Review: Korg nanoKontrol Studio and nanoKey Studio

Good things in small packages
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MIDI controllers have always appealed to computer musicians, and we are always stoked when new innovations come along. Yet every few years, there seems to be a period of controller stagnation, where we see just rehash after rehash, me-too product after me-too product. But with Korg’s two new releases—the nanoKontrol Studio and the nanoKey Studio—there is reason again to perk up about portable MIDI controllers.

Features such as the three-function touchpad, arpeggiator and multifunction pads make the nanoKey Studio a deceptively versatile compact keyboard. The two models are blown up versions of the Korg nanoKey2 and nanoKontrol2, yet they remain portable, weigh about a pound each, and take up less surface area than a sheet of paper. Moreover, they have impressive feature sets for such compact controllers: They connect to Mac/Windows desktops and iOS mobile devices over a powered USB connection or via wireless Bluetooth MIDI using two AAA batteries for power. If you power the controllers with USB, you can still use the wireless MIDI. However, if batteries are installed, they will drain when you are in wireless mode whether the USB port is connected or not.

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The nanoKontrol Studio combines a solid mixing surface with built-in DAW control and five Scene memories. These Korg controllers are not race-to-the-bottom budget commodities either; you get what you pay for with these little dynamos. And although they do not have tank-like metal construction, they are by no means flimsy. They are made mostly of plastic with rubberized pads and buttons, so you’ll want to treat them with care. Moreover, they are not universal connection hubs with DIN MIDI ports and CV/Gate jacks, like we’ve seen in other recent products. The Bluetooth MIDI comes in very handy, but the only hardware connection is a Micro USB port.

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TAKE KONTROL, PLEASE

It can be surprisingly difficult these days to find a “MIDI mixer” that meets your needs, and even tougher to find a really portable one. The nanoKontrol2 is good for a tiny, barebones option at an afterthought price. The nanoKontrol Studio, on the other hand, fills an awfully sweet spot between small size and proper MIDI mixing features.

The eight channel strips have short-throw volume faders, panning knobs and buttons for track select, record, solo, and mute. There is a jog/shuttle wheel below the transport controls, as well as buttons for setting and navigating markers. The Cycle button is meant to toggle overdub or “cycle” recording mode—great for tapping in beats on a drum track.

Fig. 1. From the Kontrol Editor software you can program the different Scene memories for each controller, as well as configure global settings such as auto power-off. As a nice bonus, the Scene button cycles through five control Scenes indicated by LEDs. To set up Scenes, you need the free Kontrol Editor software, where you can customize more than 50 MIDI CC, Note, Channel, and other values for each of the Scenes (see Figure 1). In this way you can setup the nanoKontrol Studio to work with your DAW, as well as several plug-ins with a simple Scene change.

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But that’s not all. The nanoKontrol Studio offers preconfigured DAW Mixer Control modes for Steinberg Cubase, MOTU Digital Performer, Apple GarageBand and Logic, Ableton Live, Avid Pro Tools, Cakewalk Sonar, and PreSonus Studio One. To launch a DAW Control mode, you simply need to power up the device while holding a particular two-key combination for each DAW. The exceptions are GarageBand and Logic, which require that you install a free plug-in, first.

I mainly tested the Ableton Live control mode and it worked great. It uses the Mackie Control protocol and, with it, all the mixing functions of the controller worked flawlessly, including setting and navigating markers, and scrolling through track sets to mix more than eight tracks per session. The 4x8 grid of buttons in the channel strip section of the nanoKontrol Studio cries out to have some kind of clip-launching mode for Live’s Session view, but maybe that will happen sometime down the line with an upgrade.

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A KEY DIFFERENCE

The nanoKey Studio has several tricks up its sleeve that people familiar with the Korg Taktile controllers should recognize. These include a lot of more-than-meets-the-eye functionality that’s accessible from mode buttons.

For example, the touchpad has three modes: pitch/modulation benders when playing notes; a Kaoss-style x/y pad for handling two MIDI parameters in tandem; and Touch Scale, where the touchpad plays two octaves of notes in a selected scale and key. You set the scale and key by holding Shift and using the Octave ± buttons (key) and the labeled Scale-/Scale+ pads. Yes, the pads pull double or triple duty along with the mode buttons.

