As the demands of producers become ever more complex, manufacturers are creating MIDI controllers which offer increasingly powerful options. Greg Scarth puts Novation’s latest offering to the test.
As DAWs have grown more complex, so too have users’ demands for controllers. Even in the era of versatile control surfaces and wireless multi-touch control via iPad, the MIDI controller keyboard remains dominant. As much as manufacturers may attempt to promote the benefits of new control methods, the traditional piano keyboard format understandably remains the most popular.
Until recently, the MIDI controller market was broadly split into two distinct sectors: on the one hand, realistic piano-action keyboards; on the other, cheaper models with less authentic unweighted or semi-weighted action. As DAW control has become a higher priority for computer musicians, a third strand has emerged: semi-weighted synth-style keys supplemented by a range of control surface features, transport controls, rotary pots, faders and sample trigger pads. The recently released Impulse range from Novation is a perfect example of the new standard for truly multi-purpose control.
The Impulse’s feature set is impressively strong. In comparison to Novation’s more expensive SL mkII models, the difference isn’t quite so clear-cut as one being a more advanced model than the other. The SL has pads but they aren’t backlit and don’t have aftertouch. The Impulse doesn’t have an XY pad, but the SL doesn’t offer the Impulse’s arpeggiator and roll functions. If we had to make a broad generalisation, we’d say the SL is slightly better for mixing or real-time modulation, but the Impulse is better for drum programming and offers that unique arpeggiator option (more of which later).
We tested the 49-key version of the Impulse which offers nine assignable faders each with a mute/solo button, eight rotary pots, eight backlit trigger pads and a set of DAW transport controls. The 61- and 25-key versions offer similar feature sets scaled up and down respectively. It’s good to see the inclusion of traditional 5-pin DIN connections in addition to the MIDI-over-USB connector found on each models; many manufacturers omit the older connector, but it’s handy for anyone who wants to control hardware synth modules without introducing unnecessary latency.
The build quality of the Impulse lives up to Novation’s usual high standard. The case itself has a slightly plasticky feel, but the quality is impressive where it counts: in the feel of the knobs, switches and, of course, the keys and pads themselves. The inclusion of aftertouch on both keys and pads sets the Impulse apart from the cheaper alternatives.
The Impulse keyboards feature version 4 of Novation’s proprietary Automap software, which automatically assigns the Impulse’s controls to the parameters of your plugins and virtual instruments. At least, that’s the theory. We’ve never really had completely problem-free results from Automap. In our experience it usually works fairly well but never quite perfectly. Standard niggles of Automap configuration notwithstanding, it works just about as expected with the latest update. Either way, it’s better than having to set everything up manually.
The rotary encoders and faders found on the Impulse are nothing particularly new and exciting, but the drum pads are a different matter. The Impulse’s eight pads not only allow samples to be triggered in drum software or clips to be triggered LaunchPad-style in Live, but also offer a new twist on the classic arpeggiator. The Impulse’s on-board arpeggiator is highly versatile, syncing to the host DAW’s tempo and offering a range of variations. With the arp engaged, the pads become additional controls, allowing the user to mute and reactivate steps and adjust velocity on the fly. Additionally, the Beat Roll feature allows notes to be repeated and modulated using aftertouch. It’s a highly usable set of features which add unique functionality to the Impulse.
We’re suitably impressed with the Impulse’s feel, build quality and feature set. There’s plenty of competition in this market, but the Impulse range is fairly priced, with the RRPs translating to street prices around £300 for the 61-key version, £250 for the 49 and £150 for the 25. That effectively pitches the Impulses at a slightly higher price point than their nearest rivals from M-Audio’s second generation Axiom range (typically somewhere around £250 for the Axiom 61, £200 for the 41 and £130 for the 25).
The inclusion of Ableton Live Lite, Novation’s own Bass Station virtual instrument and a 1.5 GB sample library make the Impulse an even more complete package. A beginner could quite easily get started with this bundle alone.
To us, the Impulse’s more thorough feature set gives it a slight edge over the Axiom which justifies the higher price. Novation’s own SL mkII should also be considered, but the arpeggiator and superior pads on the Impulse would make it our choice of the two. Ultimately, the decision between the three models will probably come down to personal taste and specific control requirements, but we have absolutely no hesitation recommending the Impulse.
The Final Word
One of the best MIDI controllers on the market.