Avid is updating their M-Audio Axiom line of USB controller keyboards. New in this version is DirectLink, which provides automatic mappings for software like Ableton Live, Logic, Cubase, and of course Avid’s own Pro Tools, similar to what’s in the Axiom’s big-brother Axiom Pro. The controller itself has also been improved, with lower-profile faders on the 49/61 model, smooth rotary encoders (not knobs!), an angled-up top panel so you can see what you’re doing more easily, and other tweaks.

Perhaps the most significant feature is improved keyboard, with an updated semi-weighted action and adjusted playing angle.

The updated Axiom enters a market that has been maturing recently – a market M-Audio themselves helped popularize in the first place with the Oxygen line.

Novation has continued to update their Automap functionality and added a more inexpensive option in the form of the Nocturn controller keyboards. The Novations are nice, although I’ve heard a fair bit of frustration with the add-on Automap software that sits between you and the software you’re controlling; while it adds functionality, it also adds complexity, and I find it interesting that its rivals are going a different direction.

I just got in a review unit for Cakewalk’s A-PRO series. (See Cakewalk’s current keyboard lineup.) Like the Avid units, it also adds automatic mappings without requiring extra software, supporting a number of hosts for Windows and Mac. Also notable, Roland has added their higher-quality semi-weighted action, so that instead of feeling like a cheap plastic controller keyboard, you get the solid “clunk” in the action that previously was reserved for standalone synth products – without paying much of a premium for the privilege. I’ll be interested to feel how the new Axiom action stands up, as the Axiom Pro keyboard also feels pretty good.

One especially nice feature the Axiom has that many of its rivals don’t: it’s class-compliant. That means you can plug and play without drivers on Mac and Windows, and it’ll work on Linux, too. (I’ve been running Linux for reliable, low-latency performance with the Pianoteq piano, for instance, using M-Audio keyboards.)

I expect the Axiom will be competitive on price and likability, certainly. I asked some follow-up questions with Avid spokesperson John Krogh last week, including an explanation of what the heck the difference is between Axiom’s DirectLink and Axiom Pro’s HyperControl – each methods for zero-config control of your favorite host and instrument software.

CDM: Okay, I’ll bite. DirectLink? HyperControl? What’s the difference?

John at Avid: It’s fair to think of DirectLink as a subset of what HyperControl is. There are some similarities: With both technologies, the keyboard faders, knobs and transport buttons get mapped to mixer channels, pan, and transport controls within compatible DAWs. That’s sort of “basic” mixer mapping.

The new Axioms with DirectLink also feature an Instrument Mode that, when engaged, will instantly map the faders and knobs to meaningful parameters on software instruments within compatible DAWs. This mapping relies on Axiom Instrument Maps, which are essentially preference files for the built-in software instruments included with Logic, Live, and the rest of the DirectLink-compatible DAWs. The thing with the Axiom Instrument Maps is that they’re set up to provide consistent, intuitive access to the most commonly used plug-in parameters. For example, filter cutoff will always be located on the same knob, regardless of the instrument selected, so the experience is more like working with a hardware synth where there are dedicated physical controls for the parameters you’d want to tweak in real time. In general, parameters such as filter cutoff and resonance get mapped to the knobs, and ADSR controls get mapped to the faders (e.g., amp envelope ADSR will map to faders 1-4, filter envelope ADSR will map to faders 5-8).

Currently, there are Axiom Instrument Maps for the built-in software instruments in 3P DirectLink DAWs. More mapping “profiles” will be added over time for third-party software instruments. For software instruments without Axiom Instrument Maps, DirectLink will automatically map the encoders to the first 8 parameters that are published to the host software, and users can use MIDI learn to re-assign how these are set up.

Note that this kind of predefined mapping is only available to software instruments, not plug-ins. That’s one of the big differences. With the Axiom Pro and HyperControl, you’re able to access every software instrument and plug-in effect parameter – not just a fixed number of controls for software instruments (which is limited to the number of faders and knobs on the Axiom keyboard). On the Axiom Pro you can page through every parameter, so there’s no limit to the number of parameters you can access.

HyperControl on the Axiom Pro also provides a lot more feedback on the LCD, and adds QWERTY key command support (ability to assign QWERTY keystrokes to pads and buttons).

there was also a description (referring to HyperTransport) as being an “open” protocol, but my understanding was that the SDK was available only to specific partners. Will there be a published spec on using DirectLink? (It’s all built on MIDI, anyway, so it would be possible for, say, an independent music host developer to voluntarily add support.)

There isn’t a public SDK, but we’re “open” in the sense that we don’t limit DirectLink to specific third parties. We’re willing to work with any third-party DAW developer if they’re interested in adding DirectLink and/or HyperControl support. We just happen to have existing developer relationships with Apple, Ableton, Propellerhead and Steinberg, and we work with each 3P developer on their integration of DirectLink/HyperControl.

