News » 21 January 2009

In Search Of A New Compact Midi Controller

I've needed a better compact MIDI controller for a long time, but keep blowing my hobby money on software (damn you Max for Live for turning me into an Ableton user... ). It's about time I got a decent input device. Right now I mostly use an M-Audio Oxygen 8, and it's a cheap piece of crap. Maybe "crap" is too harsh; it was inexpensive entry-level hardward and I got what I paid for. To it's credit, it has served me well for the past 7 years. Now I'm ready for more. My software tools are incredibly powerful, I don't want my input device holding me back.

There's a lot of options out there these days, so I'm doing research to make an informed decision. Since many computer musicians have to make this somewhat difficult decision too, I'm going to post my notes here. Just keep in mind my decision will ultimately be based on personal preference.

Here's my requirements for a good controller: And some preferences:

Things I don't really care about: appearance and "automap". Appearance is secondary if the features are good. I was thinking automap would be nice, and at first I even thought it was a requirement. But honestly the more I think about it, I'm pretty concerned about having an additional, most likely buggy, software layer in between me and the thing I'm trying to control. I know my on-screen interfaces well, and I'm used to doing mappings manually, so I have no problem continuing to work with manual mappings. If I decide I need automap later I can get something like the Novation ReMOTE ZeRO SL. And finally, I don't want to waste any money on a controller that can make sound or that has a built in audio interface. I have the gear for this already.

Ok, given all that, here are the contenders (note prices cheaper than MSRP, I'm looking at zzounds.com which generally has very competitive pricing. Prices current as of January 21, 2009.):
Model Price 8va Input Highlights Pitch / Mod Notes
Novation ReMote SL 37 $419.95 3 - 8 Rotary (infinite)
- 8 Rotary (0-270°)
- 8 Sliders
- 32 Buttons
- 8 Pads
- XY touchpad (pressure sensitive!)
- Transport
- tap tempo
stick sustain/expression, automap, template select (different banks, I guess), not USB powered? pads don't indicate velocity sensitivity
Novation Remote 49SLC $339.95 4 - 8 Rotary (infinite)
- 8 Buttons
- 8 Pads
- Transport
wheel sustain/expression, automap, template select (different banks, I guess), not USB powered? pads don't indicate velocity sensitivity
Akai MPK49 $369.95 4 - 8 rotary (inifinte)
- 12 pads, velocity/pressure! sensitive
- 8 Sliders
- 8 switches
- note repeat and arpeggiator
- transport
- tap tempo
wheel expression/footswitch, USB powered, 3 banks of controls, 4 banks of pads, I read tap tempo doesn't send MIDI but when using this as the clock source it wouldn't matter
M-Audio Axiom 49 $219.95 4 - 8 pads
- 8 rotary
- 9 sliders
- 15 buttons
- transport
wheel "assignable" aftertouch, sustain/expression, USB-powered, octave change buttons are big and in a convenient location, 20 memory locations. Pads don't say that they're velocity sensitive, which would kind of defeat the purpose.
M-Audio Axiom Pro 49 $599.95! 4 - 8 pads
- 8 rotary
- 9 sliders
- 15 buttons
- transport
wheel TruTouch "professional" keybed. Too expensive! Key action would have to blow the competition completely out of the water for me to consider this. automap. sustain/expression. USB-powered. Pads are velocity sensitive, possibly unlike the standard Axiom 49. octave change buttons are big and in a convenient location. 50 memory locations (unnecessary?)
EDIROL PCR-500 $299.99 4 - 18 pads
- 9 rotary
- 9 sliders
- 7? buttons
stick USB-powered. Not semi-weighted? Claims "ultra-sensitive"/"smooth" key action, maybe not what I want. I don't like the pad layout.
There's also an E-mu Xboard for $169.95 but it doesn't have the variety of inputs that these other controllers have.

Ok, that was a lot to absorb. After staring at all this info for a little while and reading reviews around the intarwebs, my gut feel is the Akai MPK49 might be the best fit. The note repeat and arpeggiate features are a nice bonus. The MPC-style pads should be better than the M-Audio or Novation pads. Plus I like that they are pressure sensitive and all the controls look nice and big. The only other pressure sensitive input is the X-Y Pad on the Novation ReMote SL 37, which sounds really cool, but I am hesitant to go for that because (1) it has one less octave (2) it's more expensive (3) I don't like the pitch bend/mod stick (4) I don't like the pad layout (5) some of the other things in the Notes column concern me. The M-Audio Axiom is viable as well, as it's sure to be a major upgrade over my Oxygen 8, and the price is very nice.

I'm glad I went through all this info to get a sense of what I might like/dislike about each controller. At this point I can't make a decision though. What this is all going to come down to is the key action. I need to find something that feels right. So I'm going to have to head over to my local Guitar Center in the next week or two and try out these models and see what I like. I'll report back later with my findings.

[UPDATE: it didn't really come down to key action. Here's the details on what I ended up purchasing]