Novation have an elegant solution to the tedium of configuring hardware controllers — the Remote 25SL can read your sequencer and automatically map plug-in instrument parameters to its controls. Is this the first 'intelligent' hardware control surface? We find out...
Our music-making world may be increasingly software-based, but the combination of mouse and computer monitor is not the greatest interface between us and the music we'd like to produce. It's no surprise, then, that hardware controllers have been so popular over the past few years — knobs, buttons and sliders (not to mention keys) are great ways to manipulate sound and music.
Welding a chromatic keyboard to a control surface has turned out to be a winning formula — from cheerfully cheap, plasticky jobs with 25 keys up to fairly serious 88-note weighted action controllers. Add more knobs, and the formula becomes hard to beat. Novation discovered this with their Remote 25, reviewed in Sound On Sound August 2003 issue. Compact, and perfect for desktop or portable music, the Remote offered a commendably high number of physical controls in that small space, and Novation later reproduced the control set in longer keyboards, too (Remotes 49 and 61 respectively).
One thing that many controllers lack is a decent display: some have cryptic three-character affairs, others a larger LCD panel. The earlier Remotes managed better than many, but their displays were still compact; most of us would continue to glimpse at our computer monitor while working with the controller. A properly affordable keyboard/control surface featuring a full monitor, however compact, is an unlikely proposition. It's perhaps just as well, then, that Novation have been improving their Remote concept. The result is the hardware controller under review here, the Remote 25SL.
There are no prizes for guessing that the 25SL is a compact, 25-note controller keyboard. Your deduction would also be correct if you'd imagine the new keyboard to be festooned with controls, like its predecessor. But then there's that SL suffix: it stands for 'soft label' and refers to the first of this device's two major innovations. Look again at the big picture on the left; you can't fail to notice a pair of long liquid-crystal display strips that dominate the SL's front panel. As far as possible, Novation have designed their controller Templates for the 25SL to use these LCDs in a way that encourages the user not to look at their computer monitor.
As for that second major innovation, it's a new technology dubbed 'Automap' which takes a lot of the pain out of assigning SL controls to software parameters by actively reading parameters and their current values from your instrument plug-ins in real time, and auto-assigning them to the SL's sliders, buttons and pots. This feature is only compatible with two sequencer plug-in hosts at the moment, but more are planned. The SL offers some other nice touches, too, but we'll come to them over the course of the next few pages.
First impressions can count for a lot, and the Remote SL's sleek finish starts us off on a positive note. I've already alluded to the dual two-line by 72-character LCDs — that's 288 characters of feedback, plus various LEDs, to keep you on top of your tweaking. Using the displays is fairly straightforward; the top line tends, most of the time, to show parameter names (usually abbreviated), and the lower line displays parameter values. I welcome the appearance of the XY touchpad, inherited from the original Remote: the joystick, from the same product range, is sturdy but not my favourite. I do like the way you can choose sprung or unsprung operation for the up/down action, though, using the locking slider on the underside (see the pictures overleaf).
A glimpse at the packaging and all the other stuff in the box reveals a handy Quick Start guide, a USB cable (the SL is a USB device), and a DVD. Two pleasant surprises are located on the latter, alongside a software widget or two: the first is a free copy of Novation's excellent Virtual Bass Station VST instrument and the second is a series of tutorial videos presented by Focusrite/Novation's Rob Jones. These are lucid and informative — inveterate non-manual users, and complete beginners, should start here for a painless introduction to the SL.
The software widgets provided on the DVD are largely related to the Automap features, which we'll discuss later. They're not strictly necessary, since the Remote SL is truly plug and play: no drivers are required, and Mac OS X or Windows will recognise it immediately. An anomaly lists the controller as a USB audio device within Windows, but that happens with similar products from other manufacturers.
There's also a full PDF user manual on the DVD. This is pretty good, though I have a couple of reservations. The best bit about it is the way in which extra information is 'hot-linked' to many of the pictures within the text — again, a nice touch for beginners. I did find it a bit sluggish to read on screen, though, and that hot-link feature would mean that a printed-out version wouldn't necessarily contain all the information available.
There is no PSU in the box, since the SL can be powered from its USB connection. It does have a power socket, though, and if you're working with a notebook running from its battery, you'd be advised to invest in a PSU. The alternative is to use four 'C'-sized batteries, and if you use rechargeables, you can even charge them via the USB connection. A PSU or batteries will be required if you plan to use the SL to control external hardware synths via its MIDI Outs. Incidentally, these two MIDI Outs, the MIDI In and the MIDI Thru also form the basis of a handy MIDI interface for whichever computer the controller is attached to.
