Samson Graphite 49 USB Keyboard/DAW Control Surface
By Anderton |
$299.99 MSRP, $199.99 street
by Craig Anderton
Keyboard controllers are available in all flavors—from “I just want a keybed and a minimal hit on my wallet” to elaborate affairs with enough faders and buttons to look like a mixing console with a keyboard attached. Samson’s Graphite 49 falls between those two extremes—but in terms of capabilities leans more toward the latter, while regarding price, leans more toward the former. It’s compact, slick, cost-effective, and well-suited to a wide variety of applications onstage and in the studio.
There are 49 full-size, semi-weighted keys and in addition to velocity, Graphite 49 supports aftertouch (it’s quite smooth, and definitely not the “afterswitch” found on some keyboards; see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: Applying and releasing what seemed like even pressure to me produced this aftertouch curve.
Controllers include nine 30mm faders, eight “endless” rotary encoders, 16 buttons, four drum pads, transport controls, octave and transpose buttons, mod wheel, and pitch bend (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2: There are dedicated left-hand controls for octave, transpose, pitch bend, and mod wheel (click to enlarge).
Connectors consist of a standard-sized USB connector, 5-pin MIDI out, sustain pedal jack, and jack for a 9V adapter—generally not needed as Graphite 49 is bus-powered, but if you’re using it with something like an iPad and Camera Connection Kit that offers reduced power, an external tone module, or other hardware where you're using the 5-pin MIDI connector instead of USB, you’ll need an AC adapter.
One question I always have with attractively-priced products is how they’ll hold up over time. This is of course difficult to test during the limited time of having a product for review, but apparently UPS decided to contribute to this review with some pro-level accelerated life testing. The box containing Graphite 49 looked like it had been used as a weapon by King Kong (against what, I don’t know); it was so bad that the damage extended into the inner, second box that held Graphite 49. Obviously, the box had not only been dropped, but smashed into by something else . . . possibly a tractor, or the Incredible Hulk.
But much to my surprise, Graphite worked perfectly as soon as I plugged it in. I did take it apart to make sure all the ribbon connectors were seated (and took a photo while I was it it—see Fig. 3), but they were all in place. Pretty impressive.
Fig. 3: Amazingly, Graphite 49 survived UPS’s "accelerated life testing" (click to enlarge).
Graphite 49 is clearly being positioned as keyboard-meets-control surface, and as such, offers four main modes.
- Performance mode is optimized for playing virtual synthesizers or hardware tone modules, and gives full access to the various hardware controllers.
- Zone mode has a master keyboard orientation, with four zones to create splits and layers; the pitch bend, modulation, and pedal controllers are in play, but not the sliders, rotaries, and button controllers.
- Preset mode revolves around control surface capabilities for several popular programs, and is a very important feature.
- Setup mode is for creating custom presets or doing particular types of edits.
There’s a relationship among these modes; for example, any mode you choose will be based on the current preset. So, if you create a preset with Zone assignments and then go to Performance mode without changing presets, the Performance will adopt Zone 1’s settings.
PRESET MODE: DAW CONTROL
Although many keyboards now include control surface capabilities, Graphite 49 provides a lot of options at this price in the form of templates for popular programs (Fig. 4). Unfortunately, though, the control surface capabilities are under-documented; the manual doesn’t even mention that Graphite 49 is Mackie Control-compatible. However, it works very well with a variety of DAWs, so I’ve written a companion article (don't miss it!) with step-by-step instructions for using Graphite 49 and smiilar Mackie Control-compatible devices with Apple Logic, Avid Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Cakewalk Sonar, Propellerhead Reason, MOTU Digital Performer, Sony Acid Pro (also Sony Vegas), Steinberg Cubase, and PreSonus Studio One Pro. (I found that Acid Pro and Vegas didn’t recognize Graphite 49 as a Mackie Control device, but they both offer the option to choose an “emulated” Mackie Control device, and that works perfectly.)
Fig. 4: Graphite 49 contains templates for multiple DAWs, including Ableton Live (click to enlarge).
The faders control level, the rotaries edit pan, and the buttons usual controlling solo and mute, but with some variations based on how the DAW’s manufacturer decided to implement Mackie Control (for example with Logic Pro, the button that would normally choose solo controls record enable). The Bank buttons change the group of 8 channels being controlled (e.g., from 1-8 to 9-16), while the Channel buttons move the group one channel at a time (e.g., from 1-8 to 2-9), and there are also transport controls. (Note that as Pro Tools doesn’t support Mackie Control you need to select HUI mode, which doesn’t support the Bank and Channel shifting.)
Reason works somewhat differently, as Graphite 49 will control whichever device has the focus—for example if SubTractor is selected, the controls will vary parameters in SubTractor and if the Mixer 14:2 is selected, then Graphite 49 controls the mixer parameters the same way it controls the mixers in other DAWs. However Reason 6, which integrates the “SSL Console” from Record, treats each channel as its own device; therefore Graphite 49 controls one channel at a time with that one particular mixer.
