Archive for February, 2012
When it comes to working with loops and repetitive content in a live environment, there really isn’t anything easier to use than Ableton Live, particularly with any of the hardware controllers built for it. I just picked up the AKAI APC40. I chose it because I found their keyboard controllers to be substantially nicer than the much cheaper M-Audio ones, and figured the build quality would carry over. It did, and I’m pleased with the feel of the pads and knobs.
The best part is that Ableton is currently having an upgrade special. The Akai controller comes with a bundled version of Ableton Live “Lite”. After registering, it, I was offered the opportunity to upgrade to the Suite or full version for an extra $100 off the normal upgrade price. The bottom line is that this is the cheapest way to get Ableton and the controller. Buying the controller + the Suite is now only $50 more than buying the standard version + controller at regular prices.
If you are looking to jump into the world of Ableton Live, buying the controller and then upgrading directly on Ableton’s site is the best deal around until Feb. 29th. All of the major on-line retailers are sold out of the APC40, but my local music store had it at the same price, so that was a win-win.
Like all sophisticated software, I’ve got a learning curve ahead of me on how to leverage this tool, but the basics are very easy with the control surface, and I’ve got it triggering loops, etc. The controller looks complex, but is actually very simple. It allows one to control 40 loops on one surface, conveniently organized into five “scenes”. This allows me to individually change out clips, or launch 5 clips on a single button push. This allow multiple rhythmic and harmonic elements to fire at once, creating wonderfully rich backgrounds and environments. It is also a fully-featured live looping environment where new clips can be recorded on the fly and then manipulated with pre-planned loops.
As I mentioned in my initial review, the ability of the VAX77 to integrate with Mainstage was a significant consideration in my purchase of the controller. I use Mainstage as the host for a variety of Logic and external AU instrument, including Omnisphere. In this post, I’ll detail my experiences in setting up the VAX77 for use with Mainstage. Obviously Mainstage setup itself could fill a whole blog worth of posts, so this won’t be about Mainstage per-se, but about the interaction of the VAX77 and Mainstage.
The good news is that the VAX77 does indeed work very well with Mainstage, and the functionality advertised is delivered. I ran into a few minor setup issues to get everything working to my satisfaction. The manual for the VAX77 is fairly terse when it comes to Mainstage. Because they have done code integration work with Apple, the whole experience is pretty seamless from a VAX perspective. The manual’s instructions are pretty much along the lines of, “plug it in. it will work”.
When I plugged it into a default keyboard concert that ships with Mainstage, the included Rhodes patch played great. I was off to the races and lost 30 minutes exploring the action, which really is quite excellent, as noted in my review. When I tried adding Logic’s EV-B3 or Omnisphere, however, I could see the notes on the virtual keyboard move, but no sound would come out. The MIDI monitor at the top of the Mainstage screen indicated that data was coming it on ch16.
This is where I erred. There is a parameter mentioned in the manual that overrides the Mainstage default channel. The manual recommends setting it to “NONE”, but I found that if I changed it to “1”, then everything would work. If I set it to “NONE” or “16”, then only the Rhodes would work. A quick email to Infinite Response asking what I was doing wrong provided the answer. Incidentally this happened between Saturday evening and Sunday morning – definitely a great response time. Here’s what they told me:
“Setting host override to 1 is not the best way to do things.
MainStage tells the VAX77 to transmit on channel 16 during the handshake. In order to have your MainStage instruments recognize channel 16 you must set the channel on the left side of the MainStage edit screen for the keyboard and all controls and sliders. Highlight each one then look for the associated channel number, click on it and change it to either 16 or 1-16.”
I had changed the channel on the VAX, but what I needed to do was make the channel changes inside Mainstage. I reset the VAX77 override to “NONE” and opened up Mainstage to look at the various assignments. All of the main controls at the concert level for the hardware were correctly set to “1-16”, so they would receive on any channel. I did have to assign the virtual sliders on the VAX to the eight knobs, but that was easy with the “Learn” button. At this point, I had a working VAX77 on the EV-P instrument (Rhodes), but not on anything else.
As soon as I started looking through my other plugins in my main concert, the answer was right there – they were set to listen on MIDI ch. 1 as their “global” channel. My previous controller used ch1 as default, so I never had to set anything – it all just worked. Apparently some of the Logic AU instruments listen to anything, and others are particular and have to be set. The EV-B3 definitely listens to ch1 by default. As I went through each plugin and changed the MIDI channel to 16, everything fell into place. I edited all my presets and saved the concert.
