AF’s Weblog

October 5, 2010

Akai APC 20 Review

With the APC40, a control surface fully dedicated to Ableton Live, Akai created an extremely successful tool, so the launch of the APC20 comes as no surprise: an APC40 amputated of its right section and sold at half the price, to beat all competitors.

Because Akai has serious competitors: also targeting Ableton users, Novation didn’t try to compete with the APC40 on the features front but rather, on the price side, with its more basic Launchpad (only pads, no faders nor rotary controls) for under (the psychological price barrier of) $200. It wasn’t a surprise to see that anyone who didn’t have the money for the big Akai controller jumped at the Launchpad. This was enough to get on the nerves of  MPC’s inventor who decided to answer with the APC20 available for less than $200. Let’s have a closer look…

No Surprises

Akai APC20

Once you take it out of its big box, the APC20 makes a quite good impression. Made out of metal, it’s neither too heavy to be transported in a backpack nor too light to keep steady on a table (thanks to four wide rubber feet). Plastic is only used for the pads, the switches, the faders, the encoder, and the removable sides of the housing. The latter are held by six screws and thus can be easily removed for rack mounting purposes. We can easily imagine it between two turntables and a small mixer to rock the dance floor with hot loops.

The APC20 features eight channels, each of them with the following controls (from bottom to top): fader, “Record Arm” button, “Solo/Cue” button (for routing the solo track to the monitoring bus), and “Activator” button (for channel on/off). Next to the eight tracks, on the right, a fader controls the master volume while an encoder adjusts the monitoring level.

Above this section, nine pads give access to the main controls: play, stop, record, MIDI overdub, left/right/up/down buttons to navigate within the tracks and the scenes, and “Note Mode” to determinate the operation of the 8×5 pads on the top section of the APC 20. Although their main use is as clip triggers, they can also be used as a “MIDI keyboard” in Note mode, in which case each pad is assigned to a note. Even though it can’t replace a real master keyboard if you want to play melodic instruments, this feature is very convenient to program Ableton’s Drum Rack on the fly.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

Yes, the APC40 is much more comprehensive than the APC20! But if you have only $200 for a Live controller, the APC20 has only one competitor in the form of the Novation Launchpad. The latter is less expensive but doesn’t have any faders, which makes it less interesting. However, its larger pads make it more comfortable to use. The perfect product doesn’t exist, even if the numerous pros of both competitors provide unprecedented comfort of use with Live.

Advantages:

  • More comfort of use with Live
  • Plug and play
  • Attractive price
  • Manufacturing quality
  • The faders offer a small advantage over the Launchpad

Drawbacks:

  • It would be better with rotary controls, like on the APC40…
  • Backlit pads hardly readable in bright environments

To read the full detailed article see: Akai APC 20 Review

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June 10, 2010

Rhodes Mark 7 73 Midi Organ

To see more gear video demos see:  Audiofanzine Video Vault

May 5, 2010

Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol X1 Review

Native Instruments has been announcing the launch of Traktor Kontrol X1 for several months now and it was even possible to pre-order it on the NI website, if you wanted to be one of the lucky first owners. Was the waiting worth it? Does the Kontrol X1 fulfill our expectations? We’ll see… but let’s unpack it first!

Unpacking

Traktor Kontrol X1The packaging is good quality and all parts are well protected. The box contains a USB cable, a 37-page “Getting Started” document in English, German, French, Spanish, and Chinese, an installation CD including Traktor LE, the drivers, the full user’s manual as well as alternate mappings for the different Traktor versions (Duo, Pro, Scratch, etc.), and the Traktor X1 unit with an overlay to rename the buttons manually if needed. On the CD, you’ll also find the Kore 2 Player software (available for free on Native Instruments’ website) as well as the Controller Editor software that allows you to customize the assignment of each button for MIDI applications.

Traktor LE v1.2.4 was already installed on my computer (the X1 driver is already included in the software ever since version 1.2.3 came out), so I just needed to connect the Kontrol X1 and it was immediately recognized without the need for any further installation (however do notice that if you have an old computer you will not be able to use the controller given that it requires a USB 2.0 port!). The Kontrol X1 is USB powered so you only need to do that one connection! I had already experienced problems with other hardware controllers for Traktor, but this one is really plug ‘n’ play. It’s a joy not to have to spend hours before the controls light up.

How Does it Look?

Traktor Kontrol X1When you switch it on it looks like Knight Rider’s KITT… The dark design is sober but well-achieved, all buttons and knobs feel sturdy, pleasant and they seem to be good quality. The Kontrol X1’s layout is symmetrical and almost all controls are mirrored so that you can control both decks (A and B) independently. The only buttons that aren’t doubled on the X1 are Shift and Hotcue.

