LAUNCH PAD >The M-Audio iControl brings hardware control to Apple GarageBand 2. The unit allows users to access a variety of recording, transport and effect parameters without having to touch a mouse.
Closed systems that require certain gear to be used with other certain (often expensive) gear have been the bane of musicians' already-poor existences for ages, at least since Roland's non-MIDI DCB synching interface in the early '80s and continuing with today's multitude of plug-in formats. Apple is already infamous for its closed iTunes-to-iPod system, which sells songs that are tricky to play on non-Apple hardware. And when the company released GarageBand 2 — the second iteration of its popular, entry-level music-production software — users and skeptics alike bemoaned its continued lack of sophisticated MIDI-controller support and limited cooperation with other music software aside from host-only ReWire support and Audio Units plug-in compatibility.
So it is with great relief that GB2 lovers welcome M-Audio's iControl, the only hardware controller with in-depth control of the software's track parameters. MIDI keyboards used with GarageBand offer velocity-sensitive playing, pitch-bend/mod-wheel support and a place to put your beer, if you're brave. However, all of those hard-earned knobs and sliders on MIDI keyboards such as the M-Audio Ozonic might as well be rhinestones for all the good they'll do you in GarageBand.
Why is GarageBand such a closed system? It's not simply so M-Audio can sell lots of iControls, which at $179 cost more than twice the price of GB2, but heavy users of the software should consider it a worthwhile investment for fighting off mouse-induced carpal tunnel syndrome. There's also the reality that Apple doesn't want GarageBand to be too good, because it's purpose is, after all, to guide musicians up the chain to Apple's Logic Express and Logic Pro. So if you do upgrade to Logic Express, the iControl will still work with it, right? Um, no. The iControl is also a one-way street, working only with GarageBand 2.0.1 and higher (the 2.0.1 update is available free to GB2 users).
The glorious upside to the exclusivity of the iControl and GB2 is that the pair couldn't sing together more harmoniously if these two were Ashford & Simpson (sorry, iControl, you're Ashford). All you need to do is plug in the USB-bus-powered iControl into a powered USB port, launch GB2, and you're good to go. Let me just get this out of the way: The iControl performed all but flawlessly during my use of it. It's a straightforward device with static functions. The unit's lack of programmability could be thought of as a strike against it, but the iControl never faltered. It continues to manipulate GB2 even when the program is not the foremost application on the Mac desktop. The only occasions in which the work flow slowed down occurred when a complex GB2 project weighed down the CPU enough that the software couldn't quite keep up with what I was doing on the iControl, usually when scrubbing with the jog wheel or sometimes when adjusting knobs. This is more a concern with GB2, but it's still relevant to the iControl, as the two are inextricably related. I tested the iControl on a Mac G4/dual 1.25GHz desktop with 768 MB of RAM, which is well more than the GB2 minimum requirements and more powerful than Apple's current PowerBooks but a bit rickety compared with current G5 Power Macs.
ACROSS THE BOARD
Just like GB2, the iControl is simple to understand at first glance, though this simplicity belies its enormous utility. Pleasantly soft rubber buttons — 58 in all — populate the surface; most of them glow with blue, red or yellow backlights to show which functions are activated. The bottom row of buttons replicates GB2's transport controls with buttons for record, skip to the beginning, skip back, play, skip forward, and loop on and off. A Master Volume slider takes effect only when it passes the point set for the song in GB2. A real wrist- and time-saver, the jog wheel moves the GB2 playhead about the timeline as you rotate it.
Eight pseudo — channel strips take up the right half of the board and have endlessly rotating knobs and buttons for selecting a track, record enable, mute and solo. If a song contains more than eight tracks, the Track/Parameter up and down arrow buttons move through the tracks while the iControl shifts the backlighting of the track buttons to reflect the new track positions. You can use the buttons to mute and solo as many tracks as you want without selecting those tracks first with the Select buttons. Likewise, you can use the knobs to adjust the volume and panning of more than one track without selecting those tracks. (The Volume and Pan buttons on the left determine which function the knobs adjust.) The purpose of the Select button then is to activate a track for more in-depth control. A bank of five Selected Track buttons at the far left of the panel — Track Info, Generator, Effect 1, Effect 2 and EQ — open corresponding GB2 windows for editing audio parameters of the selected track.
