Although there's little new about the idea of a MIDI keyboard controller, finding the one that's right for you can be tricky. A healthy number of options are on the market, but it's likely that your local music shop only carries a few models, and seldom are they hooked up to a computer.
For a long time, I shouldered much guilt because I never got much use of my Keyfax PhatBoy controller. Although that sturdy little unit was well-suited to a host of tweaks in programs like Propellerhead ReBirth, trying to cram the unit and a separate keyboard controller (with fewer or no rotary controls on it) into my small project studio seemed like a waste of space. What most software-based musicians need is a controller that is as flexible as the overstuffed software packages that they use to create music with. Edirol's new PCR-50 is a likely candidate for those who need a controller that is easily configured to their application of choice.
NOT JUST A PRETTY BOX
Housed in a muted-silver lightweight plastic frame, the PCR-50 is outfitted with 49 full-size, velocity-sensitive keys and a total of 27 assignable controls. The unit also has a set of MIDI In and Out jacks, a dual-action pitch and modulation lever, and transpose and octave switches. Connections are provided for both expression and sustain pedals, along with the capacity for 15 user memory settings. For those who might have the time and inclination to investigate tying their music to digital video, the PCR-50 also comes with a V-Link key that allows the keyboard to interface with Edirol's DV-7PR Digital Video Presenter. Edirol also offers a smaller version of the unit, known as the PCR-30, which provides fewer keys but the same functionality.
Right out of the box, significant props go to the folks at Edirol for giving users the option of not having to find a longer power strip to feed yet another wall-wart power supply. The PCR-50, thankfully, comes with the option of getting its power from the USB connection. Although older PCs might see some visible amount of processor strain, the keyboard drew its power directly from my PowerBook G4 without any issues cropping up. All of the rotary knobs and faders have good action, and although the buttons aren't outfitted with any sort of reassuring toggle click, they are backlit to let you know when they are activated.
Connecting the PCR-50 is essentially a no-fuss affair, and Edirol continues to deliver its new hardware with support for the full-range of common operating systems, including OS X. It's highly recommended that you carefully follow the manual's instructions for a Mac OS 9 installation (doing things out of order may cause you to have to redo the procedure), but setup for OS X users is a cakewalk. Once the PCR-50 is connected to an OS X box via the USB cable, the unit appears as a MIDI device within the MIDI window of the Audio MIDI Setup utility, and you're off.
HITTING THE IVORIES
The PCR-50 has eight modes of operation (MIDI Channel, Program Change, Bank Mode, Memory Mode, Snapshot Mode, Panic Mode and Edit Mode), including the startup state of the unit, which is referred to as Play Mode. Entering a particular mode is clearly labeled on the individual toggle buttons; specific combinations for which the user has to hold down more than one key to change modes are also illustrated. You can return to Play Mode whenever an operation in one of the other modes has been completed. Depending on how your software operates, you can transmit messages to your application in either decimal or hexadecimal format.
The basic method for altering a setting or transmitting a change is fairly straightforward: Enter the mode of operation by hitting one or two of the corresponding operations buttons, change the value of the parameter and hit the Enter button to complete the process. A simple example would be to fire up the A1 virtual-analog VST synth that comes bundled with Cubase SX and select a patch. By pressing the Program Change button, you can use the INC or DEC buttons to move up or down in the patch list. Hitting the Enter button ends the operation, and your new patch is selected. Changing patch banks and MIDI channels is basically done the same way.
The PCR-50 comes with 16 stored memory settings in its internal memory. Those settings can be recalled in Memory Mode, altered and saved as a different memory set on demand. The various Memory Sets included are for use with Cakewalk Sonar, Steinberg Cubase and H-Compatible applications such as Digidesign Pro Tools LE and MOTU Digital Performer. There are also GM2, GS and XG Memory Sets.
Returning to the previous Cubase SX example, the PCR-50 comes armed with four different Memory Sets (numbered 4 through 8) for the software. Once you tell the PCR-50 which of the Cubase-related Memory Sets you want to use, you simply have to add a Roland MCR8 device in your Device Setup window and change the MIDI Input setting to the PCR-50. By taking advantage of this feature, I was able to select MIDI channel 16 and turn the PCR-50 into a virtual mixing desk for Cubase SX, thereby controlling fader movements and track panning from the rotary knobs and faders on the unit. Suddenly, you begin to wonder whether you truly need one of those pricey, custom control interfaces after all.
If you often move from application to application during the course of your session and have one of those caffeine-damaged memories from too many late nights of creativity, Edirol offers several printable overlay templates to drop onto the chassis of the PCR-50 to help you remember your settings. Currently, you can download templates for Cubase, Ableton Live, Arturia Storm, AudioNerdz Delay Lama, Audio Simulation Dream Station, Cakewalk Sonar, Emagic Logic, IK Multimedia SampleTank, Image-Line Media Fruityloops, various Native Instruments products, Propellerhead Reason and Rebirth and the Roland XV-580. Blanks are also available in PDF format so that you can further customize your Memory Sets. There's also a wide range of control maps on the Edirol Website for most popular applications. These can be imported in Edit Mode (Bulk) and saved as an individual Memory Set.
UP AND RUNNING
As for performance, the PCR-50 is light (7 pounds, 5 ounces), easy to cart around and fairly ideal for musicians whose performance rig is made up of not much more than a laptop, a keyboard and an external mixer. The velocity-sensitivity keys allow for enough subtle expression but feel sturdy enough that you can do a bit of pounding on them when need be.
Although it didn't take long to wind my way through the PCR-50's user manual, it's easy to envision a scenario in which a novice user would appreciate more practical “real world” examples of how the unit interfaces with software. That certainly would be a far better use of the manual's 166 pages, which are, for the most part, consumed with four translations of the setup instructions.
As a hybrid of logical features, ease of use and solid construction, the PCR-50 is a well-rounded piece of gear that's flexibly designed for a number of practical situations. Budget-conscious users will appreciate its price point (the PCR-30 model runs about 20 percent cheaper than its sibling), and the laptop road warrior will be happy that its light weight won't slow the pace en route to the next gig.
PCR-50 > $250
Pros: Solid construction. Easy to use. Affordable. Support for multiple operating systems, including OS X.
Cons: No “real” examples in manual.
MAC: PPC G3/233; 64 MB RAM; Mac OS 8.5, 8.6, 9.x, OS X; OMS 2.3.3 or later; FreeMIDI 1.35 or later; USB port
PC: Pentium I/200; 64 MB RAM; Windows 98/98SE/2000/ME/XP; USB port