In what I hope will be a recurring theme, here's a story about three unexpectedly useful MIDI gadgets that won't break the bank. Don't let their diminutive price tags put you off; there's a wealth of music-making potential lurking underneath.
Each instrument costs less than $300 on the street. (Like cars, musical instruments are usually sold at negotiated discounts.) Two of these instruments make sound; all three can function as MIDI controllers, triggering and shaping sounds on a computer or external MIDI sound module. (For more on MIDI control, see "Look Ma—Hands! Choosing and Using MIDI Controllers" as well as the "MIDI Guitar 101" sidebar.)
To make things interesting, I decided to try a MIDI drum set, guitar/bass, and keyboard. Yep—if you're a Youngbloods fan, you can outfit the whole band for under $900!
The Yamaha DD-55C Digital Percussion controller combines sampled drum and percussion sounds with a beat box and drum triggers. It offers more MIDI functionality than you might expect in a device sold in big-box discount stores.
As an old MIDI guitar fan (old in both senses of the word, I'm afraid) I found the Yamaha EZ-AG EZ-Guitar intriguing. Here's a product aimed squarely at the kiddie market that doubles as a MIDI guitar controller.
And despite its compact size and price, the Alesis Photon X25 keyboard controller is no toy, either. In fact, I've rarely found a MIDI controller with as much power and flexibility at any price.
In the playful spirit of this roundup, I decided to rate these three on a coolness scale of one to five ice cubes. Like a good song, let's start with the foundation.
The Yamaha DD-55C stereo-sampled drum kit.
There's something addictive about drums. Face it, at some time or other you've probably sat down at a drum set and flailed away. Not easy, is it? How do those drummers coordinate all four limbs to produce those primal beats?
Although the DD-55C isn't a full-fledged trainer, it has a number of features to teach you how to play drums. You can play along with a metronome or 100 fully orchestrated songs. You can mute individual drum parts or the backing tracks to concentrate on one hand (or foot) at a time. You can play back through the stereo speakers or use headphones (not included) for silent practice. You can unplug the power adapter and pop in a handful of D-cell batteries so you can play down by the lake. Heck, Yamaha even throws in a sturdy set of sticks.
Experienced drummers will quickly take to the simple layout: seven velocity-sensitive pads plus footswitches for kick and hi-hat. (In the default kits the central pad changes from open to closed hat depending on the position of the left-hand footswitch, a nice touch.)
The DD-55C's 211 drum and percussion voices cover all the usual bases: rock, dance, jazz, electronic, and Latin sounds, plus the ever-popular whip snap. Each sound, along with 22 sequences (short fills and phrases) is easily assigned to any drum pad. Likewise, you can configure how each pad responds to velocity (how hard you bang on it), as well as what MIDI info is transmitted. All well and good, but why-oh-why is there only a solitary user memory location to store your custom kit?!
Digital drums stand or fall on the quality of the samples. So how does the DD-55C stack up? Not badly, actually:
Overall, I'd put the samples on a par with most inexpensive drum machines. But don't forget you'll naturally vary the velocity and rhythmic feel as you play the pads. With a little practice you'll get quite realistic results.
The DD-55C's 10 "Sequence Kits" are perfect for lazy drummers. With a fixed pattern of drum sounds on each pad, all you have to do is hit something in rhythm to sound like a true drum monster.
The following two audio examples each resulted from a single pad strike:
Because I'm not a drummer, I liked the way the DD-55C guided my practice. I dialed up one of the easier songs, muted just the prerecorded kick drum, and started getting my right foot in gear. After a couple of passes, I added the snare and finally the hi-hat. I have to admit I was grinning like a puppy in a milkbone factory. This is fun!
Now that I can play, it's time to make a record, right? Even though there are two buttons plainly labeled "Record" and "Start/Stop," the record function took some getting used to. Instead of letting you record and save your own new songs, it's intended as a practice tool.
Here's how it works: after building up my chops by playing along with song number 10 (the euphoniously titled "Hard Rock—Easy") for a few minutes, I punched "Record" and played along. The playback included the original backing tracks and my pathetic attempts to coordinate my feet and hands. No more drummer jokes for me; this stuff's hard!
