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electronic MUSICIAN

Review: Korg NanoSeries MIDI Controllers

By Asher Fulero | March 1, 2009

Producers on the go are always looking to simplify their travel rigs while expanding the potential for controlling and creating music, and Korg has bestowed upon them three uniquely powerful options: the NanoKey, the NanoPad and the NanoKontrol. These cute and übercheap little devices offer quick and painless USB MIDI control of your software, and you can toss them in a bag without risking a fortune in damages. I hauled them to several local and out-of-town gigs and found them to be intelligently equipped for their appointed tasks and surprisingly sturdy (except for a few lost sticky feet). The NanoSeries units impressed me — and everyone I showed them to — for being creatively inspiring and totally playable.

MINIMIXER: NANOKONTROL

The most complex of the trio, the mixerlike NanoKontrol was usually the first one people noticed, probably due to its many knobs and buttons packed onto so little space. Each of its nine channels offers a slider, a small rotary knob (not endless) and two lighted buttons. This simple but effective layout is perfect for a wide array of applications. Using the NanoKontrol with Ableton Live 7, I experienced no troubles or hiccups. Quickly assigning each channel a volume slider, a Delay knob, a Mute button and a Clip trigger made it supremely easy to perform instant live dubs. To make things sweeter, the NanoKontrol sports four Scenes for multiplying the number of unique controls from 42 to 168. The first three Scenes come preprogrammed with ascending MIDI Control Change (CC) numbers to avoid overlap — very helpful. The fourth Scene has a single assignment for each type of control (all sliders, for example, are the same CC), which can make it easy to use for a DJ set without having to know which channel strip is the right one.

The transport controls are MIDI Machine Control-capable (enabled through the software editor) for automatic use with software transports, but they're also handy in Live 7 used as regular MIDI CC assignments for scene up/down/trigger and session play/record/stop. Each knob, slider or button's relevant values can be fine-tuned inside the software editor — for example, changing MIDI channels on a single control, changing the track buttons from momentary to latch (trigger versus toggle) or changing the buttons for use as mutes versus triggers; the backlighting on the buttons conveniently corresponds to the setting.

I had no trouble installing or using the Korg Kontrol Editor software, which contains time-saving tricks like the ability to edit multiple parameters easily. Simply click-and-drag across the graphic image to quickly highlight your selected controllers; make a setting change, and they all follow, which is great for changing all of the top buttons to “latch” or setting all of the faders to MIDI Channel 3 without breaking a sweat. Also, individual Scenes or the Set (all four Scenes) may be saved to disk or loaded from files and then, with a single keystroke, transferred to the units. It's easy to start keeping as many templates on hand as you wish. Uploading a new one to the unit takes two seconds, and you can do it without leaving your DAW, making it reliable to balance multiple templates midshow.

The Editor software automatically recognizes which unit is connected and provides the appropriate control pane; if more than one unit is connected, the Editor defaults to a chooser window, so you can pick which one to view and edit — each one shows up as a unique MIDI device. I couldn't test two of the same controllers at once, but it follows that setting them to different MIDI channels would solve any confusion. However, I did notice that in Live when Value Scaling was selected under MIDI Pickup Mode in the Preferences, the knobs reacted very strangely; changing the setting to Pickup or Normal fixed it.

PRESS PLAY: NANOPAD

NanoPad uses 12 of the same tap-friendly soft-plastic drum pads as Korg's other popular controllers but at a much lower price. The x-y touchpad — similar in look and function to Korg's Kaoss Pads — also helps. Superfun to play, the touchpad has three modes: The default mode sends out simple MIDI CC data, so it's easy to assign with any MIDI Learn-enabled software. Alternatively, the Roll and Flam modes control the speed and volume of drum rolls and flams when playing the drum pads, just like on the Korg PadKontrol. This on-the-fly control of rolls and flams may be the NanoPad's best feature, but the touchpad is also great for all sorts of trigger effects when playing other sounds or for cool sweeping, stuttering effects.

I had a great time using NanoPad's touchpad to control effects in Live 7 while using the drum pads to trigger Clips, play drum sounds or control the mutes and record-enables. The NanoPad also includes four Scenes; the first is assigned to the most commonly used MIDI notes for drum-kit assignments to enable plug-and-play use with most drum patches. It worked right away with Ableton Impulse patches and most Drum Rack patches. Scenes 2, 3 and 4 offer the same ascending unique assignments as the NanoKontrol for use without overlap when assigning.

LI'L PIANO MAN: NANOKEY

A hilariously small yet incredibly useful velocity-sensitive 2-octave keyboard with basic Pitch Up/Down, Octave Up/Down and Mod buttons, the NanoKey is probably the smallest USB MIDI keyboard on the market. You can use it for playing synths, triggering samples, controlling MIDI parameters and so on. A CC mode turns each key into a uniquely numbered MIDI CC for other types of assignments. I control a Clavia Nord synth through Live 7 with no problem; it's a great way to play simple drum or synth parts without needing a whole production (or using the awkward laptop keyboard with no velocity sensitivity). Its small size definitely inhibits virtuosic playing, and complicated chords can be tough, but it's a godsend for basic synth lines, auditioning tones, “finger drums” and more.

Velocity curves help you find the right balance when playing certain sounds, and the Octave Up/Down buttons expand the 2-octave keyboard across the full range of notes. The Mod button acts like a mod wheel, rising in value when pressed and returning to zero when released. It's not as expressive as a real wheel, but you can fine-tune its speed and sensitivity in the software Editor; once you get the hang of the setting, you can control the Pitch Up/Down buttons in a similar fashion.

THREE AMIGOS

Individually, each NanoSeries model offers a wealth of controls, but in tandem, they're even more powerful. The real fun is using all three controllers at once (with a self-powered USB hub). Together, they create the ultimate MIDI controller: a mixer section, a drum-pad section and a 2-octave keyboard. For some exciting Ableton Live improv, I assigned the NanoKontrol to mixer and navigation functions; the NanoPad to loop triggers, Kaoss-style effects control and Drum Rack controllers; and the NanoKey to roving harmonic input for a few different soft synths. You could use the NanoKontrol and the NanoPad together as a great DJ controller, or use the NanoKey with the NanoPad for drum and bass programming. The NanoKontrol and the NanoKey together make a simple-yet-killer overall controller.

For most rote programming tasks, a full-size controller is not really needed; too many options can distract from the process. And compact, low-priced controllers are going to make a big splash no matter what. I predict these little black and gray (or blue and white) devils will be popping up in DJ rigs, home studios and laptop bags around the world.

$62 (NANOKEY, NANOPAD)
$72 (NANOKONTROL)

Pros: Small, light and inexpensive. Feature-rich. Easy to set up and manage.

Cons: Using all three at once may require a powered USB hub.
www.korg.com

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