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Kenton Control Freak Live

Kenton's latest take on their affordable hardware control surface concept eschews the faders of previous Control Freaks in favour of 16 knobs. And it manages to be cheaper than the fader versions...

Kenton Control Freak Live.It's now nearly five years since the idea of MIDI controllers for knobless synths and virtual instruments began to really take off. They had been around in small numbers, and at a price, for ages — think JL Cooper's Fadermaster and units from Peavey back in the late 1980s. But software for music-making has become more popular, a trend that shows no signs of slowing, and musicians are increasingly unwilling to spend their entire lives shuffling a mouse back and forth on a desk. We've thus reached a point where there are so many hands-on MIDI control devices being made, at different levels of sophistication and expense, that it's quite hard to keep tabs on them all.

One constant since 1998 has been Kenton Electronics with their Control Freak, one of the first really affordable fully programmable units (see SOS November 1998 review). Kenton followed up the success of this eight-fader/eight-button device with the 16-fader/16-button 'Studio Edition', which allowed for more sophisticated control setups to be created without having to switch banks of faders. Having spent some time solely in the fader camp, Kenton have decided to switch control types, releasing a 16-control device using knobs (like, for example, the largely preset and budget-priced Keyfax Phatboy) rather than faders. But the Control Freak hasn't merely swapped its faders for knobs; it's also acquired a lively red finish and a handful of extra little features.

Kenton Control Freak Live £250
  • Built like a tank.
  • Fine range of profiles, and more being developed constantly.
  • Free PC editing software available.
  • Knobs feel good for synth editing.
  • Currently no Mac editing software other than commercial Sound Diver editor, though one is in preparation.
  • Programming via LCD rather long-winded.
A solid, capable and versatile controller with good manufacturer support and a fair price tag. This one should run and run.


Function Overview

A controller like the CF Live exists to become the interface between you and software or hardware that is less well endowed in the control department. Each of its 16 knobs can be configured to transmit MIDI data, to tweak the often hidden parameters on hardware MIDI-equipped synths, effects and mixers, or the on-screen equivalents provided by their virtual relations. The eight buttons, 'shiftable' to access 16 functions, can also be programmed to transmit any kind of MIDI data. The unit also offers four function keys, switchable to access eight functions in all, which can be programmed in just the same way as the main buttons. All the buttons and function keys can also be programmed to transmit data on press and release: this is necessary when transmitting MIDI notes, since a Note Off event is needed for every Note On. As shipped, the function keys on the CF Live provide comprehensive transport control for sequencers and drum machines.

Further control options are available courtesy of a pair of rear-panel input jacks. These can accommodate footswitches or variable pedals for foot-controlled parameter changing, or can be used for CV-to-MIDI conversion. While this is not as generally useful as MIDI-to-CV conversion, it would allow, for example, one voice of a modern MIDI synth to be played by a pre-MIDI analogue sequencer. The slight drawback to this feature is that using one input disables one knob or button.

A collection of MIDI assignments of knobs, faders and input jacks — a Profile — is saved as a Program inside the CF Live; 64 Program memories are provided. Readers with long memories may recall that the original eight-fader Control Freak has 128 Program locations; however, Live (and the Studio Edition) each have 16 controllers, so the total number of storable assignments is the same. Many memories are filled with factory settings, but they can be overwritten with custom Programs. If your target has more parameters you'd like to control than you have knobs and buttons, you can cover them in more than one Program and store them in consecutive memories.

The control set is completed by four edit buttons and a data-entry wheel, with a brightly backlit two-by-16-character LCD. Note that the function keys do double-duty as extra edit buttons when customising your own Programs. On the rear panel, there's a power socket (for the supplied wall-wart PSU), plus MIDI In, Out and Thru connections, and the input jacks mentioned earlier.

  Wheely Useful  
  If we had one wish for the Control Freak range, it would be some way to configure the nice, tactile data-entry wheel as a jog/shuttle controller, for shuttling through tracks in audio sequencers. Kenton say they've been asked several times for this, and are looking into it!  

Get With The Program

The CF Live's control templates cater for various popular instruments and applications, and you can download more templates from the Kenton web site. But the beauty of a programmable device is that you don't need to rely on being supplied with the correct template.

Pretty much any type of MIDI data can be assigned to the CF Live's knobs, buttons and function keys — notes, standard MIDI controllers, NRPNs (non-registered parameter numbers), RPNs, and raw SysEx. Examples of their use could include assigning 'mute' switches on a MIDI mixer, or transmitting program changes, individual MIDI notes, complete chords, or continuous controller assignments to tweak synth parameters in real time. It's also possible to send System Exclusive strings, up to 44 bytes long, that can completely reconfigure the target device, or some parameter set within it, for initialising a GM device or creating a particular multitimbral setup. You don't even have to make allowances for checksums or End Of SysEx commands, as these are generated for you. Clear instructions for completing your own device Programs are provided in the manual. You'll also need the MIDI implementation chart for your device.

