Seizing Control

For sheer convenience, it's hard to beat a USB MIDI-keyboard controller. You don't need a separate interface or MIDI cables, and because it's powered
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For sheer convenience, it's hard to beat a USB MIDI-keyboard controller. You don't need a separate interface or MIDI cables, and because it's powered
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For sheer convenience, it's hard to beat a USB MIDI-keyboard controller. You don't need a separate interface or MIDI cables, and because it's powered by the USB bus, no power cable is necessary. Once you've installed the driver (some units don't even need those) and connected the USB cable, you're ready to go. Such simplicity of setup is particularly enticing for musicians traveling with laptop-based sequencing rigs.

But these keyboards are also a boon in the personal-studio environment. Most come equipped with a host of programmable controllers — usually knobs, sliders, and buttons — that you can use to tweak soft-synth parameters, DAW volumes and pans, and any parameter that responds to MIDI control.

Many of the keyboards come with preprogrammed templates, called control maps, for a variety of popular music software, but they're also easy to program yourself. If you don't mind rolling up your sleeves a bit, you can set up custom control maps for your plug-ins, your DAW software, and any other gear you have that responds to MIDI.

Narrowing the Field

Because there are so many varieties of USB MIDI-keyboard controllers on the market, narrowing down the field for a roundup was challenging. I decided to limit this article to 49-key units. That size is affordable, yet has enough keys to allow for meaningful playing.

The five products reviewed here are the CME UF5, the Edirol PCR-M50, the E-mu Xboard49, the Korg Kontrol49, and the Novation ReMote 49 LE. The keyboards range in price from just under $230 (the Xboard 49) to $499 (the Kontrol49).

All the controllers have Velocity-sensitive, full-size keys. Although all of them are bus powered, there may be times when you want to use the keyboard without a computer or when a sufficiently powered USB port is not available. For those occasions, the Kontrol49, the UF5, and the PCR-M50 each come with a wall-wart or lump-in-the-line AC adapter. The ReMote 49 LE and Xboard 49 offer adapters only as an option, but both keyboards can be powered by batteries (four AAs for the Novation and three AAs for the E-mu).

All the keyboards in this article support Mac OS X and Windows XP for their USB-MIDI features. Several also support Windows 2000. The PCR-M50 is the only one that supports Mac OS 9, Windows 98, and Windows ME (see the table “MIDI Keyboard Controller Specifications” for details).

What's Onboard

One of the most important features to look for in a USB MIDI-keyboard controller is how many programmable sliders, knobs, and buttons the unit has. The more you have, the more parameters you can control.

The Kontrol49 and the ReMote49 LE offer additional control types. The Korg unit gives you 16 programmable, Velocity-sensitive Trigger Pads that you can be use to trigger samples and send MIDI messages; the pads also double as function buttons. Additionally, the Kontrol49 has a joystick-style Vector control, that can affect two parameters simultaneously.

The ReMote 49 LE supplements its knobs with an X/Y Touchpad. By gliding your finger over it, you can manipulate as many as four programmable controllers on two axes (two on each).

The Xboard 49, the UF5, and the Kontrol49 have control wheels for pitch bend and modulation. The PCR-M50 and ReMote 49 LE use a single integrated control for those parameters: the former has a Roland-style paddle, and the latter has a joystick.

Getting in the Action

All five units have some type of synth action — either unweighted or semiweighted — and there is plenty of variation in feel. Some have relatively stiff action, while others have a lighter touch. Some make a lot of mechanical noise when played; others are surprisingly quiet. All five keyboards evaluated let you choose from a range of Velocity curves. Those allow you to customize the keyboard's response to your playing style.

If you're a keyboardist of any skill, none of the units featured in this article have enough keys to function as your studio's sole keyboard. But any of them could play a vital role as either a control surface and or a secondary keyboard for synth and organ parts. If you aren't a keyboard player and don't plan to have any recording in your studio regularly, then any of these 49-key units could serve as your main keyboard.

