Computer-based music has long suffered from the stigma that it's not quite ready for prime time. Pretty much everybody can think of examples in which some laptop warrior, with a studio's worth of gear onstage, has had to reboot or troubleshoot his or her rig in the middle of a gig. And even though soft synths and live sequencers promise you the world, a certain sense of calm settles in when you pick up a guitar or bass, plug in a cable, and it just works. M-Audio and a few other forward-thinking companies have made great strides in bringing this sort of freedom to the computer-music crowd. Products such as the Oxygen8 and the Ozone were some of the first to bring this sort of one-cable simplicity to the masses.
To keep things moving in the right direction, M-Audio is offering a significant leap forward with its latest combination keyboard controller and audio interface, the Ozonic. This FireWire-based unit houses a three-octave keyboard, audio I/O, MIDI I/O, headphone monitoring, additional tactile control and patch management in a lightweight, bus-powered unit. The Ozonic is intended to give musicians who have made the leap to software pretty much all the hardware they will need to track vocals or guitars, interface with MIDI equipment and gain some serious real-time control of soft synths and DAWs.
The Ozonic offers 37 full-size velocity-sensitive keys as well as a host of assignable MIDI controllers. The unit includes eight knobs, nine fader-style sliders with nine corresponding buttons under each (think nine faders each with a mute or solo button); assignable transport controls (rewind, stop, record, play and fast forward); pitch and mod wheels; sustain and expression pedal inputs; and an assignable, 360-degree x-y joystick. The audio section comprises one XLR mic pre with switchable 48V phantom power, one ¼-inch hi-Z input, two ¼-inch unbalanced inputs, two balanced ¼-inch outs, two unbalanced ¼-inch outs and a single ¼-inch headphone jack. The top panel includes controls for the input gain of the mic pre and hi-Z input, headphone monitor source (more on this later), monitor volume, headphone volume and dual-output volume controls. The remaining connections include a MIDI In and Out jack, one FireWire jack and a 12V input for times when bus power is not available. Finally, the unit includes a complete preset- and patch-management section with 10 preset keys (which correspond to two banks of 10 presets), six edit buttons and a backlit LCD.
The unit also utilizes two pieces of software. The first is the Ozonic Control Panel application, which allows you to set the overall input gain and panning for all four inputs and the overall output level for both sets of stereo outs, as well as determine the monitoring setup. The Ozonic includes zero-latency monitoring, and within the Control Panel application, you can set up your monitor mix pretty much to your liking by mixing between the two available software returns and the live inputs. The second software app is the Enigma patch-editor application, which enables users to map controller assignments with drag-and-drop simplicity. Control Panel ships with the unit and installs right off the included CD-ROM; the Enigma editor is available as a download for registered users.
I tested the Ozonic with Apple Logic Pro 7 and Propellerhead Reason 3.0 on a Mac G5/dual 2.5GHz with 4 GB of RAM and on a 1GHz PowerBook with 768 MB of RAM; both systems were running Mac OS 10.3.8. Installing the drivers was a pretty basic affair: I downloaded and installed the latest drivers from the M-Audio Website, and after powering down each machine, I hooked up the Ozonic with a single FireWire cable and powered back up. The blue LCD on the unit immediately came to life, and a quick check inside the System Preferences showed that the Ozonic was available as both an audio input and an output source. The same was also true of Logic and Reason. The only issue of note is at the time of writing this review, the Ozonic was not a supported hardware controller within Reason 3.0. Numerous other M-Audio products were included, and this issue will most likely be resolved with future Reason updates. The unit will work right out of the box within Reason as a generic MIDI keyboard/controller.
