Review - The Mix - July 1999
Kenton Electronics Control Freak Studio Edition programmable
It may seem like an 'anoraky' thing to say, but MIDI really is quite an amazing thing. Since its conception nearly two decades ago, it has managed to permeate practically every aspect of music-making - from synths and soundcards to effects units, from mixers to lighting controllers - all can be programmed, edited and controlled via the various flavours of MIDI messages.
So it seems strange that until recently, hardware devices to generate these messages in real-time have been few and far between. Until, that is, Kenton Electronics slapped 16 faders and a plethora of buttons into one fully programmable control surface. And so, good readers, you may now discard the oh-so-tasteful parka jackets and join me in giving a warm welcome to the Kenton Control Freak Studio Edition.
The Control Freak comes in two varieties: the original Control Freak that sports eight sliders and buttons, and the new Control Freak Studio Edition, which we will be looking at here. Some features of the Studio Edition vary slightly from the original Control Freak. Improvements have been made, although it seems Kenton have chosen not to double the memory size to accommodate twice the amount of data (as there are twice the number of controls). While the original version can store 128 profiles, the Studio Edition can only manage 64 - that's a bit on the paltry side. However, the difference in asking price is only £50, which isn't too much to ask for what's essentially twice the product.
The top panel of the unit is where all the action takes place. Here we find the 16 sliders, each topped by a single button. All editing of the Control Freak is taken care of with the set of 8 'F' (function) keys and data entry dial located at the right of the unit. A 2x16 backlit LCD nestles snugly above the F keys. When MIDI data is received or transmitted, the respective MIDI in or MIDI out LED will light. The other two LEDs light when in learn mode or edit mode respectively.
All connections to the Control Freak are made (unsurprisingly) on the back panel. The obligatory MIDI In, Out and Thru are all provided, along with a pair of external control input jacks - more on this later. Power is supplied by one of those pain-in-the-ass wall-wart PSUs. And as if this wasn't enough, Kenton, using their usual forethought, have topped the lot off with the addition of a MIDI clock generator.
Anyone who is familiar with MIDI and, more specifically, the various types of MIDI messages, will have no problem getting their head around the Control Freak. However, no effort has been spared to make it easy to use, with basic functions being quick and easy to get to.
Each slider and button (including the function keys) generates a pre-programmed MIDI message. Each set-up of 16 sliders and buttons has a name assigned to it, and is stored in a Program or Profile. Turning the beautifully responsive and solid alpha dial scrolls through the 64 programs.
The unit comes pre-set with a number of profiles already installed, and many more are available for download from Kenton's website (www.kentonuk.com). You can even post a request for them to program a particular profile for you (although whether they act on every request is debatable). The only fly in this internet ointment is that, at the time of writing, there were no profiles available for the Studio Edition.
Each button can have one of three operating modes: Press, where the button sends a single command when pressed; Press and Release, where the button sends one command when pressed and another when released; and Toggle, where the button sends one of two commands on successive presses.
While in normal operating mode, the top row of keys directly under the display operate as globally-definable function keys. Using the shift key allows for a total of eight function keys, all of which can be assigned one of the three operating modes. The sliders work in much the way you'd expect. Whenever a slider or button is used, the display shows the slider / button's name and what value it is transmitting, both as a normal decimal number and as a hexadecimal.
The two external inputs on the back of the unit can used for either data entry or as a CV-to-MIDI converter. For data entry, either a footswitch or continuous pedal can be used, but in either instance it replaces one of the unit's built in controllers rather than adding extra controllers. As a CV-to-MIDI gate it works as well as you would expect, coming, as it does, from a company who built up their considerable reputation on such devices.
Another gadget which Kenton are renowned for is the good ol' MIDI merge unit. And yes, you guessed it, one of these is included too. Data arriving at the MIDI in port is automatically merged with the data being generated and transmitted by the Control Freak. So, it's simplicity itself so far. But to fully appreciate the power of the Control Freak, you must start editing it. For now we'll assume that you already have an understanding of MIDI messages and the language in which they are transmitted.
Editing is all done from the right-hand section of the panel. Edit pages are selected using the two arrow keys above the alpha dial. The first page is where you select what is to be edited: Slider Data or Slider name, for example. The contents of subsequent pages vary depending on this first setting.
This system of editing is a bit clumsy until you get the hang of it, and it can be something of a challenge finding your way through to some of the parameters that are buried deeper within the unit. This is odd, really, when you consider that part of the concept of the Control Freak is to cut through all those tedious hours of trawling through menus and sub-menus. At the end of the day, however, and device with this much versatility is bound to have a bit of a steep learning curve attached to it, and it must be said that the basic operation of the Control Freak (i.e.: in Program mode) couldn't be easier.
Once acclimatised with the navigation system, things become straightforward again. After selecting which of the Control Freak's controls you want to edit, and setting its value range, you can select the type of MIDI message that will be generated. The full range of possible messages are covered, including System Exclusive, note on and off, NRPNs and RPNs, MIDI Machine Control - the lot.
Another press of the right arrow key allows you to start setting the rest of the parameters for the selected message type. There's far too many different permutations to discuss in full, but the principle remains the same. The pages are arranged in logical order, that is, they are ordered in the same way as the resulting MIDI string would be: Channel number -> Value 1 -> Value 2 -> and so on. When you reach the parameter that you want to control with the Control Freak, you simply set the parameters value to Data From Slider (or similar). Hit the store key when you are finished editing, and that's it.
Unfortunately, the unit's MIDI output is disabled during editing, so you need to exit edit mode to check that you have set the parameters up correctly. This wouldn't be too much of a pain if it wasn't for the fact that you have to store your edits on exiting edit mode, and the unit takes a comparatively long time to write its memory.
Trying to think of all the possible uses for the Control Freak is mind-boggling. The most obvious ones are with synths, soft-synths such as Rebirth, soundcards and sequencers. The ability to generate literally any MIDI message (and the enormous flexibility of the MIDI protocol) will make you wonder how you coped without one. Imagine being able to control all of VST's audio faders with a real-life fader. Or being able to tweak your effect unit's settings in a single touch.
On the downside, the Control Freak is yet another piece of kit that needs time spent on setting it up for the job at hand, and we all know how quickly scrolling through pages of menus dries up the creative juices - especially when the interface isn't as slick as it could be. Of course, once you have set up the profiles that you need, you are unlikely to have to spend much time editing. So, if you want a control surface for your synth, your sequencer, lighting rig, or anything with a MIDI port, then the Control Freak is the answer to all your prayers. In fact, if you have any sort of MIDI set-up whatsoever, you really should be taking a look at the Control Freak.