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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.

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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.

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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.

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"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...)
__________________
Please check out these MIDI requests: http://forum.cockos.com/showthread.php?t=103192
Thanks.

Last edited by mikeroephonics; 10-29-2016 at 05:49 PM.
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