M‑Audio go Pro with a new Oxygen controller keyboard.
I recently reviewed the M‑Audio Oxygen 25 MkV (SOS October 2021), in which I remarked with a smile that it retained the lumpy, chunky look and feel of its predecessors and hadn’t gone down the style route of other manufacturers. Well, pulling the Oxygen Pro Mini out of the box was an altogether different experience. The Mini is rather nice, it has Instagram‑friendly angles rather than curves and a very busy front panel that packs usefulness into every inch. It looks neat, serious, useful and pushes my expectations up past what the Oxygen 25 offered, although they do offer many of the same features.
The Oxygen Pro Mini aims to provide versatile and portable DAW and MIDI control with hands‑on performance controls and a decent enough keyboard to prevent the involuntary recoil of your fingers when they find themselves on a cheap controller. M‑Audio say that the PrecisionTouch mini keybed with professional semi‑weighted action and advanced high‑speed bed scanning technology is the best in class, although I know some classmates that would have a thing or two to say about that. It’s never going to live up to the feel of the full‑sized keys on the rest of the Oxygen Pro range and it doesn’t have aftertouch, but M‑Audio have done a good job on these mini keys. Comparing them to some others that I have cluttering up my shed, they certainly beat the clickety clack of the worst‑in‑class Novation LaunchKey Mini, they feel smoother but less substantial than the Arturia Keystep, and are probably most similar to the Native Instruments M32 while being a fair bit smaller and mechanically quieter. So, no complaints there.
Beyond the 32 mini keys the physical features include four sliders, four knobs, eight RGB backlit velocity‑sensitive pads, pitch and modulation wheels set in the main part of the controller rather than next to the keys, a sustain pedal input, USB and a MIDI output on mini‑jack. A clicky encoder sits beneath a little OLED screen and is surrounded by nicely solid plastic buttons covering all sorts of functions. They’ve packed quite a lot into a compact space. The Oxygen Pro Mini feels serious, and every aspect of its physicality has a sense of gravity to it; it all moves well and it’s solid and smooth in all the right places. The size is such that it can sit pretty perfectly between my qwerty keyboard and the screen. It’s just tall enough to offer the keys up for playing without my palms accidentally hitting function keys and with the functionality available in this controller it might just stay there.
The build quality and styling of the Oxygen Pro Mini is a step above the regular Oxygen keyboards.
So, let’s look at the musical features that are going to help you write that hit track. Scale modes and Chord modes have become very standard and familiar on MIDI controllers and the Oxygen Pro Mini fulfils that function. In Scale mode you can set any one of 16 scales to force the keyboard to play only the notes in that scale so that you never play a wrong note again. To select and use a scale you press the Scale button and then press it again while holding Shift to put the selection options on to the teeny‑weeny screen. You can choose to change the Global MIDI channel, change the root note of scale or choose the scale itself by pushing down on the encoder. Then you can dial in your selection. The choices scroll by on a loop as you turn the encoder, which is actually a little annoying as you get no sense of which way to go to find the one you’re looking for. It’s not an awful workflow as you’ll inevitably hit upon what you were after eventually but it’s more menu diving than I was expecting.
In Chord Mode you can enable one‑finger chord magic and choose from minor or major chords with several voices including Random which is quite fun. You can create your own custom chord with up to six notes. Chord mode does better on the editing side in that the Chord voicings and Type are available on the keyboard while holding the Shift button, although this means you have to stop playing in order to press the right combination. Editing is also available on the screen.
The Arpeggiator has been given a bit more of a performance vibe by roping in the four knobs to cover Type, Octave, Gate and Swing. There’s also a very welcome Latch button, which you’ll need if you’re going to use the knobs because you have to hold the Shift button to access the Arp controls. With my thumb on the Shift button I could use my pinky to reach all four knobs to enable me to play arpeggiations unlatched, but sadly holding shift turns the keyboard into other things so you can’t play any new notes at the same time. It would be nice to be able to switch the knobs into Arp mode and keep them there by some means.
All MIDI controllers struggle with how best to present these sorts of features and the Oxygen Pro Mini does it as well or as poorly as many others. It’s just a matter of working with them and getting the hang of it.
The colouring around the edge of the pads is really nice and I prefer it to the whole pad being lit up as a colour. There are two banks of eight pads switchable from the Pad Bank button, and while they are velocity sensitive they sadly lack aftertouch. They respond well to relatively hard hits and the response is even over the whole pad’s surface. While they are great for normal drum playing I found it very difficult to achieve finger rolls. The second finger doesn’t really register, or it feels like I’m going too fast for them as they seem to trigger at the same time as the other finger causing a sort of crunchy double hit. I didn’t get anything like that on the keys and I found playing the drums there a far more satisfying experience than using the pads.
