Cheap, fun and capable
In the Lilliputian technological spirit of the age, Korg has produced possibly three of the smallest Midi controllers ever, appropriately dubbed the Nano range.
Is small really beautiful or are these mini-me knock-offs of their heftier Korg brethren ill-equipped to face the real world?
All three are impressively compact, being no wider or thicker than a MacBook. The Nano Key is a 25-key Midi keyboard, with Octave Down and Octave Up buttons that trigger lights that neatly cycle between red, yellow and green according to the keyboard’s selected range; buttons for pitch and modulation messages; and a button for CC Mode. This latter feature enables the Key to be used as a trigger or controller device, so you can as easily set it up to control the transport keys of your sequencer or fire off samples as you can to play basslines or melodies. By selecting an appropriate velocity curve, it’s possible to capture a performance with reasonable dynamics and expression.
Kontrol is the mix accessory of the Nano trio, with nine knobs, nine faders, 18 buttons (which can send Midi control data or notes) and transport controls.
Kontrol is equally at home with virtual synths as it is with a sequencer’s mixer. We mapped various functions from some favourite synths – for example, Arturia’s Minimoog, TimewARP 2600 and Gmedia’s impOSCar – and everything worked well enough. Given the four programmable scenes, you could, with some dextrous mapping, control four separate devices from one Kontrol.
You could even theoretically control an entire 32-track mixer, with pan, mute and solo functionality. We say theoretically because there’s a good chance that by the time you’ve successfully mapped 32 channels of, say, your Logic Pro mixer to Kontrol (as we did), you’ll have lost the will to live. We sincerely wish that Korg had supplied templates for the most popular sequencers, pre-mapped to popular functions. As it is, every user has to start from scratch, which isn’t as straightforward as it should be.
There were other disappointments: there’s no centre detent for the rotary controls and not all the faders were equally smooth – some had noticeably more resistance at certain points. The Midi information transmitted isn’t exactly ultra-precise, either.
For an eminently portable multi-bank fader set, Kontrol does a decent job and is surprisingly tactile. We just expected more felicitous ease of use.
The Nano Pad was our favourite, being straightforward in both concept and execution. Its 12 rubber pads are reasonably responsive and can send either note or control data, so it can double as a trigger for Midi events such as Ableton Live clips. Like Kontrol, four scenes can be saved.
Naturally, Pad’s for programming drums, and we had a ball experimenting with various kits in EZdrummer and BFD2. The X/Y ribbon pad is an ingenious addition: used in conjunction with the Flam or Roll buttons (all borrowed from Korg’s own highly regarded PadKontrol), you can easily program realistic results. Dragging your finger across the X/Y strip creates, say, the snare roll; up or down affects the volume of the hits. There’s also a Hold button, which will repeat a note indefinitely. The pads feel pretty good and you can vary the dynamics at the louder end of the scale. Getting a really gentle brush snare hit in between harder whacks was not so successful, though.
Some automatic mapping was a little off, too: some EZ kits would have one bongo or conga from a pair mapped, but not the other one. Also, with only 12 pads, we often found ourselves one cymbal short of a full drum kit. Again, the price/performance ratio here should dictate your expectations. Of the three, Nano Pad is the one we enjoyed our time with most and is probably also the one most likely to fulfill a need in the average Midi musician’s arsenal. At their sub-£50 price point, however, all three are readily accessible to the Nano-curious Mac musician and – given their size – will do a creditable job wherever the spirit takes you. They’re cheap and fun, but eminently capable.