The Latest Controller Keyboards
from Avid, Behringer, Cakewalk, and Novation
Not so long ago, keyboards designed mainly for controlling software
were viewed as toys, or as stepping stones to more serious hardware solutions.
It’s not that way any more. Computer software is capable of extraordinary
models of analog synths, vintage electric keyboards, acoustic
pianos, and more, and those sounds have ventured from the studio onto
the stage in some of the world’s biggest acts. Software has grown up.
So have controller keyboards. This roundup represents midrange but
very affordable entries recently introduced by Avid (M-Audio), Behringer,
Cakewalk, and Novation. Beneath their fairly generic exteriors, even these
low-cost options have surprisingly advanced features, improved key actions,
and robust control options, along with various free pack-ins. So, once software
and keyboard are working in concert, which controller is for you?
<- Click chart for larger image.
The Avid (M-Audio) Axiom, Novation Nocturn, and Cakewalk A-Pro series
all aim at the same basic combination of features. Each has knobs, dedicated
transport controls, and dedicated octave shift buttons. Each has a
two-by-four grid of velocity-sensitive drum pads. The M-Audio and Cakewalk
keyboards each add nine faders to the knobs, ideal for use as drawbars,
synth programming (particularly envelopes), or mixing; the Novation
uses only knobs.
Each is reasonably handsome, though the Cakewalk and M-Audio
deserve special mention. Cakewalk and Roland have finally made a keyboard
that looks at home next to serious Roland synths, in contrast to
various decal-covered Edirol predecessors. M-Audio has copied the sleek
design of its Axiom Pro, minus the Pro’s Speed Racer white styling, and
added a slight angle to the control panel above the keyboard.
The Behringer UMX series is the odd man out, but like the others, it
represents a recently-introduced revision to the maker’s midrange controllers.
Behringer has opted for a glossy red hot-rod finish. It’s the cheapest-feeling enclosure of the four, but it also has the lowest price, so that’s
forgivable. By forgoing bells and whistles in the controller department,
it’s also the most compact, and focuses instead on its keyboard action—with very good results.
Actions and Feel
If you walk into a store and pick out the cheapest MIDI keyboard, it’s
going to feel pretty awful. The good news is, for a little bump in street
price, the four units here represent a huge leap in feel, well worth the extra
cash. Each is eminently playable, and—in a positive trend—each feels significantly
better than its immediate predecessor from the same maker. I
expected feel-alike keyboards, but that’s not the case at all. These are still
synth actions, but as such, they’re each several notches up in quality from
the entry level, and they each feel distinct from one another.
Behringer UMX. The Behringer surprised me. The enclosure, low price,
and basic feature set made me expect a lower-quality action, but the UMX
delivers a great-feeling keyboard. In a blind test, you probably wouldn’t
pick out the UMX as the least expensive (it is), and the responsiveness
was dead-on. Behringer has weighted the keyboard slightly, and it’s very
resistant for a synth action. If you like the keys to fight back a bit on sounds
such as organs, it’s ideal, but some players may find it too springy.
Cakewalk A-Pro. It may look like an Edirol, but think Roland—it shares
the higher-quality, semi-weighted feel of pricier Roland synths, though
technically, the keys aren’t semi-weighted. There’s a significant amount
of resistance, consistent expression and velocity response, and that distinctive
shallow thunk Roland keys make when they bottom out. For fast
playing and wipes, I actually like the lighter feel of the Novation, but if
you prefer a bit more resistance, the A-Pro is a superb choice.
M-Audio Axiom. This is a nice hybrid of synth- and piano-style keys.The keys themselves look like those on a piano: they aren’t hollowed out
underneath, there’s a lip on the white keys, and the black keys are textured.
I found the Axiom the most expressive for playing piano and Rhodes.
The keys aren’t fully weighted, nor hammer-action, nor graded, so don’t
confuse this with a stage piano action. But because of this, they’re just as
at home playing synths, wipes, and organs as they are virtual Steinways.
