Paul Nagle tries out the update to this inexpensive controller for MIDI devices.
It's always interesting to watch trends as they develop. Over the past few years, musicians have realised the value of real physical knobs and sliders, both for controlling parameters on their synths and as a user‑friendly replacement for the mouse in mixing on a computer. Keyfax Hardware were not slow to see that an inexpensive hardware surface for computers and for synths would be a hit, and so the original Phat Boy was born. Two years later, Keyfax have branched out, joining forces with new company GMedia with a view to developing a new range of hardware controllers, VST instruments and MIDI + Audio CD‑ROMs. To kickstart this alliance, they've launched an updated version 2 of the Phat Boy.
The Phat Boy is delightfully compact. At just 9 inches long and 4.5 inches deep it should find a place in even the most cramped studio. Its 14 knobs are small but there's plenty of finger room around them. The black metal case feels sturdy and if you find the yellow lettering a little garish, Gmedia offer a tasteful, limited‑edition stainless‑steel version for about a tenner extra. When Paul White reviewed the original Phat Boy in July 1998, he found no real shortcomings other than the limited number of voice parameters that could be tweaked at once. Operation of the new model is as simple as its predecessor except that where the original had just three operating modes, version 2 now offers six — all selectable via a convenient seven‑position switch on the top of the panel (the 'extra' position is the power off switch). More on these in a moment.
Of the 14 knobs, one is dedicated to MIDI channel selection; the rest vary according to the operating mode. They are used to transmit real‑time changes to filter cutoff frequency, resonance, effects levels and other synth parameters, or to control Cubase VST/Logic‑type mixers, soft‑synth controls and more. I was delighted to see the inclusion of cardboard overlays which fit snugly over the knobs, labelling their function in each mode — I remember wishing for something similar when I reviewed Doepfer's Drehbank. Actually, one of the overlays (the Steinberg Rebirth one) is plastic, and a grease pencil is provided to label your favourite functions and alter them later if necessary. Top marks for this simple, effective idea.
A Snapshot button sends the current value of each knob via the MIDI Out socket. Recording a snapshot at the start of each sequencer track is a handy way to set up your instruments prior to some gratuitous performance tweaks. If you hold the snapshot button for three seconds, Phat Boy sends default values for each of the controls (for instance MIDI volume at maximum level, pan to centre, and so forth), which is useful if you want to revert to 'vanilla' settings. The external power supply is about as small as any I've seen; power status being indicated by a small red LED. A MIDI Input merges incoming data with the controller information generated by the Phat Boy itself, allowing the unit to be connected directly between master keyboard and computer/module with the absolute minimum of fuss.
The Phat Boy's six modes are as follows:
- Mode 1: Roland GS, Yamaha XG and compatible sound modules.
- Mode 2: Creative Labs AWE32, 64, 64 Gold, Soundblaster Live! and Platinum soundcards.
- Mode 3: Standard MIDI Controller numbers (Continuous Controllers 1‑13).
- Mode 4: Roland JV1080, 2080, 1010, XP30/50/60/80.
- Mode 5: Standard MIDI Controller numbers (Continuous Controllers 40‑52).
- Mode 6: 'Classic' Mode (various Controller numbers).
Modes 4 to 6 are new in version 2.0.
I connected the Phat Boy to a spare MIDI input on my PC, flipped to Mode 2 and tried a few experimental tweaks of my elderly AWE32 soundcard. I was pleasantly surprised by the resonant filter sweeps and effect and envelope changes I was able to coax from it. Perhaps I've left this inexpensive sampler untouched in my system for too long? Next, I set up the mixer in Cubase VST 5.0 for external control, alternating between Modes 3 and 5 to access 26 on‑screen objects at the flick of the switch. Mode 4 is designed for use with Roland JV and XP synths, providing control of filter cutoff, resonance, attack and release, portamento, Tone 1‑4 levels, pan, volume, and reverb and chorus amounts. This mode worked well on my XP80, although with that the need for the Phat Boy is less pressing, as the XP80 already has assignable sliders. Owners of JV‑series modules, though, should find this mode to be a great source of instant gratification. I don't own a synth whose functions map to those of Mode 6 but Gmedia's web site suggests Korg's TR‑Rack and N1, along with Roland's SC88 and Yamaha's MU128.
On the negative side, it's a shame there isn't a 'user‑definable' mode so you could choose the controllers yourself rather than rely on preset ones. And as with many similar devices, the Phat Boy occasionally coughed up a spurious controller value without being touched, though this didn't happen often enough for me to consider it an issue.
As more and more software synths make their homes in our computers, products such as the Phat Boy become increasingly important, preventing us from becoming 'mouse musicians'. Even an XG/GS synth can be pepped up with a few filter adjustments mid‑performance, and if you combined the Phat Boy with the equally tiny Clavia Nord Micro Modular (set up to receive/transmit controller numbers which the Phat Boy can handle in Mode 3, 5 or 6), you could have a performance synth system which is almost pocket‑sized.
For some people, clarity and ease of use are of more value than a massive feature count, but for me, lack of a user‑configurable mode is a vital omission. There is now serious competition from Doepfer and Philip Rees at the budget end of the controller market, and both of their devices offer a way to customise the control values they transmit. Otherwise, there really isn't much else to report about the Phat Boy. It does its job well and its simplicity of design means that few will be daunted by it. Ultimately, anything that encourages people to customise their synth sounds can't be a bad thing, can it?
Owners of the original Phat Boy can upgrade to version 2 by replacing the memory chip inside the unit. The manual addendum plus full install instructions are provided, but if you don't feel confident to unfasten some screws, pull the chip and pop in another, GMedia will happily perform this (for a small fee). If you do upgrade, the three new modes become accessible if you hold down the Snapshot/Reset mode while powering on.
Included in the package is a CD‑ROM containing tutorials, demo versions of software, a Phat Boy‑specific Rebirth setup and some MIDI file demos. There are folders for Mac and PC users. One Mac tutorial explains how to remap the controllers generated by Phat Boy using OMS, which can provide a partial solution to the lack of a user‑configurable mode. I was pleasantly impressed by some of the demos, especially Fruity Loops, whose onboard synth I was easily able to control with the Phat Boy.
- Operation is simplicity itself.
- Durable metal case.
- MIDI Input with merge facility.
- No user programmability of controller numbers.
An excellent way to enliven GS/XG synths and soundcards and a perfect companion for Roland's JV synths, soft synths, and so on — provided one of the six preset Modes is compatible. The new version has twice as many options as the original, but the competition is hotting up in this area.