Reason: Using Ableton Push As A Universal Controller

This is gonna’ be the most detailed review / talking piece about using the Ableton Push with Reason you’ll ever find. So let’s start this by asking; what is a universal controller? A universal controller is a physical hardware device (“USB controller”) that allows you to control every aspect of a device. A universal controller typically won’t have as many buttons as the virtual device they’re controlling, they’ll have different “banks” of parameters and, if that isn’t enough, different “pages” of banks.

This is what the Ableton Push has. It can control eight things at a time per bank and has access to eight banks at a time, with additional (practically unlimited) pages of banks. So, using this method, a universal controller like the Push can control as many different buttons, knobs, sliders and whatever a device has.

In short, the purpose of a universal controller is to physically control every aspect of a device.

Gotta’ pay the toll

Using the Push with Reason ain’t free. Although you don’t gotta’ buy the Ableton software, you do gotta’ buy the man-in-the-middle software to enable the Push to work. Enter Retouch Control’s $35 PusheR / PusheR2 software. The Push hardware won’t be recognized in Reason without Retouch Control’s software.

The reliability of Retouch Software’s PusheR working with the Ableton Push is phenomenal. Before we get on with the Push, first…

Behringer BCR2000 vs. Ableton Push

I’ve gotten quite a few emails from people who are interested in using a Behringer BCR2000 as a universal controller for Reason. Let’s give credit where credit’s due; the BCR2000 is THE original universal controller. The rotaries feel amazing, the digital acceleration is buttery smooth yet precise and the LED rotary indicators are as cool as they are useful. Not to mention the BCR2000 has 32 knobs and 16 buttons compared to the Push’s eight knobs and eight buttons.

So what’s the problem? On the BCR2000, nothing’s labeled. That’s a problem as big as an asteroid; all those knobs and buttons are meaningless as you don’t know what knob does what. Need to find the Subtractor’s amp decay slider on a BCR2000? Yeah, good luck…

Using physical scribble strips (console tape) isn’t an option because there’s too many devices to do that for, not to mention some devices like Thor have so many parameters that even the mighty BCR2000’s knobs and buttons use multiple banks.

No. The BCR2000 was acceptable as a universal controller before digital displays existed as an option. But now, being able to have digital displays adapt and show exactly what parameter is being controlled makes controllers without displays seem archaic. There did once exist a holy grail of universal controllers with lots of knobs and digital displays for every knob, but…

Mackie C4 rotaries are too wacky

Yes, the legendary Mackie C4. It should have been the chosen one. Worth its weight in gold. 32 rotaries with push button encoders, LED encoder rings and every rotary has its own digital display. And it works natively with Reason.

So what’s the problem? The rotary knobs are digital but lack proper acceleration movement. Meaning, unlike the BCR2000, Push, X-Touch, Maschine and nearly everything else out there… the knobs could function fast OR slow, but not both. You either had to set the device to move super quick but could never dial in precise values (crucial for step knobs, selection buttons and many other things in Reason), or you had to set the device to move super slow (it can take four complete turns just to turn one knob from 1 to 127).

The Mackie C4 was $800 or so new, has durability problems in the used market and still fetches a high price… It was so bad, most who bought it returned it solely on the performance of the rotaries. Mackie discontinued the C4 based, apparently, on how many returns it was receiving.

It’s sad because there isn’t a device on the market that fills the void the C4 was intended to fill. But relief comes with compromise, yet in a surprisingly effective way…

A breath of fresh air comes Push

Our proverbial glass of cold water is the fact the Push has knobs and buttons with a digital display. Not only does it display parameter values and parameter names, it displays eight bank names as well as displaying which bank you’re currently on (and the device, i.e. “Kong”).

This is what makes it possible to understand what knob / bank / page you should be on in nearly every situation. In fact, in a slightly ironic way, because the bank can be named, it can add an additional layer of intuitiveness. For instance, the Malström has two oscillators (a and b) and parameters like “motion”, “shift”, “attack”, etc.

For the Mackie C4, each parameter is limited to only seven characters. Since the Push has banks, if the device map is organized correctly, it can be quicker to find the parameter you’re looking to control with eight knobs / buttons versus 32 knobs / buttons.

