Novation Nocturn ($199.99 [MSRP]) is a plug-in controller that lets you conveniently access most any effects or instrument plug-in parameter with the turn of a knob or push of a button. A compact slimline control surface, the Nocturn promises tactile control of parameters that usually require a multitude of mouse moves to tweak, and, for the most part, the device delivers.
THE HARD AND SOFT
The Nocturn hardware is a 9.4 ‗ 5.4 ‗ 1.1-inch bus-powered USB device whose only connector is the USB port. It has a staggered array of eight knobs across the top panel, and each knob has an associated push button. There's a Speed Dial (more on this in a bit) and a master slider in the middle of the panel. Eight more push buttons along the bottom have fixed assignments, such as selecting page-up or -down or toggling between effects, instrument, and mixer, depending on which functions you want to control.
The View button hides or shows the onscreen window for Novation's Automap Universal software, which displays a likeness of the Nocturn's top panel, along with the data values you adjust with the knobs. When you launch Automap, it finds your plug-ins and maps their controls to the Nocturn's. Automap works with VST, AU, and Digidesign's TDM and RTAS plug-ins by converting them to Automap-wrapped versions. An onscreen window lets you choose which plug-ins you want to convert.
I used the 2.0 version of Automap for this review (check novationmusic.com for the latest release). The software works with Windows XP (SP2) or Vista 32/64 and Mac OS X 10.4 or later. Automap requires at least a 1 GHz Pentium III or Mac G4 with 256 MB of RAM.
Both the Nocturn controller and the Automap software have some nifty elements. The controller knobs are touch sensitive and are ringed with LEDs, and the associated buttons are illuminated. That's a big help to those who tweak plug-ins in dim light. The unit's central Speed Dial knob is perhaps its strongest feature; point your mouse to a control in your onscreen plug-in, and the touch-sensitive Speed Dial assumes control of that parameter.
Once you make your plug-ins Automap ready, the software provides the real magic. When you boot up your DAW and launch an Automap-wrapped plug-in, its window appears normal except for a slim new control bar at the bottom. At the same time, the Nocturn's LEDs illuminate and the plug-in's controls appear in the Automap window. The unit also has a Learn button, which lets you reassign the controls or create your own controller map. Hitting the page button accesses the next group of controls.
A simple browser lets you review all open plug-ins and then quickly switch to controlling one of them. Automap Universal 2.0 supports standard MIDI protocol, and you can teach the Nocturn to control a hardware MIDI device, nonautomatable plug-ins, or your sequencer's mixer. Once a MIDI map is created, you can save and recall it using the browser.
The Nocturn can control multiple functions of some DAWs, like Cubase, right out of the box. It handled the AU plug-ins in Digital Performer 5.0 (DP) just as easily. VST plug-ins converted with FXpansion's VST to AU Adapter program also worked fine.
To use the Nocturn's knobs with DP's mixer, however, required a quick programming session. Once the system was set up for MIDI control, I could select an individual DP fader onscreen and touch a knob on the Nocturn to assign it to the fader. Novation promises that custom maps for applications like DP will be available for download free from Novation's Web site.
The Nocturn became a very handy tool once I learned how to use it to navigate among effects, instruments, and mixer channels and figured out how to work with Automap and the hardware simultaneously. At first, the knobs didn't appear to allow precise control of parameters, making values jump by several increments. But this was in an inaudible range (hundredths of a decibel), and I could achieve finer control by turning off Encoder Acceleration in the Settings menu.
On the whole, the Nocturn is a good system for those who get tired of adjusting multiple plug-in parameters with a mouse. It was fast, sturdy, and bug-free in my testing, and Novation offers excellent support. The Nocturn system is a great way to take some control from the computer and put it back in your hands.
Value (1 through 5): 4