After a few more tries—and judicious use of the tempo control to slow the rate to a more humane setting—I started to get the hang of it. Okay, so Steve Gadd doesn't have to watch his back. But I bet I could actually learn how to play drums well enough to sequence simple parts using this thing.
I wish Yamaha had thought to provide a stand adapter for the DD-55C; finding a comfortable playing position is a chore. QuikLok sells a dedicated stand, something I'd suggest investing in.
The DD-55C is a great little drum trainer with a decent set of sounds. Ah, but plug in a MIDI cable and you can trigger millions of percussion samples on computers or external devices. (To connect to a computer, you'll also need a MIDI interface, which bridges the DD55C's five-pin MIDI jack to a USB or FireWire connector. Simple USB MIDI interfaces cost about $50.)
If you already play drums, you'll appreciate the way the DD-55C lets you interact with your software. Instead of tapping in hits on tiny drum pads—or, worse, on a keyboard—you get decent-sized pads to whack away at. Sure, the two pedals don't have the feel of the real thing, but they do let you use your skills.
For the rest of us, there's something pretty dang satisfying about hitting a drum instead of tapping one. Set the velocity just right and you can use your hands, too. I even tilted the instrument sideways and wailed away with my bodhran tipper.
That said, the DD-55C's user interface is a drag. Get ready for lots of head scratching and button pushing if you want to create your own drum kit with custom MIDI note numbers and velocity response. And remember, you only get one user kit; if you use multiple sample libraries you'd be better off matching the software to the DD-55C's defaults.
Customizing the DD-55 from its front-panel controls is tough.
One final note: the only way to replace the song data is via Yamaha's "Song Filer" utility, available as a download at www.yamahaPKclub.com. I wish I could tell you how it works, but I can't. You see, Yamaha hasn't updated the utility since the Dark Ages and it won't run on any of my Macs. But if you are running Mac OS 7.5-9.2 (not Classic) or Windows 95/98/2000 or XP, you can try it and let me know.
All well and good, but how cool is the DD-55C? Let's see how it rates on the Cool-O-Meter.
Cool: The seven velocity-sensitive triggers feel good to this amateur, and I applaud Yamaha for the nice way the hi-hat trigger works in concert with the foot switch. Although I was originally put off by the sorta cheesy sound of the preset songs, they do offer a nice variety for practice and training.
Not Cool: Clumsy user interface. Audio output is on a single 1/4" TRS (stereo) jack. Tweaking MIDI parameters is a chore. Way not cool: there's only a single user kit!
Surprisingly Cool: Start with a decent set of MIDI drum triggers complete with foot pedal for under three Franklins. Toss in a decent set of samples, hand-percussion playing mode, a General MIDI (GM) sound module for playing back your sequences, and some oddly compelling training tools and you've got a Surprisingly Cool MIDI Controller.
I rate the DD-55C a solid three cubes.
Looking like the mutant offspring of an acoustic guitar and an escalator, Yamaha EZ-AG has six rows of buttons running down the 12-fret neck, and short unpitched strings running across the soundhole...er, speaker. This is not your average guitar!
The EZ-AG and its sibling, the EZ-EG (as in "Electric Guitar) are intended as learning aids teaching very basic guitar skills. But that's not what makes the EZ-AG Surprisingly Cool: plug in a MIDI cable and you've got a credible MIDI controller that plays like a guitar and costs a fraction of what the competition does.
More on that in a moment; first I want to talk about the EZ-AG in its role as a tutor.
The EZ-AG is also available in an electric-guitar shape, the EZ-EG. (Click here to zoom in on the controls.)
The EZ-AG is loaded with 25 songs and practice patterns, complete with drums, bass, melody, and more. While they play, buttons on the first six frets light up to indicate the chord positions. Strumming the six mini strings triggers the chords, or you can tap the fingerboard.