Digital scribble strips keep you glued

The digital display of the Push enables you to change different parameters of a device without having to look at your computer monitor. For instance, controlling the attack, decay, sustain and release is fairly straight forward and you can keep your eyes glued to the Push when jumping between different controls. Changing banks to a completely different area can typically be done without having to look up at the screen for reference.

Because I have the Push working in perfect sync with the Behringer X-Touch, many times I’m not touching the keyboard and mouse. With the MJ Enhanced Mackie Universal Control remote map I created and the PusheR software, I can navigate devices, MIDI focus, Reason windows, do commands like undo and more without touching the keyboard or mouse.

Touching knobs and buttons brings closeness

Being able to physically turn a knob or push a button on the Push makes working in Reason that much more fun. This is the number one reason I use a universal controller. I have two massive custom screens setup just for Reason, so everything’s on screen, ready to be clicked with a mouse. But I opt to physically manipulate something whenever possible because it brings you closer to your craft.

However, you should know…

You’re limited to 8 parameters per bank

The Push has eight knobs on top, and below them 16 buttons. You’d think tha’d be quite a few parameters… but one of those eight buttons are for changing banks. So that leaves us with eight knobs and eight buttons. But the problem is there isn’t space on the digital display to show two rows of text for eight knobs and eight buttons (16 total). The display only has room for one row of eight parameters.

So is the text display for the knobs or buttons? It’s for both. Confusing, I know. But the Push was created this way so that a parameter could work for both a knob / slider / whatever or for a simple on / off button.

Confusing concept to grasp at first, but if a parameter is an on / off button, hitting the button is the preferred method… although turning the knob also works (the knob needs to be moved fully in one direction to change the button’s state). If the parameter is anything other than an on / off button, using the knob is the preferred method. However, the button can be used, but it’ll simply change values from the lowest to the highest (i.e. 1-127).

This isn’t a problem and it works well, but just know there’s knobs and buttons to control eight parameters total. (The ninth knob is reserved for a device’s volume or the master fader on the mixer.)

Parameters support text feedback

A great thing about the Push (and PusheR and Reason) is that it supports text feedback. This means the Subtractor’s wave form selector, which on the virtual device shows symbols of the waveform, will show “triangle, square, saw” etc on the Push. This also means you’ll sometimes get values like “12.3 Hz” for parameters. It really is awesome and works for rack extensions too.

Numeric values add precision to knobs

When you see a knob on a device, you won’t know at first glance what value the knob’s at. Well with the Push, it always displays the value. This adds easy precision to things.

Slight disconnect not visualizing knob positions

If there was a reason to buy the Push 2 over the Push 1, it’s because the Push 2 can show a virtual representation of a knob’s position on the screen while also displaying the numerical / text value. The Push 1 can only show the numerical / text value.

Why does this matter? Because there are some situations when there’s a visual disconnect between a knob on a virtual device and the parameter display on the Push. Say a device has a knob with no extra information around it on the virtual device. You judge the knob’s position visually; “two o’clock”, “three o’clock”, etc. But because the Push’s knobs are digital encoders, you won’t know if the knobs at “two o’clock”. So you look at the parameter and it displays… “18Hz”.

That doesn’t tell you what the position of the knob is without looking at the screen. And you can’t guess it either, as you don’t know what the minimum and maximum values are. It could be “16MHz – 20k” or “2MHz – 50Hz”.

Same thing for other values. A slider may have wave form text as its parameter; “square”. Well there may only be three options, showing a visual representation of the knob on screen helps visualize “Oh, ‘square’ must be the last selection”.

It’s a pretty small gripe and, in choosing a Push, didn’t think it was worth paying the extra money for the Push 2.

Practically every virtual rack device is controllable

We’re talkin’ Propellerhead instruments, effects, utilities, combinators… even rack extensions. Heck, some of the popular VTS’s are supported too. Many would think that a universal controller like this should be used just for large devices, like the Thor or the Scream 4… but controlling smaller devices like the combinator or half-rack devices like the PEQ-2 is actually more fun than controlling bigger devices.

