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Review: Novation Nocturn

October 1, 2008
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Novation''s trademark Speed Dial acts as the cherry on top of the Nocturn sundae. It deftly controls whatever function you rest your mouse cursor over.

Novation''s trademark Speed Dial acts as the cherry on top of the Nocturn sundae. It deftly controls whatever function you rest your mouse cursor over.

Novation blessed the audio world with the ReMote SL series of keyboards in 2006, and for the most part, the competition has yet to catch up. The ReMote SL's secret weapon was Novation's Automap technology, which automatically mapped out software parameters to the knobs, faders and buttons of the keyboard. Since then, the British company hasn't rested on its laurels. Novation has steadily refined its Automap Universal software (now at version 2.1) and paired it with increasingly small controllers, such as the ReMote SL Compact keyboard series and the ReMote Zero SL control surface.

That inertia now has culminated in the Nocturn, a small yet very flexible controller. The Nocturn exists symbiotically with the Automap Universal software, without which it cannot function. The software analyzes and wraps VST, RTAS and Audio Units plug-ins into an Automap format, which the Nocturn can control and edit with ease. While Nocturn isn't limited to controlling only plug-ins, it is perhaps the savior of carpal tunnel-suffering plug-in junkies who have been praying for a dedicated and adaptable plug-in controller.

ALL LIT UP AGAIN

Although the Nocturn is USB-powered, when you first connect it to a powered USB port, it may not light up. Don't panic. The unit is entirely dependent on a connection to the included Automap Universal software (check Novation's site for possible updates), which you must install and launch before using the Nocturn. With the software launched, the Nocturn is free to spring to life, and you'll notice its dazzling red-and-green LED scheme; the eight endlessly rotating knobs and one push-button encoder have 11-segment LED rings that show the value of the current parameter, and the backlit buttons illuminate when active.

While Automap Universal provides abundant flexibility and programming power, it is also the crutch of the Nocturn, which has no connections other than the USB port and can't work on software or hardware without the program running. Upon installation, the software will scan your hard drive for VST, Audio Units and RTAS plug-ins. You pick which one you want the software to wrap into an Automap format. Then, when you instantiate one of those plugs in a DAW session, its parameters will be laid out across the Nocturn, and the Automap software lets you easily see, edit and save the control mappings. Also, a wrapped plug-in will have an Automap border along the bottom to allow some programming straight from the plug-in window (see the screenshot on this page). For example, you can edit an encoder's sensitivity by increasing or decreasing the maximum value for that control. The crossfader has fixed sensitivity.

Automap Universal's window is semitransparent by default, and it always appears in front of all other open software windows. However, the Nocturn's View button alternately hides the software window without quitting the program and pops it back into view with you need it. Also, Novation did a great job making the Automap window resizable — all the way from full screen to about as small as it can go while still comfortably displaying the controls. You can also hide all the controls and see only the top info bar, which shows you the parameter name and value for the Nocturn controls as you touch them.

SPARKED PLUGS

The following scenario sums up a typical experience using the Nocturn to control plug-ins. I opened the new D16 Fazortan phaser VST plug-in on a channel in Ableton Live 7. The fairly simple, yet very effective plug-in has only 12 parameters for each preset, and Automap mapped them to the Nocturn's eight knobs and first four buttons. Unless you're using a control map that's been precustomized for a certain plug-in (Novation includes a few and will add more to its Website with time), Automap maps a plug-in's parameters in order, first to Nocturn's eight knobs, second to its eight programmable buttons and then creates new pages of controls for however many parameters are left. Page ± buttons scroll through all the pages of a control map.

A default map may be fine for your purposes, but in many cases, you'll want to edit a plug-in's control map. For example, Fazortan's Output Volume was assigned to an on/off button, and I wanted it on the crossfader. I clicked on and deleted the Automapped volume assignment in the software and then hit Nocturn's Learn button and merely touched the crossfader. Because Output Volume was the last parameter I had used, the Nocturn assigned the parameter to the crossfader.

Yes, Nocturn's nine knobs and crossfader are touch-sensitive, which comes in handy if you'd rather only touch a control to assign it to a parameter rather than move it, which could screw up the sound during a recording or a performance. Also, touching one of the controls highlights it in the Automap window and displays the parameter name and value at the top to clearly show you what is being controlled.

Back to the Fazortan, the LFO2 controls assigned to buttons would work better on knobs, so I toggled to the Automap software and chose Add New Page from the File menu (Command + P). A second page appeared for the Fazortan control map. From the second page I then repeated the learn process to assign the three controls to the first three knobs of the Nocturn and deleted the unwanted button assignments. When programming several parameters at a time, the Latch Learn mode comes in very handy. It keeps the Learn function turned on until you turn it off, so you can assign several controls in a row even faster.

