Check Out Zurich Artist Ander’s Incredible Homemade Live Controller

Much like the impetus for Native Instruments to create Maschine and for Ableton to develop Push, Zurich-based artist Ander (just Ander) also wants electronic music to get out from behind the laptop. “I don’t want to read anything during my live set,” he said in a video on Ableton’s blog. “I just want to look at what’s happening.” To do so, the German-born tinkerer and composer made Station, a grid-based, LED-and-knob-driven, multi-unit controller that he runs with Ableton Live and Max for Live for maximum improvisational possibilities. We spoke with him about the unique layout and design of the Station, and how it allows him to endlessly pivot his performances.

DJ TechTools: Where did you get the idea for your unique controller?
Ander: Coming from jazz, I wanted to create an instrument for electronic music—an instrument in the true meaning of the word—a tool for live improvisation and for playing and combining sound spontaneously. [I wanted] direct access to all of my sounds and synths, all of the time, with direct and easy feedback, which would allow me to play intuitively and spontaneously. Who wants to read a display when playing an instrument? That’s why all the feedback here happens via colors. Also, I wanted to have deep control of my sounds, more than just playing with filter and resonance. The rest was three years’ worth of nights building, and [relying on] very supportive friends.

How do you produce a new track or live set?
I focus on playing live. That is what I like most. New tracks are developed out of my live performances. I record each and every show that I do in Ableton, and when I am absolutely happy with a certain part, I edit the material in the arrangement view and make a track out of it.

How do you plan your live sets?
I don’t. Really, it is all about flow and improvisation. My set has a rough plot to it: I can choose from different sets of sounds which have different moods, but apart from that, I start with firing the first clip and then I listen to what is happening. In every set I play, I hear grooves and sounds that I have never heard before. This is what keeps me playing. There is so much to discover, and the possibilities are endless—like with a real instrument. It just doesn’t get boring. And the groove leads the way.

What software are you controlling?
Ableton Live, with some custom Max for Live patches and lots of tracks. My set has about 300 tracks, 95 % of which are MIDI tracks; I barely use audio tracks at all. This gives me much more freedom in controlling and forming the sound.

What’s the basic layout of each of your controllers?
Each controller is different and serves a different purpose. The square one is for extra loops and fills, and for special FX sounds. On the lower row I have my master effects on pressure-sensitive pads. Since I can use eight of them at the same time, they can be used very creatively and played like a piano keyboard. The smallest controller contains all the controls for my looping engine: I can play and record any instrument I use live with velocity-sensitive keys and also loop and overdub the sound that I produce. This is very important to give a live feeling to the music, and is also a very flexible tool when playing together with other live artists. The biggest controller contains the main sounds. Essentially, it is the Ableton Live Session View realized in a physical controller. I can control sounds, mix them, change them, put FX on them, and improvise on a clip matrix—plus some custom-made extras and goodies.

What’s the hardware behind the controllers?
I planned, designed, and built the controllers myself, including the circuit design, circuit board layout, mechanical design, interaction design, etc. The circuits and the firmware are based on the excellent Midibox platform http://ucapps.de. I used the platform and extended it with custom modules (for example, an RGB LED driver). Also, I ported the whole circuit design to surface-mounted devices, in order to be able to realize such a tightly packed layout.

What type of feedback do you get from the controller’s lights?
I use color and brightness to communicate the status of the parameters that I am controlling. The color tells me whether a button is active or not, or which page of the live set I am currently on. The brightness acts a feedback for the encoder values. It also gives me a clue as to whether I have played a clip already. Blinking buttons remind me of important master settings, like solo and mute.

Where will your music and your controller take you in the years to come?
I am still learning a lot each time I play. And I am still developing and fine-tuning many features. The good thing about building your own hardware is that you can change it! Whenever I think during a live set, “I would love to have a button that does this and that,” I just sit down at home and code it. There are still some unused buttons on this thing.

Have you ever attempted to make your own controller? Tell us about it below!

  • Is

    Is that a 4k display when the camera pans over to ableton, always wondered what ableton would look like on a 4k… I’m guessing you would have to have your face right up on the computer monitor, just to be able to see properly, looks cool tho…

  • Dean Zulueta

    I would personally use something like he has designed for himself but this is the direction I would love to see performing electronic music go. Like Deadmau5 and the Glitch Mob, software and controllers allow producers to become a band and really perform. Maybe every note isn’t hit with a button, but having the feeling of raw performance is extremely expressive and allows for amazing improv. If you are playing in a club, break out the CDJs but if you are on the main stage at SXSW, let’s create a show.

    • Sherrin Varghese

      I do it.. Have a custom made controller which I’ve designed to be literally plug and play. It houses an APC 40, Motu ultralite, Senheisser mic and recv units, iPad, a mixer, a power strip and some small knick knacks. Kept latency to 0.08 secs with buffer at 128 & everything 64 bit.. And I do a lot of vocal/analog inputs, the band goes into the rig first, so I can do further processing to their signals and sometimes depending on the venue give a consolidated signal of all 3 of us or individual feeds depending on the mixing capabilities of the man on board drilling the house PA. So far, latency hasn’t destroyed anything. But anyone else here knows how to do things better?

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  • ewan

    I’d buy one

  • Tomash Ghz

    I’ve been building my own controllers for couple of years now, to suit the idea of a live performance i have in my mind! Pretty much just like Ander but in a smaller scale controllers. That are by the way available for sale.
    Check out latest setup here
    http://youtu.be/nkME-_obZKY?t=13m40s

    • ewan

      Could u just do a quick blurb on what each controller does, thanks!

      • Tomash Ghz

        sure! I got the twister setup as a mixer, volume levels and effect sends for all channels mapped across all of its pages, then two digital warriors running percussion sequencers, as well as clip launching and effects parameters. Plus a synth and a drum machine for extra sonic layers.

  • Patrick Ijsselstein
  • Willshire McDanks

    I have created a lemur template for DMXIS to control live lighting rigs while djing. I love it and it works great!

  • JayJak

    I feel like he has his head down looking at that array of lights more then I ever use my laptop

  • jason

    he just made the 3d twister push 5000 lol

  • Roguesy

    Ian Golden just wet himself out of fear of this guy’s epicness.

  • dirkdirgler

    Technology should shrink things not make it bigger..To large controller for my taste..And if you’re using only Ableton & Max that’s fine but if you choose to put a analog hardware in this setup then you’ll find yourself trapped by the latency that Live is introducing to the chain..Just tried Bitwig and it’s timing with external hardware and third party plugins is rock solid!

    • Zuex

      Midi latency and jitter is determined by the stability/accuracy of your MIDI Clock, not by your DAW. If you’re curious you can learn more here: http://www.innerclocksystems.com/

      • dirkdirgler

        Trust me I’ve tested things first and after I gave my opinion..http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2seraaKagYk
        One thing I know for sure is that comparing Ableton Live vs Bitwig as masters to my chain Live can’t deal with external plugins while Bitwig runs golden with rock solid timing!
        My 2 cents…

      • Pete K

        thanks for reminding me about this site and their product!

    • Jun Wei Lee

      The problem will be the interface not the DAW.

  • Chaser720

    The amount of time that went into designing and programming those controllers must be astronomical. Very very impressive.