Let's say you have a successful computer recording rig and you're interested in going mobile. You want to be able to offer some of the same services you have in your home studio to your clients, or simply take advantage of them yourself when on the road with your band-tweaking mixes, tracking, or composing a little bit, without a ton of weight and added hardware.
So you buy a laptop and install your software onto it-little nor no hassle; you find a good small audio interface that covers the bases-hopefully pretty straightforward; and you get a portable external hard drive to hold your audio tracks-again, easy and cheap. You now have everything nicely in your laptop bag, and off you go...
...and within three or four sessions you're cussing a blue streak as you try to track, mix, and play with no faders, no knobs, no keys, no controllers at all, doing everything with the mouse and the QWERTY on your laptop. Argh!
So then you start researching portable keyboard controllers, fader boxes, and the like, and you find out very quickly that they're not very portable at all. They weigh more than your laptop and require special carrying bags, and as for using them on a tour bus or on a plane? Ha!
In your mind's eye you start to dream about the perfect, truly portable control surface-it would be small enough to slide into the outer pocket of your laptop bag without bulging or breaking, flat enough to sit neatly in front of your laptop on a table and let you work painlessly, run off USB power without impacting your laptop's performance, be easily configurable to do what you want-and because it's a second controller for an already-equipped recordist, it would be nice if it didn't cost a fortune. Oh, and it would be even cooler if you had the option to only carry the features you really needed, rather than get one big gizmo with keys and drum pads and control surfaces and faders and knobs.
Consider it done. Let's take a look at the Korg nano Series, shall we?
The nano controllers come in three types, the nanoKEY keyboard, nanoPAD pad controller, and nanoKONTROL fader/knob bank, and two styles-the blue and white style featured on our October 2008 cover, and a sexy black and grey layout for less stage glare. Each unit measures roughly 3.25 x 12.5 inches, which means that a stack of three units takes up almost exactly the same footprint as a 13" laptop computer. Coincidence? I think not!
Each nano connects to your computer via a mini-USB cable and runs off the bus power. The nanoKEY has 25 unusually-shaped velocity-sensitive keys and a set of control buttons for octave shift (up to four octaves each way, with multicolored LEDs to indicate the current shift amount), pitch bend up/down, modulation, and CC Mode (where the keys become MIDI control buttons). The nanoPAD has 12 velocity-sensitive rubber trigger pads, buttons for Hold, Flam, and Roll, and an XY touchpad controller. The nanoKONTROL has nine faders, nine knobs, eighteen backlit buttons, and six transport buttons. The nanoPAD and nanoKONTROL can each store four sets of settings as Scenes that are easy to cycle through on the fly.
Downloadable software for the units includes USB drivers for Windows and Mac OS X, an Editor program that can access multiple nanoSERIES units at one time and lets you customize their Scenes, and in two cases, free software instruments that add a lot of value to the package: Korg M1 Le for the nanoKEY, and Toontrack EZ Drummer Lite for the nanoPAD. Installation requires an Internet connection; the controllers come with serial numbers and download instructions but no bundled data media (CD-ROM or DVD).
Installing the drivers and KONTROL Editor software is easy and quick. The units all come preloaded with default Scenes that you can teach your DAW to follow, or you can use the Editor software to configure the units to follow your existing control maps. It took me all of ten minutes to reconfigure a Scene on the nanoKONTROL to work exactly as I had Live 8 already set up... and that was while I was learning to use the Editor software.
Most controls can be set to send either MIDI Control Change data or MIDI notes. You can specify things like Momentary or Toggle operation for individual buttons (and the nanoKEY's keys in CC Mode), data ranges for minimum and maximum, and MIDI channel (global and/or per control). The transport buttons on the nanoKONTROL can send MIDI Machine Control messages if desired. The nanoKEY and nanoPAD have globally selectable velocity response curves, and the pitch bend buttons on the nanoKEY can be set to cause instant or slightly smoothed pitch changes.
You can swap the settings of any two controls, or swap positions of two Scenes, with a simple drag and drop. Copying settings from one control to another, or even an entire Scene to another, is done with Ctrl-click (PC) / Option-click (Mac) and drag. Very slick!
In use, the nanoKEY and nanoKONTROL operate as expected with few surprises-one good surprise being the quite playable response of the nanoKEY's oddly-shaped keys-but the nanoPAD has some cool extras hidden under the hood. The Flam and Roll keys let you double-strike or machine-gun notes on a pad, with intensity and rate controlled by the XY pad controller. The Hold button lets you freeze the XY value of the pad controller where you let go of it; this works for MIDI data, Flams, and Rolls. And you can set up any given trigger pad to fire up to eight MIDI notes or Control Change messages. Trigger pad velocity response, individual Flam/Roll enable per Trigger pad, XY polarity and response time, and much more can be tweaked and saved.
Once you get the nanoSERIES units up and running, all sorts of possibilities suggest themselves beyond the usual portable-laptop use. For example, the nanoKEY can provide separate note data to set key-switched articulations on soft samplers, without dedicating an entire keyboard to the task. And because they're so inexpensive and simple to work with, even timid do-it-yourselfers can come up with cool configurations for them; I built a portable "easel" for my three units out of foamboard and Velcro that lets them be transported and set up as one unit with virtually no added size or weight, yet easily removed for separate use.
Complaints? Only one: most laptops have only a few USB connections available, and the nanoSERIES units eat them like potato chips. Plan to invest in a small portable 4-port USB hub; that way a full set of nanoSERIES units and a USB dongle can all share one port. Korg makes one called the nanoHUB.
The nanoSERIES units are the kind of product you look at and say, "I see where one of those would come in handy!" If you need a way to control a DAW or soft synth array that you can carry with you without breaking your back-or even just a second controller that doesn't take up much room-the nano Series offers a fantastic feature set at a price that's easily affordable within even the smallest studio budgets. Why not pick up a couple or three?
Prices: nanoKEY and nanoPAD, $62 each; nanoKONTROL, $72
More from: More from: Korg USA, 316 South Service Rd., Melville, NY 11747. 631/390-8737, www.korg.com.