Novation Nocturn. Novation has chosen the made-in-Italy Fatar synth
keybed. It’s the lightest feel of the four, but also remarkably consistent. I
could comfortably manage a broad range of dynamics on my favorite virtual
piano, Modartt Pianoteq. For synth or organ sounds, the action is
ideal. Keyboard executive editor Stephen Fortner added, “I find the Nocturn
action the most ‘expensive’ feeling of these four, which is significant
given that the street price is $100 lower than the Cakewalk or the M-Audio.
The horizontal plane of the keys is nice and even, the key return is crisp,
and side-to-side wobble is negligible.”
Pads and Controllers
Each keyboard is in some sense an integrated control surface. Even the
slim Behringer has programmable knobs and buttons, and the other three
add drum pads and DAW transport controls. The M-Audio and Cakewalk
also have sliders, so if you want organ drawbars or mixer faders, you
can narrow your choices to those two.
Behringer UMX. The Behringer has the fewest controls, but it may be
all you need for most applications. There are eight 270-degree, rubber-tipped
knobs. They feel solid enough, although the pots don’t sit absolutely
secure in the holes, meaning they often appear off-center and wiggle as
you use them. There are also eight buttons and a fader with a satisfyingly
long throw, all assignable. Pitchbend and modulation are on separate
wheels. They do the job, but the mod wheel feels loose while the pitch
wheel feels extra-resistant, and at the extremes the notches disappear
slightly into the casing.
This certainly feels like the entry level, but it’s also the easiest to program.
One-key shortcuts reassign controls to the most common uses, and
all kinds of MIDI functions are accessible or programmable with at most
two button presses. The same can’t be said of any other model here, so
there’s a clear win for simplicity.
Cakewalk A-Pro. Cakewalk’s controller is an obvious Edirol descendant,
but with added refinement. The knobs look and feel terrific, with 270-
degree (not endless) rotation. Unique to the A-Pros, you get buttons dedicated
to splits and layers. You also get separate octave-shift and transpose
buttons. Even if you can transpose in your software, that’s a nice convenience.
A small but clear LCD screen gives feedback on your playing velocity,
and makes it much easier to program CCs and access just about any
function on the A-Pro than it was on previous, Edirol-branded keyboards.
This is a major usability improvement.
This is Cakewalk “by Roland,” so separate pitch and mod wheels give way to Roland’s signature paddle. In my experience, it’s more
desirable for quick vibrato and expression, but less so for other forms
Instead of the larger pads on the Axiom and Nocturn, you get eight
tightly-packed, smaller buttons. Initially, velocity response wasn’t as
finely tuned as the others: It was difficult to get a wide dynamic range,
and too easy to get multiple triggers at lighter velocities. However, several
velocity sensitivity settings help calibrate the pads to your finger-drumming
M-Audio Axiom. The Axiom offers the most controls. There are nine
assignable buttons beneath the nine sliders, eight endless encoders, transport
buttons, and eight drum pads, and both the pads and encoders have
Group buttons. The endless knobs are staggered in two rows, so it’s easier
to keep track of what controls what. There’s also a large, bright LCD
screen, tilted forward slightly for easy viewing. The layout should be
familiar from previous Axioms, but the appearance has been refined, the
faders have nicer-feeling caps and greater clearance, and I doubt anyone
will miss the numeric keypad from the previous version.
Texture on the buttons, encoders, and wheels give the Axiom a luxurious
feel. These are also my favorite pads of the group. They protrude
further from the case and are larger, making Akai MPC fans feel at home, and they maintain consistent velocity response,
even around the edges.
Novation Nocturn. Novation has the cleanest,
most spacious layout, covering transport, endless
encoders, group and function controls, and
triggers. Buttons are large and have a nice rubbery
feel. You don’t get faders, and instead of an
LCD, you’re meant to look at the Automap
“heads-up display” (HUD) on your computer
screen—more on this in “Automatic
Mapping” below. However, nothing else in
this roundup gives you 12-segment LED
rings around the knobs, which are terrific in
that they show you the endless knob positions
at a glance.
