Review: Ableton Push MK1 Controller

Ableton Live has probably more dedicated control surfaces available for performance than any other DAW but the Push controller is the first actually designed and engineered by Ableton specifically for integration with Live and for lovers of Live (such as myself) it finally adds some much needed creativity and control that is not just aimed at "live" performance. 

While controllers such as the APC/Launchpad have been geared towards launching clips and tweaking effects for mostly performing Live the Push controller takes this and then also adds in the ability to create, from scratch, melodies, drum patterns and even load in instruments and effects all from the controller itself. This offers a welcome break from the screen of the PC and due to the tight integration with live, offers the overall feeling of using Live as a complete instrument.

I have been using the Push controller for 2 years before this review so I have a very good overall handle on what it can do.

Quick Glance

Price: $400
Pros: Tightly integrates with Live, Expressive and easy to navigate
Cons: Does not remember scale selection, Browser limited with regards to 3rd party plugins
Rating: 8/10
Manufacturer: Ableton
Model: Push MK1


  • 64 pressure and velocity sensitive pad maxtrix
  • Pads support aftertouch
  • Full RGB LED feedback
  • LCD scribble strip
  • 8 touch sensitive endless rotary encoders
  • 1 touch sensitive pitch/mod strip
  • 2 foot pedal inputs
  • Dedicated browse, edit and set navigation buttons
  • Tight Live integration
  • Drum/Sequence/Clip Launch and edit modes
  • Browse, load, edit live devices using Push
  • Auto mapping encoders for quick tweaking
  • Scales and Chromatic keyboard modes
  • Drum sequencer and 64pad drum machine
  • User MIDI mode (for use with any 3rd party software)
  • Expandable functionality via user scripts and Max devices
  • USB powered or externally powered

First Impressions

As a long time Live user I was instantly intrigued at the idea of Push after using a Launchpad as a way to "play" my clip ideas into a rough song structure. I already owned Live 8 suit but wanted to upgrade to Live 9 and also decided that it would make sense to also add the Push at the same time so I placed an order direct with Ableton for these and delivery from Germany to Australia was swift (just 1 week). 

I watched hours and hours of demo videos, user reviews and examples of Push in use and the more I watched the more I was impressed with its capabilities. I was well aware of what it could offer and was excited to get going.

Unboxing I saw the controller was well packaged and included was a USB cable, quick guide and power supply. The power supply is optional as the unit can be powered directly from USB but powering externally will offer brighter pads. Live 9 is required to work with Push as much of the software has been opened up to allow for the complete 2 way integration which is one of the reasons why Live 9 was years after 8. 

The controllers appearance is one of contrasting white pad matrix with complete black. The buttons, knobs and display are all black but with a nice dark soft brushed appearance. 

Build Quality

The weight is not what I would call heavy but it is certainly solid feeling and when placed on the desk it stays in place well and does not want to slide around. The pads all feel firm, the buttons are all rubber with a nice muted click feel and in all respects the controller feels like a good quality unit. My initial impression was this was a well designed and engineered product and I felt very happy about the investment.

The control knobs have a plastic feel but are also touch sensitive so have a conductive element to them but the action and resistance was spot on, no clicking twist and they were not wobbly or too easy to turn. 

The layout of all the controls is neat and clean and without powering the thing on it's almost impossible to see what the buttons do since without the backlighting the buttons are just black. This is by design I later found out since in certain modes when a function is not available it is blacked out so in a dim lit environment you simply see only what you need to. Again, well designed concept. 

Installation & Setup

Live 9 should be installed and configured already. The process of setting up Push is as follows:

1. Connect Push & switch on. 2. Start Live. 3. Use Push

Honestly, that is all that is needed (mostly). When you switch on Push it will say "Please Start Live to Play" which once Live is started it will automatically configure Push as a control surface and start working. This is also true if you simply power up Push even with Live up and running. Push is simply an extension of Live and actually integrates as a part of Live automatically.

Once connected the LCD display will now update to show what is displayed on the selected track and the Pad matrix will now display a keyboard layout ready to start composing. The control buttons will now also illuminate and display the functions. 

IMG 3889One of the things I noticed once I started to use it from my seated position was its really designed for a standing artist and is hard to see the display. This is where a stand with an angle was needed so I knocked up a quick stand from some scrap wood which helped it to fit in more

Operating Live from Push

Push is designed from the ground up and has also forced Ableton to redesign much of Live to fit with Push. The result is the fact much of the software can be directly controlled from Push so it is fully possible to:

- Navigate live sets
- Launch clips
- Play & record Instruments
- Sequence instruments and chords
- Create, program and edit drum patterns
- Browse and Load live instruments and effects
- Load saved live instrument racks
- Control instrument and effect parameters
- Control all mapped VST parameters
- Undo / redo / duplicate / quantise
- Much More...

As a test I was able to browse through some Live instruments, load them into a new track, change presets or even the whole instrument, play in a certain scale, record my melody, tweak some parameters and then sequence this into arrangement all without touching the PC. It should also be noted I was able to achieve all this without reading the manual as for users with some decent level of experience with Live and basic controllers it's pretty simple to get your head around the device which is another sign of good design. Reading the manual is recommended though as there are a lot of useful tips in there and the Ableton forum is a good resource to get hints from users. 


Playing Scales

The way the scale system worked with the Pad layout was very intuitive and for someone like me who knows really only the basics of playing piano. By default the pad layout is in the Major scale with the root note set to C (as displayed to the left). Playing the pads you will only trigger Major notes (C-D-E-F-G-A-B).

Selecting the "Scales" button you can then choose the scale and root note for the pads or select "Chromatic" to display the full key range with the scale keys highlighted.

push scales


This scale feature alone was one of the big draw cards for me because although I know some of my scales and can even use MIDI plugins to create scale note input automatically, using Push I am able to not just play within a scale but also understand it more, understand the patterns and even to a degree the maths behind a scale and still have access to non-scale notes if needed at the press of a button. 

