The new C16 offers 16 MIDI‑assignable control faders for the thoroughly reasonable price of £150. Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser love that feeling of control...
With a history that spans nearly 15 years, Philip Rees are one of the great survivors of the British music technology industry. While other small companies making useful peripherals have fallen by the wayside, Philip Rees have continued to manufacture their distinctive red‑and‑black liveried MIDI problem‑solvers. Their product line has ranged from MIDI mergers, switchers and multiple 'thru' units to tape synchronisers, MIDI line drivers and MIDI‑CV interfacing, one or more of which can be seen in many a home or project studio (there are six scattered about in ours). The average price of these neat little gizmos is well under £100 (though prices go as low as £13), they usually have built‑in power supplies (if power is required) and when treated with a modicum of care they seem to last and last (they're guaranteed for five years in any case).
The latest device to join the Philip Rees family is one for which there seems to be ever‑growing demand: a hardware MIDI controller. Such boxes are nothing new — they've been around for years and their usefulness has always been acknowledged — but a handful of factors have almost certainly influenced their recent huge rise in popularity. The first is the growth in the use of computer‑based musical equipment, including sequencers, digital recording programs, software synths and samplers. This brings us closer to the all‑software studio, but whatever the relative merits and demerits of this development, there can be few people who'd rather mess about with a mouse than have access to a set of intuitive, hands‑on knobs or faders. Almost equal in importance must be the widespread use of General MIDI/XG/GS sound modules that don't have their own physical controls. These instruments usually have a fully functioning synthesis engine — all they're missing is the knobs to access it easily. Finally, and crucially, there's been a dramatic reduction in the cost of adding a hardware controller to your setup — it's always difficult to get hard‑up musicians to part with much cash for something that doesn't actually make a noise. Amazingly, the early MIDI controller boxes from the '80s could cost as much as £1000, and though they eventually dropped in price, their cost got stuck at around the £3‑400 mark. Then, in 1998, the Keyfax Phat Boy broke through that barrier and the £150 MIDI controller was born. It offered knobs instead of faders, was essentially non‑programmable, and could control a maximum of 13 parameters at a time, but it was compact, easy to use, featured control templates for GM/XG/GS synths and the popular AWE soundcards, and didn't break the bank. Success was pretty much guaranteed.
Now that we're thoroughly up to date, where does the C16 fit into all this? Well, it's going head‑to‑head with the Phat Boy in terms of price (now available in a MkII version — see review in SOS October 2000), but it's not offering exactly the same approach. For a start, instead of knobs the C16 has faders; quite neat‑looking 60mm sliders which are a bit 'sticky' in their travel, but not unpleasant to use. And it crams in 16 of them, allowing 16 MIDI parameters to be controlled at the same time. Comparing well with the Phat Boy II's six, the C16 has 98 control templates, known as Targets in Philip Rees‑speak, which cover different synths, synth types and soundcards, plus some general setups. Finally, it has two user‑definable setups which let you assign any desired MIDI controller or SysEx string to each fader, rather than being obliged to tell your synth or software to respond to the fader box's fixed knob or fader assignments (not all synths are flexible enough for the latter to work).
Physically, the C16 has the Philip Rees family look and colours. It measures nine by five inches, packs its faders as close together as they can be while still remaining usable, and features a handy scribble strip along its front edge. Labelling across the top of the faders tells you which GM/XG/GS parameters are altered by each fader when GM/XG/GS templates are selected (see the 'Targets & Parameters' box on page 74 for a list). A MIDI channel selector knob is fitted to the top right corner, and there's a simple two‑digit LED display at top left which shows the current template number and flashes a small dot when MIDI data is being received or transmitted. A small yellow 'Target Select' button is used in conjunction with two of the faders for selecting templates. Another small yellow button, labelled 'Send All', causes a snapshot of all current fader positions to be transmitted; such a snapshot could be recorded within a sequence, to store quick patch edits.
The back panel is simple: a MIDI In connector plus an Out/Thru (both helpfully labelled upside down as well as right way up, so that they can be read while you're peering over the back of the unit), plus the two‑pin mains inlet (yes, the C16 scores more brownie points for its internal power supply). We don't usually talk about the underside of a piece of kit, but on this occasion, it's worth doing, because an abridged Target list is affixed there, giving slider assignments for a selection of the most popular instruments.
The C16 has a number of uses in the modern studio, including easy programming of synth sounds, real‑time control of hardware and software synth parameters (creating filter sweeps, altering envelope settings, and so on, perhaps as a sequence plays), and hardware control of software mixers, where onscreen faders are operated by hardware faders.
For anyone using a GM/XG/GS sound module, or one of the instruments covered by the many preset templates, getting up and running with the C16 is simply a matter of con necting it between master keyboard and the sound source to be controlled (in the case of a simple MIDI setup), or perhaps plugging it into a spare input of a multi‑port MIDI interface in a more sophisticated computer‑based setup. Select the relevant template, match the C16's MIDI channel to that of the target sound source, and then fader moves on the C16 will alter the relevant parameters on the sound source. As an example, the four Roland JV80/880/90/1000 templates control the same set of parameters for each of the four Tones that make up a JV patch, including Tone Level, LFO1 speed, LFO2 speed, pitch envelope depth, attack, decay, sustain, release, filter cutoff frequency, filter resonance, envelope depth, and filter tracking. This is invaluable for quick sound editing.
