Ever try playing a software synthesizer
with a mouse? Ever try painting
a 747 with a Q-Tip? You get the point:
Tedious does not equal fun, and we’re
supposed to be playing music—not
tediousing music. Music is a hands-on
activity, and the more you can wrest
control over your software from your
mouse to a special-purpose control
surface, the better.
There’s been a vast proliferation
of controllers lately as more musicians
go virtual and want a better link
to their software than a keyboard or
mouse. This roundup covers a little
something for everyone, and serves
as a fine example of the variety of
controllers targeted at electronic
USB-powered, micro-key portable keyboard
$110 MSRP, $70 street
Laptops and iPads have inspired compact controllers, designed for
music on-the-go, that can fit in a travel bag, small suitcase, or even a
laptop bag. However, they’re also convenient to pop into a USB port
when you want to check out something without even leaving your
The microKEY25 has (duh!) micro keys with just enough key
motion resistance for a more-than-decent feel. The USB port is a
standard B-type connector; while class-compliant, a dedicated USB/
MIDI driver allows using editing software. The keyboard’s velocity is
very predictable, but there’s no aftertouch. Concerning accessories,
the microKEY25 comes with a 32” cable.
The microKEY25 weighs 1.43 lbs., draws less than 100mA
from the USB port so it’s iPad-powerable with the Apple iPad
Camera Connection Kit (however, Korg recommends a powered
hub for extended use), and works with Core MIDI-compatible
apps such as Korg’s iMS-20. Controls include a joystick and
four buttons: Arpeggiator, sustain/tap tempo, octave down, and
The octave buttons use color and flashing to indicate the current
octave range; the joystick defaults to modulation when moved up,
breath control when moved down, and pitch bend in the left and right
directions. (Push down for an additional switch control.) Except for
bend, all of these can be re-assigned to different controllers.
Software The microKEY25 comes with licenses for downloadable
free software: Korg M1Le virtual synth (with $99 upgrade offer to
the full Korg Legacy Collection Special Bundle), instruments from
Applied Acoustics Systems (Strum Acoustic Session, Lounge Lizard
Session, and Ultra Analog Session), Toontrack’s EzDrummer Lite
software drum sound module, and a discount coupon for Ableton
Live, Live Suite, and Live LE software. You can also download the
free, cross-platform Korg KONTROL editor and USB-MIDI driver.
The KONTROL software lets you re-assign controllers, choose
arpeggiator characteristics, and select one of eight keyboard velocity
curves or a variable constant velocity value. Any custom edits you
write to the microKEY25 stay in the unit until changed—it doesn’t
revert to the factory defaults on power-off.
The Arpeggiator It’s fun, and can accept external clock, run
internally, or with the Auto setting, sense external clock and if not
present, run internally. You can use the joystick to control direction
(up or down, off or triggered) and when running internally, there’s
tap tempo using the Sustain button. Note resolution is 1/32 to whole
notes, with a range of up to four octaves—there’s even swing.
Good Things, Small Packages, and All That The microKEY25
seems like it would hold up well—I tried twisting the case to
check for flex, but it was insignificant. The keys feel better than you
would expect given the price, and the KONTROL editor adds useful
flexibility. I also appreciate the joystick; while small, it’s off to the
keyboard’s left so you can manipulate it easily while playing the keys.
Korg has the “small” thing down (I use their nanoSERIES2 controllers
a lot), and the microKEY25 is no exception.
$299.99 MSRP, $199.99 street
Keyboard controllers range from “I just want a keybed with a minimal
budget hit” to elaborate affairs with enough faders and buttons to look
like a mixing console with a keyboard attached. Samson’s Graphite falls
between those two extremes—but its capabilities lean more toward the
latter, while price leans more toward the former. It’s compact, costeffective,
solid, and definitely worth a close look.
Overview Graphite 49 has 49 full-size, semi-weighted keys with
velocity and aftertouch. (It’s not “afterswitch,” but rather, is quite
smooth.) Controllers include nine 30mm faders, eight “endless” rotary
encoders, 16 buttons, four drum pads, transport controls, octave and
transpose buttons, mod wheel, and pitch bend. Connectors consist of
a standard-sized USB connector, 5-pin MIDI out, sustain pedal jack,
and a jack for a 9V adapter—generally not needed as Graphite 49 is buspowered,
but if you’re using it with something like an iPad and Camera
Connection Kit, tone module, rack synthe, etc., you’ll need an AC adapter.
Despite the low price, I don’t think reliability will be an issue—the
box showed obvious signs of serious “UPS abuse,” but it worked as soon
as plugged in.
