Novation Impulse 61

March 6, 2012
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By Barry Cleveland

I’M A GUITARIST WITH MINIMAL KEYBOARD SKILLS, BUT I USE A KEYBOARD
controller when composing with soft synths and samplers in my Pro Tools-based home studio. The Impulse 61’s semi-weighted keyboard, DAW control, and recessionfriendly price tag piqued my interest. I also rely on a lot of effects plug-ins, so I was curious as to whether the accompanying Automap 4 software might make wrangling them easier and more efficient.

I tested the Impulse 61 and Automap 4.1.6 under Pro Tools 9.0.5 on a Mac Pro. Soft synths and effects included plug-ins by Native Instruments, Avid, Spectrasonics, Universal Audio, Waves, Lexicon, and SoundToys. Did it make my life easier? You bet.

Keys and Controls

The Impulse 61 is about as solidly constructed as one might hope for in a mid-priced plastic-body controller. The evenly arrayed keys are smooth to the touch, with just the right balance of heft and springiness. They respond well to both nuanced and not-so-nuanced playing, and you can fine-tune the response via a choice of four velocity curves. The default curve worked just fine for me, both in terms of overall playing and applying channel aftertouch. You can do splits of up to four zones, shifting each zone up or down as many as three octaves.

Synth purists may prefer the Impulse’s pitch and mod wheels to the joystick on Novation’s flagship SL Mk. II controllers. Then, there are three groups of additional controls: eight tricolor backlit drum pads, eight endless knobs, and nine faders with accompanying buttons—all assignable—along with standard DAW transport controls.

The pads work superbly for triggering drum and other samples, but you can also use them together with the onboard arpeggiator and Beat Roll functions, and for tap tempo. The highly versatile arpeggiator provides control over sync rate (12 subdivisions of the master tempo), gate (note duration), swing amount, seven variations on note sequence, octave range, and overall length of the sequence. Beat Roll retriggers single notes or sounds in various ways, and you can override the master tempo by tapping in new values. Pad velocity is adjustable via three curves, with enough versatility to accommodate everything from fingertip taps to mallet whacks. If you use Ableton Live, you can set pads to initiate Clip Launch. (Ableton Live Lite comes with the included software, as do Novation Bass Station and 502MB of Mike the Drummer loops and breaks.)

You can instantly toggle the faders between MIDI and Automap’s DAW mixer control mode; with the latter, their corresponding buttons toggle between Mute and Solo functions. The faders aren’t the equivalent of, say, a Euphonix or Mackie control surface in feel or resolution, but they’re more than adequate for basic mixing. In addition to MIDI and mixer control, the eight endless knobs can also control plug-ins via Automap.

The Impulse has the usual jacks for sustain and expression pedals, with the latter defaulting to expression (CC 11). I connected a Moog FS-1 momentary switch and a Moog EP-2 expression pedal, both of which worked without a hitch.

Navigating the Impulse 61’s various features is largely intuitive given the clearly labeled and ergonomic controls, relatively large multi-area LCD, and logically arranged pages and menus. (And if you do get confused, there’s a handy Help Mode that scrolls text across the top of the LCD, reminding you what particular controls do.)

There are also 20 predefined default templates that make it even easier to interface with specific software and hardware devices—and once you’ve modified a template by altering MIDI assignments and values, creating keyboard zones, or whatever, you can store your new configuration as a custom user template. When using the Impulse 61 with Automap 4, however, the Automap software essentially replaces templates.

Automap 4

Installing and configuring Automap 4.1.6 to work with Pro Tools and my RTAS plug-ins was a breeze thanks to the Setup Wizard. Among other things, the Wizard automatically maps the Impulse 61’s faders, buttons, and knobs to primary DAW and plug-in parameters. For example, in Mixer mode the nine faders were mapped to the virtual mixer faders for tracks 1 through 8 and the Master fader in my Pro Tools project. For controlling plug-ins, Automap officially supports Live, Pro Tools, Cubase, and Reason on Mac or PC; Logic on Mac; and Sonar on PC. There’s no more distinction between standard and Pro versions of Automap—version 4 incorporates all of that previously extra-cost functionality.

Should you wish to remap any or all assignments, you may do so manually in Automap’s “heads-up display” window or via an easy Learn function: Press the Learn button, click on a virtual control, and touch the knob, fader, or button that you want to control it—anything your host or plug-in makes available for automation is fair game. Assigning MIDI CC numbers and defining ranges are similarly easy, and you can even swap assignments between controls by simply dragging and dropping their icons in the Automap window. Multiple parameters may also be assigned to a single control by entering Latch mode. As a major bonus, the QWERTY button support lets you program buttons on the Impulse 61 to send such commands as your frequently used computer keyboard shortcuts. This latter function is very handy while creating quick musical sketches during bursts of creativity.

Conclusions

I love this thing, and it’s definitely found a home in my studio. If you want high-end, the SL Mk. II delivers nicer-feeling Fatar keys and more controls for about $200 more. If you are looking for a feature-packed MIDI keyboard controller at a relatively modest price, the Impulse 61 should top your list.

Snap Judgment

PROS Delivers excellent build quality and robust features at a relatively low price. Keyboard feels good, responds well, and senses aftertouch. Automap 4 provides instant command of DAWs and plug-ins.

CONS Plastic construction may not stand up to steady road abuse.

Bottom Line

With its very responsive keys, full complement of controls, and plugand- play integration with major DAWs and plug-ins, the Impulse is simply an outstanding value.

$499 list | $399 street
novationmusic.com

 
***Watch the author explain his Automap 4 setup with his favorite plug-ins.

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