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M-Audio Axiom 49 MIDI Keyboard/Control Surface - Now with Conclusions


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So just as the Yamaha CP50 stage piano Pro Review winds down and I need to send it back, M-Audio sends along an Axiom 49 for the Pro Review treatment. Total time without a new keyboard to check out: About 17 minutes – the time it took to pack up the CP50, and set up the Axiom 49! Of course they're very different units, starting with the Axiom 49 not having any onboard sounds, and a major difference in price and philosophy. But it's pretty cool to be able to bounce around among various keyboards, and check them out in depth.

We’ll start with the usual photo tour, but first, a little background. M-Audio’s Axiom Pro line has been out for a while, and the Axiom line is somewhat scaled-down and less expensive. For example, the Axiom 49 lists for $439.95, while the Axiom Pro lists for $599.95. However, the Axiom line – by virtue of including a fairly advanced control surface – places it above the lower-end Oxygen line, where a 49-note keyboard lists for $189.95. All three lines offer 25, 49, and 61-note keyboards, although there’s also an 88-note Oxygen keyboard. If you want to get a sense of all keyboards in these lines, there’s a useful comparison chart on the M-Audio web site.

Speaking of which, if you want to do some more homework on the Axiom line as background for this Pro Review, surf over to the Axiom 49 landing page. Here you can get a list of the full features, specifications, system requirements, and the like.

It’s also instructive to check out the Axiom 49 landing page at Musician’s Friend. This showed me that the Axiom 49 street price is under $250, but my main interest was checking out the user reviews to see what I was getting myself into. Overall, they were very favorable, except for one guy who had reliability problems and didn’t like M-Audio’s support; they also gave me clues as to what elements to investigate, as not everyone agreed on their favorite or least favorite features. For example, some people thought the pad response was about as good as it gets, others felt you needed to hit them too hard. So is there some sensitivity adjustment the latter people didn’t know about? Well, we’ll find out...after all, this is a Pro Review, and I can dig as deep as I want.

Of course, you can also find user reviews right here on Harmony Central. To summarize, some people are concerned about reliability, while others cite the functionality and feature set as very strong, and found the Axiom very reliable. I suspect there may have been a few changes in production, as some user reviews dissed the “clicked” detents on the encoders, but on the model I received (which is brand new), the controllers are continuous and feel smooth. Maybe someone from M-Audio would like to chime in, but it seems some improvements have been made since the Axioms were first introduced.

Nonetheless, given the price point and the plastic construction, I plan to beat the living daylights out of it to see if I can expose any weaknesses smile.gif Remember the Pro Review dictum: It isn’t a real Pro Review until I’ve voided the warranty! However, for those expecting my usual "take-it-apart-and-shoot-the-insides" shots, you’re going to have to wait a bit. There are a lot of screws on the bottom, and I want to actually use the keyboard before I do something that might accidentally blow it up.

Now, let’s check out the photos...

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The first attached image shows the overall controller. You can’t see the weight in a photo, but this is more substantial than I expected for a high-impact plastic keyboard. I assume that’s due to all the controls, and the semi-weighted keyboard action. When I unpacked the unit, I was surprised not to find an AC adapter, but the unit is bus-powered (you can use an AC adapter if desired, but you’ll need to buy your own). The only other elements that came with the package are a USB cable, drivers/documentation/Ableton Lite CD-ROM, and a minimal – but helpful – Quickstart guide in seven languages.

Let’s move along the keyboard, starting from the left. The second attached image shows the pitch bend and mod wheels, with the octave up/down switches above the wheels. The wheels have a nice feel; note that the mod wheel is not spring-loaded, so it stays where you leave it. Personally, I vastly prefer this as I’ve designed many patches where the mod wheel creates changes I want to leave active, rather than just doing something momentary like adding vibrato. For those who demand spring-loaded mod wheels, this is probably not the droid you're looking for.

The third attached image shows the faders and fader buttons. The faders are 30mm, which are fairly short throw, but are placed intelligently – close enough you can move multiple faders at one time, but far enough apart they’re not cramped. We’ll see how they stack up for precision tasks during the course of the review, but the general ergonomics work well for me. The buttons, like all buttons on the Axiom 49, have a slightly “rubbery” feel - a good thing if you tend to get sweaty hands on stage, or even when groovin’ away in the studio.