Onboard sounds range from acoustic and electric guitars to basses, piano, banjo, and shamisen. Cool bonus feature: you can choose a virtual capo (±12 half steps) or four alternate tunings: Drop D, Open D, Open G, and Open E. Juice comes through a wall-wart power adaptor, or you can pop in six AA batteries and head for the beach.
Songs include pop staples such as "Day Tripper," "Stand By Me," and "Tears in Heaven." The "Patterns" are standard chord progressions such as
I-Vim-Iim-V7 (in this case
G-Em-Am-D7). I applaud the variety, but notating chord progressions using Roman numerals might be confusing to beginning guitarists. Heck, I have advanced guitar students who don't understand the concept.
As anyone who has struggled to learn guitar knows, the hardest part is coordinating chords with strums. Yamaha's EZ guitar system breaks down the process, so you can practice strumming without worrying about your left-hand fingering. (Yes it's a right-handed guitar. Lefties must make do with either playing right handed or flipping the axe upside down à la Libba Cotton.) Likewise you can work on just the chords before bringing both hands into play. You can also vary the tempo while you practice.
You'll find chord charts for all the songs at the back of the manual so you can learn the names as you play (see Figure 1).
Fig. 1: This chord chart comes with the EZ-AG. The actual size is still minuscule; I'd suggest making an enlargement—or buying a jeweler's loupe.
Keyboard trainers with lighted keys have been around for a while, and there's even a precedent for guitars with fingerboards that light up. But can someone learn to play in this way?
To test the concept I handed to EZ-AC to a random sampling of adult non-guitarists who happened to be in my studio at that particular moment. Greg, who plays brass and bass for a living, caught on very quickly. Between giggles he said, "I think I could learn to play chords with this." My wife Annie liked that she could isolate her strumming, but she found it confusing to figure out which fingers to use to play the chords. Sadly, the manual doesn't offer much help.
As a teaching tool, the EZ-AG falls short. The songs are too hard for rank beginners and there are no lessons or instructional materials to guide you. Still, it might be just the ticket for getting Junior or Junette interested in playing the guitar before you spring for lessons.
Back in the day when MIDI guitars were cool (see the MIDI Guitar 101 sidebar), the coolest of the cool was the Yamaha G10. This sleek black monster made no sound of its own; it employed ultrasonic and optical sensors to figure out what you played, transmitting a flurry of MIDI information to a synthesizer or sampler.
Consider the Yamaha EZ-AG Guitar a distant cousin. Yep, the little guy's a MIDI guitar controller, and not a bad one at that. The EZ-AG sends MIDI data on six channels—one per, um, string/switch-path thingie. Picking the short strings adds velocity info. But here's the cool part: tapping the frets sends out low velocity note-on messages, too. Depending on how you set the receiving device, you could use this for all kinds of things—layering sounds, crossfades, or realistic hammer-ons and pull-offs. For some reason, you can't pull-off to an open string, by the way.
MIDI implementation is a tad odd, to say the least. The EZ-AG can transmit a number of Control Changes, including Program Change, Bank Select, Volume, Pan, and Portamento. But there's no obvious way to do any of it. (The slightly more expensive EZ-EG has a whammy bar for pitch bends.) Help's on the way: a growing cadre of EZ-Guitar enthusiasts on the web has developed hacks to utilize these hidden MIDI potentials (see the Links).
Because the switches are always active, it's very easy to generate false triggers—short duration, low-velocity notes that are the bane of MIDI guitarists. (See Figure 2.) Oddly, the EZ-AG spits out a stream of SysEx (System Exclusive MIDI data) as you play. I'm afraid I haven't a clue why, as I opted to configure my software to filter it out instead.
Fig. 2: The highlighted note has a velocity of 16 (out of 127) and a duration of 25 ticks—about 52 thousandths of a beat. (Click to enlarge.)
It's all too easy to accidentally start one of the practice songs if you play around the 12th fret, even with Local Control off (i.e., with the internal sound generator disconnected). The good news is that changing the tuning does affect the MIDI output, which is handy for scoring songs in alternate tunings.
