Ableton's Push 3 Will Change How We Think About Electronic Musical Instruments

Upgradability is its biggest feature

  • The Push 3 is the newest hardware controller for the Ableton Live music software.
  • It now comes in a standalone version that doesn't need a PC or Mac.
  • Ableton will sell kits to repair and upgrade parts, keeping the Push 3 running for ages.
Ableton Push 3 on a loaded music desk


Ableton's new Push 3 just radically changed how we can make music—and that's not even the most interesting thing about it.

The Push 3—essentially a slightly fancier version of the Push 2—is a controller for the Ableton Live music software. The big gimmick is that the Push 3 has an optional tiny PC inside to run Live, so you can use the whole thing standalone. The twist is that Ableton has made that PC modular, so you can swap parts out for repair or upgrade in the future. And Ableton will even sell you the PC parts in kit form to upgrade the non-standalone Push 3 to the fancier version. All music gear should be made like this.

"I have to say the big thing about this for me is replaceable components. It was well beyond time companies allowed you to keep what you paid for, which looks like a very positive step in that direction. I know a lot of people kept their push 1 and those are fairly old now. So buying a device that allows upgrades makes this look like a machine you'll assess in decades not years," electronic musician Holonology said in an Elektronauts forum thread participated in by Lifewire.

Push It

Ableton's original Push was a basic controller made to be used with the Ableton Live DAW (digital audio workstation) software. The idea is that you can control many essential software functions using dedicated knobs and buttons, use a grid of pads to play your instruments and get visual feedback on a small screen. Then Push 2 improved on this, but it still required that you run Ableton Live on a connected computer. Push 3 puts the computer inside the box, so it now runs standalone.

This is, in itself, utterly wild. Ableton Live is a monumental piece of software that still manages to be faster, easier, and more fun to use than rivals like Apple's Logic Pro. Connecting a Push controller meant you could access most (but not all) of those features from a specially-designed touch interface, with pads, knobs, buttons, and a little screen.

For some, it was the almost-perfect combo of a powerful software suite and hardware groovebox. The catch? You were still tethered to a computer. But by adding a small Nux PC with a battery and SSD, that problem is solved. You can create your live set at home using the Push 3 and computer together, but then just take the Push 3 to the gig.

The standalone version is $1,999, but there's also a non-standalone Push 3 that shares the other cool new features: a built-in audio interface (plug in your guitar and loop it!), MIDI connections, and something called ADAT, which is an optical connection for adding even more audio inputs. It also has a new grid of MPE pads, which lets you play electronic instruments with more expression. This version costs $999, and you can buy the upgrade kit at any time to make it standalone, which is promised to end up costing the same overall.

Push It Real Good

While swapping out components in other devices would be great, the Push 3 has a big advantage. It's essentially just a PC (although it seems like it might be running Linux, not Windows under there), and as Live is a PC and Mac app that runs on any old PC hardware, it's an easy option to offer, technically. But philosophically, it's trickier. After all, most companies would want to sell new hardware instead of offering upgrades. 

Ableton Push 3 connected to a MacBook, top-down view

Again, Ableton is different from most groovebox makers. Its product is software, not hardware. But the Berlin-based company is also unusual. It has refused investment and buyouts, and co-founder Robert Henke is an environmental champion, even calling out vinyl records for their problematic production. 

There's another important aspect to gear that lasts. With a piano, you don't have to replace it every five years and relearn its interface. The same should be true of electronic instruments. 

"I think it's crucial to invest in durable gear. It's not just about saving money in the long run, it's also about developing a relationship with your tools,"  Ramiro Somosierra, a musician and the founder of GearAfficianodo, told Lifewire via email. "A piece of equipment that lasts is one you can grow with, learn inside out, and come to trust implicitly."

That is, invest your time in making music on gear you know inside and out rather than wasting time learning new ways to do the same things. Push 3 might not be for everyone—it's still a DAW-in-a-box, not a finely-focused sampler or drum machine—but for many people, it will be perfect. And it will keep them happy for many years to come. 

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