News » 27 January 2009

Controller Upgrade: Mpk49

This is a follow up to my previous posting on the hunt for a good keyboard controller.

I checked out the Novation Remote 37SL, M-Audio Axiom 49, and Akai MPK49 in person. Honestly, I didn't love the key action on any of them. The Remote 37SL might have felt slightly better and the Axiom slightly worse than the others. The MPK49 keys are somewhat resistant and bouncy, so they return to the default position quickly: all in all, that's not a bad thing. Randomly wandering around Guitar Center, I discovered the Roland Fantom was impressivly close to a real piano feel. But I decided a real piano feel wasn't important for my computer music. The key action on any of these would be good enough.

What sold me was the controls. The MPK49 has bigger knobs that turn smoothly. The others click over notches when you turn them, irk! The MPK49's sliders were bigger and more solid, unlike the Axiom which I heard fall apart easily (indeed, one slider was missing it's "grip" piece on the store's floor model). The Akai also had big pads, laid out in a matrix instead of a straight line, which I think makes it easier to play, and the pitch and modulation wheels have rubber gribs with a nice finger-sized indentation in the center. My overall impression? The MPK49 looked more inviting. So I got it!

After using it for a few days I an very pleased overall.

It's not quite semi-portable, it's heavier than I expected which may be a hassle when moving it around. This is partially because it is very solidly built. That's ok, I still have the old oxygen 8 that fits in a backpack and as a hobbyist I don't have any gigs (yet).

The controller mapping interface is good. It's pretty easy to use the controls on the hardware, but the software editor that came with it is quite good, much better than M-Audio's Enigma. Remapping controls was very straightforward. It might not be Automap Universal but it's perfectly fine for my needs.

At first I was disappointing because I thought the pressure sensitivity was not per pad. They use channel aftertouch. On the keyboard, channel aftertouch works by measuring the overall pressure down on the keys. So if you are holding a chord, any aftertouch-controlled effects will be applied equally to all notes regardless of whether some fingers are pressing harder than others. The pads work the same way, so it seemed there was no independent pressure measurement. But that's because the default settings is for all the pads to be on the same channel. If you reconfigure them to be on different channels, then you can use the aftertouch channel to distinguish the pads.

I also realized very little of my software actually supports aftertouch. Oh well, I can remap aftertouch to a CC number in Max/MSP. Besides, this gives me motivation to build my own aftertouch-responsive synth software.

The default settings of the pads is kind of ridiculous, you cannot hit maximum velocity. But by adjusting things to the most sensitive configuration, it seemed ok. I think they should break in after a while.

The only things I found missing from this fantastic piece of hardware is: (1) There is no velocity curve settings for the keyboard. The velocity response seemed fine though, and this could be addressed on the software side anyway. (2) The tap tempo button does not send a MIDI message to the computer. That would have been helpful, but another button could be mapped to tap tempo on the computer or the computer can slave to the MPK's clock. Neither of these is a huge deal in my book. [update: I realized another one that may matter to some people: (3) no keyboard splitting features. I handle my splits in software so I didn't see it as a problem. Samplers and Ableton Live's Instrument Racks give me all the features I need.]

I've been playing with Ableton Live a lot recently and I am thrilled because I'm finally really happy with my setup. I launch clips from a monome, mix levels/panning/sends with a UC-33e, and play keys/drums/effects on the MPK49 & arm tracks with its buttons. It's a very hands-off-computer live looping/improv-oriented setup. I am having much more fun with this than I have been in recent times doing step entry and mouse input into piano rolls. The downside? I'm not working on my software projects much right now because I'm having too much fun playing music again :)