From the beginning, Line 6 has been in the game of pushing the boundaries of what a guitar player can do with digital technology by marrying a reverence for classic tones and “the way things used to be” with a desire to break through the limitations traditional gear impose. Having made and maintained their reputation as the industry leader in guitar, amp, and effect modelling almost two decades ago, Line 6 has conspicuously turned their focus to integrating the guitar experience into consumer-focused devices and tapping in to a rich ecosystem of mobile devices, tablets, and laptops. The Line 6 Sonic Port VX is their latest foray into this world and features a price-point, feature set, and ease-of-use that is meant to make it a must have for all players.
With superior 24-bit/48kHz audio quality and a 120dB dynamic range, the Line 6 Sonic Port VX is a zero-latency, all-in-one mobile audio interface made to connect a guitar (or other instrument) to an iOS device or standard PC/MAC for practice, jamming, and recording. Building on the guitar-centric input/output feature set of the original Line 6 Sonic Port, which includes a ¼” input for guitars, 1/8” stereo input, stereo/mono ¼” guitar/line-level output, and 1/8” headphone output, the Sonic Port VX replaces the ¼” output with two balanced ¼” outputs to run independent stereo channels into studio monitors or a mixer. The included USB and 14-pin to Lightning cables provide comprehensive connectivity to all supported devices.
Where the Line 6 Sonic Port VX branches out in interesting and inspiring ways from the base Sonic Port is the addition of stereo and mono condenser mics built directly into the unit. Supported by professional mic preamps, both microphones actively capture acoustic instruments and vocals with a toneful depth, clarity, and presence that is mix-ready. A small toggle switch on the side selects between guitar/instrument, stereo microphones, or mono microphone modes, expanding recording possibilities to include capturing ambient sounds on the go (or even in the studio) without hassle or the need for additional gear. The included tabletop stand is well-designed, adjustable, and flexible enough to address almost any miking application.
Aimed at guitar players, the Sonic Port VX stacks the deck with recording-quality ready modeling via the Mobile Pod app. The Mobile Pod app (available for free via the iTunes App Store) is central to the Sonic Port VX ecosystem, giving users access to over 32 highly customizable guitar amp models, 16 speaker cabinets, and over a dozen guitar effects via a visual, user-friendly interface on any iOS device. The models can be mixed, matched, and tweaked to the players’ content and then saved for instant access later on. While traditionalists will continue to grumble about anything less than a $3000 tube amp, the amps, cabinets, and effects all breathe, respond, and (most importantly) sound so accurate that listening to a playback yields a negligible (if any) difference from the real thing. With room for hundreds of user and factory presets and access to tens of thousands of tones from the Customtone.com community sortable by style and artist, there is no end to sonic inspiration. Players looking to never leave the Mobile Pod app will be happy to find their entire iTunes music library is available to jam over within the app. The Sonic Port VX integrates with GarageBand and Jammit; making recording as simple as opening the GarageBand app with the Sonic Port VX plugged in and jamming as simple as selecting a song in Jammit (preset tones included with each song).
One of the biggest factors to Line 6’s success has been the ability to take cutting-edge technology and make it accessible and intuitive to guitar players raised on “crank it and forget it” analog gear. While a certain number of players have the desire and aptitude to go deep into recording technology, most just want to capture their performance with as little fuss and as much quality as possible. The simplicity and utility of the hardware makes the Sonic Port VX practically a manual-free startup for most players, and the graphics-driven user interface of the Mobile Pod app completely mimics the knob tweaking and signal-chain shuffle players have relied on for decades.
Budget-minded players looking for a high-quality interface to capture guitars, vocals, and acoustic instruments will find a flexible, fully fleshed out solution in the Line 6 Sonic Port VX. The ability to record innspired flashes of creativity anywhere at a sound quality level that is mix ready is a true boon for singer-songwriters looking for an affordable method of capturing their music.
Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
There are few musical innovations that have defined an entire genre of music and the new AIRA series from Roland pay homage to a group of hardware instruments that have done exactly that. The Roland TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines, as well as the TB-303 groove box, set the foundation for what has become some of today's most popular sounds. Now these iconic instruments have been completely re-imagined for today's studio environments. The TR-8 takes the iconic sound and feeling of the original TR-808 and the TR-909 drum machines, and combines them into one extremely functional, digitally modeled version of the original legends. While the TB-3 Touch Bassline is a detailed emulation of the original TB-303 groove box, a box that is solely responsible for creating Acid House music.
With the series there is also the VT-3 voice transformer based on the 1996 Roland VT-1, which is an ultra-fast and intuitive way to transform vocals. Finally there is the SYSTEM-1 synthesizer, which at the time of this review I have yet to get my hands on, but it is believed to be the ultimate piece of hardware to complete this masterful collection. And if all of this wasn't enough, Roland made sure that all of these instruments communicate flawlessly with each other to work as one complete AIRA command center for the stage or the studio.
• There are a total of 4 hardware instruments that make up the complete AIRA series: the TR-8, TB-3, VT-3 and the SYSTEM-1
• Lightweight, but solid build with an aluminum faceplate. Weighs in at just over 4 pounds.
• The TR-8 is based on analog modeling technology, so the sounds are synthesized entirely inside the TR-8 to faithfully emulate the original units.
• In Step-sequence mode, you can create beats just like you would on the original TR-808, TR-909 by specifying the steps at which each instrument will sound.
• Each sound is laid out on its own individual channel including a bass drum, snare drum, low tom, mid tom, high tom, rim shot, hand clap, closed hi-hat, open hi-hat, crash cymbal, and a ride cymbal.
• Each drum sound has a dedicated set of parameters that can be adjusted for each channel. For example on the kick drum you have access to the attack and decay, along with tuning and compression. There's also a volume fader for each instrument.
• Instant Record mode lets you play a sound and record it in real time, all while quantizing the notes you play to keep everything tight and in sync.
• There are a total of 16 patterns in the TR-8 with two variations (A/B) for each pattern.
• All of the 11 instruments are considered to be a kit, and the TR-8 has a total of 16 kits to choose from.
• Use roll modes to repeat a sound during playback in 8th note, 16th note or 2 different variation modes. This is a great way to enhance a live performance with on-the-fly edits.
• The effects let you shape your sound even further with reverb and delay, each of which can be applied per step or per instrument. For example you can dial in a specific type of reverb for the clap or add a delay on the snare for a unique sound.
• The built-in Scatter mode lets you mash-up your beat with a combination of stutters, glitches and other effects while the beat continues to run underneath. This feature is aimed at live performances, but there is no reason why you can't record some of the edits into your DAW for inspiration or a unique fill.
• The USB jack can transmit MIDI information as well USB audio data. Make sure you install the correct USB drivers before connecting the TR-8 to your computer.
• MIX OUT jacks are your main jacks to your amp or speakers. There's also ASSIGNABLE OUT (A,B) jacks that you can use to output instruments that you specify, for example just the kick and snare on their own individual outputs.
• The TR-8 also includes EXTERNAL IN (L,R) jacks so you can connect an external audio source to the system. The input sound will be routed to the MIX OUT jacks and out to your speakers. You can even use the Scatter effect on the incoming sound.
• There’s also a side chain feature for your external input sources. Set it per-step to choose when you want to duck the incoming audio.
• It's compact and lightweight at just over a pound.
• Just like the TR-8, the TB-3 utilizes Roland's Analog Circuit Behavior technology that models the actual analog sound of the original using digital synthesis, but the sound is as instantly recognizable as the original.
• Roland meticulously created the TB-3 using an original, untouched TR-303 unit to recreate the exact sound using their original spec sheets and other archived data.
• For those of you who remember the original TB-303, a lot of features have pretty much been left untouched with the exception of some modern enhancements
• The most notable improvement is the addition of an illuminated touchpad interface where you have access to a KEYBOARD to play notes; an XY PLAY mode where you can use the horizontal (x) and vertical (y) axes of the pad to perform pitch and volume control; and the ENV MOD where you can control envelope modulation all at the touch of a finger.
