Ever try playing a software synthesizer with a mouse? Ever try painting a 747 with a Q-Tip? You get the point: Tedious does not equal fun, and we’re supposed to be playing music—not tediousing music. Music is a hands-on activity, and the more you can wrest control over your software from your mouse to a special-purpose control surface, the better.
There’s been a vast proliferation of controllers lately as more musicians go virtual and want a better link to their software than a keyboard or mouse. This roundup covers a little something for everyone, and serves as a fine example of the variety of controllers targeted at electronic musicians.
USB-powered, micro-key portable keyboard $110 MSRP, $70 street
Laptops and iPads have inspired compact controllers, designed for music on-the-go, that can fit in a travel bag, small suitcase, or even a laptop bag. However, they’re also convenient to pop into a USB port when you want to check out something without even leaving your chair.
The microKEY25 has (duh!) micro keys with just enough key motion resistance for a more-than-decent feel. The USB port is a standard B-type connector; while class-compliant, a dedicated USB/ MIDI driver allows using editing software. The keyboard’s velocity is very predictable, but there’s no aftertouch. Concerning accessories, the microKEY25 comes with a 32” cable.
The microKEY25 weighs 1.43 lbs., draws less than 100mA from the USB port so it’s iPad-powerable with the Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit (however, Korg recommends a powered hub for extended use), and works with Core MIDI-compatible apps such as Korg’s iMS-20. Controls include a joystick and four buttons: Arpeggiator, sustain/tap tempo, octave down, and octave up.
The octave buttons use color and flashing to indicate the current octave range; the joystick defaults to modulation when moved up, breath control when moved down, and pitch bend in the left and right directions. (Push down for an additional switch control.) Except for bend, all of these can be re-assigned to different controllers.
Software The microKEY25 comes with licenses for downloadable free software: Korg M1Le virtual synth (with $99 upgrade offer to the full Korg Legacy Collection Special Bundle), instruments from Applied Acoustics Systems (Strum Acoustic Session, Lounge Lizard Session, and Ultra Analog Session), Toontrack’s EzDrummer Lite software drum sound module, and a discount coupon for Ableton Live, Live Suite, and Live LE software. You can also download the free, cross-platform Korg KONTROL editor and USB-MIDI driver.
The KONTROL software lets you re-assign controllers, choose arpeggiator characteristics, and select one of eight keyboard velocity curves or a variable constant velocity value. Any custom edits you write to the microKEY25 stay in the unit until changed—it doesn’t revert to the factory defaults on power-off.
The Arpeggiator It’s fun, and can accept external clock, run internally, or with the Auto setting, sense external clock and if not present, run internally. You can use the joystick to control direction (up or down, off or triggered) and when running internally, there’s tap tempo using the Sustain button. Note resolution is 1/32 to whole notes, with a range of up to four octaves—there’s even swing.
Good Things, Small Packages, and All That The microKEY25 seems like it would hold up well—I tried twisting the case to check for flex, but it was insignificant. The keys feel better than you would expect given the price, and the KONTROL editor adds useful flexibility. I also appreciate the joystick; while small, it’s off to the keyboard’s left so you can manipulate it easily while playing the keys. Korg has the “small” thing down (I use their nanoSERIES2 controllers a lot), and the microKEY25 is no exception.
Samson Graphite 49
USB keyboard/DAW control surface
$299.99 MSRP, $199.99 street
Keyboard controllers range from “I just want a keybed with a minimal budget hit” to elaborate affairs with enough faders and buttons to look like a mixing console with a keyboard attached. Samson’s Graphite falls between those two extremes—but its capabilities lean more toward the latter, while price leans more toward the former. It’s compact, costeffective, solid, and definitely worth a close look.
Overview Graphite 49 has 49 full-size, semi-weighted keys with velocity and aftertouch. (It’s not “afterswitch,” but rather, is quite smooth.) Controllers include nine 30mm faders, eight “endless” rotary encoders, 16 buttons, four drum pads, transport controls, octave and transpose buttons, mod wheel, and pitch bend. Connectors consist of a standard-sized USB connector, 5-pin MIDI out, sustain pedal jack, and a jack for a 9V adapter—generally not needed as Graphite 49 is buspowered, but if you’re using it with something like an iPad and Camera Connection Kit, tone module, rack synthe, etc., you’ll need an AC adapter.
Despite the low price, I don’t think reliability will be an issue—the box showed obvious signs of serious “UPS abuse,” but it worked as soon as plugged in.
