Surfin' USB - EMusician

Surfin' USB

When software synthesizers first appeared, they were like the octopus that had learned how to open jars: an interesting novelty, but ultimately not very
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When software synthesizers first appeared, they were like theoctopus that had learned how to open jars: an interesting novelty, butultimately not very useful. Many of the earliest programs sounded weak,reacted slowly, coughed up only a handful of simultaneous notes, andintegrated poorly with other programs and audio hardware. Those daysare gone. Thanks to fast computers and extensive work by legions ofprogrammers, today's software synths deliver outstanding sound andflexibility. The virtual instrument has finally arrived.

However, computer keyboards are built for typing, not playing.Fortunately, help has arrived. At this year's Winter NAMM convention(America's largest musical-instrument trade show), manufacturers showeda tidal wave of compact, inexpensive music keyboards designed for usewith audio software. Connecting to Macs or PCs with a single UniversalSerial Bus (USB) cable, the clever controllers make old-fashionedexternal MIDI interfaces unnecessary. By omitting audio circuitry, theyalso keep costs low. For maximum convenience, they even draw theirpower from the computer.

USB MIDI-controller keyboards aren't just a gimmick. This year, manyNAMM exhibitors left their racks of synthesizers at home anddemonstrated their wares using only software synths and USB keyboards.To get to the bottom of this new music-production movement, I testedthe latest crop of keyboards and gathered detailed information aboutsome that had not yet been released. Where models in a manufacturer'slineup differed only slightly, I reviewed a representative model andnoted the differences in the table “USB MIDIControllers.”

I was surprised and a bit disconcerted to discover how small andlight these instruments are. However, the first magical evening with mylaptop, a USB keyboard, and Cakewalk Plasma put it all intoperspective. According to Thinkware's Jim Larrison, “The day ishere when all you need to make a hit CD is a laptop and a MIDIcontroller — no additional power supply, no outlet, and no wallwart. You can walk out to the top of a mountain and make a CD.Personally, I don't do it on a mountaintop; I do it on mysailboat.” Although that's a tantalizing image, you don't need towait for your ship to come in to reap the benefits of USB MIDI. It'sactually quite easy.

USB TODAY

The designers of the USB format set out to build aperipheral-connection system that was inexpensive, reasonably fast, andsimple to use. With more than a billion USB devices out there, they'vesucceeded wildly. Nearly every personal computer built in the lastcouple of years has at least one USB port, a half-inch-wide,rectangular socket with four internal contacts. (Two of the contactscarry data — one for each direction; the other two supply 5 VDCand a ground. Standard MIDI cables carry information in only onedirection on a single data wire.)

It's also possible to add USB to an older computer. PCI upgradecards with USB ports cost as little as $10. However, it's worthchecking the Web sites for your favorite software to see if there areany potential problems. “Our testing department is adamant thatSonnet cards are the only thing that works [for Macs],” saysTimothy Chen of M-Audio. “And USB on Pentium-based motherboardshas been known to drop out periodically if any PCI cards [notnecessarily USB ones] are in slot No. 3.”

Your computer's operating system must also support USB. Except forNT 4, Windows 98 and all later versions of Windows do. For Macs, youneed at least OS 8.6; OS 9 or higher is recommended. Some Macs requirethe USB Floppy Enabler extension for optimum USB performance (you canget it from www.opcode.com/downloads). All five keyboards Itested for this article worked with Mac OS X. Because commercial musicsoftware was not yet available, I verified their output with MIDIMonitor, a free OS X utility from www.snoize.com. For Windows, I found thedonationware MIDI-OX data monitor (www.midiox.com) invaluable.

DIRTY QUIRK

Although USB is supposed to be a plug-and-play protocol, it has afew quirks. The first is that it's a host-centric system, notpeer-to-peer like MIDI or FireWire. That means you can connect aUSB MIDI keyboard to a computer, but you can't connect the keyboarddirectly to a USB sound module. The computer, or host, must playtraffic cop. In fact, it isn't physically possible to connect two USBperipherals, because USB cables have a different connector on each endto ensure that you can't make such circular hookups.

