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.