Step 4: Create A Light Show
Things to know
The first thing to say is that light shows take time, patience and dedication. Performances like this, this and this, are painstakingly programmed and rehearsed, then delicately filmed and edited. Secondly, Launchpad’s primary purpose is not as a light show machine — it was designed as a versatile music-making controller for Ableton Live and other DAWs. What we’re saying is that, by making a light show, you’re kind of hacking Launchpad’s LED-feedback capabilities and basically turning an illuminated pad controller into an eight-pixel-square screen! But don’t worry, you won’t damage your Launchpad. Thirdly, we acknowledge that there are many ways to make light shows on a Launchpad. The geekiest users design custom scripts and Max patches, and that requires some expert coding background. The most straightforward way is to use Ableton Live — a free version of which comes with every Launchpad. So, for the remainder of this piece, we’ll assume you’re using Ableton Live and nothing else (except your Launchpad).
A screenshot from a pre-programmed light show.
You might have ambitions to remix existing material, combining the button pushes of the clip-launching process involved in the remix with painstakingly programmed displays of LED animation associated with clips in Ableton Live. If you’re starting from scratch with your own original material, you can build the light show element into your tracks from the start, to bring an additional level of spectacle to your live shows.
How does it work?
Launchpad has bi-directional communication with Ableton Live, meaning the pad can trigger actions in the software, but also receive LED feedback. It’s this feedback that’s at the heart of a light show. You’ll need to get to know about MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), which is a control protocol designed in the ’80s to allow synths and sequencers to talk to each other, but which is the main method of communication between your software and your Launchpad. You’ll be programming MIDI channels, notes and velocities, because the LED feedback is sent on a specific MIDI channel, each LED on the Launchpad responds to a MIDI note on that channel, and its colour is determined by the velocity of that note. One limitation of the MIDI protocol is that there are only 128 levels of velocity (0–127), and therefore there are only 128 colours to choose from on the Launchpad Pro and MkII. Launchpad S, Mini and Classic have tri-colour LEDs, so you’re limited to varying intensities of yellow, red and green with these devices.
(Scroll to the bottom of this page to find links for Novation’s Programmers Reference Guides.)
Light Show Basics
Right, now that you’ve got your head around the concepts at play, it’s time to get started. Here’s a step-by-step guide to setting up LED feedback and creating the backbone of a light show:
- Make sure Launchpad is connected to your computer and your version of Ableton Live is up to date.
- Open a new Set in Ableton Live.
- Create a new MIDI track.
- Set ‘MIDI To’ to Launchpad’s ‘Live Port’
- Change the ‘MIDI To’ channel to Ch 6. (If you are using a Launchpad S, Classic or Mini, you’ll need to choose Ch 5.)
- Ensure Launchpad is in User Mode.
- In Live’s Session View, create a new one-bar MIDI clip by double-clicking on an empty slot.
- Record arm the MIDI channel and record a sequence by playing a pattern on the pad.
- Replay the clip to see the basics of your first light show.
Once you’ve gone through the steps above, you can start to tweak and customise your light show by opening up your clip and adjusting the individual MIDI notes recorded. You’ll see that changing the note velocities will change the colour of the pad, and you can normalise the colour of all notes selected by dragging the velocity sliders all the way up so they level out, then back to your desired velocity/colour.
You will want to neaten up your flashes, to make sure they turn on and off exactly in sync. You can use the quantization function for this — make sure both the ‘start’ and ‘end’ buttons are on, and that you choose an appropriate setting for your pattern (1/16 is a good place to start). Record quantization can be used to lock your steps in sync while you’re recording, but be prepared to move the MIDI notes around after playing them in if your timing isn’t so tight.
For a video guide on this process, check out this video from CALC.
Light Show Pros
What you’ve probably found with the above guide is a way to make Launchpad play a pre-programmed set of light actions that runs with the Ableton sequencer. This is cool, and can add a dynamic animated element to your pre-arranged performances. Jack St. James from Avec Sans puts this principal into good use with three Launchpads, as he explains here.
In addition to this, you can also program elaborate LED behaviour that triggers when you push buttons, so you’re not confined to the timeline, or in fact anything else going on in Ableton. For this, you’ll need to design MIDI Effects Racks containing a series of MIDI effects such as arpeggiators and chord generators. You can design custom animations for each Launchpad button, by limiting the range of the Chain to single notes.
As light show genius Kaskobi explains in this video, you can use MIDI effects and note-range limiting to design intricate LED actions for each button push. To start this process, place a MIDI Effect Rack on a MIDI channel, then experiment by building a chain of MIDI plugin effects. The MIDI effects you will need for this are: Velocity, Pitch, Note Length, Chord and Arpeggiator.
As you’ve discovered in the basics steps above, it’s the velocity of the note that determines the colour of the lights on the Launchpad. By using the velocity plugin on the MIDI channel that your Launchpad is controlling, you can lock the LED of the pad to display a single colour — it will illuminate the same colour every time you play that pad. To set the velocity, change the ‘Out Hi’ and ‘Out Low’ parameters to the value of the desired colour.
The Pitch plugin can be used to illuminate a different light to the one pressed, in effect ‘moving a light’. Add the pitch effect to the chain and move the pitch dial around to where you want the light to be moved to.
This can be used to control the length of time an LED is lit for. You can use it to elongate the length of a simple button tap, and also create uniformity in button presses. You can adjust note length from 10ms to 60s.
The Chord plugin generates up to six MIDI notes from one note entry. In music, this makes a musical chord from one root note. In light show world, it means multiple LEDs illuminated from a single button push. You can program each note to be shifted by an amount of semitones (st) from the note you press, up to +/- 36st. Because of Launchpad’s ‘chromatic fourths’ layout, adding a +4st shift will illuminate the pad directly above the one pressed on Launchpad.
The Arpeggiator is used for any light effects that move, and it works by moving one light in steps. To add multiple lights, you can use a chord tool in the same Chain. The arpeggiator has five main controls: Repeat, which tells the arpeggiator how many times to repeat the same action; Rate, which controls how often the light steps occur in one repetition; Gate, which controls the time each light in the arpeggiator stays lit for; Steps, which controls the amount of position changes in one repetition; and Distance, which controls how far each light step moves.
Ableton’s Arpeggiator plugin can be used to make rhythmic LED patterns.
When you create a new chain, Ableton will, by default, apply its behaviour to all MIDI notes in the Chain’s ‘range’. This means that all buttons on the Launchpad will trigger the same chain of effects, unless you limit that range. To do this, drag the edges of the green bar (the range bar) to cover only the desired note, or notes. Now, you can create a custom behaviour for each note. Light show heaven!
Organising your Chains
Your light show can get very complicated very quickly, so it’s sensible to keep it organised. You can rename the name of the chain by selecting it and pressing cmd+’R’. You can also make new MIDI tracks with the same input and output settings, and use them to group together certain types of effects, so you can recall, edit and update them quickly.
Hopefully, this guide will give you what you need to make your own light show. As with music making, a light show can benefit from happy accidents, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Also, remember that you’re hacking something, so be prepared to work for hours on one idea, only to realise that there’s a better way to do things, throw everything away and start again. It’s all part of the adventure.
Watch Kaskobi explain the best way of making great-looking Launchpad videos, regardless of what gear you have.