Novation 25SL – first impressions

While in Hong Kong on my recent holiday (I hope to have some photos and thoughts up on Flickr soonish) I picked up a Novation 25SL mk II. I wanted something a bit smaller for live performance (the previous 49 note keyboard took up a lot of space on stage) that didn’t lack the various faders, controls and triggers of the M-Audio Axiom 49 that I’ve been using for some time.

Over the jump is my first impressions of the Novation, specifically as used with Ableton Live…

My understanding is that Novation is a well-respected brand in the space, and I’d seen reference in Ableton marketing cruft that Live, the main digital audio recording and performance system I use, supported the SL series. In fact, Novation ship the SLs with the Lite version of Live in the box.


Having been spoiled by Live’s incredibly intuitive “MIDI-learn” functionality over the past few years, at first I didn’t really see the benefit of Automap, the supposedly “ground-breaking” system that Novation ship with the unit – as it seemed to do much the same thing for MIDI learn/controller mapping that Live’s been doing for some time.

But after reading the manual I started to see some real benefits, even when used with Live. Especially useful was the dynamic switching of controls on the SL mk II device depending on which plug-in currently had focus in Live.

So I installed the system and followed the Novation supplied instructions for getting things up and running with Live.

However, my interest and excitement was soon dampened. It seemed the only way I could get Live to work was in non-Automap mode. Much digging and frustration ensued as I tried to work out what I was doing wrong.

After a good few hours I finally pieced together the awful truth – that is: Automap mode does not work with Live. Period. This is about as clear as the directions on Novations site get: “The Ableton template must be selected on the SL MkII when using it in Ableton Live Automap mode.”

When I read this I thought that Ableton worked in Automap mode. It doesn’t. What this actually means is that to work with Live, you have to switch the unit into Advanced mode and use the special Ableton template on the device to control Live “out of the box”. Confused? I was too – took me about 4 hours of fussing about to work out what that actually meant in practice…

After some further digging, I discovered that Novation have worked with Ableton to set up hard-coded (read: uneditable) templates within the device to enable enhanced control of the software (where the software can talk to the device and vice versa, over and above plain MIDI controller messages). This means that while in Live you have to turn the Automap feature off, and then turn it on again when you select specific plugins to take advantage of the plug-in specific Automap features.

So, in the interest of clarity – to select the “Ableton Automap template”, as suggested in Novations notes, you need to:

  1. Open up Live (with or without the Automap software)
  2. Press the “Automap” button on the device so it is unlit (i.e. in Advanced mode)
  3. Press down on the top “Template” select rotary control
  4. Use the page up/down buttons on the device to select the page that has “Ableton” as the last template on the page
  5. Click the button below the continuous pot to select the “Ableton” template

At this point the Ableton “special” template is selected. Once you’ve done this you can then reset the trigger pad note numbers according to Novation’s directions to get them to work with Impulse, the default drum sample instrument that ships with Live (another setting that I would have expected to just work out of the box – the note mappings have been the same for years, there’s really no excuse for such an oversight, especially given there’s been a firmware update since the unit was released where this presumably could have been fixed).

The default template

While the default Ableton template may be set up to some sane defaults, the lack of flexibility really had me chafing – I like to be able to flexibly assign controllers for specific songs based on the performance requirements. With the default template enabled, I couldn’t readily re-assign controls on the device to different parameters in Live – many of them seem to get “confused”, where the default setting competes with the MIDI learn settings, resulting in controls that simply don’t work when not used for their Ableton/Novation-designated function.

MIDI mapping

So I tried to use Automap to create my own MIDI template, essentially using Live’s built-in MIDI learn functions and ignoring some of the special features that Automap provides. Essentially, then, the Automap software would act as a simple external MIDI device and control Live using standard MIDI messages rather than the custom control set created by the manufacturers.

While I had some success with this approach for the basic controls (faders and rotary pots etc.), I wasn’t able to get the triggers working at all in this mode. It seemed the Automap software simply ignored the triggers, rendering one of the key controls of the device (one that I need) useless.

As a last stab I decided to set up a straight Advanced template which sends plain-vanilla MIDI messages from the unit to Live, bypassing the Automap software altogether. However I found that every time I changed a MIDI map in Live, the unit would revert back to the special Novation/Ableton assigned template.

I eventually nutted out the preference settings to stop Live from triggering the unit to switch into the Ableton template, and instead leave my settings the way I set them up.

While I don’t have the features of Automap available, I can at least get on to the actual act of playing and performing without Automap’s failings getting in the way. Now that I have this setup I’ll probably uninstall Automap altogether as it provides very little benefit under this configuration.

Too clever for its own good

While I now have a (mostly) working and fully mapped MIDI controller, after more than 4 hours of mucking about. There are two things that most annoy me about the whole experience:

  1. Novation do not clearly state in any one of many locations that Automap simply doesn’t work with Live. Had they stated this clearly and plainly in one of the many help notes, or even in the downloadable PDF manual (I eventually discovered a reference in the manual stating something along these lines, but still with unclear directions on how to actually set things up and use the unit with Live) it would have saved a lot of hassle.
  2. The Automap software and “cleverness” of Novation/Ableton in setting up the “special” template for Live actually got in the way of getting the unit to work in even its most basic/manual “Advanced” mode. I could have saved a good hour or so had they just left the Ableton template like any other template in the system and not automagically switched it into focus. Or they could have provided clear documentation on either website as to how to disable this functionality.

The verdict

Overall the experience has been less than stellar. While the hardware seems great – it feels great to play and I love the breadth of controls available, although had very little time to actually use them so far – its quality is well overshadowed by problematic software and support. (I should note that I placed a support request last weekend, and have still yet to receive a response from Novation – over 7 days later.)

If you are a) using Ableton Live or Reason (same issue applies there) and b) not very comfortable with manually setting up MIDI control maps, I would definitely avoid the Novation/Ableton combination.

However, if you are comfortable with playing with such shenanigans, I hope the information provided here clarifies what is a very murky topic in terms of Novation’s and Ableton’s support and helps you avoid the frustrations I’ve experienced.

Update: quite literally seconds after I posted this a reply on the forum post I link to above brings the news that with the latest beta of Automap Novation have now fixed this for Reason. Let’s hope a fix for Live is not too far away…

Update 2: another thing I meant to mention was that it seems the triggers aren’t as responsive – I’ve had some issues when playing two triggers simultaneously with only one message being received by Live, whereas the M-Audio has been working fine under the same circumstances…

Update 3: nine days after my initial query, I got a response from Novation support. They were able to shed some light on the trigger pad issue I was experiencing:

When in Automap mode, the drum pads are assigned by default to Port U3 and channel 16 because these are the port and channel settings in which the SL Mk II communicates with the Automap server. In order to send standard midi note messages to Live, you will need to edit each drum pad to send out the data on the port and channel you wish to transmit the data on, and then save the changes you have made by pressing “write” on the controller.

I think this means I can actually setup Automap to run using Automap MIDI for Ableton live after all, which may be an option moving forward. I’ll still be running my custom Advanced template for my gig tonight though…