The fourth attached image shows the LCD and various function buttons, and the LCD is our first “extra points” feature: It’s big (bigger than you might think from the picture, as the buttons are sizable as well), the letters are big, it’s bright, and you can see it in a dark room or if you lost your glasses. Thumbs up on this one, but also, this seems to be a sort of M-Audio trademark; even the display on the older Black Box (the guitar interface designed with Roger Linn) was big and bright.

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Moving right along, the first attached image shows the eight rotary encoders and transport buttons. As mentioned above the encoders have a smooth feel, not detented as apparently earlier versions had. I think they feel really good, and these get extra points as well: The knobs have a big enough diameter that they’re easy to rotate, and the knobs are far enough away from each other that adjusting one doesn’t change the knob next to it. You think all companies would make sure their controllers fit these requirements, but too many controllers seem like they were designed for third grade girls with dainty fingers.

The second attached image shows the pads, which I’m eager to check out for two reasons: 1) opinions vary in online reviews, so we need to get to the bottom of this, and 2) I like pads, not just for triggering percussion but also for triggering loops and such.

You'll see the rear panel in the third attached image. Nothing too fancy here: Jacks for an expression pedal and sustain footswitch (neither are included with the unit), physical MIDI in and out connectors, USB port, AC adapter jack, and on-off switch. Props to M-Audio for including physical MIDI jacks – some of us still have old-school gear, y’know? I like USB over MIDI as much as the next guy, and of course the Axiom 49 has that too, but I don’t think anything that calls itself a “MIDI controller” truly justifies that title unless you can drive a hardware tone module. After all, I still love my Yamaha TX802 and Peavey V3, thank you.

Our fourth attached image shows the Axlom – ooops, I mean Axiom – logo smile.gif, and also the Kensington lock. Due to the price and feature set, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a unit like this showing up in classrooms...so the Kensington lock is probably a good idea.

First impressions: The Axiom 49 is much more substantial than I expected; when I saw it, I figured heavy playing would make it slide off the table. Nope. This is even more important if you’re into fader slamming and encoder twirling. And while the case is plastic, it’s definitely high-impact and I suspect there’s some kind of internal reinforcement, as there’s no bending or flexing if you try to twist the thing. Another nice touch: rubberized end plates so you can store the keyboard on its ends without scratching or damaging the surface. And I really like the big display...

Before signing off for today, note that there's actually quite a bit to cover – like whether it's easy to map the control surface, which programs are compatible out-of-the-box and which require mapping, whether mapping is a tedious process, is there a way to save or exchange mappings, ease of tweaking under fire, and the like. So, we’ll have plenty to keep us occupied in the weeks ahead.

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Hi. What modules will you be testing it with?

 

I'm interested in how it works with a Korg M3m.

 

I need a controller for my M3m.

 

I have an Axiom 25. I don't think it's user-friendly at all.

 

But -- on the + side, it's durable. It filled up with water once

(under a leaky AC). On day I bumped it & heard water sloshing

around inside.

 

I turned it over, dumped out the water (through the keys),

let it dry out for a week, and now t's good as new. Lights up fine.

 

I'm looking at a 49 or 61 key model for my M3m.

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Quote Originally Posted by Etienne Rambert View Post
Hi. What modules will you be testing it with?

I'm interested in how it works with a Korg M3m.
Well in that case...I'll test it with an M3m (I think the M3 is a great synthesizer anyway).

I have an Axiom 25. I don't think it's user-friendly at all.
In what way? So far the 49 seems pretty obvious...do you mean mapping parameters and such?

But -- on the + side, it's durable. It filled up with water once
(under a leaky AC). On day I bumped it & heard water sloshing
around inside.

I turned it over, dumped out the water (through the keys),
let it dry out for a week, and now t's good as new. Lights up fine.
If I was M-Audio, I'd be emailing you for permission to quote that in an ad!!

But I should also add...you did the smart thing, giving it a good period of time to dry out before trying to turn it on. A lot of gear will survive water if you make sure it's 100% dry before trying to power it up.

However, not to disappoint, but I don't plan to immerse the Axiom 49 in water to test out that aspect of its operation smile.gif
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Quote Originally Posted by Hides-His-Eyes View Post
The axiom 25 lacks dedicated menu buttons.