The half-rack device D-11 (foldback distortion) only has two knobs (not counting the bypass button). Yet if I were going to use it, I’d control it via the Push. Just that much more fun turning a physical knob of a virtual device. (Half-rack devices don’t have a MIDI focus arrow like all other devices, so you have to right click and select “Lock to Push Devices” while controlling it.)

Full control of the SSL channel strip

The PusheR software also enables full control of the entire SSL mixer. Now, you’ve seen my setup, I use a dedicated mixer. I’m not using the Push to control anything of the mixer.

But what if you don’t have a dedicated mixer or a universal controller? I’d recommend getting the Push. The experience using the Push to control the mixer is… well it’s a bad experience. The Retouch Team seems to have made it as optimized as possible, but switching between channels and parameters isn’t that fun and takes longer than using a large screen with a mouse or the X-Touch.

For instance, when on the channel settings mode (“clip”), you can’t just quickly select a channel to edit like with the X-Touch. You have to painstakingly hit the left or right arrow to cycle from the first channel to your desired channel (and can only hit the button no quicker than about a second to allow the data to update from Reason to PusheR to the Push).

However, when away from the studio with no mixer, the Push becomes a…

Rugged travel companion

If you’re using a laptop or if traveling, using the Push to control the mixer is pretty fantastic. When you’re on a smaller screen of a laptop and away from bigger monitors / mixers, you appreciate having the Push control the mixer. Bringing the Push along somewhere is a lot more feasible than bringing my X-Touch. Not to mention, the X-Touch has modernized faders that can be damaged if not stored correctly during transport.

The Push, however, is built like a tank. Its knobs feel indestructible and all of the buttons are gel-like push buttons, there’s no mechanical clicking involved. So unlike other controllers, the Push’s ruggedized build and universal control aspects makes it ideal for travel.

Here’s an image from a year ago at a restaurant using the Push with the Neonote (my MacBook Pro). Notice the display on the Push… I’m on mixer level control.

The Push also doubles as a performance device, which means you can leave your MIDI keyboard at home (assuming you are not doing anything too serious).

The biggest draw-back for travel is the Push’s size and weight. The weight I’m perfectly fine with because of its ruggedness. And the size? The Push fits into my backpack here with my 13” MacBook Pro, headphones, cables and even custom stands I use to make the Push sit upright. Here’s an image from a trip I took to West Palm Beach that perfectly illustrates this.

Makes you look and feel more professional

Although computers have opened new doors of possibilities in creating music, it also takes away so much of that luster of “wow, I’m creating music”. Granted, Reason users don’t experience this like other DAW users… but it’s still there. Using physical devices, like the Push, makes you feel more professional. And you look that much more professional to those around you.

Everything is done via 20% of the Push’s surface

You’ve got this big, huge device yet… the majority of everything you’ll do will be controlled from the small area at the top of the Push. But that’s actually not a bad thing because…

Push creates an interesting performance controller alternative

The pad layout for playing notes is not like playing on a traditional keyboard. You can turn scales from “In Key” to “Chromat” to make the pads only illuminate the keys in that scale. This can create an interesting alternative when used alongside your MIDI keyboard. But it’s…

Bad as a keyboard replacement

The Push’s scale setup is confusing. Sure, you can come up with interesting new melodies, but it’s so goofy when trying to play traditionally like you would on a MIDI keyboard.

Not to mention the Push’s pads are so insensitive. You have to mash the pads so hard that I can never get consistent velocity when playing notes. Notes will either be 20% (barely audible) or 100% (too loud). There’s a setting called “Accent” that I turn on most of the time that turns off velocity sensitivity (then I go back and write variations for velocity in the sequencer). The Push 2 is more sensitive but still has the same problems.

So while I can see myself taking just the Push and not my MIDI keyboard on vacation, I can’t see myself using the Push as a MIDI keyboard replacement. But…

The pads adapt for different devices

The cool thing about PusheR is that, when you’re on the Kong, Redrum, Dr. Octorex, Thor’s step sequencer or Retouch Control’s rack extensions device, the pads change their color, layout and function. They can display moving sequences that enables you to program a device’s step sequencer or trigger pads of the Kong. Speaking of Kong…

Good for displaying Kong drum visuals

The PusheR software allows the Push to illuminate the Push’s pads when MIDI focused (or locked) to a Kong. This is awesome as it makes your drums come alive and allows you (and others) to see what your Kong device is doing even when the screen is focused on something else, like the mixer.

