M-Audio have been producing impressive, inexpensive controller keyboards for some time, and have recently moved seriously into Firewire interfacing. The new Ozonic seeks to combine both capabilities in one product — and all for less than £400...
M-Audio have offered combined MIDI controller keyboards and USB-based audio interfaces for a couple of years now, but their recent efforts have been directed at producing Firewire audio interfaces rather than USB ones, so perhaps it's not surprising that their latest combined MIDI controller/audio interface runs on Firewire.
The Ozonic offers a 37-note velocity-sensitive, aftertouch-equipped full-sized controller keyboard capable of addressing an 11-octave note range with the help of a Transpose button. Onto this is grafted a flexible hardware control surface — assignable wheels, buttons, knobs, sliders, and a joystick — which can be configured to tweak and edit any MIDI instrument, mixer or effects device, whether in hardware or software.
The final piece of the Ozonic puzzle is a four-in, four-out audio interface capable of handling audio at up to 24-bit, 96kHz resolution. The whole lot can be buss-powered via the Firewire connection, if your computer can handle it, but a PSU is provided for those machines that can't (any with four-pin Firewire connectors, that is). And if that sounds like a lot to be editing and interfacing with via a two-line LCD, you'll be pleased to know that you don't have to: Ozonic has the same large, bright LCD as M-Audio's Keystation Pro 88, and also offers access to computer-based editing via the company's free Enigma editor (see the box opposite). There's even a cut-down version of Propellerhead's Reason as part of the package (more on this in the box at the end of this article), so you'll be able to start getting some sounds out of your computer, even if you don't have any other software! M-Audio finish off the bundle with a quality six-pin to six-pin Firewire cable, a printed Quick Start guide, and CD containing the full manual as a PDF and drivers for both Windows XP and Mac OS X. Other flavours of Windows are not supported, and your Mac will need to be running version 10.2.8 or 10.3.4 (or higher).
M-Audio's recent USB-equipped controllers, such as the O2, have offered an edit mode that hijacks the controller's main music keyboard, turning black and white keys into parameter edit and value switches, and so it is here; faint screening above Ozonic's keyboard indicates which keys have which function. This is a great way of doing things and enables the controller's operating system to be streamlined and accessible. Below the display are six clearly labelled function buttons, with the Edit button enabling the keyboard-based options I've just explained. The Bank Select button chooses one of two banks of 10 preset configuration memories, which are selected by one of the 10 buttons flanking the joystick. The supplied presets include useful profiles for several Reason devices, General MIDI, Native Instruments B4 and Pro 53, and Steinberg's Halion, but you can edit and save configurations at will.
The useful 'Control Mute' button, accessed by holding down the third and fourth button under the display, disables the transmission of controller data. This is a great option for use on stage, since it means that no data is transmitted if the controls are accidentally nudged. It also means you can set the knobs and sliders to a desired neutral position before starting to edit a particular device. And of course, you can transmit a snapshot of the current controller positions by pressing down the second and third buttons under the display simultaneously.
As relatively easy as Ozonic might be to edit from its front panel and large display (it's certainly easier than the two-line displays many of us have put up with for years), if you're after something even more flexible, your wish is granted by M-Audio's free Enigma application, available to registered users as a download from the company's web site (see www.maudio.co.uk/index.php?do=enigma.register).
This is a tidy little application, which works on several M-Audio and Evolution products. It provides an on-screen graphic of the keyboard, and you simply click on any assignable physical controller (knob, slider, joystick and so on) to bring up a controller menu, inside which you can make your controller number assignment.
The job is made even easier by a massive list of software instruments, each of which has all of its parameters ready defined for you to simply drag and drop onto the Ozonic display.
Enigma also allows you to create banks of 20 configurations which you can download to the keyboard at any time, thus overcoming its 20-configuration limit. All configurations can be named in the software, although the Ozonic display, large as it is, has no facility for showing these names, and this is a shame given the LCD real estate available! Still, this is a minor quibble on a great piece of free software.