However you choose to power the SL, the LCDs will glow invitingly, and your eye may also be distracted by the neon-effect 'N' logo between the LCDs. It may be window dressing, but it's a nice touch.
Reviewed in SOS December 2003, Novation's Virtual Bass Station is an accurate recreation of the company's popular modelling synth. Here, it's a VST instrument freebie, which is most generous in a package that already offers so much. Needless to say, there's a template that works with this software, and in any case Automap sees the plug-in when an instance is created inside Cubase. This isn't the place for a VBS review (particularly as we've already done that), but it's definitely a plug-in worth having — it's rich, 'subby', meaty and squelchy, and many other bass-related adjectives besides! The synth is also capable of handling more generic duties (though always monophonically), but bass sounds are all you get in the preset list!
The SL's main control area is divided into two, with each section headed by one LCD each. Beneath the left display, you'll find (from the top down) a row of eight buttons, eight rotary controllers (continuous travel, stepped), another row of buttons, the eight normal knobs (stopped end to end, and perfect for use as pan pots) and, finally, eight trigger pads. Pads seem to be fairly common amongst hi-tech manufacturers these days, and are a welcome alternative to using the main keyboard for triggering drum sounds or samples, not to mention 'triggering' controller data.
The other half of the panel is similarly laid out, though there are just three rows of controllers: 40mm sliders and two rows of buttons. It doesn't take a great leap to realise that in most modes the LCDs will show a maximum of eight parameters that line up vertically with the controls below. Each control row also has, at its left or right edge, a selector button and attendant LED; pressing the button, which lights the LED, selects the relevant row for parameter display in the LCD above. As we'll discover, there are cases where pressing these a second, and sometimes a third, time reveals up to three levels of assigned parameters to each control. The LCDs themselves have a pair of up/down arrow buttons at their sides, and their function varies depending on how the SL is being used.
In addition to the above, we're provided with what are labelled as transport controls, and this is how they function in most situations. However, these buttons may be just as flexibly assigned as all the other controls. Round the back, we have two pedal sockets (for footswitch and expression pedal), and last of all we have the velocity and aftertouch-sensitive 25-note keyboard. This is a nice semi-weighted example that plays rather better than you might expect. It can be transposed over a full eight-octave range, and also has zone options, just like the original Remote.
Add up all the controls, including the trigger pads, foot-controller sockets joystick, and the four points on the touchpad, and you have no less than 78 control sources, plus the aftertouch transmitted by the keyboard — an impressive tally for such a compact device.
All I haven't mentioned so far is the vertical row of knobs and buttons that runs up the middle, and introducing these also leads me to talk about some basic operating principles of the Remote SL. Four of the buttons select operating modes: Play (where you simply use the SL to control soft or hardware synths), Edit (where the data transmitted by each control can be customised), Template (where the common settings for an entire Template full of controls are managed) and Global mode, where overall settings for the whole controller are managed.
One further button, Write, lets you easily save an edited Template or altered Global settings, and the last button, Tap Tempo, allows you to do exactly as it suggests! The 25SL can act as a global clock source for your MIDI system, and you can set the tempo with this button (visual feedback is provided by an LED which flashes in tempo) or with the Data/Select encoder. The latter encoder also has a push element that accesses four selection functions — tempo selection is just one of these. Template selection is another; you use the encoder to scroll through the 40 onboard Controller Templates (see the box below). It can also be used to transmit Bank Select messages and Program changes to those MIDI devices (soft or hard) which respond to them.
Below, for your info, is a list of the plug-ins supported by the stand-alone Templates supplied with a Remote 25SL. You won't see any sequencer mixer maps, as were provided with the original Remote, as these weren't available at the time of my review, although Novation are apparently developing them as I write this, and the plan is to make them available from the company's web site. There aren't 36 instruments listed here because several require two or three templates to cover a decent amount of parameters, and there aren't 40 standard Templates because four of the slots are for the Automaps.
Now, what can the Remote SL do? Out of the box, it can control a bunch of popular software synths, courtesy of its 40 factory Templates. No less than 36 are detailed maps for controlling a wide range of popular software synths, and the remaining four slots are dedicated to the more powerful Automap templates. Should the factory set not supply what you need, the existing Templates can be overwritten.
