Most MIDI-over-USB controllers follow a somewhat standard "keyboard and pots" design paradigm. There is often an attempt made to fuse the demands of performance or composition with those of software control. Many designs struggle at this crowded intersection with overly complex user interface or one-way software ecosystems that promise flexibility and end up delivering greater boundaries. In this context of the kinda- stale controller market, it's always interesting and encouraging to see fresh takes like the SoftStep.

This is a thin, lightweight, bus-powered footpedal controller with ten large pressure-sensitive pads (or "keys"), complemented by a diamond-shaped navigation pad. The controls on the SoftStep can be used to send data to anything that accepts MIDI or OSC; and presets tuned to popular DAWs like Pro Tools, Live, Logic, Traktor, and many more are included. The game-changer here is that the 10 keys are also directionally sensitive, so they respond not only to how hard you step on them, but where you choose to put your pressure; therefore, each pad/key can send out multiple control messages with a single foot "gesture". Each key is responsive to five degrees of control: x-axis, y-axis, clockwise rotation, counterclockwise rotation, and pressure. These controls are mappable to any MIDI or OSC destination. Think of stepping on a pad to toggle a filter on and then rotating the ball of your foot (on the same pad!) to control the filter cutoff and resonance as you would with an X/Y controller. That allows your other free foot to scroll forward or backward on a timeline and toggle punch-in and out, play note sequences in a scale, send program change messages, etc.

These keys are spaced out over a 17.5'' by 4'' board, and while they are large enough to accommodate my flipper-like feet, they are also spaced just far enough apart to avoid false triggers from hitting two keys at once. All of the keys and the navigation pad are backlit with a cool blue/green Tron- like glow and have accompanying status LEDs. There is a four-character LED display as well for numeric/alphanumeric feedback. The entire top face of the SoftStep is bold, minimal, and easy to read from a distance or in the dark. The overall footprint is fairly low; it occupies less space than the computer keyboard I'm typing on. It's durable too; the rubberized keys resist moisture and wear, and the whole pedal board is made with a carbon-fiber backing. Keith McMillen Instruments claims it's beer-proof, but I wasn't going to test that contention! And yes, it fits in a backpack or gig bag easily (which sounds like such a gear review cliché, but it's true).

Most controllers have some aspect of a software application handshake with your computer, and the SoftStep version of that is a collection of free editors and development kits which allow a user to customize and reconfigure the out-of-the-box programming. These are all downloaded from the KMI website, which has an expanding library of helpful video tutorials as well. Easy Editor is a straightforward tool which allows the user to toggle and alter the various preloaded scenes and change all the basic parameters, CC values, and key functions. Music Editor is the next step up in terms of programming key mappings, and this was my application of choice when tweaking the SoftStep. Compared to Easy Editor, I liked Music Editor's real- time onscreen feedback from the SoftStep; I could see exactly what data was being sent by certain combinations of key pressure and gesture, and this helped in tailoring the presets and uploading new "scenes" to the unit. Music Editor also prompts if any firmware updates are needed.

Another compelling application which can be downloaded and used with the SoftStep is called KeyWorx; it's focus is on using the controller in conjunction with various multimedia apps like Photoshop or Final Cut Pro. Because I spend a lot of my time these days doing web multimedia, motion graphics, and video, I had to dive in and check it out. There is a muscle-memory learning-curve when triggering some of the common keyboard shortcuts by your feet, but I could see a definite value in terms of relieving repetitive stress - got carpal tunnel? Command-shift-Z with your left foot and command-shift-S with your right. There are even OS-based navigation options, so you can navigate between windows or open applications by using the SoftStep.

For Max/MSP nerds, there is an available free dev kit for Max 5, which comes with externals and thorough documentation if you'd like to build your own software, or expand on what the folks at Keith McMillen Instruments have already provided. My nerd object-coding skills in Max are admittedly limited, but I believe most (if not all) of the SoftStep software suite was built using Max/MSP, so the SoftStep software isn't a "walled-garden" approach.

Note that the SoftStep can be enhanced with an optional add-on MIDI Expander box that allows for direct connection of other MIDI gear via standard in and out ports. I didn't test this box, but more info on it can be found on the KMI website. For further control, there is also a 1/8'' port that can accommodate any standard expression pedal via an included 1/8'' to 1/4'' adapter.

Like other innovative and powerful controllers out there on the new edge of tech, the breadth and scope of what the SoftStep can do necessitates some tweaking and setup; it isn't the simplest plug-and-play approach. But like other forward-thinking and non-traditional controller models like the Monome [Tape Op #62], once it has found its way into your workflow, it's difficult to see a future without it. Did I mention it looks Tron-y?

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

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