I have always been huge fan of my M-Audio Axiom Pro. so asking me to review a Novation Impulse 49 controller is hardly fair - however setting aside my Axiom fan-boy gush, I decided to take on the challenge with an open mind and to see what was wrong with it. By the way that last line was a joke if you missed it.
Joking apart, Novation have been working hard in the last few years to try and get a look into the huge market share that M-Audio have been commanding with their controller keyboards. Controller keyboards have to tick so many boxes these days, firstly as a MIDI keyboard controller with a great action and then offer all the other bells and whistles such as performance and DAW control.
Comparisons are bound to be made, so right off the bat I will explain the key difference in the way that an Axiom handles the more powerful side of control versus the Novation. M-Audio Axiom Pro employs a system called Hypercontrol which maps controllers for the DAW and associated plug-ins at a system level. Novation use a system called Automap, which is in effect another piece of software that sits on your system and does some clever translation between the keyboard and the DAW and plug-ins. Automap has not always had a good press, so I was keen to see how the latest incarnation, Automap 4, would stand up to scrutiny, especially from this Axiom fan-boy.
The keyboard comes in a cool grey and red livery, just in case you haven’t seen one, it’s more grey than red, so it looks nothing like a London bus. It actually looks very smart with the red end tags, it also comes packed with controllers of all kinds including faders, rotary pots, drums pads, DAW transport controls and a nice backlit LCD screen. It features both USB MIDI and good ole fashioned MIDI input and output connectors, as well as the usual pedals. There is also a nice bundle of Ableton Live Lite, Novation Bass Station and Loopmasters Sample pack.
One of the cool pad features is a built in arpeggiator and drum roll for the pads - a la Maschine style
The build feels nice and solid, the keyboard is described as semi-weighted, although it feel slightly weightless to me - but they may just be a taste thing. Don’t get me wrong, having played such monsters as Yamaha 88 controllers from the 1980s and coming off the session feeling as if I just been in an Olympic Chinese burn session, seriously weighted is not my preference either, but a little more solid would be nice.
As ever, I wanted to see if I could break it, so I simply plugged it in without using the manual to see how far I could get on my Mac. It seemed happy to talk to core audio and play nice with all the stuff I threw at it, However, the big test for me was how would get on with my Pro Tools system and associated VIs. This, I knew, would require me to use the Autopmap 4 installer so I shoved it into my DVD drive. It was a very smooth installation, in fact one of the best set-up experiences I’ve had, as it took me step-by-step through the whole process for using it with Pro Tools. In fact it was so easy I think my computer phobic octogenarian father would be able to install it, perhaps even without swearing!
Then I booted Pro Tools and hey-presto I had Automap now living on my Mac as an App and ready to play nice with Pro Tools.
I then inserted a couple of instrument tracks of Xpand and Boom and it all mapped to the controllers on the Impulse, showing me exactly what each controller would do if I moved it. There were a couple of odd moments, particularly when a controller is assigned as a simple bypass and I found it easy to bypass a plug-in by mistake. That said, on the whole it worked as expected allowing me to turn faders up and down, start and stop and record and all the other stuff I would want.
I also wanted to see how the arpeggiator would work with Pro Tools and found that I could get it to lock to the MIDI clock on Pro Tools and then use it in recording. Even better it records every note you play, not just the one you are holding down. I’ve been wishing for an arpegiattor in Pro Tools for ever, so this is very cool - as is the drum roll, especially for dance beats. You can do cool snare rolls that also include all the dynamics, just like you can in Maschine.
As I said earlier, Automap has been subject to some criticism in the past, however I did not find this to be the case with the latest version, it seemed to play nice - although in not as transparent a fashion as Hypercontrol, it still did the job. I did find the constant popping up of Automap 4 screens more frequent than spam request from Nigerian banks, so found a way to stop that happening - that’s the info screen pop-ups, not the bank scams.
So what do I think of the Novation Impulse?
It certainly has a lot of features and some of them really useful and cool, such as the arpeggiator and Drum Roll options. I did find trying to edit some stuff as bad as trying to paper the hallway through the letterbox, but to be fair that issue is the same for any product that has a single LCD screen to edit with - the Axiom suffers the same fate. I also managed to hit a couple of buttons and lose controllers - but again, that’s my fault for not reading the manual.
However, when all is said and done, the Novation Impulse is well worth considering if you are looking for a keyboard controller, especially as mission control for your DAW set-up. If you are making dance and pop and use arpeggiator and drum rolls a lot, then in the final analysis it may be a winner.
The Impulse is a great keyboard at a reasonable price and if I’m really honest when comparing this with an Axiom then it may simply come down to your taste at the end of the day. Worth checking out.