• The TB-3 has a total of 64 patterns (8 patterns x 8 banks) that can be recorded by step recording or playing the recording patterns in real time. When in Pattern Select mode the display will show you the bank and pattern number you are currently working on.
• Use the PTN SELECT button to select a pattern you want to work with either by selecting it on the touchpad or by using the VALUE knob.
• Use Step Recording to enter notes or rests, accents and slides/ties at each step. Each pattern is divided into 16 "steps" or grid locations, which can be changed to 32 if you need a finer grid resolution.
• Press the REALTIME REC button to choose the recording mode where you can record and play notes in real time right into the TB-3. Note the current pattern you're working on will be overwritten.
• The sound of the TB-3 comes from state-of-the-art synth tones, powered by four oscillators and effects, which also include Roland's faithfully reproduced classic TB-303 tones (A01: TB-303 saw tooth wave, A02: TB-303 square wave)
• There are five control knobs including VOLUME, CUTOFF, RESONANCE, ACCENT and EFFECT to edit sounds with. Use the filter cutoff to control the brightness of the sound, the resonance to add character, accent to increase or decrease the amount of accents in your pattern, and effects to add more depth.
• You'll also find a Scatter mode on the TB-3 just like the one on the TR-8 that will create unique variations of your pattern. Hold down PTN SELECT and SCATTER to create a completely random version of the currently selected pattern, or hold down the KEYBOARD button and SCATTER to randomly change the octave, slide, shift and accent parameters without changing the character of the pattern. Each version can be recorded to save the variation as a new pattern.
• The TB-3 connectivity includes a DC In jack; OUT jacks, MIDI in and out, and a headphone out.
• Simple and straightforward, the VT-3 is easy to operate and can create instant vocal effects including auto tune, vocoder, synth, lead, bass, megaphone, radio and scatter.
• Lightweight and just a bit shorter in width than the TB-3, the VT-3 also weighs in at slightly over a pound.
• Connectivity on the VT-3 includes an XLR/TRS combo input jack, stereo mini PHONES jack (front), mini MIC IN jack (front), USB port, OUT jacks, and a place to connect a footswitch (sold separately) if desired.
• One additional note on the OUT jacks, when the SELECT switch is set to “BYPASS-MONO”, you can output the processed sound and the unprocessed sound separately.
• Phantom power is available via the PHANTOM switch for mics that require it.
• Modifying your voice is easy. Just plug your mic into either the rear XLR/TRS combo input or the front mini input on the VT-3 and adjust the mic sensitivity accordingly. Then select the desired effect and raise the MIX BALANCE fader to increase the amount of the applied effect.
• A note from Roland suggests that it is important to set the mic sensitivity level so that the PEAK indicator lights up occasionally to make sure the effect will work properly. Too much or too little signal can make for an undesired performance.
• The Character Knob is where you select the type of effect you want applied. Choose from AUTO PITCH1 & 2, VOCODER, SYNTH, LEAD, BASS, MEGAPHONE, RADIO, and SCATTER.
• There are also sliders on the VT-3 to adjust pitch, formant and reverb for some unique sound shaping characteristics.
• The VT-3 can transmit audio via USB. You can playback audio from your computer out of the VT-3’s output and headphone jacks, send the processed mic sound from the VT-3 to your computer, or loop-back the sound from your computer into the VT-3 and back out to your computer with the mixed mic signal added.
• The VT-3 has 3 Scene Memory buttons that can store up to 3 scenes to instantly recall settings of the ROBOT button, Character Knob, and the sliders.
• There is no way to save patches on the TR-8 and recall them at a later time, so whatever beat you're working on remains in the unit until you're ready for the next creation. This however isn't necessarily a bad thing as it can keep your creativity fresh by making you start over to create a new song, and you can always record your favorite patterns into your computer and save them as custom loops.
• The roll function is a performance only effect and cannot be recorded directly into a pattern, but again you can always record the effect into a workstation and use it as an audio clip in your productions.
• There's no way to copy a pattern to the next slot while the unit is running the current pattern. This would be a great feature for performances where you're creating patterns live.