The only way to load or delete the play-along songs is with Yamaha's Song Filer app. As I mentioned in the DD-55C review, a sizeable portion of the computer world can't use it.
Quibbles aside, the EZ-AG works just fine as a MIDI controller. Check out the following example, a fingerpicked county blues as played on an electric piano sound.
So how does the EZ-AG stack up on Uncle Mark-o's Cool-O-Meter?
Cool: It's pretty addictive, actually. I keep grabbing it and noodling around when I should be doing something productive. Although the light-up-frets approach isn't the ideal way to teach guitar, I think it's a good practice tool for older kids. The virtual capo and alternate tunings are nice additions.
Not Cool: Boy howdy, does the neck feel flimsy! Simply playing an F chord bends and twists it out of shape to an alarming degree. Only the first six frets light up when you touch them, which gets distracting as you play up the neck. There's no real lesson plan. Most of the songs are too hard for beginning students. You can't pull-off to an open string. Songs don't include lead practice.
Surprisingly Cool: It's a MIDI guitar controller that doesn't break the bank. Yamaha could sell a ton of these if they crowed loudly about the MIDI features. Oh, did I mention it's got a complete General MIDI sound bank, too?
I give it two Ice Cubes.
Time to wire up the rest of the band. The Alesis Photon X25 combines a remarkably full-featured keyboard controller with a USB audio and MIDI interface. It sports 25 full-size, synth-action keys and a full battery of programmable knobs and switches for MIDI continuous controller data. It runs on USB bus power, batteries, or an optional power adapter. It's small enough to toss in a gig bag with a laptop for a dandy live rig. It's compact, sturdy, looks great, and the buttons and mod wheel light up the same color as the gauges on a Mini Cooper. And it's got this keen infrared AXYZ Dome that responds to your hand position for three-way MIDI control! Yep, I'm reaching for the ice bucket already.
The Alesis Photon X25 is a 24-bit audio interface as well as a MIDI controller.
Software instruments are great, but editing them with a mouse doesn't cut it. The X25's 10 rotary encoders (endless knobs) and 10 buttons give you instant access to any software or hardware parameter that supports MIDI Control Change data. Toss in full-size Pitch Bend and Mod wheels, jacks for sustain and expression pedals, and the hip AXYZ dome, and you've got some potent control indeed.
And that's only the beginning, because the knobs and buttons have three independent layers. So knob 1 might tweak the filter cutoff frequency in layer 1, change the envelope attack in layer 2, and adjust the effects balance in layer 3.
But wait! There's more! Not only do you get three programmable layers, but act today and we'll thow in 20 library locations to store all of the individual assignments! And, as a special bonus, we'll include 14 presets for popular software like Propellerhead Reason, Native Instruments FM-7 and Pro 53, Steinberg Cubase, MOTU Digital Performer, and Ableton Live! Wait, don't touch that dial...
Seriously, the X25 affords a huge amount of control in a very compact space. And don't be put off by the two-octave keyboard; you can switch it up or down (plus or minus three octaves) at the touch of a button. Because the majority of my keyboard work consists of laying down bass lines or entering simple chords in step time—yes, my keyboard chops really are that lame—the Photon's keyboard fits the bill nicely. I really appreciate having full-size keys to match my full-size fingers.
When it comes to expression, keyboardists have it tough. Other instrumentalists can bend, slur, add vibrato, and twist a note into shape in myriad ways. Sure, your average MIDI keyboard's got pitch and mod wheels, and maybe aftertouch and an input for an expression pedal. But where's the drama in that?
Enter the AXYZ. Wave your hand in space and amazing things happen to the sound. The dome controller senses motion in three planes—left-right, front-back, and vertical—and translates the movement into three MIDI Control Changes of your choice.
A little deft programming yields astonishing effects. Use the dome to crossfade between samples, change filter parameters, add theremin-esque vibrato, or just about anything you can imagine. Talk about instant gratification!
Figure 3 and the MP3 example below give you a taste, but this is one of those times when you really have to experience it for yourself.