Operational Modes Graphite 49 has four main modes. Performance mode
is optimized for playing virtual synthesizers or hardware tone modules, and
provides full access to its hardware controllers. Zone mode has a master
keyboard orientation, with four zones to create splits and layers, but the
controllers aren’t in play except for pitch bend, modulation, and pedal.
Preset mode revolves around control surface capabilities for several popular
programs, while Setup mode is for creating custom presets or edits.
There’s a relationship among these modes; for example, any mode
you choose will be based on the current preset. So, if you create a preset
with Zone assignments and then go to Performance mode without
changing presets, the Performance will adopt Zone 1’s settings.
Control Surface Options The control surface capabilities are
under-documented; you’d never even know that Graphite 49 is Mackie
Control-compatible. Fortunately there’s now a link at the samsontech.com site that details how to use Graphite 49 with various programs, but
you’ll need some controller and MIDI savvy to create your own presets.
I tested the presets for Apple Logic, Avid Pro Tools, Ableton Live,
Cakewalk Sonar, Propellerhead Reason, MOTU Digital Performer,
Sony Acid Pro (also Sony Vegas), and PreSonus Studio One Pro. They
all worked exactly as advertised, but note that Reason control is
intended for individual modules (e.g., you can control the mixer, synth,
or effects devices, but only individual channels in the “SSL” mixer as
each channel is a separate device). There are also presets for Steinberg
Cubase and Nuendo, Mackie Tracktion, MK Control (whatever that
is!), Adobe Audition, FL Studio, and Magix Samplitude as well as 14
presets and a default, generalpurpose
Graphite preset. I’d like to be
able to save and load presets via Sys Ex, but 14 user
presets will likely be all most people need.
The faders control level while the rotaries edit pan, with the buttons
usually controlling solo and mute, with some variations. The Bank
buttons change the group of 8 channels being controlled (e.g., from 1-8
to 9-16), while the Channel buttons move the group one channel at a
time (e.g., from 1-8 to 2-9), and there are also transport controls. With
Pro Tools, you need to select HUI mode, which doesn’t support the
Bank and Channel shifting.
The adoption of the Mackie Control protocol is vastly more
reassuring than, for example, M-Audio’s proprietary DirectLink control
for their Axiom keyboards, which usually lagged behind current
software versions. We’ll see whether these presets can be updated in
the future, but it seems that the “DAW-specific preset element” relates
mostly to labeling control functions, as the Mackie protocol handles the
inherent functionality; besides, you can always . . .
Roll Your Own Editing follows the usual cost-saving arrangement of
entering setup mode, then using the keyboard keys (with—thank you!—
highly readable labels above the keys) to enter data. The relatively large
and informative display is also helpful. Thankfully Samson has developed a
software editor, but the front-panel programming is pretty transparent.
Rather than describe all the possible edits, some of the highlights
are choosing one of seven velocity curves as well as three fixed values
(individually selectable for the keyboard and pads), reversing the fader
direction for use as drawbars with virtual organ instruments, assigning
controls to the five virtual MIDI output ports, changing the aftertouch
assignment to a controller number, and the like. Also note that the pads, sliders,
rotaries, and buttons have two separate banks so you can access double the
number of parameters compared to the number of physical controls.
Pretty Darn Slick Overall, this is a highly capable and appealing
controller—it even comes with Native Instruments’ Komplete
Elements, which is a sweet bonus. Although Samson is a new name in
controllers, Graphite 49’s full-size keys, compact footprint, comfortable
keybed, control surface capabilities, and pleasing aesthetic design are
a big deal—and at this attractive price point, you’re also getting serious
value. Samson is a new name in controllers, but Graphite 49 and its
related keyboard Carbon 49 (less expensive and very iPad-friendly)
have made an auspicious beginning. Graphite’s full-size keys, compact
footprint, comfortable keybed, control surface capabilities, and pleasing
aesthetic design are a big deal—and at this price, you’re also getting
Mandala mk 2.9
USB drum controller and
Although Mandala mk 2.9 is intended for real drummers (hey, it’s good
enough for Joe Barresi, Danny Carey of Tool, and Will Calhoun), it’s
also of interest to all electronic musicians. For example, although it
includes sound-generating, cross-platform “Virtual Brain” software that
you can play through an audio system as you would other electronic
drums, it’s also a MIDI controller that can drive virtual drums, and
rewire audio into DAWs.
Its main feature (aside from responsiveness) is a multizone
strike surface that can detect up to 1,000 different strike positions,
incorporated in six circular strike zones. It also has 128
concentric “rings” that extend outward from the center and define a
MIDI controller value. The package comes with the pad itself, software
with a sound library and interface, a pair of sticks, bolt for a mounting
stand, USB cable, and 1,500 samples from a Ludwig Black Beauty snare
(which is also compatible with NI’s Battery).
