Akai’s APC20 hardware controller proves less is more…

Ever since Ableton became popular with the masses and started to pop up in cooler studios and DJ boxes across the planet, the arms race to find the ultimate hardware controller has been on. Akai’s APC40 has proven to be a WMD and gained huge popularity among Ableton users. With the release of the APC20, a smaller, cut-down version, the question on the lips of gear sluts everywhere is, do good things come in small packages? And is the APC20 a contender or destined to gather dust on the shelf?

From the first glance right through to detailed inspection, the APC20 looks and feels like a serious piece of professional kit. The construction is excellent and all of the knobs and buttons on the unit feel fantastic, as well as being able to take a hammering while being used and abused on the road. The angular black design and well laid-out control surface all add to the sleek pro feel of the APC20, which is about the same size and shape of a laptop — perfect for smuggling aboard aircraft in hand luggage.
The APC20 is basically an APC40 with the control section found on the right hand side chopped off. While this obviously means losing some knobs and faders, the gains come with reduced weight, size and a price tag of less than half that of its big brother.

The control surface of the APC20 boasts 87 buttons, nine faders and a knob, so it’s hardly lacking. The buttons are rubberised and back-lit with multi-coloured LEDs to provide visual feedback. The action of the buttons is good, firm but not sticky and a decent size, so perfect for use in a performance situation. The faders also have a good solid feeling and action, and are nicely spaced and intuitively laid out. The layout of the APC20 — back-lit buttons as well as silk-screen artwork on the control surface — all add to the usability and intuitive operation, especially in darkened rooms and DJ boxes.

When it comes to the installation, the APC20 is an absolute joy. Simply plug the unit into your computer and select it in the midi set up page (assuming you’re using the latest version of Live), and voila! All the controls are mapped perfectly.  Because the APC20 is designed specifically for controlling Ableton Live, integration is seamless and everything fits perfectly rather than being a compromise between various software hosts. The only niggle here is that the APC20 requires an external power supply which, although slightly annoying, isn’t a major issue, especially as the power supply will work on 110 or 240 volts. As long as a correct travel plug adapter is packed, the APC20 will work fine while gigging abroad.
The control panel of the APC20 is dominated by buttons, most of which are put to use on clip launch duties making this a fantastic unit for performing live or creating loop-based tracks in the studio. A total of 40 buttons are dedicated to clip launch, arranged in eight columns with five rows, giving instant access to five clips per channel at a time. All of the buttons on the APC20 are back-lit. The clip launch buttons light up orange when a clip is in the slot ready to go; green for a clip that is playing; and red for when the APC20 is in Midi note mode.  This sort of in-your-face LED feedback for clips is absolutely essential to get the best out of Ableton without getting lost and is something that is sorely missed on any unit that doesn’t provide it.

Directly below each bank of clip launch buttons are clip stop buttons for each channel and to the right of each row of launch buttons are five scene launch buttons. Everything is clearly labelled and all of these controls are exactly where they are needed and where one would expect to find them, so no leafing through boring manuals before the fun starts here.
Beneath the clip launch and stop buttons is a row of 10 buttons dedicated to navigation and master transport controls. At the left hand side of these buttons are found the transport controls; Play, Stop, Rec and Midi overdub. Next we find navigation control buttons in the form of: left, right, up and down. Using these buttons moves around a red rectangle in Ableton which shows the currently selected clips, making navigation a breeze without needing to pick up a mouse. Finally, a Note Mode button engages the APC20’s midi note controller mode for extended midi mapping fun.  Holding down the Shift Button will allow each of these buttons to select their corresponding channel in Ableton for full on-screen feedback of what is going on in the computer.
Moving down the control panel we find the final set of buttons, three rows of back-lit buttons which control channel activation, solo/cue and record arm on each of the eight channels. To the right hand side of these buttons is a lonely endless rotary encoder knob that is set by default to control the cue volume but can, of course, like all of the APC20’s controls, be set to anything the user wishes.
At the very bottom of the APC20 are eight channel faders and a master channel fader.


The unit is fantastically fun to use and given the brilliantly executed design, as well as the way it integrates into Ableton, there is virtually no learning curve, installation or head scratching involved. On paper, the APC20 has less features than the APC40 but somehow AKAI have turned this into an advantage and rather than detracting from the APC20, the smaller footprint and clever use of the controls make this every bit as user-friendly as the APC40, but a whole lot more convenient for using at gigs.

When it comes to truly bad-ass Ableton controllers, it seems the choice is now between Vestax’s VCM-600 and AKAI’s APC40 and APC20. Given the size and superior function of the APC20, along with the build quality and incredibly reasonable price, it looks like a clear winner is about to emerge. Keep your eyes on DJ boxes in the coming months because I’m sure we are going to be seeing a lot of APC20s in the wild.