To connect current USB devices when you've run out of ports on yourcomputer, you need to use a hub, which is like an active Y-cable.Theoretically, you can continue adding peripherals and hubs until youreach USB's limit of 127 devices. Because each device draws power fromthe USB bus, though, things will soon grind to a halt unless you use apowered hub — one that gets its juice from a wall socket. Thatcould be a problem if you're composing on a mountaintop with a notebookcomputer, especially because notebooks often supply only one USB port.Some of the keyboards in this roundup can be powered from an AC adapteror batteries for times when the host can't supply enough power.

You might also have problems getting the computer to recognize theUSB device. I found that the order in which I launched the musicsoftware and connected the keyboard could make all the difference. Insome cases the USB driver software supplied with the keyboards wasobsolete; it pays to check the manufacturer's site for updates.Although USB is supposed to support hot plugging (swapping deviceswithout first shutting down the computer), more than a couple of swapsoften crashed my computer. That said, most musicians wouldn't bejuggling five keyboards and three computers as I did. Once you getthings working, though, it's plug-and-play from there, with all thebenefits of a compact, single-cable music system. Here are the resultsof my hands-on tests of five leading USB MIDI controller keyboards.

EDIROL PC-300

In the mid-1990s, music monolith Roland launched the Edirol companyto specialize in desktop music products. (The name is derived from“Editions Roland.”) Among its innovations is the PC-300,the world's first USB MIDI keyboard controller (see Fig. 1).Although newer models from other manufacturers offer more features, thePC-300 has an elegant simplicity. It's also currently the lightest andmost compact 49-note USB controller available. Along with its sibling,the Edirol SK-500 (reviewed next), the PC-300 had the best-feeling keysin this roundup.

The PC-300's plastic case sports a metallic gold finish and justthree buttons: Octave Up, Octave Down, and MIDI/Select. PressingMIDI/Select transforms the keyboard itself to a data-entry device.Labels above the keys clearly identify each one's function. To set theMIDI transmission channel, for example, you hit the MIDI/Select button,then one of the first 16 keys (labeled 1 through 16), then the topmostC key (Enter), and then MIDI/Select again. When the PC-300 is in Datamode, a tiny LED near the MIDI/Select button lights up and the keysstop transmitting notes.

To send a Program Change, you enter Data mode, hit the ProgramChange key (A#4), type the program number you want (1 through 128)using the ten numbered keys in the top octave, then hit Enter (C7). ThePC-300 also supports Bank Select commands, which are sent bytransmitting a specific value of Control Change (CC) 0, followed by avalue for CC 32, and finally the Program Change number. The G#4 and F#4keys select CC 0 and 32 respectively, which saves time, but becausethere's no display, it's easy to get confused. Fortunately, pressing B6will cancel your previous keystrokes, and simultaneously pressing B5and C6 acts as a panic button, turning off all notes and resetting allCCs.

The PC-300 also offers a data slider, which you can map to any CC bypressing CC Select (F4) and then typing the CC number and Enter. Thekeyboard provides one-touch assignment for Reverb Depth (CC 91), ChorusDepth (CC 93), Pan (CC 10), and Volume (CC 7), as well as forAftertouch. A final key maps the slider to Velocity scaling, which letsyou alter the dynamic range of the keyboard. I wish the slider had abigger knob, but it moves smoothly.

Instead of pitch-bend and mod wheels, the PC-300 provides the uniqueRoland paddle. Moving it sideways bends the pitch; playing trills byrapidly wiggling the paddle is much easier than on a wheel. Pressingthe paddle forward sends out Modulation data (CC 1), but notimmediately; the values ramp up to maximum over one second. Accordingto Thinkware's Larrison, the intent was to simulate vibrato andLeslie-speaker effects more accurately, but I found it frustrating tohave to push the paddle a second before I wanted to hear the result. Onsounds with rapid decays, the vibrato came in too late to be heard.Still, it's easy enough to map the data slider to Modulation. The onlyother drawback I spotted was that the sustain-pedal jack works onlywith normally closed footswitches. That's also true of the SK-500.

USB driver installation was straightforward; Edirol dedicates 24well-illustrated pages to it in the manual. The trick was finding thedrivers; I initially thought they were missing because the boxcontained only one CD, labeled Steinberg Cubasis AV. Because I haveCubase, I didn't bother to load the disc, but of course the driverswere tucked away in a folder on it.