In my personal concert I needed to adjust the keyboard size to fit the VAX77 and map the sliders, as I mentioned above, but other than that it works as advertised. For now, I have left the black key at the top as a program change “up” message.
I find that if I turn the VAX77 on first, then load Mainstage and my concert, everything works great. The VAX senses Mainstage and changes from the “Channel Selector” view of the built-in librarian to Mainstage automatically. My sets and patches are all listed and can be navigated via the touchscreen.
If I turn off the VAX while in Host Mode, leave Mainstage open, and then power the VAX back on, I end up in the Library mode and can’t get back to Host Mode and my concert. But, even if the VAX is in Library Mode, if I exit Mainstage and restart Mainstage (without power cycling the VAX), then I get back into Host mode. I presume that there is some handshake that happens when Mainstage starts that doesn’t occur if just the VAX restarts. In my testing, if I loose power to the VAX, I will also need to restart Mainstage to get everything back to normal. If I had to, and couldn’t afford to reload my patches in a set, I could spin the right side wheel to get to MIDI ch16, and then whatever is selected on my laptop screen in Mainstage is playable – I just loose the touchscreen. I could make that work if I had to until I had time to restart Mainstage. The moral of the story for me is to start Mainstage after the VAX, which is easy enough. It would be a very rare event to loose power to the VAX, independent of some other gig-altering events, as even the power cord is not exposed to foot traffic in my setup.
Edit: I’ve learned from Infinite Response that there is a very easy way to force the VAX and Mainstage to re-synch if there is a power event. If you power the VAX off while connected to Mainstage and then power it back on, you will note that your concert does not load automatically. A quick press of the blue button and it forces a resync, and everything is back to working in less than a second. Very, very fast. Very, very easy.
While the on-screen touch sliders are cool, they won’t be confused for the kind and quality of sliders you get on a current smartphone. I know I could map them as organ drawbars, but for me, they don’t really “drag” very well unless I use my little finger. I can, however, put any finger where I want the fader to be and it will jump. I am not primarily an organist, so I tend to have patches that are the sound I want, play them, and then do a program change to something else. If you are primarily an organ player, any of the numerous inexpensive knob/siider controllers can easily be mapped. The screen is not multi-touch, so if you like to grab a fistful of faders, this isn’t going to be your feature.
With a little aiming practice, I’m sure this would be usable for synth/parameter control . On the VAX’s touch faders, I can get smooth fades, but I don’t always “get the fader” on first try right now. My fingers are thin enough to play between the black keys, but I’m not yet comfortable that this is repeatably accurate for performance expression. I find that my little finger works pretty well, but none of my other fingers reliably grab the fader and move it smoothly. At the bottom of the fader’s travel I sometimes select the controller number instead of the fader itself. Perhaps the “error” zone around a fader needs to be larger. Many iPhone controls have a substantial “error zone” that makes it so a user can’t miss with long fingernails or such. (Not that long fingernails are common for keyboard players) For me this was not a purchase consideration. Since knob/slider controllers are well under $200, I doubt this is a serious downside for anyone purchasing a VAX.
It would be significantly cool if the VAX learned the parameter names from Mainstage and put them on the scribble strip for the faders. In fairness to Infinite Response; they only have two numbers there today, the MIDI controller numbers, so there isn’t much room. Maybe the names could be written vertically, superimposed on the fader track. When in fader mode, the fact that you don’t know what you are adjusting without counting controls on Mainstage renders it somewhat less useful. I suppose that just like a physical fader box, you could program everything so that the same slider controls cutoff, resonance, etc in all your patches and AU/VST’s, and then the lack of naming wouldn’t matter. Again, not a deal-breaker for me.
That said, the touchscreen is quite useful for selecting sounds in Mainstage and provides a great interface for setup. It has been completely intuitive, and works flawlessly. I don’t ever get the patch above or below what I think I’m selecting. The screen responds fast in the heat of a gig, and is intuitive. It is also easy to use to set up the VAX, and touching a parameter to adjust it is quite natural. This is a much better solution that a simple alpha/numeric display with some cryptic menu that you have to use the manual to understand.
