Not Into Hands-On Controllers? This Just Might Change Your Mind...
by Craig Anderton
A lot of times, I depend on trusted friends to turn me on to Cool Stuff. After all, there are a lot of "me-too" products out there, and I don't have time to check out everything. But when EQ magazine Editor Matt Harper said "You gotta check out the Nocturn," I couldn't help but be skeptical. A controller's a controller, right? There are some with moving faders, cheapo ones with a few sliders, and some special-purpose controllers like Native Instruments' Kore and dedicated control surfaces for products like Pro Tools. End of story.
This isn't to belittle controllers: I love 'em. They restore that missing physical link between musician/engineer and gear - a link that was lost when the world went virtual, and people started mixing with (the horror!) a mouse. And if you're used to twisting knobs on an effects box or synth, and miss that "feel" with software, controllers are a good solution. But I already have some excellent controllers, so given that there are only so many hours in a day, I never paid much attention to the Nocturn.
But Matt said, "You gotta check out the Nocturn."
So I did. And now I'm the one telling people "You gotta check out the Nocturn." Here's why.
Do you really need a controller? That depends. Trying to do everything via a controller can be almost as inefficient as not using a controller at all. Ultimately, you might find that a combination of mouse, keyboard shortcuts, and a controller provides the optimum workflow.
But there are also times when controllers make dramatic improvements in "tweakability," particular when controls interact. Take delay: As you turn up the feedback, you might want to change the delay mix and delay time. Or with a virtual synthesizer, you often need to edit filter cutoff while editing filter envelope depth. Being able to grab knobs for each function is much better than clicking on a parameter, editing, clicking on the other parameter, editing some more, clicking on the first parameter, and so on.
Controllers are also indispensable if your attitude toward a mix is that it's something you perform, not something static where you draw in levels with a mouse.
WHAT'S A NOCTURN?
As usual with my HC reviews, rather than include specs, pricing, and other factoids, you can go to the web to find out those kinds of details. We'll concentrate on what it's like to use, and why I think Novation did such a good job with the Nocturn. How about a top 10 list...
At this price you don't get motorized faders, but the point of the Nocturn is control over not just a host's virtual faders (that's an extra added attraction); I feel the Nocturn's "killer app" is controlling plug-ins, whether audio effects or soft synths. Although the Nocturn is priced comparatively low, it still manages to put together all the necessary bits, and some extras.
Of course, at that price, it has be kinda cheesy, right? Well...no. Granted, the case is plastic, not metal; but this is a desktop unit. The knobs wobble a bit, but not any more than lots of other budget gear. The buttons have a rubbery, positive feel, and the knobs are very lightly knurled so they don't slip, and rotate predictably. Another clever touch (why doesn't everyone do this?) is that two non-skid pads are attached to the bottom, so as you move knobs and push buttons, it doesn't slide around on your desktop. And, the Nocturn is compact without being cramped, so you can pretty much place it anywhere convenient.
LED rings around each control show the approximate parameter value; the nine knobs use an "add/subtract" method of altering parameters (i.e., turn the knob clockwise to increase the parameter value, and counter-clockwise to decrease the parameter value). Eight of the knobs use red LEDs, while the special "Speed Dial" control (more on this later) uses green LEDs to differentiate it from the others. There's also a crossfader, but this doesn't have LEDs to indicate value; it's especially accommodating for DJ apps.
Any controller needs software, because it has to know how to communicate with plug-ins, and you need some kind of indication of which parameter is controlled by which knob. The Nocturn software is outstanding, and runs on Mac OS X 10.4 or higher (including Leopard) and Windows XP (SP2) and Vista 32 or 64-bit. That's right: No "click here for updates on Leopard compatibility" on their web site. And 64-bit Vista users, now you have a controller you can use with 64-bit versions of Cakewalk Sonar, Sony Vegas, Steinberg Cubase (currently in preview status), and others that have jumped on the 64-bit bandwagon.
5. PLUG-IN HANDLING
Nocturn uses Novation's AutoMap 2.0 protocol, which is the star of this show. It works by creating a "wrapped" version of each plug-in in your system (VST, AU, or TDM/RTAS for Mac; the company says TDM/RTAS support for Windows is imminent). Select the wrapped version, and a GUI appears on screen with the Nocturn controls already automatically mapped to parameters. You don't have to assign things, fiddle with learn options (at least, not most of the time - again, more on this later), learn about MIDI, or any of those techno-details. It just does its job: Open plug-in, spin controls, push "page" buttons to select more parameters.
6. GRAPHIC USER INTERFACE
The GUI has three levels of transparency and is resizable, from Pretty Darn Small to Take Over Your Monitor (which isn't frivolous; you can be some distance from your monitor, with the Nocturn connected via USB, and twiddle knobs while being able to see what you're doing).Note the transparency in the Nocturn "virtual control panel" toward the upper right. It's shown controlling a Novation V-Station, but works with just about anything.
The transparency effect lets you see what's going on underneath, which is pretty cool with Sonar's preview function that draws bus and master waveforms in real time as you mix - you can tweak processors with Nocturn, and see how that affects the sound.
7. SPEED DIAL KNOB
Home run feature. If you've used controllers before, you know the Achilles Heel: You're tweaking, say, a soft synth and varying the filter cutoff and filter envelope. But you want to tweak pulse width, which might be on a separate controller page. So you bounce back and forth between pages as you adjust, or just give up and use a mouse. But Speed Dial lets you tweak whatever control has focus from the mouse. So in our hypothetical example, you'd just click on the pulse width control while the Nocturn's filter page is up, and now, the Speed Dial affects pulse width and you can still use the other controls to edit filter settings. But remember - it can deal with anything the mouse typically adjusts, including things like scroll bars.
The basis of AutoMap is that it reads exposed automation parameters and puts them under hands-on control. But what if those parameters aren't in an order that you like? You can change around which knobs control which parameters via the Learn function, then create a new default mapping. This takes a little effort, but it's not difficult and you only have to do it once. You can also change the names of controls, or change the sensitivity of knobs so that it takes more turns to cover a given range (like fine tuning) - for example, if you want to create a wa effect by turning a knob, you might a full knob rotation to cover only a portion of the filter sweep.
If you have a lot of plug-ins, you can use the on-screen browser to select a particular map and then start controlling that plug-in. You can also "filter" the browser view to show only FX, instruments, mixer options (currently recent versions of Sonar, Tracktion, Cubase, and Nuendo), or user maps.
10. ALL THE ESOTERIC STUFF WE HAVEN'T COVERED
Nocturn can also serve as a more traditional MIDI controller, where the knobs send out continuous controller messages. Other cool features include having standardized control pages for default maps developed by Novation, so that if, say, two different EQs have default maps, you'll find the boost/gain controls in the same places on the same page. In fact, one of the best parts about Nocturn is if you want to just tweak things and not think, you can do that. But you can also go deeper if you want.
So that's the story - there are still more details, but we've hit the high points. The bottom line is that if you're looking for a controller, the Nocturn is clever, effective, and useful.
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.