Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review: Korg Nano controllers

I recently picked up all three of the Korg Nano line of controllers -- the Nanokey mini keyboard, the Nanopad drum pads, and the Nankontrol control surface. All three controllers are USB devices that draw their power from the USB bus (there is no provision for self-powering). They are packaged in usefully small, slim, and reasonably light-but-not-too-light cases. They all have rubber feet and will stay put when placed on a smooth hard surface. I purchased all three with white cases; the Nanokontrol and the Nanopad are also available in black. All three devices are about 13" (32 cm) long and 3" (8 cm) from front to back. The Nanokey and Nanopad are about 1/2" (1 cm) tall; the Nanokontrol is somewhat taller.

All three devices came with USB cables. The devices are supposed to be class compliant, but Korg supplies specific drivers for Windows XP/Vista/7 and Mac OSX, and they strongly recommend using their drivers with XP and Vista. Korg also supplies Windows and OSX versions of their configuration editor, a single application that edits all three devices. The editing application is required to set up and configure the devices; it can't be done using the controls on the devices themselves.

Top to bottom: the Nanokontrol, the Nanokey, and the Nanopad.

The Nanokontrol is a general-purpose MIDI control surface, that could be used as, for example, a synth patch editor or as a mixing board for DAW software. It boasts a complement of nine "channels" and six tape transport function buttons. Each channel consists of a fader with a throw of about 40mm, an encoding knob, and two function buttons. This physical organization does not mean that the controls in a channel are restricted to related functions. Each control can be individually programmed to send any desired combination of MIDI Controller or NRPN messages, within any given range of values.

I was pleasantly surprised by how smoothly the faders operated. At this price point, you aren't going to get Penny & Giles quality, but the faders are as good as those on most semi-pro mixers and better than some. The physical feel is good, and the MIDI output is nicely linear without any dithering or jitter. The knobs feel a bit stiff by comparison, but I suspect they will get better with use. They too produced smoothly linear output. The buttons can be programmed to be either momentary (sends an "on" value when pressed and an "off" value when released), or toggle (sends an "on" value on one press, and an "off" value on the next press). They have a reasonably good tactile feel and I didn't notice any misses or double hits.

The left end of the Nanokontrol, showing the transport buttons, the first two channels, and the scene select button and indicators.

The transport controls are legended as being rewind, play, fast forward, return/cue, stop, and record. They can, however, be programmed to send any MIDI Controller messages you want, so they don't have to be used for the indicated purpose. They can also be set to send MIDI Machine Control (MMC) messages; however, in this mode, you get no choice about which specific messages the buttons send. That's fine for most stand-alone recorders and sequencers; most of them use the MMC messages as defined. Many DAW packages do not recognize MMC messages; you have to set up Controller messages to do the functions and then program the buttons to those messages. So the ability to program the buttons on the Nanokontrol to send Controller messages gives it an advantage over, for instance, most Akai MPC/MPD devices, whose transport controls can only send MMC. Each button has an internal LED that lights the button when pressed. It would have been nice if Korg had provided some means for turning these LEDs on and off by sending them MIDI messages, so that the controlled device could use them to indicate the current mode.

The Nanokontrol's internal memory holds four "scenes", or sets of configurations. Each scene can contain a completely different configuration. So, for example, you could set Scene 1 to send MIDI messages to control the mixer in your DAW; Scenes 2 and 3 to edit particular synths, and Scene 4 to be performance controls for a soft synth. The editor application can load and save scene sets from/to a disk file on the computer.

Nanokontrol verdict: An incredibly handy and useful multi-purpose MIDI controller. Great for almost anything you'd need a control surface for.