• There are some extra steps involved with adding effects that can be a bit confusing at first. In addition, you only have reverb and a delay to choose from, but you do get multiple types of each effect that you can apply.
• The TR-8 has a dazzling light display that comes on only moments after the unit has been sitting idle, and as cool as it looks, it can be quite distracting in a low-light studio environment. However, after some research I did find out that there is a way that you can just shut off this feature.
• There are effects on the TB-3, but you don’t have the ability to select which one is applied. There is an effect that is automatically applied to best suit the sound you’re using.
• The TB-3 doesn't have a dedicated knob for envelope depth like there is on the original TB-303, but you can access the envelope modulation window on the touchscreen for similar control.
• You don’t have access to the synth engine, or the effects on the TB-3. Everything is done under the hood for you.
First and foremost is the sound. Being that this entire series is based on some of Roland’s most iconic instruments, I was interested to see just how close they could come to the real thing. The result? I think they nailed it, and they did so without any analog circuitry inside. Roland’s ACB (Analog Circuit Behavior) technology faithfully models traditional analog circuits right down to the way they behave, and the sound proves it. The 808 and 909 kits in the TR-8 are the closest I’ve heard to the originals. The sound shaping ability on each individual drum channel really lets you dial in the exact sound you’re looking for with very little effort, and with a hands-on precision that you just can’t get with software emulations. Within the first few moments of powering up the unit I was able to get an 808-kick sound that shook the walls of my studio.
As for the TB-3, the ACB technology again mimics the original unit with exceptional detail. The TB-3 also adds in a whole range of effects like distortion and compression, eliminating the need to run the unit through external effects like what was once a common practice with the original TB-303. Bank A on the TB-3 is aimed at that niche TB-303 sound of Acid House music, but what’s nice is there are 2 more banks of bass and other synthesized sounds that leave the TB-3 open to a wider range of musical styles.
So it sounds good, but how does it work? Natural and intuitive is the best way I can describe it. In less than 10 minutes I was able to plug-in the TR-8 and start making my first pattern. If you have prior experience with drum machines, you should see instant results like I did. If this is your first time with an instrument of this type, it still will not take you very long to get your head around it. It’s fast and easy to comprehend. Some more in depth features like applying effects might take you a few times to learn, but once you’ve got the button combinations down, you’re good. The TB-3 on the other hand might take some people a little longer to learn, but it will eventually return the same results. The step-editing feature on the TB-3 is a very fast and easy way to create your own sound, or you can take any number of the already loaded presets and make them your own.
And let’s not to forget the VT-3, this little box packed a huge surprise for me. Small, compact and full of life the VT-3 sounds amazing and is quite simply, well… simple. Just plug in a mic and select and effect and it’s already doing its thing. I was able to get some pretty inspiring vocal effects out of the VT-3, from a crazed robot, to an old-time radio. Now here’s the fun part. Taking the VT-3 a bit further is where you’ll find it is most fun in the studio. Using only my voice and the VT-3 I was able to make a drum&bass inspired bass patch that was just as, if not more insane than some synth patches I commonly use in my productions. It was as simple as selecting the BASS preset, pitching it down a few semitones, adding a touch of reverb and making some really unique variations with my voice. Using the VT-3 as an effects processor is another way to integrate this little gem into your existing set up.
I didn’t get the chance to use the AIRA lineup outside of the studio in a live performance environment, but I can imagine that it would be an amazing centerpiece to any performance that could benefit from its sound. All of the units were extremely easy to sync together with just a standard MIDI cable, and without the need to be tied down to a laptop makes it an extremely attractive attribute.
While I believe there is no substitute for the real thing, these instruments are the equivalent of a photo finish, and for a price point that is much more accessible than trying to track down their vintage ancestors. All in all, these are the next-generation versions of the original, made for any modern studio or stage.
Mark Merlino is a certified audio engineer, producer, DJ and sound designer. A graduate of SAE Institute in Miami, he has worked with a wide range of artists both in and out of the studio, including time on the road with Ms. Lauryn Hill during her world tour. With over 15 years of DJ and electronic music production experience, he has a firm grasp on the current trends in drum&bass, dubstep, house, hip-hop and many other styles. He is also a published copywriter for Musician’s Friend and Harmony Central, staying up-to-date with the latest music technology.