Anyway, these units are designed to be set up using the bundled software really, more than by hand. Setting 8 sliders manually takes a while compared to with copy/paste and a numpad!
Thanks for the insight...guess the next step is to set up the software!
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Time to see what the software is all about. The installer disc splash screen has links to DirectLink drivers (more on DirectLink later, but it's basically an out-of-the-box way to map controls to certain DAWs), the M-Audio Knowledge Base, and where to download the latest drivers. Why drivers? Isn't the Axiom 49 a class-compliant? Yes, it is. But according to M-Audio, you need a driver to handle Sys Ex as well as control more than one application at a time, and simultaneously use additional class-compliant USB audio devices. Fair enough.

Interestingly, though, upon going to the M-Audio driver page I saw entries for the Axiom and for the 2nd gen Axiom. Aha! So it HAS been improved since its introduction...if nothing else, that explains why the rotary encoders don't click anymore, despite what early user reviews said. But, this also indicated to me that I couldn't really take any of the early user reviews too seriously, because obviously, there have been changes.

The driver is only 14MB - a quick download - and installation under XP3 was uneventful. But, that may be because I actually read manuals, which specified that the drivers needed to be installed with the Axiom 49 disconnected (this is the usual procedure procedure for USB devices).

After the driver installation, I looked for some kind of software editor for programming the various sliders and buttons, but didn't see anything on the CD-ROM or the web site. Nor was there any mention in the Quick Start. But based on the mention here, I googled "Enigma M-Audio Download" and it took me to a page with software that lists support for the Axiom 49. But does that include the Axiom 49 "2nd gen"? Let's find out.

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It doesn't look like Enigma supports the 2nd gen model, so it's time to see how easy/difficult it is to program manually...which I would have needed to do anyway. I've sent a message to M-Audio asking if they plan to do an editor for the Axiom 49 2nd Gen, or if one already exists.

I must say I'm finding some pretty cool features just by poking around. For example, I really like how the display shows the aftertouch amount in real time when you're using aftertouch...little things like that really make a difference when creating sounds.

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Quote Originally Posted by Etienne Rambert View Post
BTW, I think it is a drawback that I need to install & learn software in order to make the Axiom fully operational.

I'm tech-challenged. I just want to hook it up and use it.
Well actually, you can do that. It's a class-compliant device and needs a driver only for the reasons mentioned above (e.g., controlling more than one device at a time with it). And once the driver is installed, you can forget about it...it's transparent.

As to the Enigma editor, I don't believe that it works with the 2nd Gen model. I'll wait for someone from M-Audio to confirm whether that's true or not, though.

As to deep programming...well, we'll see how complex it is. OF course, these days with a lot of synths you don't need to do assignments for MIDI controller messages and such at the control surface - you can just click on "learn" at the synth, move a fader or dial, and get on with your life.
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Okay...I think I've wrapped my head around how to review this.

There are several elements to the Axiom 49, and one of the most important is DirectLink, as it allows mapping to specific programs "out of the box." That's the good news; however, not that many applications are supported yet: There's Ableton Live, Cubase, Reason, Record, and of course, Pro Tools. So I'm planning on saving DirectLink for later, after we've scoped out the details, so that those using programs other than the ones listed above, or versions of those programs that aren't supported (e.g., Cubase prior to v5.1.0.5 or Ableton Live prior to 8.1.4), can find out what Axiom can do for them.

We'll begin by looking at how to tailor the keyboard response itself, then move to other elements like pads, faders, buttons, etc. Then we'll look at using it as a master controller, as well as a DAW interface. Finally, we'll close out with an in-depth testing of DirectLink.

That is, unless I've missed something I need to add along the way smile.gif

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Editing parameters seems user-hostile at first, but is actually not difficult once you understand the protocol. The left-most keys serve double-duty, as they let you select particular parameters for editing; small legends are printed above the keys (see the attached image) so you don't have to always refer to the manual to find out what's going on.

To edit a parameter, you hit the Edit button, then hit the appropriate key. While that's pretty obvious, there are a few aspects that are not obvious unless you do read the manual. For example, to change the keyboard's velocity curve, you hit the Edit button, then hit the key labeled "curve." You then type in a value or us up/down buttons, then according to the manual, you need to hit Enter to "make it so." However, at least with the velocity curves, I found it unnecessary to hit Enter; when you leave Edit mode, the Axiom 49 remembers what you set.

Easy enough. However, the curve key also steps through two more options with successive hits: one for adjusting the Pad velocity sensitivity, and another for tailoring the acceleration curve for the encoder knobs. Once you figure this out it's easy to remember, but if you just walked up to the Axiom 49 in a music store with no one to assist you, you probably wouldn't find adjusting the encoder curve "intuitively obvious."