Unique to Novation and found on nearly all
its controllers is the “Speed Dial,” which edits
whichever parameter you hover your mouse
over. It lacks the LED ring, but adds detents for
tactile feedback. “Once I’d worked with the
Speed Dial a bit, I wondered how I ever got along
without it,” says editor Stephen Fortner. “It’s not
just for virtual knobs, either. You can scroll
through a patch list onscreen and select a sound
without touching your mouse. That alone saves
me all kinds of time.” Also found only on the
Novation are touch-sensitive encoders—meaning,
they’re sensitive to skin contact, so you can
tap an endless knob and see what it does in the
HUD without having to move it and thereby
affect some aspect of your sound.
The drum pads are smaller than the Axiom’s,
and further recessed into the casing, but they’re
just as responsive and fun to play. The transport
keys also have a lock button so you don’t
accidentally start, stop, or rewind your DAW
<- Click chart for larger image.
For all their recent bells and whistles, controller
keyboards do what they’ve always done: They
send MIDI data. If you move a control, it sends
a continuous control (CC) message and a value.
Since MIDI has no standard for which physical
knob should do what, and since there are
often more parameters in a soft synth or DAW
than there are data types in MIDI, the mapping
of something like “CC44” is somewhat arbitrary.
The usual solution has been to set up the
mapping you want manually. You can do that
from the hardware side by storing a template
that sends the messages you need, or by using
your software’s MIDI learn function to say, “I
moved knob 2, so assign it to the Funkiness
parameter I just clicked.”
The problem with fixed templates is that if
you switch from, say one soft synth to another in your host, you’ll have to set up new mappings. This is why three of these
keyboards—led by a concept introduced by Novation—offer automatic
mapping that follows whichever plug-in or window has your
focus and remaps controls on the fly. Novation has Automap, Cakewalk
has Active Controller Technology (based on ACT in Sonar), and
M-Audio has DirectLink, available on the Axiom and Oxygen lines, and
derived from the more full-featured HyperControl in the Axiom Pro
(reviewed Dec. ’09).
Cakewalk ACT. Setting up ACT to control plug-ins in Sonar from the
A-Pro keyboard involved the most steps. Even though Cakewalk makes
both host and keyboard, I had to install a driver and add a controller
plug-in—Cakewalk says this plug-in support will be pre-installed with
all their DAWs from now on. There are ACT buttons on different toolbars,
ACT enable and disable switches on the keyboard and software that can
operate independently, and a separate ACT learn mode for reassigning
controls, plus a parameters view that floats atop the other windows. It’s
all quite powerful once set up, though, and the A-Pro is most certainly
the way to go if Sonar is your host.
M-Audio DirectLink. This one was easiest for me to set up. You don’t
install additional software, it supports a reasonable range of hosts (not
just Avid’s own Pro Tools), and there are clear keys for switching between
DAW mixer and plug-in modes. It’s also easy to see what you’re doing on
the Axiom’s large screen. As on the Cakewalk A-Pro, the trigger pads
double as shortcuts to different control layouts for the encoders. Under
the hood, DirectLink speaks MIDI, not automation, and thus lacks
Automap’s broad plug-in compatibility (see below). Also, some of the
mappings feel spotty, depending on your host—for example, you may
switch to modes where the buttons below the faders don’t do anything at
all. DirectLink also has “Instrument Mode,” which I found extremely useful.
In this mode, key synth settings (say, filter cutoff) are always in the same place regardless of soft synth, and the layout focuses on playing,
rather than controlling the DAW.
Novation Automap. Novation’s method came first, and in terms of both
its internal plumbing and the sheer amount of software it works with, it’s
the most advanced. When you first set it up, an extra piece of software
called Automap Server “wraps” all your plug-ins. The wrapped versions
think they’re getting automation orders from your host every time you
grab a control, and any setting the plug-in makes available to the host for
automation shows up in the heads-up display, an onscreen mirror of your
Novation hardware controls. Some players may not like having to look
at their computer screen instead of the keyboard itself to see where a controller
is mapped; on the other hand, with Automap’s semi-transparent
display floating next to the DAW and synth windows you look at anyway,
all the information is right in one place.
