I'm sure many hi-tech music-related products have complex design histories, and we simply never get to hear about them, but the one behind Novation's X-Station takes some beating. Following the release of the well-specified Remote 25 MIDI controller keyboard in Autumn last year (see the review in SOS August 2003, or at www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug03/articles/novationremote25.htm), Novation announced a similar product which was to incorporate an audio interface. In this, they seemed to be following a similar path to that taken by M Audio with their Ozone controller, which appeared when someone realised it would be great to have a USB audio interface built into the company's Oxygen 8 controller keyboard. Novation's Remote Audio 25 was a separate product, which co-existed with the MIDI-only Remote 25. The Remote Audios were manufactured, and one was sent to SOS for review.
Photos: Mark Ewing
Before that article was completed, however, Novation announced at the start of this year that the Remote Audio would be available in a variety of sizes (49- and 61-note versions), and then that the product was to be renamed the Remote Audio Xtreme, and bundled with various pieces of music software, including a cut-down version of Ableton's Live and Steinberg's Cubase, and Novation's own V-Station software synth. Furthermore, a software upgrade was planned which would turn the controller into a fully fledged synth. We elected to wait until the synth upgrade became available before completing our review. Just after that happened though, Novation elected to clear the decks with the whole project, and relaunch the product as the X-Station, losing the software bundle from the package in the process. With the arrival of the completed X-Station 25 at the SOS offices, we've finally been able to complete the review, which has been a work-in-progress for nine months at the time of writing!
Physically, the X-Station 25 is very similar to the Remote 25, sharing all the same parts for the knobs, sliders, and keys. It also has the same attractive silvery-grey matt finish. However, the X-Station is not simply a Remote 25 with an audio interface bolted on. The controller layout is quite different for a start, and of course, there's that built-in synth, of which more in a moment. What the X-Station does share with the Remote 25 is its build quality — as soon as you get hold of it and hit a few keys, you get the feeling you're dealing with a different class of device to the super-budget MIDI controllers out there. The unit is quite light, but feels solid and substantial — more an instrument than a computer peripheral. The two-octave keyboard is semi-weighted, and there are smooth 'clicky' dials, a nice blue backlit LCD, and lots of lights. Lights is good...
Connection to the computer is via USB, which takes care of both the MIDI and audio sides of things. There are also two standard MIDI Out connections, and a MIDI In, so on top of everything else you can use the X-Station as a simple MIDI interface. The controller treats all the MIDI outputs (the two standards, plus the USB connection) separately, and any control can be set to output via any combination of the three. As you can see from the back-panel picture over the page, you also get sustain- and expression-pedal inputs. You'll notice that there's a power-adaptor input next to these, but before you groan, the unit does take power from the USB connection, so you won't need an adaptor most of the time. In fact there's a very neat extra when it comes to power: the unit can be run from batteries, and if you use rechargables, they will be charged while the unit is plugged in. Novation warn that not all laptops supply enough power to run the X-Station, and in fact you may recall that in the SOS review of the Remote 25 controller, the test desktop machine had inadequate power to drive the unit. However, there may have been progress in this area, as even my 12-inch iBook running from its battery was able to power the X-Station. What I did find was that the unit is not happy when connected to a USB hub, even when powered from the adaptor. The lights all pulsed menacingly, and it disturbed the whole buss.
The X-Station is absolutely bristling with controls: there are nine sliders, and tons of knobs, rotary encoders and buttons. While the Remote 25 has its controls set out by type in three rows, the X-Station takes a different approach, grouping them together into zones that are likely to correspond with the panel modules on software synths. So, you have a group of knobs and buttons laid out as an oscillator/mixer section, a filter section, LFOs, arpeggiator, and effects. The sliders are grouped as two ADSR envelope modules, but if you ignore the labelling, the sliders still form a row, with buttons above each. In other words, as well as controlling plug-ins and synths, the sliders are equally suited to a mixer or drum machine. Similarly, the eight knobs along the top of the synth are sometimes assigned to pan/send controls in mixer templates. However, they form a broken line that doesn't line up with the sliders, so you have to use your imagination a bit. The memory came loaded with 40 templates for controlling various bits of software, with the more common ones benefiting from glossy card overlays that transform the keyboard's labelling. Many synths don't really require overlays because the panel is printed with such common parameters. Some buttons, or groups of buttons, can be programmed to step through different pages, with corresponding LED feedback: a classy addition.
