonies”, but soon I realized that different approaches give different results. It is like getting a partner for composing, a partner that “thinks and reacts” a bit differently than you.
Launchpad is made from very solid and robust plastic, and is not the least bit fragile. You should definitively bang those pads a bit harder than you are used to with a normal non-weighted keyboard, but I borrowed Push during the final test stage to compare it with Launchpad, and I noticed that this is obviously the case with all similar trigger boxes. No matter that pads on Launchpad Mini are smaller than on Launchpad S, I didn’t notice any problems hitting the right pad. I even expected many more problems to adapt myself to the whole concept, but after seeing few video clips on YouTube, I got started in a minute. I only needed day or two to get used to knob hardness in Instrumental mode, but Launchpad is not to blame – it is just a matter of using the different tool or instrument – and it always take time to adapt yourself to a different controller.
Launchpad Mini is a tool that you won’t miss until you try it. After that, it is hard to imagine a life without it. It is not an unmissable tool for music production, but on the other hand, it brings a whole new level in your workflow, opening a universe of different approaches that could drastically change the way your music sounds.
Chords with Launchpad Mini
More or less, as Henri copied the scale system from Ableton Push, the chord positions that you can play with Launchpad are the same as those on Push.
I made a list with some basic chords that can help you start making some harmonies with Launchpad Mini, putting all those chords inside a one octave range. Maybe this looks a bit complicated, but basically you can become a Launchpad virtuoso keeping the same finger position as it is presented for C major chord (root pad, third pad right from root and one between the root and third in upper row) playing it from any other pad. You will be on a safe ground, getting all basic chords in scale just playing that position up and down horizontally. One pad further right from root note and you are playing D major, another pad further right and you are playing E minor, one more and you are playing F major, one more G major. Don’t forget – only notes that are inside the scale are represented on pads. So having your fingers in same “C-major-like triangle” position, banging around the pads will make you a harmony master. This is an ideal tool for all cannot-read-music musicians. Other chords on a list are there only if you want to impress your mate, showing him that you can do a bit more than just climbing up or down with same finger figure. 😉
That’s all for now. Enjoy…
More info on
Launchpad Mini could be yours for €99 EUR (more or less the same price in US dollars.)
It works also with iPad. With Launchpad Mini you will also get a downloadable version of Ableton 9 Lite.
by A. Arsov