You’re a keyboardist, so it’s a keyboard that sits between your speakers, not a mixing control surface. As much as mixing and tweaking plug-ins with a mouse sucks, you keep doing it, because programming your keyboard’s MIDI controls to work reliably with your DAW and plug-ins sucks more. Yeah . . . me too.
Enter the Axiom Pro. It has all you’d expect from a full-featured MIDI controller: four key zones, deep editing of each control’s behavior, and 50 memory slots to store setups, for starters. The big deal, though, is HyperControl. The idea is that it just works — for mixing, transport, and plug-ins — with no programming required. Does it deliver?
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1. Included presets let these buttons (or the drum pads) send QWERTY shortcuts — switch arrange and mixer views, save, undo, etc.
2. Faster keyscanning makes for smoother velocity response, especially with sounds like piano and EP.
3. When HyperControl is active, this button switches the knobs between controlling stuff in the DAW mixer (like pans) and stuff in your plug-ins.
4. LCD continuously updates to show the status of the last control you touched.
5. Sliders have more resistance than the old Axiom, and a cool hydraulic resistance when you move them.
6. Eight knobs are endless, and unlike the original Axiom, are smooth, not clicky.
7. Dedicated transport controls include a loop mode button.
8. Velocity-sensitive drum pads feel great, and are bigger than anything we’ve seen on a keyboard.
This is one solid slab. To test the rigidity, I grabbed my 61-key review unit at either end and twisted my hands in opposite directions. It didn’t flex a bit. Rubbery end blocks reduce the guilt of setting your keyboard end-up on the pavement while closing the car trunk.
At first, I thought the 40mm sliders felt jerky. “No way can you write smooth automation with these,” I worried. Once I had them controlling stuff, my opinion changed. They’re speed-sensitive, and have a molasses-like resistance that can actually make your moves more precise. With practice, I could change values by one increment per metronome beat! The original Axiom’s sliders are much looser. A slider has to hit the current value of whatever it’s controlling before changing it, which avoids unwanted parameter jumps.
You create splits and layers by striking low and high keys for each zone, and the four graphical keyboards on the LCD make this as intuitive as anything I’ve tried.
The keyboard itself retains the old Axiom’s piano-shaped keys, but aftertouch is more predictable, and keyscanning (the electronics looking at the keyboard to see if you do something) is faster. You can really hear the playability benefit with any instrument that uses a lot of velocity layers — say, Synthogy Ivory. The drum pads are larger and feel better than those on both the Novation SL Mk. II and Akai MPK series.
Though 20 of the 50 memory slots have presets for major DAWs and soft synths, these are “regular” MIDI templates for when you’re not using HyperControl (HC from here on). HC doesn’t make you load presets; it’s simply active if your DAW is set to use it.
With the Axiom Pro hooked up via USB, something like “HyperControl In” and “HyperControl Out” should show up in your DAW’s appropriate preferences dialogue. Here are correct settings for Pro Tools (left) and Logic (right).
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You may have heard that the Axiom Pro can send QWERTY shortcuts from the numeric buttons or drum pads (find a tutorial on this in the April ’09 issue or by clicking here). That ability lives in these presets, not in HC, though it works at the same time as HC.
A cool thing is that when you load a preset, you can toggle which control group it loads settings for: keypad, sliders-plus-buttons, knobs, and/or drum pads. This lets you mix and match existing presets, which could be useful if you’ve spent time creating templates for your favorite plugs, and want to grab crucial control areas for several in the heat of a project. Of course, the point of HyperControl is that you shouldn’t need to invest that time.
M-Audio’s website has great PDFs that show how to set your DAW preferences to use HyperControl, with step-by-step screenshots like the ones above. For some hosts (e.g. Reason and Pro Tools 7.4), you’ll need to download a “HyperControl personality” (insert joke about boss or in-law here). Installing one in a host that doesn’t need it (e.g. Pro Tools 8) can stop HC from working, so check first!
HyperControl takes over the sliders, the buttons just below them, the knobs, and the transport, letting the numeric keypad and drum pads send whatever MIDI messages are determined by the current “regular” preset. Sliders do track volume, and knobs default to track pan. In my tests (every supported DAW on Mac and PC), track select, banking, record-arm, solo, and mute worked instantly and consistently. Maybe it’s no surprise that everything was peachy in Pro Tools, but I was surprised that performance in Logic, Cubase, Reason, and Live was almost as gratifying.
