M-Audio Trigger Finger Pro reviewed

September 26, 2014

About a decade ago, M-Audio introduced one of the first USB MIDI controllers that specialized in drum pads. The Trigger Finger was so flexible that it became a favorite of many producers, and vintage units are now quickly snapped up on eBay. At NAMM 2014, M-Audio introduced a new version that took the original product and added integrated sequencing tools, along with a massive software suite that also works in any DAW—even without the hardware unit present. With a product this expansive, we had to look in depth at its features, and we were impressed. Here’s why.

 
Web goodies:

Hardware

Fans of the original Trigger Finger will be over the moon with the Pro’s specs. Like the original, it features both MIDI and USB outs, which enables control of hardware synths and samplers, as well as integrating directly with your computer. As with the original, there are 16 velocity- and pressure-sensitive drum pads, but now with four banks, bringing the total to 64. Like many current controllers, these pads embed multi-color LEDs that shift hues to show which bank is selected.

A gorgeous four-line LCD shows all kinds of relevant information and is really quite necessary considering that—unlike other products in this category—the Trigger Finger Pro includes an integrated sequencer. While Ableton Push and Native Instruments Maschine are simply controlling their companion software, the Trigger Finger Pro is actually a hardware sequencer, with TR-808-style step entry to boot.

In addition to the step-sequencing amenities, this sequencer includes a lot of drum-centric features, like continuously variable swing (with an MPC vibe) and the ability to set velocities for each step on the fly. Patterns are also saved directly into the hardware. In terms of arranging of patterns into songs at the hardware level, there’s just a simple “Next Sequence” feature that allows for basic verse-chorus chaining. It’s hardly a full-blown song mode, but the point of an instrument like this is whipping up grooves in real time. 


Soundware

The Trigger Finger Pro comes with over 8GB of data compressed into 3GB of installers. This includes both the essential software and additional sound libraries. I was disappointed that this wasn’t on a DVD in the box, as it required an overnight download. Granted, I don’t have the fattest Internet pipe, so if you’ve got a premium connection it won’t be an issue.

That said, the collection of soundware that comes with TFP is immense: packages of samples, loops, and synth presets from three different developers. While these focus on dance and electronic material, I was surprised to find very few high-quality acoustic drum kits. I’m guessing these will become available as add-ons, but it would be nice to have a few right out of the gate.

On the other hand, if you’re an electronic artist of any kind, you’ll be swimming in tons of fantastic material, covering pretty much every dance and experimental genre and then some. The Prime Loops package delivers a gigabyte of bread-and-butter in each of the major dance categories, including deep house, electro, progressive, minimal, and several others. The Anomaly package does a great job with streetwise hip-hop flavors. The crown jewel for house connoisseurs is the 2.5GB collection from Toolroom Records. With over three hundred drum kits and a few hundred more synth presets—from legendary DJs like Mark Knight and D. Ramirez—this collection is absolutely top-notch and will really help dance artists take their productions to the next level. 

 

Hybrid 3

The inclusion of Hybrid 3 ratchets up the Trigger Finger Pro’s value considerably, as it’s a powerful synth plug–in on its own.

Architecture. Hybrid 3 consists of two complete subtractive synths, called parts, which you can use individually or layered. In addition to each part’s integrated effects, there are five effects modules and two step sequencers. 

Oscillators. Each part has three oscillators: two wavetable sources and one “classic” virtual analog type with sub-oscillator and noise generator. The wavetable oscillators are quite deep, despite their straightforward design. At first glance, each oscillator’s waveform options include sync, cross-modulation and “multi-wave” (stacked and detuned) options. This perform as expected and tend to sound more digital than analog in that Access Virus kind of way. All of the many wavetable options can be swept by Hybrid’s shape parameter, which in turn can be modulated in a variety of ways. With very slow modulation rates, some of these wavetables exhibited a touch of stepping, but most were quite smooth overall. In practice, these additional wavetables put Hybrid in the same territory as Native Instruments Massive, which for some users will be a huge bonus.


Filters and amp. Calling Hybrid’s filters “multi-mode” is an understatement. The 23 different modes range from the usual lowpass, highpass, andbandpass to more complex options like notch-plus-lowpass and highpass-plus-allpass. Frankly, this evoked one of my favorite analog synths of all time: the Oberheim Xpander. Also in the filter section is a saturation processor with six types of distortion. While the more familiar overdrive modes perform as expected, the additional bit-crush and resampling modes sounded quite unlike any other I’ve heard, with unusual, jittery, loop-like artifacts. The amplifier section includes basic chorus, delay, and reverb, which are separate from Hybrid’s more sophisticated insert effects. 

Modulation and effects. Each part offers four LFOs, four envelopes, and a step sequencer, with a few twists that power programmers will dig. For example, the filter and amp envelopes are five–stage affairs with adjustable breakpoints, so you can add bouncing attacks or complex decays. The two freely assignable modulation envelopes are similar, with an additional delay stage at the start for evolving textures. Three of the LFOs include phase control for fine-tuning their behavior, while the fourth is configured for tempo-synced pumping effects. As for effects, each part includes two time-based inserts that do all of the standard reverb and delay tricks with minimum fuss. There’s also a global chorus/flanger for making everything swirl. 

