Old 10-29-2016, 05:04 PM   #1
mikeroephonics
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Thumbs up REVIEW: Roland A-800 Pro MIDI Keyboard Controller

My review of the Roland A-800 Pro MIDI Keyboard Controller

Pros:
- Very compact and lightweight. Only 10lbs!
- 61 keys. Keyboard action is nice (for me) but may require a learning curve for hammer-action players.
- Overall construction is good. Keys, knobs, sliders, button and connections feel solid.
- A-Pro Editor software is powerful and easy to use (so long as you have a decent understanding of how MIDI messages work.)

Cons:
- Aftertouch is very difficult to engage, and requires a simple internal adjustment to improve sensitivity, at the expense of voiding the warranty. Post-adjustment aftertouch sensitivity is still slightly difficult to engage. This is a mechanical hardware problem, not software.
- No way to disable the Bender Lever hardware control from sending MIDI data. Disabling pitchbend or modwheel hardware control requires unplugging pitchbend or modwheel cable inside enclosure, at the expense of voiding the warranty.

Overall:
Overall, I give the controller a 9 out of 10. I docked a point because it's advertised as having aftertouch, but it's difficult to engage. Aside from that, it's a powerful controller with lots of MIDI programmability. I recommend trying one out at your local music store.

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Keyboard Action:
I'll get right to this, as it's one of the most important features in a MIDI keyboard controller. The keys are synth-weighted, using a spring at the back of the key which stretches when you push down the key. This is different from some spring designs in which the spring is underneath the key and is compressed when you push down the key. On the A-Pro, the keys return quickly to their rest position with no up & down wobble. This allows for quick note repetitions, especially when playing a single key with two fingers, alternating between fingers.

There is very little horizontal play of the white keys, however, there is a bit more horizontal play on the black keys, but during normal playing, I haven't found this to be a problem. Still, an updated design in newer units would be appreciated.

- Key Size:
The keys are smaller than standard full-sized keys you find on workstation keyboards and on hammer-action 88-key controllers. This may be a problem for people with bigger hands, as you may accidentally press two keys at the same time. They're also shorter (back-to-front length). The shorter back-to-front length may not provide enough space for people with long fingers. However, the black keys are more narrow (left-to-right length) than full-sized black keys, even when taking into consideration the scaled-down size of ALL keys. This provides more space between black keys to allow the user to press down the white keys in-between two black keys (A, D & G).

- Feel of the Keys:
The keys are rounded on the edges, which provides a noticeably smooth feel to them. The finish is flat, with no "woodgrain" texturing found on some keyboards. I prefer the flat finish. It's easy to glide along their surface.

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- Keyboard Channel Aftertouch:
There is an aftertouch strip spanning the entire underside of the keybed. To be clear, this is a GLOBAL/CHANNEL aftertouch, not polyphonic aftertouch. All keys control the same aftertouch strip. This strip allow you to broadcast MIDI aftertouch when you hold down a key and apply varying pressure while continuing to hold. Aftertouch allows you to change the sound as the note sustains by controlling MIDI messages such as volume, pitch, filters, etc. inside your sound module and virtual instruments. This translates to additional expression of the musical performance. The strip sends out MIDI Channel Aftertouch on a single user-defined MIDI channel. The free A-Pro Editor.exe lets you easily program the aftertouch strip to send ANY MIDI Continuous Controller message, if desired.

Aftertouch Strip Sensitivity:

Many users, myself included, complain about how difficult it is to engage the aftertouch strip. You REALLY have to dig into the key to make it work, especially if you're trying to send a maximum channel aftertouch value of 127. It borders on or beyond the threshold of pain, depending on how strong your hands are. Put another way, the amount of pressure required to send a minimum value of 0 is closer to what it should be to send a maximum value of 127.

Fortunately, there is a relatively easy fix to increase the strip's sensitivity to pressure. Inside the keyboard's enclosure, there's a small potentiometer which is set to about 75% of maximum. Using a flat head screwdriver, you can turn it clockwise to increase the aftertouch sensitivity. In addition to this adjustment, the A-Pro firmware includes 4 aftertouch curve presets for varying the "pressure-to-value" curve.

