Photos: Mark Ewing
Originally projected as a dedicated controller for Propellerhead's immensely popular Reason electronic studio software, Novation's Remote was announced two-and-a-half years ago as a Propellerhead/Novation joint venture. Reason users were understandably excited. Forums buzzed and photographs of prototypes appeared on the Internet, but a long time passed and no Novation Reason controller appeared.
Until now. But Remote 25, despite sporting the Reason 'Re' prefix, is no longer what it was first intended to be, and instead has metamorphosed into a general-purpose device that comes with profiles and control overlays for 24 different software packages and hardware synths — including Reason. What changed Novation's mind about producing a dedicated Reason controller? Find out in the 'Remote History' box on the next page.
Novation's 'reasons' aside, the change of direction means that, instead of standing out from the crowd as a Reason-centred device, Remote 25 now has to run with the pack of 'keyboard-plus-knobs' controllers from several other manufacturers.
'Cute', if not 'revolutionary', is a word that comes to mind when looking at Remote 25. Clearly the Remote is aiming at the same affordable controller market as Evolution's MK-series or Edirol's PCR-series, or M Audio's Oxygen 8 and Ozone keyboards. Like the last two instruments in this list, the Remote 25 sports a 25-note full-sized keyboard. The Remote 25 offers velocity and aftertouch sensitivity, and the two available keyboard octaves are transposable over an eight-octave range.
Where the Remote 25 really scores is in the sheer number of assignable knobs, buttons, sliders and other controllers its compact front-panel hosts. Its eight knobs, eight continuous rotary encoders (stepped, with no end stop), eight rather short-throw sliders and 24 programmable buttons make the eight knobs offered by M Audio's Oxygen 8, for example, look a tad skimpy. There's also a sequencer transport section (play, stop, record, fast forward and rewind buttons), a combination pitch-bend/mod joystick, and a programmable X-Y touchpad to which up to four parameters can be assigned. The last is a very welcome performance-oriented tool, not seen on any similar product. Indeed, the Remote is generally a thoughtfully designed device — users may even choose whether they want the mod part of the joystick sprung or unsprung, via a little switch! Expression and sustain pedal sockets complete the potential controller line-up, and a collection of edit and cursor buttons, along with a data knob and 2-line x 16-character backlit LCD, fill out the front-panel layout.
Reason (Subtractor, Mälstrom, Sampler, Redrum, Mixer).
Nord Lead 3.
PPG Wave 2.V.
Logic Platinum v5.
More templates are said by Novation to be under development; when they materialise they should be downloadable from the company's web site.
All connectivity is located at the rear, including the USB port, MIDI In and Thru ports, and two MIDI Outs. The five-pin MIDI sockets can be treated as an independent one-in/two-out MIDI interface when the keyboard is connected to a computer via USB, increasing the Remote's value-for-money quotient.
Lastly there's a 9V DC power supply socket (and power switch). No PSU is provided — it's an optional extra, which is slightly odd. The Remote 25 is supposed to be able to draw power solely from the USB connection, which in some degree would excuse the lack of PSU. But not all USB connections are equal, especially on laptops, and some may not provide enough current to drive the keyboard. The Remote's manual even mentions this possibility in connection with some laptops, but we found that the USB current generated by our desktop Apple G4 wasn't sufficient to power the Remote 25. Even with a laptop that can provide enough juice, you'd probably rather not use USB power alone when running from the laptop's batteries.
Happily, there's a third (albeit potentially expensive) alternative, since the keyboard can also run off six 'C'-type batteries, making it powerable independently of USB or mains (Novation claim a maximum life of 64 hours if you use Duracells). Usefully, if you install rechargeable batteries, it's possible to trickle-charge them from the USB and PSU connections.