Fig. 3: The top pane shows how I changed the level of three MIDI parameters over time by waving my hand near the AXYZ Dome. (Click to enlarge.) The bottom shows the audio file being processed.
For more conventional control, use the 10 continuous knobs and 10 buttons. You can assign virtually any MIDI message to any of them—and don't forget you have three layers. Not enough? Add a momentary footswitch and expression pedal. Buttons are useful for both momentary data (like triggering a sound effect) or toggling a loop on or off. The cool lighting scheme helps you keep track: in trigger mode buttons flash when pressed; in toggle mode they glows red when turned on. Speaking of lighting, both the pitch and mod wheels glow more intensely as you push them to the limits. Sweet!
All of this control comes at a price: expect to do a lot of programming to wrangle the Photon into line. But you may only have to do it once, because there are 20 preset locations to store your assignments. You can upload the whole schmeer, or any part, to your computer over USB for safekeeping.
Alesis includes a healthy dose of presets (complete with printed templates to stick next to the controllers) for popular programs like Live, Cubase LE, Sonar, and several software instruments. But I found that few worked as advertised and some didn't work at all. According to Alesis, the presets were designed for earlier versions of the software. I guess you can't stop progress, but it would be cool to offer current presets as downloads. (Check Alesis's SysEx download page for updates.)
The Photon X25 acts as a simple one-in/one-out USB MIDI interface. The MIDI Out port is smart: hook up a USB cable and the MIDI Out passes MIDI data from your computer. With no USB cable connected it sends data from the keyboard. Slick.
Audio in and out chores are handled by pairs of 1/4" TRS jacks; both balanced and unbalanced connections are supported. The Photon slaves to your DAW's sample rate—as long as it's 44.1 or 48kHz. However, if you want 16 bits you're out of luck, because the Photon only passes 24-bit audio. If you do record at 16-bit resolution, the Photon simply chops off the last 8 bits rather than dithering them down to the lower resolution.
Many audio engineers feel truncating bits in this manner is a bad thing, but I'm not sure it's a problem for the Photon's users. I found the audio interface to be on a par with most other USB interfaces: it works, it sounds just fine, and it's dang convenient. If you want audiophile audio, use audiophile gear.
You'll need a mixer or preamp to use microphones, though I did plug in an electric guitar with no ill effects. Direct monitoring is available to compensate for latency, the amount of time it takes your software to process incoming audio and spit it back out. In other words, the Photon can pass the audio you're recording directly to the keyboard's hardware output, so you hear it without groove-squashing delay.
Kudos to Alesis for cramming so much functionality into such a small package. The Photon X25 would be a great choice for anyone building a studio around a laptop or in a limited space. Likewise, check it out if you use a lot of software instruments. Heck, check it out if you use software, period. In spite of its small size, the full sized keys and large wheels make it easy to use, and it has a rock-solid feel. If you've ever tweaked a virtual instrument, you'll love the hands-on approach. And the AXYZ controller is just too cool for words.
Oh sure, my usual gear curse kicked in: I went through three units in the course of this review. The good news is the problems were mechanical, easy to spot, and quickly rectified. Still, if you decide to buy one after reading this be sure you give it a thorough going over before the exchange date runs out.
Coolness: Have you any doubt? Three banks of 10 assignable knobs, 10 assignable buttons, and 20 preset locations. Full-size keys and glowing wheels. Plug-and-play USB audio and MIDI interfacing. Nice colors, too.
Not Cool: The presets don't work as advertised. There's no way to change the audio bit depth. There's no easy reset. Way not cool: The first unit I received had problems with the audio inputs; its replacement was also defective.
Surprisingly Cool: One word—AXYZ. Yow, this thing can be addictive. Okay, bonus coolness for the audio and MIDI interface, USB bus power (or battery) support, and the low price.
I'll give it four ice cubes. I'd have given it all five had I not encountered quality issues. It's that cool.