Aftertouch preset curves 1 and 4 feel the best to me. I prefer preset 4 to more easily control smaller aftertouch values (from 0 to about 64) and preset 1 to control higher values above 64. Presets 2 and 3 feel too "jumpy."

For detailed steps on how to perform this modification, see the bottom of this review.

================================================


Bender Lever:
For those unfamiliar with Roland's bender lever, it's a mechanical device which controls two potentiometers. One potentiometer sends pitchbend values; the other, modwheel values. The bender lever can move left/right for pitchbend, and up/down for modwheel. The benefit of this design is that it lets you send pitchbend and modwheel data either one at a time, or at the same time, with full control over both at any point in time. The bender lever is made of rubber. It's easy to hold onto and control. I can maintain control over it, even if only pressing it on one side.

Some people love the bender lever, some people hate it. I personally love it, but it does have the following drawbacks:

1.) You may accidentally change one control while intentionally changing another.
2.) If you let go of the modwheel control, the spring returns it to the lowest position (modwheel CC value = 0).
This can cause problems with some virtual instruments which rely on modwheel position to perform dynamic crossfades, or toggle between playing techniques. A workaround to this problem is to assign the "modulation continuous controller (CC 1)" to either a knob or slider to guarantee the value doesn't change unless you move it.
3.) Even with the A-Pro firmware or A-Pro Editor, you cannot permanently disable either control. The only way to guarantee a control is disabled is to disconnect its cable from within the enclosure, which voids the warranty. Hopefully, this will be addressed with a firmware update.

Pitch Bend control:

The pitch bend spring feels nice to me. Not too much resistance, but enough to allow fine-tuned control over the pitch. It returns to its center position (unity pitch) quickly.

Modwheel Control:
The modwheel spring also feels nice to me. It requires a little more force compared to the pitch bend spring, but I like it.

================================================


Buttons (Above Bender Lever):

These 12 buttons feel nice. They have little play and have a smooth plastic surface. There's an LED underneath each of them which turns on when pressed.

Transport Buttons (L1 through L8):
These 9 buttons also feel nice, but they have a little more play than the buttons above the Bender Lever. They're made of rubber and easy to grip onto. There's an orange LED underneath them which turns on while pressed.

Knobs (R1 through R9):

The 9 knobs feel good. They're coated with rubber and have enough resistance to allow you to dial in precise values. There's a small white mark on top of them which points at 12 o'clock when the knob is centered (where continuous controller values = 64). The surface of the keyboard has reference markings, so you don't have to always look at the LCD to ensure the value is correct. The knobs have fixed low and high positions. They are not endless like the [Value] knob. Given that their application is for continuous controllers, which have minimum and maximum values, this design makes sense.

Sliders (S1 through S9):
The 9 sliders feel good, however they have a little left/right play, but I don't find it to be enough to cause problems. They're also coated with rubber, a indicator notch and reference markings on the keyboard surface. There is a wider gap separating each set of 4 sliders to help differentiate which slider is which.

================================================


"Virtual Center Click" Option:

Using the free A-Pro Editor, you can enable "Virtual Center Click" for Sliders and Knobs. Quoting the manual:
"The A-PRO’s knobs and sliders do not have a center click. However if you turn the Virtual Center Click function on, they will be given a “virtual” center click so that a broader range in the center of the controller’s range of motion will produce the center value."

This is useful for parameters such as panning, when you're trying to quickly center the pan fader. The "panning" continuous controller has a value of 64 when centered. Virtual Center Click provides a wider range of positions for hardware sliders & knobs to send a value of 64. This is a very clever and ergonomic feature.

(Continued in next post...)
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Last edited by mikeroephonics; 10-29-2016 at 05:49 PM.
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Old 10-29-2016, 05:05 PM   #2
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Dynamic Pads:

Roland markets these pads as though they are suitable for finger drumming, but they wiggle horizontally and have a little room to press down before registering a note press. These pads are more suitable for sending Bank/Program Change messages or for controlling "on/off" type parameters in your DAW host (mute, solo, etc.) If you need pads for finger drumming, these are not a good solution. For quality pads, I recommend the KMI QuNeo controller (which can also send aftertouch and much more.)