Designed to be a portable controller, perhaps ideally suited for use with laptop music setups, the Remote 25 allows you to play notes into your software and to alter a wide range of on-screen parameters in software, or hidden parameters in the case of some hardware instruments. It comes pre-loaded with 59 control Templates, though there can be several per instrument or software package — there are 10 for Reason alone. However, Remote 25 is fully programmable, so you should be able to create templates (such as the one we made for our Korg Trinity workstation) for instruments not covered, and save them to any of the 64 template locations. One or all templates can be dumped to computer via MIDI, if desired.
To help you more easily associate the many physical controllers with what they'll be doing in your software, a set of card overlays that fit into recesses over the three main button areas on the front panel is provided. There are pre-printed ones for the factory presets and blanks for your own use. Nice as this sounds in theory, in practice they're a bit fiddly, and it's a drag to have to slip three cards in and out every time you change template — which is quite regularly when working with the Reason devices, for example. We also wondered how durable these thin cards will be in the long term. Fortunately, Novation can sell you new ones.
Build quality is fine — you think the Remote 25 is going to be a bit plasticky when you first unpack it, but it's actually sturdy. The sliders are not the most pleasing to move, but the knob and encoder pots are of good quality, with plenty of space between them for even stubby fingers. The pitch-bend part of the joystick on the review model was incorrectly calibrated, however, and wouldn't quite transmit a full range, leading to flatness and sharpness at the extreme of upper or lower bends. It was less noticeable when the target's pitch-bend range was set to a couple of semitones, but still present (especially for downward bends). Resetting the Calibration menu, which Novation suggested might have been scrambled in a software upgrade, had no effect, but they claim that the fault hasn't been reported with other units, so we had to conclude that the review unit had a hardware fault. Otherwise, the keyboard feels fine, and it's excellent that the keys are full-size. Our only comment would be that the way the keys physically pivot at extreme aftertouch values is a little alarming.
Getting the Remote 25 going is simply a matter of installing the right USB drivers for your system (they're supplied on CD-ROM with the keyboard) and connecting the unit to your music computer. The keyboard now becomes a MIDI input device for MIDI sequencers and software instruments. As we write, there are no Mac USB drivers (OS X drivers are expected later in the summer), so we connected the Remote 25 to a spare port of our MIDI interface via the five-pin MIDI sockets. Mac users who remain devoted to Mac OS 9 for music will find that the five-pin MIDI connection is their only option, since OS 9 USB drivers are unlikely to appear. We tested the keyboard with Propellerhead's Reason (for Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X), and Steinberg's Cubase SX MIDI + Audio sequencer in Mac OS, plus some virtual instruments inside both SX and Cubase VST.
Not all Reason devices are covered in the Remote's current collection of preset Templates, but all v2.0 instruments are here — Subtractor and Malström synths, the Dr Rex, NN19 and NNxt sample-based devices, the Redrum drum machine, and Remix mixer.
All supported Reason devices except for the 'samplers' require two Remote Templates; Redrum requires three. These devices simply have too many controls for one Template. In practice, this means switching Templates via two dedicated buttons. For the synths, the Template arrangement is straightforward: each of the two focuses largely on one oscillator, dividing the remaining parameters in a fairly logical manner. A handful of relatively insignificant parameters aren't assigned to controllers in each case (odd, since there are free slots in the Templates), but if they're important to you, it's simple to add them to a Template and re-save it (see box on the next page). Another niggly problem — easily fixed — is the way in which some preset button mapping doesn't cycle through the full range of device options: Subtractor's LFO1 destination, for example, has a column of six options, yet the Template assignment just toggles between the first and last. A simple tweak (setting the Button Type to 'Step' from 'Toggle' in the Remote's Edit menu and resaving the Template) fixes this.
As it happens, a lot of controller assignments for certain parameters in Reason — such as filter cutoff and resonance — are the same for all devices, so you'll find that one Reason Template will mostly function for several devices, sometimes saving you the trouble of changing Templates to tweak different devices.
