General > Control Surfaces/ACT

Komplete Kontrol M32 review

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azslow3:
I have started to use Native Instruments M32 keyboard some weeks ago, and I have decided to share my thoughts about it.
To somehow structure the text, I split into pro and cons.

All the following is absolutely subjective. That is just my own perception and I don't pretend to be an expert.
I am a programmer and hobby musician, who just has fun to play piano, keyboard and other instruments.
When I was a child, I was educated to play (classic) piano.

Intro
M32 is a hardware device for Komplete Kontrol and Maschine software. Using it for other purpose is foreseen,
but it seems like intentionally limited by Native Instruments. Unlike S keyboards it in general requires computer
display to operate effectively. Its own small display, while informative, is just too small.
Unlike A keyboards, M32 has small keys with questionable velocity response. Fixed velocity and arpeggiator are easy
to engage. All together, that means it was thought to record melodies or chords for "modern" styles of music.
In advertisement Maschine Mikro controller is often in the near. So, it is for people which like to play melodic
instruments using piano like keys instead of pads. Also M32 has "missing" on Maschine Mikro encoders.

Note that unlike most keyboards/controllers on the market, M32 is not a MIDI nor a USB-MIDI device. It can only be used with
proprietary driver, which creates software MIDI ports and route some messages to/from there. Native Instruments software always works
with controlling part of the keyboard directly, speaking with that driver even when the software is used inside a DAW. Only "performance"
part (keys, pitch/modulation strip, knobs in MIDI mode) is routed "as MIDI".
DAWs work with controlling part using (special) MIDI ports and Komplete Kontrol specific DAW controlling protocol. Till that special mode is activated,
the keyboard speaks using subset of Mackie (Control Universal) protocol.

What is good

* Accessibility. That is the first time keyboard/controller producer has considered spoken feedback natively. Not all people can use monitors and
so mouse is not an option for them. Logically, hardware devices with many physical controls are convenient to use for such people. Yet in all decades DAW controllers exist,
no one till now has considered spoken feedback. The trend was adding LEDs, displays and replacing finite knobs with encoders. But all these new features are void
for some people since there is no feedback they can perceive. Native Instrument has broken that ice. That is a big point for me, even so I am sighted and so I don't have to use
that feature myself.
* 4D knob. On small controllers there is not much space for controls. Giving more functions to a single control is an advantage. 4D knob is not touch sensitive,
but all possible other functions are there. And important is such case, they can't be activated by mistake. Also the knob has raster when turning and so it is well suitable for
precise discrete functions like jogging or preset selection
* LEDs under all buttons. And most of them have 3 levels on hardware side (off, dim, bright). Not only that can indicate current parameter state, it also indicate which
buttons are currently disabled.
* Encoders. Finite knobs and faders have advantages in many situations. But in general, when controlling a DAW or switching between software instruments or presets, finite knobs should
be put "into current position" first and that is annoying. NI has considered high resolution encoders without raster. While using them as "switches" is not good, the resolution
allows cover full parameter range inside one elevation, yet with sufficient in most cases precision. They are touch sensitive and build-in display shows what you control on touching.
* MIDI mapping. Encoders can be configured to send different messages throw "performance" MIDI port, when in MIDI mode. With unlimited number of presets and fast switching between them. For recording performance, MIDI CCs are sometimes more convenient then automations since they are recorded as a part of MIDI clip. Also many synths don't support all parameters as automations. PC or other switching (while supported) is hard to use, but for continuous parameters these encoders are perfect.
* Cakewalk integration. Even so I had to DIY it, I like the result (work is still in progress). That is the deepest integration I have managed so far, for convenient recording from the keyboard without moving hands toward mouse all the time. The key trick was organizing control of not KK based plug-ins (effects, directly inserted synths) and overloading buttons (double press).
What I wish could be there (in hardware)
My guess why these features was not considered you can find in "ugly" section.

* There is sufficient place for buttons near encoders. (over and under). But there are no buttons there.
* No LEDs for encoders. I don't mean rings, that requires different construction, makes the device more expensive to produce and since in general computer display is required and build-in display indicate current value, rings will not add much. But designed by Native Instrument DAW controlling schema assumes one strip is "current" and encoders control a block of strips (including current one, btw that is strict). So, which from them is "current"? In other words, which encoder should be turned to change the volume of current strip? Only indication in the DAW or touching all encoders till the right is found give the answer on that question.
What is reasonable

* The price. For provided features, control types, the number of controls and included software, the device is not overpriced.
* The layout. Designed as 2 hands controller, everything is placed logically and easy to access. I could put that into "good" section, if not the behavior of pitch and mod strips... They are too easy change unintentionally (see "bad" section)
* DAW integration. Native Instruments has considered special DAW integration possibility, not only "Mackie compatible" way. It took a while, from locking to explicit set of DAWs throw OSC only control and avoided Mackie compatibility. But at the end they took the right road. Again, the feature could be in the "good" section, but unfortunately some related parts are in the "ugly" one.
What is bad