With the Track Info window open, the iControl's top seven Select buttons can be used to turn on or off the seven signal processors offered: noise gate (only available on audio tracks, not software instruments), compressor, multi-effect 1, multi-effect 2, EQ, delay (listed as Echo) and reverb. From there, the corresponding knobs can also adjust the amount of an effect for the processors with amount sliders: gate, compressor, delay and reverb. My one quibble here is that if there are no multi-effects selected in the track window, you can't use the iControl to turn them on until you use the mouse to select an effect from the pop-up menu. It seems to me that a knob could be used to scroll through a menu and a button could select an effect. The same process also ought to be used to choose effect presets.
The Generator window opens only for software instrument tracks and serves as GB2's somewhat annoyingly limited interface for editing synthesizer parameters. With the window open, the iControl knobs again serve to adjust the parameter sliders, such as cutoff, attack and release. Once more, if the iControl knobs and buttons could be used to choose presets in the Generator pop-up menu, that would be a nice extra step toward making you even less dependent on a mouse. The Effect 1, Effect 2 and EQ buttons all open the corresponding GB2 windows for the selected track. You must have effects selected in the Track Info window first before launching the effects windows.
An Option button is the iControl's x-factor because M-Audio is planning to expand its functionality over time; however, it already plays a key role. Holding down Option and pressing the EQ or Effect buttons will enable or disable those processors, whether their windows are open. If you press Option together with either the record enable, mute or solo buttons, this will disable recording, muting and soloing on all tracks. Lastly, holding down Option and twisting a knob will instantly set the corresponding parameter to the maximum or minimum value.
By far the nicest surprise on the iControl is the MIDI Input, which has been basically unadvertised. It's pretty much a free one-input MIDI interface for your Mac. Connect a MIDI synthesizer or other device from its MIDI Out to the iControl's MIDI In, and the Mac will recognize the device. The iControl does not manipulate the device in any way; it simply passes through the signal. I tested this with Ableton Live 4, which recognized the iControl MIDI In with no problem.
Before the iControl came my way, I was already a bit enamored with GB2. Although the software's limitations can often be frustrating (no individual track export and no MIDI file export, to name a couple), I had just upgraded my collection of GB2 software instruments, and I decided to attempt a remix of one of my band's songs entirely in the program. The arrangement was mostly complete when I received the iControl, and the timing could not have been better. Because of GB2's lack of a mixer window and advanced MIDI hardware support, it's easier to sell Shania Twain CDs at a Kanye West concert than it is to mix songs in GB2. The iControl is the perfect remedy to this ailment.
In fact, the mixing stage gives you the best opportunity to shove aside the mouse and keyboard and hunker down in front of the iControl. I enjoyed setting a loop and letting it play while I set levels and pan positions, dropped tracks in and out, sweetened effects and tweaked instrument settings. A nice thing about working with all of the track windows that you launch with the iControl is that you can quickly cycle through the Generator, Effect 1, Effect 2 and EQ windows without closing the previous window, as well as select different tracks while the Track Info window is open to see the effects assigned to each track. And anytime you can spend less time clicking between windows, the better your music-making experience is going to be.
The amount of time I saved working with the iControl was extraordinary, and because I was able to try a large amount of ideas faster, I'm quite sure that the end result sounded better than what I would've done without it. Those reasons are enough to recommend the iControl wholeheartedly to anyone who mixes songs in GarageBand. Casual users who just noodle about in the program may not see the value; on the other hand, if you can't make your GB2 composition sound the way you want with the iControl, you may need to move on to other software.
iCONTROL > $179
Pros: Hassle-free plug-and-play operation. Quickly becomes invaluable. Speeds up work flow. USB-bus-powered. Bonus MIDI Input.
Cons: No assignable controls; all settings fixed. Works only with Apple GarageBand 2. GB2 can't always keep up with iControl's movements when CPU is taxed.
Mac OS 10.3.4 or higher; Apple GarageBand 2.0.1; powered USB port