Keith McMillen Instruments SoftStep Review

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FIG. 1: KMI Softstep''s bank of ten Keys can send independent streams MIDI or OSC data from each pedal.

With the limited number of appendages and digits which we can dedicate to playing our instruments, wringing expression from modern electronic gear through MIDI commands usually requires a bit of finessing. Lots of pedals, desktop controllers, and the like try to enable as much control as possible, but unless you are an octopus with fingers, it''s difficult (or downright impossible) to take that level of control to the stage.

When it comes to the parameters that animate different electronic devices, one size rarely fits all; so inevitably, there are different parameters for each gadget. Enter Keith McMillen (KMI) SoftStep, a hardware foot controller.

Don''t be misled by SoftStep''s seemingly modest construction. Although the unit is surprisingly compact (it can easily slip into a pocket in a backpack or laptop case) and light (weighing in at about a pound), it is remarkably sturdy, and although I was unwilling to test the company''s claim that it was beer-proof, it wouldn''t surprise me. Softstep''s work surface divides into three main areas: a bank of 10 pedals (or Keys, in KMIspeak), the four-character LED display, and the four-quadrant Nav Pad at the right of the board.

The controls for each key are multidimensional and multidirectional; each of the controller''s ten pedals (Keys) enables pressure, clockwise, counter-clockwise, and X-and-Y-axis maneuvers (see Fig 1). The rear of the unit furnishes two USB connectors: a standard-size jack for an expression pedal, and a mini-USB connector. The mini connector joins with the optional KMI MIDI expander for deploying SoftStep with external MIDI hardware. The standard USB connector (which also supplies power to the unit) connects to your computer to control plug-ins, automate recording and playback within your DAW, and enable programming of the SoftStep from the unit''s app, and that''s the tip of the iceberg. With the optional MIDI expander, SoftStep can control hardware MIDI devices without the use of a computer.

The application download furnishes a batch of presets and the most recent firmware update. KMI recommends the SNoize Sysex Librarian to transmit the update to the pedal, but I had no luck with instantiating the program. Instead, I loaded the file into a MIDI track in MOTU Digital Performer 7.22, directed the track output to the proper port in SoftStep, and hit the play button. Soft- Step updated flawlessly. Any program that can load and play back .SYX files will do the trick.

SoftStep''s programming app mirrors the floor unit''s layout, and a touch on any key lights up its equivalent indicator light in the software. Each key''s onscreen panel hosts an increment/ decrement tab to scroll through presets, a button to open each key''s modulation matrix, and a Save and Copy button. Copying any key''s parameters automatically creates Paste buttons on the other keys: a nice touch.

The Modulation panel is a piece of work; for starters, you can instantly see the numerical values of any activity on that key. That eliminates a good deal of guesswork; because you can instantly scale values with a table, add offsets, and more.

Unless you''re Fred Astaire, getting more precise control of foot-operated controls can be awkward; accordingly, you can simply use gain to multiply the strength of a modulation value, use slew to change the overall density of data, define minimum and maximum values, and much more. A nice feature is the ability to program “Dead Zones.” If you''ve ever accidentally sent data out with a light touch, you''ll appreciate that this weights the amount of force you''ll need to send data on its way.

It bears repeating that each key can produce up to six different and independent modulation messages. For example, you could use pressure to modulate Aftertouch, rotation to send patch changes, the X-axis to send MIDI Volume, and the Y-axis to control Pan position. Alternately to using a key''s pressure sensitivity, you can use Key on and Key off to toggle sustain pedal commands. These are only examples; MIDI Machine Control, Mackie HUI emulation, Pitch Bend, Open Sound Control (OSC), and even MIDI notes are a few more of the possible destinations for a SoftStep gesture.

A SoftStep patch is called a Scene, and patches are grouped into Set Lists, Where you can customize and organize your favorite control setups. You can scroll through a Set List and select a patch with the left and right quadrants of the Nav Pad. You can display the data stream in the LED panel (for example, values of 0 to 127). I found this useful for training my foot to work with more sensitivity: a daunting prospect. Another good reason to work in hosted mode whenever possible is the ability to observe the results of your footwork in the software as it happens. Click on the blue Sensor View panel, and a more graphic display of your actions appears, detailing the response of each key to your maneuvers in real time.

SoftStep is happy to work with or without a computer. Hosted mode works in conjunction with the SoftStep app, and uses the first of two ports for communication. Standalone can work or without a computer and is the mode of choice for working with hardware systems. I preferred to work in hosted, mode owing to the scarcity of external devices in my setup, and I always appreciated the visual feedback provided by the software. Of course, if your hardware is connected to your computer, you can always route SoftStep through your DAW software in Hosted mode.

I am the happy owner of an Axon AX- 50 MIDI guitar controller, which is long on built-in modulation options, but somewhat short-sighted in a couple of areas: Save for MIDI ports, there is no input for a sustain pedal, and there''s no support for Aftertouch, which I use frequently. Although I can send modulation from the guitar''s knobs, that means that I stop playing momentarily. Fortunately KMI supplied me with the optional MIDI Expander, and it was a simple task to set up a couple of keys to perform sustain, Aftertouch, and Modulation.

Software Synths were an especially easy target for SoftStep; any synth with MIDI Learn features is fair game. I used the Pressure Live preset (in which each successive key sends out a different Control Change) to modulate Camel Audio Alchemy and Spectrasonics Atmosphere till the cows come home. My favorite trick was to modulate filter cutoff inversely to resonance for juicy filter effects. The Mackie Control emulation worked like a charm in Apple Logic Pro 9.1.3—a welcome handoff to the transport when you record with MIDI guitar.

KMI thoughtfully provides a handful of useful presets for Softstep, including looping tools, controls for Ableton Live, Apple Garage Band and Logic, Avid ElevenRack, and a couple of other hardware units. These make excellent jumping-off points for creating your own patches. That said, it should be noted that gaining facility over SoftStep''s bounty of control will require a significant learning curve for many, and that is as it should be. KMI confers a tremendously sophisticated modulation matrix that can cook up practically any utilitarian or expressive scheme you can imagine for practically any piece of software or hardware that implements MIDI or OSC; that requires a bit of cogitation. KMI has taken great steps to make the task intuitive and accessible: It''s the end user''s job to understand the signal flow and the process.

I can''t imagine any modern musician who wouldn''t benefit from KMI Softstep. The company eagerly provides Firmware upgrades, and maintains an active support system and user forum.

Simply describing SoftStep as a pedal is like calling a gourmet meal a snack; the more you use it, the more KMI SoftStep will surprise you. Perhaps the biggest surprise about KMI SoftStep is that no one else has implemented a pedal in quite this way before. SoftStep gets my unreserved highest recommendation.

EM contributing editor Marty Cutler co-authored one of the first books for MIDI guitar in the late ''80s. MIDI guitar is way better now.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the SoftStep product page.