With plenty of performance features, DAW control and programmability, have M‑Audio found the winning formula in the MIDI controller‑keyboard game?
MIDI controllers are like barometers for the way we all tend to work. Go back 20 years and you could get big metal‑bodied models to drive your racks of JV1080s and other multitimbral hardware synths. Ten years ago, it was all about USB‑based computer control, with slimline desktop models that merrily ditched their 5‑pin DIN MIDI sockets. Now we live in a plural, hybrid age, where people are just as likely to be working completely ‘in the box’ as with hardware‑based DAW‑less rigs. And perhaps the majority of us with feet in both camps.
Consequently MIDI controllers need to be versatile and open‑ended too, to encompass all the different ways of working, and it looks like M‑Audio’s new Oxygen Pro range was designed with that in mind.
There are four models in the range. The larger 49‑ and 61‑key variants have full‑size velocity and aftertouch‑sensitive keys and the same complement of 16 pads, eight assignable knobs and accompanying buttons, and nine faders. Drop down to 25 keys and you lose the faders and buttons. Meanwhile the Oxygen Pro Mini has 32 mini keys with no aftertouch, eight pads, four knobs and four faders.
All the Oxygen Pros have DAW and plug‑in control features, ‘Smart Chord’ and ‘Smart Scale’ abilities, an arpeggiator, pitch/mod wheels and a quarter‑inch sustain pedal socket. USB MIDI (and powering too, via a trusty USB‑B socket) are there, as you’d expect, and all manage a hardware MIDI output too: a DIN socket on the bigger three, and a 3.5mm mini‑jack socket on the little one (though it looks from the spec sheet that no dongle‑adapter is supplied).
Build quality, judging from the Oxygen Pro 49 I had on test, is good. The chassis is all plastic but inspires confidence. It’s light but not too light, and doesn’t flex at all in normal use. All the controls are firmly mounted and smooth in operation, the buttons quite stiff and shallow, and the small OLED screen is clear, bright and crisp.
Key action is very light and quite noisy, with a fair amount of plasticky clatter on the bottom of the stroke, and on rapid releases. All keys also squeak quietly when squeezed to explore the aftertouch; but only the white keys have an obvious additional range of movement in which that happens, and you need pretty strong fingers to get black key aftertouch going at all. These characteristics remind me a lot of the Novation Impulse I reviewed 10 years ago (blimey, that’s scary), and I suspect it’s either the same action or at least something from the same third‑party manufacturer, especially as the black keys also share a very distinctive angled, squat profile. M‑Audio call the action ‘best‑in‑class’. To my mind it’s a budget action that is more than fit for purpose, and that I wouldn’t hesitate to use for serious work, but it’s nowhere near as plush as the better Fatar keybeds, for example.
As for the multicoloured backlit pads, they’re good. Squishy but supportive, and they trigger readily right across their surface area to the very edges. They don’t have an aftertouch response, which only becomes a drawback for some types of rhythmic programming utilising the Note Repeat function, of which more in a minute. Pitch and modulation wheels, by the way, are compact but nicely sprung and weighted. And the octave transposition keys cover a surprisingly...