Evolution's new class-compliant MIDI keyboards are a cinch to use with computer-based sequencers. But do they perform as well as their spec suggests?
Two years ago, I was staggered to find that when I plugged Evolution's MK249C controller into my laptop Mac for the first time, the keyboard powered up, installed itself under OS X and allowed me to trigger Ableton Live immediately without any drivers needing to be loaded. Having spent years doing battle with OMS, FreeMIDI and MIDI Manager within OS 9 on behalf of myself and others, I was an immediate convert to Core MIDI in OS X. Of course, I fondly thought that all USB MIDI keyboards were going to behave like this with OS X; I didn't realise that the manufacturers needed to go the extra mile to produce what is known as a class-compliant USB device. Numerous other keyboards have passed through my hands since, and none of them have done the same neat trick of simply showing up as a MIDI device in Mac OS X's Audio MIDI Setup screen. There are now quite a few class-compliant USB Audio devices, but until I got my hands on the new MK461C, the MK249C was the only one I had come across which did the same thing with MIDI.
With the MK249C, I managed to replicate everything in my gigging keyboard rig of 20 years earlier in a portable computer setup, except for drawbars. To my amazement, last year Evolution resolved that for me too when they released the UC33 fader controller, which had the ability to reverse the action of faders at the touch of a button, so that it could be used with virtual tonewheel organs like Native Instruments' B4 and Emagic's EVB3.
I still needed a controller keyboard, though. So imagine how pleased I was when I heard about the MK461C, which includes the UC33's nine faders right in front of the keys where you need them to be. I eventually discovered that it was just one in a new range, the MK400C series. Although the two-octave version, the MK425C, does not have enough room for the faders as well as the rotary knobs, the four-octave MK449C and five-octave MK461C do have them. I decided to ask for the latter for review.
When it arrived, I plugged it straight into my Mac Powerbook, and once again, it proved to be fully class-compliant under OS X. You will probably deduce from this that if you are using operating systems earlier than Mac OS X (and Windows XP, with which the MK400C series are also supposed to be compatible out of the box), then Evolution's products aren't for you. But if you are an up-to-date OS user, 'installation' is delightfully effortless — if you can call it that when all you have to do is connect a USB cable!
The MK461C draws its power from its USB connection, so there is no need for a power supply, although there is a socket for a 'wall-wart' PSU, in case you are connecting the keyboard to the rest of your MIDI rig via the five-pin MIDI Out socket instead of via USB. The blue backlit LCD came on as soon as I connected the USB cable to my Mac and within five seconds, my copy of Emagic's Logic reported a new MIDI In and Out available. Playing the keyboard immediately caused new MIDI notes to be displayed in Logic 's Arrange window. Similarly, moving the controller knobs or sliders had them showing up too. Noticing that 'Drawbar' mode was activated by a well-labelled simultaneous push of two of the front-panel Function Buttons, I tried this and found that the slider outputs were immediately reversed (ie. with the highest values when they were closest to me). This means that at any point you can reverse the faders with a single action, and don't need to spend half an hour reprogramming each fader to behave like this. You can also see at a glance whenever this feature is enabled, as a slider appears on the LCD.
I launched NI's B4 and was about to reassign all the faders when it occurred to me that maybe someone had already done this donkey work for me. Looking in the manual, sure enough control preset 02 was designed for B4 use, so I typed this in on the MK's numeric pad and found that all nine faders were now correctly assigned to B4 's drawbars. I was in tonewheel-emulation heaven!
Having established that the MK461C did what I was particularly interested in, I recovered my dispassionate reviewer's composure and set about working through all the other features of the keyboard. After all, it does have 12 rotary knobs, pitch and mod wheels and eight Function buttons which work in conjunction with a numeric keypad, as well as the nine sliders. Not everyone is as obsessed with drawbars as I am...
Another of my favourite things about the older MK249C is that its 10 rotary knobs are preassigned to and labelled with the most useful synth parameters like Filter Frequency and Resonance, and Envelope Attack and Release. On the MK461C, the 12 rotary knobs (eight on the MK449C and MK425C) are freely assignable. But when I opened up a virtual synth or two, I found that the first preset defaults to covering the same parameters as were hard-wired on the MK249C, and I was instantly able to change filter cutoff and resonance, attacks and decays, again without having to get into assigning the knobs to different continuous controller numbers. I find nothing dampens your enthusiasm for a new product so much as having to get the manual out and read it to achieve the smallest thing, but there was none of that here.
The other factory presets with which the MK461C is supplied as default allow you to instantly recall setups for other popular virtual synths like Steinberg's Pro 53, Model E, PPG Wave 2.v and Gmedia's Oddity, as well as GM and XG/GS presets. I tried several of these out and they all seemed to address the parameters most of us turn to again and again. What's more, the same rotary controls are used repeatedly for standard parameters like cutoff, so that the main parameters are on the same controls, no matter what instrument you are addressing.