================================================


[Value] Knob:

This knob has good build quality. It's stepped and can be pressed down, which functions as the [Enter] button. You'll need to use this often if you're a tweakhead, so it's good to know it feels rugged.

LCD Display:
The LCD display is small, but legible. It has an orange backlight which is always on. You can adjust the contrast but I find keeping it at maximum contrast is sufficient for legibility. It displays the currently broadcasted continuous controller value as a number, or the current velocity value using "bars" of different length.

Side Panel Connections:

The connections for USB, 5-pin MIDI I/O and 1/4" pedal connections are snug. I'm not worried about cables falling out during a performance. This is a big plus. The switches for "USB/OFF/DC" and "MIDI Merge OFF/ON" have a good click and require a good deal of force to move. They're small and shouldn't get in the way.

================================================


Driver Stability:
I'm using the Windows 7 64-bit driver, and it's working perfectly so far. MIDI timing feels very tight, with no sluggishness at all.

================================================


Programmability:
The A-Pro comes with the free A-Pro Editor. The editor lets you assign various MIDI messages to any knob, slider, pad, button, the aftertouch strip, pedals, pitch bend lever and modwheel lever. This customization is very powerful for controlling host software, plug-ins and virtual instruments. If you're using something like Kontakt or Omnisphere, you can create all sorts of musically useful assignments for the A-Pro hardware controls. The A-Pro Editor is one of the biggest strengths of the A-Pro.

Messages which can be assigned to the hardware controllers:

- [NO ASSIGN] (The controller will not send any MIDI message. The exceptions to this are that hold, expression, bender, modulation and aftertouch controllers will send their default messages when set to [NO ASSIGN].)

- "Channel Message" types:

- Note
- Channel Pressure (Channel Aftertouch)
- Polyphonic Key Pressure (Polyphonic Aftertouch)
- Control Change (<= The most common messages to send. Ex: Modwheel, Volume, Pan, etc.)
- Program Change
- Program Change (Min-Max)
- Bank Select + Program Change
- Program Change - Dec (decreases value by 1 with each press)
- Program Change - Inc (increases value by 1 with each press)
- RPN (Registered Program Number)
- NRPN (Non-Registered Program Number)
- Encoder Simulate (specify a Control Number)

- System Realtime/F6

- System Exclusive Messages

- Free Messages

- Tempo

================================================


A-Pro Editor highlights:

- Store presets (called "Control Maps") on your computer as .mid files
- Send and receive Control Maps to and from your A-Pro controller
- Export and view MIDI message "Assign Lists" as .html files in a web browser
- Copy/Paste settings from one hardware controller to another for fast programming
- From "Options > Show messages" displays any mapped MIDI messages directly above the GUI controllers as well as the assigned MIDI channel
- When "Show Messages" is enabled, the boxes displaying MIDI messages and channels are color-coded, indicating which port(s) the hardware controller is broadcasting on (Port 1, Port 2 or both ports)
- Stores changes to a controller even if you don't click [OK] in floating window. Great for fast programming.
- Freely assign min & max CC values (Allows support for sustain pedals without a "reverse polarity" switch.)

Create Keyboard Sets:

- Keyboard Sets define splits for Upper and Lower play zones on the keyboard.
- Each play zone can cover any range of notes included on the controller (A-300 has 25 notes, A-500 has 49 notes, A-800 has 61 notes)
- Each play zone can be mapped to any octave, any MIDI channel

================================================


Aftertouch Strip Adjustment:
WARNING: Perform this adjustment at your own risk! Opening the enclosure and modifying the electronics will void your warranty!

Having said that, the fix is relatively simple. Just take your time and keep track of the screws. Below, I've provided a few links which describe how to perform this fix. Pictures are included in the top two links.

Roland A800 Pro Aftertouch Mod:
http://forums.musicplayer.com/ubbthr...Aftertouch_Mod

Roland A-PRO aftertouch fix (calibration) procedure:
https://www.gearslutz.com/board/10752884-post80.html

Improving aftertouch sensitivity on the A-Pro keyboard series:
http://forum.cakewalk.com/Improving-...-m2937406.aspx
__________________
Please check out these MIDI requests: http://forum.cockos.com/showthread.php?t=103192
Thanks.