<- In order to use automatic mapping with any host and keyboard, you need to configure ports, as seen here with Ableton Live and the Novation Nocturn.
Since all major DAWs—plus most VST, AU, RTAS, and TDM plugins—
speak automation, the well of stuff that works with Automap is virtually
bottomless. Combined with the LED rings and skin-sensitive
encoders, this makes for a nice fusion of software and hardware.
General observations. Automatic mapping sounds great in theory, and
in practice, it has gotten smoother by leaps and bounds compared to just
a couple of years ago. However, it still requires a lot of different elements
to work in concert, and across a number of hosts and apps. In other words,
it can be either a boon or a pain. Sometimes, getting the host and keyboard
to handshake and use the automatic feature on can require a number
of steps and reading documentation for keyboard, host, and plug-ins.
I suggest that once the keyboard you choose is connected, you set an egg
timer for 15 minutes. If you haven’t gotten at least one encoder doing
what you expect when the timer goes off, consider whether to use the
automatic mode or the more traditional MIDI controller mode—to which
all four keyboards can revert if you wish.
Let’s be fair, though. Whether or not I had a smooth experience
getting mapping running had as much to do with the host as the keyboard
itself. Propellerhead Reason and Record passed with flying colors
with all three keyboards. I set them up without messing with port
settings or reading docs, and parameter names and mappings were intuitive. The Axiom worked especially well
with Reason; dedicated buttons let me switch
tracks, and it immediately felt as if the Axiom
and Reason were one.
Ableton has added useful tutorials for control
layouts in Live 8.1.x and 8.2, but some of
the instructions haven’t kept pace with recent
hardware, and often, basic control layouts for
mixing functions or racks didn’t take, sending
me back to the port setup to try to work out
which combination to use. Novation had an ace
in the hole here—the Automap heads-up display
has an icon that brings up DAW Setup
instructions. Once there, I got things working.
More than from a particular host like Sonar
or Live, some of the challenges here are endemic
to the ambitious goal at hand. All three keyboards
are set up to run DAW mixing, effects,
record-arming, transport, editing, synth programming,
and many other things, all at once
from your keyboard. That much can begin to
make you feel like you’re using a keyboard to
land a 747. On the upside, that means you can,
well, use a keyboard to land a 747. Both the
Nocturn and Axiom work quite well with Pro
Tools, Logic, and Cubase—not just Reason and
Live—and editor-at-large (and controller freak)
Craig Anderton offers some counterpoint to
my egg-timer advice: “If you get any keyboard
with control surface functions, spend two weeks
forcing yourself to touch your mouse and
QWERTY keyboard as little as possible. You’ll
realize that the time invested in the learning
curve pays off in terms of being able to fly
around your DAW.”
<- The Cakewalk A-Pro control panel appears inside Sonar on Windows, letting you edit onboard settings from within the DAW.
While the primary purpose of these keyboards
may be controlling software, they don’t shirk on
hardware MIDI features. The Nocturn is the
only keyboard that lacks a conventional MIDI
out, meaning all others can operate as standalone
MIDI controllers or as MIDI interfaces
for a computer. They can also work without the
automatic features. Even the USB-only Nocturn
functions without Automap, thanks to a logical,
thoughtful set of MIDI mappings for each
control. The A-Pro will work with Sonar minus
ACT as well.
Both Cakewalk and M-Audio let you assign
any controller or channel you like to anything
onboard, and edit controller curves for the pads
and keys. Sure, software instruments often have
their own controller curves, but if there’s a curve
you like best for the keyboard itself, it’s often
easier to “set it and forget it” on the hardware
than dig into settings for multiple soft synths.
For hardware zones, the Axiom leads the
pack with four for splits and/or layers; Cakewalk
is second with a simple keyboard split.
Plug in an AC adapter, and you could even
use the A-Pro or Axiom without a computer.
Both have MIDI in and out ports, and Cakewalk’s
A-Pro supports MIDI merge via a dedicated
The Behringer UMX is a single-zone affair,
but as a result of this simplicity, you can read
every editing option right off the keyboard casing—
no manual required. Easy access to different
parameters means it’s a handy keyboard to
have around for programming MIDI hardware.