The two large LCDs make creating custom templates from the front panel a much more attractive proposition than if you were attempting the same job with a three-character display. You have clear feedback on what you're doing at any one time, with cryptic abbreviations almost completely absent; returning to a smaller display will introduce feelings of claustrophobia. Any control on the SL can be set to transmit almost any MIDI information — note data, continuous controllers, RPNs, NRPNs and SysEx. Even the drum trigger pads can transmit velocity-sensitive controller data, which presents some very interesting opportunities for playing or recording rhythmic and dynamic parameter changes. The touchpad can be assigned to a maximum of four parameters (two each for the X and Y axes), and the pitch-bend and modulation joystick is not restricted to transmitting that controller data, but can be remapped if you wish.
Each control can also be set to transmit on any MIDI channel, independently of its neighbours, or on a global channel for the Template, a global channel for the SL or on the same channel as the keyboard. Not only can the keyboard have its own independent MIDI routing, but so can each of the four potential Zones that can be assigned to the keyboard (these have range and transposition parameters but not, sadly, velocity switching). In addition, MIDI data can be routed to a number of 'ports'. Quite apart from the two hardware MIDI Outs, the USB pipeline has two MIDI streams of its own for moving data in and out of the host software.
Even when using the preset Templates, you can access more than one parameter from each control. For example, the first three Templates in a factory SL are dedicated to controlling Novation's excellent V-Station three-oscillator synth plug-in. But you don't have to keep changing Templates to access the different layers of controls: simply pressing the button next to each row of controls in the first Template does this for you.
The layered approach works particularly well because Novation have kept to a fixed control-to-parameter regime. As long as a target device has equivalent parameters, its filter frequency and resonance (for example) will always been tweaked by the same knobs on the SL and the sliders will always control ADSR filter and amp envelope controls. Returning to the V-Station by way of example, similar parameters for different oscillators — such as your level, octave and waveform settings — will also be on the same physical controls in the three related Templates.
The Automap function is what really sets the Remote 25SL apart from other controllers. If you use plug-ins in your sequencer, you don't have to spend time mapping them to the 25SL, because the Remote detects them, and automatically displays their parameters and values on the controller. As a result, you have almost instant access to nearly every instrument parameter in a session — and what's more, that communication is two-way. Tweak your plug-in on screen, and you'll see the parameters change on the SL's displays.
There's just one snag — currently, Automap only works with two bits of software, Propellerhead Reason 3, and Steinberg's Cubase SX3/SL3. According to Novation, Apple's Logic 7 is 'imminent' as I write this (at the end of December), and other packages are planned to follow later. Don't be put off if your preferred host isn't yet supported, though; the SL remains a powerful controller for plug-ins in any environment with standard Templates, or indeed with those you've created yourself.
With Reason, Automap works brilliantly well. The transport controls are mapped sensibly, one of the display options provides an overview of the current song (including song position, loop points and loop activity), and there's an easy way to navigate from device to device in the Reason rack. In fact, Automap feels like the flip side to Reason 3 's own Remote Protocol in the way that it takes the effort out of linking controller to software.
Within the Automap are sub-templates for every Reason device, including the Remix, Combinator and all the effects. You select a device on screen by clicking in the sequencer track display and enabling MIDI input, and the relevant template is called up on the SL. The SL can be used to select the device as well (I stumbled across this option; you press buttons seven and eight in the second row to the right), whereupon you'll see the device names change in the LCD above. The only downside of this is that the selected device doesn't appear on screen (unless it's already there), which can be a bit disconcerting when you eventually do look away from the Remote, and back to your computer screen. The right-hand display provides a kind of session overview, and has two sub-pages (accessed by pressing the up/down arrows); interestingly, in one page you have a device name readout and in the other a track name.
As with the ordinary factory Templates, certain assignments have been standardised by the developers so that envelopes, filters, oscillator parameters and so on are the same no matter which device you're using — even if the device is an effect with filter settings, the cutoff and resonance parameters will be mapped to the same knobs that would apply with the Subtractor or Malström synths.
Novation's standardisation can take a little getting used to in Reason — the filter and amplitude envelopes are the wrong way round, for a start — but get used to them you will. In any Automap situation, there will be a certain acclimatisation period as you become familiar with the different layers of parameter assignments, even with the big LCDs; there's no paper or electronic list, so be prepared for a learning process. The paper overlays used by the original Remote 25 might have been a bit fiddly, but you might follow the example and make some notes until you're up to speed. It eventually becomes second nature, and you can always glance at your computer monitor to double-check exactly what's being tweaked at a given point.