The Virtual Brain This editor for Mandala pads also accesses a
proprietary sample library with more than 600 multisampled sounds;
you can also load your own (WAV, AIF, SDII). Many of the multisamples
are “position-based” samples from center to edge, which replicate the
feel, not only the sound, of various instruments. Virtual Brain handles
up to three pads (although you can connect as many as you want to your
computer for use with a program like Battery), and the company offers
a discount for multiple pads.
Each zone has volume, pan, pitch, and reverb send controls, as well
as the option to choose its sound. You can insert up to two series effects
per zone, choosing from 14 possibilities (including some nice lo-fi
options) as well as settings for tonal sounds, an amplitude envelope,
and up to 26 velocity curves (including 10 user-programmable curves).
The user curves can have any arbitrary shape, and are programmed
on a Tools page where you can also define a per-pad LFO and create a
custom user scale.
The Tones options are very interesting. You can set a sound root
note, associated scale, which notes will sound within that scale, and a
pattern so that successive hits change pitch in a variety of ways. But
the icing on the cake is the per-zone Zone Control window, which can
tie seven zone parameters and all effects parameters to strike position,
strike velocity, and LFO, as well as set the range each controller covers.
Finally, each pad has its own “global” effects rack that affects all
zones. It features three series effects, drawn from the same roster as the
zone effects, as well as a limiter and the global reverb that works with
the zone sends.
What It All Means This flexibility lets you control multiple sounds
and effects with a single pad. Melodic sounds can provide a sort of
mini-gamelan, with some zones having very precise, controlled velocity
curves while others can be almost “switched” to trigger sounds. You
can have exceptionally sophisticated control over a single sound, or
work with multiple sounds and have a virtual kit on one pad. I wouldn’t
necessarily call this merely a drum pad, but more like a percussion pad . . .
maybe even a percussion ensemble pad.
Extensions You can feed audio directly into a DAW via ReWire.
(However, with 64-bit Windows, this requires working with 32-bit
program versions—64-bit ReWire hasn’t been implemented yet in
Virtual Brain.) Other ways to pipe in audio include using Soundflower
on the Mac, or Virtual Audio Cable with Windows. As a MIDI
controller, you can choose the MIDI channel and controller number
caused by striking the surface, but the MIDI notes themselves are fixed
(60-65). This works for many drum programs, but hopefully a future rev
would allow a way to assign these notes as desired. The documentation
could use elaboration—some features, such as zone linking, aren’t
explained (although to be fair, it’s not hard to figure out), and the
description of using ReWire is pretty much non-existent. But these
aren’t deal-BREAKers, and the software itself is stable.
So Is It a . . . Hit? $349 may seem steep for a pad, but you also get
a cool sound library and editing software. Furthermore, I have no
doubt that the technology necessary to implement the multizone/
multiposition technology is not trivial. Add in the effects and tonal
possibilities, and Mandala reveals itself as a sophisticated, novel
controller that goes well beyond your basic drum pad.
$359 MSRP, $249 street
We covered the original YRG in the July 2012 issue—but now only a
few months later, we have . Just don’t expect a guitar; expect an
extremely cost-effective MIDI controller with surprisingly responsive
and accurate tracking that lets you employ guitar technique (and looks
like something out of Guitar Hero).
It works so well because the neck’s “frets” and “strings” are raised
plastic that serve as switches, although they do feel quite comfortable.
Six physical “dummy” strings trigger notes with velocity, and there’s
a pitch bend wheel disguised as a whammy bar. (Of course, you can’t
do conventional finger vibrato.) YRG does USB over MIDI with Mac/
Windows, sends MIDI out a 5-pin DIN connector, or outputs audio
over a stereo 1/8” headphone jack or mono 1/4” guitar cable from a set
of onboard sounds.
However, it’s crucial to download the manual, study it, and delve
into the various menu tweaks to optimize YRG for your playing style.
And the more you know about synth setup, the better; YRG works best
in mono mode, with a multi-timbral synth (or six instances of a synth)
where each timbre or instance responds to one channel and is set for a
single note of polyphony. This configuration provides the most guitarlike
feel and highest accuracy.
Ch-ch-ch-changes The version uses a new pickup design,
and while the original tracked very well, the new version tracks even
better. There are also more variables to optimize tracking, and the
whammy bar now transmits bend data over all channels when in mono
mode—a welcome improvement.
