A tutorial for using the Novation Launchpad Pro as a synth keyboard.
What this is about
Last summer, I borrowed a Launchpad to take along on my holiday, and fell in love with it. The Launchpad is a new instrument; you have to relearn the movements of your fingers. These considerations and patterns are supposed to make learning easier.
I am not much of a musician, nor do I know that much musical theory. The few musical skills I use these days are mostly self-taught. When I started discovering synthesizers, I got myself a table of the basic minor and major chords and their inversions. This helped me produce the first harmonies, just like someone learning the first chords on a guitar. This document is supposed to give you that same kind of start.
There are different possibilities to use the Launchpad Pro as a keyboard. I’ll focus on the most common layout, briefly touching another.
I am also ignoring the theoretical possibility to use the buttons around the 8×8 pad grid as well; this is all for playing notes on the 8×8 pad grid only.
“Note Mode” – Chromatic fourths, five-column layout
This is the default keyboard mode for the Launchpad Pro: It is what you get when you press the “Note” key using it with Ableton Live, or when you switch on the Launchpad with a MIDI connector inserted.
As you know, a chromatic scale in Western music (i.e. the basic pattern for playable notes) consists of 12 half-tone notes per octave. The Note Mode wraps these 12 notes around 5 columns, which gives you 40 notes – actually 43 – which is three and a half octaves. The remainder of the Launchpad’s 64 pads are used as wrap-around padding, “overlap” in Novation parlance. More on the padding in a minute.
Pressing a pad, and the one directly above it, gives you a fourth interval – hence “Chromatic Fourths” layout. It is similar to the standard tuning of a guitar, where the first four strings are also tuned in fourths. The padding in each row is used to mirror the first three notes of the row above – meaning that 21 notes are doubled.
The five-column layout means that you have to learn scales and chords in variations depending not only on the chord/scale you play but also on the octave you are in – a C1maj chord and a D1maj differ in fingering, a C1maj chord is played differently from a C2maj chord. The padding gives you alternative ways to play some chords.
The Grip Change Zone
The good news: The padding means that you have to learn only one chord pattern, and one variation, for major and minor chords, and for each of the two inversions. As soon as the lowest note of the chord reaches the right half of the Launchpad – what I call the Grip Change Zone – you use the variation.
This is an important point: use the same pattern all over the Launchpad, only shifted to the proper base note; only when the lowest note in the chord is in the right half of the Launchpad, you use the variation.
You only need one variation for each chord – and did it take time for me to realize that. The padding does allow for some extra chords and scales which the specialists may use – more waaay down.
Lost? Stay with me, it all gets clearer in a moment.
A major scale is pretty simple:
If the foundation note of the scale is in the Grip Change Zone, you play the variation:
As on the piano keyboard, you just get to a natural minor (“Aeolian”) scale by starting on the sixth note:
Base major chord and its changed-grip variant:
Major chord, 1st inversion. (The chord’s foundational note is marked dark green in the inversions, for clarity)
2nd chord inversion:
The same for minor chords – the foundational note is dark blue:
Minor, 1st Inversion:
Improvisation Pentatonic scales, major and minor
A seasoned dilettante like me knows best: the easiest way to impress non-musicians with your skills is improvising on pentatonics. Five notes in an octave, and never a wrong one. Spice it up with the chromatic “blue notes” in between – I have marked them blue-green in the following diagrams.
Pentatonic pattern for major scale:
Grip Change Zone variation:
Pentatonic pattern for minor scale:
Grip Change Zone variant:
If you ar comfortable with those patterns, it may be easier to use the additional mirrored keys from the pattern for a more organic way to play – diagram without any blue notes this time:
The Cheat Sheet
Variations for show-offs
Once you have learned each scale, chord, inversion, and its variant, things will start to become boring. Then, the padding allows for some additional variations to mess with your brain:
User Mode, Scale Mode – “Chromatic Maj3rds” four-column layout
I noted above that to me the “Note Mode” is somewhat counter-intuitive, so I looked for alternative modes of play. When you search for Launchpad tutorials, you come across a discipline called “Launchpad covers” – the performer takes an EDM hit from the charts, chops it up in Ableton Live, arranges the samples to be played on a Launchpad, program the sequences to a MIDI lightshow, and film yourself triggering the sequences.
Lightshows and Launchpad covers use a different layout – the “User Mode”.
“User Mode” is similar to the “Drum Mode” and does not use the five-column, “Chromatic 4ths” layout with padding, but a four-column, “Chromatic Major 3rds” layout without padding, organized in two pillars.
The User Mode layout has the huge advantage of being much more regular and repetitive: the 12-note chromatic scale does not shift over the whole width of the pads but repeats itself every three rows, with the foundational C note always in the leftmost column. This means that you have to learn only four sets of basic chord and scale patterns – one for each column.
There is an even easier way – set the Launchpad Pro to a four-column layout with a repetitive padding of four. In 2016, Novation introduced a “Scale Mode” update which enabled to set the launchpad to a scale (documentation here – PDF). Press Shift+Note to set Scale Mode and press the green pad in the upper right corner to activate it, then select the fourth pad in the top row – to select an overlap of four – and violet pad no. 16, that is the rightmost pad in the second row, to select a chromatic scale. If you press Note now the Launchpad is set to a chromatic scale with an padding (“overlap”) of four columns, which basically gives you the same thing as the User Mode – without having to adjust for the wrap-around when transposing chords and scales. This layout offers perfect symmetry over two octaves, meaning that You can play the same pattern from each basic note now.
Although the four-column, four-overlap layout gives you only 36 notes, it has the additional advantage that almost every key is doubled – which makes marimba-style playing with two fingers/hands for the same note/interval much easier and more natural.
…but I won’t dive into that yet.
As noted above, I am quite busy getting to grips with the “Chromatic Fourths” layout. So that’s it for the moment.
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