With the number of slick, compact USB MIDI controllers and the deluge of feature-laden soft synths hitting the market, 2004 might just be the year of the laptop musician. One definite standout on the controller front is the Edirol PCR-1. This latest offering from Edirol packs a two-octave keyboard with full-size keys; a 2×8-controller matrix; editable controller presets; and stereo 24-bit, 96 kHz audio I/O into a superslim frame that's just thicker than an inch. The PCR-1 is touted as a total plug-and-play solution for laptop performers and producers on the road, providing audio and MIDI capabilities in a compact, USB-powered package.
Edirol, as you may or may not know, is a partner company of Roland, and as such, the PCR-1 is definitely built from a keyboard player's perspective. The feel of the PCR-1 is surprisingly nice. Although the unit's shallow design doesn't allow for the key depth of a full-size unit, the PCR-1 feels great to play. For a compact MIDI controller, the keys have a good bit of spring and mass, and nothing about it feels cheap or plastic. The rest of the unit also boasts a well-constructed and sturdy build. To maintain the low-profile design, each of the controller knobs, as well as the volume control, are less than ½-inch high and feature a comfortable rubberized coating. The controllers also have a detent at the 12 o'clock position, so you always have an idea of where you are when making adjustments in the dark.
Rounding out the unit are two flattened pitch and modulation controllers; transpose and octave up/down buttons; six assignable control buttons; and controls for shift, program and bank change, MIDI channel and the various editing functions. The back panel includes one USB port, one stereo RCA input, one stereo RCA output, one ⅛-inch headphone jack (that also doubles as a digital out) and an input-level trim knob. And finally, the PCR-1 ships with a handy software utility that allows users to create, transfer, store and manage custom controller templates in a user-friendly icon-based environment. The unit and its corresponding software work with Mac OS 9/OS X, as well as with most Windows formats.
To begin, I loaded the drivers onto my Mac G4/1GHz PowerBook, with 256 MB of RAM, running Mac OS 10.2.8 and tested the unit as both an audio and MIDI device with Propellerhead Reason 2.5, Emagic Logic 6.3.3 and Native Instruments Absynth 2. Gaining access to the PCR-1 from either Core Audio or Core MIDI was a breeze. In all of the previously mentioned applications, the unit worked famously. With simply the default audio buffer setting active, the amount of latency with each of the applications was well within the usable spectrum. I didn't feel at any point that the hardware was audibly out of sync with computer.
With Reason open, I wanted to bring the controller-assignment functionality into play. The unit allows users to save as many as 16 different control templates, each comprising a max of 25 parameter presets. Of course, programs like Reason and Ableton Live give you the option to tweak the controller assignments internally, bypassing the need to edit the controller numbers within the hardware. But for programs that don't allow you this option or that make it easier to tweak things from the hardware front, the PCR-1 software editor makes this process a snap. It's literally as simple as opening the program, clicking on the desired controller and attaching it to a specified control number. The company's Website also has literally dozens of preconfigured program maps for everything from Steinberg Cubase SX and Applied Acoustics Tassman to IK Multimedia Sampletank and Image-Line FL Studio. And once properly set up, the control knobs exhibited the same solid and thoughtful design as the rest of the unit. My jaw almost hit the ground when the center detent on the knobs actually corresponded with the center position of the filters in Reason — finally, someone got it right.
On the audio front, the PCR-1 provides a simple and clean audio I/O. There are some competing units that offer ¼-inch connections and a mic preamp, but for the mobile producer, performer and DJ, a pair of clean RCA connections is often more than enough. For test purposes, I did hook up a small utility mixer to audio inputs and tracked a few bits of guitar into Logic, and the PCR-1 performed flawlessly as a simple and transparent audio interface. The input trim knob worked fairly well. I can't say it's the most exact gain control I've ever used, but it gets the job done just fine. Overall, the audio side of the PCR-1 totally delivers on what it is purported to do. For performing musicians and DJs, the fidelity is above and beyond what most will ever need. If you have a small mixer with a preamp and you want to cut some decent-sounding scratch vocals in a hotel, the PCR-1 will fit the bill nicely.
ON THE ROAD
The Edirol PCR-1 is really a dream come true for the traveling musician, the college student or the entry-level producer. In addition to its lightweight, slim design and its ability to be USB-bus-powered, the package also includes a handsome padded gig case that easily holds the unit and a USB cable — a trend that I wish other companies would get into. Recently, I traveled overseas to Germany — passing through airports in San Francisco, Frankfurt and London with the PCR-1 in tow — and even with heightened security in place, it didn't even raise an eyebrow at any of the security check points. The only gripe that I have with this piece is the lack of any traditional MIDI I/O. Even a simple MIDI In would let you slave the PCR-1 and a laptop to another machine. Other people may be left wanting a MIDI Out, but that's it. All in all, Edirol definitely delivers a winner here, and if you're looking for a sturdy, clean and inexpensive way to turn your laptop into a powerful production or performance tool, the PCR-1 is where it's at.
PCR-1 > $370
Pros: Solid construction. Self-contained audio/MIDI package. Ease of use.
Cons: No standard MIDI connections.
Mac: G3/233; 64 MB RAM; Mac OS 9.x/OS X; USB port; OMS 2.3.3 or FreeMIDI 1.35 (Mac OS 9.x only)
PC: 600 (any Intel-compatible); 64 MB RAM; Windows 98/98SE/2000/ME/XP; USB port (Intel USB chipset recommended)