Another real neat thing about this is the fact when a MIDI clip plays back the pads are highlighted as the clip plays so for songs that I had created in the past or MIDI files I import I can switch through scales and instantly see what scale a file was in. Really neat stuff. 

Drum Sequencer

push drum sequencer

Next we have the drum sequencer which is divided into 3 sections. The bottom left 4x4 pads are the drum pads to trigger drum samples with the touch ribbon scrolling through the drum rack. Selecting a pad will play the sample (and if you are in record mode will record to the drum pattern) but also selects that sample for manual note entry in the top section of the grid which is a sequencer window. 

The sequencer window is a 4/4 pattern display which allows a complete 4/4 drum loop to be displayed. Touching a pad will switch the drum sample on/off on that line and holding a pad opens settings in the LCD for that pad (Velocity/Length/Nudge)

The lower right 4x4 pads set the length of the pattern and allow easy navigation through the pattern

In Live 9.2 onward the Note button can now switch the 4x4 drum matrix to 8x8 so the entire 64 pad surface can be used for drumming which was a common request so this can now be toggled between if you need more space. Drum programming is so easy on this setup and so fun that it really takes just minutes to come up with a beat. Browsing for samples for your kit is not possible but you can browse for any Ableton kits or saved drum kits that have been created by the user.

Browsing & Loading Instruments & Effects

push browser

While you have a track selected you can press the "Browse" button to open the Live browser within the Push LCD. This will allow you to browse through all Live instruments and presets to load in place of what the track has loaded. 

You can also press "Add Track" or "Add Effect" to create a new track or add a new effect into your track and again, all your installed Live devices will be browsable.

3rd Party Plugins?

This is where we hit a snag. Push works great with the native Live devices but cannot browse or load any 3rd party plugins or presets... At least not by default. It is impossible for Live to support the presets of all 3rd party devices but it is possible for users to load ANY plugin via Push by simply creating an Instrument Rack with the plugin loaded and saving this rack. PPush can then find this in your user folder and load it just like any other device and your controller mappings are also loaded right up. 

This allows you to load a plugin but you then need the PC to browse the presets. As some users discovered (myself included) if you wanted to go to the trouble of clicking through each preset in a VST and saving an instrument rack you could infact make the instrument browsable from Push. This is obviously not something every user wants to do but for the more adventurous who can maybe compile some neat scripts to automate the process you can export all the presets and make a VST fully browsable via Push such as with Omnisphere and our preset pack for push:


Getting The Most Out of Push!

If you want to use Push as a way to get away from the keyboard then having things easily browsable is going to be a big thing. This is where I found that in addition to having VST presets browsable it was also a benefit to have pre-formed effects and other racks of devices ready to load and also a nice clean library structure. I spent quite some time organising my library and creating new racks and presets as well as making favourites for things and pre-mapping VST controls. While this takes some time and is not as fun as creating it is a good way to fill in a few moments when you simply don't have the time to get real creative. 

Once you have a good understanding of Push you may feel like you need just a little more. How about dynamically chopping a clip and editing on the fly? what about using the touch strip to automate the last control you touched? If you want to supercharge Push with even more features then consider the awesome PTX script from NativeKontrol. This is an addon script that can be accessed using the "User" button and it adds a lot of functionality not available in the vanilla push device. You can switch between Push and PTX mode easily at any time and it's a great way to go even further. The cost is $20 but is well worth it.

Issues & Limitations

No device will be perfect and while Push does so many things right there are a few gripes I and many other users have with the platform, many of which are small things but things never the less. 

Firstly, the browser does do a good job but is not perfect. You cannot reorder the way the browser works so your personal user folders will be at the bottom of all lists. Additionally, the browser will not allow you to load sets or even saved channel setups so if you are like me and have multi-timber instrument setups with multiple midi/audio tracks all grouped into a nice preset template you cannot load from Push. 

The next thing is the fact that the scale mode in Push is great but is not saved/restored with a project so unless you note which scale you were using in your project you will have to decipher it to continue working in that same scale. 

Though my Push is pretty accurate the pad LEDs have been noted to vary slightly in colour especially when you display white. This can cause some pads to appear different when they are all the same and this can be annoying. 

There is no expression pedal input only 2 foot switches (sustain and record) so if you like to use an expression pedal you are out of luck.

Probably the biggest one for me is the fact Push really only works with clips and you cannot use the drum or sequence editors on material in Arrangement view. Hopefully this will be addressed but this limits push for me as an ideas pad to sketch out ideas as a start and then I move to my midi keyboard and my mouse to continue in arrangement view.


Push is both an instrument and a controller and being designed specifically for Live it integrates very closely. As a tool to help compose ideas it has served me very well (though I have been quiet lately) and I enjoy using it just as much now as I ever did. Being active on the Ableton forums I have watched and even weighed in on the debate "could it fully replace a midi keyboard" and the answer is a definite possibly! While it can be used as a keyboard it has a different setup and by that means offers a different approach that may suit a guitarist more so with finger positions. I personally cannot use Push solely when doing string based violins for scores because I like to play with my eyes closed and it doesn't quite work the same but I do turn to it all the time and absolutely love the "instant map" for controls allowing quick and easy automation of almost anything. 

After 2 years of use I could wipe this down with a cloth and sell almost "as new" simply because I have treated it well and it is a decent quality. If you were carting it around it would probably start to chip and wear but it's a solid unit designed for years of abuse. I replaced my MDP32 with Push and have never regretted it for a second. For a Live user it is certainly a great tool in so many ways. 

Last modified on Friday, 06 November 2015 17:46

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