A versatile and compact MIDI control surface.
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The Remote Zero SL is the latest in Novation's Remote SL series of USB MIDI control surfaces. Previous models come with 25-, 37-, and 61-key MIDI keyboards, whereas the Zero has no keyboard (hence the name). In the interest of saving space, the x-y touch pad and joystick controllers have also been left off, but the sacrifice is worth it — the Remote Zero SL tucks neatly between computer keyboard and monitor, making it one of the most ergonomic control surfaces I've ever used.

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FIG. 1: The Remote Zero SL fits neatly between your computer keyboard and monitor. The back panel houses all necessary jacks.

With the recent release of the Automap Universal technology, the Remote SLs have three modes of operation: Standard, Mixer Automap, and Plug-in Automap. Standard mode uses a host's or plug-in's MIDI Learn feature. Mixer Automap uses your DAW's control surface setup to control both the DAW mixer and hosted plug-ins. Plug-in Automap controls plug-ins directly by wrapping them and installing Novation's own version of MIDI Learn. All three modes have their uses, and you can switch modes during operation.

The Remote Zero SL is class compliant; for standard MIDI operation, you simply need to connect it to a USB port. For Mixer and Plug-in Automap operation, you do need to install drivers, which are provided on DVD but are best downloaded from the Novation Web site. I installed the drivers without any problems on my dual 2 GHz Power Mac G5 running Mac OS X 10.4.8. Updating to the latest drivers and the Remote Zero SL operating system was equally painless.

What You Get

The Remote Zero SL control surface houses 8 short (1.625-inch) sliders, 8 standard knobs, 8 rotary encoders, 24 buttons, 8 touch pads, increment and decrement buttons, 6 transport controls, and a rotary encoder for data entry (see Fig. 1). Two huge 144-character, 2-row LCDs show control labels in the top row with values beneath. Additional front-panel buttons toggle the display between the knobs and sliders as well as change pages for multipage Automap setups. In the Automap modes, communication is 2-way, and values are automatically updated from the DAW or plug-in being controlled.

The rear panel sports four MIDI jacks, the USB jack, a power switch and external power jack (external power supply not included), and ¼-inch jacks for expression (continuous) and control (on/off) pedals. In the absence of USB power or an external power supply, you can power the unit with four C batteries.

The Remote Zero SL has three USB MIDI ports and two standard MIDI ports, one with In, Out, and Thru jacks and the other with an Out jack only. You can freely route MIDI data through any of these ports, but USB ports 2 and 3 are used for Mixer and Plug-in Automap, respectively, so it's best to use USB port 1 for standard operation.

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FIG. 2: The RemoteSLEditor software makes creating your own plug-in and mixer templates a breeze.

By MIDI Alone

Even as a standard MIDI control surface, the Remote Zero SL is an impressive box. For one thing, it comes with 80 virtual instrument and DAW templates, and for another, it makes it extremely easy to create your own. You use the template management application RemoteSLEditor to configure sliders, knobs, and buttons and then to upload your creations to the unit, where you can save them in any of 34 memory locations (see Fig. 2). Six additional memory slots are allocated to Automap configurations.

Programming a control couldn't be easier. You right-click on its image in the editor to open a dialog box for selecting the message type (CC, NRPN, RPN, or SysEx), LCD name, and MIDI information such as port, channel, value range, and behavior. For instance, you can configure buttons as normal (press sends value), momentary (press and release send alternate values), toggle (repeated presses send alternate values), and step (each press increments the value by the step size). You can copy and paste a control's setup, which really speeds things up. Once a program is uploaded to the Remote Zero SL, you can also quickly change any control's function directly on the unit. Oddly, in the RemoteSLEditor application, you cannot set the eight encoders to work as real rotary encoders for incrementing and decrementing the target control, but you can do so once the template is uploaded to the unit.

Mixer Automap

As mentioned, the Remote SL series now has two Automap modes. Mixer mode is the original version of Automap, and it relies on your DAW's implementation of control surface support. Separate presets are provided for Propellerhead Reason, Ableton Live, and DAWs that use the Mackie HUI protocol (Digidesign Pro Tools and MOTU Digital Performer, for example). Other applications (Steinberg Cubase and Nuendo, for instance) are supported by a generic Mixer Automap template. In all cases, you need to have the Remote SL Automap drivers installed and activate control surface support for the Remote SL in your DAW. In the DAWs I tried — Apple Logic 7.2, Cubase 4, and Live 6 — the process was quick and trouble-free.

