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 large range of ‑3 to +4 octaves.
In The Air Tonight
Many potential buyers will no doubt be attracted by the Oxygen Pros’ pre‑configured performance and convenience features, so let’s get to these right away.
An onboard arpeggiator is enabled with a labelled button (beneath the first slider) and has seven modes ranging from classic Up/Down through to Random and Chord [repetition] over a 0‑3 octave range, with variable gate time and swing. Momentary or latching behaviour is selected with another button, and time divisions of 1/4 to 1/32 notes (and triplet equivalents) are available across the 20‑240 bpm tempo range of the internal clock. It’ll also sync to an incoming MIDI clock via USB, which seemed reliable and robust in all my tests. Some main settings (that are otherwise only available in a menu) are mirrored on the first four knobs, which can be locked into an Arp‑control mode regardless of what else is going on, and really let you ‘play’ the arpeggiator. A great feature.
The MPC‑inspired Note Repeat spits out perfectly timed repetitive note triggers from the pads (only), sharing all the same tempo and time divisions as the arpeggiator. Great for hi‑hat programming and finger‑drumming convenience amongst other things, but that lack of aftertouch does preclude manipulating a held pad to vary velocity, which is such a characteristic ability of many specialist pad‑based grooveboxes.
About the Smart Chord and Smart Scale features, M‑Audio say they make it ‘easy to craft a perfect song’. Whilst one of those was sadly not forthcoming for me during the test period (and I’d have even settled for slightly imperfect) they have their uses for players and producers who aren’t fluent keyboard players, or struggle with some aspects of music theory. Essentially both are a kind of note quantise scheme. You start by telling the Oxygen Pro what key you want to work in, then the chord voicing or scale type (and many of both are available, from mainstream to more exotic), and it channels you into theoretical correctness.
All the important Chord mode settings can be recalled with quick white‑key shortcuts, so it’s clearly meant to be a feature that’s worked in real‑time. Then Smart Chord will generate musically useful chord voicings from single note presses, and no matter what note you play you’ll always get a harmony which fits with the selected tonality. Smart Scale limits the variety of MIDI notes that can be produced from the keyboard, so with a Pentatonic scale selected (for example) your normal 12‑note octave will contain lots of duplicates of the five that are ‘allowed’. It works perfectly in principle, though I wonder if the scheme is fundamentally better suited to pad‑type layouts, where you don’t end up with handfuls of redundant duplicates.
DAWs & Don’ts
DAW control is another headline feature for the Oxygen Pros, and out of the box there’s compatibility with Pro Tools|First (one of the bundled software titles), Ableton Live (ditto — well, Live Lite at least), MPC Beats (ditto again), Studio One, Reason, Cubase, Logic, Bitwig, Garage Band, Reaper and FL Studio. Users of other DAWs aren’t excluded though: there’s a user template that can be manually set up.
M‑Audio bandy around the term ‘auto‑mapped’ quite a bit in their blurb, but it’s more accurate to say that the roles of the hardware sliders, buttons and knobs for each DAW are pre‑mapped, and the underlying configurations saved like presets into the Oxygen Pro’s internal memory. There’s nothing like the complexity of Novation’s old Automap system (or indeed M‑Audio’s now‑defunct HyperControl), which promised tight two‑way communication between DAW and controller via all sorts of additional software and/or ‘wrapped’ plug‑ins: a great shame, or a blessed relief, depending on your expectations and aspirations.
The way it works here, in nearly all cases, is that the Oxygen Pro emulates a Mackie hardware control surface, which your DAW sees on a dedicated USB MIDI port. Walkthroughs on the M‑Audio website help get your DAW correctly configured for the Mackie protocols (though not without some confusion about differing port naming in Windows and Mac OS), and then you select a pre‑configured DAW map on the controller to match, and tell it whether you’re Mac OS or Windows‑based.