To help compensate for their keyboard size, all five units offer easy octave transposition, usually requiring only one or two button pushes or knob twists. All but the ReMote 49 LE have transpose functions for intervals as small as a semitone.

The Port Side

Although the flow of MIDI data between the keyboard and the computer is handled through the USB bus, if you plan to integrate external MIDI gear into your setup, and you're not using another interface, you'll need a keyboard with a MIDI In jack. Of the five keyboards reviewed, only the PCR-M50 and the Kontrol49 are so equipped.

Four of the five have a single MIDI Out jack that can be switched between outputting the MIDI from the keyboard and echoing the MIDI coming from the computer through USB (the ReMote 49 LE also lets you output both simultaneously). The Kontrol49 has two MIDI Out jacks. That allows you to simultaneously and separately output the two MIDI streams. Most of the keyboards have rear-panel inputs for sustain and expression pedals.

Easy as Pie?

Another factor to look at when buying a USB MIDI controller is ease of use. Of all the five keyboards, only the ReMote 49 LE is USB class compliant, meaning that it doesn't need drivers. Just plug it into a Mac OS X- or Windows XP-equipped computer, and it is recognized automatically. The others all require driver installation before use. For the most part, the installation process is easy. Once completed, your MIDI software will recognize the keyboard (some software requires additional preference setting.)

After you get the keyboard working, configure its knobs, sliders, and buttons to work with your various plug-ins and DAW software. To make that easier, three of the five keyboards — the PCR-M50, the Kontrol49, and the ReMOTE 49 LE — come preloaded with control maps for a variety of popular soft synths and sequencers. All three had templates for Propellerhead Reason.

The Kontrol49 has the most thorough Reason implementation through its Native Mode, which essentially allows Reason (or other software that supports Korg's Native Mode, such as Apple Logic Pro 7.1) to take control of it. As you switch Reason instruments, Kontrol49 switches automatically to the appropriate control map.

The UF5's default settings include GM volume, pan, synth control, and expression presets. You can download sequencer-template files for Steinberg Cubase and Nuendo from the CME Web site. The files will configure those sequencers to respond to the UF5's default settings. The E-mu Xboard 49 has only templates for the included ProteusX LE soft instrument.

Even if the keyboard you choose has lots of prefigured control maps, it's unlikely to have them for all of the software that you use. And even if it does, you'll want to modify what's there. Therefore, it helps to have a keyboard that you can program easily on. There was great variation among the five keyboards in that respect.

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FIG. 1: Many software applications and plug-ins allow you to map various features and parameters to external MIDI control messages. In Reason, the Remote Override Mapping feature (shown here) makes it easy to do.

The Kontrol49 and the UF5 require the fewest steps when making a programming assignment. The ReMote 49 LE and the Xboard 49 are slightly more involved, but they are intuitive. The PCR-M50 has the most intricate assignment procedure of the five keyboards.

A lot of music-software applications (such as Reason, Apple Logic Pro, and Ableton Live) have controller-mapping capabilities that are sometimes called “learn” functions. Instead of matching your keyboard's control map to the software, you can match the software to your keyboard.

In Reason, for instance, if you Control + click (on Mac) or right-click (on Win) on a parameter for one of the instruments, you get a dialog box that lets you configure one of your knobs or sliders to control that parameter (see Fig. 1). In Korg's Legacy Collection of soft synths, Control + clicking (or right-clicking) on an onscreen knob and then moving one of your controller's knobs or faders is all that's necessary to link the parameter with that particular remote control.

Not all software applications and instruments have learn features. If that's the case, and if your keyboard doesn't have a preset for the software you're using, you'll need to look either in the manual or in support documents for the software in question. Hopefully you'll find the Control Change (CC) numbers there that correspond to its various functions. Then you can program your keyboard's knobs, sliders, and buttons to match those numbers.

