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Part 3: Section 2: MIDI Controllers (without keys)

Published: Tue October 03, 2006  News Feed

It’s fair to say that whatever your keyboard playing skills there is a controller out there for you, as we’ve already seen in section 1 of this part of our computer music guide. But what if you don’t want a keyboard? Or what happens if you already have a keyboard and just want some extra controls to manipulate your music software? Fortunately there are many MIDI controllers without keyboards that will fit your needs. They may simply be keyboardless versions of the controller keyboards we’ve already detailed in Section 1, or they may be custom built control surfaces dedicated to particular pieces of software or, in at least one case, a controller designed to sit on the edge of your laptop! In short you can have whatever combination of knobs, sliders, dials and switches you want, keyboard or not!

They’ve cut the keyboard off!

As we’ve already hinted at, some manufactures have apparently identified this market and simply sawn off the keyboards from their popular controller keyboards to leave the controller bit. That’s actually a cynical way of describing it because these are all still highly effective controllers and why should you, the consumer, be forced to pay extra for a keyboard if you already own one? Simply place one of these in the MIDI chain betwixt keyboard and computer and dial away…

One of the most recent releases in this category is the Novation ReMOTE Zero SL (£229). As well as featuring a couple of large and informative displays, the Zero SL features Automapping technology to ‘recognise’ which software you have running before assigning all of its pots and sliders to it.  

The Evolution UC33E (£144.99) is not strictly speaking a direct keyboardless version of one of the company’s ‘boards but, heck, it looks like one and does the same kind of job. With 24 knobs and nine sliders there are certainly as many, if not more controls than you’ll find on an average keyboard and, if that’s not enough, the unit also has 33 memories and 14 assignable buttons. You can also buy separate Reason Overlays (£9.95) for use with the UC that are designed for Reason’s instruments such as the Malstrom synth and NN-19 sampler.

General entry level

Kenton pretty much started the MIDI controller bandwagon with the Control Freak (£215) and the unit is keeping the flag flying all these years later. It has eight programmable sliders and buttons plus 128 memories. The Control Freak Studio (£270) adds more sliders and comes packed with presets to control lots of popular sequencers and synths but you can easily customise it to your exact requirements. Also from Kenton comes the Spin Doctor (£115) which is the company’s entry-level controller. It comes with 16 rotaries and 25 memories that can be loaded with Control Freak templates so you can control a whole load of popular applications.

If you want simple controls but don’t want to be (literally) tied to your sequencer you might want to try the Frontier Design Tranzport (£129) which is a wireless controller that acts as a front end to lots of popular DAWs and uses high frequency radio waves to communicate. Sit back, anywhere in your studio, and press play. There are also bundles of the unit available for the same money that include either a free carry bag or mic stand. 

The Presonus FaderPort Music Production Controller (£159) is a clever unit with transport controls, cursors and a single motorised fader that can be assigned to whatever channel you wish and be fully automated. Clever and compact stuff.

Naturally Behringer is offering a lot in this category for little in the way of outlay. The B Control Rotary BCR2000 and B Control Fader BCF2000 (£89 and £139 respectively) both offer pro controls including proper motorized faders and represent great value for money.
At the high end

Mackie Control (£799) is one of the most universal, solid and downright ‘proper’ controllers out there. It’ll control Logic Audio, Pro Tools, Cubase, Sonar and many more applications straight out of the box, and it’s also expandable so you can increase the size of the system as your soft studio grows with an additional Universal Extender (£599) which will add more channels and controls.

The Tascam FW1884 (£749) has lots of controls but also offers lots of i/o and mix options making it both a flexible mixer and controller. In fact, for the cash you’ll be hard pushed to find much else with all of these features and controls.

Having said that the Digidesign Command 8 (£769.99) is pretty packed with features as well, and has a Focusrite monitoring section included although it is a unit obviously geared to Digidesign’s Pro Tools. 

Pad controllers

With dominant pads on their front panels, MIDI pad controllers appear to be aimed at percussionists but actually do a hell of a lot more besides. Yes you can trigger drum sounds and loops, but they can also be used as anything from simple transport buttons to triggering entire performances, so really come into their own in live set ups.