Surf report

The PC-300 is a good choice if you want the best keyboard feel inthe smallest package and don't need knobs and wheels. I've lavished themost words on it because the other keyboards in this roundup borrowheavily from its design.

EDIROL SK-500

Barely larger than its predecessor, the curvy white SK-500 is uniqueamong USB controllers because it features an onboard synthesizer (seeFig. 2). The audio engine is a 64-voice, 32-part multitimbralRoland Sound Canvas with 1,608 preset sounds, 64 drum kits, and GS andGM2 compatibility. Because it's designed for multitimbral playback, theindividual sounds are on the thin side, but they blend very well.Weighing slightly more than a six-pack of beer, the SK-500 probably hasthe best overall sound per pound of any portable keyboard.

Like the PC-300, it has just three buttons, but they're configureddifferently. To enter Data mode, you hold the button marked Shift andpress the decrement (-) button (subtitled Function) below it. To returnto Play mode, you hold Shift and press the increment (+) button(subtitled Play). Two decimal points in the three-digit LED displaylight alternately to identify the current mode. Holding Shift and thenpressing certain keys lets you change performance parameters such asOctave Transpose or Local Off without leaving Play mode.

In addition to the USB connector, the SK-500 has an old-style serialport and comes with drivers for nearly every flavor of Mac OS andWindows. Dual headphone outputs and a stereo line input (mixed with theSK's own sound) help it fit into a variety of setups. Unfortunately,all that extra circuitry demands more current than USB can supply, sothe SK-500 must be powered from an adapter.

As a MIDI controller, it's more limited than the other keyboardshere. There's no data slider, but you can map the mod wheel to variousCCs. If you have an expression pedal, you can map that to CCs as well.The main shortcoming is that Program Changes can't be entered directlyon the SK-500. To get from Program 1 to Program 128 and back, you haveto step through every sound in between by pressing the increment anddecrement buttons. Holding one button and then pressing the otherchanges the values more quickly, but I would have appreciated fasteraccess on a $650 instrument.

Calling up the remaining 1,480 sounds is also button-intensive.Following the GM2 and GS layouts, the Variation sounds are stored insubdirectories of the 128 familiar GM presets. To select the Mild Pianovariation of Piano 1, for example, you hold the Shift button and pressthe low F key (marked Variation +) twice. Of course, in a computersetup, you could punch up presets directly from a sequencer with BankSelect commands. Another reason to use a sequencer is that the packageincludes a program called GS Advanced Editor for altering patches, butthe SK-500 has no memory to store them, so you'll have to save themwith your songs on the computer.

Surf report

The SK-500 could be ideal in a classroom setup, thanks to itsconnectivity and wealth of onboard sounds. (It also has the mosthelpful manual in this group by far.) In schools with computers thatare too old to support USB or software synths, the SK-500 could handleall the audio, interfacing to simple sequencers or ear-trainingsoftware through its serial port. In schools with no computers, itcould serve as a compact yet good-sounding instrument. During thisreview, I used it as my only keyboard at a jam session, and I reallyappreciated its portability and clean sounds — when I could findthem.

EVOLUTION MK-249C USB

British manufacturer Evolution is probably best known for its DanceStation ($99), a two-octave MIDI controller keyboard that ships with afun WAV-triggering program and 1,000 samples. This year, the companymade a splash by announcing five USB keyboards. The instruments differsolely in the number of keys and knobs, so I reviewed the model in themiddle of the range, the MK-249C USB (see Fig. 3).

My first impression of the 249C was that Evolution cut corners tokeep costs down and get it out quickly. The keys are extremely light,to the point of feeling flimsy; something rattled inside the case; thedata slider is wobbly; and the knobs are frustratingly small andslippery. The metallic silver finish is painted on rather than embeddedin the plastic. The 249C's manual is a scant four pages long and coversonly the most basic operations. It encourages you to visit Evolution'sWeb site for the full version. I did, and I found that documentessential reading.