There is a strange situation with the preset Redrum and Remix Templates. Even though it takes three Templates to cover Redrum's functions, not all its drum voices can be tweaked — just eight of the 10 available. The same problem affects the two Remix Templates: only eight channels of a 14-channel mixer can be controlled from the Remote, so you can't do any proper real-time hands-on mixes unless you make your own, more suitable, templates. Even then a mix would have to be undertaken in multiple passes, but this is the case with many MIDI controller units. For the Remix channels that can be controlled with the supplied Templates, nearly everything has been assigned, including mute and solo functions, as well as level and pan. In the case of Redrum, most voice-editing controls for the eight controllable drum voices are mapped for you.
These issues notwithstanding, we thought the Remote 25/Reason combination was excellent, making the recording of real-time tweaks and editing much more of an organic procedure than when working solely with a mouse. Reason is better served than some software for mouse-based onscreen control, but real controls are still better! Remote 25 really does become an extension of the computer screen, making Propellerhead's simulation of the analogue studio even more convincing.
As attractive as a dedicated hardware controller for Reason would have been, one has to recognise that such a product would have a limited potential market — obviously a generic device has the potential to sell to a greater number of people. This fact became clear to Novation during Remote 25's development, with the result that the final product differed markedly from the original concept. Novation's Nick Bookman offered some feedback on how the product changed during the development period. The first big step towards making the keyboard generic was the decision that the prototype's excellent grid system, dedicated to editing Reason devices, used up too much panel space. In the end, this became filled with knobs instead. Prototype Remotes made do with a three-digit LED display, and this is definitely improved upon by the 2-line x 16-character LCD on the production keyboard. Customer feedback also had an impact on some design decisions — for example, the substitution of a joystick for separate mod and pitch-bend wheels. This feedback is also responsible for the sprung/unsprung option for the joystick's mod-wheel element, and it influenced Novation's decision to implement knobs, encoders and sliders rather than simply offering all knobs. Users were split 50/50 as to whether encoders or knobs should be specified, so both were included on the final product; stepped encoders are particularly useful for parameters with a fixed, rather than continuous, value range. For example, when changing the semitone tuning of a synth oscillator, an encoder could be clicked five steps and you'd know a five-semitone shift had been made. In the interests of compactness, a two-octave keyboard was substituted for the prototype's three octaves — probably the correct decision.
Lastly, the prototype used a similar colour scheme, parts, and mechanics to the Supernova II and Nova II keyboards. Manufacturing cost considerations demanded simplification — mainly in a switch from metal to plastic. Also, since the prototype's debut, recent Novation products have moved to a silver livery, and the finished Remote 25 now fits in nicely with the current range.
In order to establish communication between Steinberg's Cubase SX and the Remote 25, a setup file (supplied by Novation on the included CD-ROM) must be installed from within SX. In addition, a little preset SX Song file is provided. This is based around a MIDI and Audio mixer tailored to be controlled from the four factory SX Templates.
This Song could be used by Remote 25 owners as a default Song. Together with the four Templates it offers 16 channels of MIDI and 16 channels of audio mixer. Controlling these channels, in banks of eight, is done by switching between the Templates on the Remote 25. Basic level (via the sliders) and pan control is provided for all channels, as is one send control per channel. The Remote's buttons, rather than being assigned in these Templates to offer mute/solo, replicate many onscreen functions, saving the need to use your mouse, or even key commands on the computer keyboard. Functions mapped out include punch in/punch out enable, sync enable, audio quantise, various edit functions (glue, delete, zoom), and buttons that move instantly to SX's various edit windows. Mute and solo are possible, but just one button is assigned to each. Whichever track is selected on screen can have its mute/solo status altered by this single pair of buttons, rather than one pair per track being available, which is OK but not ideal during real-time mixing.