The Ozonic has a busy front panel, a fact emphasised by M-Audio's decision to number the controls and buttons which transmit MIDI data, revealing that there are no less than 40 individual controllers on board. Between them, virtually any MIDI data can be transmitted, independently on any MIDI channel if desired. The knobs and sliders, for example, can handle controllers, RPNs, NRPNs, System Exclusive data, program changes and bank-select messages. Buttons can transmit note ons, program changes, MIDI Machine Control functions (including standard transport controls) and SysEx messages, and toggle MIDI notes and continuous controllers on and off. If the numbering of the controls on the front panel seems to skip a few in the mid-20s, you're seeing right. However, the back-panel Sustain and Expression pedal sockets, which can also be configured to transmit custom MIDI data (the former as a switch, the latter as a controller), are counted as numbers 26 and 25 respectively, and the aftertouch generated by the keyboard is counted as number 24, since this can also be customised. It doesn't have to transmit only aftertouch data, either.
There are nine sliders, rather than the more usual eight, but if you think of them as a possible eight channel faders plus a master fader in a mixer configuration, everything starts to make sense. An assignable button can be found under each slider, and these can function as mute controls on your imaginary mixer if you wish. Likewise, the collection of eight knobs next to the sliders could be assigned to panning duties if you wish, and the five buttons below these are clearly designed to be configured as sequencer transport controls (they're labelled as such), although of course they, like all the other controls I've just mentioned, can be assigned to any parameter you like on a target hardware or software MIDI device, depending on your particular requirements.
The pitch-bend and modulation wheels are counted as controllers 22 and 23 respectively, although as you might be expecting by now, they're not confined to transmitting pitch-bend and modulation messages. And no less than four controllers can be assigned to the joystick — one at the end of each axis (designated 18 to 21; this is very faintly screened in grey below the joystick). This arrangement affords you some pretty serious real-time sound-design potential. For example, I assigned joystick control elements to parameters such as FM amount, Oscillator one and two's phase-offset amount and filter frequency and/or resonance in Reason 's Subtractor synth, with particularly worthwhile results. This sometimes led to distortion (often no bad thing in this context), but it also opened up subtle, rich variations in my sounds, with a wavetable-like edge.
Beyond its control surface, the Ozonic has some surprisingly sophisticated master keyboard options. It's equipped with three zones, each of which can have its own note range, MIDI channel, octave setting and transpose value. In addition, a number of general Ozonic controllers can be set independently for each zone; these include program change/bank select messages, pitch-bend and modulation wheels, aftertouch and the pedal assignments. Not bad for such a compact device.
Where would the modern digital audio interface be without its mixer/control panel application? The one supplied with Ozonic is straightforward enough, offering control over the incoming audio, audio returning from the host software, and finally, over the two output pairs. There is full metering, plus Mute/Solo options. Stereo pairs can also be linked or disabled for mono operation, although linking inputs one and two (the XLR and instrument-level inputs) might not make much sense. The inputs also have panning controls.
Further windows keep you advised of the current sample rate (and buffer size on the PC), along with the version numbers for software, the dates for the firmware, and so on.
There is just enough audio connectivity to cope with Ozonic's Firewire-based audio-interfacing capabilities, all of it ranged across the back panel (see above). As you may recall, there are four 24-bit/96kHz-capable inputs. The first offers an XLR connector, complete with mic-preamp circuitry and a phantom-power switch (an LED on the top panel lights up to indicate when phantom power is active), whilst the second is an high-impedance instrument jack, suitable for passive guitars and basses. Both have their own input level controls, arranged as a dual-concentric stack on the front panel; signal and clipping LEDs finish off their facilities. The remaining two connectors are unbalanced line-level jacks, and you're free to use these as a single stereo or dual mono input.
Four outputs complete the audio I/O facilities, providing two complete stereo output streams from your computer. And the outputs are configured as two stereo pairs, A and B; one (A) is on balanced jacks, and the other is unbalanced. The main level of the output audio is governed by a pair of sliders just above the mod and pitch-bend wheels; a separate knob controls the balance of outputs A and B in the headphone jack on the Ozonic's rear panel. This useful function could work well in live and DJ situations, where one audio stream needs to be monitored while another is being played out to the PA.
A general headphone level knob and a monitor level control complete the Ozonic audio hardware. Some of the labelling of these controls may seem a little confusing at first, but their functions become clear within a short time of powering the interface up, or by having a look at the manual. Most importantly, the 'monitor' knob should more correctly be called a direct monitor level control. With this, you'll be able to monitor any incoming audio from the four inputs directly through the main audio output, before it's passed to and from your computer. Of course, this means you have the option of instant zero-latency monitoring whilst recording and overdubbing audio in your audio software of choice; you just need to remember to disable track monitoring in your software. It's a great option, simply implemented.
All of the audio connections are at the rear, where there's also a five-pin MIDI In/Out pair and the all-important Firewire socket for connection to your computer. The implications of the five-pin pair are that the Ozonic can be used as a general MIDI controller even if you don't have a Firewire connection handy, and also that the MIDI connections are available on top of all the other facilities when the interface is hooked up. In other words, MIDI can be routed into your software and sent back out to MIDI-equipped hardware at the same time as the Ozonic is functioning as a MIDI controller and audio interface.
I was a little taken aback by the single Firewire connector. In many circumstances, this needn't be a problem, especially if the host computer has two or more Firewire connectors of its own. But those users with a laptop that might only be equipped with a single Firewire connector may find themselves compromised: if you want to record your audio files to an external Firewire drive, there can be some circumstances where it's better to daisy-chain the drive from the audio interface, so that the interface is first in line. Placing the hard drive before the audio interface has the potential to interfere with the audio and MIDI data streaming in and out of the interface.
Given that M-Audio are the distributor for Propellerhead products in several territories (including the UK), it's no real surprise that a version of Reason, the virtual electronic studio, is included with Ozonic. The two make for a perfect pairing, though, and anyone just starting out will get a rousing first impression of making music with their computer, even from this cut-down version.
Reason Adapted Express comes with just the basics: its virtual rack offers one Remix mixer, one NN19 sampler, one Subtractor analogue synth, one Redrum drum machine, one RV7 reverb and one DDL1 digital delay. You can add no more devices.
A patch library is supplied, though, for NN19, Subtractor and Redrum, and you can create your own from scratch; there's also full automation via Reason 's linear sequencer. You'd be surprised at the mayhem that can be achieved with just this setup! Don't forget that you can load your own samples into NN19 and Redrum — and in the latter case, the samples don't have to be drum hits, despite the instrument's name. You can use loops if you wish (as long as they're at the right tempo for the overall song) or sound effects. You can even export Reason Adapted audio and re-import it for triggering in Redrum or NNXT.
Such flexible thinking will really get you in the mood for the full version of Reason. And of course that's the main idea of Reason Adapted — to tempt you with what's on offer, and provide an upgrade on favourable terms.
I had a great time with the Ozonic: the controls were a doddle to customise, and it seemed to fit in with every bit of software I tried, handling both audio and MIDI with ease. The bundled Reason Adapted package obviously behaved itself, but so did the full version 3 of Reason, Steinberg Cubase SX (running a host of virtual instrument plug-ins) and Ableton Live all on both Mac and PC, and Cakewalk Sonar (on PC only, naturally).
Audio performance was great — mic, instrument and line inputs all performed well, sounding suitably hi-fi and noise-free, especially considering the price of the unit. If four ins and four outs are all you need, they're flexibly implemented here. The surprise for me was the latency: the in/out delay was pretty good, even on my old Mac — it typically measured under 10 milliseconds — and of course I was able to monitor with zero latency while recording anyway. M-Audio's drivers seemed quite efficient, too, and pops and crackles were not a regular occurrence during the review period.
On the subject of processor speeds, M-Audio recommend a minimum of an 800MHz G3 or 733MHz G4 for Apple machines (and Pentium 3 at 800MHz or better for PCs). It was interesting, therefore, to install the drivers on my 450MHz G4; doing so produced a warning that my machine was running at less than 500MHz, and that the interface might not work properly. But it let me carry on, and in the end, it worked fine for modest sessions in Cubase SX and Reason 3, though for the latter I needed to tweak various system settings. But then Reason 's not always happy running on an older Mac anyway...
MIDI performance was also exemplary: that's a lot of controllers for one compact, multi-purpose device, and editing was easy, thanks to the Ozonic's nicely sized display — although who wouldn't use the Enigma editor? Aside from its slightly terse documentation, this is a great utility: I just wonder why it's not included on the bundled Ozonic CD-ROM? Finally, the keyboard itself is worth a mention — it's a typical plastic synth job, but offers a smooth sense of 'resistance' rather than feeling clattery and cheap.
During this review, I became quite enamoured of integrated MIDI control and audio interfacing. The Ozonic offers enough physical controllers to make the combined controller/interface approach worthwhile, and audio is handled elegantly (especially the monitoring options). The build quality is quite sturdy, too, which is always a plus. I see the Ozonic as a definite step forward, and look forward both to what M-Audio might do with Firewire in future, and to what their competitors might muster in retaliation!