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iPad- and budget-friendly keyboard controller

 

$124.99 MSRP, $89.99 street

www.samsontech.com

 

by Craig Anderton

 

So really, how much keyboard controller can you expect for around $90? Well, before you answer that, Samson’s Carbon 49 comes with Native Instruments’ Komplete Elements, which costs $59—so if you were thinking of buying Komplete Elements anyway, the controller effectively ends up costing $31. And that’s not a stretch; Komplete Elements has over 4GB of content—it’s not just some cheesy bundled software you’ll forget you installed.

 

So if you’re into Komplete Elements, now the question becomes “how much keyboard controller can you expect for $31?” Let’s find out.

 

OVERVIEW

The USB-powered Carbon 49 has (duh!) 49 keys, and includes a USB cable. The keybed is a synth action, semi-weighted type. Keyboard aficionados shouldn’t expect the keybed of a $2,000 workstation, but it has a far better feel than the price would indicate. There are three velocity curves and a fixed velocity setting; there’s no aftertouch—hardly a surprise at this price point—but the velocity is consistent and predictable.

 

The left-hand controls (Fig. 1) include pitch bend and modulation wheels, as well as octave up/down and transpose up/down buttons.

 

Fig. 1: The left side of the keyboard handles real-time control.

 

I liked the wheels’ action; they both have the right amount of resistance, and the spring return on the bend wheel hits the sweet spot of not too tight and not too “soggy.” I also like that the wheels are to the left of the keyboard, and not above the keyboard to save space.

 

The rear panel (Fig. 2) has a standard-sized USB connection and other connectors.

 

Fig. 2: The rear panel’s complement of connections.

 

Despite being bus-powered (no AC adapter required), there’s an on-off switch—convenient if you don’t want to have to plug and unplug the cable constantly. Although designed for MIDI-over-USB, there’s also a physical 5-pin DIN connector (thank you), and a 1/4” jack for a sustain switch. Carbon detects the footswitch polarity automatically, but you can reverse the switch’s “sense” by holding it down while you power-up the keyboard.

 

There’s also a secret feature that’s not mentioned in the manual: flip the keyboard over, and there’s a compartment that I thought might indicate battery power—but that’s not the purpose. It’s big enough to hold a USB cable or, not coincidentally, an iPad Camera Connection Kit. Speaking of which . . .

 

THE iPAD CONNECTION

An obvious Carbon application is providing MIDI input for your iPad. There’s a groove along Carbon’s top for holding the iPad, with rubber “bumpers” to secure it in place (Fig. 3).

 

Fig. 3: Note the rubber bumpers at each end of the iPad.

 

With an Apple Camera Connection Kit, the two make a good pair: the Carbon’s low cost makes it easy to justify owning one if you do the mobile-musician-with-iPad thing, as the result is a cost-effective “music station” with full-size keys that can nonetheless fit in tight quarters (size is about 31" x 8.5" x 3", with weight a little over 6lbs.). The iPad can even power the Carbon 49, which is another reason the on/off switch is convenient.

 

CONTROLS AND EDITING

Carbon includes a volume fader and data knob (Fig. 4), which along with the mod wheel, can be assigned to any of the 128 MIDI continuous controllers, as well as 19 RPN/NRPN messages and two sysex messages (master volume and master balance).

 

Fig. 4: The display, volume fader, data wheel, and edit button are toward the top.

 

Furthermore, the transpose buttons can send MIDI channel or program change data, and the footswitch jack can have various assignments as well. The only controls that serve a single purpose are the pitch bend wheel and octave buttons. There’s also an intriguing feature I haven’t seen before, but would love to see on all controllers: a “snapshot” function that sends out the status of all the keyboard parameters, which you can then inspect in something like a sequencer’s Event List. You also have the usual expected functions, like All Notes Off.

 

Editing is done through the 3-digit LED display, and follows a protocol similar to M-Audio’s controllers—buttons do multiple duties, and the keyboard keys themselves provide data entry. Labels above each key (Fig. 5) remind you of their various functions, which simplifies the editing process. If you want to do a lot of editing it can be tedious, but for making a quick controller assignment or two, it’s certainly easy enough.

 

Fig. 5: Labels above the function keys simplify editing—especially because they’re readable.

 

CONCLUSIONS

Granted the keyboard is the focal point but it’s worth mentioning that Komplete Elements is also a platform with three “players” (Reaktor, Guitar Rig, and Kontakt) that you can expand with optional-at-extra-cost instruments and processors. While this might not be relevant if you’re into Carbon solely for doing on-the-go music with an iPad, if Carbon is the satellite to your desktop- or laptop-based “mothership,” Komplete Elements is not to be dismissed.

 

As to the keyboard itself, I first saw it at the Frankfurt Musikmesse and thought that although it was being advertised as a budget keyboard, it had a solid vibe and a good feel—so I was surprised when the quoted price was considerably lower than I had assumed. While the case is plastic, it has a no-nonsense attitude and is definitely not flimsy. For portable music (particularly for iPad fans) or as a compact keyboard controller for those on a budget, the Carbon 49 surpasses expectations.

 

 

CraigGuitarVertical.jpgCraig 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.

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