The depth of integration then varies from DAW to DAW, and is unfortunately only sparsely documented, but for the most part you’ll see hardware sliders controlling on‑screen faders, knobs controlling pans, and buttons record‑enabling, muting, soloing and selecting tracks or channels according to a Mode button. Three additional banks for the sliders, buttons and knobs can be selected on the controller, which let you eke out a maximum 32 channels of control. In addition, you’ll have dedicated transport controls, shortcuts for Save, Quantize, Undo and View (which in Live toggles between session and arrangement, for example), and in some DAWs control of send levels and native plug‑in parameters too. The encoder often acts like a scroll wheel, and in Live the pads act as clip launchers.
Testing with PreSonus Studio One and Ableton Live, I was pleasantly surprised at the breadth of control I was offered. This is a better implementation than many competing products manage in the same market sector.
Be in no doubt, though, that emulation of a Mackie Control is not the same as having a Mackie Control, or another motorised‑fader control surface dedicated for use with your DAW. You’ll never see track names in the Oxygen Pro display, for example, nor transport position, or any indication of what plug‑in parameter a knob is tied to before you twiddle it. There are no DAW editing facilities, marker‑related functions, no way to set punch‑in/out or loop/cycle location, no zoom commands, and no jog/shuttle wheel.
Going back to the core mix features — sliders for track/channel level and knobs for pan — the user experience is mixed. The Oxygen Pro can read fader positions from your DAW, and though it can’t put its unmotorised physical sliders in the right place at all times it does the next best thing, which is to show you where they should be. Then it provides a ‘soft takeover’, so that slider movements are ignored until they reach the position of equivalent software faders, and a direct relationship in position is re‑established. Great... except that this does not happen at an absolutely crucial juncture, when first opening a DAW project.
To give a practical example of what this means, imagine this: your Oxygen Pro sliders are all at their minimum position, and your freshly opened project faders are variously strewn about the 0dB mark. Now, any movement of an Oxygen Pro slider will torpedo the level on the channel it’s tied to. The only way to start off in sync, so to speak, is to painstakingly work through the sliders and banks to recreate levels as closely as possible on the sliders; you’ll end up changing your mix at least a little bit no matter how careful you are, and only then will the soft takeovers kick in. So the system is workable, but far from ideal. The bods at M‑Audio says they’re working on implementing support for what we might call ‘initial level’ data transfer in Ableton Live at least, to avoid this unfortunate behaviour. I really hope that happens, and that it can be extended to other supported DAWs too.
As for the knobs, those are supposed to offer soft takeover as well, but in Studio One they always started out with a relative relationship to my on‑screen pan positions, more like you’d expect to see with endless encoders. In Live the knobs wouldn’t control anything other than instrument or plug‑in parameters, and even then with values only jumping to physical knob positions in the most unsophisticated way. The buttons didn’t work properly in Live either. Both are apparently known issues. Some work remains to be done in this area, clearly.
One thing I was relieved to see is that you can step away from DAW control, and back to it, at any time: it’s not like the whole unit is completely taken over just because your DAW happens to be running. A single button press enters Preset mode, which turns your faders and knobs (and optionally buttons too) into more conventional sources of MIDI CC and note data. As the name suggests, there are some factory preset control maps in place: for the Akai MPC Plugin along with the other virtual instruments bundled with your purchase. Eight pre‑configured maps are supplied (and can be overwritten) alongside another eight empty slots, ready for your own creations.
For the bundled virtual instruments, at least, the physical location of on‑screen plug‑in parameters is often mirrored in the left‑to‑right layout of the Oxygen’s faders and knobs, which is sensible and practical. There’s next to no documentation anywhere, but figure out which controls move your on‑screen cutoff and resonance knobs and you can be squelching away with the best of them. As with the DAW control you’ll never get any hints from the Oxygen Pro screen about what parameter any given hardware control is tied to, even for the factory maps, which is disappointing, and such an obvious possibility. And just to be clear, Preset mode is no more or less than a simple, one‑way (ie. transmit‑only) MIDI control system, similar to that which underpinned dedicated knobby MIDI control surfaces of bygone decades. Which is to say it’s far from state‑of‑the‑art but potentially hugely useful.
These are well‑spec’ed, capable and competitively priced controllers that should fit right into many different setups.