Unfortunately, it’s hobbled in its ability to store
any presets you create: user storage is just one
slot in addition to the one factory slot.
<- Once configured, the Nocturn’s encoders automatically map to the active device—particularly useful when you’ve consolidated instruments or effects into an Ableton Live rack, which likewise has eight macros.
Note that a lack of hardware splits and layers
doesn’t mean you can’t split or layer at all.
You just have to do it on the receiving end, either
in your host software or your synth’s MIDI
Setup and Bundles
Setup of all four keyboards is easy. The Behringer, M-Audio, and Novation
keyboards are USB class-compliant, meaning you can plug into Mac
OS X, recent Windows versions, and even Linux without installing any
drivers. That makes them useful with netbooks and possibly future mobile
tablets; they worked perfectly with my Ubuntu Linux box with Pianoteq,
Renoise, Pd, and other tools.
Cakewalk requires drivers for the A-Pro, but those supplied for Windows
and Mac work very well. Cakewalk also claims improved performance
with its MIDI drivers, with lower latency and less jitter, via “Fast
Processing Technology,” which should exceed performance of the classcompliant
keyboards. Still, it’s too bad that this keyboard doesn’t include
a switch to revert to a class-compliant mode as some Cakewalk and Edirol
devices have in the past.
There are also handy software bundles with each, though the Cakewalk
A-Pro earns extra marks for its superb control editor software and copies
of Sonar LE, Rapture LE, and Studio Instruments Drums—it’s the most
complete “studio bundle” of the group. The Nocturn ships with Novation’s
superb virtual analog instruments and effects, as well as the previously
extra-cost Automap Pro, which adds support for multiple Novation
devices (you could add a keyless Nocturn or SL Zero for more controls,
for example) and drag-and-drop remapping in the heads-up display.
Want that filter cutoff on a different knob than where Automap
put it? Click, hold, drag, and the change is instantly reflected on the
<- Hosts make a big difference. I found Reason’s automatic support the most intuitive with all the keyboards, as seen here with the Automap heads-up display for the Nocturn.
Despite its low price, the Behringer is the only keyboard to include an
audio interface, in the form of separate class-compliant USB hardware, with
stereo RCA ins and outs as well as S/PDIF. You also get EnergyXT, a DAW
you can run off a USB key on Mac, Windows, or Linux, plus Native Instruments’
free Kore Player with 300MB of all-purpose sounds. (You can also
download this free from NI, but it’s nice that Behringer has done it for you.)
<- The Axiom, Nocturn, and A-Pro were each supported right out of the box in Propellerhead Reason and Record.
With street prices as low as $164, you’d imagine this would be a bland
product category with lots of compromises. The surprise is, these are all
four solid, high-quality keyboards with great feel and advanced features.
As the budget option, the Behringer UMX isn’t bad at all—it’s compact
and has a great, high-resistance keybed. To outfit a netbook for
mobile musicmaking, I’d go for the UMX, especially since you get EnergyXT
and an audio interface in the deal.
Cakewalk’s A-Pro is the best USB controller from Roland yet. If you
want a high-quality Roland keybed, or if you’re a Sonar user, it’s a no-brainer.
The new case also feels expensive, and overall the A-Pro is a close
second to the M-Audio in feeling more expensive than it actually is.
For dynamic control of a lot of plug-ins, the Novation Nocturn is a
great way to go. The light but responsive Fatar keybed is also terrific for
playing synths. And while Novation’s SL Mk. II (reviewed July ’09) has
more features, I prefer the Nocturn’s roomier layout, conventional pitch
and mod wheels, and larger, more playable pads.
M-Audio’s Axiom 49 is a winner for several reasons: It looks great, its
keyboard satisfies piano and synth use alike, and it has the most balanced
complement of controllers. Automatic features don’t require extra software,
and DirectLink, while less sophisticated and broadly compatible
than Automap, makes up for that with Instrument Mode. If you do things
without automatic mapping, you don’t give anything up, and the fourway
zoning makes it the most logical choice if you augment your computer-
based music rig with hardware synths.