Operational Modes Graphite 49 has four main modes. Performance mode is optimized for playing virtual synthesizers or hardware tone modules, and provides full access to its hardware controllers. Zone mode has a master keyboard orientation, with four zones to create splits and layers, but the controllers aren’t in play except for pitch bend, modulation, and pedal. Preset mode revolves around control surface capabilities for several popular programs, while Setup mode is for creating custom presets or edits.
There’s a relationship among these modes; for example, any mode you choose will be based on the current preset. So, if you create a preset with Zone assignments and then go to Performance mode without changing presets, the Performance will adopt Zone 1’s settings.
Control Surface Options The control surface capabilities are under-documented; you’d never even know that Graphite 49 is Mackie Control-compatible. Fortunately there’s now a link at the samsontech.com site that details how to use Graphite 49 with various programs, but you’ll need some controller and MIDI savvy to create your own presets.
I tested the presets for Apple Logic, Avid Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Cakewalk Sonar, Propellerhead Reason, MOTU Digital Performer, Sony Acid Pro (also Sony Vegas), and PreSonus Studio One Pro. They all worked exactly as advertised, but note that Reason control is intended for individual modules (e.g., you can control the mixer, synth, or effects devices, but only individual channels in the “SSL” mixer as each channel is a separate device). There are also presets for Steinberg Cubase and Nuendo, Mackie Tracktion, MK Control (whatever that is!), Adobe Audition, FL Studio, and Magix Samplitude as well as 14 user-programmable presets and a default, generalpurpose Graphite preset. I’d like to be able to save and load presets via Sys Ex, but 14 user presets will likely be all most people need.
The faders control level while the rotaries edit pan, with the buttons usually controlling solo and mute, with some variations. The Bank buttons change the group of 8 channels being controlled (e.g., from 1-8 to 9-16), while the Channel buttons move the group one channel at a time (e.g., from 1-8 to 2-9), and there are also transport controls. With Pro Tools, you need to select HUI mode, which doesn’t support the Bank and Channel shifting.
The adoption of the Mackie Control protocol is vastly more reassuring than, for example, M-Audio’s proprietary DirectLink control for their Axiom keyboards, which usually lagged behind current software versions. We’ll see whether these presets can be updated in the future, but it seems that the “DAW-specific preset element” relates mostly to labeling control functions, as the Mackie protocol handles the inherent functionality; besides, you can always . . .
Roll Your Own Editing follows the usual cost-saving arrangement of entering setup mode, then using the keyboard keys (with—thank you!— highly readable labels above the keys) to enter data. The relatively large and informative display is also helpful. Thankfully Samson has developed a software editor, but the front-panel programming is pretty transparent.
Rather than describe all the possible edits, some of the highlights are choosing one of seven velocity curves as well as three fixed values (individually selectable for the keyboard and pads), reversing the fader direction for use as drawbars with virtual organ instruments, assigning controls to the five virtual MIDI output ports, changing the aftertouch assignment to a controller number, and the like. Also note that the pads, sliders, rotaries, and buttons have two separate banks so you can access double the number of parameters compared to the number of physical controls.
Pretty Darn Slick Overall, this is a highly capable and appealing controller—it even comes with Native Instruments’ Komplete Elements, which is a sweet bonus. Although Samson is a new name in controllers, Graphite 49’s full-size keys, compact footprint, comfortable keybed, control surface capabilities, and pleasing aesthetic design are a big deal—and at this attractive price point, you’re also getting serious value. Samson is a new name in controllers, but Graphite 49 and its related keyboard Carbon 49 (less expensive and very iPad-friendly) have made an auspicious beginning. Graphite’s full-size keys, compact footprint, comfortable keybed, control surface capabilities, and pleasing aesthetic design are a big deal—and at this price, you’re also getting serious value.
Synesthesia Mandala mk 2.9
USB drum controller and sound library
Although Mandala mk 2.9 is intended for real drummers (hey, it’s good enough for Joe Barresi, Danny Carey of Tool, and Will Calhoun), it’s also of interest to all electronic musicians. For example, although it includes sound-generating, cross-platform “Virtual Brain” software that you can play through an audio system as you would other electronic drums, it’s also a MIDI controller that can drive virtual drums, and rewire audio into DAWs.
Its main feature (aside from responsiveness) is a multizone strike surface that can detect up to 1,000 different strike positions, incorporated in six circular strike zones. It also has 128 concentric “rings” that extend outward from the center and define a MIDI controller value. The package comes with the pad itself, software with a sound library and interface, a pair of sticks, bolt for a mounting stand, USB cable, and 1,500 samples from a Ludwig Black Beauty snare (which is also compatible with NI’s Battery).
