Advanced Keys For A Song

December 1, 2010
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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. 1210 MIDI controllers chart 1

Form Factor

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.

  

BebitBehringer 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.

 

 

 

CakebitCakewalk 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.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MAubit 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nocbit 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 of modulation.

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 style.

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 while performing.

Automatic Mapping

1210 MIDI controllers chart 2 mapping<- 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.

ableton_automap<- 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.” 

apro_sonar_0<- The Cakewalk A-Pro control panel appears inside Sonar on Windows, letting you edit onboard settings from within the DAW.

  

 

 

 

 

Hardware Integration

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 switch.

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.

automap_with_ableton<- 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 receive parameters.

  

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 Nocturn hardware.

kong_automap<- 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.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

reason_axiom<- The Axiom, Nocturn, and A-Pro were each supported right out of the box in Propellerhead Reason and Record.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusions

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.

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