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NOVATION REMOTE 25SL

June 1, 2006
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One look at the Novation ReMote 25SL should cause at least a twinge of longing in any electronic musician. Sure, MIDI keyboards are a dime a dozen these days, but no matter how many hit the market, most of them leave something, if not a whole lot, to be desired. The ReMote immediately gives its observer that spark of hope that this could finally be the one. But this initial excitement is nothing compared with the joy of really experiencing what this controller can do for your workflow. And like a true keeper, what's on the inside means even more than what's on the outside.

The ReMote has 35 preset templates for popular software instruments such as M-Audio Imposcar, Oddity and Minimonsta; Native Instruments FM-7, Pro 53, B4 and Kontakt; Korg MS-20 and Polysix; and Steinberg HALion. Those are all fully customizable from the hardware or from the PC/Mac editor/librarian software, and Novation has already added many new templates to its Website, including Cakewalk Sonar SL, Digidesign Pro Tools and FXpansion Guru. But Novation's true genius is the ReMote SL series' Automapping, a new technology that automatically recognizes when compatible software is launched and maps the ReMote's controls to a preset layout. As this review went to press, Ableton Live 5, Apple Logic Pro 7, Propellerhead Reason 3 and Steinberg Cubase SL/SX 3 and Nuendo 3 supported Automapping.

CLASSY CHASSIS

Without a doubt, the ReMote 25SL is a pro-quality, roadworthy instrument, and it's priced accordingly. Solid and sturdy at 5.5 pounds, its 18.4-by-10.9-by-2.7-inch frame tucks away into a backpack or carry-on for travel. It runs off of USB bus power, four C batteries or an optional power adapter. The USB port acts like two MIDI ins and outs, so it can control 32 soft synths at a time assigned to two sets of 16 MIDI channels. In addition, it has two hardware MIDI Outs, a MIDI In and a MIDI Thru for hooking up two MIDI instruments discretely or daisy-chaining an even larger setup. A 2-octave keyboard (25 keys) features Velocity sensitivity and Aftertouch. The action of the semiweighted keys is smooth and substantial; it's a player's keyboard, rather than the sticky, cheap keys found on many MIDI controllers.

The ReMote's control panel is a small marvel in that it seems to pack most of the tools of more expensive control surfaces onto a compact keyboard. It's split down the middle; the left side has two rows of eight buttons, two rows of eight knobs (one row of endless encoders) and a row of eight Velocity-sensitive drum pads, while the right side contains eight faders, two rows of eight buttons and the transport controls. The coup de grâce, however, resides in the LCDs. Taking a cue from desktop controllers like the Digidesign 002 or the M-Audio ProjectMix I/O, the ReMote's dual two-line LCDs show detailed information on the parameters being controlled beneath them.

The displays show the name and value for the parameters of the active row of controls. To activate a row, simply operate one of the controllers or press one of the row-select buttons on the far sides. Those buttons also cycle through extra banks of parameters for that row. For instance, if a row is manipulating the first oscillator of a synth, pressing the row-select button cycles the row to control the second oscillator.

Novation has standardized the layout as best as possible. Most software synthesizers have some similar controls, so the ReMote always uses the three left-most columns of controls for the oscillator section, the next two columns for the LFOs, the next three columns for the filters and the fader section for the envelopes. That makes it easy to fire up an instrument and get to work.

CLOSER TO THE EDIT

A single column of six buttons and the Data encoder down the center of the panel comprise the ReMote editing section. The editing section is where you can make changes to the global settings (routing the MIDI ins and outs, setting the MIDI Clock source, protecting the memory, etc.), create or customize templates or edit single controls. Some of those settings will be changed by the controls under the display headings, and others will be changed with the Data encoder, which can also set the tempo. In the editing modes and occasionally in Play mode, scroll up and down buttons for each LCD cycle through the various settings available. That all adds up to a straightforward and digestible operation system.

Any control on the ReMote can be assigned to a MIDI continuous controller (CC), SysEx message or other, more esoteric controls. Buttons, pads and footswitches can also be assigned to launch templates, note on/off, program changes, bank changes or MIDI Machine Control (MMC) messages such as transport controls.

The response of knobs and sliders can be set to jump to a value immediately when changed, pick up the change only when the control passes over the original value or obey the response set overall for the template or global setting. Button and pad responses include Normal, Toggle, Step and Velocity (press/release for buttons).

