As digital musicians have realized for some time, working with computers is all about physical control. It’s the difference between feeling like you’re operating software and playing an instrument. So it’s no accident that Jay Smith is quick to call the Ohm, a new hardware controller for visuals and music, an “instrument.” I got to hang out at the Hoboken, New Jersey office of Livid and play with the Ohm a bit. Hands-on experience is everything: as you can see, you’ve got a nicely-crafted wooden crossfader piece, for starters. Here are some first impressions.

The Ohm isn’t just a controller for visualists; the moment music people saw it, at least some thought DJ/music controller. Jay confirmed that customers were split between music and visuals. But at least in Livid’s original conception, the Ohm is set up to be especially useful to VJs and live visualists — and, in particular, Livid’s Union software, which comes bundled with the device.

You get a basic, semi-symmetrical layout of controls:

  • Four knobs on each side (they’re not continuous encoders, which is likely to please some and disappoint others, based on your taste)
  • Four faders on each side
  • Four toggle buttons on each side, which could easily be used to enable/disable channels
  • A loose, DJ-style crossfader for “battle-mode” mixing, plus buttons on each side which you could use for instant fades or other functions
  • A six-by-six grid of pads, which most people will use for clip triggering
  • Various macro buttons, which come pre-assigned for Union but send standard MIDI messages

The unit includes MIDI out plus USB, as well. The result is solid and heavy, but I was surprised to find that in person it feels pretty comfortable to hold and shouldn’t be too tough to port around, especially compared to some other gear.

So, how would you assign those controls?

I had seen Jay perform before, so I assumed he’d use the four sets of faders as mix buses, to control different layers. In fact, his preferred assignment is to use them for effects parameters, as seen above. With the knobs controlling, well, “knobby” settings, and the faders doing things that feel right on faders, that’s eight settings per A or B bus, and Jay used the buttons and additional knobs for more control. There are two knobs on the right side that could impact some sort of master parameter, like the fade to black feature on an Edirol V4.

That’s just one assignment, though. I could see this mixer-style layout being used in other ways, as well.

Union has some nice MIDI assignment features, seriously beefed up for the Ohm in the most recent release, as we saw earlier this week. One nice function is the ability to use a MIDI trigger as a “shift” key, so you can combine, say, one of the Ohm’s buttons with a pad and have it perform a different function. I don’t think this will work with most other packages, but any app that allows you to use MIDI to select buses will work nicely with the Ohm, and since it’s sending all standard MIDI messages on channel 1, assigning to your tool of choice should be no problem if you prefer Resolume, VDMX, or another app over the bundled copy of Union.

That said, a couple of quick notes on Union are in order. A reader complained about the QuickTime-based media support on Windows, but I can at least say Jay confirmed Union screams on his Core Duo Dell laptop under Windows XP. A lot of Union is based on Max/MSP/Jitter, and I’ve found that Max is, for the most part, as happy on Windows as it is on Mac OS. Also interesting in terms of the Max support is the fact that you can use Union’s open API to build your own modules for Union.

There are lots of choices for visualists today — some of them diverging from Union’s relatively conventional mixer / layer / effects model. But if you are looking for an out-of-the-box VJ experience, Union should at least be on your list to consider.

The important news is that the hardware feels fantastic. The build quality here is really professional, and gives the impression of using a high-end, boutique device. I loved Jay’s previous Viditar and Tactic controllers, but they definitely felt more like DIY projects. This feels like a finished piece of gear.

The pads in the center are similar in dimensions and design to the Monome, though I prefer the Monome’s tighter feel (especially on the recent Monome revisions) to the gummier, more conventional pads on the Ohm. For video triggering, though, this is about perfect, and I can’t think of another controller that combines the essentials you’d want for visuals in just one package in this way — A and B bus controls, crossfader, and pads — at least, not without chaining M-Audio Trigger Fingers or something. (It’s mystifying that there aren’t more devices with a similar setup out there, but then, that’s what drove the Livid gang to make one for their own use!)

Most importantly, the crossfader feels really wonderful. It’s a work of art, and I wouldn’t be surprised if wooden crossfader bars show up elsewhere.

ohmmaker2 ohmmaker1

I expect some people will balk at the Ohm’s US$790 price — at least, if they’re not interested in the fact that the full version of the Union VJ software is included. But the Ohm really is made by the Livid crew in Austin, Texas. Boards and pads arrive pre-assembled, but things like the woodworking and assembly are literally done by hand, with some help from an on-site C&C machine. (Photos courtesy Livid Instruments.)

Livid’s Jay Smith poses with his team’s creation.

Livid Ohm Real-Time Performance Instrument [Livid Instruments Product Page]

All in all, the Ohm is an impressive and versatile device. Some DJs may like it, though I think it is likely to disappoint other music users — the pads aren’t velocity responsive, and there aren’t enough knob for more than a couple of general effects returns and one filter sweep per channel. But for visuals, it’s a really ideal layout and configuration for a lot of applications. And it’s nice to see, finally, software-hardware integration that makes sense, on an application serious VJs actually use — as opposed to the intriguing but flawed efforts by Numark on NuVJ and Roland on the Edirol motion dive .tokyo performance pack.

For my own use, I think I’m staying loyal to my own evolving controller rig — but I’m equally inspired by the effort from the Livid guys. It’ll be interesting to see them develop the concept, and I hope more visual-focused control is in our future in the visual community in general.