The Akai MPD16 (£79.99) is one of the cheapest and has 16 pads and USB connectivity for extra flexibility. The M-Audio Trigger Finger (£129.99) has the same number of pads but that extra outlay gets you four sliders and some useful rotaries too. Also included is a Lite version of Ableton’s Live software although you can buy the Trigger Finger and full version of Live as a bundle for £349. Perhaps the flashest looking pad controller around is Korg’s PadKontrol (£139). It may lack the M-Audio’s rotaries but it features an X-Y pad for extra finger control plus some excellently lit pads and buttons. You also get a whole set of Toontrack beats sounds for your cash.

Earth, wind and foot…

It’s not just your fingers that can control your gear, of course. Why not try your feet, or even your breath!? The Digitech Control 8 (£139) has seven footswitches and a sustain pedal for maximum control over either your software of hardware effects, although it is obviously geared towards guitarists. The Yamaha MFC10 (£189) may cost a bit more but has extra footswitches for more flexibility. Behringer’s FCB1010 features 10 footswitches and two expression pedals – great value for £109.

As far as wind goes, there’s little to choose from so you might as well go for the Akai EWI4000S (£479). It might seem expensive but it represents something of a pinnacle in wind control – a technology that has been with us for years – but this claims to have many refinements and all the expression wind players need in the MIDI world.

Out of this world

When you look at the controllers above, as good as they, you can’t help thinking that they are all simply variations on a theme using rotaries, dials, faders and switches, all using the MIDI protocol to its exacting standards and, well, not doing much else. As good as they are (and many are really very good) there’s not been that much ‘out of the box’ thinking. No one has thought, for example, about making these units more of a visual performance tool… until now that is! 

The oddly-named JazzMutant Lemur (£1,499) uses a touch screen that can handle several touches at once and several controller templates that you can either create from scratch or use some of the ones supplied. With a colourful interface and the right person in charge of it, this controller really can become a part of a computer music performance in the same way that a guitar becomes integral to a rock band’s set. Well, maybe that’s overstating things a bit, but take one look at this beauty and you might well think it’s the future of music control. And if nothing else you can pretend you’re Scotty and beam your mates in and out of your studio…! It’s not quite universal yet as connectivity might be an issue (check before you buy) but if this innovative company manages to refine their product for the mass market, then everyone will want one.

Slightly back on Planet Earth but still revolutionary in their design are the range of Faderfox controllers that are mobile controllers for laptop musicians and DJs. These really have been designed with the specific task in mind, often a specific application, so they do the job well in neat, compact and portable blocks of goodness. The Faderfox Micromodul  DJ2 (£149)is a kind of mini DJ mixer and, along with its sister module the DX2 (£149), has been optimised for Native Instruments’ Traktor DJ complete with loop and effects controls. Micromodul LV2 (£149) is similar, only it’s been optimised for Ableton Live with faders and pots to control that software (that’s not to say that it won’t work with other sequencers though). Where that module offers control over the pots and sliders, the complementary module LX2 (£149) has also been designed with Live in mind to control the software’s tracks, clips and scenes. Great units for the mobile musician…

Other dedicated software controllers

While being able to control lots of software, the Faderfox controllers are best used with the applications that they have been designed for, but they are not the only controllers tailored to specific apps.

M-Audio’s iControl (£99) is – and you might have guessed it from that Apple-like ‘i’ in the name – a controller for GarageBand. Again, you can use it for other software but it makes use of Apple’s music software even easier (and that’s saying something!).

DJ controllers

We’ve already seen some dedicated controllers for DJ software but there are also some units designed for the computer-based DJ. Evolution X-Session (£75) has a crossfader and allows scratching a mixing across MIDI channels and in real time so you can get deep down and dirty with all of your plug-ins. The Hercules DJ Control MP3 (£79.99) goes one step further by including a couple of turntable controllers. The idea is that you can mix and match between MP3s, WAVs and other audio files using the controller and supplied software and you get the best of old skool physical DJ-ing combined with digital file mixing and manipulation. Neat idea!

Next Step...

The Dolphin Music Beginners Guide To Computer Music by Andy Jones

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