by Danny Poit
If you are in the market for a quality MIDI controller without breaking the bank, this may be the one for you.
Novation’s Impulse line of MIDI keyboard controllers is a great option for composers and music producers who work heavily with virtual instruments and samples. It comes in three sizes:
- Impulse 25 (25-key): $250
- Impulse 49 (49-key): $350
- Impulse 61 (61-key): $400
All three versions share the same features; the higher key counts also have more faders and knobs. Personally, I went with the Impulse 61.
First, here’s a little background about my search for a keyboard: I had spent most of my time on 88-key controllers, thinking that was the only way to go. I had never even considered anything with less keys. However, one of the hallmarks of 88-key keyboards is that they are almost always fully-weighted in order to simulate the hammer action of a real piano. As a composer who works primarily in MIDI, this can be great when recording piano or slower, legato passages of other instruments. But it presents a real problem when trying to accurately depict faster staccato passages and most percussion. Because of this, many MIDI composers choose semi-weighted controllers as their weapon of choice.
A few years ago, I had traded in my fully-weighted 88-key digital piano for an M-Audio 88es Keystation. At the time, it was the only 88-key controller on the market with semi-weighted action. (Alesis now offers their Q88 model, but it is essentially the same model.) The 88es is nothing fancy, but it gets the job done, and it gave me the versatility of semi-weighted keys I had so desired. Over time, I grew tired of the cheap feel of the keys, and the noise of the cheaper-made keys began to drive me (and my wife) insane. You get what you pay for, and while the entry-level 88es served its purpose admirably, it became time for me to step up to a higher-quality model.
I looked at several different models in what I call the “mid-level” range ($400-700) from Studiologic, Novation, M-Audio, AKAI, and Roland. After much research, I decided on the Novation Impulse 61. The main reasons I landed on this model are:
- I specifically wanted semi-weighted keys, not fully-weighted or synth-action half keys, and was willing to give up the extra 17 keys.
- I needed a set of faders to draw MIDI CC data.
- I preferred a round mod wheel, not a mod “stick.”
- It has eight drum pads, which was an added bonus.
- All of the faders, buttons, knobs, and pads are highly programmable.
- It looks cool.
The keys have a nice feel to them and key noise is very minimal at lower velocities. At higher velocities, some key noise becomes present but no more than is to be expected. There is just enough key resistance to allow good control over velocities and plenty of spring to allow quick attacks and repetitions. Overall, I am very satisfied with the quality and action of the keys on this model, which was a very big deal to me.
The faders and knobs do have a cheap feel to them, and there is no resistance in the knobs at all. If you tend to use knobs a lot, this may be an issue. However, they all respond well and record accurate CC data in my DAW. As I mentioned, I use faders a lot to record CC data, and I have had no problems using these faders in that sense.
One of the features that initially had my interest was Novation’s proprietary Automap feature. Automap is a software that interfaces with all major DAWs to give the keyboard control of certain DAW functions and allow for quick, easy programming of faders and knobs. I had read mixed reviews on Automap, but it was one of the nice-to-have features I was interested in trying.
I installed the Automap software on my computer and configured it for my DAW (Logic), but immediately it started getting on my nerves. The software must be running at all times in order to work and pops up notifications in the top right of your screen when you do just about anything with your keyboard. In Logic, it installed an Automap-ready copy of every single plug-in I had. If you want to use Automap with a plug-in, it will need to have the Automap version of that plug-in running. Also, any old projects would need to have their plug-ins converted to Automap versions. What a mess!
On top of all this, the configurability in Automap is very limited. It only allows you to assign the faders and knobs within plug-ins – the other buttons and drum pads are off-limits. It doesn’t even allow you to modify how the transport controls work. For example, if pressing the Rewind button only moves the playhead backwards one tick in your DAW, you’re stuck with that. All of this made Automap not worth it to me, and I uninstalled it after a few hours. As much of a bummer this was, the good news is… MIDI mode is awesome!
There are two modes on the keyboard: Mixer mode and MIDI mode. Mixer mode is for Automap. But with Automap off, the keyboard stays in MIDI mode. After reading through the manual, I was able to program the controller just how I wanted it in MIDI mode. I had my faders controlling the CC values I wanted, I had repurposed the fader buttons into keyswitches for my virtual instruments, the knobs and drum pads were free to be quickly assigned as needed… even my transport controls are assigned exactly how I want them! It is highly configurable; buttons can be set to different modes, min/max velocity can be set, and you can switch between sending note data or CC data. All of this is saved into a template in the keyboard for easy recall. For me, MIDI mode is the way to go, and I have been very happy with how the keyboard has allowed me to personalize controls for my workflow.
The Novation Impulse line are superb mid-level MIDI controllers with a very nice feel and lots of configuration options. While not perfect, they are excellent offerings at their price points, and so far, my Impulse 61 has been a joy to work with.
- Good quality semi-weighted keys
- Highly programmable in MIDI mode
- Well-constructed and looks good, including blue LCD screen
- Quality mod wheel
- Convenient transport controls (best when custom-programmed in MIDI mode)
- Handy drum pads with fun features
- Cheap-feeling faders and knobs
- Automap feature leaving much to be desired
Product web site: http://us.novationmusic.com/midi-controllers/impulse