 

Arsenal

Arsenal is the nerve center of TFP, serving to integrate its AIR Drums and Hybrid soft synths (from the mad scientists who formerly did Avid/Digidesign’s branded virtual instruments, and who prior to that were known as Wizoo), as well as configure the hardware’s knobs, faders, and buttons (see Figure 1 at left). The full installation includes both plug-in and standalone versions, which is a nice touch as it lets you use the TFP independently of a DAW. Also, you could be not near the TFP hardware and use Arsenal as a “mega plug-in” within your DAW.

At the most basic level, you can call up any of Arsenal’s thousands of presets via five data filters: instrument, style, articulation, timbre, and plug-in. You can also leave the filters off and just use the search field.

Once you’ve loaded a preset, you can accept the default controller parameters (which vary depending on the preset) for the knobs and faders, or you can reassign your own favored parameters, such as filter cutoff and so on. If you want to edit the patch directly, you can double-click on it and open the plug-in directly within Arsenal.

What’s more, you can drag and drop any VST synth right onto Arsenal and it will read the presets—along with any metadata—then integrate that instrument into Arsenal’s overall system. For example, I dropped Korg’s M1 plug-in (specifically, the VST file from my plug-ins folder) onto Arsenal and it scanned all the presets and allowed me to quickly assign the TFP’s controls to various M1 parameters. 


AIR Drums

AIR Drums is Trigger Finger’s environment for both drum and effect samples (see Figure 2 at left). Since it’s optimized for percussion, you won’t find a lot of exotic synthesis here, but what is present is nicely integrated with the whole system.

Reflecting the hardware, there are four banks of 16 sounds and switching between banks changes the color scheme. Each pad includes a fairly deep array of options for transforming the sample assigned to it.

The obvious tools are present, including pitch, decay, sample start/stop, multimode filtering, velocity sensitivity, and panning. Digging a bit deeper, things get more complex, with multi-stage envelopes for pitch, cutoff, and amp, sample switching, and up to three insert effects per pad. These effects focus mainly on compression, limiting, EQ, and distortion, as well as phasing and auto-panning. Three master effects can be applied to the entire kit: Hype, Reverb, and Compressor. Hype functions like an exciter, with a lot more character than a standard shelving EQ, which makes it great for adding gloss to a drum kit.


In Use

When a package like this includes so many interlocking parts, kicking the tires can be challenging. I did have some initial setup problems, as it’s not clear in the documentation that the TFP will not work with a USB hub. Once I plugged directly into my computer, everything was groovy.

Of course, you can rely on the TFP for classic controller applications. Everything works consistently, CCs can be assigned anywhere the MIDI spec allows, and there’s full compliance with the Mackie Control and HUI standards. If you just want to use the TFP for live performance and studio programming, it’s all there and then some.

Fire up the included software and dig deeper into Arsenal’s integration, and the experience gets amazing. The software does a terrific job of keeping everything organized, and once you get the hang of the hardware sequencer, whipping up grooves is a totally productive undertaking.

There are some wonderful methods of performing REX loop material in conjunction with the pads and step sequencer. Using a few easy interactive gestures (e.g., pressing and holding multiple steps with your fingers,) you can effectively “play” the loop material live.

However, when it came time to record my grooviest of grooves, I ran into some MIDI timing turbulence. The symptom? When the Trigger Finger Pro is synced via USB MIDI to a host DAW (I was using Ableton Live), recording the output of its sequencer into a track resulted in extremely small but consistent delays ranging between a 128th-note and a 64th-note. In a live DJ or EDM set, this is almost imperceptible, especially given that even the best turntablists will have these issues when beat-matching. If you’re recording sequenced material for later studio use without the TFP, it’s a bit hairy. After further testing, it became clear that the problem wasn’t with the Trigger Finger Pro at all, but inherent to MIDI timing: If you tinker with your DAW’s delay compensation during the setup process, the problem disappears. Alternately, you can record the grooves, then re-quantize in your DAW. From there, assign the resulting sequence to the Arsenal plug-in and you’re back in business.

Conclusions

For $399, the Trigger Finger Pro package is a fantastic value. You get a thoroughly modern and supercharged version of a legendary controller, a flexible hardware sequencer that can also control five-pin MIDI synths, two extremely capable soft synths, and a world-class collection of electronica soundware from top producers. For sheer bang for buck, the TFP suite wins our Key Buy award.


PROS

Flexible pad-based MIDI control. Deep and powerful hardware drum sequencing. TR-808-style step sequencer. Solid integration via Arsenal software. Two powerful soft synths included, as is huge soundware collection from top producers.

CONS

Required software is download-only, despite being over 3GB. Due to inherent delays in MIDI, tight sync requires adjusting latency compensation in your DAW.

Bottom Line

Pad controller, hardware sequencer, powerful host environment, and huge soundware collection combine to form a powerful groove-creation machine for a seemingly impossible price.

$449 list | $399 street | m-audio.com 

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