The unit is light (1.5 lb.) and slim (4.7″x2″x11.6″). If you play live with a full DJ set, you’ll have to buy the optional Kontrol X1 Bag so you can raise the Kontrol X1 to the same height as a mixer or turntable. The Kontrol X1 includes four anti-slip pads.

All buttons have two different backlit levels: dimmed when inactive and bright when active. This feature is very convenient to find a specific function in dark environments. Both brightness intensities can be adjusted in Traktor. The knobs are not backlit but you can find them pretty easily thanks to the buttons around them.

Each button has different colors to distinguish the different functions:

  • Effects = orange
  • Browsing and loading = orange (it would have been nicer if it was a different color)
  • Loops = blue
  • Transport = blue (a different color would have been nice)
  • MIDI = green
  • Shift and Hotcue = white

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

The Traktor Kontrol X1 is a well-manufactured and excellent-quality product that seduced us. It is extremely easy to install: real plug ‘n’ play. The backlit buttons look great and are very practical in dark environments. So, yes, the Kontrol X1 looks really hot! But it is almost impossible to use it as a mixer with a notebook, which is a pity because it would be a real plus for this slim and light controller which fits my carrying bag perfectly along with my notebook. It only lacks two controls for Native Instruments to be able to target DJs using compact systems.

Advantages:

  • Plug ‘n’ play
  • USB powered
  • Great design and finish
  • Lightweight and compact without compromising operation
  • “On” button in the filter section

Drawbacks:

  • No track volume control! Requires an additional mixer!
  • Price ($199)
  • Additional products required to make full use of the Kontrol X1: Traktor Pro ($199) and Kontrol X1 Bag
  • Unfortunate names on some buttons with Traktor LE

To read the full detailed article please see:      Traktor Kontrol X1 Review

January 27, 2010

Novation Launchpad: Who’s Pad?

Novation Launchpad Gear Review

Novation surprised everyone by bringing out an Ableton Live dedicated control surface. Like Akai’s APC? Not really, and obviously not at the same price.

Even though the Ableton Live revolution already goes back several years, it is noteworthy that dedicated control surfaces started to appear very late on. Except for Faderfox and Livid – which were the first to offer products conceived for Ableton’s baby – most manufacturers limited themselves to offering Live mappings for their generic controllers. The market started to get interesting for Abletoners when Akai launched its APC40. Following Akai steps, Novation introduced its own Live controller, but with a serious advantage: it’s sold for under $200 – half price of the APC40. So let’s take a look at what Novation has to offer for that price.

Novation Launchpad

The Launchpad is basically an eight-by-eight pad matrix with 16 function buttons made out of the same smooth, translucent plastic as the pads. All buttons are backlit (green, amber or red, depending on the application – we’ll come back to this later). The device is a 6.45″ long and 1.2″ thick square. It weights about 1.5 lb. and is equipped with four large rubber feet to ensure it stays secure and perfectly stable on almost any surface, even when you hit the pads. There’s nothing to criticize the finishing quality about except for the pads’ hardness, but that ought to change with time. We appreciate its lightness and compact dimensions that allow you to take it with you in a backpack along with your notebook for mobile applications.

The device has only one USB connector. No MIDI in/out/thru, no sustain or expression pedal connector, only the bare minimum! But Novation points out that you can use several Launchpads at the same time using a standard USB hub. However, we received only one unit for the review so we couldn’t test this setup. We recommend you to use a USB hub with a power supply because the Launchpad is powered via the USB connector and it might be too much to ask from your computer to power several units at the same time, especially if it’s a notebook…

The device is, obviously, provided with a dedicated Live version (limited to eight scenes, though). Once you install Live and the drivers, you just have to declare the Launchpad as a control surface in Live and you’ll be ready to go. As a (funny) side note: the program installed the Novation Audio Control Panel on my computer, which is less than useless considering Launchpad is a MIDI-only control surface and I only got error messages when I tried to open it…

Among other regrettable details, I’ll mention the two-page Getting Started guide provided as “documentation” with the product. It’s true that the Launchpad is a masterpiece regarding intuitiveness but I still find it hard to believe that it takes only two pages to describe how it works… I bet Novation had to sacrifice such details in order to command such a low price. On the other hand, the manufacturer provides some nice video tutorials on its YouTube website which are clear enough to compensate for the lack of a serious user’s manual.