And if you don’t much like the Livid product, or think you could do better, they’ve got some good news for you — you can put your money where your mouth is. (Or, at least, put your knobs where you want them.) The brain of the Ohm will be released as the MIDI DIY, a board that can be used to make sophisticated custom MIDI hardware — especially as it can support 128 note on / note off contacts and 32 control change contacts, something no other generally-available DIY solution presently does. More on that as it becomes available. It’s probably not the right choice for your first-ever custom MIDI hardware, but if you’ve got some experience under your belt, it could be interesting.

What’s your favorite hardware? Any chance you’ll be c
onsidering this? We’d love to hear from you.

 

  • http://adsr.hu Zsolt

    I'll repeat here what I said at the CDMusic: get an EMU XL7, forget about the rest – you can do music and VJ stuff in one box.
    Since I have it, I almost never use the built-in sequencers in VJ apps. And in the Ohm? No sequencer… a big no-no for me. YMMV.

  • http://createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Hey Zsolt — I have to admit, that's an interesting approach; haven't seen quite that setup before.

    I think it depends on how much you're putting on the software — so some people are sequencing in the software rather than the hardware. And whether you're just a straight-up visuals person or doing A/V will make a big difference, too.

    The EMU XL7 was a nice piece of kit, though; too bad there's not still stuff quite like that around.

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  • http://adsr.hu Zsolt

    It's not that I don't use the built-in sequencer features in VJ apps. However, with the XL7 I can compensate for all the lacking in those, and I only use the built-in SW seq. features when it can't be avoided.

    My approach with the XL7 is pretty straightforward: assign MIDI events in the app & XL7 to clips, launches, effects and parameters – then forget the mouse/keyboard completely – in the XL7 I have full sequencing + built-in remix features & much more. I cannot stress enough that using the XL7 everything stays synchronized between music & visuals without extra effort, and it's a very hands-on approach – no fuss, no computer glitches or lockups, no frustration.

    Also, I'm travelling a lot between clubs and venues – doing music here, visuals there or both… I only need my laptop + XL7 in a relatively small bag.

  • http://createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    That's a beautiful setup, mate. Let me know if you're ever in NY, would love to see it live.

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  • c64

    @Peter: Maybe I missed it but are the buttons responding with a different color when you press them or are in a different state (on/off) ? Or is it just static backlit?

  • http://createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    For now, they're just static backlit. I hope that changing states will make a firmware update; that'd obviously be nice. But, in fairness, messing around without it, it didn't really bother me in actual practice.

  • c64

    Thanks for that.. BTW ever considered doing video reviews on the stuff that you get your hands on? Like a CDM YouTube channel?

  • http://createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @c64: Totally. In this case words were more effective — and quicker — just because there wasn't as much to show. But we're definitely working on more video.

  • c64

    I can imagine in this case.. looking forward to it!

  • http://www.tekkind.com neb

    Looking at this, there is something about it's elegance and simplicity that catches my imagination. The surfaces from vestax, m-audio, ect don't have it. I certainly love to own one of these.

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  • http://peteroome.com PeteR

    I have just bought a new MacBook and i am now searching for a top quality Midi Controller for Ableton Live. I currently use an M-Audio O2 but it's quite limited for live performances (not enough knobs and faders, but fine for home studio). As the previous post says, this has caught my imagination and it looks very complete for what i would need it for. I would love to see a video of it in action. I read in the April copy of Future Music though that when using this controller with Live the crossfader works backwards for some strange reason, any detail on that? Are there any firmware upgrades due soon? Anyway this looks the business, i am struggling to find anything else that i like as much at the moment.

  • http://www.lividinstruments.com Jay

    Hi Peter… I can try and answer some questions. First there will be video of it on our site soon, but we have been busy working on getting these out the door. Sadly there is no "standard" for crossfader direction on any MIDI controllers. M-Audio controllers come with the same crossfade direction as the Ohm by default, as do other MIDI controllers, which is why our does the same. We do have a rerouting APP that lets you customize the cc and note #'s as well as range. We are working on a firmware upgrade that we will be releasing in the future, as well as an application that lets you change the internal MIDI setting via USB. We are also going to make the actual programming on the micro controller for the MIDI brain Open Source for the DIY'ers. If you have other questions you can ask them here or contact us directly through our site. Hope that helps.

  • http://peteroome.com PeteR

    @Jay. Thanks for those answers Jay. Whilst browsing the web for midi controllers i also came across the Monome. The exciting thing about this is the open source software (endless posibilities!!!), so i am excited to hear you will be going down the same route.

    Are there currently any Ohm stockists in London, UK where i could go and have a play with this controller?

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  • peter

    jay rocking the product demo:
    http://www.scribemedia.org/2008/08/08/ohm-vj-cont

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  • puffer

    $790 for an American designed and built, hand-crafted control surface seems to me quite a good price. When I first saw this I was gonna say it was in the +1k range. What's that plastic Tenori going for? And I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say the support on this will be top notch ;-) .

    Sure you could get some more mass produced controllers, but we users need to start looking long and hard at who is making the toys & tools we use.

    I don't really have a use for this, but if I was playing out I'd definitely save my pennies for this, 'cause this is the kind of gear I'd like to see more of.

  • Ariko

    has anyone heard anything about an Ipad controller application for Union?