Edirol's latest desktop music product is a controller keyboard that can also be used to control your sequencer's on-screen mixer.
Edirol have been at the forefront of the desktop music revolution, with a slew of affordable products designed to turn your PC or Mac into an all-in-one music-production workstation. Their latest weapons are a pair of controller keyboards, the PCR50 and PCR30, which are identical in all respects bar the length of the keyboard. The PCR30 is a slim 32-note affair, but the larger four-octave PCR50, which I tested, is still eminently portable, weighing in at 3.3 kilos and measuring a trim 83cm in length. In addition to the notes themselves, both models offer eight assignable rotary controllers, eight short-throw faders, and a total of nine assignable buttons. There are also various fixed-function controls such as octave switches, along with a combined pitch-bend and mod lever.
The PCR50 offers a single MIDI In and Out, so it can be used as a standard MIDI controller keyboard, but I imagine most buyers will be attaching it to their computers via the USB port. In this mode, it can draw its power over the USB cable rather than from the supplied wall-wart power adaptor, and it effectively provides a one-in/one-out MIDI interface in addition to its controller capability.
Drivers are provided for all flavours of Windows from 98 onwards, and the bundled CD also includes OMS and FreeMIDI drivers for use under Mac OS 8.5, 8.6 and 9.x. The first half of the chunky printed manual contains installation instructions in five languages, plus the odd piece of helpful advice ('Never climb on top of the unit'), while the second half is a detailed English-only guide to its use. The PCR50 is compatible with Mac OS X, but I was surprised to find no OS X driver on the installer disc, nor any mention of OS X in the printed manual. A quick surf of the Edirol web site soon yielded the required files, however, and installation on my iMac was simplicity itself.
Anyone who's allergic to plastic should avoid the PCR50, but it feels robust enough to survive in its intended roles. The rotaries are of the conventional end-stopped rather than the endless variety, while the fader travel is a dinky 3cm, and the keyboard also reflects the PCR50's low price: it's playable but feels slightly toy-like, isn't very sensitive to dynamics, and doesn't generate aftertouch. Two cutout scribble-strip overlays are supplied, one showing the default GM2 settings and one left blank for you to fill in. User feedback is provided by a three-digit LED display and a somewhat redundant power indicator (will the archaeologists of the future will be able to date music hardware to the early 21st century by the gratuitous use of blue LEDs?). The back panel features sockets for expression and sustain pedals.
By default, the PCR50 boots up in GM2 mode, where the knobs and faders are set up to control commonly used parameters such as filter cutoff and resonance. Many non-GM soft synths use a similar configuration of controllers, so this is a good starting point for parameter tweaking. It is, however, only one of 16 supplied factory setups, and some of the others are much more ambitious, exploiting the PCR50's ability to transmit RPNs, NRPNs and SysEx messages as well as standard Continuous Controllers. As well as the GM setup, templates are included for Roland's GS and Yamaha's XG protocols, and Edirol clearly intend the PCR50 to be used as a controller surface for mixing as well as for editing synth patches. The remaining factory setups thus consist of mixer templates for Cubase, Sonar and Pro Tools. Saving any user-edited setup necessitates overwriting one of the factory templates, but then if you're a Cubase user you probably won't need the Sonar templates, and vice versa.
The single Pro Tools setup provides a Mackie HUI emulation, while to Cubase and Sonar the PCR50 masquerades as a Roland MCR8. The templates for Cubase and Sonar each occupy four of the PCR's memories; with only eight faders and rotaries (which control pan position), the PCR can only control eight mixer channels at a time, and it also lacks sufficient buttons to provide both channel Mute and Solo functions at the same time, so the four Cubase and Sonar setups are mixer channels 1-8 with mutes, mixer channels 1-8 with solos, mixer channels 9-16 with mutes and mixer channels 9-16 with solos. In all cases, two of the assignable buttons above the mod wheel provide Rewind and Stop controls. The third, strangely, is set up as a Play control in the setups for channels 1-8, but as a Record control for the channel 9-16 templates. This seems a little odd, but obviously it's possible to edit these setups to suit your requirements.
Using the PCR50 as a mixing device unsurprisingly involves a certain amount of compromise. While there are eight fader and pan controls, for instance, you only get six mute or solo controls, and it's a shame there's no Shift button to change their function from one to the other. Switching their function between mute and solo, or from channels 1-8 to channels 9-16, requires enough button pushes to be disruptive, and the limited fader travel makes delicate level adjustments rather difficult. You'll also need to turn to the mouse and QWERTY keyboard to adjust EQ and plug-in parameters; in fact, a full set of transport controls would add a lot to the PCR50's useability as a remote controller. But let's keep things in perspective: at £200, the PCR50 is a fraction of the price of dedicated fader surfaces such as Steinberg's Houston, and it does offer viable mixing functionality. Within 10 minutes of plugging it in, I was happily waggling the pots and sliding the sliders, and watching Cubase SX's on-screen controls follow them. It's simple to set up, there are no nasty surprises, and it works.
As well as the Play mode used for inputting MIDI data to your sequencer, mixing or tweaking synth patches, the PCR50 also provides various other modes accessed using dedicated buttons. Program Change and Bank Select modes allow you to use the Dec and Inc buttons to step through patches and banks, although irritatingly, you have to return to Play mode in order to audition any patches. Other modes provide access to housekeeping functions such as MIDI channel selection and Omni on/off. Pressing the Memory and MIDI Channel buttons together sends a snapshot of the PCR50's fader and knob settings to your sequencer for scene-based automation.
If you want to create your own setups, modify the factory templates or save or restore the PCR50's memories using a bulk SysEx dump, you'll need to visit the Edit mode. In order to test this, I decided to modify one of the Cubase templates to dispense with the Solo functions and use those buttons to provide a full set of transport controls instead. The PCR50 learning curve takes a fairly steep hike at this point.
The editing procedure is logical and reasonably straightforward given the limitations of the three-character display. Nevertheless, the first few times you do it you'll be immensely grateful for the decent printed manual, and will want to keep it open in about five different places at once. Making minor changes to existing templates is feasible, but creating a complex setup from scratch would be a fairly daunting prospect, especially if it used NRPNs or SysEx. If you plan to use the PCR50 to mix with an application that's not supported by the default templates, or to edit a synth that doesn't conform to GM/XG/GS standards, keep your fingers crossed that someone has posted a suitable template on the Internet! Fortunately, there's a good chance that this is the case: Edirol's own download page offers templates for all the major Mac and PC sequencers, as well as numerous software synths.
The Edirol PCR50 is best thought of as a controller keyboard which can dabble in mixing. Compared to dedicated fader surfaces such as Kenton's Control Freak, its tiny faders, limited transport controls and cumbersome switching between mixer pages are obvious disadvantages, but the ability to control on-screen faders and pan-pots at all is a welcome bonus in a controller keyboard at this price. There are cheaper USB controller keyboards on the market, but I can't think of any in this price range that offers knobs, faders, memories, and ability to generate every kind of MIDI message you might ever need.
- Edirol PCR50 OS X driver v1.0.
- 700MHz Apple G4 iMac with 256MB of RAM, running Mac OS 10.2.
- Steinberg Cubase SX v1.04.