25-key $329.99 MSRP, $249.99 street
49-key $449.99 MSRP, $349.99 street
61-key $499,99 MSRP, $399.99 street
By Craig Anderton
It’s not exactly like we’re experiencing The Great Keyboard Controller Shortage of 2012—from basic models with keys ’n’ wheels to sophisticated control surfaces, never has so much been available, from so many, for so little. Yet Novation has jumped into the fray with a new line of keyboard controllers, and they think they can bring something new to the party . . . so let’s see if they’re right.
The Impulse series consists of 25, 49, and 61-key USB keyboard controllers. All are functionally equivalent, except the 25-key model doesn’t have room for the full nine-fader control surface, but does have a single fader They all have eight assignable “endless” knob encoders, eight backlit drum pads with velocity and pressure, transport controls, pitch and mod wheels, USB and 5-pin DIN MIDI I/O (props to Novation for remembering that 5-pin DIN still matters), and jacks for sustain switch and expression pedal.
All units are bus-powered. Not only do you not need an AC adapter, you can’t add an AC adapter. As a result, those with laptops may need to power their computer with an AC adapter if the batteries are running low. If the impulse is serving as a stand-alone controller, you can use any USB power adapter.
As soon as I started playing the keys, I immediately noticed that the action has been improved—the semi-weighted keyboard action has a little more resistance than the average synth keyboard, but not so much as to detract from the “fly across the keys” appeal of typical synth keyboards. There’s also predictable channel aftertouch and velocity—if I used the same amount of pressure or dynamics, I heard the same results.
The LCD has large and readable characters, and doesn't suffer from the lack of a contrast control.
The blue, backlit LCD is large and readable, and the knobs and pads have a positive feel. Two fader caps were a little close to the panel and I could feel some friction; pulling up slightly on the cap solved that. (Note: Upon reading of the issue I had with the two faders—which really was minor enough that I almost didn't mention it—Novation nonetheless took it quite seriously, and said their project manager will work with the factory to make sure this is tested more rigorously.)
The control surface on the 49- and 61-key models includes nine faders, typically for channels and master.
Several of the 20 presets are loaded with factory defaults (Basic MIDI Control, Reason, GarageBand, MainStage, Kontakt, FM8, and a few others) but of course, you can create, save, and load your own.
Impulse supports Mac OS X 10.6.8 (32/64-bit) and Lion 10.7.2 or higher, as well as Windows XP SP3 (32-bit) and 7 (32- or 64-bit). In theory, Vista isn’t supported yet I checked out the system with 64-bit Vista and everything worked as expected. Of course I’m not suggesting you go against Novation’s recommendations (and if you do you’re on your own), but this indicates to me that they’re pretty conservative in how they spec system requirements.
The keyboard is class-compliant so you don’t need drivers, but Novation’s software is necessary to run Automap, which automatically and intelligently correlates hardware controllers to virtual effect, instrument, and DAW parameters.
Although Impulse includes the Automap 4 application on its bundled DVD-ROM, I of course checked the web site for a newer version, and found Automap 4.2. Installation was painless; just click and go—the latest version also updated the firmware automatically. When setting up the software you can choose templates for any of the following programs that are installed on your computer: Cubase 6, Pro Tools, Live, Sonar X1, Reason, Logic, or “advanced,” which involves general purpose MIDI control for programs like Studio One Pro or Reaper. However, note that Impulse is HUI-compatible (but not Mackie Control-compatible), so you can vary level, solo, mute, etc. with programs that accept HUI messages. After selecting the VST effects path, I chose setup for Sonar X1.
Using Impulse with Ableton Live offers some additional mojo, as you can launch clips with the percussion pads. In this mode, the pads glow either yellow, green, or red depending on whether a clip is available, playing, or recording respectively. The lights flash if Live is waiting for the specified quantization timing before firing the clip.
