But that’s not the coolest thing about Yeco. The coolest, most fabulous thing about Yeco is that it makes Ableton Live touchable – hooray!
Ableton Live doesn’t actually mind being touched. As long as you’ve invoked “AbsoluteMouseMode” in the options.txt file then faders and knobs in Live respond well to single finger manipulation. But it’s hard work. Those weeny little fiddly play button bastards are tricky to hit reliably with a finger – and in live performance you need reliability. Like many people when performing with Live we tend to use additional hardware. I’ve got a Launchpad which is ace but it doesn’t give a whole lot of access to many things at once. There’s only so much you can do with an 8×8 grid. Ableton’s own Push controller is a bit more convincing but it’s a chunky piece of expensive gear. As I’m always saying the great thing about a touch interface on your desktop computer is that it can be anything – control anything and is endlessly customisable – there’s no hardware restriction.
Yeco get that. And since Emulator Pro has disappeared up it’s own arse Yeco have managed to do what they couldn’t – provide a working, integrated touch solution for a proper piece of music software.
Right, let’s get into it. Video version below, text continues after if you’d rather keep reading.
Setup is relatively straight forward and all this info is available on the Yeco website. You have to install some scripts into the Ableton Live folder by finding it and clicking a button in Yeco and then setting up a control surface and MIDI ports in Ableton Live. Unlike any other piece of software in the world Ableton installs Live in the hidden “ProgramData” folder for no reason I can think of. For the MIDI connection you’ll need a virtual MIDI driver to create a virtual MIDI port. This allows you to route MIDI data between software on Windows. There’s two free ones out there – LoopMidi from Tobia Erichson and LoopBe from Nerds.de. Turn on the track and remote buttons for the virtual driver and you’re good to go.
Load up Ableton first and then Yeco. Once your project is loaded hit the Play button on Yeco and enjoy a simple beautiful introduction to a piece of software. It fades in gloriously and presents you with all the clips from Live all ready to play. All the names are there, the colours, it just pulls a massive smile across your face – because it flippin’ works, just like that. Fabulous!
By default you are faced with the clip launch page. At last we have clips that are big enough to finger. Instead of the circular timer you find in Live each clip fills from left to right to indicate where it is in the loop. From here you can simply play with your project. There are scroll bars at the side and bottom so you’re not trying to pinch-zoom or use fingers to navigate on the project itself – great for avoiding accidental launches or inadvertent clip movement. At the side we have a bunch of buttons that take us to different views. What we want is the Master button. This brings up the master scene launcher thingy. Now we’re talking.
Along the bottom of each stack is a solo button, track on/off, stop clip and a record enable – that’s right, you can use Yeco to record into Live – we’ll come back to that. If you tap the top icon on the right it’s bring up the mixer. Rather than a fader you get a filled column to indicate fader position with some really nice metering at the side. Next to the fader you have the effect sends and stuff to do with the crossfade feature I’ve never understood along with your pan controls. It’s all here, perfectly mirroring what you’d expect to see in Live – just chunkier and touchable.
With the clip launching, scene launching and the mixer Yeco have done enough to make this a useful touch controller for Live. But there’s many more goodies to come.
Now here’s something I didn’t know. You can build an editor of a third party plug-in in the Ableton Live detail view. This is important because Yeco can give you multi-touch control over your plug-ins. The built in Live plug-ins are easy, it just pulls the parameters across from the Detail View. But with third party plug-ins – or in this case an Arturia Sem synth it can’t get at that information. So what you can do is add the parameters you want to edit to this – what I’d always thought of as a useless – window in Live. You hit Configure and click on the controls you want. Let’s pick the obvious filter controls. Back in Yeco it sucks those right in and now I’ve got multi-finger control over the Arturia Sem. That’s awesome! So with a little bit of setup in Live Yeco can give you control over everything, with all your fingers.