In Template mode, you can select settings for the entire template, such as Aftertouch on/off, controller response, MIDI channel and others. Each template can have as many as four keyboard zones, each with its own MIDI channel, Velocity curve, Aftertouch and other settings. Four may be more zones than anyone needs on a 2-octave keyboard, but it's a nice option for live performances, especially if you're using one of the larger, functionally identical ReMote boards: the ReMote 37SL ($749) and the ReMote 61SL ($899).

Whether editing a global setting, an individual control or a template, press the Write button to save changes and name templates. For editing, reading the PDF manual is key to pick up nonobvious functions — for example, when buttons need to be pushed simultaneously to accomplish a task. This is dry reading but is worth the hour or so investment to really feel like a master of the ReMote.

SOFT SIDE

The fill-in-the-dialog-box method of creating/editing templates in the ReMote SL Editor software is not as friendly as a pop-up menu system or other hierarchical choice method might be, but the utility does make setting up keyboard zones easy because you can see the note ranges highlighted, and you can click-and-drag them longer or shorter. The software is also used to upload these templates to the keyboard and to receive template dumps from the keyboard to be saved on a computer.

LESS CLICK, MORE WRIST FLICK

All the hardware and software editing available is nice but not necessary to have a great experience. With the Automapping and the instrument templates, many people may never edit anything. The ReMote is also wonderfully easy to set up. After performing an update to the latest OS downloaded from Novation's site, the driverless controller was ready to go — I simply dialed in a template and launched an instrument. You don't need a template for every software instrument, either. One template can control other synths, but the controls may not match up perfectly. In Cubase SL/SX 3, the Automap recognizes and maps whatever VST instrument is active.

I tested Automapping on Reason 3 and Live 5 with an iMac G5 2.1 GHz running OS 10.4.6. Setting up was as easy as designating the ReMote as the master keyboard in Reason's preferences and as the control surface in Live's preferences. From then on, whenever either program launched, the ReMote immediately entered the appropriate Automap mode and dedicated its controls to the active instrument or device.

For each program, Automapping performed flawlessly. There was almost instantaneous two-way feedback between the actions on the ReMote and within the software. In Live, the ReMote's faders alternately control the track volume, panning and aux send levels as you cycle through with the row-select button. The buttons below control track on/mute, solo, record arm, etc., and you can cycle tracks using the scroll up/down buttons. On the left-hand side, the controls operate the selected plug-in. For example, with Live's Impulse 8-part drum machine active, the ReMote drum pads played the sounds, and the knobs above the pads controlled the various sounds parameters. Pressing the row-select button cycled the controls to the other seven sounds.

In Reason, the ReMote maps the device whose track is selected for MIDI control in the sequencer. The ReMote controlled instruments, drum machines, Combinators and mixers with equal aplomb. A nice time-saver is the ability to scroll up the ReMote's right-side display and view sequencer information, such as the location of the play-head; from that page, two buttons scroll up and down the sequencer tracks, so that you can quickly select the device to control.

You've either been dying for Automapping, or you didn't know you needed it but won't want to live without it. Perfect for any program, it especially suits Reason and Live because they share the philosophy of easing technical headaches and lifting creative restrictions for better musicmaking. Having Automapping actually made me more enthusiastic about reviving stalled projects and exploring new musical territory.

The controller itself also feels superb. The faders possess a deep curvature, so it's easy to bring all eight up or down together with two hands. Their resistance straddles the right balance: not too loose and not too stubborn. The x-y touchpad reacts with precision and has a coating that facilitates smooth movement. I like the globular pitch- bend/mod joystick; its solid feel makes it playable and expressive. While the drum pads are not going to give any of the dedicated pad units a run for their money, they're great assets, especially in a portable keyboard. They also respond well to velocity, and you can play them from the corners for fast, two-fingered drum rolls.

I have only two small complaints: The Tap Tempo button never stops blinking, which can get annoying, and the Global menu still showed the software as v.1.0.13 even after updating to v.1.5. That made me think the update didn't work, but checking the templates proved that it did.

MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE

The ReMote 25SL would be impressive even without Automapping. With it, the keyboard is almost the dream controller for any heavy user of the Automapping programs. And like fine wine, comfortable jeans and Charlie Murphy, the ReMote series should only improve with age as Novation adds more templates and more third-party software embraces Automapping, which I believe will become the MIDI-control standard that other companies aspire to.

NOVATION

REMOTE 25SL > $599

Pros: Brilliant control layout. Helpful dual displays. Hordes of controls. Automapping works perfectly. Many application-specific templates. Bass Station plug-in included.

Cons: Tap Tempo button never stops blinking. Occasionally confusing software update process.

Contact: www.novationmusic.com

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