Despite the name, Mixer Automap mode allows both mixer and plug-in control. In Live, the rotary encoders and the buttons above them control the selected plug-in, the sliders and buttons on the right control Live's mixer, and you can assign the bottom row of knobs and the buttons above them to any control using Live's MIDI Learn. In Reason, the Remote SL controls the device on the Reason track currently selected for MIDI input. In Logic and Cubase, you switch manually between mixer and instrument modes. In all cases, the LCDs indicate the parameters being controlled, and the values update to reflect the current value of the parameter. In short, you can freely jump back and forth between changing values onscreen and on the Remote SL without ever getting out of sync.

You do need to be careful about having two Remote SL-controlled programs active at the same time — when ReWiring Reason to your DAW, for example. I found it easiest to deactivate Remote SL control temporarily for one of the applications. (You can use two Remote SLs to control different applications simultaneously.) You also have to guard against MIDI Learn conflicts. If you have the control surface Remote SL port (usually port 2) also active for MIDI input, you could wind up with Remote SL controls affecting both Automap and MIDI Learn-assigned parameters. It's best to use USB port 1 for MIDI Learn.

Plug-in Automap

Novation recently implemented a new strategy, called Automap Universal, to wrest control of plug-in mapping from the host application. Automap Universal creates a wrapper for AU plug-ins on the Mac and VST plug-ins on the PC, and the wrapped plug-ins are addressed directly by the Remote SL rather than through the host's control surface support. (RTAS support on both platforms and VST support for the Mac are planned for a future update.)

Plug-in Automap is the Remote SL template you use for Automap Universal control of any plug-in. You switch between Mixer and Plug-in Automap by changing templates. Be aware that presets for some Automapped plug-ins are not currently saved with the host project. Novation says an update fixing this problem is imminent.

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FIG. 3: Automap Universal wrapped plug-ins have a control bar added to the bottom of their GUI. You use that to create and edit settings on the fly.

Automap Universal comes with an application called AutomapServer that must be running when Automap Universal is used. AutomapServer launches automatically in the background the first time an Automap-wrapped plug-in is instantiated, and you also use it to choose which of your plug-ins are wrapped.

Wrapped plug-ins have a control bar added at the bottom of their GUI (see Fig. 3). You use that to view and modify the mapping of the Remote SL knobs, encoders, sliders, and buttons. When you instantiate a wrapped plug-in, it will have the factory mapping if there is one (about 25 major plug-ins have been factory mapped). Otherwise, the first 144 parameters reported by the plug-in are mapped to three pages of Remote SL controls. Each page maps the rotary encoders and knobs, the buttons directly above them, the sliders, and the buttons directly below them; that's 48 controls on each page.

The factory mappings tend to be sparse, with only a few of the 144 possible controls mapped, and aside from the standardization that the sliders are mapped to virtual instrument amplitude and filter ADSR settings when they exist, the assignments tend to be haphazard. In other words, plan on creating your own mappings for the plug-ins you use frequently, and perhaps forgetting about Plug-in Automap mode for the others. Fortunately, creating your own maps is easy and fairly intuitive, albeit time-consuming.

The Automap control bar at the bottom of the plug-in GUI amounts to a powerful MIDI Learn panel customized for the special features of the Remote SL. Once MIDI Learn is activated, you click on a control on the plug-in GUI and then move a control on the Remote SL to assign it. A pull-down menu offers continuous learn and clear modes, along with options to load, save, clear, and revert all settings. For buttons and rotary encoders, you can also set minimum and maximum values and step size. Those affect the control's resolution, and they are usually set to a range of one step, so useful ranges almost always need to be entered manually.

The Swag Bag

As is now fairly common with hardware controllers and interfaces, the Remote Zero SL comes with additional content called the Xcite bundle. The Xcite bundle contains roughly 500 MB of WAV samples from a cross-section of Loopmasters sample CDs, and there are enough in each category to be worthwhile. For virtual instruments, you get the full Novation Bass Station and demos of the FXpansion BFD and Guru drum machines. Finally, there's a lite but still useful version of Ableton Live 5.

The Remote Zero SL is a first-rate control surface that Automap Universal makes even better. It puts mixing and tweaking right above your computer keyboard, and if you want to also spring for a Remote SL keyboard model, you can have the best of both worlds. As a bonus you get eight note-trigger pads, transport controls, tap tempo and a flashing tempo indicator (which fortunately you can disable), and MIDI program- and bank-select implementation.

Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. For an earful, visit his Web site


Remote Zero SL

USB MIDI control surface



PROS: Compact, easy-to-use control surface. Extralarge LCDs. Lots of controls. Complete programmability in MIDI and Automap Universal modes.

CONS: Documentation is scattered and incomplete. Automap Universal wrapping of plug-ins usually needs editing. Some wrapped plug-ins were unstable.