7 crazy but cool MIDI controllers
21st Oct 2013 | 10:18
Go beyond convention
Mention MIDI controllers to most hi-tech musicians and their thoughts will probably turn to keyboards and other desktop-bound devices with knobs, faders, pads and buttons on them.
But these aren't the only bits of hardware that you can use to control your music software. A parallel world exists in which other MIDI devices - ones that look more like they belong in a sci-fi film than a recording studio - are released and offer innovative and creative methods of engaging with your DAW and plugins.
So embrace the otherworldliness and take a look at what's on offer. We've bypassed the homebrewed and 'in-the-pipeline' projects in favour of products that are actually available to buy right now, though if you want a truly 'out there' controller, you might have to accept that you're going to have to pay top dollar for it...
nu desine AlphaSphere (£1000)
We've all owned pieces of technology that we've been tempted to pick up and throw across the room in frustration, but in the case of AlphaSphere, you might wonder if you should do it as a matter of course.
Each of the 48 pads is pressure-sensitive, meaning that you can manipulate a sound once you've triggered it, and their hexagonal layout is designed to ensure that it's easy to play notes that sound right together.
The fact that the firmware and software are open source expands the creative potential considerably. nu desine has given you the ball - now you need to decide if you want to run with it.
Eigenlabs Eigenharp (from £459)
Often referred to as a 'space oboe' or the kind of instrument that you'd expect to see being played in the Star Wars Cantina band, the Eigenharp originally surfaced in 2009.
The instrument's '3D' keys are its highlight - they can detect the movement of your finger to within a micron, and measure pressure-sensitivity for adjusting volume, side-to-side movement for tweaking effects, and up/down movement for changing pitch. And all of this is on a per-note basis.
The price of the Eigenharp Alpha (£4950) puts it out of the financial ballpark for most people, but if you want a taste of the Eigenharp experience, the Pico model can be yours for £459.
Akai EWI USB (£279)
We can't imagine that the EWI is Akai's best-selling USB MIDI controller - the company also produces a wide range of keyboard and pad-based devices that we suspect do swifter business - but it's certainly the most eye-catching.
Offering wind instrumentalists a chance to make electronic music, it features multiple fingering modes (stop it) for sax, flute, oboe and other players. The supplied Garritan Aria Player software gives you more than 75 sounds to play out of the box, and best of all, that mouthpiece is dishwasher-safe.
Part controller, part next-gen sniper rifle, the Karlax looks like it's been built more for military than musical purposes.
It's a wireless device that senses movement and features velocity-sensitive pistons, continuous keys, switches and a mini joystick. Who knows what kind of music you can make with it, but if you pull this bad boy out on stage, you can be pretty sure that no one's going to mess with you (though you may also trigger a security alert).
The Skoog (£649)
Pressing or hitting something to make a sound is one of the oldest pleasures known to man, and the soft and spongy Skoog is designed to make it a particularly enticing prospect.
Designed primarily for special needs music, music therapy and inclusive education, The Skoog is a soft, square device that features five touch-sensitive surfaces (including five large coloured buttons). Each of these can be used to trigger a different type of sound.
Allow our old friend Brett Domino to show you how it works...
Naonext Crystal Ball (€500)
Looking like something off the control deck of an intergalactic space cruiser, we certainly didn't see the Crystal Ball coming.
It's all business down at the bottom, with a keypad that looks like nothing out of the ordinary, but up top you'll find the dome-like structure that houses five optical sensors. Use these two control methods together and the creative possibilities really start to ramp up.
Numark Orbit (£100)
Looking like some kind of extravagant '90s videogame pad, Numark's Orbit is billed as a "first-of-its-kind wireless handheld DJ performance controller".
We certainly haven't seen anything quite like it before: it offers 16 backlit pads that can be used in four selectable banks. These are designed to be used for adding and blending effects, launching hot cues and samples, and more.
Other controls include four virtual knobs, a touch-sensitive control wheel and two shoulder buttons. A 2-axis accelerometer is built in, though we're not sure if the Orbit is Sega Megadrive or Super Nintendo compatible.