However, once I realized I could pop off its beastly knobs andreplace them with the nice rubbery ones from my Keyfax PhatBoy, I tookquite a shine to the 249C, which does many things right. Although itskeys are delicate, they're very fast and not as stiff as those on theMidiman controllers. Furthermore, they don't do double duty asdata-entry buttons, so you wouldn't normally encounter a situation inwhich you play a note and no sound is triggered. The 249C's keys arenarrower than standard width; over the span of four octaves, thedifference amounts to an entire white key. If you have thick fingers,they might get stuck between the black keys.

The 249C excels at sending Program Changes. Simply press the Programbutton and then type the number you want on the ten numbered buttons inthe center of the panel. You can also use the increment and decrementbuttons to switch to adjacent programs. To send Bank Change commands,use the dedicated Bank MSB and Bank LSB buttons. For instant access,you can store up to ten Program Change presets, including any necessaryBank Change commands, in the numbered buttons. Your presets areretained even when power is off.

Assigning Control Change parameters is also quick. Press ControlSelect, wiggle one of the 14 available controllers (12 knobs, dataslider, or mod wheel), press Control Assign, and then type the desiredCC number (1 through 127). Again, settings are memorized even whenpower is off. Entering numbers greater than 127 opens some additionalpossibilities, assuming the target synth supports Registered ParameterNumbers (RPNs). The available assignments include Pitch Bend range,Coarse Tune, Fine Tune, and Aftertouch. On my GM module, I could crankup the Pitch Bend range to two octaves, but couldn't get it back toexactly two semitones. I wish the 249C's display indicated the currentdata value.

The features keep on coming. You can choose among 13 Velocitycurves, transmit a snapshot of all current controller values, transposethe keyboard up and down by octaves or semitones, and even trigger ashort demo sequence to make sure everything's hooked up correctly. Acustom MIDI-to-Game-Port adapter cable provides an alternate MIDIinterface — with power — for Windows users without USBports.

Surf report

Although I have reservations about the 249C's construction quality,it offers an unprecedented amount of convenience and hands-on controlfor the computer musician. With five configurations to choose from,finding a model to fit your style should be easy. According toEvolution's Iain Mackay, the company's keyboards have been veryreliable in the field, with only a handful of returns. He says,“Our customers come back, but our keyboards don't.”

MIDIMAN KEYSTATION 49

In the past few years, M-Audio — a company that got its startbuilding MIDI peripherals — has grown into a major desktop musicforce. In addition to manufacturing a range of audio and MIDI gear,M-Audio is now the U.S. distributor of such groundbreaking musicsoftware as Propellerhead Reason and Ableton Live.

Three USB MIDI keyboards are currently in M-Audio's lineup. All usethe same driver software as M-Audio's popular Midisport interface. TheMidiman Keystation 49 and Keystation 61 differ from each other only inthe number of keys; the travel-size Oxygen 8 has just 25 keys, but addsassignable knobs. For this review, I requested a Keystation 49 (seeFig. 4) and an Oxygen 8.

Both keyboards were defective. The Keystation was the worst of thetwo, spewing random MIDI data, flashing numbers in its display, andgenerating what looked like a sample-and-hold waveform when I moved thepitch wheel. The Oxygen 8's pitch wheel stopped working within hours,and its mod wheel scraped against the case.

According to M-Audio, it accidentally sent pre-production units thathadn't been through quality control, and no defects have been reportedin the normal stock; I'm inclined to believe it. I had also noticedthat the pitch wheels on the original units were physically sluggish.The replacement models had a snappier feel and didn't leak bogus data.However, I did experience occasional stuck notes, for reasons neitherM-Audio's tech support nor I could track down.

The Keystation 49 and Oxygen 8 borrow substantially from the EdirolPC-300 design, with an assignable slider and a MIDI/Select button thattransforms the piano keys into data-entry buttons. Virtually all of theKeystation 49's functions are the same as the PC-300's; several of theassignments are mapped to identical keys. The two main differences arethat the Keystation 49 offers a semitone-transpose feature (a welcomeaddition) and moves the PC-300's dedicated octave-transpose buttonsonto the keyboard (a bad decision).