Four of the five keyboards come with editor software. The fifth, the UF5, is scheduled to have released its editor by the time you read this article. The editor applications allow you to do onscreen editing of your controller assignments, which is usually much easier than doing them on the keyboard. When you finish, you can save your edits to disk or in one of the keyboard's preset memories.

Once you have the correct template loaded or programmed into your keyboard, it can be confusing to keep track of which parameter is controlled by which knob, slider, or button. The Kontrol49 has the most elegant solution for this problem; it displays the name and value of the parameter being tweaked on an individual display above each knob-and-slider pair.

Although the ReMote 49 LE has only one LCD, it also displays the name and value information each time you touch a knob or button. The Xboard 49 has the best parameter display of the three others (all of which have LED displays) by alternately flashing the value, CC number, and MIDI channel of the parameter you tweaked.

The PCR-M50 and the ReMote 49 LE help you keep track of controller assignments by including physical template overlays (which have the names of the various parameters printed on them) that fit over the knobs and sliders on the keyboard's front panel. The PCR-M50 comes with a single overlay for GM2. The ReMote 49 LE comes with overlays for Reason Malstrom, Reason Subtractor, Native Instruments FM7, and G-Media Oddity, among others. The Kontrol49 comes with a generic overlay for its Trigger Pads. The overlay solution is viable only if you're controlling a single synth or a sequencer. If you have to keep switching them, overlays are more trouble than they're worth.

Included Goodies

In addition to editors, all five keyboards come with other software, in varying amounts. All give you drivers, except for the ReMote 49 LE, which doesn't need them. Most, with the exception of the UF5, give you bundled music software.

Typically, those bundles contain “Lite” or “LE” versions of popular programs such as Reason, Live, and Cakewalk Sonar. Novation breaks that pattern by including a full version of its Bass Station mono synth plug-in with the ReMote 49 LE. Depending on the bundle and the software that you already own, the included software can add significant extra value to your purchase.

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FIG. 2: The CME UF5 has a lot of features that the other four don''t, including a Breath Control input, a metal housing, 60 mm faders, and an optional FireWire audio card.

CME UF5 ($279)

The black and red CME UF5 (see Fig. 2) offers a number of features that are unique among the keyboards in this roundup. It's the only one with an aluminum chassis (the others are housed in plastic), making it more durable for travel. It's also the only one that lets you set up splits and layers — handy capabilities for a performance situation.

The UF5's eight 60 mm sliders have a longer throw than do those on the Kontrol49 or the PCR-M50. (The Xboard 49 and ReMote 49 LE have no sliders.) Its Breath Control input is also unique in this roundup, as is its optional FireWire audio interface card, the UF400E ($249). The latter gives you two channels of audio I/O, including analog line inputs and outputs; a mic pre; S/PDIF digital; a headphone output; and MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports.

The UF5 is also the only one of the five keyboards to offer a Drawbar mode for use with organ plug-ins or modules. That mode reverses the faders (making them full-on at the bottom and full-off at the top) to mimic the action of an organ's drawbars.

In addition to the sliders, you get eight programmable knobs and a number of function buttons that make changing parameters simple. It's easy to program the knobs and sliders with custom Control Change (CC) assignments. You just hold a function button down, move the knob or the slider that you want to program, and turn the Data Wheel to the controller number that you desire.

You also get a set of dedicated sequencer-transport controls. According to the manual (which you'll need to download from the CME site), the transport controls must be supported in the host software in order to work, or you must program your software (assuming it has a learn feature) to work with the controls.

The UF5 transmits Aftertouch (Channel Pressure) from its keyboard. You can turn the Aftertouch on and off using a function button on the front panel. The stock UF5 has no MIDI In and a single MIDI Out, but its MIDI Route function lets you choose whether the MIDI Out is echoing either what's coming from the computer through USB or what's being played on the keyboard.

The semiweighted action on the UF5 was the heaviest of all the five keyboards. If you're used to a weighted-action keyboard, you'll probably like it. If you're looking for a more synth- or organlike action, you'll find it somewhat stiff.