Automap creates a “wrapped” version of your plug-ins (VST, AU, RTAS, and TDM, but not DirectX) so the program can read and edit their parameters. The setup program walks you through setting up your DAW with Automap, and Novation makes the process transparent and automatic.
Automap can correlate the eight rotary encoders to processor and instrument parameters. Note the transport controls below the knobs.
When I started using Automap with various effects, Novation had apparently already created logical mappings between controls and parameters; they claim they’ve already developed mappings for many effects, so that’s not too surprising. Of course, you can also come up with your own custom mappings, as well as exchange mappings with other users.
The Impulse LCD shows an abbreviated name of the parameter being controlled. With instruments, as there are only eight encoders there can be dozens of scrollable parameter pages to cover all available parameters, but note that you can edit mappings to move your most-used parameters to the first couple pages for easy access.
Although many of the mappings make logical sense, you can re-assign parameters as needed. Note in the lower screen shot that you can also modify a parameter's range, as well as invert the control's response.
Furthermore, the Automap 4 user interface is really slick, and shows mappings on-screen; sometimes it’s easier to use this to find particular pages, especially for lesser-used parameters. Also, a small pop-up balloon shows the parameter being controlled by the hardware—helpful, although you can disable this if it’s distracting.
The pop-up in the lower right confirms the parameter currently being adjusted.
The pads are also where you control some of the arpeggiator's characteristics.
The arpeggiator is very cool, as you can use the pads to alter how the arpeggiator plays—drop out notes, insert notes, and even use pad velocity to affect note levels. Other options include gate time, note quantize (sync), pattern type (up, down, random, etc.), octave range, sequence length, and swing. You can also set the pads to create rolls, for example, repetitive drum hits. Both these functions can follow tempo, or tap tempo.
Those are the main “sexy” features, but there are also the expected ones—transmit program changes, split the keyboard into four independent MIDI zones, set four velocity curves (or full velocity) for the keyboard and three curves (or again, full velocity) for the pads, local control on/off, sys ex dump (save settings with your DAW project), and more. There’s even a help menu whose scrolling messages give hints on how particular functions work.
The Impulse series is priced competitively, while offering several features you won’t find elsewhere. Of these, Automap 4 is the most significant; the program has matured to the point where using a controller soon becomes a natural part of your workflow. As a bonus, new wizards make it easier to set up than previous versions, and it’s also easier to tweak.
Wizards simplify setting up Automap by showing which DAWs are installed on your computer; after specifying a particular DAW, Automap takes over the setup and optimization process.
And while the templates are welcome, because the control surface generates MIDI continuous controller data, you can always use the target program’s learn function to create custom mappings. Throw in a generous software bundle (including Ableton Live Lite, the Novation BassStation plug-in, and a bunch of samples and loops) and while there’s certainly no lack of keyboard controllers available, Novation has indeed brought something new to the party.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.
by Craig Anderton
It’s great that laptops are powerful enough to accommodate actual music-making, but they were never designed for interfacing with software like a musical instrument. There’s the "QWERTY-keyboard-as-trigger" option, embodied in Tanager Audioworks’ clever Chirp program and included as a control option in Reason, but forget about velocity, easy playing, faders, or a good feel. Korg’s original nano series was intended to address that need, but now they’re back with their second generation nano controllers—which aren’t just for laptops any more.
Really? Well, it seems space is always at a premium with desktop setups, too. You’re tied to the computer monitor, mouse, and keyboard, and finding the space to put an AGO keyboard in front of your computer keyboard is not always possible . . . so you set up a keyboard to the side, but it may or may not include pads, faders, and other controllers.
But these little guys do. There are three nanoSERIES2 controllers—keyboard, pad controller, and fader box—all available in black or white, and all of which work with USB (they come with a 43” USB cable). You can swap them out as needed as you go through a project, and not have to move from your computer. Of course, they’ll work with laptops; I presume Korg considers that the primary application. Nonetheless, in the course of doing this review, I’ve found the nanoSERIES2 controllers very convenient for punching out a quick soft synth or drum part, or setting up a mix.