While the Keystation 49 is the chunkiest keyboard in this roundup,it's still quite portable. Its transparent gray plastic case seemssturdier than the cases on the other four-octave keyboards, and itskeys have a solid — if stiff — feel. The Keystations andthe Oxygen 8 each have two MIDI Out jacks. One is actually a Thru fromthe computer; the other is hardwired to the keyboard. That's a flexibledesign. On the Edirol keyboards, you have to flip a tiny switch on theback to toggle between Out and Thru. On the Evolution models, you makethe switch by pressing two buttons on the front panel.

Surf report

The Keystation 49 is a strong offering that competes head-on withthe Edirol PC-300. In its favor, it has traditional pitch-bend and modwheels, a display that shows the value of the parameter you'rechanging, an extra MIDI Out jack, and the ability to run from batterypower. On the downside, it's bigger than the other models and lacksdedicated octave-shift buttons. There's also the specter of stucknotes, although I'm apparently the only one who's run into thatproblem.

MIDIMAN OXYGEN 8

The tiny Oxygen 8 has been a big hit for M-Audio, and it's easy tosee why (see Fig. 5). The construction quality is astonishinglygood for an instrument so light and inexpensive. Its beefy plastic casewould probably take a bullet for you. Like those on the Keystation, thekeys are sturdy, and the knobs are everything the Evolution MK-249C'sare not: big, rubber coated, and solidly bolted to the front panel.Protruding spines let you detect the orientation of the Oxygen 8'sknobs even in the dark. Having only 25 keys will feel confining if youapproach the Oxygen 8 as a piano or organ. It's best suited for playingdrum parts or simple overdubs.

Each knob can be assigned both a Control Change type and a MIDIchannel, but the process requires several more button pushes than onthe 249C. Having access to multiple channels at once is a giantadvantage because it lets you control the relative volumes of parts ina multitimbral synthesizer. I also discovered an excellent,undocumented feature: pressing the MIDI/Select button and then the Upbutton provides access to four more banks of knob memory, for a totalof 40 knob assignments. Better still, the memory is retained even whenpower is off.

The upcoming Ozone ($399) is slated to add 24-bit, 96 kHz, stereoaudio I/O to the Oxygen foundation, for a truly flexible and portablestudio. (While software synthesizers run well on laptop computers, mosthave very bad onboard audio circuitry.) M-Audio says that one of theOzone's inputs will be configured as a ¼-inch/XLR combo jack thataccepts either line-level or microphone signals. Due to the limitedbandwidth of USB 1.1, the Ozone won't support all combinations ofsampling rates and bit depths. For the price, however, it couldundoubtedly have a huge impact on mobile music production. The Ozone isexpected early next year.

Surf report

Offering instant access to 42 hardware controllers in a go-anywherepackage, the Oxygen 8 is ideal for laptop owners or anyone who's shorton space. Don't think of it as just a keyboard; with batteriesinstalled, it could serve as a handy remote for adjusting effectsdevices or virtual mixers. Many musicians will want to hold out for theOzone, solving two musical problems at once. The two-octave EvolutionMK-225C USB is also worth a look if you want a lighter key action or aserial interface.

WHAT TO CONTROL

Once you get a USB keyboard controller, what are some outstandingprograms to control with it? I posed that question to EMassociate editor Dennis Miller, who has enough computers to start acyber cafe. “Just about every soft synth can handle real-timeMIDI input,” he said. “Definitely mention all the greatstuff from Native Instruments — Reaktor [Mac/Win; $599] inparticular.”

New synthesizers, particularly plug-ins, arrive on the scene daily,and all the leading sequencers support at least one plug-in instrumentformat. Check out sites such as http://sharewaremusicmachine.com for listings. Onmy last visit there, I discovered two shell programs that run VSTinstrument plug-ins such as IK Multimedia SampleTank without theoverhead of a sequencer. RT Player Pro (Mac/Win; $149) is available atwww.dsound1.com.For Macs, there's also the Ugly VSTi Interface, free from www.netspace.org/~leigh/max.