Many of the UF5's settings and features are aimed at those using General MIDI (GM) devices or software. For example, the faders have three modes: the first sets them up to control volumes for channels 1 through 7 of a GM module. The second controls channels 8 through 16, and the third allows the faders to be mapped to custom-controller messages (it defaults to CC 11, Expression).

The knobs have two modes. In one, each knob is preassigned a different GM-standard control message: Brightness (Cutoff), Resonance, Attack, Release, Pan, Reverb, Chorus, and Tempo, respectively. The other mode defaults to other controllers, such as Expression and Breath control, but allows you to assign your own.

Despite its many features, the UF5 has a rather significant flaw: it has virtually no onboard memory for user-customized presets. Your current setting is retained by the keyboard after power down, but that's it. That means you'll have to leave one setting on the keyboard at all times (not a practical solution in most cases), program your software or outboard gear to respond to the UF5's settings (which isn't always possible or practical), program the UF5 each time you want to control a different plug-in or outboard device, or use the software editor for that purpose.

The editor — which initially is for Windows only — should be out by the time you read this. It will make the UF5 a much more complete product, because it will let you to transfer control maps to and from your computer, where you can save them.

PROS: Allows for splits and layers. Easy to program. Solidly built. Faders have long throw. Optional FireWire audio card. Breath controller input. Many GM-oriented features. Drawbar mode.

CONS: Only one user-programmed control map can be in memory. No bundled music software. English manual in PDF form only, and it must be downloaded. Editor software is for Windows only.

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FIG. 3: The Edirol PCR-M50''s attributes include a variety of programmable knobs, sliders, and buttons; a solid and quiet keyboard feel; and a low price.

Edirol PCR-M50 ($249)

The slim and light PCR-M50 provides a nice combination of price and features. It's a sleek-looking unit that's dark grey with black controls, rounded corners, and a large, bright purple power indicator (see Fig. 3).

It has eight sliders on the right side, eight knobs in a straight line to the left of the sliders, and a total of nine assignable switches (a group of three and a group of six). A green, 7-segment LED display provides visual feedback. When the keyboard is in Edit mode, the keys double as function keys.

The PCR-M50 is a well-built unit. It's key mechanism comes courtesy of Edirol's parent company, Roland, which has years of experience in keyboard technology. The keys feel solid, offer good resistance for a synth action, and are mechanically quiet. You have a choice of 12 different Velocity curves, which is more than any other keyboard in the roundup.

Driver installation was a snap for Mac OS X. I just had to click on the Install button and the software did the rest. Conversely, the Windows XP installation was more involved than it was for any of the other keyboards.

You can program the PCR-M50 from either the unit itself or by using the PCR Editor software. Editing from the keyboard is complicated, requiring a number of unintuitive button pushes to set up controller and MIDI note assignments. The PCR-M50 does allow you to do some pretty sophisticated programming, though, including letting you set the upper and lower limits of CC assignments — only one of the other keyboards (the ReMote 49 LE) has that capability.

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FIG. 4: Like the software editors for the other keyboards, the PCR Editor software greatly simplifies the process of setting up or -tweaking control maps. Click on a control and a dialog box appears in which you can edit its value.

Editing is a snap using the PCR Editor software. When you select a button, knob, or slider on the onscreen display, a dialog box pops up into which you can quickly program notes (see Fig. 4), CC assignments, and more. Like the onboard programming, transmitting data to and from the editor also requires several button pushes.

The PCR-M50 has 16 memories for storing control maps (it calls them Memory Sets), and it comes programmed with setups for a range of applications and plug-ins. You can download additional Memory Sets free from the Roland Web site.

In addition to the drivers and PCR Editor software, Windows users also get Sonar LE (Win), a “lite” version of Sonar that gives you a nice array of features. No sequencing software is included for the Mac.

PROS: Good action. Quiet keys. Large selection of Velocity curves. Advanced programming options. Good variety of programmable controllers. Sonar LE included for Windows users.

