In 2013 Ableton introduced the Push, a MIDI controller built specifically for Live, one of the most popular audio workstations on the market. It had some flaws, but it proved popular enough that the company quickly followed up with the Push 2 in 2015, which basically set the bar for music hardware and software integration.
Unsurprisingly, plenty of others have tried to replicate this strategy, with varying degrees of success. PreSonus decided to take a stab in 2018 with the Atom. It was a small pad-based controller that was designed with the company’s Studio One DAW in mind. The original Atom took its inspiration primarily from the MPC. It had four rows of four pads, four knobs on top and a handful of buttons around the edges for controlling functions within Studio One. It was also quite small and incredibly affordable at only $150. It was generally well received, but the consensus was that it might seem a tad basic to more advanced users and that it was of limited use in other DAWs.
- Tight integration with Studio One
- Unique and flexible layout
- Reasonably portable
- Best features are relegated to Studio One
- Encoders are slow for live performance
The new $250 Atom SQ attempts to address these concerns while also striking something of a more unique and flexible profile. It’s larger, more platform agnostic and, at the risk of spoiling the rest of this review, almost a no-brainer for any Studio One user.
I want to set one thing straight: I am not a Studio One user. And this is not a review of Studio One. I have been learning it over the last couple of months as part of this review and as research for another story, but I am primarily an Ableton user. And until this summer I had not used Studio One at all. This review instead is focused on the hardware of the SQ and its integration with Studio One and other DAWs.
So with that out of the way, let’s take a look at said hardware. The Atom SQ is pretty compact. Not nearly as small as the OG Atom, but still quite portable. It would easily fit in a bag and is comparable to Elektron’s Model lineup in terms of size and weight, even if the shape is a little different. Connectivity-wise there’s not much here, just a USB-C port. Obviously, when the entire point of a controller is its tight ties to a DAW there’s not much need for other ports, but with the growing interest in hardware instruments a TRS MIDI jack would have been nice.
Even though the body is all plastic, it still feels solid. I probably wouldn’t subject it to the rigors of tour life, but it should easily survive trips to Starbucks or the occasional family vacation. The knobs, pads and buttons are all quality components. I’ve certainly experienced better, but I’ve also used far worse. My complaints are mostly minor: the pads are a bit stiff and the encoders can be slow when changing things like filter cutoff or anything else you might want to manipulate live. But none of these are deal-breakers.
The screen, too, is decent enough and the viewing angles are solid. You’re not watching movies on this thing, obviously; it’s just there to offer visual feedback for changing settings and parameters. Its size is a bit of a limiting factor, though. While you won’t have any issues navigating menus on the device, finding your way around Studio One’s larger interface is a bit of a struggle. It can’t quite match the size and scope of what you’d find on Abelton’s Push 2, but it’s also less than a third of the price. That being said, it’s entirely possible to use Ableton Live from a Push and never look at your computer screen. I’m not convinced that you could accomplish that with Studio One and an Atom SQ. Still, someone more familiar with the software might fare better than me.
The large horizontal multifunction touchstrip has a matte, but pleasingly smooth finish and the feedback from the row of LEDs above it is welcome. That said, its placement makes it a bit awkward for use as a pitch or mod wheel. And you can only really change its function before you launch your DAW from the settings on the device itself. There are pressure-sensitive plus and minus buttons on the left that default to pitch modulation, but applying just the right amount of force can be difficult.
Navigating the various functions of the SQ took some getting used to, but that has more to do with my lack of familiarity with Studio One. When I connected to Ableton Live I had an easier time. And the controller does map pretty well to Live 10 right out of the box. The integration isn’t nearly as deep as it is with Studio One, but it’s still pretty robust.
The transport controls on the left all work as expected and there’s a handful of clearly labeled shift functions for both Ableton and Studio One. When using the SQ with Studio One you can quickly add chord and arpeggiator effects to an instrument track which is helpful, though you’ll need to reach for your mouse to actually edit their parameters. It also puts Melodyne (a pitch and timing correction tool, sort of like Autotune) just a press away. There are eight lettered buttons on the left above the transport controls. By default they change the octave of the pads, but they can be programmed to control almost anything you want. And in Studio One they have shift functions that allow you to quickly select, copy, paste and duplicate parts and patterns.
The main four modes on the controller -- Song, Inst (or “instrument”), Editor, User -- are relatively self explanatory. Song mode is where you set your tempo, zoom in and out, loop selections of your song, or mute and solo instruments. It’s also, slightly confusingly, where you add effects to channels. Instrument is where you browse your plugins, change their parameters, add chord and arp effects, as well as add patterns and parts. There’s also a note repeat tool, which is great for adding pulsing basslines, and a scale mode for those of us who aren’t so strong on the theory front. Editor has a bunch of tools for editing your arrangement, including quantization options, transpose features and time shifting capabilities. Lastly, User is where you’ll find Melodyne, various viewing modes and some performance focused features.
The pads themselves are actually fairly unique and adaptable. For one, the staggered layout allows them to be used not just as a continuous stream of notes like you’d find on something like the Push, but also in a more traditional piano layout with sharps and flats highlighted in the top row. This works really well in conjunction with the scale feature. I am not a keyboard player by trade, but I’m trying to improve. So, highlighting all the notes in a scale helps me visualize better what a particular key looks like. Whereas the scale feature on something like a KeyStep invisibly quantizes notes to make me sound good, the SQ actually helps me learn.
When paired with Studio One the SQ also has a step sequencer. This will feel a lot more natural for those used to programming in beats on drum machines. You select your various samples and drum hits from the top row and then punch in your sequence on the bottom. You can even color-code your samples so that your bass drums are all blue and your snare samples are orange, for example. It’s not quite as good for programming in melodic sequences, but the option is there if you want it.
Most of the various sequencing and live playing tools of the SQ are excellently executed -- intuitive and genuinely helpful. But I haven’t been able to wrap my head around some of the editing and arranging functions. And there are a handful of behaviors that are complete headscratchers. For one, by default loading an instrument creates a new track rather than replacing the currently selected one. That might not sound like a huge deal, except there’s no easy way to preview presets from the browser. Which means after searching for the perfect pad patch in PreSonus’ Mai Tai synth, I have 10 tracks in my song and, as far as I can tell, there’s no way to delete them from the Atom SQ itself. I instead have to reach for the mouse.
Another odd behavior surfaces when you venture outside Studio One. The Atom SQ has a built-in arpeggiator that you can activate in Ableton. This is a pretty standard feature on a lot of MIDI controllers. The problem is, if you navigate away from the arp screen in instrument mode it disables the arpeggiator. So, if you want to switch between devices to change settings while the arp is playing, again, you’ll have to reach for the mouse.
In general, though, the integration with Ableton Live feels thoughtful. There are handy shortcuts for opening the browser and switching between your loaded effects and instruments. You’ll definitely still need to reach for your mouse regularly, but it gives you a lot more control than your average MIDI controller over Live’s interface.
You could certainly get a controller with a bunch of buttons and knobs and spend hours manually assigning and programming things yourself. But, Atom SQ is pretty great right out of the box with both Studio One and Ableton Live. Again, Ableton’s Push 2 is far more capable. But it also starts at $799. The SQ is just $250.