* Pitch/mod strips behavior It is clear that in such form factor there can be no real "wheels". But current solution has problems. Especially with pitch strip. It is always "locked" (not configurable) and so once you have touched it, and that is easy to do while operating buttons over it, it will stay in "new" position (without any indication). Also both strips are in absolute mode. Long training is required to smoothly start from "zero". With easy possibility to disable strips, that could be "reasonable" solution. But such possibility is not foreseen.
* Keys. Plastic quality is ok, the shape and cuts are let say acceptable. But velocity curve is bad. There is a small half way controllable area in the middle velocity region. On both sides from it there are huge gaps in which velocity is very hard to get at all. And then there are "almost silent" and "almost max" regions. Apart from mentioned middle region it is not possible to control velocity predictable. So, you play "silent", "as loud as possible" (both with random changes in velocity) or more or less controlled in the middle. Because of gaps, very small change in hitting can be silent to loud, the result is absolute "unnatural" for piano or other instruments with well controllable and bright dynamic range. Explicit curve correction inside DAW (f.e. AZ Velocity in Cakewalk) can partially mitigate the problem. So I could put all that into "reasonable" list, if velocity curves could be configured in the driver, but there is no such feature (at least not for M).
* Periodically the driver is frozen. That doesn't happend too often, but once in a while the thing is stuck in the mode it is. Keys continue working, some other controls also. But normal operation can't be restored to device is reconnected (just restarting software does not help).
What is ugly
The following is not about comparison between A and S keyboards. More expensive keyboards have better/more keys, lighting guide, displays and some extra controls. There is no point to complain about that, if someone needs these features he/she should consider upper level devices.

All my following speculations are exclusively about software part, which can be easily changed if Native Instruments decide so.
Somehow I have strong feeling the marketing team has prescribed developers team the following:

* At no time and no use case our cheaper keyboards should be a concurrent to our more expensive keyboard
* Every time a user use our cheaper keyboard, independent from the use case, he/she should think "this device is ok, but I had to buy more expensive one"
* There should be no possibility (and no way to make it) to use any of our devices with foreign software at the same convenience level as with our own software
Why I think so:

* M and A have no displays. But they allow control most settings in Komplete Kontrol. With computer display in front of the user, that could be almost as convenient as with S keyboards. Could be... but it is not. Komplete Kontrol is not opening corresponding view (automatically). For example, when you Browse instruments, the list of instruments is not expanded, the instrument is in fact selected instantly (as indicated on build-in display), but KK update the name several seconds later. Another example is arpeggiator settings,  corresponding section is not expanded (even so KK knows the keyboard is currently editing arp). Sounds like: "works? yes!; convenient? no, but we have other devices where it is". No indication which strip is "current" and no dedicated "record arm" also smell the same.
* When not working with Native Instruments software (Komplete Kontrol or Maschine), several buttons are disabled and all controls have limited by driver functionality. In other words "we think our keyboards should do <x> and <y> in DAWs, and nothing else". And just to avoid "smart foreign developers" workaround the limitation, they are: not sending anything when "disabled" buttons are operated; not allow control all LEDs, even for buttons usable in DAWs; not informing DAWs when keyboard is switched into Native Instrument or MIDI modes; not sending momentary (pressed/released) messages; not allow completely control build-in display.

The controller has 21 buttons, 8 encoders and one 4D knob. In DAW mode:

* 2 buttons are used for mode switching, 2 for octave switching. That is fine.
* "Browser", "Presets", "Ideas", "Arp" and "Scale" buttons (6 in total!) are completely disabled. Yes, arp is working inside Komplete Kontrol or Maschine only.
* left and right buttons are working with shift only
* not all 4D knob operations distinguish between shifted and not shifted state
Any good explanation for such limitations, other then my guess?

To somehow "improve" what the controller does in (officially supported) DAWs, all operations inside Komplete Kontrol are explicitly listed, as well as different reactions of DAWs on the same command (in different context). That makes the list of function fill the whole page  :o

Conclusions
I guess after reading "bad" and "ugly" list you can conclude the review is negative... No, that is not so  :)
This world is not perfect and people tend to speak more about bad sides then about good sides of anything.

For everyone who is newcomer to Native Instruments software, that is a good and effectively cheap start (especially when buying during actions and/or upgrading the software during sales, compared with just buying Komplete bundles without having prior versions nor devices, effective price of that device is bargain). But better try the device before buy, it can be A or even S are better for you from the beginning on.

I think my integration with Cakewalk is good. If you are looking for a keyboard for Cakewalk with DAW controlling functionality out of the box, especially in lower price range, M32/Axx can be good investment.

If there is no interest in NI software (targeting "modern" music) nor controlling Cakewalk, there are other small factor keyboards to look at. Keys (quality and velocity response) in M32 are far from perfect (for me).

azslow3:
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