F1 (Mode) is the magic button that makes the knobs control the virtual instrument on the currently-selected track, with abbreviated names for the first eight parameters showing up on the Axiom Pro’s LCD. A soft button steps through further pages of that plug-in’s settings, updating the knobs as you go. You might see less than eight if, say, a soft synth’s oscillator has seven controls and it makes more sense to begin the filter stuff on the next page.
The Axiom Pro was best at this sort of “group management” with the supported DAWs’ included plug-ins, almost always mapping things in such a logical way that there’d have been no gain in programming it myself. Third-party plugs were hit-or-miss. Every plug-in I tried got fully mapped, but if a plug had tons of parameters, I sometimes had to step through pages of settings to find ones I wanted.
Such plug-ins are better served by programming a quick template using good old “click this, wiggle that” MIDI learn, which is where HyperControl’s Transport Only mode comes in. Engage it, and HC releases control of everything but the transport buttons to whatever “regular” MIDI preset is loaded. I do wish there were a “Sliders and Transport Only” mode, as sometimes I wanted to retain HyperControl of my mix while letting the knobs do what I’d programmed.
HyperControl uses the knobs for everything plug-in related, even when the thingy onscreen is a toggle or button. You can swap the knobs’ and faders’ roles, but to control an onscreen button with a physical one, you’ll need to program a numeric keypad button or drum pad manually. Unless you settle for Transport Only mode, the buttons under the sliders aren’t an option, as they’re busy with track select and other HC tasks.
HC also controls effect plug-ins. Getting to them varies slightly from host to host. In Logic, for example, you get separate LCD soft buttons for editing inserts, sends, and each track’s Channel EQ. You can even instantiate plug-ins right from the Axiom Pro, though this is one of the rare tasks where I still reach for the mouse.
The Axiom Pro manages to stuff most of a good DAW control surface into a keyboard, making surprisingly few compromises along the way. If you have a supported DAW and can spend a little time weaning yourself off mouse and QWERTY, you’ll positively fly in a couple of weeks. This is the smartest MIDI controller M-Audio has ever made, and one of the two smartest out there, period.
The other is the Novation SL Mk. II, and street prices of the two lines are close. Hardware differences are a Mercedes-BMW comparison: Both have great actions with aftertouch; M-Audio’s keys are piano-shaped and Novation’s are synth-shaped. The SL has touch-sensitive controls; the Axiom Pro’s LCD updates to reflect the slightest nudge, and its Peek function lets you see what controls do without nudging them.
HyperControl delivers similar results to Novation Automap, so a lot of the difference comes down to “vibe.” HC’s vibe is more direct. Because Automap is designed to work across most of Novation’s hardware, it feels more like an extra layer of software. HC just feels like what the Axiom Pro does. Where Automap has a cool onscreen window to show control mappings, HC doesn’t need one. Automap does let you make custom assignments without popping back to regular MIDI mode like on the Axiom Pro. But HC’s “plumbing” is simpler — it doesn’t create wrapped duplicates of your plug-ins, which is a good thing. Where Automap (Pro in particular) is more powerful for creating monster multi-controller setups, HyperControl will likely get your hands off your mouse and onto your music faster.
Whichever vibe is more you, there’s no question that the Axiom Pro’s features and performance make it a world-leading MIDI keyboard, and that the price makes it a Key Buy. Now if M-Audio really wants to devour some market share, they’ll do an Axiom Pro 88 with a great weighted action. Just sayin’. . . .
NEED TO KNOW
What does the Pro have that the base Axiom doesn’t? HyperControl, a weightier keyboard, a much more informative graphic LCD, and speed-sensitive sliders.
What is HyperControl? M-Audio’s way of turning the Axiom Pro into a control surface for DAWs and plug-ins, without you having to program stuff.
Does the keyboard feel better? Side by side with an original Axiom, you can definitely tell a difference.
What software does HyperControl work with right now? Live, Logic, Reason, Cubase, and all flavors of Pro Tools.
Does it run on USB power? Yes, and was very stable in our tests.
Most surprising feature: HyperControl lets you tweak plug-ins whose windows are closed!
HyperControl works very well with supported software. Keyboard strikes good balance between piano chunkiness and synth speed. Deeply programmable. Can send QWERTY shortcuts.
HyperControl mapping can be inconsistent in third-party plug-ins. AC adaptor for use without USB power not included.
25 keys: $499.95 list/approx. $400 street;
49 keys: $599.95 list/approx. $500 street;
61 keys: $699.95 list/approx. $600 street,