The expanding universe of USB/MIDI control surfaces has just expanded a bit more with the introduction of the Evolution UControl UC-33e ($329.95). This compact upgrade of the original UC-33 offers a nice array of faders, knobs, and buttons for transmitting a variety MIDI messages and SysEx data. The UC-33e comes with Mac and Windows drivers and lets you simultaneously control as many as 47 parameters on a wide range of virtual and hardware devices, including DAW mixers, software synths and samplers, and General MIDI modules.
As its name suggests, the UC-33e provides 33 factory presets for products from a number of companies, including Native Instruments, Propellerhead, Steinberg, Cakewalk, and Creative Labs. You can easily reorganize the presets, edit them, or replace them with your own presets; there is a librarian program for PC users.
Let It Slide
The UC-33e's front panel is adorned with 9 faders, 24 knobs, 28 buttons, and a blue backlit LCD. The ninth fader makes an excellent addition to the usual bank of eight; it serves well for adjusting the master volume (or any other parameter).
All of the faders and knobs are user-assignable, as are half of the buttons. The 60 mm ALPS faders have a fairly smooth feel, and each fader has a small green LED that helps you keep track of the fader positions under poor lighting conditions. That's a nice touch, although I'd rather have only the assigned faders light up. The 24 knobs rotate uniformly and are laid out with plenty of room for average-size hands.
The UC-33e comes with five plastic overlays that identify the various fader, knob, and button assignments for different setups. Four are labeled for specific applications: Native Instruments B4 and Pro-53, Ableton Live, and the Mixer Channel Strip in Steinberg's Cubase SX and Nuendo. The fifth overlay is unlabeled, so you can mark it up according to your needs. Additional blank templates are available from the manufacturer.
The UC-33e's back panel sports MIDI In and Out jacks, a power switch, a 9 VDC input, and a USB port; a 7-foot USB cable is provided. A power supply is not included, because the unit is powered by USB when connected to the computer. (A power supply is needed only for standalone operation away from a computer.) The UC-33e's silver plastic case measures 12.75 inches wide by 2.5 inches high by 8.5 inches deep. When it isn't in use, I can tuck the unit conveniently beneath my G4 PowerBook (which sits on a Griffin Technologies iCurve stand).
Under My Thumbs
I mainly worked with the UC-33e in Mac OS X 10.2 and tested the device with an assortment of music applications. One of the coolest presets is for Native Instruments B4, a virtual instrument that simulates a Hammond B-3 organ. With the latest standalone version of B4 for OS X, I can play the organ from my keyboard while controlling B4 parameters from the UC-33e.
The UC-33e's nine faders integrate especially well with the B4's virtual drawbars thanks to the controller's Drawbar mode, which globally sets the faders to work in reverse. In Drawbar mode, pulling a fader toward you increases a parameter value the way that B-3 drawbars do.
Another useful UC-33e preset addresses the Mixer Channel Strip in Steinberg Cubase SX and Nuendo. It lets you control a channel's volume, pan position, and eight send levels, and also lets you select the effects for eight inserts. Call up a channel's 4-band parametric EQ, and you can enable and adjust the gain, frequency, and Q for each band.
Evolution's presets for Reason have a few weak spots; they suffer a bit from inconsistent fader assignments from one module to the next, and they sometimes lack important parameter assignments. A little preset editing might help. I was also able to program the UC-33e for several programs that don't have factory presets: Native Instruments' Absynth, Reaktor, and Vokator, and MOTU's Digital Performer. Programming the UC-33e is relatively quick and easy, requiring a few button pushes and controller movements for each new assignment. The LCD shows which data is output when you move a controller. A new Controller Mute function mutes the output of all the knobs and faders, so you can reposition them before you start to change parameters. A handy two-button Snapshot command transmits the current knob and fader settings.
The UC-33e's compact size, clean layout, and modest price tag make it a great choice for most desktop studios. If you're tired of mousing your soft-synth and DAW parameters around, check it out.