There is a latchable Note Repeat function that works fine and is tied to the same time divisions as the Arp. However, without any kind of pressure or aftertouch you can’t vary the velocity of the repeats. So, other than the look I’ve found the pads a little underwhelming.
Within every DAW the Oxygen Pro Mini will cleverly double as both a DAW controller for the mixer and transport controls and an instrument controller for tweaking sounds. It’s all done via the DAW/Preset switch which switches the controls between DAW control and Instrument control. However, this is not as smooth an experience as M‑Audio would like you to think.
M‑Audio like to say that their range of MIDI controllers features “auto‑mapping”. They used that term with the Oxygen 25 MkV and they use it again here and it’s very misleading. It suggests that their controllers have the ability to automatically map themselves to the controls of DAWs, plug‑ins and virtual instruments, which they can’t. In fact, after spending the time to go through the overly convoluted process of installing Pro Tools First which comes free with the controller I find that nothing is mapped to anything in either DAW or Preset mode. The Quick Start manual only instructs you in how to get the keyboard to play a virtual instrument and it even misses out a vital step that will have beginners scratching their heads — you have to record‑enable the track to receive MIDI!
The manual says that your DAW will detect the Oxygen Pro Mini and automatically configure the controls as a control surface in DAW mode and an instrument controller in Preset mode, and it absolutely does not do this. The manual gives you a link to follow if it doesn’t work automatically for you, but the link merely sends you to the Quick Start instructions, which does nothing to enable DAW control. It does direct you to select the DAW you’re using on the keyboard, but then also tells you to choose your computer’s OS via an option that doesn’t exist on the Mini.
Digging a little deeper into the Avid website and forums I discover that although the Avid website states that Pro Tools First supports HUI‑compatible control surfaces it, in fact, does not and so the user experience with the included Pro Tools First makes you feel more than a little frustrated and stupid. You can of course use regular MIDI mapping to map the knobs and sliders to controls on any virtual instrument but none of that is automatic.
Would it fare any better in MPC Beats and Ableton Live Lite (also included)? MPC Beats at least detects the presence of the Mini but the setup is still manual, the documentation is rather sparse and I can only get it to play notes — there doesn’t seem to be any DAW control. Maybe Ableton Live Lite will give this debacle some dignity? Thankfully, it does. After a little bit of configuration it laps up the controls on the Mini and puts them everywhere you’d want them to be. The faders work, the transport works, and you can switch the knobs between being Pans, Sends or controls over the loaded Ableton instrument/device while the pads become RGB clip launchers. It’s as smooth as silk which is really down to how well Ableton Live copes with this sort of thing even in the Lite version.
To be fair I think most people buying this controller already have a DAW that probably supports Mackie Control and know how to set that up. I’ve laboured this point because M‑Audio insist on making a song and dance about the auto‑mapping when it doesn’t auto‑map and they largely fail to implement any kind of DAW control within their included software bundle. It’s misleading and could be very frustrating for people buying their first piece of music‑making hardware believing that this is all going to work for them.
Once over these hiccups the Mini does have maps that will help you control your DAW and has the ability to store and recall Preset maps for virtual instruments, so you don’t have to remap them manually every time. You can set this all up in the very handy Preset Editor and store up to 12 on the keyboard. While four faders and four knobs are not a whole lot to play with you do have four Banks of them covering 16 channels of control, which is probably plenty considering the size of the controller.
The build quality and styling of the Oxygen Pro Mini is a step above the regular Oxygen keyboards. It instils a level of confidence which carries through to the DAW control and MIDI mapping, provided that you’re not relying on their software or documentation to make it work. It is a busy controller, but every space is taken up with useful functionality. The larger keyboards in the range have more controls and less screen time but compromises have to made for something as tidy and portable as the Mini.
The performance features are worthwhile with the Arp controls being helpfully available on the knobs, although I do wish you didn’t need to hold the Shift key down to access them. Chord and Scale modes do the job and the pads work perfectly well up unto the point of rolling.
Despite being frustrated with the auto‑map issues, I like this controller. The feel of the keys is great, the controls are of a good size and have enough solidity about them. Swapping between DAW and Preset control is easy once it’s set up how you like it, and it becomes a little master control centre in front of your computer. It’s great, but M‑Audio need to wind the hype down a bit and make better decisions on the included software and work up some better documentation, so they are not tripping themselves or their customers up.
- Solid and stylish.
- Great‑feeling keys.
- Has all the features we’ve come to expect.
- Customisable Preset mapping.
- MIDI output.
- Overblown claims of auto‑mapping.
- Included DAWs don’t support the features.
- The pads are not quite right for fast playing.
- Inaccurate and light documentation.
A stylish take on an Oxygen controller, which upgrades the hardware but over‑hypes the DAW control.