The Axiom Pro showcases M‑Audio's controller keyboard know‑how and debuts their brand‑new Hyper Control technology, which is designed to make adjusting software parameters quicker and easier.
As a company, M‑Audio have a good reputation for producing well‑specified and cost‑effective controller keyboards for MIDI musicians, and also have a lot of experience in computer control‑surface design. The Axiom Pro line is their latest hybrid product aiming to cover both bases.
The product under review here is the Axiom Pro 49, a smart‑looking, 49‑note, semi‑weighted keyboard with pitch and modulation wheels, plus a multi‑purpose control surface incorporating nine sliders and associated buttons; eight endless rotary encoders; transport controls; eight velocity‑sensitive rubber trigger pads; and a backlit LCD editing screen accompanied by a numeric keypad and various function keys. At the back there are Expression and Sustain pedal inputs, MIDI In and Out, a USB connection (which can also provide power), and a DC power inlet (for running the unit away from a computer).
The hardware operates in two basic ways: either primarily as a generic MIDI controller or in a special DAW‑linked mode via M‑Audio's bespoke Hyper Control software. Given M‑Audio's track record, it almost goes without saying that the Axiom Pro is a powerful generic controller. The keyboard and pads both offer a variety of velocity responses, and the pad velocity curves have some useful stepped variants for more consistent live performance of rhythm patterns. The keyboard will generate appropriate release velocity values if you wish, as well as channel aftertouch. The sliders and encoders can trigger MIDI Continuous Controllers, RPNs, NRPNs, aftertouch and pitch‑bend, as well as some Ableton Live‑specific controller types. The buttons can send a similar range of controls, either as one‑shots or toggles, plus MMC (MIDI Machine Code) transport commands, program and bank changes, notes, and various system messages. I missed the ability to transmit bespoke SysEx messages from the controls, though, as there are some aspects of hardware MIDI devices that can't be edited remotely in any other way.
You can split the keyboard into up to four zones (each with a dedicated activation button), and choose whether each of the groups of controls address the MIDI channel of the active zone(s) or some independent channel instead. Furthermore, the pads and encoders are blessed with four independent banks of MIDI message assignments (or Profiles, in M‑Audio terminology), through which you can quickly switch using the function keys under the LCD. All this means that you have a tremendous amount of control at your fingertips, coupled with the flexibility to assign it as needed across numerous devices in a given MIDI chain.
To get the Axiom Pro working with your sequencer, you need to install the specific Hyper Control software profile for it, unless you are using Pro Tools 8 or Ableton Live. (At the time of the review, Hyper Control was supported for Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools, Reason and Live.) Setting the Axiom Pro as a Remote Control within Cubase 4.5.2 and Cubase 5.0.0 review systems was easy enough: the software immediately recognised the hardware, and the hardware switched into its special Hyper Control mode automatically.
I tested primarily with Cubase v4.5.2 and v5.0.0 and also did some testing with Reason. In Cubase, by default, the faders adjust channel levels and the encoders adjust pan position, but the latter can also be redirected to provide send level, EQ or plug‑in control. The sub‑fader buttons can be set to select, mute, solo or record‑arm tracks, and they bring the name of the selected track into the LCD display for reference. The Axiom's transport controls automatically map to those in Cubase.
The clever thing about Hyper Control is that it can automatically detect what plug‑ins you have inserted on a track and map their parameters to the hardware for immediate tweakage. Communication is bi‑directional, so not only do hardware controls adjust plug‑in parameters, but plug‑in adjustments are also reflected in the hardware's LCD read‑outs. Every time you move a fader or encoder, the LCD switches to showing a graphical representation of the current parameter values for each hardware control, although there's also a display Hold function that lets you fix a particular set of controls on screen instead.
