While the fairly recent and successful Novation ReMote Zero SL control surface provided the the revolutionary Automapping and cool blue LCD strips of the popular ReMote SL keyboards without the keys, demand was still there for a smaller ReMote SL keyboard. Enter the newest member of the line, the ReMote 25SL Compact (also available as the 49-key 49SL Compact). Delivering the Automap functionality in a smaller frame, the SL Compact gently refines the interface while adding a few new features. While Automapping can be a bit clunky sometimes, once you get the hang of it you can really save time and go from turning knobs with your mouse to turning real knobs without much hassle. I tested the SL Compact with a MacBook Pro 2.33 GHz running OS 10.4.10 using Ableton Live 6, Digidesign Pro Tools M-Powered 7.3 and Propellerhead Reason 4. Novation frequently updates templates, so check the company's Website for the most current installers.
The SL Compact packs a lot of interface into a small space. The Velocity- and Aftertouch-enabled keyboard with 25 synth-action keys is paired with the more traditional mod and pitch-bend wheels rather than the x-y pad and joystick controllers that appeared on the original SL. The demand for wheels probably came from keyboardists because beat-oriented programmers would no doubt miss those more futuristic input styles. Whereas the original SL featured two sets of LCD info strips, the Compact has only one; however, fewer places to look actually felt more concise. The original SL's eight faders have been removed, and there are only half as many rotary encoders and assignable buttons (eight of each). But with the eight group/banks available below the LCD, you can access four banks of assignments, making a total of 32 knob and 32 button assignments per template (although Automap templates are basically infinite). The detented rotary encoders are not my favorite because it can be difficult to achieve precision at faster knob turns, but the combination of the multiple groups and the LCD that instantly tells you the new assignments and their values can more than make up for it in the time-saving department.
The eight drum pads that appeared on the original have been moved to the top right, making them much more playable as a group for quick-fingered drum programmers. However, Novation could work on the feel of the pads a bit; the rubber is thin and the pads have very little give. You can feel the circular sensor underneath the pad, which is weird when playing quickly and makes it hard to aim your hits at fast speeds; my fingers sometimes slid off the rise in the center of the pad. The velocity curve is indeed adjustable, so it can definitely be adapted to work comfortably, although I still found them more useful in Ableton Live as scene-up/down triggers and tap-tempo controllers.
The transport controls have been moved to the left-hand side away from the keys, making them easier to access while playing. They provided fast and accurate response in all the programs I tried. The keyboard's rear-panel connectors remain basically the same as the original: MIDI I/O jacks (sadly, no MIDI Thru, although the MIDI Out can be configured to work that way), along with inputs for sustain and expression pedals.
There are 40 assignment templates in the SL Compact's memory; they can be swapped, updated and replaced, but not deleted. Numbers 1 through 33 are preprogrammed for popular programs such as DAWs and software instruments. Templates 35 and 36 are blank user sets for creating new templates from scratch (although any template can be overwritten and restored later from the installer), and templates 34 and 37 through 40 are used for Automap. Template access is superfast and can be achieved in one of two ways; either via the template-up/down buttons, which let you scroll through the list one-by-one, or by pressing both template-up/down buttons together, which displays all the templates 16 at a time on the LCD for choosing via the 16 buttons. The templates are quite thorough, and although I was able to test only a few of them on the software I have, I inevitably found every parameter I wanted. The new Automap 4.1 offers enhanced support and improved layouts for Nuendo, Cubase and Sonar, as well as a cool new Randomize feature that lets you find new sounds with a soft synth quickly (not to mention 64-bit Windows support, graphics-handling improvements and more). Another feature I appreciated is when you are paging through the list of templates, the larger DAWs (Live, Logic, Pro Tools and Reason) stay on the bottom row without changing while the top row pages through the rest of them; this makes it easy to get from whatever instrument template you might be using back to the template for your main DAW. Novation also just released a new template editor for the SL Compact that makes it a breeze to create and edit templates, move them back and forth from the computer, and save them for backup.
Regarding Automapping in general: It all comes down to how you want to use it. While it can certainly save a lot of time in some settings, even when it's working at its smoothest you still have to physically mouse over to the device you want to control, select it and then look back to the keyboard to see which knobs are assigned to what. For quick access to a single command, it can be faster to just grab it with the mouse while your hands and eyes are focused on the mouse and screen. However, if you're looking to spend a moment with more than a few of a device's settings, there's no faster way to let go of the mouse and be able to dial it in with real knobs than to use Automap. Plus, it lets you remove the visual distraction and focus more intently on the sound, helping cure the “mixing-by-numbers” problem. That said, I enjoyed using Automap just for the sheer geeky satisfaction of seeing the new assignments come up on the screen as I used the mouse to move from device to device in Live 6 and Reason, but I wouldn't necessarily say that I worked faster overall.
