MIDI controller keyboards were a minority interest a few years ago, but as more studio duties have been taken on by computers, the popularity of controllers has soared. Korg's Microkontrol adds some new tricks to the well-established concept...
As computer-based studios become less dependent on hardware for their recording, mixing, effects and sound-generating capabilities, our focus has turned to issues of control. At the very high end of the project-studio market, we see mixer-like control surfaces on the scale of Digidesign's Pro Control and Control 24 for Pro Tools, while in the middle market we have smaller moving-fader controllers such as Mackie Control, CM Labs' Motormix and Steinberg's Houston optimised for the mainstream audio software packages. At the more budget-conscious end of the market, there are numerous keyboards with MIDI controller knob sections or programmable MIDI fader/knob units from the likes of Kenton and M Audio, but with the Korg Microkontrol, Korg have endeavoured to create a new category between those units which offer only manual knobs and faders, and those fitted with rotary encoders and motorised faders.
Using conventional potentiometers and faders is a very cost-effective means of providing MIDI control, although there's always the limitation that as soon as you switch to a different control setup or to a new function, the stored values no longer agree with the physical control positions. Various strategies have been employed to make this as painless as possible, but where cost permits, moving faders and rotary encoders are far more convenient, as the physical fader position and the indicated rotary controller values can be made to follow the actual parameter values automatically, thus avoiding the need for any nulling procedures.
Korg's Microkontrol has the same footprint as their Microkorg synth and combines a three-octave MIDI keyboard with eight rotary encoders, each with an eight-character parameter display window above it, plus a further master encoder with a display and eight manual faders. There are 16 velocity-sensitive trigger pads to the left of the front panel which can send MIDI note information or MIDI controller values, and eight edit buttons, two of which are left/right cursor keys. The number of additional controls and buttons has been kept to a minimum by additionally using the 16 trigger pads as programming and data-entry buttons.
All this controller technology is combined with five-pin and USB-based MIDI I/O and everything is built into a very neat 37-note velocity-sensitive mini-keyboard with an assignable joystick. The latter is fitted to the left of the keyboard in place of the more usual mod and bend wheels, but it may be assigned to a number of functions, including mod depth, pitch-bend, and aftertouch (lacking on the keyboard). Alternatively, the joystick can transmit four different types of MIDI Controller message in all four directions. An integral switch can control a fifth function.
The brushed aluminium front panel, solid aluminium end cheeks and backlit LCD windows give the Microkontrol a very clean-cut, sophisticated appearance, and the large trigger pads will be appreciated by those who liked the look and feel of Akai's MPC hardware sequencers. Just as on the MPCs, the trigger pads have obvious uses in triggering drums or sampled phrases, although they may also be used as transport buttons, or indeed just about anything else that can be set up via MIDI notes or controllers.
The rear panel has an input for the included 9V DC power adaptor, although the Microkontrol can also run from batteries or even from USB power if a USB port with enough current capacity is available. A three-position slider switch selects USB, DC or Standby power modes. A preset pot controls the display brightness/viewing angle and there's also a jack for a pedal, which may be assigned to a number of functions, such as sustain. The user can set up the pedal input so that a pedal press sends a control change of 127 when pressed, and 0 when released, or whether it alternately sends 0 and 127 each time it is pressed. Then there are the MIDI connectors: the USB socket used to connect the unit to a host computer, and the traditional five-pin MIDI In and Out sockets. If the Microkontrol is connected via USB, and the host computer is running appropriate MIDI and audio software, the five-pin sockets function as a MIDI port for the host software. This software routing is disabled if you disconnect the USB cable from the computer. Some users may be unable to take advantage of these USB-based MIDI functions, though, as the USB driver provided on the bundled CD-ROM only works with Windows XP, and Mac users can only work under OS X.
The terminology 'Scene' is used to describe one complete Microkontrol controller assignment setup where, for example, one Scene might be dedicated to controlling a specific software instrument or audio recording package. Scenes are selected by holding down the Scene button while pressing the correspondingly numbered trigger pad. In order to enable the user to customise the visual appearance of the trigger pad, an unprinted plastic overlay is included which covers the existing printing, and there's a further sheet of stick-on labels allowing the user to create a custom overlay.
It's possible to assign MIDI Control Change messages, including NRPNs (Non-Registered Parameter Numbers) to the encoders and sliders and a stylish touch is the provision of a means to set the display backlight colours to green, red, orange or off according to their function, such as whether the fader or rotary encoder values are currently being displayed. The normal mode of operation has the display showing the value associated with whichever of the controls below (encoder or fader) was last moved. You can also specify whether or not the individual trigger pads light up or blink when sending a MIDI message. Normally the trigger pads illuminate in red to show which buttons access valid functions in the currently operational mode. For example, when selecting Scenes, only 12 light up, as there are only 12 Scene memories.