When adjusting mixer settings, the faders and knobs are shifted across the available sequencer channels in banks of eight with dedicated Axiom Pro function keys, and the names of these channels are listed in the main Hyper Control LCD 'Home' screen as you do this. The names are listed in two vertical columns, however (1‑4 in the left column and 5‑8 in the right), and this configuration doesn't match the layout of either the faders (which are arranged in a horizontal line, 1‑8), or the encoders (laid out in two staggered horizontal lines, with 1‑4 above and 5‑8 below). In the case of the encoders, the hardware layout corresponds with neither the LCD nor Cubase's Mixer window. Furthermore, whenever you adjust a control, the track names are replaced with numerical and graphical representations of the parameter values (without associated track identification), so unless you keep the DAW Mixer window in front of you all the time, you either have to use the Hold facility mentioned above to keep track names in the display or continually flit back to the 'Home' screen.
The very nature of the Axiom Pro's hardware presents a few usability problems too. For a start, the controls are not touch‑sensitive, so the LCD only updates its parameter values when you actually move a control. In response, M‑Audio have implemented a Peek function, where you move a control while holding down two of the buttons under the LCD to see the name and current value of its associated parameter without adjusting it. While that's a reasonable idea, it's compromised for two reasons: the name of the target track isn't also displayed (you have to press another button for that) and, during my testing, the underlying parameter value was actually still adjusted by slider movements while Peeking on the review unit: waggling the hardware fader caused the software fader to slither unpredictably downwards. M‑Audio say that Peek, as implemented by Steinberg, doesn't work with the sliders, only the encoders, which makes me wonder whether they couldn't have simply disabled slider 'Peeking' in their Cubase Hyper Control profile. Something else I noticed was that fast slider movements sometimes prevented the software parameter 'latching on' successfully when I moved it through the correct parameter value: perhaps this is a firmware bug?
Reassigning the encoders to EQ and plug‑in control allows you to select Cubase's built‑in channel EQ or any of the plug‑in slots, load in any available plug‑in, and edit the internal processing parameters. This has its own share of annoying implementation quirks, though. Firstly, it seems to me that the point of any DAW controller is to provide a faster and/or more elegant way of driving the software than the keyboard and mouse, but inserting a plug‑in via the Axiom Pro is like wading through treacle — you have to scroll sequentially through all the plug‑ins on your system using a velocity‑scaled, undetented control, which isn't very well suited to this kind of switching task, and a distinctly sluggish LCD response doesn't help.
The second problem is that the plug‑in parameters are assigned in the order they appear in the sequencer's automation list, and you have to page through them in banks of eight to find what you're after. Putting aside for the moment the fact that virtual instruments often have lots of parameters (Cubase's Prologue synth spawned 27 pages, for instance) and that the parameter names use the same counter‑intuitive column‑format list as the track names I mentioned earlier, a further stumbling block appears when you want to adjust a parameter, because, unless you again Hold the display, the parameter list is replaced with encoder read‑outs. When you want to find another parameter, you either have to rummage at random through the other controls using Peek, or manually page back to the parameter‑list screen.
There's no way to edit the default Hyper Control plug‑in parameter assignments and save them for future use, which would allow the user to circumvent some of these problems. M‑Audio told me that Pro Tools does actually allow you to re‑order plug‑in parameters within the sequencer automation list to work around this issue, but apparently none of the other supported hosts do.
I also found that the Axiom doesn't open the Channel Settings window for the plug‑in or virtual instrument you're editing, and although that may suit some people, I found that I was opening it manually to check things like graphical EQ plots and gain‑reduction metering. At which point, mouse in hand and with the plug‑in window in front of me, I found myself wondering whether to return to the hardware controls at all.
As you can probably tell by now, my experience of using Hyper Control with the Axiom Pro 49 was a frustrating one. There seemed to be too much LCD menu‑surfing involved in run‑of‑the‑mill sound-programming and mixing tasks to give any sense of freedom in operation, and the ergonomic problems I've highlighted distracted me from the process of recording and mixing projects. It's probably not a tremendously good sign that, after some days spent gamely trying to control Cubase as much as possible exclusively via Hyper Control for the purposes of this review, I heaved a sigh of relief when I finally abandoned it entirely.