The Nanokey is a two-octave, velocity sensitive mini keyboard. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much out of the Nanokey based on previous experience with mini keyboards, but the Nanokey is surprisingly playable. The feel is not great but decent -- the keys do actually have enough travel that it doesn't feel like you are playing a hard touch surface. And they keep up with fast playing without missed notes. There are certain playing techniques, such as blues notes, that are difficult because of the layout of the keys -- the white keys do not extend between the black keys, and the black keys are not positioned noticably higher than the white keys. Then again, if the white keys had been done in the conventional manner, the black keys would be ridiculously thin. As it is, the keys are a good width for a player with big fingers (like me) to play without constantly bumping adjacent notes. That's no mean feat on a device this small.

The key velocity sensors are a bit sensitive; a soft touch is required to produce velocity values much below the maximum. Three velocity response curves are available, but I didn't notice much difference between them. A fixed velocity can be programmed. The key feel is a bit "clicky", somewhat like an old IBM typewriter keyboard; it's not unpleasant, but it may be disconcerting to players accustomed to weighted or heavily damped keys.

A small contol panel at the left end contains octave shift up/down buttons. The keyboard can be shifted up to five octaves in either direction, which means it can cover the entire MIDI note range. Two LEDs change color to indicate which octave the keyboard is on; it's a very effective system once you get used to it. Like many small keyboards, the Nanokey has buttons that simulate the action of pitch and modulation wheels. A pair of pitch up/down buttons can be set up so that when the button is pressed, the pitch bends up or down a configurable amount at a configurable rate; it goes back to zero when the button is released. The modulation button behaves similarly.

The left end of the Nanokey. The three LEDs above the buttons indicate octave shift down, octave shift up, and keyboard CC mode engaged. The "Korg" logo lights up when power is applied.

The final button on the control panel is the "CC Mode" button. When this is engaged, the keyboard sends Controller messages instead of note messages. One use for this is to "play" the value of a parameter, such as a filter cutoff frequency. You could set up the Nanokey above a conventional keyboard, and play a melody on it while using the Nanokey to "play", say, the cutoff frequency of a filter.

Nanokey verdict: Don't rely on this as your main keyboard. However, it's great for playing notes and chords to try out patches while you edit a synth, or step-entering melodies into a sequencer. It's fine for adding simpler backing parts to a song. It's easy to move around the studio. And as noted, you can use the CC Mode to "play" synth parameters while you play a melody on another keyboard.

The Nanopad is a drum pad controller with 12 finger-playable pads and an X-Y control surface a la the Electribe series. The pads are velocity sensitive and can be set up to play notes, generate Controller values, or sending program change messages. The X-Y surface can generate a Controller value for each axis, and can also generate Controller messages on touch and release, with a programmable "envelope generator" to contour the response.

There are two function buttons which work with the X-Y pad to produce effects typical of how drummers play. Pressing either the "Flam" (double stroke) or the "Roll" button engages that mode, but the effect will actually occur only when the X-Y pad is being touched while a drum pad is played. In the "Flam" mode, the vertical position on the finger on the pad determines the velocity of the second stroke. In the "Roll" mode, the vertical position on the finger on the pad determines the rate of the roll, and the horizontal position sends pitch wheel messages. When either Flam or Roll is engaged, the normal configuration of the X-Y pad is overriden. A third button, "Hold", has nothing to do with drum effects; it just holds the last position on the X-Y pad when you take your finger off the pad.

Like the Nanocontrol, the Nanopad holds four scenes, which must be configured using the editor software. A button on the panel selects a scene, and LEDs indicate which scene is active.

The Nanopad's control area and X-Y pad.

Unfortunately, this is as far as I can go with the Nanopad review, because the unit I received was defective: most of the pads are very erratic, and two of them don't work at all. Hopefully this is just an anomaly, and when I receive a replacement, I'll fill in some playing impressions.

Verdict: Review incomplete. Seems like a nice device, with very flexible configuration options.


Max said...

Great picking up a nanokontrol!

Exellent blog, read it alot

Had to print out the stuff you wrote on v-synth, best review on that synth ever

Dave Cornutt said...

Thanks, Max!