MADE TO PLAY >The E-mu Xboard 25 (bottom) and 49 (top) each feature 16 MIDI-assignable, rotary-style knobs and one slider. Each unit also has the ability to save a max of 16 presets.
When I think back to my first studio — where I was surrounded by an ominous wall of keyboards, sound modules and flashing lights — I can't help but pat myself on the back for deciding to streamline my setup. The days of walking into my studio and feeling like I'm starting up a launch sequence for a UFO are a thing of the past. Instead of navigating a sea of cables, I have simplified my home-studio setup to comprise only the bare necessities: my computer, a solid audio interface and Apple Logic Pro 7. So what was missing? A MIDI controller.
I have been using MIDI controllers in my professional studio and to teach Logic at SAE Institute for quite some time now. Although I like the controllers that I've been using, I keep a close eye on what's new in the market, but nothing has really impressed me. So when I heard about E-mu's new Xboard line of MIDI controllers, I was intrigued and curious. But the first question I must ask is what makes these different?
The most obvious difference is that the Xboard line ships with Ableton Live Lite 4, the E-mu Proteus X LE desktop sound module and the Xboard Control software. This package not only gets you up and running right away with a great program like Live but also gives you a sound module. For anyone who is a novice at computer-based music, this package would be ideal to get you started. I must note that the Proteus X LE software is currently only available for PC users, but, luckily, the control and editing software works on both Mac and PC.
First, take a minute to get into some of the physical differences between the Xboards and the other controllers on the market. The E-mu units have 16 rotary-style knobs and one slider. For those who like knobs to tweak, this is great news; for all of the others who like sliders, you're out of luck on this one. The main advantages with knobs rather than sliders are space and cost. You get more space, and the price remains on par with other entry-level MIDI controllers. The next feature that stands out on the Xboards is aftertouch. If you are a fan of this fine MIDI function, you will be glad to know that the Xboards are some of few MIDI controllers that come with true aftertouch. The nonweighted, full-size keys have great response and feature E-mu's synth-action keybed. To activate aftertouch, just press the keys down easily — unlike other aftertouch functions, which feel like you about need to BREAK your keys to make them work. The aftertouch has a sensitive response and feels totally natural. What's more, it can be turned on and off in the edit menu.
Some of the more unique features of the Xboards include a 16-channel control mode that allows the 16 knobs to send one CC number each. This allows you to control the volume or pan of 16 different MIDI devices on 16 separate MIDI channels. The Xboards also have the ability to send MIDI CC and program-change data when recalling a patch. This function is great for linking a soft-synth patch to one of the Xboard's 16 patches. That way, if you have a virtual synth open and you recall a preset patch on your Xboard, it will load a preset patch on your synth when it recalls the patch from the Xboard. You can store a max of 16 presets in the Xboard's internal memory. And with the included software editor, it's possible to save and access presets with your host computer — the sky's the limit.
TWO OF A KIND
The Xboard comes in two sizes: 49 keys and 25 keys. And the only difference between the two versions is the number of keys. Both have a MIDI Out port, a USB connection, an on/off switch and a 6V DC power jack located on the back. Both also have standard mod and pitch wheels.
All of the back-panel connections are rather standard, but what did grab my attention was the battery compartment located underneath the controller. Yes, that's right: The Xboards can run on just three AA batteries. Whenever I come across a device that runs on batteries, my interest is piqued. There's something appealing about being able to create music in any setting, and gear that runs on batteries is just begging to be used anywhere there's an audience and anytime you find inspiration. A cool thing to note about the battery compartment is that it provides you with three extra spaces to store a full set of backup batteries.
After reading the manual and realizing all of the cool new things I could do with this MIDI controller, I was anxious to put it to the test. I first installed the software on two computers: an Apple Mac G4/dual 533MHz, running Mac OS 10.3.8, with 1 GB of RAM and a Pentium III/1.6GHz Dell Latitude D 600 PC, running Windows XP, with 512 MB of RAM. The sequencing programs I used were Logic Pro 7 for the Mac and Live Lite (included with both Xboards) for the PC.
In both of the test situations, neither computer was loaded to the gills, but I wanted to make sure that both of the Xboards would function as easily and reliably for users with less memory and slower processors. In addition to the computer sequencer test, I also used a Boss DR-660 drum machine to see how well the Xboards could control it in a live setup (more on this later). Installing the software on both computers was a snap. I simply followed the install instructions from the manual and finished in about 10 minutes. The next step was to see if my sequencing programs recognized the Xboards. In both cases, Logic and Live were able to recognize the Xboards via the USB connection.
Now that the software was installed and the controller was working, I wanted to check out the editing software that is also included. I went to the Xboard application and ran it to see how the systems would support running the two applications at the same time. I'm glad to say that both machines chugged along happily; I was able to run the Xboard editor and the sequencing application at the same time without any major issues. Anytime two programs are trying to access the same piece of hardware, like a MIDI controller, there are expected bugs to work around, but, overall, I found it easy to use the editing software and sequencing software simultaneously. The editing software provides you with an intuitive interface that makes changing MIDI CC numbers a snap. The control and editing software also allows users to store and recall patches directly from their computers' hard drives. So as you can see, by using the editing software, you are able to store well over 16 patches to your computer.
If you need a MIDI controller for live performances, you might want to think about these next features. Each Xboard has a mode called Knob Bypass that allows you to move any of the 16 CC knobs without sending control data to your sequencing program or MIDI device. This Knob Bypass mode by itself is not all that cool, but when you put it together with the Snapshot feature, it proves to be quite powerful. When pressed, the Snapshot button will send the current values for all 16 knobs in one shot. So you can bypass the knobs, change the values and then unbypass the knobs and press Snapshot to send all of the new values to the device without missing a beat. To further test how an Xboard can be useful in a live setup, I tested the 16-channel control mode with the DR-660 drum machine. Once again, I encountered no issues to mention.
Although it was painless to get the Xboards up and running as basic MIDI controllers, if you want to use more of the advanced features, I recommend ordering takeout and making a night of it. Getting an Xboard to send out the CC numbers on program recall will take some time depending on what sequencing program you're using and what soft synth you have loaded. For instance, if you want to send a program change message to a soft synth, it has to be able to change programs via a program change message. I found the Native Instruments Pro-53 works well for this. But rest assured, if you have any problems, you're not on your own. The nice people at E-mu provide you with a number to a live technical-support representative. I decided to give tech support a call, and I am happy to report that I had no hold time and found the representatives to be not only helpful but also very friendly.
Overall, the Xboards are solid MIDI controllers that include some useful software — a trend that I hope will continue. It would be great if manufacturers started shipping MIDI controllers with full-version soft synths instead of demos and LE versions. The advanced MIDI control features on the Xboards are exciting and provide some insight into what to expect from future MIDI controllers. Furthermore, both units were a pleasure to use and actually play. It almost goes without saying, but there's just something about using a keyboard controller that feels and plays like a real instrument.
XBOARD 25 > $199
XBOARD 49 > $229
Pros: Elegant, well-designed MIDI controllers. Full-size keys with aftertouch. Included software is a great value.
Cons: Using advanced MIDI functions can be cumbersome.
Mac: Mac OS 10.2 or later; native USB port
PC: Windows 2000 SP4/XP SP1 or later; native USB port