Because my studio is divided into two areas; the recording area and the control room area, I’m sometimes faced with some equipment duplication. For example I have a terrific Yamaha keyboard in the recording area which can be used as a sound source and a MIDI keyboard. It does me little good, though, if I’m sitting at my control room desk and a melody comes into my head Using my iPad as a MIDI controller through Music Studio 2 or Sunrizer is a bit of an improvement but nothing beats the feeling of real, full-size keyboard keys.
A few weeks ago I was strolling through the Best Buy in Barrie. As I rounded the back corner next to computers I expected to enter the car audio zone. Instead I was treated to a huge sign that read “Musical Instruments”. Puzzled I went over. Instead of racks of radios with annoying displays there were guitars, electronic drums, guitar do-dads, keyboards and loads of recording gear. The guy explained that these instrument sections were new and were replacing the car audio section in many stores.
So now I’m walking around this new playroom and I run into the Oxygen 49 by M-Audio. The Oxygen 49 is a 49 key USB MIDI Controller and is only $160. The design is compact and efficient for a full size key, 4 octave keyboard and it sits nicely on my desktop between the keyboard and monitor. Installation is a snap; plug in the USB cable and you’re done. I can’t get into the PC installation but it does come with a disc that contains drivers and is probably a pain in the ass. Instead my Mac just added the O49 to the list of MIDI devices and I was using it in seconds. The PC is great for work but when it’s time to play – get a Mac.
The controller also comes with DirectLink, a package which will setup the controller for use with some DAW packages such as Pro Tools. I’m using Reaper by Cockos which is not supported by DirectLink. Frankly I prefer it that way. Once you get locked into to a third party product to link two other products you get into trouble. If DirectLink becomes a dead or unsupported product down the road (or just doesn’t ever intend to support your DAW) then you’re S.O.L. The alternative to DirectLink is to use the keyboard’s native MIDI controls and tell your DAW to Learn from the controller. That’s what I’ve done and it’s worked out pretty good so far.
Because I’m not a MIDI rocket scientist I’m sure there may be better ways of doing things but for now I’ve taken different MIDI channels and assigned them various functions within Reaper. MIDI channels 1 and 3 are set as the strip sliders 1 – 8 with the buttons set as Mute. MIDI channels 2 and 4 are set as strips 8 – 16 with Mute buttons. Channels 5 and 7 are sliders 1 – 8 but this time the buttons are set to Solo. It sounds complicated but once I laid it all out on a nice coloured spreadsheet and got used to it I find it a snap to quickly set the keyboard up as I want it.
One cool feature is the ability to set the controls to control functions of the plug-ins you use with your DAW. Many plug-ins have a MIDI Learn function. I just select an unused channel and use it for the desired plug-in. For example, I’ve mapped the sliders and pots to controls in Synth1, a terrific free synthesizer plug-in. It’s much easier (and way more fun) to tweak a sound with a knob or slider than with a mouse.
I find that using a controller for DAW functions is more productive than constantly reaching for the mouse or even keyboard shortcut. Having the sliders, transport controls and panning (that’s how my pots are set) right at your fingertips and centimetres away from the musical keyboard is very handy.
The keyboard itself is well constructed. The buttons and potentiometers feel good and the sliders, while not the ultimate in electronics do feel solid enough. The Pitch Bend and Modulation wheels have a nice feel with smooth rotation and good spring-back (on the Pitch Bend). The keyboard keys are what you’d expect on a lower cost keyboard. I’m not a keyboardist so I’m perfectly happy with it. I love the full size keys and playing them is fine for me. I’m sure real, talented keyboardists won’t be crazy about it but you can’t please everyone. The keys themselves produce varied velocities providing some sensitivity control. For under $200 bucks you can’t beat this thing.
One little quirk I’ve found is that before a slider on the keyboard will control the onscreen slider you must first physically move the keyboard’s slider up through the on-screen slider’s position. It’s almost like the controls must latch. This can sometimes be a nuisance but it’s not a serious drawback.
So I’m continuing to play with this excellent new addition to my studio setup and enjoying it more and more. As I discover new stuff I’ll keep you posted.
Thanks for listening!