One feature of note, however, is the amazing Speed Dial at the top left that, when Automap is working, allows you to turn any knob or fader that the mouse is currently resting on. I was in disbelief when I first tried it, but I wasn't able to find a control in Pro Tools, Reason or Live that I couldn't turn simply by using the mouse to get to it and turning the Speed Dial. In fact, Novation alerted me that the Speed Dial actually works in any application on Mac or Windows, which is simply too cool. I was able to open and close windows, move them and change their size depending on where I put the mouse.
To make Automap work, you simply run the Automap Universal Server application in the background while the SL Compact is connected. Compatible virtual instruments will work right away, but the larger DAW/sequencer apps require a bit more attention. Each works a bit differently, but in particular you are forced to choose at install whether to place either the Pro Tools HUI or Digital Performer HUI template into slot 34. I'm not sure what you'd do if you wanted to use both, and there doesn't seem to be a solution for that at this point. Logic requires a manual socket connection from within Logic's Environment for Automap to work, and a helpful how-to guide appears on Novation's Website. Also of note, upon install Automap scans all your VST and Audio Units plug-ins and makes versions designed for Automapping, a process Novation calls Wrapping. The Wrapped plug-ins have a special Wrapper menu bar beneath the plug-in that allows each parameter to receive a custom name for display on the LCD, as well as a custom step-size and control range.
Automap was most successful for me within Ableton Live 6, which actually has its own live-mapping feature called MIDI Remote Mapping. Simply enabling the SL Compact port 2 in and out within the Live preferences completes the link, and I was impressed the first time it started working. Each of the tracks in Live appear from left to right across the LCD; if there are more than eight tracks, the page-up/down buttons scroll from group to group. Encoder bank A is assigned to the Live mixer's send A, bank B to pan and bank C to track volume for quick access to the main mix parameters. Bank D assigns itself to the last selected device and changes as you choose a new device. The four button banks are assigned to solo, mute and record-enable, with the fourth again reserved for other devices. Just as you can page through track banks within the main mix elements, you can also page through assignments in the “open” banks. Whichever device you select, every single parameter will be available on as many pages as necessary, even for devices with more buttons and knobs, making it possible to program pretty thoroughly within Live without ever having to assign anything. Wrapped plug-ins seemed to work fluidly, and I was surprised to not have to open the Automap-labeled versions to get results. Controls for the non-Wrapped versions appeared right away; however, to adjust things like display name or control range, you need to use the Wrapped version.
Setting up the SL Compact with Reason 4 was even easier; a simple scan from within Reason's preferences automatically set the SL Compact as the Master Keyboard, and it was ready to go. However, Automap only controls devices with a sequencer track. Because Reason 4 only auto-creates sequencer tracks for instruments (not for mixers, effects or mastering devices), you'll need to manually create one for each of those you want to control. Once you do, all the available controls will appear within the eight encoder or button banks (sometimes with several pages on each), ready for tweaking. Simply click on another sequencer track to select that device for Automap control; and, of course, any parameter can be adjusted immediately by using the mouse to get to it and turning the Speed Dial.
DESIGNED FOR DIGI
Setting up Pro Tools integration is a little different. Pro Tools interacts with the SL Compact via the HUI protocol rather than standard MIDI, so you need to open Pro Tools' Peripherals window (from the Setup menu), and under MIDI Controllers enable HUI on SL Compact port 2 (in and out). Don't forget to choose the Pro Tools template on the keyboard itself. The Pro Tools Automap template is also laid out a bit differently; encoder Bank D displays bank assignments on the LCD (pan 1, pan 2, level, solo, record and mute) for a quick reminder. Button Bank 4 selects a Plug-In mode that starts by letting you choose from inserts 1 through 5 on the currently selected track via the first five buttons. Once chosen, the controls for that plug-in will appear across the LCD with as many pages as necessary. Strangely, they are accessed not by the page-up/down buttons but by turning encoder 5. The transport controls worked well, and the Speed Dial worked on any parameter I tried. Overall, the Pro Tools integration was useful but maybe a little counterintuitive sometimes. For example, when viewing parameters for a plug-in, the button-bank info is listed on the top row and the encoder-bank info on the bottom row, backward from how the controllers themselves are laid out on the SL Compact. Also, when using the track volume bank, the SL Compact doesn't display the current fader value; you have to look at the screen to see what it is. Earlier versions of Automap had problems running multiple DAWs (such as Reason with Pro Tools), but Automap 4.1 addresses that and improves support for Cubase, Sonar, Nuendo and Logic.
Overall, the ReMote SL Compact is a well-designed, successfully streamlined and fully featured MIDI controller that would make a great addition to any portable programming-and-music rig, especially for a keyboard player. While Automap may take some getting used to, it offers unprecedented controlability and flexibility across programs. And once you get used to things already being assigned, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it.
REMOTE 25SL COMPACT > $399 ($499 49SL COMPACT)
Pros: Automap functionality in a more portable size. Many quality preset templates. Eight encoder/button banks means lots of assignments available. Sweet Speed Dial function. Template Editor software.
Cons: Pads are rather thin and don't have enough give. No dedicated MIDI Thru. Slightly too large to fit into most laptop bags.