For those of us who came to electronic music by way of the acoustic piano, finding an approachable MIDI controller can be a daunting task. There are numerous weighted, 88-note controllers on the market, but most are aimed either at the beginner digital piano market, or at the power user who requires a multitude of knobs and ports for exacting mapping purposes. If like me you don't fall into either category, M-Audio’s new Hammer 88 USB/MIDI controller just may be what your doctor ordered. It marries a fully-weighted, piano-like action to a set of basic but functional controls and ports, and even includes a suite of fantastic software and virtual instruments, all for under $400. Now that’s a story worth reading-on for!

First Impressions

If you’re familiar with M-Audio’s previous controller offerings, the Hammer 88 just may surprise you. Unlike many of the company’s lighter, more portable and more “plastic-y” offerings, this is one solid piece of gear. The entire top panel is made of metal, and the underside is built around what appears to be MDF. I was immediately struck at how solid the Hammer 88 feels (It weighs-in at a gig-maneuverable 38.5 pounds). I can imagine it being the centerpiece of a studio or live rig. It’s that well-constructed.

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F is for FEEL

Anyone looking seriously at the Hammer 88 is doing so for one reason – the keyboard has a fantastic feel and response. Many more expensive 88-key controllers have keyboard actions that are far lighter than the Hammer 88’s. While this is usually done so the keyboard can do “triple duty” playing piano, organ and synth/electric piano parts, those looking for a heftier grand piano feel are often left unsatisfied. I can say without reservation that the Hammer 88 has one of the best weighted actions I have played-on. Much like an acoustic instrument’s, the Hammer 88’s action is meaty and begs the player to dig into it. I found that I was able to play piano parts with a degree of accuracy and expression rarely available on a digital device.

Controls and Ports

Complementing the Hammer 88’s terrific weighted action is a “Swiss Army Knife” array of basic controls; pitch and modulation wheels (which emit a red glow when the unit is connected to a power source), two buttons (marked “+/-“), and a volume fader. The keyboard can be split into zones and configured for performance by means of the included preset editor app. (More on that below).

In terms of back panel connections, the Hammer 88 features three footswitch ports, a USB as well as a 5-pin MIDI output, and an AC power socket. (Alternatively, the Hammer 88 can fully run on USB power). M-Audio includes a music rest with the Hammer 88, an added bonus.

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Bundled Software

Included along with the Hammer 88 is a sumptuous suite of software that had me making music in literally minutes. The bundle includes Pro Tools First, Ableton Live Lite, two acoustic piano plug-ins (Mini Grand and Eighty-Eight Ensemble), the DB-33 Tonewheel Organ plug-in, the Velvet electric piano plug-in, a 3-month subscription to the Skoove interactive piano course, and the M-Audio Hammer 88 Preset Editor which allows customization of the Hammer 88’s controls and ports.

In Use

Immediately after unpacking the Hammer 88 and registering the included software, I fired-up Pro Tools and began recording. I was thoroughly impressed with the resilience and response of the Hammer 88’s keybed. Piano parts that I struggled to craft on lighter, more expensive 88-key controllers came to life with the Hammer 88. I loved the acoustic quality of the included Eighty-Eight piano plug-in, as well as the Rhodes variations in the bundled Velvet software. Particularly great were the tremolo and tape delayed Rhodes models which drew me in from the very first note.

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Conclusions

M-Audio has a winner on their hands with the Hammer 88. It has a terrific, meaty piano action, an inviting suite of included software, all under 40 pounds and under $400. If you’re looking for an affordable MIDI controller that plays like a piano but thinks like a modern musician, you owe it to yourself to try one today. I just may add one to my studio. It’s that good.

PROS

Deeply satisfying piano hammer action. Terrific build quality. Pro quality software and plug-ins included. Affordable.

CONS

At this price, none to speak of!

Bottom Line

A great yet bargain-priced 88-note MIDI controller for the stage or studio.

$399 street

www.m-audio.com

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In addition to being the editor of Keyboardmag.com, Jon Regen is a singer, songwriter, and pianist from New York City.