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Sounding Off: The Ultimate Keyboard Controller

Alan Tubbs By Alan Tubbs
Published July 2005

One man is on a quest for the perfect all-in-one computer controller.

Recording is going to the DAWs. So is synthesis. I'll leave arguments about the relative merits of this to others, simply noting that I'm not about to abandon my Minimoog at the doorstep of the local music shop.

Real and virtual synths each have their strengths but, unlike the Moog, programming ever more complex virtual synths can often be more frustrating than fun. The same goes for recording — a DAW gives one almost unlimited ability to micro-manage recording, but mousing rubber bands and numbers isn't the most instinctive route to getting a rough mix. There are plenty of fader/knob controllers out there, but that leads to another problem — space. I've got a bedroom studio, already as overstuffed as a cushy recliner with all the necessary paraphernalia for recording; the last thing I need is to try to find an empty spot within easy reach of my computer.

Alan Tubbs.The solution? A keyboard from which one can control most, if not all, aspects of recording. There are plenty of hardware controllers out there, but none that combine the most common recording needs. I have modestly called this idea the Ultimate Keyboard Controller (UKC). I imagine the first company to get this right will sell a lot of units — and I will guarantee at least one sale myself.

First off, the UKC needs a keyboard. My apologies to the guitarists, wind players and electric lute aficionados, but the keyboard is the standard for playing electronic sounds. While 25- and 37-key designs save space, 61 keys are needed for playing with both hands. Some may prefer 88 keys with piano action, but that too is more of a specialist instrument. What is needed is a generic synth keyboard that will fit on a desk.

On the left side of the keys, the UKC would retain the standard two-wheel configuration; it works, and there is no point in reinventing the (controller) wheel. But that's just the start for controlling a virtual studio. Alongside the wheels I propose a touchpad. This could be used in lieu of a mouse, like the trackpad on a laptop. Such an arrangement would make the UKC singularly hands-on. Those nifty slide-out trays for computer keyboards all too often slide back during performance and mixing. Rather than having to drag the keyboard back out, it makes more ergonomic sense to use a trackpad. Of course, the trackpad could also be assigned as a music controller too.

Above the keyboard on the left-hand side would run eight continuous rotary controllers with an LCD strip. Each knob should have a ring of LEDs to show its rough value without you having to squint at the LCD and should be the push-button type to allow you to cycle though the knob's assignments. Programmable templates would allow control of different soft synths, as well as mixer functions traditionally handled by pots, like pan, sends and EQ. Above the middle of the keyboard there should be space for an LCD or touchscreen monitor. If we are trying to keep the focus on the keyboard itself, there is nothing better than having the program screen right there on the hardware.

On the right of the UKC would be the moving faders and other DAW controllers. Eight faders seems to be the convention in fader controllers, but we need nine — the last reserved for the master output. Above the master fader should be another rotary controller for pan, sends, and so on. The remaining DAW controllers are the standard transport buttons (play, record, and so on), along with a jog wheel and a joystick. Why a joystick? Not only is it good for doing surround sound mixing, it is also a lot of fun to assign different parameters to vectors and sweep them. One last thing: it needs a detachable hinged cover for the keys themselves. In mixing mode, it could be fitted over the keys as a hand rest.

Perhaps some of the hardware could be upgradeable — like the computer screen and basic flying faders. The same thing could be done with the processor: all the processing power to run the UKC as a controller could be done on a small microprocessor, but maybe it would be possible to have an option to add the latest CPU and motherboard into the UKC, turning it into a DAW in its own right. I don't know if that is feasible, but it should be. Damnit, Jim, I'm a musician, not an electrical engineer!

Whilst I have borrowed (stolen is such a harsh word) a lot of ideas — from the most modest keyboard controller to the Open Labs Neko, no existing product has everything on my wish list. What I, and many others, need is a keyboard that can control an entire virtual studio.

About The Author

Alan Tubbs spends too much time thinking about efficiencies rather than just getting on with the job at hand. That includes his web site, www.bnoir-film.com.

Published July 2005