As you might expect, the big display is a big help for parameter editing, as it's easy to see what you're editing, and the value. Although most parameters are abbreviated (e.g., EnCrv for encoder curve), they all made sense to me.

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Let's take a look at what kind of curves are available. Personally, I like a lot of options - "Soft," "Hard," and "Constant Velocity" are better than nothing, but this is supposed to a master controller...

Keyboard sensitivity offers 7 options:

  • Lower velocity values for a given amount of force - good for those with a really heavy touch
  • Normal - curved for players with an average touch
  • Higher velocity values for a given amount of force - for those with a light touch
  • Linear setting so that velocity correlates linearly to force
  • Fixed velocity of 64 - use this for organ sounds where you don't want dynamics
  • Fixed velocity of 100 - similar to the previous curve, but with a different default velocity
  • Fixed velocity of 127 - similar to the previous curve, but with a different default velocity

Unfortunately, there's no "hint" as to what each option is on the display, other than that the four curves start with "C" (C1, C2, etc.) and the fixed curves with F. I'd rather see the display say something like "Hvy," "Nrm," "Sft," and "Lin" for the curve settings, with "64," "100," and "127" for the fixed values.

Pad sensitivity options are the same, but with three additional settings that quantize velocity to three values:
  • Generates a fixed velocity of either 64 or 127 depending on how hard you hit the pad
  • Generates a fixed velocity of 64, 100, or 127 depending on how hard you hit the pad (this is very useful for programming quick drum parts where you don't want to have to picky about hitting the pads)
  • Generates a fixed velocity of 32, 64, 100, or 127 depending on how hard you hit the pad

And finally, there's the encoder acceleration options. This is pretty cool, and you have four choices:
  • Normal
  • Slow for making fine adjustments
  • Fast for when you want to whiz through the values
  • Off, where the knob sends a value change of one step regardless of how fast or slow you turn the knob

Again, I have the same comment as the velocity about wanting a less cryptic display...like "Nrm," "Slo," "Fst," and "Off." I assume this wouldn't be too hard a change to make in a software update...
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I like pads, so I wanted to see if I'd like the Axiom's. I was particularly interested because I'd read comments online that ranged from "pads are much worse than my MPC" to "pads are much better than my MPC." I figured this might have to do with the difference between V1 and V2 Axioms, but there's only one way to find out...

For testing purposes I booted up Reason 5, specifically, the wonderful new Kong Drum Designer module. While I was at it, I specified the Axiom 49 as the keyboard controller, whereupon Reason wrote data into Preset 10 for controlling Reason with the Axiom. Now, that's considerate smile.gif

Before we get to the pads, a note about Reason's assignments for the Kong pads: Each pad is triggered by three consecutive notes on the keyboard, making it easy to do finger rolls and flams. Nice.

As to the Axiom pads themselves, of course they transmit MIDI notes. But you can also assign them to transmit controllers, in which case the controller value corresponds to the amount of pressure you apply to the pad. Programming the pads for specific functions requires entering three pieces of data (Data 1, Data 2, Data 3); more on this shortly.

As Kong has 16 pads and the Axiom 49 has 8, it's probably not surprising that the Axiom pads didn't map to the Kong pads I wanted. Undaunted, I thought it would be time to see if I could navigate the interface to reassign the notes without looking at the manual. Easy: I hit Edit, then figuring that the most important piece of data would be the note value, I pressed the "Data 1" key on the keyboard. Indeed, that did the job; I could use the up/down buttons or the numbered keyboard keys to specify the value, then hit Enter to "make it so."

I also thought I'd check out the various velocity curves. You can try these out in Edit mode - you don't have to edit value, enter, try, edit value, enter try, etc. I found that C1 worked best for me in terms of giving a wide, predictable dynamic range.

As to the feel, they're not on the level of Native Instrument's Maschine controller in terms of consistency regardless of where you hit the pad, but the rubbery texture doesn't "kick back," and I found it easier than I expected to get predictable velocity values for a given hit. BTW - I usually hit pads with two fingers, that seems to work better regardless of the pad's manufacturer. The one exception is the aforementioned Maschine, where I can do "finger rolls" on a single pad using alternating fingers.