My experience using Reason with the 25SL was excellent. Reason is a knob-heavy program that works well enough with a mouse and keyboard, but it flies with a controller such as this — especially when using the dedicated Automap. The row select and LCD arrow buttons are used cleverly to access, in the case of the Remix module, more than eight mixer channels and all the potential EQ and aux send knobs. Strangely, there is no such option for the 10-channel Redrum drum machine; only eight voices can currently be accessed in this Automap, and I also found a parameter or two that weren't mapped. Novation promised to fix these matters with an update where they could, although this wasn't done before I submitted this review. Furthermore, some Reason parameters, such as the graintable selectors in the Malström synth, aren't available for mapping, so there won't be much Novation can do there.
Editing the Templates from the front panel of the 25SL is so easy that you might not bother to think about any other way of doing it. But Novation have: I had a look at a late pre-release version of the cross-platform Remote SL Editor application, which Novation were planning to have up on their web site for free download by the time you're reading this. It's graphically simple but effective, and lets you quickly set up control assignments (up to three layers) and keyboard zones, and you can even edit Automaps if you'd rather work in a different way to Novation's standard.
Particularly clever is the option to scan a VST plug-in and generate a Template automatically, although sadly this feature wasn't yet working on my beta copy of the software. Being able to instantly restore the factory Template collection is a handy option, as is being able to effectively manage more Templates than the SL can store. The software also provides the easiest way to update the SL's firmware. In short, I'd recommend you get yourself a copy.
Automap implementation seems less comprehensive with Steinberg's Cubase SX3. Any VST instrument in your Cubase song can be selected and edited, but you can't access anything else at present, apart from transport functions. The Automap has no mixer- or effects-editing options — perhaps unsurprisingly when you consider how big and complex a Cubase mixer can be — and none of the SL's buttons are mapped to anything yet. Funnily enough, there are no standard, non-Automap Templates to handle this, either (as there were on the original Remote 25). Novation were promising that they would be on their web site by early in the New Year.
Within this more limited framework, the Automap operation is as elegant in Cubase SX as it is in Reason. Firing up a Cubase song causes the SL to scan for loaded plug-ins and map the controls accordingly — it's set to handle 20 specific plug-ins, but it also makes a good stab at those it's not preset for. The whole process is reasonably fast, too — it seemed to take a couple of seconds on average. Any VSTi located in Cubase 's VST Instruments rack can be selected from the SL using the left or right LCD arrow buttons, and the LCD even flashes the current patch name, if it's available. Controls are mapped to parameters in a consistent and logical fashion, as with standard Templates and the Reason Automap, and it's amazing how soon you become accustomed to seeing sensible, if abbreviated, parameter names in the LCDs. Where a VSTi is complex, the triple-layered control assignments work well.
One thing to be aware of is that selecting a VSTi from the SL makes it available for editing, but not necessarily for playing. The SL keyboard is separately routed to the Cubase track, and you have to manually change tracks via the computer if you want to play as well as edit a VSTi you've selected using the SL25.
Although Automap is in its early stages, and is only compatible with two sequencing hosts (possibly three by the time you read this), it already works extremely elegantly. Using the 25SL with Reason definitely changed the way I work with the program for the better. The Cubase implementation is almost as good, although I miss being able to access the mixer at the moment, and the lack of support for the buttons is rather odd, but I hope these matters will be fixed shortly.
Even putting Automap aside, though, the Remote SL is a great controller: it's well made and a pleasure to work with, and those extra-large displays improve the experience of interacting with software a great deal. It's one of the better in its field in terms of controls and accessibility, and if it's a little pricier than some of the super-affordable controllers on the market, that's not unmerited, as it does a lot more in a more elegant fashion than most other similar devices. And getting change from £330 for a device of this quality and power seems like a damn fine deal to me.
My only real reservation is personal; if I were buying just one controller keyboard, I'd like this many controls and all the new features, but a lot more keyboard! Of course, the original Remote 25 was ultimately joined by 49- and 61-note keyboard varieties. As we went to press, Novation were keeping very tight-lipped on whether the Remote SL range will expand in a similar way, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did. After all, this is a flagship keyboard controller, and who ever heard of one of those with just 25 keys? I'm fairly confident that a year from now, there'll be a lot more of these kinds of controller keyboards around, and not just from Novation. If you want to get the jump on the future, check out the 25SL.