The two jack inputs allow connection of footswitches, pedals or even CV signals from older synths or analogue sequencers.The two jack inputs allow connection of footswitches, pedals or even CV signals from older synths or analogue sequencers.Actually getting the data into Live is a bit laborious, the main bottleneck being the small display. The process involves a lot of scrolling back and forth as you insert and customise the required MIDI information. Each knob and button assignment can be named (for example, Filter Cutoff or Mute Chan 1), which is a recommended operation, but one that is particularly fiddly. A small RAM edit buffer means that edits have to be saved as you make them — but at least this means that you won't accidentally lose 15 faders' worth of assignments if you accidentally hit 'Exit' on the 16th fader!

Newcomers, in particular, may find editing a little daunting. However, the OS is logically presented, within the confines of the small display, and if you take it slowly and do exactly as Kenton say, following the provided examples, you should get the hang of it. The process is quite educational, too, giving insights into the workings of MIDI.

Easy Options

Fortunately, if this sounds too much like hard work, you can make the Control Freak take care of everything instead, courtesy of 'Learn' mode. Providing your MIDI device is capable of transmitting a particular controller or SysEx command, the Freak can capture it, and you can assign it to a knob or button. This works very well, and you may find that manual configuration is necessary only when a device can't transmit the parameter you'd like to control, or when you'd like to create a more complicated control assignment. Of course, some software simply doesn't transmit MIDI data, so you'll be in manual mode at all times. There may be a shortcut even in these circumstances: if the software has a 'Learn' mode, practically any Control Freak profile could be used without editing.

  Program Guide  
  Anything that a Control Freak SE can control, the Live can tweak too. It comes with over 30 ready-made Programs, which range from 16-strong ranks of level and pan controls (assigned to different MIDI channels), through basic General MIDI/XG controller sets, to knob assignments for named synths and software. Propellerhead's Rebirth RB338 is in the factory set, as are Yamaha's CS1x, Waldorf's Microwave and various soundcards. Software studios supported include Steinberg's Cubase. Check Kenton's web site for updates: they're always adding new profiles, and the current download is around 400kB, which expands to a 2.1MB folder. The collection includes profiles for Cakewalk's Sonar v2, Propellerhead's Reason, Kenton's own Plugstation and two MIDI-CV converters, some NI software synths, and synth and effects hardware from all major manufacturers.  

Another alternative removes the need for onboard editing entirely: use a computer. For PC users there's David Heard's Virtual Control Freak. This freeware editor is compatible with Windows 95/98/NT and provides a nice graphical interface for making the necessary knob and button assignments. You'll still need access to the MIDI data for your targets, but the process is a lot less claustrophobic than using the CF's display. For Macs, we've seen an early version of a very capable free editor that should be available soon for Mac OS 9 and X. There's also Emagic's Sound Diver, a universal MIDI editor (though sadly, not free!). It has profiles for editing the original Control Freak, and the CF Studio Edition; the latter should be compatible with the CF Live.

A recent Control Freak firmware update added a neat new feature: a 256-strong 'Scene' memory. With this, you can store the positions of all 16 knobs — describing, perhaps, a synth patch or mixer level settings — plus the number of the current Program, for instant recall any time the Scene is selected. This nifty feature feels like an extension of the existing 'Snapshot' option, whereby current knob positions can be transmitted instantly to the target device by pressing the Snapshot button. It would be nice if several Scenes could be linked, for transmission simultaneously.

  The use of knobs means that the Live controller is much more compact than the fader-equipped Studio Edition — almost 13cm narrower, which may make it more handy for on-stage use. A second point in favour of knobs is that most synth parameters have a distinctly 'knobby' feel: it seems more natural to adjust LFO rate with a knob than a fader, for example. The third advantage of using knobs is financial: the Control Freak Live offers just as much control as the 16 fader-equipped Studio Edition, but for £50 less.  

Summing Up

It's hard to think of anything in a MIDI environment that Control Freak Live couldn't do — it's capable of transmitting any MIDI data, can act as an alternative transport for sequencers, and can supply a master MIDI Clock, for sync'ing sequencers, drum machines, or synth arpeggiators. It even has a 'MIDI analyser' mode, with which it's possible to examine what's coming down a MIDI stream — a great fault-finding option.

As a general source of knobs for hardware or software instruments, the Live is ideal. There's plenty of space between the knobs (especially since Kenton recently 'stretched' the casing by 35mm to make it more comfortable), and its size is such that it fits easily on the top panel of many synths or workstations. It's a perfect fit for our Korg Trinity Pro, for example! Because it uses knobs, the CF Live may feel less suited to software mixing tasks than a fader-based controller, but it is capable of the latter, though you can't easily operate more than two knobs at a time, whereas multiple faders can be moved simultaneously. In any case, if you intend to use a controller mostly for mixing, the fader-equipped Studio Edition might be a better choice.

To sum up, the CF Live is sturdily built, with quality controls, offers great flexibility and has some nice extras. At £250, it's good value and could make many aspects of your MIDI life easier and more enjoyable.

infop.gif £249.50 including VAT.
infot.gif Kenton Electronics +44 (0)20 8544 9200.
  Other knob-equipped MIDI controllers on the market include the Encore Knobby, with eight knobs; the Doepfer Pocket Control and the Evolution U-Control, both with 16; and the larger-scale Doepfer Drehbank, with 64 knobs. A couple of the more recent controllers are equipped with a USB connection, allowing direct linking to your computer and software without the need for a stand-alone MIDI interface.