MIDI. Vacant stare. Puzzlement. Eyes rolling back into the head. Drool forming on the chin. You've heard about guys like me - I'm MIDImpaired. Terms like polyphony, quantization, and nodes make me a little drowsy in the noggin. So after years of battling with 5-pin MIDI keyboard controllers to cooperate with my DAW, I've made the decision to trade up to a USB model.

There's a ton of base-model consumer-grade controllers available in the $125-$300 range, so I went down to my local big-ass guitar chain store to check some out. Unfortunately, I found nearly everything below $300 fell into boss Larry Crane's "landfill" category - basically toys. The pro level Akai MPK and Novation SL-series controllers came recommended from a few people I trust, offering a better build quality then an entry-level controller, with the addition of rotary encoders and MPC-style pads. The M-Audio Axiom Pro was in the same class and price range as the Akai and Novation, so I demoed all three. Though each are fine keyboards with standout features, in my opinion, the Axiom's semi-weighted TruTouch keys felt the most playable and expressive by far, closer to a Nord or other keyboards costing more than twice as much - surprisingly natural. Also, though M-Audio claims a lightweight chassis, the Axiom Pro 49 felt a good 5 lbs heavier than the competitions' models, feeling very sturdy and well-built - a definite plus in my book. These factors, combined with M-Audio's DAW integration software, pretty much sealed the deal.

Like others in its class, the Axiom Pro controllers have a ton of doodads. In addition to standard keyboard controls, the 49 and 61-key versions have eleven sliders, eight encoder knobs, eight MPC-style trigger pads, DAW transport controls, and over 50 buttons. (The Axiom Pro 25 has no calculator-style numeric keypad and no sliders.) I don't want to deal with configuring all that complexity; I just want to get to work. So admittedly, the conspicuously expensive looking, shiny white keyboard sat in the corner of my studio for a week or two, serving as a great conversation piece. "No, we can't use it yet. I have to configure the pitch-bend wheel to remotely dim the overhead lights in the iso room. Yes, it is compatible with the Nintendo Wii system. Flying through HyperControl MIDI mapping ain't like dustin' crops boy! Without precise calculations we could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova..." You get the idea. When the Axiom Pro jokes dried up, I braced myself for what I was sure to be a lengthy and frustrating installation process.

After scanning through the included documentation, Pro Tools 8 LE integration (HyperControl is compatible with PT 7.4 and above only) was achieved in less than 20 seconds with no software installation on a Mac. Turns out that Avid has gone to the trouble of including the HyperControl and Axiom drivers in the Pro Tools 8 installation package. It's as simple as setting up a Mackie HUI or Command|8 control surface. Integration with Live 8 and Reason 5 was nearly as simple and trouble free.

Although I feel that the Axiom Pro's biggest selling points are its build quality and playability, M-Audio has chosen to concentrate marketing of HyperControl as a standout feature. Up until now, Novation's Automap software has been the leader in automated control-surface mapping. Despite its dominance, I found Novation's Automap to be a little "klutzy" with Pro Tools and time consuming to set up with regards to "wrapping" plug-ins. Given that M-Audio operates under the umbrella of Avid, I wasn't surprised that the implementation of basic Pro Tools functionality and navigation - including transport, channel selection, mute, solo, channel banks, etc. - was near flawless. The numeric calculator keys, however, proved to be a touch more finicky and required careful, deliberate use. Typically, non-motorized faders (or "sliders") can be frustrating to use when recalling a mix or "latching" volume automation. HyperControl addresses this by only grabbing the DAW's fader when the Axiom's slider reaches the corresponding previously-written value - a "move and catch" kind of system in which movements and fader/slider positions are graphically and numerically mirrored on the Axiom's backlit LCD display. The previously-written value is also clearly represented so you can see where the actual slider will catch the DAW's fader. All nine plastic sliders are short (1.5" long) and tight. It took some getting used to, but I found them quite handy for setting levels. They felt very smooth and also worked well for writing automation. Even with the "catch" style slider, I was able to make adjustments comfortably in both Latch and Touch modes.

Though none of the Axiom Pro's controls are truly touch-sensitive, the eight rotary encoders are continuous, so parameter jumping isn't really an issue. Because the controls aren't touch sensitive, the Axiom Pro's display doesn't indicate which parameter you're adjusting until you actually move the encoder. HyperControl addresses this with Peek mode, activated by pressing two buttons under the LCD while at the same time moving an encoder.

Much like Novation's Automap, HyperControl automatically maps the Axiom Pro's rotary encoders to plug-in parameters in order, according to the host plug-in's automation list, so the assignments are practical and predictable by design. Unlike Automap, there is no need to pre-wrap any plug-ins. In Pro Tools, the first rotary encoder is almost always mapped to the plug-in's bypass control, so it's unfortunate that there are no assignable buttons on the Axiom Pro for plug-in mapping. The good news for Pro Tools users is that you can easily reassign parameters to the encoders by using the MIDI Learn function within the plug-in GUI's window - where you can also save custom maps. HyperControl also implements a pagination system for plug-ins and virtual instruments that have more parameters than encoders.

Directly under the rotary encoders are the transport buttons, which output QWERTY keycodes and are pre-programmed for DAW functionality. Next, we come to the MIDI-assignable trigger pads. Though initially I preferred the familiar pads of the Akai units, I've now come to love the expressiveness and flexibility of the Axiom Pro's triggers, which can be easily tweaked with customized velocity settings.

Lastly, the Axiom Pro provides two rear-panel jacks for optional expression and sustain pedals; MIDI in and out; and DC power for the optional wall wart. As the unit is USB bus-powered, it should be noted that the Axiom Pro ships without a DC power supply.

My impression is that HyperControl seeks to work side-by-side with the mouse rather than to replace or compete against it, by virtue of the Axiom Pro's control surface limitations. In practice, the unit lives on my desk and sees constant use as a transport control and automation tool. Occasionally, I'll grab it for a plug-in. Firmware updates and expanded DAW compatibility/integration are no doubt on the horizon for HyperControl - and we're all expecting great things - but it's plainly obvious to me that the priority of the Axiom Pro line is playability and expressiveness. I just really love how it plays - best axe in its price-point! (25-key $399 street, 49-key $499, 61-key $559; www.m-audio.com) -SM

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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