With the Arp mode buttons, the labeled pads select the arpeggiator type, range, and gate. This is a powerful arpeggiator with 15 rhythms and six direction types. The Chord Pad mode lets you play eight chords from the pads, also within the selected scale and key. You can use Chord Pad on its own or with the arpeggiator. When you enter your own notes, the Easy Scale button illuminates only the keys to play in order to stay in tune with the selected scale and key.

All of these features go a long way to help you play and record good material with the nanoKey Studio: Even more so than on the Taktile keyboard, these helper functions allow you to get the most out of the controller, because the nanoKey Studio’s 25 velocity-sensitive, button-style keys are very efficient for a product of this size, though they don’t make for the best playing experience. Their action feels a bit loose to me, and players of all skill levels will probably find them more difficult to play than full-size keys or even the minikeys on something like the MicroKorg synth.

The nanoKey Studio’s eight pads are smaller than average, but are not too small to use. They have a good feel as well—firm, but not too much so. The only time they come up a bit short is when trying to play rapid patterns with two fingers on the same pad. In some of these cases, they are not as responsive and accurate as those on Korg’s excellent PadKontrol.

But sacrifices have to be made when creating such a compact unit, and the nanoKey Studio’s added features under the hood make up for it. This model also has eight Scene memories that you can program using the Kontrol Editor software. And both controllers can make further use of the Kontrol Editor program for global features such as battery management. You can set them to power off automatically when using battery power after 30 minutes, or one, two, or four hours. I recommend using this feature; the two AAA alkaline Duracell batteries I tested lasted for about eight hours of controller time.

NANO + NANO: THAT’S A PLANNO

Many users will likely buy one or the other nano Studio units, but they make a great team if you’re so inclined. Their functions complement each other, they don’t take up much space, and with Bluetooth MIDI, you don’t need to worry about running out of USB ports or having a powered hub at the ready. In general, the Bluetooth MIDI worked quite well. After pairing, the latency was mostly negligible. Occasionally after some amount of time, the latency would increase, but shutting down and reconnecting the units cleared that up.

Each controller also comes with a useful software bundle that includes the Korg M1 Le, three modeling instruments from Applied Acoustic Systems and the UVI Digital Synsations sampled synths from the ’80s. Technically speaking, Korg’s Gadget Le workstation and Module Le sound-module iOS apps are also in the bundle, but they are already free for anyone who wants them. The advantage here is that they are designed to work well with the nanoKey Studio and the nanoKontrol Studio. Both of these little guys, along with Gadget Le and your other iPad apps, make for a really fun and low-weight, low-volume mini-studio for mobile adventures. And I guarantee you will have more than a nano bit of fun using them!

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Setting up the nanoKontrol Studio for DJ mixing

By Francis Preve

For years, I used the original Korg nanoKontrol as a four-channel Ableton controller for my laptop DJ gigs. While its eight faders and knobs imply using it in a specific manner, grouping each channel as a dual-fader-and-knob configuration is the key.

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In Ableton, I set up every mixer channel to include volume, lowpass and highpass filters, and a tempo-synced delay (the Fade To Grey preset is a great choice for club-ready delay effects, incidentally). On the nanoKontrol, I set up the controls as follows: Fader 1 to volume and knob 1 to delay/echo. For the filters, I assigned fader 2 to highpass cutoff (ergonomically, using a fader for highpass just feels more intuitive to me), while the knob above it controls the lowpass cutoff. By chunking the mixer into four channel groups instead of eight, you can squeeze a lot of control into a miniscule footprint, which is exactly what the nano series was designed to do.

STRENGTHS

Wireless Bluetooth MIDI. Multiple Scene memories. Backlit keys and buttons. Built-in control modes for eight DAWs (nanoKontrol). Chord Pad, Easy Scale functions (nanoKey).

LIMITATIONS

If plugged into USB, batteries drain when using Bluetooth. No clip-launching ability in Ableton Live (nanoKontrol Studio).

each product: $149
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