Another advantage of the Remote 25 is its transport controls — don't underestimate them! They work perfectly as part of the Cubase SX Templates, but aren't implemented in the correct way for Reason. Reason can be made to 'learn' the controls, though, and the result can then be saved in a Reason 'default song'. In general, if the Templates don't suit the way you work with your sequencer, they can be edited to offer the control you require, and the process is straightforward (see the box below).
Working with MIDI-controllable VST instruments within Cubase SX, or a similar MIDI + Audio sequencer, is simply a matter of assigning the Remote 25 as MIDI input device for the MIDI track assigned to the virtual instrument. Now select (or create) a suitable template, or make the target software learn the Remote's current controller assignments (a quicker option in some circumstances). We successfully tested Steinberg's new D'Cota synth and Native Instruments's FM7 in this way. Remote-inspired tweaks were reliably recorded and edits made.
Delving into the Remote 25's operating system isn't nearly as daunting as the same procedure on some other MIDI controller devices, which is good news for users creating Templates from scratch.
The job of customising a Template starts with a push of the 'Edit' button, and the Edit hierarchy is pretty well organised. Once you're in Edit mode, wiggling a knob or slider or pressing a button selects that control for editing; its name flashes in the LCD and you can cursor through the available parameters and make changes. Knobs/sliders/encoders can transmit any MIDI Continuous Controller, NRPNs, RPNs or up to 20 bytes of System Exclusive data; buttons can also transmit these options (though only fixed values for CCs, NRPNs and RPNs), plus MIDI Notes, program changes or MMC data (for customising remote sequencer transport control). It's also possible to customise data ranges, MIDI channels and Remote 25 output ports.
The list of parameters varies according to control type — you won't see a 'Button Type' parameter when editing knobs, sliders or encoders. Options change according to the type of data: for example, when assigning a continuous controller to a knob or slider, you can customise its higher and lower range and the display type (0-127, or -64 to +63, for bipolar parameters such as pan). These controls can also be set to operate in 'jump' or 'pickup' modes, so that data will be transmitted immediately (the first option) or only transmit data once the parameter value has moved through the value as stored in the Template (the second option). NRPNs and RPNs add LSB and MSB numbers. SysEx messages are fully user-definable, though you'll need access to the SysEx data for the target device.
The range of MIDI data assignable to the physical controllers can also be assigned to the expression and sustain pedals, and each corner of the X-Y touchpad. You can also morph between the Controllers assigned to the pad by touch — very handy, and very cool! In Edit mode, just touch the corner to which you'd like to make the assignment.
All in all, Template editing is pretty much as easy as could be, although we would have liked to see a 'learn' mode, especially when setting up templates for hardware synths, so that parameters tweaked on a target device were learned by the currently selected Template. And even though editing is easy, we'd still like to see an onscreen editor. Novation say they have something in development.
In addition to Edit mode, a Global mode allows parameters not specific to Templates to be set — memory protect, the assignments to the four Function keys (or F-keys), calibrating the joystick and aftertouch, and more. The F-keys have preset assignments, offering a Snapshot option that transmits all current knob values in one go, a Panic switch that cuts all hanging MIDI data (if any), and Template select up/down buttons (templates can also be scrolled using the data/Value wheel). Each F-key can also have a Template assigned to it, for instant recall of Templates.
We were very happy with the Remote 25's performance with the test software, and because of Novation's decision to broaden its applications, you don't have to be a Reason user to take advantage of it. It's a well-designed piece of equipment, perfectly suited to the job in hand, and it beats the direct competition in terms of facilities, amount of knobbiness, size and ease of use. Consider that it offers a total of 48 controls, plus joystick, touchpad, transport controls and keyboard, in a small space that nevertheless doesn't seem crowded. That's no mean feat.
We'd happily add this keyboard to a laptop or desktop setup, though personally we'd be waiting for the Mac OS X USB drivers and adding the optional power supply due to USB current-draw issues. Since it arrived, though, the Remote 25 has been in constant use, has proved its worth and would be our first choice at the moment as a portable controller.