Photos: Mike Cameron
It's always been a tricky business, designing control surfaces. On the one hand, you can make a controller that can theoretically talk to any piece of software, but then what do you make it look like? The control layout that works brilliantly for one sequencer or plug-in is inevitably no good for another, and the potential for confusion is then huge as the user hops between different software while using the same controller. On the other hand, you can create a control surface that is dedicated to working with one piece of software, and is ergonomically completely in tune with it... but the problem then is that you can't easily use the controller to run anything else. Generally speaking, these kinds of dedicated control surfaces also tend to be much more expensive than the generic type.
But here's a product that bucks that trend. M Audio's iControl is one such dedicated control surface, and it's a mere £129. As you can tell from its looks, it's designed to control Apple's 'semi-free' Garage Band 2 application (the iLife suite of which Garage Band is a part costs £49 if you don't already have it, but it's supplied free with all new Macs). It's worth noting, though, that the version (2.0) of Garage Band included with iLife 05 needs upgrading to at least v2.0.1 to function with iControl; v2.0.2 is the latest download from Apple's web site.
Before we go any further, I need to mention a couple of things. This controller doesn't really work very well with any other software on the Mac (see the box above for more on why), and none at all on PCs. So if you run a PC or don't use Garage Band, turn to the next review and put away your credit card!
The rest of us can now mentally unpack a well-built, cleanly designed add-on to a widely available piece of Apple software. The iControl's size is just right, taking up less area than the magazine you're reading now. It's not so small that it's fiddly to use, and not so large that it dominates a desktop. The hardware is even equipped with faux wooden end cheeks, reflecting Garage Band's own virtual end-pieces!
As delivered, the controller comes with a six-foot USB cable and a brief multilingual user guide (the English bit runs to seven pages). Since iControl is a buss-powered plug-and-play device, no driver CD is required. Everything worked first time for me, with Garage Band recognising the controller immediately. In addition to the USB socket round the back, there's a five-pin MIDI In socket, though it's undocumented in the manual. You'll notice it turning up in your MIDI applications as 'iControl Port 2', and it can be used by them. It seems to be there to provide a quick conduit to Garage Band for your MIDI controller keyboard if it's not itself equipped with USB, or if you've only one USB connection free on your Mac.
In general, the iControl knob and button collection reflects the on-screen facilities of Garage Band, and allows you to undertake the majority of the important jobs, such as recording and mixing, Instrument tweaking, effects and EQ editing. The layout is really quite clean and straightforward, with loads of space around the controls. You might at first think that the legending is a bit plain, but as soon as the USB connection is made and Garage Band is fired up, subtle backlighting is enabled behind most of the white button graphics. The colour scheme of the backlighting even reflects that of Garage Band. In broad daylight, this backlighting can prove a little too subtle, but it works well in most other conditions.
Straight out of the box, each of the eight 'tracks' is equipped with Mute, Solo, and Record-enable buttons, an endless rotary encoder, and a Sel(ect) button for choosing the track for editing. If your Garage Band song has more than eight tracks, you'll find that the two big arrow buttons in the centre of the iControl (labelled 'Track/Parameter') scroll through the track list in banks of eight. Over on the left, the two Volume and Pan buttons marked 'All Tracks' allow you to determine whether the eight small rotary encoders act as track-specific level controls or pan pots.While a fader for level control would have been ideal, the rotary encoders are a vast improvement over Garage Band's on-screen equivalents. Similarly, the track-specific buttons are refreshingly large, and much better than the miniscule, hard-to-mouse, on-screen equivalents.
The jog wheel and transport bar work as you would expect: record, return to zero, rewind, play, fast-forward and loop buttons all reflect Garage Band's facilities, and the jog wheel simply moves Garage Band's playback position back and forth. Incidentally, it's possible to set playback or record loop points from the iControl: engaging the loop button whilst using the jog wheel or pressing the rewind or fast-forward buttons enables a loop, and sets start and end points for the looped region.
The one fader on board the iControl drives the master volume control in Garage Band. It has a nice feel, though it's only small, and makes one rather wish that M Audio had been able to budget for faders all round. It'll take you a few goes to get used to the way that the hardware fader doesn't move its software twin until the software position has been matched, though.
Using iControl With Other Software
While the main body of this review asserts that the iControl is exclusively dedicated to Garage Band, this isn't wholly true. In theory, the controller does its thing in exactly the same way as any other USB MIDI control surface. This means (again in theory) that if the target software is capable of manually accepting assignments of incoming control data to on-screen parameters, then iControl can do the job. In practice, however, it doesn't work very elegantly.
I tried it with Ableton Live and Propellerhead Reason, and discovered that due to the way iControl's hardware is configured, assignments didn't always work properly. Chiefly, some buttons are momentary when they would ideally latch, and the rotary encoders tend to move between the extremes of an on-screen slider's (or knob's) travel with just two clicks. In any case, there's no way to switch 'banks', so even without such problems, you can't assign more parameters than there are physical controls on the surface of the iControl.
Users of Apple's Logic may be better off; an Environment could be set up to respond to the incoming data. However, because iControl's knobs send incremental rather than absolute data (source of the 'jumping' problem I just mentioned), the objects in the Environment would have to be carefully tailored to work correctly.
In general, though, I think it's fair to say that you probably wouldn't buy iControl unless you were using Garage Band a lot. Incidentally, Windows XP recognises the iControl when it's plugged in to a PC, but it's not recognised by any software I tried, though it appears as a USB audio (!) device in some Preference windows.
