The DAW is now optional
Review by David Blascoe
When I reviewed the Ableton Push 2 in our September 2021 issue, I stated, “I can’t help but imagine the day when Push comes with an audio interface and has Live built-in without the need for a DAW computer—a guy can dream.” Well, I guess that dream has come true with the new Ableton Push 3.
The Push 3 is the third iteration of this proprietary Live-focused Ableton controller. It’s heavier and chunkier than its predecessor to accommodate the internal computer and a heat sink on the bottom. However, the faceplate is now plastic versus the metal faceplate on the Push 2.\
Push 3 features many “quality-of-life” improvements and some significant headline changes. The biggest one is that Push 3 has Live built into the hardware and can be used as a standalone device with no computer necessary.
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It contains an Intel 11th Gen Core i3-1115G4 processor with 8GB of RAM and a built-in lithium battery, so not only do you not need to be tethered to your computer, but you don’t have to be plugged in at all. Ableton claims the battery gets you about 2.5 hours of use, which is consistent with what I experienced.
It seamlessly integrates with your computer-based version of Ableton Live, enabling users to send their songs and sets to the Push 3 for live and on-the-go use. This new layer of freedom allows you to be fully immersed in the creative process without the distractions of a screen.
When your Push 3 session is complete, it effortlessly syncs back to the computer, offering the best of both worlds. Moving sets or samples onto the Push 3 is as easy as dragging or dropping in the browser window inside of Live, even over a Wi-Fi connection. Once the Push 3 is on the same Wi-Fi network as your computer, it pops up in the browser window in Live, ready for you to drag whatever you want to and from the device.
The inclusion of a built-in audio interface further solidifies Push 3 as a versatile music production tool and might just be the feature I’m most excited about.
With two balanced 1/4” inputs (and two 1/4” balanced outs), you can directly plug external sources and instruments into Push 3 to record directly into your set. Push 3 also features ADAT optical I/O. This can be used with an ADAT expander or interface to add up to 8 more inputs (for a total of 10), or you can do the opposite and send 8 outputs digitally from Push 3 to another interface. As a drummer, the fact that I can do multitrack drum recordings with an ADAT-equipped eight-channel preamp directly into the Push 3 without the need for a computer or DAW is a bit unreal. The analog inputs are also great for sampling and reminds me of making beats on my trusty old Akai MPC 1000 and sampling vinyl off my turntable directly into the device.
I love the idea of taking a creative retreat somewhere remote, taking only your instruments and the Push 3, and having a complete screenless break from music creation.
There are also (3.5mm TRS-A) MIDI in and out jacks on the back of the device (note: TRS-B will not work), as well as USB-A and USB-C ports. There’s a 1/4” headphone jack and two 1/4” footswitch jacks that double as CV and gate outputs for controlling modular gear.
I had fun sending MIDI to my Moog Sub Phatty, sequencing melodies, and also controlling a Moog Mother-32 semi-modular synth with both MIDI and the CV outs (1/4” to 1/8” TS converters are needed here).
I know I am obsessing about this, but in today’s DAW-dominated world, it was so refreshing just to use my ears more than my eyes to make music while my laptop sat closed on my desk.
The 64 pads on the Push 3 now have a white background as opposed to the black backdrop of the Push 2. These MPE-enabled responsive pads (MPE is short for MIDI Polyphonic Expression) not only react to your touch and taps but respond to the subtlest movements of your fingers.
With the ability to bend, slide and shift between different notes and articulations. This level of individual expressiveness allows for extremely nuanced control over the music creation process.
An obvious use is for vibrato and pitch bending, but that is only scratching the surface. You can assign the MPE to anything ranging from effects to filters, adding another layer of depth and detail to your sounds.
Whether opening up a filter on a synth sound, gently vibrating a note or finessing the attack and response, MPE makes you think and play differently. There is an endless world of expressive potential with this feature. It also helps that Ableton recently released a new synth in Live called Drift that takes full advantage of MPE, which is a lot of fun to play and explore.
Since day one, the Push 3 user interface has been designed to facilitate an uninterrupted creative process from sound selection and tweaking to mixing. Navigating through sounds and devices from your library is a smooth experience, and MIDI editing and navigation are made even more efficient with a new jog wheel—although entering your Wi-Fi password with the jog wheel is a bit fiddly.
The large LCD provides a comprehensive overview of your session and detailed information about your devices, ensuring that the technology stays out of the way while you focus on creating. One welcome change is that you can now see the session view of Live right on the display, whereas with the Push 2 you had to rely on the pads lighting up for visual feedback of your clips.
This was a welcome feature for my first live performance with the Push 3. I play with a trio around Nashville that does instrumental chill and vibey hip-hop music. I play a minimal drum kit with the Push (and usually my laptop) to my right, where a floor tom would be, where I fire loops and sounds from Live.
The fact that I could do this gig without a computer but still use Live as an integral part of the performance blew my mind. Anytime you can bring less to the gig without compromising your performance is a good day.
The Push 3 flexibility extends to its setup options. Users can configure Push based on their budget and music-making needs. As mentioned, with the new processor, battery and hard drive, Push 3 functions as a standalone instrument. Alternatively, users can connect the Push 3 to their computer for a complete music production experience similar to previous Push incarnations. The key here is that you can now purchase a Push 3 without the processor, battery and hard drive and then add these standalone components via an upgrade kit.
The standalone Push 3 is priced at $1,999 (akin to many standalone synths and drum machines), while the non-stand-alone Push 3 is $999. The upgrade kit is $1,049, so springing for the fully decked-out Push 3 upfront is still slightly more cost-efficient if possible. Push 3 also comes with Live 11 Intro and additional upgrade options to Live Standard or Live Suite available.
The Push I Needed!
What can I say? I love this thing. In a sea of 3rd party pad-based offerings, the Push 3 goes well beyond being a mere Ableton Live controller. This is a standalone instrument that fosters creativity freed from the confines of your computer. Whether you are a long-time Live aficionado like me or have long been “Live-curious,” perhaps this is the Push you need.
Price: $1,999 (Stand-Alone); $999 (Non-Standalone); $1,049 Push 3 Upgrade Kit
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