The Virtual Brain This editor for Mandala pads also accesses a proprietary sample library with more than 600 multisampled sounds; you can also load your own (WAV, AIF, SDII). Many of the multisamples are “position-based” samples from center to edge, which replicate the feel, not only the sound, of various instruments. Virtual Brain handles up to three pads (although you can connect as many as you want to your computer for use with a program like Battery), and the company offers a discount for multiple pads.
Each zone has volume, pan, pitch, and reverb send controls, as well as the option to choose its sound. You can insert up to two series effects per zone, choosing from 14 possibilities (including some nice lo-fi options) as well as settings for tonal sounds, an amplitude envelope, and up to 26 velocity curves (including 10 user-programmable curves). The user curves can have any arbitrary shape, and are programmed on a Tools page where you can also define a per-pad LFO and create a custom user scale.
The Tones options are very interesting. You can set a sound root note, associated scale, which notes will sound within that scale, and a pattern so that successive hits change pitch in a variety of ways. But the icing on the cake is the per-zone Zone Control window, which can tie seven zone parameters and all effects parameters to strike position, strike velocity, and LFO, as well as set the range each controller covers.
Finally, each pad has its own “global” effects rack that affects all zones. It features three series effects, drawn from the same roster as the zone effects, as well as a limiter and the global reverb that works with the zone sends.
What It All Means This flexibility lets you control multiple sounds and effects with a single pad. Melodic sounds can provide a sort of mini-gamelan, with some zones having very precise, controlled velocity curves while others can be almost “switched” to trigger sounds. You can have exceptionally sophisticated control over a single sound, or work with multiple sounds and have a virtual kit on one pad. I wouldn’t necessarily call this merely a drum pad, but more like a percussion pad . . . maybe even a percussion ensemble pad.
Extensions You can feed audio directly into a DAW via ReWire. (However, with 64-bit Windows, this requires working with 32-bit program versions—64-bit ReWire hasn’t been implemented yet in Virtual Brain.) Other ways to pipe in audio include using Soundflower on the Mac, or Virtual Audio Cable with Windows. As a MIDI controller, you can choose the MIDI channel and controller number caused by striking the surface, but the MIDI notes themselves are fixed (60-65). This works for many drum programs, but hopefully a future rev would allow a way to assign these notes as desired. The documentation could use elaboration—some features, such as zone linking, aren’t explained (although to be fair, it’s not hard to figure out), and the description of using ReWire is pretty much non-existent. But these aren’t deal-breakers, and the software itself is stable.
So Is It a . . . Hit? $349 may seem steep for a pad, but you also get a cool sound library and editing software. Furthermore, I have no doubt that the technology necessary to implement the multizone/ multiposition technology is not trivial. Add in the effects and tonal possibilities, and Mandala reveals itself as a sophisticated, novel controller that goes well beyond your basic drum pad.
YouRock Guitar YRG
Guitarist-friendly MIDI controller
$359 MSRP, $249 street
We covered the original YRG in the July 2012 issue—but now only a few months later, we have . Just don’t expect a guitar; expect an extremely cost-effective MIDI controller with surprisingly responsive and accurate tracking that lets you employ guitar technique (and looks like something out of Guitar Hero).
It works so well because the neck’s “frets” and “strings” are raised plastic that serve as switches, although they do feel quite comfortable. Six physical “dummy” strings trigger notes with velocity, and there’s a pitch bend wheel disguised as a whammy bar. (Of course, you can’t do conventional finger vibrato.) YRG does USB over MIDI with Mac/ Windows, sends MIDI out a 5-pin DIN connector, or outputs audio over a stereo 1/8” headphone jack or mono 1/4” guitar cable from a set of onboard sounds.
However, it’s crucial to download the manual, study it, and delve into the various menu tweaks to optimize YRG for your playing style. And the more you know about synth setup, the better; YRG works best in mono mode, with a multi-timbral synth (or six instances of a synth) where each timbre or instance responds to one channel and is set for a single note of polyphony. This configuration provides the most guitarlike feel and highest accuracy.
Ch-ch-ch-changes The version uses a new pickup design, and while the original tracked very well, the new version tracks even better. There are also more variables to optimize tracking, and the whammy bar now transmits bend data over all channels when in mono mode—a welcome improvement.
I didn’t cover the unit’s internal sounds in my original review because to my ears, they weren’t a selling point. However, the new sounds are vastly improved, and you can layer a guitar and synth sound—so with battery power, you can just plug into your interface for instant guitar synth sounds. (Use four AA batteries, not USB, with the internal sounds unless you have an extremely clean USB power source.)
