The Novation Launchpad is the easy-to-use, affordable pad controller that lets you ‘play live’ with Ableton. It also provides a blank canvas for music makers to create their own customised controller. As such, it’s become the backbone of many studios, and given MIDI tweakers a programmable grid of buttons to mould however they like.
But the versatile grid controller has also heralded a completely new style of performance: the Launchpad Lightshow. This has been accelerated by the popularity of online video streaming platforms (mainly YouTube), and the instant dissemination and gratification provided by social networks like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. These meticulously programmed displays require time and dedication to create, and physical dexterity that is similar to that of an experienced instrumentalist.
Under normal circumstances, the Launchpad LED grid illuminates in several different ways, so you’ll get an interesting display no matter how you use it. Madeon’s ‘Pop Culture’ video is a fine example. However, what sets a lightshow apart is the deliberately programmed behaviour that makes the LEDs flash, change colour to the beat and respond to button pushes.
In many cases, lightshow artists remix existing material, combining the button pushes of the clip-launching process involved in the remix with painstakingly programmed displays of LED animation. Other artists build lightshows into their performances of original material, giving an additional level of spectacle to their live shows.
How does it work?
Launchpad has bi-directional communication with Ableton Live, meaning the pad can trigger actions in the software, but also receive LED feedback. It’s this feedback that’s at the heart of a lightshow. Launchpad is first and foremost a music controller, and lightshows were never a key consideration during its design. This means that making a lightshow involves a bit of hacking: using it for a job that wasn’t really designed for. But don’t worry, it’s not too complex, and you won’t damage your Launchpad. You’ll need to get to know a little about MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), which is a control protocol designed in the ’80s to allow synths and sequencers to talk to each other. You’ll need to understand the basics of MIDI channels, notes and velocities, because the LED feedback is sent on a specific MIDI channel, each LED on the Launchpad responds to a MIDI note on that channel, and its colour is determined by the velocity of that note. One limitation of the MIDI protocol is that there are only 128 levels of velocity (0–127), and therefore there are only 128 colours to choose from on the Launchpad Pro and MkII. Launchpad S, Mini and Classic have tri-colour LEDs, so you’re limited to varying intensities of yellow, red and green with these devices. (Scroll to the bottom of this page to find links for Novation’s Programmers Reference Guides.)
There are several ways to make a lightshow, but you’ll need to know the basics first. Here’s a step-by-step guide to setting up LED feedback and creating the backbone of a lightshow:
1. Make sure Launchpad is connected to your computer and your version of Ableton Live is up to date.
2. Open a new Set in Ableton Live.
3. Create a new MIDI track.
4. Set ‘MIDI To’ to Launchpad’s ‘Live Port’.
5. Change the ‘MIDI To’ channel to Ch 6. (If you are using a Launchpad S, Classic or Mini, you’ll need to choose Ch 5.)
6. Ensure Launchpad is in User Mode.
7. In Live’s Session View, create a new one-bar MIDI clip by double-clicking on an empty slot.
8. Record arm the MIDI channel and record a sequence by playing a pattern on the pad.
9. Replay the clip to see the basics of your first lightshow.
Once you’ve gone through the steps above, you can start to tweak and customise your lightshow by opening up your clip and tweaking the individual MIDI notes recorded. You’ll see that changing the note velocities will change the colour of the pad, and you can normalise the colour of all notes selected by dragging the velocity sliders all the way up so they level out, then back to your desired velocity/colour. You will want to neaten up your flashes, to make sure they turn on and off exactly in sync. You can use the quantization function for this — make sure both the ‘start’ and ‘end’ buttons are on, and that you choose an appropriate setting for your pattern (1/16 is a good place to start). Record quantization can be used to lock your steps in sync while you’re recording, but be prepared to move the MIDI notes around after playing them in if your timing isn’t so tight.
For a video guide on this process, check out the video below.
What you’ve probably found with the above guide is a way to make Launchpad play a pre-programmed set of light actions that runs with the Ableton sequencer. This is cool, and can add a dynamic animated element to your pre-arranged performances. Jack St. James from Avec Sans puts this principal into good use with three Launchpads, as you can see below.
In addition to this, you can also program elaborate LED behaviour that triggers when you push buttons, so you’re not confined to the timeline, or in fact anything else going on in Ableton. For this, you’ll need to design MIDI Effects Chains containing a series of MIDI effects such as arpeggiators and chord generators. You can design custom animations for each Launchpad button, by limiting the range of the Chain to single notes.
As lightshow genius Kaskobi explains in this video, you can use MIDI effects and note-range limiting to design intricate LED actions for each button push. To start this process, place a MIDI Effect Rack on a MIDI channel, then experiment by building a chain of MIDI plugin effects. The MIDI effects you will need for this are: Velocity, Pitch, Note Length, Chord and Arpeggiator.
As you’ve discovered in the basics steps above, it’s the velocity of the note that determines the colour of the lights on the Launchpad. By using the velocity plugin on the MIDI channel that your Launchpad is controlling, you can lock the LED of the pad to display a single colour — it will illuminate the same colour every time you play that pad. To set the velocity, change the ‘Out Hi’ and ‘Out Low’ parameters to the value of the desired colour.
The Pitch plugin can be used to illuminate a different light to the one pressed, in effect ‘moving a light’. Add the pitch effect to the chain and move the pitch dial around to where you want the light to be moved to.
This can be used to control the length of time an LED is lit for. You can use it to elongate the length of a simple button tap, and also create uniformity in button presses. You can adjust note length from 10ms to 60s.
The Chord plugin generates up to six MIDI notes from one note entry. In music, this makes a musical chord from one root note. In Lightshow world, it means multiple LEDs illuminated from a single button push. You can program each note to be shifted by an amount of semitones (st) from the note you press up to +/- 36st. Because of Launchpad’s ‘chromatic fourths’ layout, adding a +4st shift will illuminate the pad directly above the one pressed on Launchpad.
The Arpeggiator is used for any light effects that move, and it works by moving one light in steps. To add multiple lights, you can use a chord too in the same Chain. The arpeggiator has five main controls: Repeat, which tells the arpeggiator how many times to repeat the same action; Rate, which controls how often the light steps occur in one repetition; Gate, which controls the time each light in the arpeggiator stays lit for; Steps, which controls the amount of position changes in one repetition; and Distance, which controls how far each light step moves.
When you create a new chain, Ableton will, by default, apply its behaviour to all MIDI notes in the Chain’s ‘range’. This means that all buttons on the Launchpad will trigger the same chain of effects, unless you limit that range. To do this, drag the edges of the green bar (the range bar) to cover only the desired note, or notes. Now, you can create a custom behaviour for each note. Lightshow heaven!
Organising your Chains.
Your lightshow can get very complicated very quickly, so it’s sensible to keep it organised. You can rename the name of the chain by selecting it and pressing cmd+’R’. You can also make new MIDI tracks with the same input and output settings, and use them to group together certain types of effects, so you can recall, edit and update them quickly.
Hopefully, this document will give you what you need to make your own lightshow. As with music making, a lightshow can benefit from happy accidents, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Also, remember that you’re hacking something, so be prepared to work for hours on one idea, only to realise that there’s a better way to do things, throw everything away and start again. It’s all part of the adventure.
Lastly, don’t forget to make some music.