Because I use Mainstage to host everything I play with the VAX, I will not be reviewing the built-in librarian. The VAX77 has flash memory that can store patches and MIDI setups for many external synthesizers, samplers, etc. You can load in patch name lists via midinam files, and even map out the virtual sliders to patches. It seems well-thought out enough, but this is not my world. In practice, you either use “Host Control” to use with Mainstage, Receptor, or some PC host I’m not familiar with, or you use their librarian software, but not both at once. Page 56 in the manual covers this in depth if you are in this situation and there are several options. I’ll leave it for someone who gigs with modules or hardware synths to cover the librarian, if they use it. It seems that MIDI is sufficiently flexible that there are any number of ways to change patches successfully in a stage rig, and it is a completely personal decision where you choose to keep your patch list.
What is strange is that I can make screens from the Librarian show up even if I am in Mainstage/Host Mode. If in Mainstage mode I press the green button, it opens the librarian patch selector. You can’t exit this mode without picking a patch, then deleting it and re-entering host mode. It took me a few minutes to figure out how to get out of this menu once in it. Given that Mainstage and Librarian are not recommended to be used together, I contacted Infinite Response and asked if this was by design, or could be changed. I got an immediate response back suggesting that a press of the green button send a user configurable control message. A 2-sec press-and-hold would enter the Library for some of their users that do use both in a set. This seems to accommodate the dedicated Mainstage user, gaining a useful button/eliminating a possible user error, as well as someone using racks of external synths. If Infinite Response implements this change, I’ll use the new button to start/stop a loop recorder or as a tap tempo. Infinite Response seems to be a very responsive company.
Overall, I have to say that using Mainstage with the VAX77 is easy and satisfying. The main thing is that the keyboard action is VERY expressive. This is the main point of a keyboard instrument. The patch selection via touchscreen works great, and there are (9) optional touch controls if you want to use them. I have a Korg Nanopad that I use for triggering Ultrabeat loops so that I don’t loose any of my VAX77 keys to triggering samples. It would be just as easy to add a knob/slider box for real-time parameter control if you were unhappy with the touch-faders. I’m sure they will work fine for many, but it will take more experience before I trust them for critical parameters. Physical knobs and sliders just work for some things…. I had a minor initial setup issue caused by not fully thinking through the VAX’s MIDI channel of 16, but that is nothing to hold against the controller or Infinite Response. You will want to do your own testing on various power and USB cable disconnect scenarios between the VAX and Mainstage, but I am satisfied that I can play my sets so long as I have power. I know how to get everything re-connected in Host Mode (push the blue button). You will spend far more time adjusting your Mainstage concert parameters and plugins to meet your musical goals than you ever will messing with the VAX and Mainstage. As the manual indicates, it just works.
Probably two years ago I purchased a Korg Nanopad (black) to mess around with drum stuff in Ultrabeat. I used it a bit, and then it was set aside for quite a while. I remembered it recently and thought that it would be perfect for triggering Ultrabeat loops from Mainstage, so that I don’t have to loose any keys on my VAX to triggering samples. My thought was to map one pad for tap tempo use, and the other 11 could be used to trigger samples.
This was a great plan until I plugged the Nanopad into my Mac. Every time I pressed a pad, I would get a seemingly random MIDI note, and even note triggering was sporadic. I tried downloading Korg Kontrol to remap the hardware. No improvement. I did notice that the octave designation is off by an octave between Korg Kontrol and Logic. When the Korg is set to A-2, it shows up in Logic as A-1. This is easy enough to get around, but if the triggers aren’t consistent and repeatable, what is the point?
I tried taking it apart to see if there was anything wrong, or maybe dusty, but that didn’t turn anything up. I tried touching the sensors directly, without the rubber pads, and it worked a little better, but still not 100%. Ultimately, I found this article which suggested peeling back the top sensor layer. I did that over the length of the whole controller since only one of my pads was working correctly and repeatably out of twelve. I made sure not to touch either the black material or the fine lines of the sensor grid. The film is quite sticky, so I used a small screwdriver to pry it up, taking care not to damage the traces.
As soon as I reseated the top film, everything worked fine. It makes me wonder if over time the top film adheres to the bottom film, and then it doesn’t work right any more. At any rate, I now have all twelve pads and the X-Y controller working as they should. Off to trigger samples!
Over the next several days, I’ll post my thoughts regarding the Infinite Response VAX77 keyboard controller. There isn’t a lot on-line about this controller yet, but I think a lot of professional and gigging musicians would love to use this board if they knew more about it. I recently purchased this keyboard and am starting to work it into my rig. I will be using it to perform live with a band, as well as my main keyboard controller for orchestral and choral composition in my writing studio. I ordered the shiny red one because I could! I’m not in a metal band where everything is black, so why not have it bright red? Guitarists get to have wild colors on their instruments, so I can too!