CONS: Unintuitive programming. Windows driver installation is complicated. No third-party software for Mac users.

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FIG. 5: For PC users, one of the big bonuses of the Xboard 49 is the included ProteusX LE VST sound module, which comes with 1,024 patches and is expandable. FIG. 6: Although the Xboard 49 is the -lowest priced of the five keyboards, it offers a solid array of features.

E-mu Xboard 49 ($229.99)

The Xboard 49 is the least expensive of the five keyboards, and it's an excellent value. That is especially true if you're a PC user, because it comes bundled with ProteusX LE (see Fig. 5), a multitimbral VST instrument that comes loaded with the entire sample set from the Proteus 2000 and gives you 1,024 patches. (It can be expanded with sound sets from the EmulatorX or ProteusX sound libraries.)

PC users also get Ableton Live Lite 4 for E-mu. That version of Live is reduced in features (for instance, you're allowed only four audio tracks), but it does host ProteusX LE. Both Windows and Mac users get the Xboard editor software, which is nicely designed and easy to use.

The keyboard itself sports 16 programmable knobs (see Fig. 6), but it has no assignable sliders or buttons. You do get a data slider for entering values and 12 buttons for assigning functions and for editing. The 3-character blue LED is nicely implemented; it flashes instructions such as “Select” or “CC Send on Patch,” which help simplify the editing process. The keyboard sends Aftertouch in the form of Channel Pressure.

The Xboard 49 is comfortable to play from the standpoint of its action. The keys, however, are a bit wobbly, have a spongy feel when you press down hard on them, and make a fair amount of mechanical noise.

The unit has a unique feature called 16-Channel Mode, which lets you quickly assign the same controller to 16 different MIDI channels, with each knob controlling one channel. That can be used for, say, controlling volume on 16 MIDI channels while mixing. Another nicely implemented feature is Note Latch Mode, which lets you specify a range of notes to stay on infinitely when pressed. You could use that feature to trigger a loop or a sustaining sample while you triggered other nonlatched samples from outside the specified range.

Although it has 16 preset memories, the Xboard 49 doesn't come with a selection of control maps; you get only one for the ProteusX LE. Luckily, programming your own presets is relatively easy. You press the Edit key, turn the knob you want to program, and set the data slider to the correct controller number. You can save as many presets as you want to disk using the Xboard Control software.

The Xboard 49's single MIDI out serves dual functions. Set to Thru, it echoes the MIDI data sent through the USB port from the computer. Set to Out, it outputs MIDI messages from the keyboard and its knobs. The unit is equipped with only a single footswitch input, but it can be switched between expression and sustain functions. When you plug in a sustain pedal, the Xboard 49 can sense the polarity of the pedal you're using and set itself accordingly.

PROS: Inexpensive. Intuitive programming. ProteusX LE included for PC users. LED display is surprisingly informative. 16-channel mode. Good editor software.

CONS: No sliders. No bundled software for Mac users. No control maps for third-party software.

Korg Kontrol49 ($499)

There's a reason why the Kontrol49 sports the highest price tag of all the keyboards in this roundup: it's the best equipped. Almost any feature that you would want in a USB MIDI-keyboard controller has been included.

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FIG. 7: The Kontrol49 offers the most expansive feature set, the largest software bundle, and the most informative displays.

Reminiscent of Korg's MicroKontrol (but larger and significantly upgraded), the Kontrol49 is nicely designed (see Fig. 7) and has a very playable synth-key action. It's physically deeper than the other four keyboards. That depth allowed Korg to give it a spacious layout, in which none of the knobs, sliders, or pads feel crowded.

Its 16 programmable, Velocity-sensitive Trigger Pads add a great deal to the Kontrol49's utility. You can use them to trigger samples (they're great for drum sounds), to start clips in Ableton Live, or as momentary or toggle switches for any MIDI control messages that you assign to them. The pads do double duty as function keys when the keyboard is in its Setting (programming) mode.

