Review: Keith McMillen Instruments Softstep 2

Update improves and simplifies killer foot controller
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Update improves and simplifies killer foot controller

The new shape of the Smart Sensor pads on the SoftStep 2 makes for a better playing experience, while the editing software is more user friendly and easier to grok than before. The Keith McMillen Instruments SoftStep 2 is a USB/MIDI/OSC foot controller with 11 Smart Sensor pads—10 Keys and the navigation pad—each of which can send up to six different messages (including Aftertouch), thanks to their ability to track in three dimensions (up/down, front/back, and pressure). As a result, the device provides a massive amount of control in a form factor that is small enough to fit into a backpack or gig bag.

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This update builds on the original SoftStep’s versatility, with welcome improvements in the hardware and the software. For example, the controller itself contains more memory, allowing you to store programs with greater complexity when using it in standalone mode.

SoftStep’s pads are now backlit for increased stage visibility: Brighter LEDs have replaced electroluminescent wire as the source of Key lighting. The Keys’ new cruciform shape is raised, making the tactile experience better by offering a more definitive feeling when applying foot pressure, whether for switching or continuous control. In addition, the back row has been elevated so there is less of a chance that you will inadvertently activate something in the front row while reaching over it.

The 4-character alphanumeric display is user programmable, and the LEDs next to each Key can be programmed to show a choice of data. The SoftStep 2’s housing is about an inch thick, and its rubberized and carbon-fiber construction makes it strong, light (1.25 pounds), and purportedly beer proof.

The USB port lets you connect the SoftStep 2 to a computer or iDevice while allowing the pedal to be operated from bus power. The controller also has an expression-pedal port and comes with a ⅛"-to-¼" adapter cable (expression pedal not included). An expansion port for the KMI MIDI Expander (sold separately) enables you to use the SoftStep 2 with MIDI-based hardware when you are away from a computer or iDevice.

SoftStep 2 comes with presets for various music software applications including Ableton Live, the Avid ElevenRack guitar processor, and the Line 6 POD, but you will no doubt want to edit these or start from scratch using the downloadable editing software. The updated editor has been made easier to use (though its still by no means simple) through tool tips and a more user-friendly GUI. It now offers a Basic Mode, which can store ten presets in which each key performs a single function; and an Advanced Editor, which allows you to save 16 presets in which each key can be programmed to perform multiple, customizable functions. The new editor loads much quicker than the previous version, as well.

The sheer number of possibilities afforded by the Smart Sensor Keys can be daunting, but the Editor’s Basic mode makes it manageable. For example, you can assign a MIDI Note, Program, or CC number to a Key and decide its behavior—toggle switch, continuous control via pressure, x/y, and increment— and whether the backlight is on. Other than selecting CC numbers, the navigation pad is not editable here.

The Advanced Editor offers a huge array of parameters pertaining to mapping, sensor response, and external expression-pedal and OSC details—you will be hard pressed to discover things SoftStep 2 can’t do. (Check out Marty Cutler’s review of the original SoftStep in the April 2011 issue of Electronic Musician or online at emusician.com for more details.)

If you are happy with your original SoftStep, you will be even happier with the new version. If you haven’t joined the SoftStep party yet, 2.0 offers even more reasons to check out this highly portable and adaptable controller.

Michael Ross is a writer/musician/producer living in Nashville.

SUMMARY

STRENGTHS Serious improvements to a small, sturdy, highly flexible controller.

LIMITATIONS A steep learning curve for advanced users.

$299 street
keithmcmillen.com