M‑Audio’s 88‑note controller significantly improves its bang‑per‑buck ratio.
Back in the November 2017 issue I reviewed the Hammer 88, concluding that it was ‘a quality bit of kit for the money’, solidly built with a pleasing weighted action; the absence of faders, knobs and buttons made it best suited for those who needed it primarily for piano‑oriented duties. It was only a matter of time before M‑Audio would produce this Pro version that caters for those needing hands‑on MIDI control of their arsenal of software (and hardware) instruments and plug‑ins, adding a comprehensive complement of knobs, faders, buttons and pads. DAW remote control is also provided, with pre‑mapped presets for a variety of popular software.
The functionality and control surface of the Hammer 88 Pro also happen to be identical to M‑Audio’s Oxygen 49 and 61 Pro; the 49‑note Pro model was reviewed in depth by Robin Bigwood in SOS May 2021 issue, so his detailed account of those features is recommended reading. This review therefore focuses on the physical enhancements to the 88‑note Pro above and beyond the original 2017 model.
There are two significant upgrades to the keyboard compared to the Hammer 88: firstly, the Pro is equipped with aftertouch, either globally or on a per‑MIDI channel or per‑Zone basis. Secondly, the keyboard itself has a graded hammer action, described by M‑Audio as ‘best in class’. The grading (a heavier action at the bottom, becoming lighter towards the top) seems more evident than some other graded ‘boards I’ve played; keys bounce satisfyingly with staccato playing, and the overall action feels subjectively livelier than the Hammer 88, and distinctly more adept at playing fast repetitions.
The Pro 88 offers a choice of Low, Medium, High and Linear velocity response curves (plus a variety of fixed values). Tests revealed the Linear setting to be the best response curve for reliably achieving a MIDI value of 127. On a critical note, the resolution in the very lowest velocity range is fairly coarse for all four settings, so fine control in that area can be rather hit and miss.
The rear panel includes new additions: firstly, much to the benefit of pianists, there are now two quarter‑inch footswitch jacks, FS2 and FS3, in addition to the sustain pedal. These are typically assigned to CC66 (sostenuto) and CC67 (una corda), but can be re‑assigned to any other CC number, bearing in mind they are switches whose up/down position alternates between two assignable values, rather than being continuous controller inputs. Continuous control pedals use the quarter‑inch Expression pedal jack, which is also freely assignable to any CC. A power on/off switch now provides a more elegant way to put the Pro 88 to sleep than unplugging the USB cable (or 9v PSU if used).
The Pro 88 represents excellent value for money.
Build quality is first class: the metal chassis is rock solid and feels built to last with no trace of creaking; the faders, knobs and wheels have a silky smooth action, buttons click positively, pads respond accurately to velocity — all the more commendable for a keyboard in this price range. For those who prefer doing their own MIDI controller mapping over the kind of tight software integration offered by keyboards such as Native Instruments’ S‑series (yes, we do exist), the Pro 88 offers a wealth of control options. Beginners will also benefit from the impressive collection of bundled software that includes ‘lite’ versions of Ableton Live and Pro Tools, MPC Beats, and six perfectly respectable virtual instruments. All in all, the Pro 88 represents excellent value for money.
Quality graded hammer action meets comprehensively knobby control surface with remote DAW control capability at a very reasonable price.