Once I had my various applications configured to work with the Ozonic, I connected the ¼-inch balanced outs to a pair of powered monitors and got down to business. I pulled up some saved Logic sessions, and as one would expect in this day and age, the audio played back perfectly. I next tested the hi-Z instrument input by plugging in a Gibson SG and strumming a few dry chords into Logic. Setting the input gain is pretty basic; the only thing you need to pay attention to is that the gain for the mic pre and the hi-Z input is controlled by the same two-part knob. The outside ring of the Input Gain knob controls the hi-Z input, and the inside controls the mic pre. If you quickly spin either section of the knob, there is a tendency for the other segment to move a little bit, as well — not a big deal overall. Once I had my levels in check, the resulting guitar track was clean, clear and free of noise. The mic pre was another example of clean, efficient design.
From there, I used the Ozonic on a mobile gig to track some male vocals with a Blue Bluebird condenser microphone. Overall, the results were totally clean and completely usable. The mic pre isn't going to make users want to sell off their Neve channel strips, but as far as a compact preamp goes, the Ozonic is totally solid. I also used the Ozonic in conjunction with my laptop and Reason as basically a stand-alone synth/sampler rig. And in a live-performance environment, the inclusion of two balanced outputs means that I can finally stop packing a spare DI to every show I play. With just a ¼-inch — to-XLR cable, you can patch into to any snake on the planet.
When M-Audio released the Oxygen8 and the Ozone, everyone was equally thrilled to have so many assignable controllers at their disposal while at same time a bit depressed that neither unit could save or recall controller presets. Fortunately, it seems that the resulting gripes did not fall on deaf ears. With the Ozonic, the recalling, editing and creating of presets could not be easier. These procedures can be accomplished from the unit itself or through the Enigma editor software. The unit comes preloaded with 20 presets, permanently stored in the unit's ROM, that can be semipermanently written over with your own presets. The factory presets include controller maps for a number of Reason modules; the G-Media Oddity; a few selections from Native Instruments; and some generic, blank starting points for creating your own. The easiest way to assign a hardware controller to a specific MIDI CC number is simply turn, slide or press the controller to select it and press the Edit button once to make it available for editing. Once the controller is selected, you can change its CC assignment by again pressing the Edit button, followed by the Ctrl Asgn button, which will bring up the current controller assignment number. From there, you can type in the new number from the data-entry keys (when in edit mode, the keys of the far-right octave become numeric keys) and simply hit the Enter key to make the change permanent.
For my money, however, I much preferred to make controller changes with the Enigma editor. The thing I love about soft synths is that I don't have to edit things with menus or little green screens anymore, and any chance I get to not have to do that, I take. With Enigma, a graphic display of the Ozonic comes up, and you can simply double-click on a controller and change its CC number and response range, add comments and more. What makes Enigma even cooler is that it ships with controller lists for dozens of products, and you can make assignment changes by simply dragging a parameter name over to whatever controller you wish. It doesn't get much easier than this to totally customize the Ozonic to whatever software you own.
OFF TO THE RACES
Overall, the Ozonic takes what was great about the Oxygen8 and the Ozone to the next logical step. If the manufacturers of hardware synths were not already scared, this product might make them start to quiver. I can only think of a few minor items to gripe about: The joystick controller, though fun to use, could have had a stiffer, more responsive feel; as it is, the response is a bit light to the touch, giving it a kind of wet-noodle feel. I would have also liked a second FireWire port for connecting a second hard drive to my PowerBook. But, again, these are pretty minor points.
With a well-spec'd laptop, a nice two-tiered keyboard stand and the Ozonic, you have a serious performance rig on your hands. And to sweeten the deal even more, the Ozonic is among the supported interfaces for the new Digidesign Pro Tools M-Powered software. Overall, the Ozonic is a great product that speaks to a bright future of even more robust all-in-one-type units coming down the line — like a five-octave model!
OZONIC > $599
Pros: All-in-one, FireWire-based, bus-powered, keyboard/audio and MIDI interface. Preset storage. Easy controller editing.
Cons: Joystick controller a bit loose. No second FireWire port.
Mac: G3/800; 256 MB RAM (512 MB RAM w/Mac OS 10.3.4 or later); Mac OS 10.2.8/10.3.4 or later; G3/G4 accelerator cards not supported
PC: Pentium III/800; 256 MB RAM; Windows XP; DirectX 9.0b or higher