Last edited by mikeroephonics; 10-29-2016 at 05:58 PM.
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Old 01-29-2017, 10:53 PM   #3
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This keyboard does not deserve 9/10, it's more like 6/10, because the user interface is ridiculous. Transpose function is unusable. There are several bugs and no F/W patches have ever been released, even though the problems were reported years ago both on forums and directly to tech support. Roland customer support is basically non-existent. They continue to churn out this product with the old problems unaddressed, finger to the customer.
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Old 01-30-2017, 06:09 AM   #4
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9/10? Nah. Viscount K4 is around there, if you need a great MIDI controller. Actually, that one is 10/10
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Old 01-30-2017, 07:00 AM   #5
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No longer a fan of Roland A-800. My unit developed a known firmware fault. Roland UK won't service it themselves. Roland recommended agent (seems like a nice helpful guy, but not equipped for affordable repairs on lower end gear like this) had never looked at one, ever!
Q: Can you guess why?
A: It would cost about the same as a new unit to get it serviced, or even just fitting new PCBs yourself, the boards are that expensive. So owing to a firmware fault that takes months to develop it is landfill, or spares and repairs.
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Old 01-30-2017, 09:14 AM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by EvilDragon View Post
9/10? Nah. Viscount K4 is around there, if you need a great MIDI controller. Actually, that one is 10/10
I wasn't aware of the Viscount K4 but have just had a look. I think giving it 10/10 you are being overoptimistic. For me the ideal MIDI controller keyboard is an amalgamation of existing products. It really is quite simple:

● Price £500 max, but I'd be glad to pay a bit more if all the following requirements are satisfied.
● A quality keybed (e.g. Fatar or better). This includes no side play, no strange noises, no sticky keys, white keys and black keys offer equal amounts of resistance, etc. Common sense really.
● Keys made of scratch resistant plastic.
● Available in 37, 49, 61 keys.
● Full-size keys.
● Personal preference: semi-weighted synth action keys
● All keys flush to one another (I've seen keyboards where some keys are higher than others).
● Plenty of backlit buttons with nice tactile feel and no sideways rocking. Best avoid rubber.
● Controls should NOT be labelled because all users have different requirements.
● If it has to have drum pads, then at least 16 of them and as good as Maschine's at least.
● If it must have faders, then 9 of them, and motorised (and obviously able to accept parameter feedback). Personally I would prefer rotary encoders with a linear LED bar so they somewhat resemble sliders, the advantage of this is no electromechanical bits to go kaput.
● At least 8 high-res rotary encoders (BCR2000 encoders seem pretty good), perhaps more, with LED rings consisting of at least 15 LEDs each.
● All controls able to be programmed to send standard MIDI messages, similar level of programmability as BCR2000 (i.e. very versatile)
● All buttons, encoders and faders fully programmable to transmit any message (including SysEx and custom messages) defined by the MIDI standard.
● All LEDs are RGB and their colour can be programmable. Colours are stored as part of each preset.
● LEDs can also be programmed to respond to MIDI feedback instead of using the programmed colour (e.g. set colour to "none" and then it becomes the DAWs job to send colour info, for example like Novation Launchpad using simple CC messages or whatever).
● Dedicated octave +/- transpose buttons, backlit.
● Dedicated semitone transpose +/- buttons, backlit.
● Dedicated transpose indicator LEDs (or show info on LCD if available)
● Ability to reset transpose by pressing + & - buttons simultaneously
● Poly AT, operation force (aka sensitivity) reasonable for a typical human being (unlike Roland A-PRO).
● Good quality, separate mod and pitch wheels, with no wobble, ideally with some sort of backlighting for easy location in the dark.
● Small but functional backlit LCD, again backlight color programmable. Menu system must not be too deeply nested.
● LCD front made of scratch-resistant material e.g. gorilla glass etc. Even cheap smartphones have this.
● Menu navigation by means of tried-and-tested up/down/left/right/ok/back buttons, if needed. Data entry can be done using existing encoders. The BCR2000 is a breeze to program with zero menu diving, use that as a reference.
● Typical features such as: A choice of velocity and AT pressure curves (both keys and pads), including a fixed value; zone splits; a generous number of named presets (name stored on device itself) for easy recall; etc.
● Implements MCU protocol as a template that users can customise, not as a mode. This way users can define a fader to control master volume and the rest for normal CC messages.
● Would be nice to have small backlit LCD scribble strip above each fader, but support for these is quite poor and limited so I personally think it's better if these are omitted to simplify the design and therefore minimize the chances of bugs and things going wrong in general.
● A decent software editor.
● MIDI in, out & thru ports.
● Connections for sustain and expression pedals
● USB 2.0 interface or later, bus-powered (maybe not possible with motorised faders).
● Not a must but a built-in 3-port USB hub for daisy-chaining is always nice.
● All connections at the back and centred, not on the sides.
● Multi-client MIDI driver for Windows.
● Device fully class-compliant. Proprietary host integration usually doesn't work well over MIDI, try OSC instead. In the interest of simplicity and reliability it may be better to just forget about host integration completely and embrace, reluctantly, the many limitations of our friend MIDI 1.0.
● Firmware needs to be open-source, to create a truly future-proof product that users can continue to maintain should the manufacturer discontinue it.
● Provide a programming interface so the community can expand the product.
● Form factor as small as possible. Studio real estate is precious. For example, avoid ridiculously bulky shells such as Novation Impulse which is just a big tacky piece of hollow plastic with a terrible keyboard on it.
● Shell built from durable scratch-resistant rugged plastic, as seen in older Lenovo Thinkpad laptops.
● At all costs refrain from using rubberised plastic, as the rubberising perishes after a few years becoming an irreversible gooey mess. Always. Every time.
● Shell injection-moulding done correctly that shell is not warped (my Roland A-PRO 500 and both my Launchpads have a bit of a bow shape to them).
● Held together with either Allen or Pozidriv (not Phillips) screws. Refrain from using exotic tamper-proof screws which only annoy people.
● Discrete logos, possibly a glowing logo (RGB colour, customizable).
● Overall minimalistic, clean and simple design.
● Minimum 3-year warranty?
● Good customer after-sales support, including forum participation (e.g. thread on KVR or whatever).