This raises a good question – knobs or sliders? Yeco have opted for sliders for the plugin parameters. It may simply be a design and layout decision. So often GUI’s have knobs on screen because they look cool and are familiar, but actually trying to control them by touch is not that great, particularly if you are trying to use more than one finger. With the slider approach it’s less troublesome but the horizontal orientation doesn’t give you quite as much versatility as vertical ones. Although I guess it depends on you the size of your screen and fudginess of your fingers.
Drum Pads and Chords
The next view is the drum pad view where you can play drums…. . If you select a track with a DrumRack on it will pull all the drum names in – cool. Yeah it’s not that exciting exactly so Yeco seem to have bolted in some additional coolness. They’ve added a chord button so you can chose a type of chord and you can trigger them in an MPC styli. To choose what you’re playing you have to record enable the track you want to use. There’s also a MIDI channel select button. One interesting feature is that when you choose a chord you allocated to the next notes you press until you close the chord window. So you can have some pads with chords and some playing single notes – goovy.
Velocity of course is non existent with touch screens – doesn’t matter how hard you bang it, it’s not going to make any difference. And so there’s a velocity slider so you can choose the level of hardness you’re playing with. Aha – I’ve just worked out what the weird triangle button does – you can vary the velocity of the pad depending on where you hit it. Play it at the top and it’s louder than towards the bottom. If I hit that triangle it’s now loud at the bottom and soft at the top. The velocity slider then overides this and sets a velocity for the whole pad. I haven’t found a way to turn this on or off – it’s there once you move the slider and to remove it you have to close and reopen the view.
There’s another pads view which is to have 8×8 pads rather than 4×4 – otherwise I think it’s exactly the same.
Keyboard and MIDI control
A traditional keyboard view which works in a similar way to the pads. It also has the velocity mapped to the finger forward and back placement of the fingers on the keys. Because of the nature of the fall of your fingers if you play a chord the top and bottom notes will be loud and the middle notes soft – which is annoying. But once you get the hang of it it’s actually quite expressive. I do start pining for the MPE expression you can get in Bitwig with their onscreen keyboard. Ableton doesn’t support it so what can you do.
If you press the knob button you get a bunch of MIDI controls. Now this is MIDI, not OSC, so you’re not going to get any helpful automatic information on what’s doing what where. You have to look at the GUI of your instrument and see if you can spot what’s going on. Or even better, remap them. The controls here will always send the same MIDI cc numbers and so if you want to control different things you’ll have to MIDI learn them. You have some toggle switches that can be mapped to buttons and these round ones over here that are sort of push-to-make controls, like pushing a sustain pedal – only on when pushed.
Of course you could get a bit cleverer and use the device controls. As with before you need to reveal those controls in the detail view, the configuration for the plugin. Once you’ve added what you want they will become available. It’s a bit more of a faff than just MIDI learning but you get better information.
That said Yeco also give an additional page of MIDI controls and XY controllers. It’s kind of like whatever you want, we’re going to slap that in there so you have no excuses not to be controlling stuff. I wonder if they’d ever give you the opportunity to build your own layouts. The XY controllers are particularly useful as you can control two things at once. However, I’d quite like to have a couple of them and some sliders on the same page rather than swapping between the two.
The level of sophistication, the amount of control Yeco offers you is really quite extraordinary. I guess this is true of any OSC based controller. Lemur and TouchOSC give you similar things on the iPad. But combining it with regular MIDI control makes things really easy. You suddenly find yourself being much more creative with the hands on control. I think we tend to drop to the mouse as the path of least resistance but because this is so adaptable it really encourages you to push into more hands on control.
Which brings us to the hex controller. What a funny thing this is. I’ve come across this sort of thing before where it offers and new and exciting way to play notes. It’s cool, I get it although I’m not sure I would be doing anything intentional – more like messing about. However, if I was to give it some time it could be very cool. There’s a small, sort of one hand version or a larger one for two hands. This time there’s no velocity variation, you just have the option to set it.
Recording with Yeco
Right let’s start with an empty Live project. When you make a major change like this you should take Yeco back to Home and hit play again to sync it all up. I can create tracks and clips in Yeco using these buttons at the top. I can create both audio and MIDI tracks and MIDI clips of any bar length.