A new class of programs combines virtual instruments with a virtualrecording studio. Cakewalk Plasma (Win; $69) offers Acid-style loopassembly as well as plug-in synths. I had even better success withPropellerhead Reason (Mac/Win; $399) on my laptop; it's coded soefficiently that I could get numerous parts going without audioglitches. Arturia Storm (Mac/Win; $199) is a similar program with someunusual instruments. The performance-oriented audio sequencer AbletonLive (Mac/Win; $349) is a natural for laptop MIDI control, and thereare many more.

THE FUTURE

It's fortunate that the USB spec supports up to 127 simultaneousdevices per host; more and more music gear will be equipped with USBconnectors in the months to come. According to one major synthesizermanufacturer, the growth of USB will bring some unexpected musicalbenefits. Someday soon, for example, sequencers will be able torecognize USB sound modules and automatically configure themselves tomatch. As USB cables replace MIDI cables and thus speed up datacommunication, manufacturers will realize that the MIDI inputprocessors on their synthesizers will have become the new bottleneck.They will have to build newer instruments with much faster processorsfor snappier response.

Even sooner, manufacturers will begin to release MIDI controllersthat use USB class drivers, which will enable computers torecognize the controller without first making users install aproprietary driver. That will also facilitate sharing peripheralsbetween computers.

What about musical applications for the speedy new USB 2.0? Mostaudio companies I asked don't expect USB 2.0 to have much impact onMIDI music production. They said that FireWire will probably remain thestandard for high-bandwidth communication. For the amount of data thatcontroller keyboards transmit, USB 1.1 is perfectly adequate.

USB's greatest contribution to music-making is convenience.“Our theme this year is ‘Redefining theStudio,’” says M-Audio's Adam Castillo. “The SurfaceOne, Oxygen 8, and Ozone are a new breed of controller in that theybecome whatever the user needs them to be: mixer, instrument, orcontrol surface. For the first time, the studio adapts to the userinstead of the other way around.”

The next major leap will probably come at the destination, ratherthan the controller. “I think Apple's next round of CPUs is goingto blow the lid off the 100 percent virtual desktop studio,” saysJim Cooper of MOTU. “Sure, there will always be new, coolinstruments developed that push the CPU bandwidth envelope, but in thesame way that disk-drive performance now easily supports more thanenough tracks for most of us, the next-generation CPUs are going to dothe same for virtual instrumentation.”

Looks like the wave is coming in. Grab a board and jump on it.

David Battinois the editor ofEM's 2002Desktop Music Production Guide. If he ruled the world, all computerswould have Velocity-sensitive keyboards with Aftertouch.

DIFFERENT DRUMMERS

You don't have to be a keyboardist to take advantage of softwaresynthesizers and USB control. The new Akai MPD16 ($349), which wasinitially called the PD16, puts the revered pads from the MPC series ofdrum machines into a compact, USB-powered package (see Fig. A).(For use without a computer, an AC adapter provides an alternate powersource.) Each pad is Velocity- and Pressure-sensitive and can transmitPolyphonic Aftertouch. The MPD16 also includes a standard MIDI Out jackfor controlling samplers and other MIDI hardware.

You can access a second bank of 16 pad assignments by pressing theBank button. Holding the button for two seconds lets you assign any oneof the 127 MIDI Control Change (CC) types to the MPD16's slider. Thefirst ten pads enter the numbers 0 through 9; pads 12 through 16provide one-touch access to common CCs such as Modulation, Volume, andPan. Pad 11 maps the slider to Pitch Bend. A Mac and Windows softwareutility is included to simplify programming the MPD16.

Mixman, the company that transformed QWERTY keyboards intogroove-performance instruments, recently pumped up its software'sexpressive potential by releasing the innovative DM2 controller($119.95). Sold in department stores for less than $100, the 3-pound,17.0-by-9.5-inch DM2 has become a secret weapon for undergroundproducers and sound designers. (See Erik Hawkins's insider tips in theJanuary 2002 issue of Remix, reprinted at www.remixmag.com.)

The DM2 connects to a Windows PC with USB and draws its power fromthe computer. Its dual turntable controllers, about the size of“personal” pizzas, feature eight buttons each fortriggering samples, as well as rotating flanges that let you“scratch” the sound (see Fig. B). A stubby joystickmanipulates the software's cool-sounding effects processor forreal-time sonic sculpting. You also get macro buttons, a crossfader,and two transformer switches.