Et voila! You got the perfect MIDI keyboard

Edit: Added more items to the list.

Last edited by Scoox; 01-30-2017 at 09:39 AM.
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Old 01-31-2017, 01:53 AM   #7
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Haha.


No, I don't think I'm being overly optimistic. K4 does a LOT of things just right, and as far as MIDI control it is top of the crop. And it has a pretty great keybed (TP40L, or optionally TP40WOOD, if you're that kind of guy) with a very good aftertouch (not requiring elephant force like Rolands).

You won't get a great poly AT action for 500 quid, that's just not happening.
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Old 01-31-2017, 04:55 AM   #8
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@ Scoox,

Here's something you could try: send the feature list off to each of the main keyboard manufacturers and let us know what they say
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Old 01-31-2017, 07:55 AM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by DarkStar View Post
@ Scoox,

Here's something you could try: send the feature list off to each of the main keyboard manufacturers and let us know what they say
I've already sent several feature suggestions to Roland, and so far not even a lousy firmware update... I might have better luck emailing Dave Smith or a smaller keyboard company that pride themselves in quality.

I still think better designs are possible for £500. For example, the A-PRO is mostly a well-built product. The product could be greatly improved by means of a firmware update and turning a small pot inside the unit. No added materials cost, so the product could continue to sell at the original price. It's obvious Roland don't care.

Over the years I've seen many keyboards come and go, but the Novation SL mk2 and the Roland A-PRO remain the "least bad", and their respective manufacturers don't bother to improve the product because 1) people are still buying it (even with flaws built into the design!) and 2) all other competing products are considerably worse.

Roland's A-49 is actually quite good, no bells and whistles, just a straightforward and very decent key board. If they had a 61-key version (A-61?) I would have bought that over the A-800PRO. It's the keys I'm after, not the buttons and the LED porn.

ATM I'm so emotionally detached from my A-PRO that I'm considering using making a 3D-printed Janko conversion kit for it at the risk of breaking it. And if I break it I'll just get a synth with a decent keyboard. I don't use the knobs and faders on my A-PRO anyway, so I don't think I'd be missing much.
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Old 01-31-2017, 08:21 AM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by EvilDragon View Post
Haha.


