Invasion of the Grid Controllers!

When the average person takes a look at a grid controller, they're likely to think it's a miniature disco dance floor where your fingers can strut like a young John Travolta. Interestingly, this interpretation isn't too far off. Mass produced grid controllers have only been available for a short time and have proved to be a hit, at least for the small niche of people who already had a need for one. If you have no idea what you're supposed to do with a grid controller, that's okay--you're not alone.

I'll show you how they can be used for everything from making new music, to adding sounds in video post-production, to triggering sounds for live theater and performances.What is a grid controller? Just for the sake of comparison, think of a grid controller as the keypad on a telephone. When you press each button on a telephone's keypad, you hear different tones in the earpiece. The same applies to a grid controller, except you can assign different sounds to each button using Ableton Live software (a light version is included when you purchase a grid controller). Ableton Live 8 is a popular application for creating, producing, and performing music and sound design. If you assigned an audio clip of an explosion into the grid in Ableton Live, the corresponding button on your controller would glow yellow to show that the clip is loaded into it. When you press that button, it would turn green to inform you that the audio clip of the explosion has been launched. The sound of the clip would play instantly. In this example, the grid controller acts as a sonic detonation device.

The following sentences may sound strange if you've never encountered computer-based musical improvisation concepts, but try to power through--it will all start to make sense. Something else that can be put into Ableton Live and triggered with a grid controller is MIDI information. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It's a protocol that was developed to help electronic instruments communicate with one another. Think of MIDI information as a virtual piano scroll that a player piano would read. You can record both MIDI and audio into Ableton's grid to create new clips. These abilities are most useful for creating new music on the fly. You can improvise new ideas with software instruments and audio, recording and looping as you go. This can be great fun for song writing, using a computer to jam with other musicians, and pretty much any audio task you can dream up. The Akai Professional APC40 has inputs for two foot pedals, which enable you to control the software with your feet, freeing up your hands to play another instrument.

The APC40 and the FS-6 footswitch make a lovely couple

You can scroll around Ableton Live with the grid controller, which allows you to control and create an infinite number of clips. When you start to think about all the different kinds of sounds that could be put into the grid to be launched at any time, you start to see the potential these controllers have. DJ's can load entire songs (or portions of a song) into the grid and play them in any sequence. All of the sound cues for a theatrical performance can be loaded into the grid and triggered in real time.  All of the sounds used in a video production (intro music, segues, Foley-like footsteps and door creaks, etc.) can be triggered and recorded as your QuickTime movie plays in Ableton Live. It makes scoring a film feel like a live performance, which can save you a lot of time and pepper your post-production workflow with a bit of fun.

Perform sound design in real time with Live 8 and a grid controller

In the steps below I'll show you how easy it is to load clips into Ableton Live so they can be triggered with a grid controller. You can use these instructions for syncing your audio clips with a QuickTime movie, or for triggering sounds on the fly for theater and other live performances. If you don't have Ableton Live yet, you can at least read along to see how simple and unintimidating the process is.

Start a new Set in Ableton Live. File > New Live Set

Press the Tab button on your computer's keyboard to make sure you can see Live's Session View.

Navigate to the sound files that you want to use, either by locating them in Live's browser on the left side of Live's GUI (Graphical User Interface), or by locating them from another window or the desktop of your computer.

Once you've found the files you want to use, click, drag, and drop them into cells in Live's Session View. You may need to create a few more tracks to accommodate a larger number of clips. To do this, simply click on Create > Insert Audio Track.

Once your clips are loaded into cells in Ableton's Session View, you can trigger them whenever you like. If you have a grid controller connected to the computer, the corresponding grid buttons will illuminate when clips are loaded.

Bring an air of whimsy to video post by performing your soundtrack

If you need to trigger audio cues for a live theatrical performance, or to control backing tracks for a live band, this basic setup may be all you need to get started. This is all possible with the basic version of Ableton Live that comes free when you buy a grid controller. If, however, you want to trigger clips and sync them with a QuickTime movie for sound design in video or film, you're going to need the full version of Ableton Live 8 (QuickTime movies aren't supported in the free version of Live)

Navigate to the .mov QuickTime file that you want to do the sound design for. Press the Tab button on your computer to change the screen to Live's Arrangement View. Click, drag, and drop the .mov file onto a track in Live. Live's Video Window will open up.

To record, arm each track that has a clip on it. (Both the APC40 and APC20 have dedicated buttons for this.)

Press the Global Record button and the Play button in Live. Your video will start playing. You can now trigger clips on your grid controller in real time. They will be recorded onto their own track in sync with the video's timeline, effectively building a soundtrack as if it were a live performance. If you make any mistakes, don't worry. You can easily go back and correct them later.

The possibilities of what can be accomplished with a grid controller extend far beyond what's been covered here. This is a new technology that's been available to the public for under a year. Users of Cycling 74's Max/MSP have the ability to create their own instruments and applications that can utilize grid controllers in new and interesting ways. Max is a graphical programming environment for audio and MIDI, and when used with Jitter, the door opens up for the manipulation of video as well. It won't be long before video clips can be launched and improvised with in the same way audio clips are in this article.

The Lemur is the definition of awesome

A grid controller for the JazzMutant Lemur was recently announced. The Lemur is the original touch screen controller that predates the iPad by several years. The grid controller for the Lemur is called Mu, and if you want to get into it you need a Lemur, Ableton Live 8, and Max for Live. What you get is really remarkable. Mu displays a touch screen grid controller, and the name of each clip in the grid is displayed. That may sound like small beans, but for grid controller nerds like myself this is nothing short of revolutionary! Beyond being just another grid controller, Mu offers complete touch control for all of Ableton Live, which is an industry first. Lemur users are also free to build custom interface controls to suit their needs for any given task, and Max for Live allows users to build completely custom instruments, utilities, and effects. We're still waiting to see what kinds of fantastic technologies emerge from these inspiring tools. Right now all I can envision is a young John Travolta in a space suit doing a moonwalk across a Lemur.

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Have you just coined the phrase "grid controller nerd?"  Either way--that may be the greatest phrase to come out of this decade's audio revolution to date.

Amazing how fast this revolution was--from midi controllers to pad controllers to grid controllers and now grid controller nerds!  It seems like only yesterday that the only "grid" in computer audio was that of amplitude over time--and STOP EVERYTHING if you want to arrange ANYTHING.

Keep up the good work tracking this revolution for the rest of us and let's hear more about the Lemur.

Thanks Chris! Remember, grid controller nerds have only existed for a relatively short time. In the matter of a few years we will CONTROL THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE.