For applications where space or portability are at a premium, it is hard to beat this compact, two-octave MIDI master keyboard, which also incorporates eight assignable real-time MIDI controllers.
Dedicated master keyboard controllers have been available for years, with spans ranging from four to seven octaves, and with a variety of feels from lightweight synth to weighted hammer action. Until recently, however, keyboard-oriented MIDI studio owners with limited space often had to resort to using keyboard controllers with miniature keys. Meanwhile, anyone who wanted more hands-on control of their various hardware and software synths would look at a dedicated controller featuring either sliders or rotary knobs.
The first of these limitations was removed with the introduction of Evolution's MK125 (reviewed in SOS July 2000), a keyboard with just two octaves' worth of full-sized velocity-sensitive keys, along with pitch and mod wheels, and a clutch of other features including octave switching, patch changing, and transposition.
Miditech were the first to meet the obvious demand for a low-cost keyboard with built-in MIDI controllers with their Midicontrol (reviewed in SOS December 2001). This has a four-octave keyboard and a dozen assignable rotary controls. Evolution have also released their MK249C USB, which has a very similar specification.
Midiman's undeniably cute Oxygen8 combines both approaches; it's a neat, two-octave keyboard with velocity-sensitive full-sized keys, pitch-bend and mod wheels, along with eight assignable rotary MIDI controller knobs, and an additional socket to plug in a sustain pedal.
Unlike the black hi-tech look of both the MK125 and Midicontrol, the Oxygen8 follows the latest Korg/Roland/Novation trend with its silver livery. If you're short on space, it's also the narrowest of the three at just 16.5 inches, although like the Midicontrol this does place the pitch-bend and mod wheels above the keys, which may not suit every player. However, at only 9.35 inches deep and 3 inches high, it should slot into various places, including a 2U rack tray, to provide handy slide-out access in a rack of synths.
The Oxygen8 can be powered by any 9V DC 500mA wall wart (not supplied), or by six AA batteries if you're on the move. However, most desktop musicians are likely to supply the keyboard with power from their computer via the Oxygen8's USB connection. A three-way power switch on the keyboard's rear panel allows you to choose between these power options. MIDI data from the Oxygen8 can also be transmitted to your computer via USB, although there are also two standard five-pin MIDI sockets on its back panel, one of which appears as an additional MIDI Out within your computer software, to send data to other external MIDI devices via the USB connection, while the other provides a standard MIDI Out from the keyboard if you don't wish to go the USB route.
If you're using USB, you'll need suitable drivers, and for PC owners these are currently available for Windows 98, SE, ME, 2000, and XP, while Mac owners can run both OS 9 and OS X. I had no problems installing these on my PC running Windows 98SE — you just plug in the keyboard using the supplied USB lead, and switch it on. The new hardware is then detected automatically and the drivers on the CD-ROM are requested and installed. Mac owners can use standard iMacs, G3s or G4s with USB ports, and OS 9.04 or higher is recommended, but you will need OMS installed first.
Dedicated octave Up/Down keys extend the range of the Oxygen8 to eight octaves, and most players will find these pretty important, as the two-octave keyboard is insufficient for playing anything other than a simple bass line or melody. To access the other functions, Midiman use an identical control system to that of Miditech's Midicontrol — a MIDI/Select button, three-digit LED display, and associated data-entry slider.
When you click on the MIDI/Select button it illuminates, and the LED display changes to 'Sel'. From this mode, you can then edit a variety of parameters using the musical keys. These include velocity offset, aftertouch, reverb depth, CC data (controller value), and volume, and once you've selected one, you then use the data-entry slider to alter the current value. Pressing the MIDI/Select button a second time returns to normal keyboard mode, where you can carry on using the slider to generate the same data in real-time while playing music, making it a handy third performance 'wheel'.
Also controlled from the keys in MIDI/Select mode are Flat and Sharp (to transpose up or down six semitones) and MIDI Reset. These operate immediately, while other key-controlled functions — MIDI Channel select, Program Change, Continuous Controller number, and Set Control — require further data-entry using the keys designated 0 to 9, along with Cancel and Entry, on the right-hand end of the keyboard. For instance, to generate Program Change 107, you would enter Program, 1, 0, 7, and Enter, while to generate controller 16 data you would enter Controller Number, 1, 6, and Enter, whereupon selecting CC Data will start generating this MIDI controller data when you move the data-entry slider.
By default, the eight rotary knobs above the right-hand end of the keyboard are mapped to MIDI controllers 10 to 17, but of course you can change these settings at will, using MIDI/Select, and then the Set Control key. This enters a mode where you first select which of the eight controls you want to set up, followed by the MIDI controller you want to allocate to it, and finally the MIDI channel number. The LEDs display 'n' (number), 'p' (parameter), and finally 'C' (channel) to confirm which stage you're at, but I did find this a rather tedious procedure, particularly with eight knobs to configure. Having some battery backed-up snapshot memories would have helped a great deal. As this review was being prepared to go to press, Midiman informed me that such a feature is being added to future shipments of the Oxygen8, with eight presets accessed via the Octave Up/Down buttons, each storing a set of eight knob allocations. There wasn't time to check this out on a new version of the keyboard before this review had to go to press, however, so it would pay to check that this feature has been included on any Oxygen8 you intend to try out or purchase.
Of course, most modern MIDI software allows you to map the default controller settings to anything else you desire on the way in, which makes life rather easier, since you can save the settings with each song. Software with a Learn mode, such as Native Instruments' Reaktor, makes allocation even simpler still — on a PC, you just click on the desired control in your software synth with the right mouse button, select the MIDI Learn option, and twiddle your choice of Oxygen8 knob.
The Oxygen8's 25-note keyboard has a light synth-style action as you might expect, but I found it fairly responsive, especially once I'd tweaked the velocity offset to suit my playing style. The extra keyboard functions took some getting used to, and I had to resort to monitoring the MIDI output using the MIDI-OX utility before I fully got my head round the various options. However, having done this, I found it an extremely useful addition to the studio.
If you're in the market for a keyboard with built-in MIDI controllers, the obvious competition is Miditech's Midicontrol, and Evolution's MK249C USB, both of which have a four-octave keyboard and 10 rotaries, but a higher price tag. If small size is a priority, Evolution's MK125 is now selling at around £50, but has no dedicated MIDI control knobs, although you can reassign its Mod wheel to generate any MIDI controller information.
In short, if you want a keyboard that will slot in almost anywhere, has both MIDI and USB support, and eight MIDI controller knobs, the Oxygen8 is the obvious (and very affordable) solution.