Korg nanoSERIES2 Controllers
By Anderton |
They're intended for "music on the go"—but that may not be their only application
nanoPAD2 $75 MSRP, $59.99 street
nanoKONTROL2 $75 MSRP, $59.99 street
nanoKEY2 $65 MSRP, $49.99 street
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.
THE KONTROL EDITOR
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.