The AIR range continues to expand – literally… Liam O’Mullane checks out M-Audio’s latest and largest flagship controllers.
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MAudio’s first entries in the Axiom range offered a lot of compact controls in a typical MIDI controller footprint. Fast-forward to this latest AIR release, though, and the format has changed quite a bit – in fact, the first thing we noticed when we took this 25-key controller out of its box was its sheer size. This is because most other controllers out there either have drum pads placed in two rows, or shrink each pad’s size to accommodate a batch of 16 while keeping the depth of the unit fairly shallow.
The Air eschews such compromise, having a depth that measures just over 42cm. This allows for 16 full-size MPC-style pads and gives it more of a full-on synth feel than that of a typical MIDI controller.
We’re reviewing the 25-key model, but larger spreads of 49 and 61 keys are available. The drum pads are pressure-sensitive and the light-action keys also feature aftertouch. This gives the user more ways to express themselves, rather than having just velocity-sensitivity to play with. Eight endless encoders and a single medium-throw fader are included in the 25-key model, but nine faders are featured on both the 49- and 69-key options. Asides from the pitch wheel, mod wheel, octave-switching and the large raised LCD in the centre, the rest of the smaller buttons are for specific operating modes, which we’ll get to in a minute.
The rear of the unit includes 5-pin MIDI I/O, so this can act as an interface for external hardware MIDI gear; if you run it from a power supply it could be wired directly to other hardware for live use, without the need for a computer. Connections for expression and sustain pedals are also included.
The AIR’s pad section is interesting as it includes three different banks that can be cycled through using a single button. The pads’ note output can be custom-mapped in Edit mode, which is really handy if you want to jam with sounds or samples that aren’t necessarily in chromatic order.
A drum-roll function is also included, and the repeat rate can be controlled via function keys on the main keyboard. The pads feel solid enough but there’s a bit of give in the centre of the casing, which gives a slightly different feel to the pads on the lower left. This also makes the pressure-sensitivity slightly uneven. Note length and swing for drum roll can be controlled using the cursor keys in the central control panel. Having note-length/gate adjustment is great as you don’t always want to use just drum sounds with a roll feature. For instance, it offers creative control when working with momentary sample-playback or melodic instruments.
HyperControl is a new name for M-Audio’s previous DirectLink mode and it allows for automatic mapping setup with your choice of DAW. We managed to set it up quickly with Cubase 7 and could immediately cycle through controlling the mixer levels, pan, instruments and effects by switching through various modes on the AIR. We also tried it with Ableton Live 9 and had a similarly painless experience, so this could really help your workflow if you would rather use the controller more than the mouse as you work.
We used the Axiom to input various ideas into Live and to navigate around both Session and Arrangement Views, finding a good level of control available. Dedicated transport controls are always a boon in any software when working with a linear arrangement page, and generally we found the other controls on the unit were also quite easy to become familiar with.
This unit isn’t pitched in the budget price range, but it delivers on the kinds of features you’d expect at this level. The knobs, buttons and pitch/modulation wheels all feel solid to work with, and the drum pads and keys are OK, but don’t feel quite up to the standard of the other features. As usual, we’d recommend you try them for yourself before you buy. However, considering the features this unit offers (it includes Live Lite as well as the full Ignite DAW package), it’s good value for money and could be a good first investment for those just starting up a studio.
● Includes Live Lite and Ignite sequencing software
● Expression and sustain pedal inputs
● 5-pin MIDI I/O
● Velocity and aftertouch/pressure-sensitive keys and drum pads
● HyperControl Mix mode and Inst/Mix modes