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Control Freaks, This One’s For You

March 1, 2009


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A touchpad is less than ideal for expressive parameter control with laptop music, yet bulky external controllers work against portability. The solution? Korg’s USB-MIDI controllers, which are bus-powered, made of lightweight (but solid) plastic, and quickly recognized as a MIDI input device by most programs (I used Ableton Live, Reason, and Pro Tools). And, the downloadable “Korg Kontrol Editor” software lets you tweak these devices to your recording/performing needs.

nanoPad: Designed for drum/triggering applications, the 12 pads are solid and responsive. Other charms include a Chord Trigger function that lets you program a single pad with a chord, and the ability to transmit Continuous Controller (CC) messages. I used this feature for soloing/muting tracks, turning effects on/off, and triggering clips during performances. The X-Y pad offers “Roll” and “Flam” modes for beats, but I preferred to use it as a CC controller for controlling plug-in parameters.

nanoKey: This slim MIDI controller keyboard is velocity-sensitive—in the editor, you can select one of three velocity curves or fixed velocity (just don’t expect grand piano-level dynamics). Keyboardists may find the 25 equal-height keys off-putting, but those used to computer keys will revel in being able to easily identify black and white keys—while an Octave Shift function offers access to the entire MIDI note range. I particularly dig CC Mode, where the keys become MIDI controllers. The pitch and modulation buttons didn’t sate my inner Jan Hammer, but did provide interesting effects, and their range is editable.

nanoKontrol: This mighty midget was my fave. With nine faders, nine knobs, 18 switches, a transport section (re-programmable to control other parameters), and four “scenes,” it allows a total of 168 different CC messages, not counting the switches’ MIDI note on and off function. Extra cool feature alert: You can specify attack and decay times for the 18 switches, letting them swell in and fade out wet/dry or volume levels, and perform filter sweeps. I also loved that the software editor allows switches to have a latch or momentary response. This little box is ideal for manipulating plug-in parameters.

Combining nanoKey and nanoKontrol created a “nanoSynth”—at half the size of my Novation Remote 25SL. So don’t be surprised when these white wonders start appearing next to you on airplane trays and Starbucks tables: With their modular capability, low price, and versatility, it’s hard to imagine a laptop musician who won’t want to throw a couple of these babies in the computer bag and go. —Michael Ross



While there are freeware/shareware options for converting a laptop’s QWERTY keys into a virtual MIDI keyboard, they ultimately drove me nuts because if the focus wasn’t on the virtual keyboard, I couldn’t play any notes— making it impossible to tweak, say, filter cutoff while playing on the keys. Fortunately, the cross-platform Chirp keyboard utility solves the problem, but has much else to recommend it.

Chirp maps up to 21 keyboard notes, as well as ten trigger pads, to the QWERTY keys of your choice. While the ten trigger pads can trigger notes, they can also trigger program changes, control messages, or even sys ex.

There are two ways to generate notes with different velocities: vary the velocity slider to the desired value before hitting the note, or use the 1–8 number keys to choose a velocity range. While this helps overcome QWERTY keyboard limitations, I’d prefer an option where you could change velocity while playing by dragging the mouse.

The final assignment option is for the two virtual wheels, which you can manipulate with the mouse. They generate standard MIDI continuous control signals, or of course, pitchbend. Even the space bar is relevant, letting you send All Notes Off, Sustain on/off, Poly mode on/off, etc.

There are more features, but the bottom line is if you have a laptop and can’t carry a mini-keyboard with you, Chirp will let you play—not just program or step-record—your parts. Score! —Craig Anderton

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