When you want ultimate MIDI control, sometimes you have to venture off the beaten track.
Livid Instruments is a US-based developer of controller hardware and software and its latest release is Base, a touch- and pressure-sensitive control surface that aims to provide adventurous users with a totally configurable, hands-on MIDI device that can be adapted to any task. Made mostly of metal yet lightweight, it has no moving parts and so is fairly safe to throw in a backpack on the way to a gig. It feels sturdy and well made, and powers via a single USB connection through which it also sends MIDI data.
The hardware features 32 pressure-sensitive pads, nine touch-based faders and eight momentary buttons. There’s extensive multicoloured backlighting, with colours changing to denote different parameters as you reconfigure the unit. It’s class-compliant so there are no drivers to install and has onboard memory for storing user presets.
Before we go any further, a word on what Base is and isn’t. It is a controller, but not in the vein of something like Launchpad or Maschine, which are geared largely towards one application but can be press-ganged into doing other things. Base is designed to be customised from the get-go, to the extent that Livid isn’t planning to directly release many DAW templates. Reason Remote files, Bitwig and Live scripts seem to be the limit at present, with an emphasis on controlling Live. So if you’re looking for a plug-and-play trigger for your DAW, this probably isn’t it.
Alphanumeric feedback on the hardware is virtually nonexistent, so you will need to connect it to your Mac or PC to set it up. To achieve this you point your browser at a section of the company’s website and install a browser plug-in to enable MIDI communication. After a restart you can access the internals of the hardware via a web app, which is pretty clever since it means you can do this anywhere there’s an internet connection. You don’t need to be on your own computer or install a dedicated app, and it enables Livid to update the app easily without requiring further downloads on your part. It can also alert you to available firmware updates, which are straightforward enough to install on a PC though more fiddly on OSX, requiring mucking about in the Terminal, which is a little tedious.
The web app behaves much like a regular app in that it displays the layout of your hardware and for any given section allows you to make multiple configuration settings to alter the behaviour of the unit. This goes much deeper than simply assigning notes and extends to pressure, MIDI CCs and the way in which the lights on the hardware behave. The emphasis seems to be on creating smaller, focused control setups that can be stored as presets rather than necessarily DAW-wide setups, though this is possible using banks of controls. You’ll need an understanding of MIDI and CCs, of course, but the layout of the web editor app is sensible and logical.
You can tweak anything from fader display modes and the velocity sensitivity of the pads to button modes and colours and save these internally. Livid says that most people use their systems in conjunction with MIDI Learn, and this makes sense. As the emphasis is not on loading big templates, you can activate Learn in your DAW or instrument and assign multiple hardware controls to parameters in the software with just a few taps.
This is not a controller for the faint-hearted, nor for anyone who simply wants to plug in and start DJ’ing. It’s a very powerful controller with a huge depth of programmability and it’s more likely that users willing to invest some time and effort – and who have a decent understanding of MIDI control protocols – will get the most out of it. The touch elements work well and remove the risk of damage caused by transporting the unit, which can be a risk with knobs and dials that often protrude from hardware surfaces.
Livid could do with making things a little clearer, too. The ‘web-only’ approach to documentation and instructions is sensible enough, but at present everything is a little too spread out and hard to find. If your technology is relatively advanced, as this is, you need to point people clearly in the right direction – at least at the start. Then, when they’re happily pushing buttons and lighting lights controlling Live, they’ll be fine. The language of the support website is of a technical level commensurate perhaps with the skill needed to program one of these things properly, and it can look daunting to newcomers. Complex doesn’t always have to mean complicated…