So far, so good...plain, simple, obvious, functional. Now let's check out the advanced pad functionality that goes beyond just triggering notes at different velocities.

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Here are some other things you can do with the pads. Most of these depend on setting values for the Data 2 and Data 3 parameters.

Toggle with Velocity Lock. With this setting, when you first hit the pad, it produces a fixed note-on velocity level. When you release the pad, it produces a fixed note-off velocity (e.g., 0 to turn the note off). So what good is this? Well, the first thing I found was that you could trigger eighth-note patterns if you set the note-off to a non-zero number by hitting quarter notes, because you'd get the eighth note on the release.

Restrict MIDI note velocity. Each pad normally defaults to generating velocity values up to 127, but you can restrict the maximum to a different value by using Velocity Lock and programming a maximum value.

MIDI controller. Now this is pretty useful, as you can use pressure to generate control. I tried assigning the pad to pitch bend, and it was interesting to use pressure instead of a wheel - for one thing, it's more guitar-like in terms of feel. But assigning the pad to volume (controller 7) was even cooler, as I could "pulse" a sustained note by tapping on the pad. The result was very much like gating the signal with a key input, except my finger was the key input.

That's the good news. The bad news is that making all these assignments is time-consuming. For example, just to program a pad to send a MIDI note, as well as specify values that come into play should you use velocity lock, takes 17 steps (and you have to remember the code number for assigning the pad to do this, which is 147. Don't enter 149 by mistake, as then it will do MMC. The manual has a listing of what control numbers to enter for what functions, and you'd be well-advised to print this out. Fortunately, though, you can save presets for different applications, like creating a preset just for tactile mixing control, and another for playing a soft synth and bringing out particular parameters for pad or slider control). So once you've labored over making all these assignments, you don't have to do it again.

Also note that the number of parameters you can control with the pads is mind-boggling: In addition to any MIDI controller (continuous or toggle), you can control channel fine tune, channel coarse tune, RPN and NRPN parameters, a bunch of GM parameters, program increment/decrement, and more...much more.

Now, I'd be the last person to say "Wait! You're offering too many functions!" particularly as the more common functions are pretty top level; you only have to drill down for the more esoteric commands. Still, it's not exactly user-friendly, and you'll definitely need a "cheat sheet" if you want to take full advantage of what the Axiom 49 has to offer.

Conversely, if all you want to do with the pads is bash them and trigger notes, you're pretty much set up right out of the box. If all you want to do is change the note assignments, that's easy.

Incidentally, programming other controls (faders, buttons, etc.) isn't too different from the pad programming process, but we'll highlight any significant differences as we run into them.

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Quote Originally Posted by DukeOfBoom

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I have the axiom 25. It's pretty cool looking alright, but not altogether so friendly with Sonar.

 

If they supported Sonar with their DirectLink technology, that would be a big help for Sonar fans.
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I received an authoritative answer from M-Audio - the second generation Axiom is not supported by the Enigma editor, and furthermore, the editor has reached end-of-life and will not be updated to include future products.

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Oh, I was thinking of buying this exact controller Anderton, really glad you're running this Pro Review. biggrin.gif

I have one specific question... I'm planning to buy this beast used as I do with most of the stuff that I purchase. Do you think that after the keyboard has been used for, 1-2 years, it's still gonna hold it together? (Let's assume that the previous owner wasn't too violent...)

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Got some more info today from Avid about 2nd generation vs. 1st generation models, so let's clear that up.

Apparently Axiom is the name of the line, not a specific model, so when the line gets updated it's still an "Axiom" - kind of like how iPod refers to those early models as well as the latest version.

Anyway, here are the main differences, although of course there are many smaller ones:

  • Top panel is angled for better ergonomics in the studio
  • LCD is centrally positioned (a big customer request)
  • Smooth encoders (a big customer request)
  • DirectLink mode automatically maps controls to parameters in common DAWs
  • Instrument maps provide pre-defined settings for virtual instruments in Pro Tools and Logic (the knobs, faders, buttons automatically map to the most-used controls in Pro Tools and Logic VIs)

The person who sent me this info seems a little shy about getting involved, as he probably doesn't want to seem like he's hyping his product. But I've invited him to stop by any time, I think having direct input from the manufacturer is one of the reasons for the popularity of pro reviews. So to draw him in, here's a question: How hard is it to come up with a DirectLink template? If an ambitious user has a program that's not supported, is it possible to "roll your own"?
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