Yep, the DD-55, EZ-AG, and Photon X25 are three surprisingly cool MIDI controllers. So stop reading and make some music already!
|Included Accessories||Two assignable foot pedals|
|Sound Source||General MIDI Compatible|
|Sounds||198 + 128 GM + 8 Drums|
|Songs||100 Preset, 1 User|
|Memory||Up to 20,000 notes|
|Connectivity||1/4" TRS Headphone/Audio Out|
|(2) Assignable Pedal Inputs|
|Speakers||(2) 5W x 8cm|
|Power Supply||Adapter (supplied) or batteries (6 "C" size)|
|Dimensions||55.8cm x 35.5cm x 17.4cm (W x D x H); 3.9kg|
|Fretboard||12 frets (6 lighted); Virtual Capo|
|Strings||6 velocity sensitive|
|Songs||25 built-in songs and practice progressions.|
|Teaching Modes||Chord Training (left hand), Strum (right hand) and Both|
|Sound Source||GM and Yamaha XF compatible|
|Tempo range||32–280 BPM|
|Connectivity||MIDI In/Out; Headphones/Main out|
|Power Supply||Adapter (supplied), or batteries|
|Speaker||Built-in amplifier and speaker|
|Dimensions||86.3cm x 30.7cm x 8.1cm (L x W x D); 1.9 kg|
|Controls||25-key, velocity-sensitive keyboard with Pitch and Modulation wheels|
|AXYZ Controller Dome with 3D control|
|(10) endless knobs, (10) buttons, and (3) active layers for over 60 immediately accessible controls|
|Expression and Sustain pedal inputs|
|Display||2x16 character LCD|
|Audio Interface||24-bit, 44.1/48kHz with balanced TRS stereo audio inputs and outputs|
|Max Input: 19dBu /16.8dBV|
|Max Gain: 30dB|
|Max Output: 7dBV/9.2dBu|
|SNR > 94dB (A-weighted) @ –1dBFS|
|THD+N < 0.005% @ –1dBFS|
|Memory||(20) editable, storable configurations|
|Power||USB bus power, external 9VAC adapter (optional), or (4) C-size batteries|
|OS Support||Windows XP and Mac OSX|
|Dimensions||18" x 9.5" x 3.5" (W x D x H); 4.0 lbs|
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was designed for the on/off world of electronic keyboards. Press a key (or whack a drum pad) and you send data that says, "Play note such-and-such on channel so-and-so." (There are 16 MIDI channels.)
Take your finger off the key and you send a "Note Off" message. You add expression via velocity and—on some keyboards—pressure-sensitive membranes under the keys. ("The fool hit the key this hard...and now he's really pressing down harder!") Little wheels and knobs add pitch-bend, modulation, and other Control Change data to further shape the sound.
Contrast that with your average guitar. Not only are there multiple places to play each note, but string-bends, vibrato, slides, whammy-bar scoops, hammer-ons and pull-offs are essential to expressive playing. How do you translate all of that wonderful chaos into nice tidy MIDI?
The short answer is: it ain't easy. That's why MIDI guitar has always been somewhere on the fringe.
Historically there have been two main camps. On the one hand you marry some kind of pitch- and velocity-sensing technology, such Roland's popular GK pickups, to a real guitar or grab an off-the-shelf solution like the Brian Moore iGuitar. These instruments have the advantage of looking, feeling, and playing like guitars.
The downside is that pitch-to-MIDI conversion takes time, so there's always some built in latency. Worse, normal guitar techniques like rapid playing, aggressive attacks, multiple bends—even a string's natural overtones—can confuse the heck out of the circuitry; resulting in glitches, false triggers, missed notes, and other sonic mayhem. (After one particularly egregious flub some years back my drummer commented, "Nice sample of a piano dropped down a mine shaft.")
One way to avoid these problems is to build something that sort of looks like a guitar, and sort of plays like a guitar, but uses switches or some other technology to trigger the notes. The Yamaha G10 was but one of many such. The only contemporary guitar controller is the Starr Labs Ztar. That is, until the Yamaha EZ-AG and EZ-EG came along.
No matter which route you choose, playing a MIDI guitar controller takes getting used to. But the new sonic results may be worth it.
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