Two very different ways to interact and control Abletons Live software here from Novation - the Launchpad - the grid of backlit buttons which has been very well received, and the new ZeRO SL MKII - a keyboard-less controller that follows in the footsteps of previous reMOTE interfaces.
Firstly, a note about the review - this is purely focussed on the newly available (with Live 8.1.3) native Live modes of both these units - which means you can select them from within Live itself as integrated hardware controllers - you dont need to use Novation's AutoMap software to get things working - of course you CAN, but that is not what I am focussing on here.
First up, the Launchpad hooks up without any fuss, simply select it from the Control Surface drop down in Live and you are good to go.
This surface is particularly suited to launching clips and scenes from within Session mode (hence the name I guess) and is eminently playable. Additionally the mixer mode gives you limited (albeit with a resolution of eight steps) control of faders, pans, sends A and B. You also get access to the mute, solo, record enable and clip stop functions.
There are also two User modes which have 64 note values assigned to the main grid with an additional eight on the right hand side. Initially, I thought this was a limitation, but actually it means that not only can you play notes - fixed velocity only folks I'm afraid, but by using the Live MIDI mapping mode, you can control switches and other parameter ranges with ease. The only downside is the lack of visual feedback - the lights on the pads only go on when it recieves note and velocity information back from Live itself over MIDI.
On the whole, this is a great peice of interface design and shows that collaborative projects - this is made in conjunction with Ableton can work really well. Perhaps something our new UK government could learn from... (last election reference I promise!)
ZeRO SL MKII
This is a totally different proposition, with more of a mixer type interface and of course, with a dedicated LCD display for parameter access. This chap is not really designed for clip and scene launch but detailed parameter access and tweaking. There are also 8 velocity sensitive pads for beats - which are surprisingly useful.
With 8 rotary encoders, eight pots and 16 backlit buttons on the left, and 8 faders (not motorized) and another 16 buttons (6 of which double as transport control), plus a crossfader - there's plenty of tweakage here. The faders and knobs are all touch sensitive which in practice means that putting your finger on a fader updates the display will show the eight current track names.
Doing the same on the v-pots will bring up the parameters of the currently selected device within Live. If there are more than 8, just page through to access all of them.
Not all the controls are used within Live mode, indeed the 8 knobs and 16 buttons on the left, plus the crossfader are all assignable to Live functions using MIDI map in Live, and the behaviour of them (momentary, latching etc) is editable from the front panel to customize for your setup.
One slight anomaly that I couldn't quite get my head around was the use of the faders to control pan and effect sends. It seems a bit arse-about-face to NOT use the v-pots to do this as they have built-in status display.
In addition to the control surface, the ZeroSL MKII also gives you a two port MIDI interface with In-Out-Thru on port 1 and a second MIDI port out. This makes it a contender for being the heart of a compact MIDI rig, and will let you plug in an external MIDI keyboard as well as control external devices. Other rear connectors: Expression and Control pedals, USB and 9v DC power, should your USB bus be overloaded or if you want to run it in stand-alone mode.
Which Is Right?
The Launchpad really integrated well with Live, especially the clip and scene launch, with many other mappable functions available through the User modes. You dont get the real tweak-head control available with the ZeRO SL MKII but for my money, its the keeper for me.
The ZeRO is much more suited to parameter access and hardware MIDI integration to a bigger rig, which is going to be high on many peoples list of boxes to tick. Probably both would give you the best of both worlds, but then thats starting to cost real $$$.
Speaking of which: -
£149 / $249
ZeRO SL MKII
Prices quoted are full retail price, you will find them cheaper.