The Kontrol49 has eight sliders and eight knobs. Like the UF5, the Kontrol49 has its knobs located directly above the sliders. I like that arrangement because it's more mixerlike and intuitive, especially if you've set up the keyboard to control a sequencer's mixer. If you're dexterous, that arrangement also makes it possible to manipulate a fader and its corresponding knob simultaneously with one hand, leaving the other hand free to play the keys.

You also get two programmable switches and a large knob called the Main Encoder, which can be set to control parameters such as track volume, tempo, and Program Change. Unlike any of the other four keyboards, the Kontrol49 gives you the option to set the pitch bend and mod wheels so that each can transmit two separate MIDI control messages. One is controlled by the forward or “up” range of the wheel, and the other is controlled by the backward or “down” range. The Vector Control is a joystick-style controller that can be programmed with two different CC numbers, one on the vertical axis and one on the horizontal axis.

Another feature that sets this keyboard apart from its competition is its displays. There are programmable 8-character LCD displays above each slider and knob pair, as well as one above the Main Encoder. With the keyboard in Setting mode, those displays show parameter types and values.

Once you've programmed the slider (or knob), you can input a name for it, and it will show up in the display. When the display is referring to a slider, it glows green; when it's displaying a knob's properties, it glows red. That way, a single display can function for the knob and the slider. Considering the large volume of parameter names you're likely to be dealing with, having the visual feedback of the displays helps you stay oriented.

Because it's otherwise so fully featured, I was surprised to discover that the Kontrol49 doesn't transmit Aftertouch from its keys. You can send Aftertouch, however, if you assign it to one of the controls.

On its back panel, the Kontrol49 has assignable expression and sustain pedal inputs, a MIDI In port, and two MIDI Out ports. The dual outs allow you plenty of MIDI-routing flexibility.

The Kontrol49 comes with drivers for Mac OS X, and Windows XP, and the excellent and intuitive Kontrol49 Editor/Librarian (Mac/Win) application. You also get a folder full of control maps for a range of software.

Another bonus with the Kontrol49 is its generous software bundle, the Creative Kontrol Pack Vol. 2. It includes special Korg editions of Propellerhead Reason Adapted, Ultimate Sound Bank UVI, IK Multimedia SampleTank 2 (with 158 MB of sounds), Ableton Live Lite 4, and Korg's MDE-X effects plug-ins. It's by far the most extensive bundle of any of the five keyboards.

PROS: Programmable knobs, sliders, switches, and joystick. Helpful, programmable LCD displays. Easy onboard programming. Excellent documentation. Intuitive editor/librarian software. Comfortable action. One MIDI In and two MIDI Out jacks. Generous software bundle. Excellent selection of control maps. Native Mode.

CONS: Keys don't send Aftertouch. Pricey.

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FIG. 8: The Novation ReMote 49 LE is the lightest and thinnest of the five -keyboards. It gives you plentiful programming options and an intuitive user interface

Novation ReMote 49 LE ($349)

At first glance, the slim ReMote 49 LE (see Fig. 8), which is part of a new line of Novation USB MIDI controller keyboards, appears underequipped compared with some of its competitors. It has only nine programmable knobs and nine programmable buttons on its front panel. But that impression is deceiving, because there are actually double that number thanks to the Group B feature, which lets you access a virtual second layer of the knobs and buttons at the flip of a switch. It does not have any sliders.

The unit's X/Y Touchpad sits to the left of the keys, just under the pitch bend- and modulation joystick. Controlling the touchpad takes a little getting used to, but it has the potential for great expressiveness, if programmed and manipulated correctly.

The semiweighted action is playable, although the keys feel loose and are spongy when pressed hard. The keyboard doesn't send Aftertouch, but you can assign Aftertouch to be sent by any of the knobs or other controllers.

You get a single MIDI out, which can be switched to echo the keyboard, the USB MIDI coming from the computer, or both. You get a sustain pedal input but not an expression pedal input.