The other problem for M‑Audio is that they're not the first company to offer automatic hardware mapping of plug‑in parameters, because Novation's Remote SL MkII keyboard range is already a strong force in the market and in direct competition. For my money, Novation's current Automap software wipes the floor with Hyper Control when it comes to plug‑in parameter access: yes, you have to do more of the track and plug‑in selection duties with your mouse (which is arguably quicker anyway), but what you get in return is much more influence over the way your hardware controls address available plug‑in parameters; the advantages of touch‑sensitive controls; and much clearer visual feedback via LED encoder collars and LCD displays that correlate much better with the physical controls. To put all that another way, the Remote SL MkII with Automap really did speed up my workflow, whereas the Axiom Pro with Hyper Control had, if anything, the opposite effect.
To be fair to M‑Audio, Automap's automatic scanning doesn't currently reach as far into the sequencer innards as Hyper Control can, so the built‑in plug‑ins and instruments in Apple Logic or Ableton Live and anything in the new Steinberg VST3 format can only be harnessed via the Remote SL MkII's generic MIDI control facilities. By contrast, Hyper Control was able to poll VST3 plug‑in and instrument parameters in Cubase 5 straight away. In this case the question is whether you'd rather have more usable control and fewer supported plug‑ins, or vice versa.
It was clear from my discussions with M‑Audio that they felt that the less technically minded musician would prefer a functional control system straight out of the box (without the potential complication of another intermediary software interface) and would feel little actual need to adjust control assignments and so forth, because they would use the Axiom to complement, rather than substitute for, the keyboard and mouse. The hardware controls would then handle mainly tasks like writing automation data, where the tactile control element is more important than the speed of parameter access. While I can understand that Novation's Automap might initially feel a bit daunting for some users, on account of its technical‑looking heads‑up display window, the less technically minded users are also likely to be less tolerant of the usability and visual‑feedback quirks of the Hyper Control system in the medium term.
M‑Audio also suggested that the advanced user seeking more tailored control can simply bypass the Hyper Control functionality and use the generic MIDI controller functions instead. However, that means setting up the assignments from scratch and then flipping between different Axiom Presets (as well as in/out of the main Hyper Control mode) as you surf different instruments and plug‑ins.
To sum up, if you're looking for anything beyond basic sequencer mixer/plug‑in parameter control on a keyboard of this price, I wouldn't really recommend the Axiom Pro series. That said, Hyper Control is by no means the only feature these units have to offer, and they nonetheless demand serious consideration as generic MIDI controllers, because this aspect of their functionality is as advanced as you'd expect, given M‑Audio's distinguished track record, and the keyboard's nice Tru Touch action is also a significant selling point in its own right.
Direct competition comes in the form of Novation's Remote 49SL MkII, a very close match in terms of both feature set and price. If you share my reservations about M‑Audio's Hyper Control system by comparison with Novation's Automap, then the first question will, of course, be how important this is to you. Beyond that, though, other differences between the units may swing the vote either way. For one thing, I preferred M‑Audio's Tru Touch keyboard action over that of the Remote 61SL MkII I recently reviewed, but on the flip side I did find the Axiom Pro's rubber function buttons needed to be hit quite firmly to get them to respond reliably. The complement of hardware controls and socketry also varies between the units, with M‑Audio's larger drum pads, mod/pitch wheels, dedicated transport buttons, and numeric keypad set against the Novation's touch sensitivity, joystick, X‑Y Pad, Speed Dial, and additional MIDI sockets. It might initially seem that M‑Audio have also stolen a march on Novation with their ASCII shortcuts function, but in fact this feature is in the Pro version of the Automap software, bundled free of charge with all the Remote SL MkII controllers.