Walking On Air
It’d be all too easy to let my sceptical side hold sway when it comes to assessing the Oxygen Pro, and to pronounce the DAW‑control features in particular as gimmicky and undercooked, colouring the whole experience. Certainly there is room for improvement in that area, but it’s important to keep in mind the relatively modest asking price for these keyboards, as well as their other abilities. The bigger picture, then, is that these are well‑spec’ed, capable and competitively priced controllers that should fit right into many different setups. DAW control is quite usable (with care) as it stands, and only needs a few meaningful improvements to become seriously useful: signs are that M‑Audio are on to that. The Oxygen Pros are then a valuable new alternative in a hotly contested marketplace, and have a lot to recommend them.
Ready‑rolled DAW integration and plug‑in control maps are all well and good, but some of us need more open‑ended programmability in a MIDI controller, especially when working with hardware synths. In this respect, there’s a lot more to the Oxygen Pro than meets the eye.
Under the umbrella of the Preset system, individual sliders and knobs can be programmed to transmit any MIDI CC number, with a constrained (or inverted) value range if you like, on their own MIDI channels. At the same time buttons and pads can flexibly transmit CC or MIDI program messages, or MIDI notes, and you can choose your own pad colours. The programming system is quite intuitive and clear too, if rather menu‑divey. Less obviously, the keyboard can be split into up to four zones with independent octave and semitone transposition, MIDI channel, and bank/program recall. There’s even an option to constrain the range of aftertouch values, and confine aftertouch to individual MIDI channels or zones. That’s some really useful sophistication.
Another nice feature is a global‑level option to choose the source for the DIN MIDI Out. ‘Keys’ lets you play your hardware synths direct, without computer involvement. ‘USB’ turns the Oxygen Pro into a 1‑out USB MIDI interface. You can also have the two combined, or turn the output off.
All of this is accessible on the unit itself, happily, even if there is a distinct feel of ‘keyhole surgery’ when working with the cramped menu system. A more informative overview is offered by a dedicated Mac OS and Windows Editor app with separate views for Preset and DAW modes, and Global settings.
The Oxygen Pro software bundle is quite extensive, and more generous than many others out there. No fewer than three DAWs are included: Pro Tools|First (M‑Audio Edition), Akai MPC Beats (with a stack of sound‑pack expansions thrown in), and Ableton Live Lite.
Virtual instruments, all of which have matching control maps, are from the AIR stable that has well‑known associations with Avid and Akai. They include the Hybrid 3 synth plus Mini Grand and Velvet pianos, and within Pro Tools the Vacuum monosynth, Xpand!2 workstation, Boom drum machine and DB‑33 organ.
There are many knobby MIDI controllers out there, but not all promise full‑blown DAW integration alongside general control features. Those closest in style and scope include Nektar’s Impact LX, T and P series (coming in at steadily increasing prices) and Alesis’s lopsided VI range. Meanwhile Novation’s Impulse is still a really solid option if you don’t need loads of pads, while their SL MkIIIs represent a ‘premium’ alternative. As for Native Instruments’ S‑series controllers and Arturia’s Keylabs, they have some impressive abilities but are more proprietary and role‑specific in nature.
- A good all‑rounder, offering lots of different ways of working.
- Plenty of knobs, sliders and buttons, programmable on board or via a software editor.
- The arpeggiator is simple but responsive, and ‘Smart’ features offer ways to work even if you’re a beginner.
- DIN MIDI Out.
- Generous software bundle.
- DAW control currently lacks some important sophistication.
- No onboard parameter labelling even for factory‑configured control maps.
- Aftertouch inconsistent between white and black keys, and non‑existent on pads.
- Documentation for many features and software tie‑ins is sparse.
A useful, versatile and cost‑effective new range of controller keyboards. The Oxygen Pros strike a balance, nearly always successfully, between plug‑and‑play ease of use and user programmability.
Oxygen Pro 25 £149, Oxygen Pro 49 £189, Oxygen Pro 61 £229. Prices include VAT.
Oxygen Pro 25 $199, Oxygen Pro 49 $259, Oxygen Pro 61 $299.