In my studio, I don’t use the Push like this because I use my trusty, decade old Korg padKontrol to display what the Kong is doing.

Having the padKontrol’s pad illuminate in this way is only possible via Retouch Control’s RpK software, which oddly isn’t being offered on their web site anymore (not cool). If you wanna’ buy it, you have to email them requesting their “RpK” software.

Bad as a drum pad

The Push (version 2 and especially version 1) is terrible as a drum pad. Sure, the pads are small, but that’s not an issue to me. The issue is that they’re super insensitive, like I described above.

If you turn the “Accent” function on, then it’s doable. But then you lose out on that organic, “from the soul” spirit of your performance. Since you’re likely going to be quantizing your drum note’s timing when recording, the velocity is the only thing making your performance different than if you had just written in the MIDI notes via mouse and keyboard.

The Korg padKontrol feels day and night better than the Push when using it as a drum pad. I’m not saying you should buy a dedicated drum pad controller to use alongside the Push, but just know my official stance on using the Push is that it’s crappy compared to well-established drum pads.

Better than the Maschine running MaschineR

There’s another universal controller that works very similar to the Push; Native Instrument’s Maschine working with Retouch Control’s MaschineR software. I owned a Maschine and MaschineR and used it for a month with Reason before dumping it for the Push and PusheR.

So how do they compared? The Maschine is inferior to the Push in so many ways.

The Maschine and MaschineR have to switch between devices in odd ways. You load in separate remote maps; 4 Kongs, 2 Dr. Octorexs, 1 Redrum, 1 mixer, 1 Universal device, 1 transport. You’d then push special, hard to remember buttons on the Maschine to activate controlling certain devices, and if you weren’t locked to certain devices, it wouldn’t control it even if the MIDI focus was on it. Such a complicated hot mess of a process.

Then there’s the fact either Maschine or MaschineR was buggy. The number eight rotary encoder’s software acceleration never moved as fast as the others. I loaded the Maschine hardware with the official Maschine software and the rotary worked normal. It only acted this way in Reason running MaschineR.

Some other things were buggy too, like parameters sometimes wouldn’t update or the display wouldn’t show parameter changes. I never had issues like this with the Push.

Then there’s the ridiculous DRM that’s built into the Maschine hardware. It took over a week to transfer a license from a buyer I bought my Maschine from. Native Instruments is a company I’ve despised for years… and that was before I ever bought a product from them.

The pads on the Maschine are far more limiting than the Push, simply because the Push has more pads and the pads change colors. However, the sensitivity of the pads on the Maschine is better than the Push. But the Maschine’s sensitivity is no where near as good as the Korg padKontrol. But, to be fair… I’ve never found another drum pad to be as good as the padKontrol, so the pad performance of the Maschine is probably considered average or even above average.

Push can’t control Reason like Ableton

Don’t go and look at normal videos of the Push and think you’ll be able to control Reason in all these crazy ways like you can with Ableton. Reason is limited for allowing hardware to control aspects of the sequencer. So you won’t be able to move or select elements in the sequencer. You won’t be able to edit audio waveforms on the Push’s screen and all this other stuff.

So don’t look at what the Push can do with Ableton, look only at what Retouch Control says it can do with Push.

Custom device maps for the Push

I created some custom device maps for the Push and PusheR / PusheR2. I highly recommend you use my custom maps if you use a Push with Reason. I’m sharing it for free, too.

Well worth the money

The Push (version 1) is one of the best things I’ve added to Reason. I bought mine used. I don’t think the Push 2 is worth the used price ($589 is the cheapest used Push 2 price compared to $314 for the Push 1 at the time of writing this).

It’s ironic that in my studio currently, I have an X-Touch (mixer), padKontrol (drum pad), BCR2000 (universal controller) and Oxygen49 (keyboard). The Push is capable of performing the functions of all four.

The Push and the X-Touch (running my custom mapping) is the perfect combo and has made my love of Reason even hotter.

Later. – MJ