I tested all the programs listed above with Graphite 49, but there are additional presets for Nuendo, Mackie Tracktion, MK Control (I’m not quite sure what that is), Adobe Audition, FL Studio, and Magix Samplitude. There are also 14 user-programmable presets, and a default, general-purpose Graphite preset. This preset provides a good point of departure for creating your own presets (for example, when coming up with control assignments for specific virtual instruments). The user-programmable presets can’t be saved via Sys Ex, but 14 custom presets should be enough for most users.
The adoption of the Mackie Control protocol is vastly more reassuring than, for example, M-Audio’s proprietary DirectLink control for their Axiom keyboards, which usually lagged behind current software versions. We’ll see whether these presets can be updated in the future, but it seems that the “DAW-specific preset element” relates mostly to labeling what the controls do, as the Mackie protocol handles the inherent functionality. There’s also a certain level of “future proofing” because you can create your own presets so if some fabulous new DAW comes out in six months, with a little button-pushing you’re covered.
CREATING YOUR OWN PRESETS
Editing custom assignments follows the usual cost-saving arrangement of entering setup mode, then using the keyboard keys (as well as some of the hardware controls) to enter data. Thankfully, the labels above the keys are highly legible—it seems that in this case, the musicians won out over the graphic designers. The relatively large and informative display (Fig. 5) is also helpful.
Fig. 5: When you adjust various parameters, the display gives visual confirmation of the parameter name and its value (click to enlarge).
Although I’d love to see Samson develop a software editor, the front-panel programming is pretty transparent.
CONTROLS AND EDITS
Let’s take a closer look at the various controls, starting with the sliders (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6: There are nine 30mm sliders. While 30mm is a relatively short throw, the sliders aren’t hard to manipulate, and their size contributes to Graphite 49’s compact form factor (click to enlarge).
One very important Graphite 49 feature is that there are two virtual banks of sliders—essentially doubling the number of physical controls. For example, the sliders could control nine parameters in a soft synth, but then with a bank switch, they could control another nine parameters. Even better, the rotaries and buttons (Fig. 7), as well as the pads, also have two banks to double the effective number of controls.
Fig. 7: The rotary controls are endless encoders. Note that there are 16 buttons, and because there are two banks, that’s 32 switched controls per preset.
Speaking of pads (Fig. 8), these provide comfortably big targets that not only respond to velocity, but aftertouch.
Fig. 8: The pads are very useful for triggering percussion sounds, as well as repeatitive sounds like effects or individual notes.
Rather than describe all the possible edits, some of the highlights are choosing one of seven velocity curves as well as three fixed values (individually selectable for the keyboard and pads), reversing the fader direction for use as drawbars with virtual organ instruments, assigning controls to the five virtual MIDI output ports, changing the aftertouch assignment to a controller number, and the like.
Don’t overlook the importance of the multiple MIDI output ports. In its most basic form, this allows sending the controller data for your DAW over one port while using another port to send keyboard notes to a soft synth—but it also means that you can control multiple parameter in several instruments or MIDI devices within a single preset.
Finally, the bundled software—Native Instruments’ Komplete Elements—is a much-appreciated addition. I’m a huge fan of Komplete, so it was encouraging to see that NI didn’t just cobble together some throwaway instruments and sounds; Elements gives you a representative taste of what makes the full version such a great bundle. A lot of “lite” versions are so “lite” they don’t really give you much incentive to upgrade, but Elements will likely leave you wanting more because what is there is quite compelling.
I’ve been quite impressed by Graphite 49, and very much enjoy working with it. The compact form factor and light weight make it very convenient to use in the studio, and UPS (along with the keyboard’s inherent capabilities) proved to my satisfaction that Graphite 49 would hold up very well for live performance. During some instances when my desktop was covered with devices I was testing, I’ve simply put Graphite 49 on my lap. There are few, if any, keyboard controllers that could fit on my lap so easily while offering this level of functionality.
My only significant complaint is I feel the documentation could be more in-depth—not necessarily because there’s a problem with the existing documentation, but because I suspect that Graphite 49’s cost-effective pricing will attract a lot of newbies who may not be all that up to speed on MIDI. Veterans who are familiar with MIDI and have used controllers will have no problem using Graphite 49, but it would be shame if newbies didn’t take full advantage of Graphite 49’s considerable talents because they didn’t know how to exploit them.
Samson is a new name in controllers; my first experience with their line was Carbon, which I also reviewed for Harmony Central. Its iPad-friendly design and exceptionally low cost got my attention, but Graphite 49 gives a clearer picture of where the company is heading: not just inexpensive controllers, but cost-effective ones that are suitable for prosumer and pro contexts. Graphite 49’s full-size keys, compact footprint, comfortable keybed, control surface capabilities, and pleasing aesthetic design are a big deal—and at this price, you’re also getting serious value. I’d be very surprised if Samson doesn’t have a hit on their hands.
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.