Furthermore, you can restrict the layers to particular zones, like synth bass on the bottom three strings, and guitar on the top three strings, or on all strings . . . whatever works. The 99 presets can now store the chorus setting, transposition, pan, and zone data. MIDI implementation is more sophisticated, and includes (really!) the ability to trigger clips and scenes in Ableton Live, as well as move the area within the Ableton clip matrix being controlled. The frets and two body switches (e.g., for preset up/down) can serve as MIDI switch controllers, and you can map the joystick to MIDI controllers. There are various other minor improvements and options, and all the features (like alternate tunings and recording) from the original version are retained.
Finally, in addition to being able to buy an optional headstock (recommended—even though the headstock serves no functional purpose, it makes for more comfortable playing), you can now customize the with a pickguard.
Is This the Answer to MIDI guitar? No—but it’s a great answer to a guitarist-friendly MIDI controller. I not only appreciate its accuracy and tracking speed, but also, that I need to do very little MIDI data cleanup after recording. Although the YRG-1000 turned a lot of heads—even for people who thought they wouldn’t like it—the YRG improves the concept and execution even further.
Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol F1
Remix Deck controller for Traktor Pro 2.5
DJs continue to go beyond the “two turntables” concept—temposynched effects, more decks, live instruments, re-sampling, and more. Native Instruments has pushed the DJ envelope for years; the Remix Deck feature that debuted in Traktor Pro 2.5 is a far more sophisticated version of the sample decks from previous versions. The Remix Decks combine features associated with sampling, Ableton Live’s clip view, and conventional Traktor decks (quantizing, sample display with playhead, loop controls, sync, etc.). Additionally, it’s easy to save and load complete Remix sets. In a way, this feature is like adding a DJoriented sampler.
Traktor Pro allows assigning any or all of its four decks to Remix Decks. Each one has four sample slots (roughly analogous to four “tracks” of samples), a level and filter control (up for highpass, down for lowpass), and 16 cells for each slot in which you can load one-shots or loops; a slot can play one cell at a time. But, the thing that makes this more of a “remix” deck is its ability to capture samples from a Track Deck or the loop recorders. You can also drag-and-drop patterns from Maschine, which is very cool and makes it easy to populate the Remix Decks with patterns. To summarize, each Remix Deck as a 4 x 16 matrix of samples, whose content can be loaded, replaced, and fluidly edited. With sufficient practice you can build music on a “cellular” level from these components instead of, or in addition to, full mixed tracks.
That description only scratches (get it?) the surface of the Remix Decks’ capabilities, but let’s proceed to the F1 controller, which is optimized to control these decks. I use F1 with the S2, and they work together very harmoniously.
Enter the Matrix NI does serious hardware, and F1 is no exception: metal panel, four 45mm faders for slot level control, four rotary pots for the slot filters (with center detent for flat response), legible labeling, 16-pad matrix, and various selection/navigation buttons. Although optimized for Traktor Pro, NI’s Controller Editor program can reconfigure the various controls for other applications ( just don’t expect a mini-Maschine; the pads aren’t velocity-sensitive).
A downloadable Kontrol F1 tutorial set showcases the main control options and serves as a fine introduction. It also demonstrates the extensive use of color and visual feedback to guide you while using F1. Although learning its capabilities isn’t particularly difficult, becoming good at playing F1 requires practice. (Got any musician friends who diss DJs? Put together a set with F1, play it, then say “here, you try it.” Sit back, watch, and laugh.)
The Eyes Have It F1 is primarily about triggering the slot’s cells, but it’s also a selfcontained “ecosystem” in which you can specify quantizing, adjust key and pitch, reverse samples, trim length, set sync, browse for samples, change “pages” of four slot cells to play other groups of four cells, and more. That may sound daunting, but I can’t emphasize enough how intelligently F1 uses color. For example, you can call up a view in the matrix that shows the play mode at a glance: A blue button indicates one-shot, green indicates loop, and dim shows there’s no sample loaded in that cell. Trigger mode and sync are equally obvious. You can also choose colors when playing to remind you what kind of sound is in which cell, and a dual 7-segment display provides further feedback.
Kool Kontrol With the S2, I tend to choose two Track Decks and two Remix Decks; until F1 came along, I moused around the Remix Decks and that seemed adequate. But after using F1 extensively, I realize just how inadequate a mouse is for unleashing the Remix Decks’ potential. If you use the Remix Decks, you need F1. And if you don’t use them, you almost certainly will after you find out how much fun it is to control them with the Kontrol F1. Native Instruments has done it again.