Ask yourself this: are you playing your software, or is it playing you?
With the humungous proliferation of software instruments of recent years, it’s easy to forget the “instrument” part and focus too much on the “software”, and consequently get lost in a world of mousey clicks and power-user short-cut keys. However, there is still nothing like hands-on engagement with the sound that you’re making, whether that sound ultimately comes from computer speakers or the wobbling of guitar strings, and keyboard controllers are expressly designed to exploit this fact.
Below, dear reader, we guide you through the myriad options at your disposal if your aim is to tinkle, tweak, flam or paradiddle those sounds inside your PC or Mac via that handy USB connection…
Akai MPK series – from £169
Akai originally took the music market by storm with their MPC sampler / drum machines, much loved by hip hop aficionados from Dr Dre to DJ Shadow to, um, Linkin Park. The Akai MPK keyboard controllers feature the legendary MPC drum pads alongside weighted or semi-weighted keyboards (25 keys up to 88 weighted hammer action keys in the aptly named MPK88), transport controls and masses of sturdy rubber knobs (oo-er).
All of the keyboards in the series feel reassuringly weighty and as if they would be able to handle a boisterous B-boy battle in the Bronx (was there really any need for that alliteration? – Ed). What’s more, the MPC pads don’t just look like MPC pads, they behave like them: the Note Repeat and MPC Swing features intelligently quantize and repeat the beats that you play into them, to give them that badass east-side flava (you’re not fooling anyone with this street-talk – Ed).
Alesis QX49 – £119
Currently only one in the range – a 49 key model – but offering a great specs to cost ratio, the Alesis QX49 offers the standard velocity sensitive keyboard plus pitch and modulation wheels. On top of this, however, there are a few extra control methods: eight faders, four drum pads, eight knobs, six assignable buttons, and basic transport controls.
Other than the above, the keyboards ship with a Lite version of Ableton’s world-beating Live software, meaning you can pretty much get started with your twiddling right out of the box. Clearly Alesis have managed to offer this functionality at a great cost, and this is the key selling point of these keyboards.
Novation Impulse series – from £199
The newest of the bunch here, the Novation Impulse range of keyboards look a little bit different – somewhere between “Kit” from Knightrider and the front grate of a Mazda. Whether this is a good look is up to you, but we’re personally quite keen on the black and red stylings as the keyboards conveniently match our company colours!
As with all recent Novation controllers, the Impulse keyboards ship with Automap software, which (as you might expect) automatically maps controllers to whatever software you’re using, so e.g. if you’ve got the DAW mixer up on screen, the faders will become track volume controls; if you’re running a synth plugin, one of the knobs might become a filter cutoff control etc. The Automap software cunningly appears on screen overlaid above whatever you’re looking at to show you what’s mapped to what, which is a great feature that saves a lot of time.
Roland A-Pro series – from £139
Being the undisputed kings of the synthesiser, it’s no surprise that Roland have entered the fray when it comes to controller keyboards. As you’d expect, the A series keyboards are really well built, and the key action is better than anything else in this round up. As with all of the above, masses of knobs, faders and pads are included and, again, these have a reassuringly sturdy feel to them.
Where these controllers really stand aside from the rest, however, is in the bundled software: Roland own the software company Cakewalk, so can afford to include a great selection of sequencing software and soft synths, including Sonar LE (a basic DAW), Rapture LE (a great little soft synth) and more. The keyboards also aport a MIDI Thru connection, meaning you can attach other MIDI controllers for extra versatility.
Please note that prices are liable to go up or down – check online at www.reddogmusic.co.uk for the latest deal.