The centre section has standard transport controls, the LED display, and the Data/Value encoder that dials up the stored templates. This is also the place where you can get under the lid of the X-Station to start editing controls, and making your own templates. The far left of the panel is devoted to the audio interface, which I'll come back to in a bit. The bottom half of the keyboard is identical to the Remote 25, with its aftertouch-sensitive keyboard, pitch/mod joystick, and X-Y touchpad. As on the Remote 25, the joystick's mode of operation can be switched at the back of the unit between sprung and free movement. I liked the feel of the keyboard a lot, although the keys still pivot at the back unnervingly as noted in the original Remote review. Another criticism from that review was that the pitch/mod joystick didn't travel all the way across, and would always be a few cents out of tune at its limits. The initial SOS review model (which was still entitled the Remote Audio 25) had the same problem, although I found it possible to force the joystick to its full range by pushing it hard. Later on, the version 2.0 operating system which came with the Xtreme upgrade (and the X-Station which we had last of all) added a joystick-calibration option to fix this.
From Remote Audio Xtreme To X-Station
The original Remote Audio is no longer available, but those who purchased one during its short time on the market can still upgrade it to equivalent X-Station capability (although the upgrade uses up some memory in the unit that was originally available for storing user templates, and upgrading wipes these user memory slots, as I found out the hard way!). With the X-Station, to save a user template you must overwrite one of the factory ones. The only other changes in the move from the Remote Audio Xtreme 25 to the X-Station 25 are minor cosmetic ones on the front panel to reflect the presence of the built-in synth. The software bundle has also been dropped, which is a shame, as it made the keyboard package a neat desktop-music solution, but on the other hand, the price of the bundle-less X-Station is also lower than that of the Remote Audio Xtreme.
The X-Station's 40 factory templates cover pretty much all of the well-known audio programs and virtual instruments. The templates assign MIDI CC values to all of the controls, based on what a particular device is expecting. This is a different approach to that of using a controller that just kicks out any old set of values, and relying on the software's learn function to map to them, although you can of course do this too. Using templates has the advantage that you don't have to set anything up, but there can be disadvantages. Propellerhead's Reason can work in either way, and so serves as a good example. Each device in Reason is factory-set to respond to certain CC messages when that device is selected to receive MIDI input in the sequencer. This means that for the mixer to respond to the X-Station's Reason Mixer templates you have to create a sequencer track for it, and arm it to receive MIDI. In Reason, only one device at a time can receive MIDI in this way. For studio work, it's probably fine to use the template approach, as you tend to be working on one instrument at a time. Playing live, you probably want to think about doing things differently, forgetting about the templates and using Reason's MIDI learn function to assign controls as you see fit. The main advantage of this is that learnt MIDI controls stay active regardless of which device is armed for MIDI input, so you can control key parameters on various devices at once. However, this can introduce the problem of overlapping controls, due to Reason's preset remote mappings. The best way around this is to avoid MIDI channel 1 for your controls, as Reason's built-in control mappings default to channel 1.
The X-Station's control layout allows for some streamlined templates. For example, Reason synths like Malström can now be controlled from one template, instead of being split across two. Now that the layout mimics many of the clusters of controls found on the synths, it's easier to use. You no longer have to memorise which knob or fader is mapped to which parameter, or keep having to search the overlay card. This is particularly useful for live applications, where it's likely to be too dark to read the front panel. I spent a lot of time playing with the Subtractor and Malström templates (for Reason), thinking that these were the modules that would most benefit from a more 'knobular' approach. Even so, the X-Station isn't an instant improvement on the mouse, as it takes a little time to learn how things are mapped, and even though there are an unusually large number of hardware controls available, the Reason synths still have more parameters than can be addressed at once. The X-Station gets around this by using some of its buttons to toggle controls between different functions. For example, the second ADSR section on the X-Station's panel is toggled between controlling Subtractor's mod and filter envelopes. With a little practice, the system works well. Some controller sets are split over two templates, such as the Redrum and Reason mixer. This became viable with the v2.0 X-Station OS, which allows the template settings to remember their settings when switching about. However, the keyboard octave range resets when switching between templates, which is annoying. The v2.0 OS also added a control 'pick-up' option, so that a controller doesn't become active until it moves through the controlled parameter's current value. This solves the age-old problem of parameters 'jumping' suddenly when you move knobs or sliders. While not as elegant a solution as motorised controls, or a rotary-encoder system that uses plus/minus values instead of absolute values, it's definitely the next best thing.