Although the DM2 currently works only with Mixman software, thesoftware imports and exports WAV files, making it easy to integrateinto a production flow. The upcoming Mixman StudioPro 5 ($109.95), anenhanced version of the program supplied with the DM2, will offer apad-bank feature similar to the Akai MPD16's, providing fast access to16 additional samples. The DM2 is so fast and flexible, though, Iwouldn't be surprised if Mixman were cooking up new ways to use it.Check out www.mixman.com to find out.

USB MIDI Controllers

All of these controllers are Velocity-sensitive, come with a USBcable, and have a single USB port. All should be shipping by the timeyou read this. The names of products reviewed for this article appearhere in boldface type. “MIDI Thru from Computer” means thecontroller can route MIDI data from a computer out through its MIDI Outjack, thus functioning as a full MIDI interface.

MidimanTerraTec

ModelOxygen 8Keystation 49Keystation 61MIDI Master USBPrice$179$229$279$399Keys/Pads(25) keys(49) keys(61) keys(49) keysControllerspitch-bend wheel, mod wheel, assignable slider, (8)assignable knobspitch-bend wheel, mod wheel, assignablesliderpitch-bend wheel, mod wheel, assignablesliderpitch-bend wheel, assignable wheel, assignablesliderOctave-Shift ButtonsyesnonoyesDisplay3-digit LED3-digit LED3-digit LED3-digit LEDConnectorsUSB; MIDI Out; sustain pedal; USB MIDIThruUSB; MIDI Out; sustain pedal; USB MIDIThruUSB; MIDI Out; sustain pedal; USB MIDIThruUSB; MIDI Out; sustain pedalMIDI Thru from Computeryes (dedicated jack)yes (dedicated jack)yes (dedicated jack)yesPowerUSB, adapter, or (6) AA batteriesUSB, adapter, or (6) C batteriesUSB, adapter, or (6) C batteriesUSB or adapter (not included)Memory(5) banks of knob assignmentsnonenone(10) MIDI Program Changes, including BankSelectSpecial FeaturesVelocity offset; unique MIDI channel perknobVelocity offsetVelocity offsetcontroller snapshot; (13) Velocity curves;controllers can transmit Pitch Bend sensitivity, Fine Tune, CoarseTune, Aftertouch, and Velocity messagesBundled SoftwareCakewalk Metro SE (Mac) and Express (Win), SonicFoundry Acid Express and Siren XPress (Win), QDesign MVP (Mac/Win),demosCakewalk Metro SE (Mac) and Express (Win), SonicFoundry Acid Express and Siren XPress (Win), QDesign MVP (Mac/Win),demosCakewalk Metro SE (Mac) and Express (Win), SonicFoundry Acid Express and Siren XPress (Win), QDesign MVP (Mac/Win),demosEmagic MicroLogic Fun (Win), Steinberg WaveLab Lite(Win), MusicMatch Jukebox (Win)OS SupportWin 98, ME, 2000; Mac OS 9 (OMS), OS XWin 98, ME, 2000; Mac OS 9 (OMS), OS XWin 98, ME, 2000; Mac OS 9 (OMS), OS XWindows 98, SE, ME, 2000, XP; Mac OS 9 (with OMS)and OS XDimensions (W × H × D)16.5" × 3.0" × 9.4"29.5" × 2.6" × 9.4"36.2" × 3.0" × 8.5"31.5" × 3.3" × 8.1"Weight3.1 lb.6.6 lb.7.4 lb.7.0 lb.