The Microkontrol comes pre-loaded with a library of factory-made Scenes to suit commonly used music software and virtual instruments. There's also librarian software on the included CD-ROM for creating, managing or backing up your Scenes, and this includes templates for many more common pieces of music software and software synths. As with the USB driver, the librarian software is for Windows XP and Apple OS X only (for more on the editing software, see the box below).
When connected via USB, the Microkontrol supports two virtual MIDI ports, A and B, as well as the five-pin MIDI In and Out jacks. When programming the Microkontrol, the port that should carry the programmed control or note messages can be specified by the user. Port assignment is handled in groups rather than on a control-by-control basis, so you can specify the output port for the faders, the encoders, Pads 1 to 8, Pads 9 to 16, any connected footpedal, the joystick, keyboard and messages sent in Message mode (of which more later).
As mentioned earlier, when the USB connection is being used, data received at the physical MIDI In port is sent to the computer via the software driver's MIDI In port, allowing the Microkontrol to act much like a conventional external MIDI interface. MIDI data from the Microkontrol in this way is sent to ports A or B as set by the user, and the manual suggests that using port A for the keyboard and port B for the physical panel controllers is a practical way to set this up. This data is not sent to the MIDI Out socket — instead, this socket is used to carry MIDI messages generated by the host software, again in the same way as would an external MIDI interface. When working under Mac OS X, no drivers are needed — the physical MIDI In/Out sockets appear as Port 1, Port A (USB) is port 2 (In and Out) and Port B (USB) is port three (MIDI In only). Port 2 Out is used for data dumps to the Microkontrol and also for the dedicated Korg Native Mode, of which more in a moment.
When the USB interface is not being used, the physical MIDI In ignores conventional MIDI messages, but still responds to SysEx dumps. The MIDI Out then carries all MIDI data generated by the Microkontrol, regardless of which USB port it may have been assigned to in the currently selected Scene. So, although you could use the Microkontrol with operating systems other than Windows XP or Mac OS X, everything would have to work via the five-pin MIDI sockets, you'd lose the MIDI interfacing capabilities, and all Scenes would have to be created from the front panel rather than via the bundled editing software.
In addition to working as a programmable, general-purpose controller, the Microkontrol also has a Korg 'Native' mode that works with any software that specifically supports this mode. At the time of writing, there's no clear indication of what such software might be, but knowing that Korg are still working to complete software versions of a number of their old synths, I can't help but wonder whether this mode might come in handy in a few months' time!
The bundled software editor is very simple, with 12 on-screen pads for displaying and editing screen sets. Controls and their assigned MIDI messages can be viewed and edited in a window to the right of the screen (this section can be hidden if required), while the left of the screen shows a browser view of the drive contents. Scenes can be managed in sets of 12, and the library Scene dedicated to Emagic's Logic (with which I tested the Microkontrol) shows this off to good advantage — the first Scene controls Logic 's mixer levels and pans and subsequent ones are set up for Logic 's own virtual instruments.
Below the 12 on-screen Scene pad buttons are Transmit and Receive buttons for communicating with the Microkontrol hardware, an Open button to load up a Scene Set that's already been saved to disk, and Save, which saves the current Scene to disk with a name of your choice. Scenes may be exchanged with one another, edits can be undone, assignments can be copied between Scenes and so on, but there's nothing more complex than you might find in a basic word processor — it's wonderfully simple.
The Microkontrol operates in one of four modes, the default one being Play mode — you switch into the Message or Settings modes by holding down the Message or Settings keys while pressing the desired trigger pad key. Play mode is the one used for playing and controlling once everything else has been set up. In this mode, the two arrowed cursor keys work as octave-shift buttons. Exit and Enter keys perform their usual functions, while the Value dial to the immediate right of the trigger keys (shown on the left of the picture above) adjusts the internal MIDI clock speed when in Play mode or the parameter value when in the edit modes. A Tempo LED blinks every quarter note.
Settings mode is used to assign MIDI functions to the individual controllers, and to decide which USB MIDI port they should be sent to, thus creating a complete Scene. This procedure does require a brief visit to the manual, as there is no multi-line display to deliver prompts as to what to do next. However, making controller assignments to the various controls is trivially easy, especially if you use the Quick Assign method of holding down the Settings key while moving the encoder or fader you wish to set up. The display above the control changes to show the current controller value as soon as you move the control, and all you have to do is dial through to the one you want. Names for the controls can be selected from a long list of presets relating to the common parameters of envelopes, filters, oscillators, levels and so on, but there seems to be no way to create your own names, which is a little limiting.
There's no need for dedicated save or load buttons — once you have created the controller assignments you want, you simply use the Scene button and the Write trigger pad, then dial in the location into which you want to store the new Scene. After choosing a name for the Scene, pressing Enter saves the changes. The two cursor buttons light red on the left and green on the right during editing, but when you reach the last page of the editing procedure, the right cursor button also turns red to let you know there are no further pages to negotiate. Setting up the Pad and joystick values is similarly straightforward, though the librarian software enables you to work faster if you have a computer that can run it.