As usual, I first went to Korg’s web site to look for software, updates, etc. You need to go there anyway if you want to take advantage of the free, bonus software offer (lite versions of Korg’s M1 soft synth, Toontrack’s EZ Drummer, and Lounge Lizard, along with a discount coupon for various versions of Ableton Live). I found two drivers, each of which said it was the most recent version (check the dates—the April 2011 one is the droid you’re looking for), an updater for each controller, controller editor, and USB-MIDI driver that needs to be installed for Windows or Mac prior to installing the other elements.
I had a false start on Windows; installing the USB-MIDI Driver is not the same as installing the driver itself, but rather, it installs the program that lets you install the driver. Once I had that figured out, it was smooth sailing. I did the recommended updates, and was good to go.
First things first: What you see in all these devices is not necessarily what you get, because you can do a lot of customization via the cross-plaform Korg Kontrol Editor software. For example, I found the nanoKEY2 velocity response predictable, but there are four possible velocity curves (light, normal, heavy, and constant velocity, where you can specify a fixed value) so you can accommodate a different touch if needed. Furthermore, with the nanoKONTROL2, you can assign the faders and knobs to any continuous controller parameter, and the buttons to notes as well as continuous controllers. Although in general you could actually ignore the editor as the defaults are sensible and work fine, the editor lets you take the degree of control much further.
However, note that the Kontrol Editor will compete with your DAW for MIDI I/O. For example, if your DAW has MIDI in and out assigned to the nanoKEY2, and then you then call up the Kontrol Editor, the DAW will take priority and the Kontrol Editor won’t be able to write changes to the nanoKEY2. The workaround is simple: de-select the MIDI I/O in your DAW, write your changes using the Kontrol Editor, then re-select your DAW’s MIDI I/O to continue using the nanoKEY2 as a controller.
A very useful Kontrol Editor feature is a drop-down menu for choosing particular parameters, and shows the values for all applicable controls simultaneously so you don’t have to call up each button individually to see its assignment. Note that Korg also includes the factory presets so you can always get back to square one if your editing gets out of hand.
Finally, there’s a multiple-level undo function (not just the last change), and you can save particular setups for the various controllers. This would let you, for example, save a separate setup for the nanoKONTROL2 where the solo and mute buttons generate notes, so you could kick out a quick bass line or trigger drum sounds without having to switch over to a different control device.
This handy little keyboard has 25 keys, and is 5/8” thick so it’s definitely low profile. Keyboard action is subjective, but the nanoKEY2 turned out better than expected. I say “turned out” because of course, these aren’t real keys, and you have to get used to a somewhat different playing style. Once I did, though, I didn’t find it hard to do single-note lines, and not much more of a hassle to play chords.
There are six buttons. Octave up and down are obvious, but a cool feature is the ranges are color-coded—no color for default, green for an octave up or down, orange for two octaves, red for three octaves, and flashing red for four octaves. I would have preferred a slower flash rate, but no big deal as four octaves off default is something I rarely use.
As you might expect, there’s no pitch wheel or ribbon controller. But, there are pitch up and pitch down buttons, and the implementation is quite clever. With the Editor, you can specify a rise/fall time for the pitch bend, so pressing the button doesn’t necessarily produce an instantaneous change, but rather, your choice of rise and fall times: instantaneous, slow (about 750ms), normal (about 100ms), or fast (about 50ms). Note that this generates the full pitch bend range of values, so if you want to restrict the range, you’ll need to do so with the target instrument.
From left to right: Slow, normal, and fast pitch bend times.
The Mod and Sustain buttons are not limited to those designations—with the Kontrol Editor you can change the controller number, choose momentary or latching mode, set max and min controller values, and choose a “switch speed” as with the pitch bend.
The 16 pads are obvious candidates for triggering drums, but they can also send program changes and MIDI continuous controller switch values. However, the grooviest feature here is the X-Y controller—it’s a great addition that adds a lot more options.
Pad assignments are comprehensive. Each can be set to its own channel, alternate between toggle or momentary modes, and have the arpeggiation options enabled or disabled. There’s also a global velocity curve option (same as the nanoKEY2, including the constant velocity option).
