Review - Computer Shopper, January 1999


In theory, you can get a computer with software and decent soundcard to replace many thousands of pounds' worth of hardware - the RB338 is a typical example of this. Another is the way modern MIDI sequencers (Cakewalk, Cubase et al) have combined MIDI recording and arranging with audio features to allow you to make complete recordings which can be a hybrid of MIDI - controlled synthesis and wave audio voice, real instruments and so on.

The combination is very effective - so much so that I stopped using my Fostex multi-track tape recorder for making band demos altogether. There is, however, the problem I alluded to when discussing RB338 - using the mouse to try to manipulate all those switches, buttons and sliders is quite difficult and one reason why professionals still use real mixing desks costing tens of thousands of pounds. However, help is at hand.

There are now three general purpose hardware devices available for controlling MIDI information. At the low end there's a device called the Phat Boy (£150) with fixed function rotary knobs which is non-programmable. Higher up, costing around £350, is Peavey's PC1600X with programmable buttons, sliders and stored scenes, allowing you to address all 16 MIDI channels at once. In between is the British-made Control Freak from Kenton Electronics, offering simultaneous eight-channel control (eight sliders plus eight programmable buttons) , and affordable at £249.

The Control Freak can be programmed to vary just about any kind of MIDI parameter you can name and comes already set up with a number of 'scenes' which address popular applications, one of them being control of ReBirth 338 parameters. You can program and store your own scenes for later recall if you need to. My own uses for such a device are twofold: firstly, to give me some manual control over the Cakewalk mixer and, secondly, as a lighting controller for the BCK LiteSHOW and NJD controllers which I use.

Programming the Control Freak is not a doddle. If you understand how MIDI works then you're in with a chance - even if you know MIDI, you'll need to spend some time absorbing the Control Freak's interface which is typical of most devices which have lots of parameters and a limited display (think VCR, mobile phone or central heating controller and you're on the right lines). It's not brain-numbingly impossible but not something you master in ten minutes either. This is just a warning to MIDI novices.

You can assign the sliders to vary parameters on a channel by channel basis to control such things as volume, pan, reverb depth, chorus level, delay time and feedback - anything for which your synth has a controller. The buttons, while simple, are mega useful. There are three ways to make each button send a control string: simply when it is pressed; one string when it is pressed and a second one when released; or, as a toggle, one string when switched to 'on' , then another, different one when switched to 'off'. As each control string can be of almost any length, and also contain information read from its associated slider, the possibilities are endless. Control Freak can also be used as a MIDI analyser - very helpful for tracking down glitches in a complex MIDI setup and (a Kenton speciality) can perform CV to MIDI conversions allowing owners of old non-MIDI keyboards to interface with MIDI gear.

The manual is a typical low-volume production affair consisting of 40 pages of photocopied A4. Working through the 'How Do I' section at the end helps to make things clearer, as can a phone call to the nice Kenton people.

The Control Freak is well made using good quality sliders and knobs, comes with a power supply and is housed in a strong steel case. If you've progressed beyond the novice stage of computers and music, one of these should be high on your list of prospective acquisitions.

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