Operation is similarly straightforward if you're using one of the general‑purpose templates, such as the Quick MIDI Mixer. This template lets you use the C16's MIDI channel selector knob to switch between controlling volume, pan, reverb send level, chorus send level, variation effect send, expression and balance for 16 MIDI channels. Other general templates offer aftertouch control, mod wheel, pitch‑bend, and so on, again for 16 MIDI channels. XG/GS synth users will be happy to see the two specific effect‑editing templates the C16 offers.
Where the Target list doesn't include exactly what you're looking for, there are two options: if your synth allows it, you can remap the controller information generated by any C16 template to parameters of your choice; or you can create a whole new template to be stored in one of the C16's two user slots.
The latter can be done in one of two ways. The easy way, which currently is only available to Windows PC owners, is to use the C16 Editor software (which was at pre‑release v0.91 as we were writing this review). From what we can tell (we couldn't run it, as we're Mac users), this simple dedicated SysEx editor takes the pain out of telling the C16 which fader should do which job. It appears quite clear and straightforward, and also seems to offer a librarian function for saving custom templates.
The harder way to do the same job is via non‑dedicated software, such as a sequencer program that allows SysEx data to be edited. In this case, you would create a SysEx event defining the parameter assignment for each fader. The necessary SysEx tags for a given synth's parameters can be found in the MIDI implementation at the back of the synth's manual (shame the C16's odd and smudgily‑reproduced manual doesn't provide more help for those who need to take this route!). When a template is complete, hitting 'play' on the sequencer sends the SysEx data to the C16. If this all sounds too much like hard work, Mac users can hang on for the promised Mac version of the C16 Editor.
Using the C16 to control sequencer software mixer controls depends very much upon the sequencer. Some allow incoming MIDI controllers to be freely assigned to mixer elements — level and pan, for example — in the way that Cakewalk for the PC does. If your software doesn't let you do this, the Quick MIDI Mixer template might work; otherwise, you may find something amongst the generic templates. We discovered that template 24, transmitting on MIDI channel 16, controls the level faders for the first 16 channels (of any type) in the Pro Tools LE MIDI + audio software that comes with the Digidesign Digi 001 system. This is useful, since there's no easy way to assign controllers to faders and pan pots (Pro Tools uses dedicated drivers to talk directly to hardware controllers). The 001 has 24 audio channels, but by moving blocks of tracks around, one could use the C16 to control an entire Session.
Philip Rees are also making new templates available via their web site; two of the most recent at the time of writing provide control over level and pan for the first 16 channels of the audio mixer in Steinberg's Cubase VST.
The C16 is a really good addition to the Philip Rees range that also brings a welcome bit of competition to the budget end of the MIDI controller market. It's indisputably more flexible than the Phat Boy, offering programmability which the latter doesn't have, as well as a much larger number of preset templates (with more to come via the web site). It's possible that some people will prefer Phat Boy‑style knobs to faders, especially for controlling synths, but faders can be used for any sort of parameter alteration and certainly feel better for mixing. The C16 isn't up to the level of Kenton's rather pricier Control Freak, say, in terms of sophistication, and if you don't have a computer, you'll never be able to access its user templates, but let's not be too picky for 150 quid! The bottom line is that the C16 is a great, easy‑to‑use little box which can enormously improve the productivity and enjoyment of working with MIDI gear.
Other hardware controller options, directed more squarely at demanding power users, include Doepfer's Drehbank (reviewed SOS July '99), which has 64 knobs and eight CV inputs but costs £325, and the £449 Regelwerk (reviewed February '99), with 24 faders and 72 buttons, plus step‑sequencing powers. Also check out the £349 Peavey PC1600X (reviewed March '99) and the two Kenton Control Freaks (8‑ and 16‑channel, 8‑channel version reviewed November '98), at £249 and £299 respectively.
SELECTED C16 TARGETS
- Creative Labs' AWE32 soundcard.
- Alesis QS & Nanosynth.
- Emu Orbit.
- Emu Proteus series.
- Korg X2, X3, X5, 05RW, N1 & N5, NS5R, DW8000.
- Oberheim Matrix 1000.
- Roland JVs, JX8P, Alpha Juno 1&2, MKS80.
- Waldorf Pulse & Microwave.
- Yamaha 4‑operator & 6‑operator FM synths.
- Yamaha SY85 & TG100.
GM/XG/GS FADER ASSIGNMENTS
- Vibrato rate.
- Vibrato depth.
- Vibrato delay.
- Mod wheel.
- Variation effect depth.
- Some way for the display to indicate the values being output by a fader (so that, for example, it would be easier to bring a fader assigned to a pan pot back to the centre position).
- The ability to channelise the merged data from the MIDI In (produced by your main keyboard, for example) to the MIDI channel chosen with the C16 selector knob. As it is, if you want to play and tweak sounds on different MIDI channels, you have to make the change on your controller and the C16 (this isn't such an issue when using a sequencer, though, since most rechannelise all incoming data to the currently selected sequencer track).
- More user templates — some would happily sacrifice preset templates to get these.
- Compact and sturdy.
- Controls 16 parameters simultaneously.
- Lots of preset templates, with more coming via the web site.
- Two user‑programmable templates.
- Useful scribble strip.
- Internal PSU.
- Users without a computer can't create custom templates.
- Editing software PC‑only at present.
- More user template memories would be good.
- Faders a bit 'sticky'.
A budget controller with the valuable advantage of some programmability, plus a wide range of preset templates for popular instruments and applications. Offers far more than £150‑worth of creative and practical potential.