As to X-Y options, you can assign the X and Y axis to independent continuous controllers, with choice of normal or reverse polarity. These assignments apply if you drag across the touchpad. Simply touching the pad can send out a continuous controller with variable on and off values.
However, as an alternative to just sending controller messages, there are various gate, scale, and arpeggiation features. In Touch Scale mode, you can trigger notes with constant note-on velocity, based on one of 16 user-selectable scales (including a user-defined scale), simiply by dragging across the pad along the X-axis. The Y-axis sends out a continuous controller of your choice. If you also enable Gate Arp,whatever notes you play will be repeated at the arpeggiation rate, which you can set from 1/48th notes to half-notes. With this mode the Y-axis changes the gate time.
With only Gate Arp enabled, the playing technique involves triggering notes with the pads, and altering those notes with the touch pad where the X-axis controls the arpeggiation rate, and the Y-axis controls velocity.
You can change the range of notes assigned to the touch pad to cover a lesser range with more precision, as well as the octave, but note that the arpeggiation will not jump octaves—gating remains on the selected note pitch until changed. There’s also a Hold button that maintains the last X-Y pad value prior to releasing your finger from the pad.
Finally, given the versatility it’s helpful that you can store four individual “scenes” that are presets of all the parameters you’ve saved. So, you could have one scene dedicated to traditional drum triggering, another optimized for notes, another with the X-Y touch pad as a controller, and another with the X-Y touch pad doing its gated arpeggiator thing. You can sync the tempo to the host, run from an internal tempo, or do tap tempo.
This has two modes—a Mackie Control-compatible DAW controller, or a general-purpose MIDI control surface. For Mackie control, templates (which you load by holding down particular buttons during nanoKONTROL2 power-up) are included for Cubase, Digital Performer, GarageBand, Logic, Live, Pro Tools, and Sonar. There’s also a general-purpose template for DAWs where specific templates are not included. Note that when you load a template, the Kontrol Editor can’t make changes; it’s for control surface applications only.
The Mackie Control mode worked perfectly in Sonar, including bank-switching with more than eight tracks. It’s really quite cool to have all that control in such a tiny little control surface, and while the 30mm faders have a pretty short throw, they’re perfectly useable.
As a general-purpose control surface, you can create mappings for virtual instruments, signal processors, whatever. For example with Sonar, it was a piece of cake to have the nanoKONTROL2 serve as an ACT device for plug-in parameter control. As with the other nanoSERIES devices, the Kontrol Editor gives you pretty much total freedom for assigning the strips. They can be on different MIDI channels, and you can even set minimum and maximum values for the continuous controller messages assigned to each knob and fader (no, the faders aren’t motorized . . . we’re not in the 22nd century yet). Also, note that any button, including transport buttons, can generate notes.
I can’t comment on how these would hold up over time, but so far, the construction quality seems considerably improved over the original nano series controllers. I assume the nanoKEY2 and nanoPAD2 would be particularly durable because of their low profile; of course, the nanoKONTROL2 has knobs that protrude above the surface, so you wouldn’t want them to catch on something but aside from that, it seems an unlikely candidate for damage. The overall playing feel is good, too; as you’d expect the buttons have a little “wobble,” but their action is positive.
The software is also a major plus. Although the controllers can serve as standard, generic devices, the latency seemed very low and I assume that’s because of the Korg MIDI-USB drivers. The Kontrol Editor increases flexibility dramatically, and although it took a little effort to get everything up, running, and updated on Windows, it wasn’t an onerous task and everything is working smoothly.
Of the three it’s hard to pick a favorite, although the nanoPAD2’s inclusion of the X-Y touch pad and arpeggiation options are very cool if you’re into programming beats. Then again, having a Mackie Control-compatible device that fits just about anywhere has definite merit . . . and if you need a keyboard, it’s hard to beat the nanoKEY2 for under $50 street.
All in all, these are a step up and logical evolution from Korg’s original nanos, but to loop back to the beginning, don’t overlook these as adjuncts to a desktop studio. While obviously intended for musicians on the go, they’re useful for any situation with limited space.
Craig Anderton is Editor in Chief of Harmony Central and Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.