Conclusion

The rugged, compact and light Launchpad will surely be a success among Ableton Live fans who can’t afford an Akai APC40. Novation clearly gave a lot of thought to its product, and even though some aspects could still be improved, it will definitely win you time and improve your ergonomics. As a result, you can rest assured that you’ll see it on lots of stages and in home studios, and certainly under more than a few Christmas trees…

Advantages:

  • Extremely affordable price
  • Compact size and lightness
  • Rugged
  • Ergonomic and well thought out
  • Four modes for virtually any application…
  • Effective MIDI learn function
  • Several Launchpads can be used simultaneously

Drawbacks:

  • Lighting intensity hardly distinguishable by daylight
  • Not velocity/aftertouch sensitive
  • Continuous controllers set by steps: we miss encoders and faders…
  • The lack of track information display can get you lost in the matrix

To read the full detailed review see: Novation Launchpad

November 4, 2009

MIDI: The GM Standard and its Extensions

Filed under: MIDI, Synthesizers — Tags: , , , , — audiofanzine @ 7:23 am

GM, GS & XG: A Little History

Many sound cards and synthesizers, as well as most audio software, are compatible with one of the three midi norms (GM, GS, XG). Though MIDI has long since proven its utility, the existence of different standards can be confusing, so this article has been put together in order to clarify a few points.

Dossier sur le general MIDI : GM, GS et XG For someone who just wants to listen to music, or for a multimedia developer looking to add background music or sounds to their program, the Midifile format has proven to be a real asset. It allows a user to play a sequence that was written by another person, whatever gear or software they were using. But in the past, only the notes and rhythm of the musician were encoded, which didn’t necessarily guarantee a similar sound. In fact, the sounds coming from each sound card, each synthesizer, were different (different in their sound and in their organization). Patch number 15 could be a piano on synthesizer X, and a trumpet on synthesizer Y. It was sometimes necessary to be an expert in MIDI and/or have a lot of patience to get the right settings in order to listen to a piece written by another musician working on a different synth or platform.

The MMA (Midi Manufacturers Association) fixed this problem in 1991 by creating the GM (General Midi) standard. The goal of this standard has been to unify the behavior of sound generators when playing back a Midifile sequence. In order to be labeled GM, an instrument must be multi-timbral and polyphonic up to at least 24 voices, and include at least 16 families of sounds (pianos, guitars, strings…), each containing 8 variations (for example, for strings: violin cello, double bass, etc…

The main advantage of this standardization is that each patch number now corresponds to a certain instrument no matter what the machine. So, instrument number 71 will always be a bassoon and number 12 a vibraphone. The sound generator must also contain a drum kit, whose mapping (placement of the separate elements on a keyboard) is also standardized. Finally, MIDI controllers must be recognized also.

To read the full detailed article including the GM reference guide see:  MIDI The GM Standard and its Extensions.

September 4, 2009

Novation Remote Zero SL MKII

Filed under: Control Surfaces — Tags: , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 12:09 pm

When Novation announced Automap Universal at the 2007 NAMM many were instantly intrigued by the concept. Many producers and long time fans of MIDI control were eager to get this revolutionary product integrated into their set up. Now with the Mk2series and Automap 3 available, Novation seems to have taken their product to a new level. Does it live up to expectations?

The software that arrived with my original Remote Zero SL (MK1) back in ’07 certainly didn’t disappoint. Plug-ins and virtual instruments that would have usually taken a substantial amount of time to map were instantly displayed across the unit’s two displays. The ease and speed of further customisation was also impressive for a version 1.0 product.


Since 2007, I have been an avid user and regular beta tester of the Novation Remote SL line and their associated Automap technology, so when the chance to review the new Mk2 version of the Remote Zero SL came up I was more than happy to take delivery of the unit and give it a test run…

Conclusion

This is no doubt one of the best dynamic midi controllers out there. With its slick design, innovative touch-sensitive, illuminated panel and mature software you can’t go far wrong. This is certainly an improvement on the last model and shows a step in the right direction when it comes to hands on control of production software. It’s a shame that the second display has been dropped and that there aren’t more endlessly rotating knobs on the unit but as I said before this isn’t the end of the world. Also it might be worth throwing this in a flight case if you want to take it on the road, though the plastic case, although well made, might not stand up to the rigours of regular gigging.

To sum up, I really love this device, in fact so much that I have hung on to the review model and it has become my controller of choice in the studio … And this comes form someone who has used, Mackie, Euphonix and Jazz Mutant products.Clear innovative touch sensitive controls

Advantages:

  • Illuminated buttons for clear feedback

  • Crossfader for digital DJs

  • Competitive price point

  • USB powered

  • Awesome, mature regularly updated software

Drawbacks:

  • Plastic casing throughout may not strand up to live shows

  • Only one display as opposed to the previous models two

  • No power supply as standard for use with low power USB hubs

To read the full detailed article see:  Novation Remote Zero SL MKII Test

May 2, 2009

Percussa Audiocubes: The Test

Audio Cubism
Percussa Audiocubes: The Test

Out of the blue, it just appeared in my office, like the megalith from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A cube: 7.5 cm long, as white and smooth as paraffin, with a pair of LEDs on four of its six sides, two ¼ inch jack inputs, a USB connector…and a button … … that I press … Let there be Light, as someone once said: the cube shines!