At the time of the original Remote 25 review, Novation promised an on-screen editor, which has not yet materialised at the time of writing. To be honest, it's no big deal if the same happens for the X-Station, as the template-editing system is pretty easy. Many aspects of the controller side, including the template editing, remain the same as they were on the Remote 25. I managed to create a Pro Tools control bank by configuring a template to emulate the JLCooper CS10 controller. The whole thing only took a few hours, and worked perfectly (for more detail, see the Pro Tools Notes column from May this year).
The simplest way to think about the audio side of the X-Station is as a separate two-in, two-out, 24-bit USB audio interface that just happens to be built into something else. As I was testing on a Mac, I used the Core Audio drivers, which provide system-wide access to the interface, with control from the Audio MIDI Setup control panel. My test applications, Cubase SE, Logic Express, Reason, and Live, were able to 'see' the X-Station in their setup pages, with the usual latency controls, and everything else you would expect.
There are two inputs, with the dual-format quarter-inch jack and XLR connections that are becoming so common. The inputs can accept line-, mic-, and instrument-level signals, with a continuous, wide-ranging gain control rather than switches. Phantom power can be switched in and out individually on the two channels. The Input button selects which input is being addressed by all the controls, or you can link the inputs for stereo operation. There's a two-segment LED meter for each input, with green to show the presence of a signal and red to show clipping. This might not seem like a lot, but it's more than you get on many small USB interfaces. There are separate level controls for the line-outs and headphones, all of which are on quarter-inch jacks. Zero-level latency (direct in-out) monitoring is accommodated with a pot that mixes the input levels with the output from your software. However, for this method to work, your software has to have a 'disable direct monitoring' option so that you don't hear your inputs twice with a delay.
The sound quality of the input preamps is pretty good, but I had an on-going issue with the output from software, where I had intermittent clicks, pops and glitches. This seemed to be unrelated to buffer sizes, and I suspected it was an issue with the drivers. Novation suggested that my test computer was underpowered, as they recommend a minimum 1GHz G4. This is a whopping requirement for a two-in, two-out audio interface — my Digidesign Mbox and M Audio Quattro have no problems running on my 800MHz iBook. In fact, they run fine on my ancient 400MHz blue-and-white G3! In any case, I duly tried it out on a 1.25GHz G4, and the dropouts went away, so it would seem that you really do need a 1GHz G4 or better to use the X-Station's audio interface.
That wasn't all, either; the Mac would also freeze about every third time I connected the unit via USB, and sometimes Cubase SE would see two units in the audio setup. All this led me to develop a lack of confidence in the quality of the Mac OS X drivers, letting down the audio-interface side of the X-Station for Mac users.
A bonus with the audio side of the package is the inclusion of built-in effects on the input path. There are two separate multi-effects units for independently treating your input signals. The available effects are Delay, Reverb, Chorus, Compression, Distortion, and EQ, all of which can be used simultaneously. The implementation of this feature has been thought out well, allowing flexible use. Each input's effects routing can be switched to choose whether the signal is recorded with or without the effects. This is really useful, as you can, say, record dry vocals, using zero-latency monitoring, and still hear reverb and delay to help your performance. The distortion effect is of the guitar overdrive pedal variety, giving you the same luxury when plugging your guitar directly into the interface. There is an issue with recording mono inputs with effects though, which becomes particularly apparent when you're using the built-in synth, as you'll see in a minute...