For me, the VAX held out several promises.
It folds in half and fits into a large backpack. That is a pretty cool party trick. Transporting 88 note controllers is no fun. They don’t fit across the back seat of an average car. They are seriously heavy and unwieldy in flight cases that actually protect them, and very long (about five feet). The VAX77 in its case easily fits into the trunk of a compact car, or behind the front seat. I play out 1-3 nights a week, and when you move gear all the time, portability is more than a “nice-to-have”. This is MUCH easier than struggling with an 88 note controller in a hard plywood flight-case.
It can fly as baggage with no weight penalty. With excess baggage fees at $100 or more, the roughly $1000 premium to a top 88 note controller like the Doepfer or any digital piano pays for itself in a couple trips. The fact that the VAX77 is suitcase sized, not coffin sized is also very significant when moving around. I carried a Steinberger guitar for years to be able to take music on the road. I did that because I couldn’t take a keyboard with me easily. Now I can take my primary instrument on the road, even on non-music trips. That is huge for me.
It was rumored to have extremely controllable action. This is of primary importance for me. As a pianist with access to a very well-maintained grand, I am used to being able to play expressively. My old controller would output MIDI values from 30-127. Nothing softer, and the midrange was uncontrollable. One note at 43, the next at 87. It was kind of “on” or “off”, and regular pianistic playing averaged 100-127 when set on the “hardest” velocity curve. This makes good piano samples sound horrid as it plays the extreme “loud” samples of the piano, not the singing mid-volume tones. I had grown to HATE that controller as a result.
The VAX has a spring-loaded action, not a “hammer action” like keyboards that attempt to mimic a grand piano action. If you want to feel the escapement action of a piano, this is not for you. Look at a dedicated digital piano if you want “as close to piano as possible”. For me, that was a non-goal: when I want a piano, I turn around in my studio and play one. What I needed was a master controller with great expressive control for playing live and manipulating orchestral samples in the studio. For me, controllability far outweighs emulating a piano, and within 5 minutes, I completely forgot that I wasn’t on my piano and was playing music with similar dynamic control to what I enjoy on my acoustic piano.
That said, the VAX77 is easily the most control I’ve had on a keyboard synth/controller. I ordered mine with the “heavy” action, and the touchweight seems lighter subjectively than my Steinway, though it would measure in the same ballpark. There is progressive resistance, however. When connected to my laptop, it is fantastic. I can play from MIDI 1 to 127. Realistically in real playing, my softest playing is in the 10-15 range, and it takes substantial effort to hit 127 – just like a real piano. To get max volume on a real piano takes specific intent. It doesn’t happen by accident. That is definitely the case on the VAX77. I found that I got the best response with the velocity map on the lightest setting! That’s a first on any controller. Usually as a pianist, one is searching for the heaviest map available. The usable range without starting to really dig in seems to be from 15-100, which is a very wide range compared to my previous experiences on other keyboards. I’m sure as I learn the instrument and the velocity maps that I’ll be able to tune this response. The values from 100-127 are definitely available, so don’t think they are somehow not there. You just have to play harder- just like an acoustic instrument. You won’t be accidentally triggering the loudest samples of your piano instrument with this keyboard on a ballad! You can easily play soft chords at a MIDI velocity of 30. I found that I turned the volume up a lot more on my rig because I could play softly and under control, and not worry about stray notes triggering poking out of the overall dynamic.
The keys can be set to trigger like organ keys at the very top of their travel. Even in normal mode, they trigger before the key bottoms, so it is like playing off the repetition of a grand – you can FLY up and down the keyboard playing lightly. Of course, in a real grand, the repetition only lightens the load if you are repeating one note. On the VAX, you can scream up and down the keyboard with this feel. If you are a prog rock keyboard player, this is your instrument – speed is not a problem. If you got the light action, I can’t image a faster, more controllable action to play on. Seriously shredderific if you play in those styles. If you are playing a piano sound, though, the feeling of playing into the bottom of the keys is there – you don’t feel like it is triggering early – you only notice that playing slowly to find where it triggers.
Control sensitivity extends to the modulation slider and pitch bend wheel. The pitch bend wheel seems to be in a strange location until you use it. It falls immediately to hand, and you brace your hand on the end-cap of the keyboard in a very natural way, letting you have fine, fingertip control over the wheel. There is good resistance, and fine bends are possible. The modulation slider allows very small movements and adjustments. This is critical to working with orchestral libraries where the mod wheel is the primary volume control and what is used to trigger the velocity layers of an instrumental sample.