Of course, sooner or later you are going to have to set up presets for instruments which Evolution haven't been able to cover, but I found even this simplicity itself. Whenever you move a rotary knob or slider, the blue backlit LCD display switches to tell you the controller number it is assigned to, after a few seconds of showing the last value it has sent. If you then press the Function Button labelled Control Assign, you only have to type a MIDI controller number on the keypad, and the slider or knob is immediately remapped (just make sure you type three digits; ie. '019' for controller number 19). In this way, I was very quickly able to change the B4 preset into one which would control the Emagic EVB3 and then save this mapping as a control preset.
The Control Assign button also allows you to change the assignments of controllers which are normally fixed, like the pitch-bend or mod wheels. This means that on an instrument like a Hammond, where you wouldn't normally use pitch-bend, you can assign the pitch wheel to do something more appropriate. You can also change the input for the MK461C's footswitch jack from its default (MIDI sustain messages) to something like MIDI Start/Stop, leaving your hands free when starting or stopping your sequencer. Incidentally, those of you who have ever got stuck with a wrong-polarity footswitch (ever tried pressing for no sustain and letting go for sustain?) will be pleased to find that Evolution have foreseen this problem, and allowed you to change and store the polarity of the switch.
The other Function Buttons are equally easy to use. Obviously, Global Channel allows you to set the overall channel on which the MK461C is operating and Channel Assign lets you change the MIDI channel for each individual controller — very useful if you have two or three virtual synths open at the same time. It is also handy for devices like B4 which can respond on different MIDI channels for the upper and lower manuals. The Program button lets you send a MIDI program change message, while the Data LSB and Data MSB buttons let you switch Banks in your receiving instrument (although you may need to brush up on your arithmetic to work out how a simple bank change from 1 to 2 breaks down into MSB and LSB strings — best to look in the appendix of your instrument for this). The Store and Recall buttons are much easier to use, as you type the number of the preset you want to write the current settings to or recall.
There are functions for all double button-presses (like the Drawbar mode I mentioned earlier) but you do not have to remember these, as they are clearly labelled below the two buttons you need. Control Mute is a useful 'double-button' function as it allows you to stop data being sent from all sliders and knobs while you get them in the right position. This is particularly useful in conjunction with another 'double-button' function, Snapshot, as it means you can set up everything in advance and then send all the settings in one go. Other 'double-button' functions allow you to set up different Velocity Curves (something I didn't feel was necessary, as the response felt fine to me from the start) or perform a complete dump of the memory to an external device. For greater control over your presets, Enigma, a cross-platform Editor/Librarian is available for free from Evolution's web site, www.evolution.co.uk.
Enigma is easily downloaded and installed, although you do first have to fill in a registration document that would not shame an on-line mortgage application, and enter the serial number of your keyboard. The software acts as a librarian for the UC33 and X-Session controllers as well as MKs 461C, 449C and 425C, so you can manage all the presets for your Evolution products in one program.
As soon as you hook your keyboard into the computer, it shows the contents of its memory as a new bank alongside the factory defaults and any other banks you may have created. A button on the bottom right allows you to toggle between the prettier Graphic and more functional List View displays. As well as being able to import, name, rearrange and re-export presets, you can niftily copy individual control parameters by dragging and dropping or cutting and pasting, which saves a lot of time when setting up new presets.
So is there anything about the MK461C which I didn't like? Well, I did miss the Master Volume control which the MK249C has immediately below the LCD; I always like to be able to adjust volume quickly, especially in emergencies. If a synth is making the wrong sound, if a note is hanging or it is just way too loud, there is no substitute for a hard-wired volume knob, and the one on the MK249C has spared my blushes at many a demonstration or gig. On the MK461C, by the time you have worked out which (if any) of the controllers is set to overall volume, your audience may be deaf, or at the very least you have will have blown your cool 'in-control' image. Of course, if you are not using the keyboard in front of other people and are restricting your music-making activities to home, then this probably won't be a concern.
The only thing I miss from the UC33 which hasn't made the transition to the MK461C is the MIDI In. I have found this terribly useful on several occasions, using it to connect my MIDI guitar (amongst other things) into the computer when playing live. Because the MK400C series don't have MIDI Ins, you have to use another USB device to connect another MIDI controller.
However, these really are the only two omissions I would point out on a product that is extremely good value. What's more, I think the smaller products in the range have the same price/performance ratio. The MK449C has four fewer rotary controls than the 461C, and loses the extra octave, but the price has been adjusted accordingly. Whilst the MK425C would not appeal to me personally, as I have little use for a two-octave keyboard and would miss the nine reversible sliders, it's still well priced and, of course, it's class-compliant (isn't this where I came in?). For me, the MK461C is the best MIDI controller yet for use with software tonewheel emulations, and also works efficiently as a controller for other virtual synths, making programming and performance a breeze.