- Does the world need more MIDI controllers? The answer seems to be a resounding "yes" from all parties, consumers included. Maybe it's because there are as many production workflows as there are producers. Even so, uniqueness and personality are still essential in such a full market. Austin-based company Livid Instruments have hit this nail on the head in this regard. Their controllers are designed around a "blank slate" philosophy, and their product range, accordingly, stands alone. It ranges from units with grids of knobs or buttons to their Builder kits, which allow people to design their own units from pre-made circuit board modules. A particular characteristic of their ethos is that hack fiends, whether hardware or software, can dig deep in order to personalise their setup, while those looking for a more ready solution will be happy with how their new toy comes out of the box. MIDI editor software is provided for all of their complete solutions, and a number of them are geared towards Ableton Live, with features like 8x8 grids of buttons and crossfaders.
The CNTRL:R features a smaller 4x4 grid in the middle, and is similarly at home in Live. The Python scripts provided for version 8 assign the buttons to a grid that you can move around on the screen, and the left hand faders and all the potentiometers—the array of 12 knobs on each side—follow the channels selected, with control of EQ, sends and pan. The right hand faders control return, preview and master tracks, and the strip along the bottom handles things like transport, mute and record arm, again for the selected channels. The 12 endless push button encoders in the centre are assignable across four selectable channels. It's a smoothly executed solution for overall control of the program.
There's also a map for Traktor available, and since it's class compliant you can immediately plug and play with any MIDI ready software you choose. On the back are MIDI In and Out ports, with the Out port able to send MIDI messages from the unit, so you can also use it to control, say, outboard synths. It'll need to be connected to a computer running some kind of MIDI software—basic or otherwise—for these ports to work at all, though. Also on the back are two jacks for connecting any kind of passive controller you choose, and a grid of pins for the same thing, with the connector-style being particularly fitting for use with their XPC expansion controllers. The editor software enables you to edit note and cc assignments for all of the panel controls and for the sockets on the back as well. The LEDs behind each button light up in response to incoming MIDI notes, which are configurable. There are three LEDs behind each button—red, green and blue—meaning seven possible colours, with each colour assigned to a velocity range. The knobs are also orbited by LED indicators, and don't all these LEDs just look great.
As with all of Livid's controllers, CNTRL:R is wide open for you to customize. The scripts that control Live are provided as just that—raw script files. This means you can open them, edit the code and create your own. A lot of the accessory software, meanwhile, comes as devices for Max or Max for Live, again allowing you to handle its inner workings. A comprehensive Sysex command set is provided in the online wiki, including access to MIDI mapping and LED assignments. (Sensibly, there's no CD or manual provided in the box—everything's online—to save trees and bring down costs.)
The defining feature of the CNTRL:R, though, is its 2 x 16 step sequencer grid. You can assign the buttons how you wish, of course, as they all send MIDI notes. But this array is clearly best used as a step sequencer—the unit was designed in collaboration with Richie Hawtin, and road tested by the artists on Minus, and this is most evident here considering the way he's been a major proponent of the 909. If you're working with Live, you'll want the Drum Stepp:r and Synth Stepp:r to handle this functionality, which are Max for Live devices. They handle note input, and they also handle dynamic LED lighting to track the flow of the sequence, show whether a note's programmed on a particular step, or show whether a step's muted. The 4 x 4 grid selects between different hits for a drum rack, or between programmed synth patterns. There's also the ability to have pattern variations across a maximum of sixteen bars, and automation recording within the Stepp:r module. Things get really interesting when you start modulating with the encoder array in the centre; beat repeats, filters and groove are just a few of the things you can play around with.
There are limitations to these modules. There are only 16 presets to record into, preset changes aren't recordable, you can't copy and paste patterns, and there's no control over velocity from your controller. (The buttons aren't velocity sensitive, and this isn't handled by repeat pushes either). There's a "Stembot" available for quick and frequent recording to audio, and this is probably the most sensible way to work. It really is similar to using X0X Roland hardware. But even with these limitations, I found the unit to be enormous fun when using it with Max for Live devices, with sequences being easy to whip up and addictive to modulate with the knobs. Updates appear regularly, as well. At the moment, you'll need Max for Live, or the volition to develop your own software solution, in order to fully utilise the step sequencer as such. This is set to change, though, as Livid have plans to release the Stepp:rs as standalone applications, allowing them to be used with your choice of DAW, software or hardware device.
The CNTRL:R is also a joy to handle. Apparently, they've cut no corners in selecting the highest quality components, and it shows. Everything feels great, from the smooth faders, to the rubberised controls, to the unyielding aluminium case. As mentioned, it also looks ace, with a cool, minimalist (ahem) design and colour scheme. It doesn't come cheap, but you get what you pay for—that is, a one-of-a-kind controller with a great user experience. Those looking for a step sequencer solution, and especially DIY enthusiasts, should consider CNTRL:R very closely.
Ease of use: 4.5/5