Editing on the keyboard is straightforward. You press the Edit button, turn a knob or press a button, use the Octave buttons to step through the various parameters, and change values with the Data knob. There are plenty of editing choices. And like on the PCR-M50, you can specify the range within which each controller will function.

Novation gets the most out of the programmable buttons by providing four button modes: Normal, Momentary, Toggle, and Step. Normal sends a MIDI message when pressed. Momentary sends the lowest value of the message when pressed, and it sends the highest value (all of which are programmable) when released. Toggle switches between the low and high values on each press. Step allows you to send increasingly higher value messages with each subsequent press.

Editing is greatly aided by the unit's 32-character LCD display, which automatically reads out the name, controller number, and value of each knob you turn or button you push. You can even name each parameter, although entering the letters from the keyboard is pretty slow going. (As on the Kontrol49, that task is much easier using the editor software.) Except for the Kontrol49 with its individual LCDs, the ReMote 49 LE's display is the most informative of any of the other keyboards reviewed here.

The ReMote 49 LE has transport controls that work in conjunction with the included sequencer Templates. These controls can also be programmed to send other types of MIDI messages, including Note On or Note Off. So consider them to be extra programmable buttons.

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FIG. 9: While most of the keyboards include “lite” versions of third-party software, Novation gives you a full version of its Bass Station plug-in when you purchase the ReMote 49 LE.

Once you've finished editing, you can save your control map to one of 16 onboard memories. Twelve of those contain factory presets for such software as Reason, Steinberg Cubase, Ableton Live, G-Media Oddity, Apple Logic, Stylus Trilogy, and Bass Station.

The editor software is simple to use, and makes programming even easier. The bundled Bass Station (see Fig. 9), a monophonic synth plug-in, is unique in this roundup because it's the only full version of a software title that's offered.

As mentioned, the ReMote 49 LE is the only one of the five keyboards that is USB class compliant and needs no drivers. So if you're using OS X or Windows XP, it's the only one of the five that can truly call itself plug-and-play.

PROS: USB class compliant. X/Y Touchpad. Group B feature effectively doubles the number of knobs and buttons. Informative LCD display. Intuitive programming. Full version of Bass Station plug-in included. Transport controls.

CONS: Keys don't send Aftertouch. No sliders. No MIDI In. No expression pedal input. No transpose function.

Gaining Control

All the keyboards reviewed here are solid performers that will get the job done for you. That said, there are significant differences in price, features, and feel. With all that variation, you should be able to find one that fits your budget, work style, studio setup, and taste. Bear in mind that most of these keyboards are part of product lines that contain other models equipped with the same control layout and features, but with larger or smaller keyboard sizes (typically 61-key or 25-key).

Once you've settled on a unit and you've gotten up to speed with its features, you're really going to appreciate the convenience and control that it provides. Happy tweaking.

Mike Levine is a senior editor at EM. He wishes to thank Doug Hall of Propeller Music and Sound Design ( for his help with evaluating the keyboard actions.


CME Pro/Yamaha Corporation of America (distributor)

Edirol/Roland Corporation U.S. (distributor)

E-mu Systems


Novation/American Music and Sound (AMS) (distributor)

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FIG. A: The Alesis Photon X49.


Although it was not released in time to be part of this roundup, the 49-key Alesis Photon X49 ($499, see Fig. A) is a USB MIDI-keyboard controller that should be on the market by the time you read this. According to Alesis (, the unit will be equipped with nine 60 mm sliders, ten backlit buttons, and ten knobs that have three layers. It will also contain an AXYZ Controller Dome, which is a controller that's activated by waving your hand over it.

Other features include a 2 × 16 line LCD, transport controls, and a ten-key keypad. The unit has three power options: bus power, an optional AC adapter, or four C batteries. It's USB class compliant, so it needs no drivers for Mac OS X or Windows XP. The Photon X49 will be bundled with Cubase LE sequencing software for Mac and Windows.