With the first version of this product, the Remote 25 Audio, our review would have stopped here. However, the X-Station concept was born when Novation realised they could use the DSP chips in the unit to add a hardware synth to the feature-list! From what I can tell, the synth side is somewhere between a K-Station and an eight-voice version of the KS-Rack (using a single KS sound engine). In other words, it's a pretty decent analogue-modelling synth, and by no means a toy or gimmick. The synth is eight-part polyphonic, monotimbral, has three oscillators, and a multi-mode filter. It has frequency modulation, pulse-width modulation, two LFOs (with single-shot mode), ring modulation, and envelopes: it even has effects.
The synth is accessed by pressing the top 'Play' button, which toggles between synth and controller modes. There are 200 preset patches accessed from the Data controller, which are in fact the same as the factory presets on the 'K' synths. User patches must overwrite the factory ones, as memory is a little scarce with all this stuff crammed in. Sound-wise, the best description is that it sounds like a Novation synth, and of course in particular a K-Station or V-Station. By this, I mean that the sound is clean, rounded and creamy, and to my tastes, a little too polite. While basically modelling an analogue subtractive synth, it has more in common sonically with basic dance-orientated sound modules, reminding me of my Yamaha CS1x. This means that it's perfect for pop and anthemic dance music-type stuff. In addition to the normal oscillator waveforms and noise generators, there are several more characteristic waves, such as 'Organ', 'Rhodes Piano', and 'Analog Bass' all of which get a good look in throughout the presets. Luckily, programming patches is dead easy given that you've got so many knobs, and I was able to start replacing the presets with some nastier sounds!
While ingenious, the synth functionality comes with some compromises. For a start, the synth takes over input 2's audio and effects hardware. This means that while the synth is activated, you can only use input 1. This does not affect the audio-output side, which can be mixed with the synth by positioning the monitor knob halfway between the input and output positions. An extremely cool feature is that the audio from the synth can be routed directly into your host software via the USB connection, because it's effectively behaving the same as an instrument connected to input 2. However, there's one flaw in this plan, which is that (as with any other mono input) you can't record stereo effects, and the synth leans quite heavily on the effects. Thus, what you hear when monitoring the input path is stereo — but what you record isn't. Obviously, you can't record the synth from the main outs (instead of via USB) because that would require another audio interface. Of course, this problem affects any mono input, but is more of an annoyance with the built-in synth, because you tend to think of the effects as an integral part of the sound, whereas they are really just a guide when recording other instuments or vocals. The other limitation is that the built-in synth is inactive when you are in controller mode. This means that you can't play back the synth from a MIDI track while using the controller to do something else. All you can do is record the synth part to an audio track, and then continue to use the keyboard to play other parts.
On paper, the X-Station is almost too good to be true. You get a really nice controller keyboard with semi-weighted, aftertouch-generating keys which feels a class above the competition. You also get an unusually large number of varied hardware controllers. You get a USB audio and MIDI interface, with mic/instrument inputs and a built-in multi-effects unit. And it's also a hardware synth! All this makes the X-Station the perfect choice for use as a live controller. The main reason I say this is that in addition to handling the audio, MIDI, and controller tasks for your laptop live rig, it's perfect in an emergency. For a start, you get the best of both worlds in terms of power supply. For the most part you'll get your power from the USB connection, but if your computer packs up, you can revert to the rechargeable batteries. Then the built-in synth means that you will still be able to make some kind of noise, instead of just standing there staring at the boot screen.
Other than this, the X-Station must be a seriously tempting option for anyone looking for an integrated desktop-music system (although my ardour has been slightly dampened by the withdrawal of the software bundle promised with the Remote Audio Xtreme). In any case, it's ahead of the competition in the small-format controller-with-keyboard market. However, if the main thing you need is the knobs and sliders, the price puts it up against some serious competition with motorised faders and genuine rotary encoders. The downside is that Mac support appears to be an afterthought, and is not even mentioned in the manual. If Novation address this, though (or if you're a Windows user!), the unique combination of features in a portable package is going to make this a desirable bit of gear.