With this number of hardware controls, some doubling of button and knob assignments is inevitable. With the iControl, though, this doesn't lead to operational confusion; even a complete newcomer to music on computers, with the manual in hand and Garage Band on screen, should be able to get going fairly quickly. Five buttons, grouped together on the left under the 'Selected Track' label, cause various windows to appear in Garage Band, at which point the Sel buttons and rotary encoders perform a range of different functions, depending on which of the Selected Track buttons you've pressed.
Of these, the first, the Track Info button, invokes Garage Band's window of the same name (shown opposite). Here, you see exactly what sort of Instrument has been assigned to the track (Garage Band, as you may know, distinguishes between 'real' Instruments, which play back sampled loops or your own audio, and 'software' Instruments). You also see the Instrument itself, and the selection of 'effects' (in Garage Band's broad sense of the word) that have been enabled for each track. On offer, as you may know, are a compressor, two variable effects, EQ, echo and reverb. 'Real' Instruments also have a noise gate as part of their arsenal. The Select buttons enable or disable any available effects, and the rotary encoders alter the global value of that effect.
One problem here is that if either of the two effects proper have not been assigned to a track, there's no way to make the assignments from the iControl — it's not quite sophisticated enough. Once you've made those choices, you can turn the effects on or off, but that's it. From this window, you can do nothing more than turn EQ on or off.
It's also not possible to select Instruments or change those that have been assigned to a track from iControl. And as for selecting MIDI or sampled loops from the Garage Band library or setting up an audio recording... well, put simply, you can't. In short, you'll still need your mouse and ASCII keyboard to hand for several significant operations.
Underneath Track Info, the next button, Generator, can be accessed whether the Track Info window is active or not; it invokes Track Info first if it's not visible. When a software Instrument is assigned to a track, this button brings up the parameter-editing window for the Instrument and the rotary encoders take the part of the on-screen parameter sliders.
The last three buttons — Effect 1, Effect 2 and EQ — call up the relevant windows for editing those particular Garage Band elements. Again, the rotary encoders do all the work here, by being assigned to each on-screen parameter from the top down. If there's only two parameters in an effect, it'll be the top two encoders that come into play, and so on. These three windows have the same shortcoming as the Generator window: there is no way to select or save presets from the iControl.
Incidentally, there's an 'Option' button on the iControl that doesn't seem to do much, but it does allow you to quickly enable or disable Effect 1, Effect 2 and/or EQ no matter which windows are, or aren't, open. You just press Option and the required 'Selected Track' button.
No matter which window you call up from iControl, it'll take a short while for you to become accustomed to how the Sel buttons and encoders relate to the various on-screen elements. The correspondence is not always immediately logical, though when working in the Track Info window, the Sel buttons light up when the matching switch is engaged on screen. But as I noted earlier, the backlights are not very clear in daylight, especially on these switches. They also dim when disengaged, so you still may not be sure which hardware button is equivalent to which software button if they're all disengaged. The manual explains this all very clearly, so you can keep that page open until you become accustomed to the layout.
Incidentally, there's no 'echo' or 'reverb' edit buttons because these effects are uneditable inside Garage Band: they're either on or off with an amount value, both of which can be set from the iControl.
Getting Into The Garage
I was never that taken with Garage Band, even as a freebie. But Garage Band 2 is much better. The initial basic options for recording and crucially, editing, your own MIDI or audio data have been very much enhanced. You still need ideas, but Garage Band is now more useful for someone who might have a little creative ambition, offering more room for growth for those who are introduced to the idea of creating tracks by stacking the supplied loops.
The interface is simple and the terminology is made more comprehensible to the novice computer musician ('Align to...' is used in place of 'quantise', for example). Certainly, the loops are there if you really want them (and I must admit that I've borrowed the odd drum loop or two as a way of quickly mapping out a song), but they're no longer Garage Band's main reason for existence. The program also feels a lot less bloated than the first release. The supplied Apple Loops still take up a lot of disk space, and the Garage Band application is huge, but the whole thing seems to zip along much more smoothly — I notice things like this on my soon-to-be-retired 450MHz G4!
There isn't really a lot more to say. In describing the available facilities, I've introduced practically everything the iControl does. Of course, as I've already explained, there are things you can't do with iControl, although sometimes this is because Garage Band itself doesn't offer the facility (iControl button presses and controller moves, for example, can't be recorded by Garage Band for automated playback, because the software doesn't support this option yet). But there are plenty of Garage Band features you can't access. There's no way to enable or disable the metronome, access track-edit windows, or change tempo, and there are no file-management options. But these features, and any further metering or display options, would have added more components and increased the controller's cost. And if M Audio had gone this far, you'd still have needed to use an ASCII keyboard and mouse for track editing and file naming, say. In general, the balance is largely right.
If there's a problem, it's the same one I mentioned at the start of this article — if you design a dedicated controller for a certain piece of software, you immediately put off all the people who don't use that software. And any major changes to the software can potentially leave the hardware behind. There was considerable excitement a couple of years ago at the idea of a dedicated controller for Propellerhead's Reason, proposed by Novation. However, in the end, what Novation brought to market was the Remote 25 — a generic, non-specific controller.
Furthermore, although Garage Band may be installed on all current and many other Macs, not every user will be playing with it — do you use everything Apple puts on your hard drive? And PC users will never, as far as I know, get the chance of using Garage Band, which permanently locks out a large number of potential users.
Despite these concerns, if you do meet the criteria for using iControl, it's a great product. I enjoyed working with it tremendously and found that it elegantly opened up those aspects of Garage Band that it can reach. And working with this controller also caused me to reassess Garage Band in a favourable light. Now, I couldn't imagine working full-time with Garage Band without an iControl in tow.