I’ll load up a drum rack in Ableton. Which is the only time I need to go out of Yeco. Back in Yeco I create a clip, bring up some pads – work out where the drum sounds are. Here we have a rare twinge of disappointment. I honestly had expected the drum names to appear as if by magic on the pads – but they don’t. But I said earlier that they will – and in the tutorial window it says that they will….. But it hasn’t so that’s a shame.
Turn on the metronome set it playing, hit the Session Record button and touch the clip when I’m ready to go. Easy. I’ll go back into Live to load a bass and a piano. Back in Yeco I can add these parts without any trouble at all. I can also add automation and use the devices and controller pages to add some movement and expression to the recording.
Things start to get a bit inconsistent here. In the mixer page automation works perfectly and the faders and knobs move according to what you’ve done. In the Devices view automation can be recorded but it’s not reflected in Yeco on playback. In fact every time you re-open the devices view you get a snapshot of the current settings rather than any continuous movement. Similarly in the MIDI controller view you can record movement into Ableton but it doesn’t come back the other way. This is probably because Yeco isn’t designed to take MIDI information back in – at least not yet.
Obviously Yeco has its limits – it’s just a controller. It’s not going to let me edit notes, or change quantization, work with slices or edit automation. There’s no access to the browser – you can’t drop in instruments, samples or effects. And mores the pity because the working environment is great and I would be more than happy for Yeco to be the front end of Live.
Yeco has allowed me to switch back to Ableton Live from Bitwig for live performance. Bitwig is awesome but I kept hitting a problem where when you tapped a clip or scene to trigger it it sometimes wouldn’t do it – because if you tap and slide a little you select the clip rather than trigger it. When you are standing, performing you can’t always tap a clip perfectly and Bitwig wasn’t giving me enough grace and so my drops or changes were not happening when I wanted them to.
With Yeco there’s no such problem. You tap a clip and it plays – you tap a scene and it plays – that’s all I want to happen. I can see what’s going on, I can scroll without fear of moving something I didn’t mean to and I can very quickly select something I might want to play – either onscreen or on a keyboard. The other advantage I found was in being able to control plug-ins without having to bring up the GUIs. Often bringing up a big GUI can cause a glitch in the audio which is completely rubbish when playing live. I like using Output Movement and it’s got a great XY control on the GUI which is perfect for fingers – but to bring it up is seriously glitching. Mapping the Yeco XY pad to Movement meant I could do the same finger based control without the glitching – awesome!
Much of this of course could be done with a MIDI controller keyboard. Certainly I would prefer playing a hardware keyboard to a virtual one. But the chord options, the hex surface does give some different ways of approaching it. I’d like to see them take this further by introducing some XY expression with the keyboard – like Bitwig do. And maybe also consider pen pressure support for the Surface. But with all this control built into a device such as the Microsoft Surface you have radically reduced your kit list from a MacBook, plus Push controller, plus MIDI keyboard and/or iPad to a single Surface Pro 4 or Surface Book. It’s not exactly the same but you get the idea.
I’m a big fan of using everything and so ultimately Yeco gives me something more – a better way to use Ableton Live with touch control in live performance and a lot of creative opportunities. I’d now like to see it do more. I’d like MPE support, I’d like to see a step sequencer in there. I’d like to see an option to halve the size of clips to see more on screen. And I’d like to be able to build my own custom set of MIDI controls and have the ability to put whatever views I want side by side. I want pads and keys, I want hex and midi controls – that kind of thing.
So overall Yeco is the most capable and well thought out touch controller I’ve seen on Windows. Much of its magic is to do with Ableton and OSC support and I wish this sort of connection was available with other software. As a regular MIDI controller though it can still be useful and it will be interesting to see their new pure MIDI controller that’s been coming soon for a while now. I’m not in love with the colour scheme. In the mixer particularly the fader colour is a bit…. puse? And I’d prefer those narrower and the metering to be bigger. I’d also like some indication of the length of the clip just so I can know at a glance where everything is in relation to each other. So yeah, I’m being picky – I’m into it can you tell?
Great job Yeco – I’m looking forward to more.