I didn’t cover the unit’s internal sounds in my original review
because to my ears, they weren’t a selling point. However, the new
sounds are vastly improved, and you can layer a guitar and synth
sound—so with battery power, you can just plug into your interface
for instant guitar synth sounds. (Use four AA batteries, not USB,
with the internal sounds unless you have an extremely clean USB
Furthermore, you can restrict the layers to particular zones, like
synth bass on the bottom three strings, and guitar on the top three
strings, or on all strings . . . whatever works. The 99 presets can now
store the chorus setting, transposition, pan, and zone data. MIDI
implementation is more sophisticated, and includes (really!) the
ability to trigger clips and scenes in Ableton Live, as well as move
the area within the Ableton clip matrix being controlled. The frets
and two body switches (e.g., for preset up/down) can serve as MIDI
switch controllers, and you can map the joystick to MIDI controllers.
There are various other minor improvements and options, and all
the features (like alternate tunings and recording) from the original
version are retained.
Finally, in addition to being able to buy an optional headstock
(recommended—even though the headstock serves no functional
purpose, it makes for more comfortable playing), you can now
customize the with a pickguard.
Is This the Answer to MIDI guitar? No—but it’s a great answer to a
guitarist-friendly MIDI controller. I not only appreciate its accuracy and
tracking speed, but also, that I need to do very little MIDI data cleanup
after recording. Although the YRG-1000 turned a lot of heads—even for
people who thought they wouldn’t like it—the YRG improves
the concept and execution even further.
Traktor Kontrol F1
Remix Deck controller for Traktor Pro 2.5
DJs continue to go beyond the “two turntables” concept—temposynched
effects, more decks, live instruments, re-sampling, and more.
Native Instruments has pushed the DJ envelope for years; the Remix
Deck feature that debuted in Traktor Pro 2.5 is a far more sophisticated
version of the sample decks from previous versions. The Remix Decks
combine features associated with sampling, Ableton Live’s clip view,
and conventional Traktor decks (quantizing, sample display with
playhead, loop controls, sync, etc.). Additionally, it’s easy to save and
load complete Remix sets. In a way, this feature is like adding a DJoriented
Traktor Pro allows assigning any or all of its four decks to Remix
Decks. Each one has four sample slots (roughly analogous to four
“tracks” of samples), a level and filter control (up for highpass, down
for lowpass), and 16 cells for each slot in which you can load one-shots
or loops; a slot can play one cell at a time. But, the thing that makes this
more of a “remix” deck is its ability to capture samples from a Track
Deck or the loop recorders. You can also drag-and-drop patterns from
Maschine, which is very cool and makes it easy to populate the Remix
Decks with patterns. To summarize, each Remix Deck as a 4 x 16 matrix
of samples, whose content can be loaded, replaced, and fluidly edited.
With sufficient practice you can build music on a “cellular” level from
these components instead of, or in addition to, full mixed tracks.
That description only scratches (get it?) the surface of the Remix Decks’
capabilities, but let’s proceed to the F1 controller, which is optimized to
control these decks. I use F1 with the S2, and they work together very
Enter the Matrix NI does serious hardware,
and F1 is no exception: metal panel, four
45mm faders for slot level control, four rotary
pots for the slot filters (with center detent for
flat response), legible labeling, 16-pad matrix,
and various selection/navigation buttons.
Although optimized for Traktor Pro, NI’s
Controller Editor program can reconfigure
the various controls for other applications
( just don’t expect a mini-Maschine; the pads
A downloadable Kontrol F1 tutorial
set showcases the main control options
and serves as a fine introduction. It also
demonstrates the extensive use of color
and visual feedback to guide you while
using F1. Although learning its capabilities
isn’t particularly difficult, becoming good
at playing F1 requires practice. (Got any
musician friends who diss DJs? Put together a
set with F1, play it, then say “here, you try it.”
Sit back, watch, and laugh.)
The Eyes Have It F1 is primarily about
triggering the slot’s cells, but it’s also a selfcontained
“ecosystem” in which you can
specify quantizing, adjust key and pitch,
reverse samples, trim length, set sync, browse
for samples, change “pages” of four slot
cells to play other groups of four cells, and
more. That may sound daunting, but I can’t
emphasize enough how intelligently F1 uses
color. For example, you can call up a view
in the matrix that shows the play mode at
a glance: A blue button indicates one-shot,
green indicates loop, and dim shows there’s
no sample loaded in that cell. Trigger mode
and sync are equally obvious. You can also
choose colors when playing to remind you
what kind of sound is in which cell, and a dual
7-segment display provides further feedback.
Kool Kontrol With the S2, I tend to choose
two Track Decks and two Remix Decks;
until F1 came along, I moused around the
Remix Decks and that seemed adequate. But
after using F1 extensively, I realize just how
inadequate a mouse is for unleashing the
Remix Decks’ potential. If you use the Remix
Decks, you need F1. And if you don’t use
them, you almost certainly will after you find
out how much fun it is to control them with
the Kontrol F1. Native Instruments has done