MidimanTerraTec

ModelOxygen 8Keystation 49Keystation 61MIDI Master USBPrice$179$229$279$399Keys/Pads(25) keys(49) keys(61) keys(49) keysControllerspitch-bend wheel, mod wheel, assignable slider, (8)assignable knobspitch-bend wheel, mod wheel, assignablesliderpitch-bend wheel, mod wheel, assignablesliderpitch-bend wheel, assignable wheel, assignablesliderOctave-Shift ButtonsyesnonoyesDisplay3-digit LED3-digit LED3-digit LED3-digit LEDConnectorsUSB; MIDI Out; sustain pedal; USB MIDIThruUSB; MIDI Out; sustain pedal; USB MIDIThruUSB; MIDI Out; sustain pedal; USB MIDIThruUSB; MIDI Out; sustain pedalMIDI Thru from Computeryes (dedicated jack)yes (dedicated jack)yes (dedicated jack)yesPowerUSB, adapter, or (6) AA batteriesUSB, adapter, or (6) C batteriesUSB, adapter, or (6) C batteriesUSB or adapter (not included)Memory(5) banks of knob assignmentsnonenone(10) MIDI Program Changes, including BankSelectSpecial FeaturesVelocity offset; unique MIDI channel perknobVelocity offsetVelocity offsetcontroller snapshot; (13) Velocity curves;controllers can transmit Pitch Bend sensitivity, Fine Tune, CoarseTune, Aftertouch, and Velocity messagesBundled SoftwareCakewalk Metro SE (Mac) and Express (Win), SonicFoundry Acid Express and Siren XPress (Win), QDesign MVP (Mac/Win),demosCakewalk Metro SE (Mac) and Express (Win), SonicFoundry Acid Express and Siren XPress (Win), QDesign MVP (Mac/Win),demosCakewalk Metro SE (Mac) and Express (Win), SonicFoundry Acid Express and Siren XPress (Win), QDesign MVP (Mac/Win),demosEmagic MicroLogic Fun (Win), Steinberg WaveLab Lite(Win), MusicMatch Jukebox (Win)OS SupportWin 98, ME, 2000; Mac OS 9 (OMS), OS XWin 98, ME, 2000; Mac OS 9 (OMS), OS XWin 98, ME, 2000; Mac OS 9 (OMS), OS XWindows 98, SE, ME, 2000, XP; Mac OS 9 (with OMS)and OS XDimensions (W × H × D)16.5" × 3.0" × 9.4"29.5" × 2.6" × 9.4"36.2" × 3.0" × 8.5"31.5" × 3.3" × 8.1"Weight3.1 lb.6.6 lb.7.4 lb.7.0 lb.

KEYS TO THE MIDI

If you're searching for the ultimate USB keyboard controller (and ifprice and weight aren't an issue), take a close look at the YamahaMotif series. The 61-key Motif 6 ($2,250), 76-key Motif 7 ($2,750), and88-key Motif 8 ($3,250; reviewed in March 2002) are feature-packedworkstations with onboard USB interfaces that support eight virtualMIDI cables. Unlike the lightweight keyboards profiled in this article,the Motifs all have Aftertouch and weighted keys (hammer-action keys inthe case of the Motif 8).

The Yamaha Motifs also sport four sliders, four knobs, 16 mutebuttons, and sequencer transport buttons. The units each containbuilt-in templates that map those controls to the virtual mixers inpopular sequencers. By pressing a dedicated button, you can switch thesliders and knobs among four sets of Control Change numbers, gainingquick access to 16 tracks. For high-end MIDI (and audio) connectivity,there's an optional mLAN interface, which uses FireWire connectors. Thenew Korg Triton Studio offers an mLAN option as well.

Expect to see more manufacturers introducing synthesizers with USBinterfaces, whether for facilitating MIDI connectivity, updating theoperating system, or downloading new samples and patches. Four new USBcontroller keyboards were announced while I was working on thisarticle, and I learned of several others under development. Thanks tothe consumer-friendly nature of USB, it's even likely that USB MIDIkeyboards will hit your local consumer electronics store beforelong.

CONTACT SHEET

Akai Professional
tel. (817) 831-9203; e-mail info@akaipro.com;
Web www.akaipro.com

Edirol/Thinkware (distributor)
tel. (800) 380-2580 (Edirol) or (800) 369-6191 (Thinkware); e-mail sales@thinkware.com;
Web www.edirol.com

Evolution/Thinkware (distributor)
tel. (800) 369-6191 (Thinkware); e-mail sales@thinkware.com;
Web www.evolution.co.uk

M-Audio
tel. (800) 969-6434 or (626) 445-2842; e-mail info@midiman.net;
Web www.midiman.net

TerraTec/Fostex (distributor)
tel. (562) 921-1112; e-mail info-us@terratec.net;
Web www.fostex.com/products/terratec.html