Midiman's Oxygen 8 USB MIDI keyboard controller is one of those pieces of gear that everyone — DJs, producers and even nonkeyboardists — seems to want. The major chains are wildly back-ordered, and the major mail-order retailers proudly flash their new prize charge in every gear-porn flyer and catalog. And why not? Small, sleek, sexy and silver, the Oxygen 8 appeals as much to the eye and the desktop aesthetic as it does to the burgeoning needs of the laptop-performance community, for whom portability and control — not sound content — are the main criteria in selecting a keyboard.
Although a few other controllers on the market boast similar, even expanded, features to the O8 — the Evolution MK-249c and the MIDITech Midicontrol, to name two — none of them symbolize the movement toward the all-in-one, computer-studio-to-go quite with the panache that the O8 does. As a friend pointed out, “It just seems to say, ‘Buy me.’” And at $179.95 list, it offers its services without the need for undue hand-wringing. Here's what you're getting when you respond to its seductive appeal.
ELEMENTS OF OXYGEN
Basically, the Oxygen 8 is a 25-key, velocity-sensitive MIDI keyboard controller with a pitch wheel, a modulation wheel and an assignable volume/data slider. In addition, its front panel houses eight assignable knobs, or rotary controllers, which can be used to tweak parameters within your music software applications; those can include soft synths and samplers, VST Instruments, audio software — you name it. The front panel also features handy octave up and down buttons (±3 octaves) and a MIDI Select switch that acts as the gateway to programming bliss.
The MIDI connection is made via USB — cable supplied, no other MIDI interface necessary — which can also “parasitically” power your Oxygen 8, and the rotary knobs can be programmed to tweak specific software parameters — volume, cutoff, resonance, envelope and so on — by assigning the appropriate Continuous Controller (CC) numbers to each knob. Two MIDI Out jacks are on the unit's rear panel (where you can also find a ¼-inch sustain-pedal jack), which are handy for connecting the O8 to synth modules, samplers or drum machines, or for acting as a MIDI Thru from your computer.
The unit's plastic housing, which looks as solid as an Access Virus in ad print, will strike many users as a little cheap, as will the pitch and modulation wheels, and to a lesser extent, the rotary knobs themselves; they don't seem to take full advantage of their range. They only affect the data from about 9 o'clock to 3 o'clock, though they have a throw of 7 to 5. Although that is surely a reasonable concession given the O8's low price point and ultraportable weight, it's less easy to forgive uneven keys, a problem I experienced with the first unit I bought from a large national chain, which afflicted no less than four other possible replacement O8s. Be sure to check for even keys on your unit before you buy, and don't be persuaded by the line I received from a sales associate: “What do you expect for $140?” You should expect quality, just as I'm sure Midiman expects quality control from its manufacturing team.
Also be aware that the Oxygen 8 requires at least a Windows 98 or Mac OS 9.1 operating system to run its USB drivers correctly. (You will, of course, need a computer with USB ports, as well!) You'll also need Opcode's Open Music System (OMS) to host the drivers and to configure your MIDI setup, but don't worry: The O8 ships with the latest version of OMS and its installer. So, provided your OS is up-to-date, you should be in good shape. Nonetheless, actually installing the drivers proved a little frustrating. The terminology Midiman uses in the manual to describe the drivers and the way you'll recognize them on your desktop (“Keystation-1,” for instance) is not the wording you'll see in your OMS setup or MIDI application. “Keyboard-1” or “Port-1” are more likely to be names you'll actually see.
When using the O8 in Propellerhead's Reason, two Keyboard-1 choices appeared in my MIDI menu; when I called the help line, a technician told me to select the lower of the two but admitted, “You've really got no way of knowing that.” In addition, Midiman claims that you'll be able to identify a USB driver in your OMS folder following the same search that you'd normally use to locate MIDI devices connected to your printer or modem ports, but don't count on it. My Mac G3 running OS 9.1 detected no such thing. Still, the connection and configuration ultimately worked, and the latency was not conspicuous. Don't take anything in the manual's setup guide literally, and be patient. Once you're configured, the fun does start.
Booting up Logic Audio Platinum 4.8, I launched the Logic ES1 soft-synth plug-in. Consulting the O8's MIDI controller chart to find out which CC numbers corresponded to which parameters, I assigned the eight knobs to a variety of functions on the ES1, including control of each ADSR envelope parameter, as well as controls for cutoff and resonance. That is done by pressing MIDI/Select and inputting data on the keys themselves, all of which support a function other than Note On/Off. Naturally, not all of the CC numbers matched their purported parameters on the ES1, so I rooted around, trying all the Sound Controller and General Purpose Controller numbers, and, sure enough, before I knew it, I was able to control virtually everything in ES1 from the O8. Because the volume/data slider can also be assigned to a parameter other than volume, the Oxygen 8 can conceivably control as many as nine different parameters at once or — if you take advantage of all 16 MIDI channels — up to 144. To save time, check your virtual instrument's documentation for CC numbers, or check out the Website www.kvr-vst.com for a rundown of many of the best-known models.
Quite honestly, it's not instant. You may have to try many controller numbers before you find a relationship between your rotary knobs and your software instrument that makes sense to you, but once you do, it's very satisfying and opens huge doors, turning those formerly clinical, mouse-only soft synths into tactile, real-time performance demons. But remember that the O8 is blind without you; you essentially have 128 controller options for those eight knobs, so although you may want knob 4 to be tweaking only, say, the lowpass filter in your soft synth, you may have inadvertently assigned it to increase the dry/wet mix in your reverb plug-in. Furthermore, there's no way to collectively save or change your rotary controller assignments as you go from virtual instrument to virtual instrument, so you're always starting from scratch. Although programs such as Ableton Live, Reason and Native Instruments Reaktor come with a MIDI Learn function that “remembers” your favorite MIDI configurations, you'll still need to at least partially reprogram the O8 rotary knobs every time you switch programs or instruments.
AN ENDLESS SUPPLY OF OXYGEN
As exasperating as that may be, it means that — in performance — with just the O8 and your computer on one patch, you could be doing filter sweeps, delay cascades, waveform changes, distortion hits, portamento changes, panning, pre-delay sweeps and ring modulation — provided you have the right combination of effects and instruments enabled on your computer and enough processing power to back it up. And that's not even to mention the 16 channels of MIDI triggering options available via the traditional keyboard itself, both from the MIDI In to your computer and the MIDI Out to an external sound module. Suddenly, the fantasy of pairing the O8 with the equally silver-sexy Titanium PowerBook becomes more than just a matter of what's going to look godlike on the tour bus and nightstand alike. It becomes a matter of incredible power, portability and possibility combined. And that, ultimately, is why you really do want an Oxygen 8.
Pros: Incredibly light and portable 25-key controller. Eight assignable rotary knobs. MIDI control of parameters in soft synths, software samplers, etc. Connects and powers up via USB. No MIDI interface necessary.
Cons: Knob configurations can't be saved. Keys can be sketchy. Some discrepancies between the manual and reality.
Overall rating (1 through 5): 4.5