By then I had identical controls for the phaser's LFO1 and LFO2 on the Nocturn's first three knobs. Toggling back and forth from page 1 and 2 with the buttons made it easy and fun to tweak both LFOs in a fairly fluid manner, which lets you do things during a spontaneous recording or live performance you could never do with a mouse. So while the Nocturn is limited to an extent by its number of physical controls, its unlimited number of pages per control map and the ability to easily customize the control layout and save the customized map for easy recall makes the Nocturn deceptively powerful. For each control map, you can create as many pages as you want and assign the same control to multiple pages if it's a crucial element you always want on hand.

The learning curve for these operations, except for pure beginners, should be tiny. Once you've got the control map set the way you want it for a plug-in, you can select the Set As Default option in the software so that every time you create a new instance of that plug, the Nocturn will launch your customized map.

As you work with other plug-ins and begin programming your default maps, the investment of time will pay off when you finally have a full set of maps for all your plug-ins. As you jump around your session and activate various plug-ins, the Nocturn automatically switches its focus, and the feedback LEDs and Automap software show the parameter status of the current plug-in. As you build up your base of control maps, Nocturn's User, FX, Inst and Mixer buttons launch a browser in the software for selecting control maps only from those narrowed-down categories.

MO' MIDI

While perhaps the single best use of the Nocturn is as a dedicated plug-in controller, that's far from the whole story. Using its MIDI Client abilities, you can set up the Nocturn to control hardware MIDI gear or any software that recognizes MIDI controllers. To control hardware, the gear must connect to your computer through either USB or a separate MIDI interface, and you can control the gear with or without a sequencer program running. The helpful 31-page PDF user guide walks you through these various setup procedures. It also shows you the Nocturn mapping conventions for six likely plug-in layouts: a virtual analog synth, an EQ, dynamics, delay, reverb and an amp simulator.

Another great Nocturn feature, Automap Universal Mixer Control, establishes a control convention for a DAW mixer, but it currently supports only Cakewalk Sonar, Mackie Tracktion and Steinberg Cubase and Nuendo.

THE NEED FOR SPEED

Introduced first on the ReMote SL Compact, Novation's Speed Dial push-button encoder manipulates whatever control the mouse cursor is resting over at the time. It worked for me in other pro music software, iTunes, iPhoto and even to move windows around the desktop. With a plug-in active, you can push in the Speed Dial and rotate it to browse the plug-in presets (if the plug-in conforms to standard preset browsing). It's a great tool, and it can even be used for on/off-type functions, such as muting or soloing channels. While it suffered from a few bugs when I first tested it, Novation worked those out with a software update, and the Speed Dial has since been a carefree dream to control just about any function on the screen.

IT'S A WRAP

Plug-in lovers who don't already have an expensive control surface that somehow wrangles hands-on control over the little buggers now have a very straightforward and very affordable escape from the mental despair and physical pain often associated with overactive mousing. The smartly designed, compact frame says nothing of the Nocturn's enormous potential when combined with the Automap software. To be able to control your DAW's mixer with it also is enormously gratifying.

It's a small bother that without much programming available directly from the hardware, you have to toggle out of your DAW over to Automap for certain things, such as adding new pages to a control map, but that extra step is a necessity of an overall very innovative system. My only other complaint is that after you install the Automap software, every time you launch a plug-in hosting program, Automap launches automatically, whether the Nocturn is connected or not, which is a bit intrusive.

However, in the big picture, the only things holding the Nocturn back are a lack of Mixer Control compatibility for popular DAWs and more predefined control maps, which hopefully Novation will add later. But even now, the Nocturn's power, convenience and future potential make it almost a no-brainer for producers, musicians and DJs with small studios and budgets but big appetites for plug-ins. It literally becomes a physical manifestation of your favorite sofware effects and instruments.

NOVATION

NOCTURN > $199.99

Pros: Innovative Automapping system for plug-ins. Well-conceived hardware/software interaction for editing control settings. Speed Dial control. Helpful LED feedback. Touch-sensitive controls. Economical.

Cons: No stand-alone use without a computer and the Automap software running. Limited programming from the hardware itself. Could use greater Mixer Control compatibility.

Contact: www.novationmusic.com

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

Mac: G4, G5 or Intel/1 GHz; 256 MB RAM; OS 10.4 or later; powered USB 1.1 or 2.0 port

PC: P3 or better/1 GHz; 256 MB RAM; Windows XP SP2/Vista 32-bit or 64-bit; powered USB 1.1 or 2.0 port

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