The trigger pad section to the left of the machine has three functions printed above the top of each button (corresponding to the pad functions in the Microkontrol's Scene, Message or Settings modes) and one letter or number down the left-hand side for entering hexadecimal values. When the Hex Lock key is pressed, the trigger pad may be used to input hexadecimal values directly, rather than the user first having to convert them. Any notes in the range C1 to G9 can be assigned to these pads, which are fully velocity sensitive, or they can be used to transmit Control Change messages. The way they work when sending Control Changes is that you can choose to send a controller value of 127 when the pad is pressed and 0 when it is released, or you can get it to send values of 0 and 127 whenever pressed. For triggering notes, you can either have the Note Off message wait until you release the pad or you can have a Note On followed immediately by a Note Off as soon as the pad is pressed (for triggering drums). Finally, Settings mode is also where you access global parameters including the keyboard velocity curve, global MIDI channel and display backlight settings. Pressing Enter returns to Play mode.
Message Mode allows you to send whatever MIDI messages you assigned to the pads, which will be different from the MIDI notes you set up the pads to generate in Play mode (you can lock the keypad into Message mode by holding down Exit while pressing Message). In this mode, the first eight pads (shown below) send preset messages: Panic, Snap (which transmits a snapshot of the current controller settings for storing at the head of a sequencer track), All Notes Off, GM On, Stop, Start, Continue and Tap (ie. Tap tempo). The remaining eight pads can be set up to send the following types of messages: Control Change, Bank Select, Program Change, Pitch Bend, RPNs, NRPNs, SysEx and the so-called 'Free', which may be used to send any MIDI message of up to three bytes.
Finally, Scene Mode is used to select one of the 12 scenes from memory, save settings made in Settings Mode into a Scene, restore the factory Scenes and initiate the sending or receiving of SysEx Scene and global parameter dumps.
Using the Microkontrol is generally a plug-and-play experience. I had no problem getting the integral USB MIDI to be recogised by Mac OS X, and the conventional MIDI mode also worked fine. Templates are ready-loaded for Steinberg Cubase, Emagic Logic, Native Instruments Pro 53, Spectrasonics Atmosphere and Stylus, Propellerhead Reason, Ableton Live and a handful of other popular music applications. I tested the Microkontrol with Logic, and although a Microkontrol Scene is included for this, users of some versions of Logic may not have such a straightforward experience as others, because of the way the sequencer restricts certain MIDI controllers for its own use. I couldn't get the Microkontrol to operate the pans and faders unless I mapped a MIDI Splitter to all the mixer channels I wanted to control — which is of course a Logic issue, not a fault of the Microkontrol. When it came to controlling virtual instruments in Logic, the Pro 53 Scene seemed to work fine as it was, while the Spectrasonics Atmosphere Scene needed a little reassigning to get it to behave as the display windows proclaimed that it should, so again, Logic may have been doing a bit of hidden remapping. Apparently, Korg plan to bundle another default Logic song with the Microkontrol which is already set up to overcome these problems for Logic users, which is good news, as the process I had to go through was somewhat fiddly.
Ergonomically, the combination of faders and encoders works reasonably well. As the rotary encoders are free to rotate continuously, there's no need to null them after changing scenes, although the faders work in much the same way as on any other non-motorised system insofar as the stored value isn't changed until the fader passes through the position corresponding to the stored value. This prevents abrupt parameter changes when the faders are first moved. The Quick Edit mode is slightly frustrating, as you don't get to see the encoder or fader display value until you've actually moved the control, by which time you've changed its value as well. The integral push switch system used in Mackie Control and other devices seems better suited to this type of operation, as it would allow value interrogation without moving the control, although there's nothing here you can't get used to fairly quickly.
Small keyboards are always contentious — some people like them because it's easy to span a lot of notes, but if you don't have slender fingers, it can also be too easy to play unintentional notes. I also prefer traditional bend and mod wheels rather than joysticks for real-time performance control, though once again this is a matter of personal preference. On the plus side, the joystick can be set to change four MIDI controllers rather than two, and of course there is also the built-in push-switch, which can only be operated when the joystick is in its neutral position.
Korg's Microkontrol is one of the more intuitive general-purpose controllers I've come across, and because it arrives with so many templates already set up for you, you may actually need to do little or no programming of your own to use it. However, I feel that the maximum of 12 internal Scene memories might prove limiting if you use a lot of virtual instruments or different software packages.
The use of encoders with individual displays makes it easier to set up and use than more basic control devices that use only potentiometers, although the faders still have the same limitations as any other non-motorised system. Provided that the small keyboard suits you, I think you'll find that the Microkontrol neatly fulfills its promise of useable and affordable control combined with USB and MIDI interfacing functions.