No, I don't think I'm being overly optimistic. K4 does a LOT of things just right, and as far as MIDI control it is top of the crop. And it has a pretty great keybed (TP40L, or optionally TP40WOOD, if you're that kind of guy) with a very good aftertouch (not requiring elephant force like Rolands).

You won't get a great poly AT action for 500 quid, that's just not happening.
Looked at it in more detail: Yes it does indeed a lot of things right, if you are looking for an all-in-one product. I would consider a 61-key synth-action edition, if it was lighter (rugged plastic shell would be fine for me if that saved weight). I don't really need all those pots and faders--they don't accept MIDI feedback, so they are pretty useless for DAW use and only waste space as far as I'm concerned. I'm sure my requirements are a little unusual but all I need is a simple 61-key synth action controller with nice keys, nothing more., Roland got pretty close with their A-49--just add poly AT and an extra octave and I'm sold.
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Old 01-31-2017, 08:46 AM   #11
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Well, K4's purpose wasn't mainly DAW control, but hardware control, where MIDI feedback is not really that important. Hence 8 MIDI outs on the back!!
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Old 01-31-2017, 09:47 AM   #12
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I like the A-800PRO very much. I like the faders since it is easier to tell positions faster than using the rotaries. Never had a problem with the firmware. However with the Roland stick I changed the mod part to go no lower than 64 at rest using the editor.
Wanted a 88 keyboard and Roland does not make a pro 88 keyboard. Tried M-audio 88keystation which turns out to be a mistake. I return it.
Now using the Studiologic SL88 Studio which is working much better for my needs.
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Old 01-31-2017, 09:53 AM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by EvilDragon View Post
Well, K4's purpose wasn't mainly DAW control, but hardware control, where MIDI feedback is not really that important. Hence 8 MIDI outs on the back!!
That makes sense So I guess the bottom line is there's still a good opportunity for someone to make a nice DAW controller.
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Old 01-31-2017, 10:26 AM   #14
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Those do exist already. Without keyboard.

And in fact I think that's the way to go, since that's the only way you're gonna get the best of both worlds - superb keybed, and superb DAW control with scribble strips, motorized faders, etc.
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Old 01-31-2017, 11:43 AM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by EvilDragon View Post
Those do exist already. Without keyboard.

And in fact I think that's the way to go, since that's the only way you're gonna get the best of both worlds - superb keybed, and superb DAW control with scribble strips, motorized faders, etc.
I misspoke, meant the keyboard bit
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Old 01-31-2017, 08:50 PM   #16
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FWIW I have one and, knock wood, haven't had any issues with it.

I bought it primarily because it was the cheapest controller that allowed me to send Bank Select MSB/LSB and Program Change messages with a single button push and that had a physical MIDI Out port.

I don't like the keys. I like my old Roland D-5 better! The action is ok, but the size is a nuisance, with there being less leverage on the black keys. It seems far easier for me to miss a key, or not press one down because I'm too far on the back of the key (and I have small hands).

I gigged with mine for about 2 years. About all that happened was, at first I didn't have a case and the little knobs came off the sliders. I lost them in the car, or on the stage, or somewhere. So right now, 4 of my 9 faders don't have knobs on them! They come off way too easy.

I'm not crazy about the USB connection, which is very snug and makes me feel like it's going to rip the jack out our push it in.

I did have a stand collapse on me once and it broke a little piece off the power on switch but it still works. That was my own stupid fault though.

The software is rudimentary at best, but it works for me. I had to learn how to program SysEx messages to get some things to work and again, it has worked great for that. I used multiple control maps for different settings when we did a big show that required lots of control over a number of keyboards that changed settings during the performance. It worked great.

So I feel like I at least got my money's worth out of it.

I did put duct tape on it to mark stuff, and then when pulling it off left tons of residue. Now my Eb4 and E4 keys are "sticky" seeming when you press them and I'm afraid some duct tape debris might have fallen down inside.

I was a little taken aback by the price difference between the 300 500 and 800 because it's really just more keys - the features are the same. I had a used 500 for a while and moved up to the 800 once I was sure it could do everything I needed it to do.

9/10 for my particular use.

Would I rather have a lot more features and a lot better build quality? You betcha. But ain't nobody gonna make that for no $500.00.
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