By Kev Choice and Albert Mathias
OVER THE LAST 30 YEARS, KEITH MCMILLEN’S INNOVATIVE SPIRIT HAS TAKEN him to Harman Kardon and Gibson, a partnership with the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for New Media and Audio Technologies, and an early role in the precursor to the Open Sound Control music programming language. He’s probably best known, however, for founding Zeta—the company that, among other things, put electric and MIDI-fied string instruments on the map in the 1980s. At heart, McMillen is a maverick with traditional roots—he’s formally trained in acoustics, classical guitar, and composition—but his mission is to push live, interactive music ensemble situations using extended instruments enhanced by computer intelligence.
It’s no surprise, then, that when McMillen started his eponymous company in 2007, his first product was the K-Bow, a Bluetooth-enabled sensor bow, followed by the Batt-O-Meter battery tester, the StringPort computer platform for guitars, and the ten-button SoftStep MIDI/USB foot controller. Now comes the 12 Step, which adds two footswitches to the SoftStep layout and resembles a one-octave keyboard.
Keys and Controls
First, the basics: The 12 Step is a chromatic keyboard foot controller that sends MIDI notes via USB or the optional MIDI Expander to control soft synths, MIDI keyboards, and MIDI sound modules. The 12 Step is polyphonic, it has aftertouch and pitch-bend, and it’s velocity sensitive.
The first thing you may notice is its form factor: It weighs one pound, and it’s barely a foot and a half long, four inches tall, and a quarter of an inch thick; the “keys” are about an inch and a quarter by half an inch. That doesn’t mean that it’s invisible onstage, however. Thanks to its clean, clear layout and its white LED backlighting, the 12 Step’s keys are easy to see, and the fourcharacter, user-programmable, alphanumeric display, and 13 red LEDs help keep those footsteps in the dark right on track.
The manual, which lists the presets, is well written and clear, as is the editor you can download at keithmcmillen.com. Not everyone will find the editor easy to navigate, but spending time and exploring possibilities opens up a realm of new possibilities—most important, the abilities to arrange and edit the presets to your specs, and to adjust the keys’ velocity sensitivity, which can make a huge difference to your experience of these pedals.
Changing presets is as easy as going into Select mode by holding down the Select key until the red LEDs flash, and then pushing any of the numbered keys. To change “decades,” go into Select mode, press the Enter key, and use the -10 or the +10 keys. Other standout features of the 12 Step include its note modes (Normal, Legato, Toggle, and Hold), its easy iPad connectivity, and its sophisticated pressure and tilt performance modifiers—yes, you can tilt your foot forward on a key to pitch-bend.
The 12 Step comes with 60 presets, and the editor software makes it easy to concoct and save another 68. Right out of the box, with the MIDI Expander (a separate peripheral that lets you control MIDI gear without a computer—you don’t need it to control soft synths over USB) attached, the 12 Step coaxed interesting flavors from our Roland HP-126 digital piano. Scrolling through settings is a good way to sample polyphonic presets (you can play up to five notes per key) and get a feel for how much pressure the pedals need. As responsive as they are, their diminutive size may take some getting used to; trying to play walking bass lines, for example, might make one wish for shoes with bigger heels or pointier tips. Sitting down certainly helps. Those with big feet or boots will be happy to know that in a gig situation, switching from “multi-key” to “single key” mode could help prevent accidental triggers.
The 12 Step really came alive with Propellerhead Reason and Ableton Live. Hooking it up via USB is a snap—it’s classcompliant and doesn’t require a driver, so selecting it as a MIDI device in your host program’s Preferences menu is all it takes. Scrolling through the presets for major and minor chords, tritones, thirds, suspended ninth chords, and so on inspired plenty of fresh ideas. Jamming on a 12-bar blues in Reason while using the “major b7” preset, for example, lead to inspired soloing over chords, moving up and down chromatically while improvising on a Yamaha Motif. It’s easy to imagine the 12 Step coming in handy for effects and pedal tones, as well as for vamp sections for solos or outros; with some creative thinking, a solo pianist might find a way to wring unusual accompaniments from the 12 Step. Anything involving fancy footwork, however, will require some practice, especially if you won’t be looking at your feet.
It’s almost a shame to hide something this cool on the floor underneath your keyboard stand. The 12 Step would make a nifty, eye-catching tool for deejays, emcees, or anyone on stage responsible for triggering samples or generating tones. It was an interesting experiment, for example, to trigger sustained musical events with the 12 Step while playing a Zendrum—single notes, intervals, and chords sounded great, but being able to control arpeggiated sequences built out of Native Instruments Kore patches, hosted in Ableton Live 8, while having both hands free to play drums was simple, liberating, and inspiring—just what you’d want from a non-traditional MIDI controller.
With its cutting-edge form factor and insane flexibility, the 12 Step is a welcome alternative to heavy, cumbersome foot controllers that require vigorous tap dancing and a Ph.D. to program. Hitting the keys consistently may take practice, but once you’ve developed your aim, the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
PROS Monster-proof build. Deeply programmable. Polyphonic aftertouch. Ridiculously portable.
CONS Nailing the “keys” accurately may take some practice.
If you’re looking for a MIDI/USB foot controller that’s supremely portable, visible, flexible, and reliable, your search is over.