AudioCubes

So what is it? A new age light to go with one’s lava lamp? Or the latest cutting-edge technology in light-therapy? Not at all; a small sticker tells me that I am in the presence of an AudioCube 1.0, a device by Percussa designed to revolutionize our approach to music. Let’s see about that…

Charging…

The AudioCubes are charged in 3 hours via a USB cable for use from 3 to 5 hours …

The AudioCubes are, you guessed it, cubes that have a communication port on 4 of their sides capable of transmitting and receiving digital or analog signals, using infrared light, to and from other cubes nearby. As for using them as MIDI controllers, they can be used in two ways: in Sensor mode or Sender/Receiver modes, which involves at least two cubes. They generate two types of MIDI messages: either Note-on (triggering a note), or continuous controllers which are useful for progressively changing MIDI parameters.

Sensor Mode: In this mode the cube senses the distance to a nearby object, such as another cube or your hands: so you’ll be able, just by making gestures around the cube, to control the frequency cutoff and/or resonance of a filter, or modify the ADSR of an envelope…

AudioCubes

Sender/Receiver Mode: this is also interesting because it’s based on interaction between cubes. How does it work? Each AudioCube has 4 sides that can send and receive infrared signals to and from other cubes. 4 sides per cube gives you 16 combinations (each can be a MIDI command such as triggering samples) with only two cubes …

Far from being merely a MIDI controller, the AudioCube is also a lo-fi instrument. This means that it has a signal generator/processor with a 32 kHz/9 bit audio resolution… the sound goes through the same infrared ports as the MIDI or through jack cables. Each cube has a ¼ inch jack input and output.

Lastly, the icing on the cake, the AudioCubes are also lights. For each cube, there are three colors (red, green and blue) whose intensity can be controlled via MIDI and a sequencer. By mixing those 3 fundamental colors you can get just about any color. Some will consider these cubes a gadget, if they’re only interested in their controller features, while others, who see all the opportunities these AudioCubes offer in a live show, will find them essential…

It works in theory. Let’s see if it also works in practice…

Conclusion

The Cubes are on a roll !

Inventor of AudioCubes, Bert Schiettecatte, received the Qwartz Max Mathews award of technological innovation applied to the field of music from the hands of Enki Bilal (President of the 5 ° edition) April 3, at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris.

The AudioCubes idea is excellent, but there’s still much room for improvement, both in terms of hardware and software. Of course, for around €649 for a set of 4 cubes, AudioCubes are amongst the most accessible of futuristic controllers. But it would have been nice if they had both more sensor responsiveness and accuracy on the one hand, as well as more ‘user friendly’ software on the other. But that doesn’t hinder these Percussa devices from being usable and even from causing a stir (see the box), but they will no doubt appeal more to musicians in search of original live accessories than those who really want to revolutionize their way of making music.

This brings us back to the famous debate about whether the latest inventions in the field of musical ergonomics, or even ergonomics in general, make a difference. Take the case of the Wiimote, which, after all, didn’t change anything in terms of the gamedesign of video games despite the frenzy it provoked in the media… Just like the Tenori-on, the Reactable, or Jean-Michel Jarre’s famous laser-harp, the AudioCubes are fascinating in their concept and visually attractive, but you’re never sure if you’re dealing with a ‘design’ object used for music, or a real instrument that’s also esthetically pleasing. You be the judge, but in any event Max/MSP developers will probably be paying close attention to this product, while others may just pass it by. However, the ‘AudioCube 1.0’ on each cube suggests that the story is to be continued …

The concept!
The different performance modes
Well-designed manual

Sensors lack precision
‘Lo-Fi’ audio not very interesting
Software is user-unfriendly …

To read the full detailed article see Percussa Audiocubes review

April 28, 2009

Video Demo: Doepfer Dark Energy

Doepfer talks about the new Dark Energy, their analog monophonic stand-alone synthesizer that also features a USB and Midi interface.

To see more exclusive video demos visit Audiofanzine Videos.

April 8, 2009

Musikmesse: Novation SL Mk II

Novation talks about their new SL Mk II controller.

novation

For more Musikmesse videos and news visit Audiofanzine Musikmesse

February 5, 2009

NAMM 2009: Video Demo Novation Automap 3

Filed under: namm 2009, Software — Tags: , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 8:58 am

Presentation of the new Automap 3 Software for Novation MIDI controllers.

To watch all NAMM 2009 video demos visit us on Audiofanzine NAMM 2009.

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