The slight texture on the keys provides a good feel. It is a very subtle texture and hard to put into words, but you get a little “grip” on the keys, and they give an interesting sensation when you touch them. My kids kept wanting to feel the keys. Both the black and white keys have this texture on them.
The VAX is fully compliant with the next-gen MIDI stuff and it samples the keyboard and controls at a much higher rate than MIDI’s 127 levels. It can use MIDI extensions to transfer this information to things like the PianoTeq modeled piano via the USB interface. This is many times faster and has much higher bandwidth than MIDI. I presume that over the next several years, many other synth and sample vendors will take advantage of this spec.
High quality construction. The VAX77 is not cheap like a mass-produced synth. It is not expensive in musical instrument terms, but still expensive enough that one expects it to be ideal, not merely “suitable”. The fit and finish are excellent. It is shiny like a new car. This is a painted magnesium alloy chassis, not plastic or fiberboard. It exudes quality.
Mainstage integration. When I play live, I use my MacBook Pro and Apple’s Mainstage to host my sounds, samples, and loops. The touchscreen on the VAX offers seamless integration with Mainstage, and the volume control and patch selection knob just work right out of the box. This is huge for me and works in a way that works for me.
Polyphonic Aftertouch. For me this is a nice bonus. As a composer, it is not a critical feature, but one that I’ll use with synths and playing live. It definitely expands the envelope with what is possible, and gives me more instrument to master. This is an instrument that you can develop technique on. It supports purposeful practice for expressive purposes and is not just a slab with a familiar key interface. Musical expression is available to the limit of your technique.
Gobs of pedal inputs. It can use a continuous sustain pedal – I bought a pair of Yamaha FC-3’s to go with the instrument. There are four pedal inputs, so given a volume/expression pedal, and sustain, there are still two more pedals for patch changes, or other use.
Downsides. If there is any downside to the VAX77 for a pianist/composer, it is that the keyboard doesn’t have 88 notes. For me, folding in half and going on planes easily outweighs the usefulness of the top octave. More important to me is that the bottom octave is correct – that is where most of the keyswitches are in orchestral libraries. The octave up/down switch on the front panel can be mapped to a pedal, and with a little practice, switching that octave can be done on the fly. It really isn’t that big a deal. Harp players deal with far more difficult pedaling to adjust their instruments while playing. My Steinway is actually an 85 note instrument, and I’ve never missed those three keys – they were added to Steinways three years after my piano was made in 1887! So loosing a few more is not a deal-breaker given that I can easily adjust the octave.
I can also tell that I am going to have to be careful with the VAX if I want to preserve the pretty paint on the bottom of the keyboard. It does have rubber feet that keep it off a flat surface. But a typical keyboard stand will directly contact the paint. I haven’t thought through this part very much yet, but will take a look at what happens on my X-stand and A-stand and figure something out.
Since I purchased the keyboard, I clearly believe that these downsides are minor compared to the upside. The VAX will not be going back, and I am looking forward to learning how to harness the expressive potential of the instrument. The good news is that like any acoustic instrument, there is enough control over the mechanism to develop technique specific to the controller. That is important to me because as a performing musician, I need to be able to practice a part until it is repeatable, and I need to know that my instrument will respond consistently to what I intend.
In the next set of posts on the VAX, I’ll discuss integration with my computer rig and how I get along with it playing out.
Today I get to try out several new capabilities. One is the video output of my little Canon S95 point-and-shoot, and the second is an unboxing video of my new keyboard. In decent diffuse outdoor lighting, the video is quite decent. 720p24 for those of a video bent – all handheld by my kids with no stabilization or noise reduction. Pretty impressive.
The video shows the unboxing of my new keyboard controller, the Infinite Response “VAX-77”. It is a 77-note keyboard with the interesting feature of folding in half! (It is 76 “normal keys” starting from the bottom of a piano keyboard and an extra key at the top end that can be mapped as a controller, or used to play a note)
When used with the flight case that I ordered with it, it weighs less than 50 lbs and can be checked as regular luggage to anywhere in the world. You CAN’T do that with a typical controller that a) doesn’t fold, and b) weighs 45-50 lbs without a case. Those instruments end up weighing 70 lbs or more in a case heavy enough to protect them.