CDM: Is the keybed comparable to any other M-Audio keyboards, or is it new?

John: It’s a new keybed that offers a weightier feel compared to the original Axiom (it’s not the Tru Touch keyboard found in the Axiom Pro).

So, there you have it. The “Pro” still has more sophisticated control options, a more serious action, and of course Speed Racer-white styling, but the standard Axiom looks competitive now, too.

What’s your controller keyboard of choice? How has your experience been with what you’ve owned? What’s important to you when making a decision – that is, what do you want to know? (We’ve gotten a number of requests from readers wondering what to get, but that can depend on what variables matter most to you personally.) Let us know in comments.

Avid at Axiom

  • Ben Hovey

    I like my original axiom61 quite a bit. The keys are decent and aftertouch is great. No problems with the faders, but the slotted knobs feel and acceleration is horrible. I much prefer the APC knobs. This looks like a pretty decent upgrade.

  • http://regend.com regend

    i'll stick with my original Axiom 25. it does the job just fine and i don't even use it to it's fullest potential.

  • http://udosson.com udosson

    i use an old axiom 25 for production and on stage. i like the semi-weighted keyboard though the keys tend to stick when not used for a while (hopefully they got rid of those in the new version). i also like its premappings for ableton live though i rarely use the axiom as a controller in the studio. on stage preset 19 is quite useful giving you access to the first eight parameters of a choosen instrument (or the makros of an instrument rack). yes @ben though, the acceleration of the knobs is horrible … and the clicking too. hopefully this will be gone with "smooth encoders".

  • Leon

    I'm looking to get a new midi controller, but as a shoehorn maneouvre I'm looking to get something that has at least a basic piano sound onboard – my partner's a pianist and to get her cash endorsement this is a mandatory. Do they all come with a general midi chip onboard these days?

  • http://joelcorriveau.com/ Joel

    @Leon Sorry, you're looking at a totally different price bracket if you want it to output audio. I wish it weren't so!

    I just picked up an Axiom 61 for 50% off. This must be why! Ah well. I'm quite pleased with it so far.

  • velocipede

    Leon, I thing Edirol/Roland and M-Audio have released a few boards with a built-in sound engine in the last few years.

  • Yodhan

    I own two controllers; an 8 year old Radium 49 from M-Audio and an MPK49 from Akai. I haven't ditched the Radium yet because it still works. I mainly use it as my second keyboard for live use, as I prefer the Akai for sequencing in the studio. While it costs a little more than the standard Axiom, I think the MPK is a great board. I am a little hesitant to go near M-Audio/Avid gear right now as I have bought 7 item from them over the past three years, and all have failed on me. The sad thing is, I bought them through a dealer accomidation program through the company I work for, and now they won't do anything to take care of my defective products. Working at a music retailer, I get to deal with a lot of products through hands on experience and through customer interactions. Many customers buy the Axiom as it had many good features for the price. I also have seen more come back due to failure or compatibility issues than any other brand. We had to replace a demo one in our store that hardly got any use after three months because the keybed stopped working.

    I hope these new Axioms will be a step up and work better. Until then, I will still be a bit leery about gear from them.

  • JonYo

    This is a little off the subject of the specific models mentioned in this article, but does anyone have any experience with the Line6 Pod Studio KB37? I'm not a keyboard player of any caliber, so I'm not too concerned about the non-weighted keyboard action, unless it REALLY sucks or something. It looks great for my needs on paper, keyboard plus audio interface including mic preamps and phantom power, pretty small, USB bus powered. I have basically no studio area anymore, and I'm stuck living in a single room, so whatever I want to work on has to be done with my bed as a table. If it had MIDI I/O and maybe little 4×4 grid of drum pads, it'd be perfect in terms of features.

    Anyone used one of these? Preamps any good? Latency acceptable?

    Any other recommentations for a sorta-budget keyboard controller + audio interface combo device would be welcome as well.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Yodhan: Very sorry to hear that was your experience. We almost need an independent watchdog/advocate on CDM to investigate these kinds of situations, find out where a failure may have occurred, and where appropriate, work on making things better.

    @JonYo: actually, I'd be very interested to hear that. Not directly related, but has some real appeal even as an alternative to these. And I've not only never tried one myself, I've never seen one in the wild in someone's rig – and I've seen or tested almost all the rest of these. So I'd be curious to know. Maybe worth investigating.

  • http://institutfatima.org pepezabala

    Regend: I believe it's not even possible to use it up to it's potential, because it's so horrible to set it up. we had an axiom 61 and sold it after some months. it was a pain to program. I still miss the time that we didn't spend on playing music but were staring at the little screen not understunding what is going on.

  • dyscode

    Sorry M-Audio,

    but Novation Automap and Hexler TouchOSC took all your ground away already over a year ago.

    You´re too late.

    I have no need for anything else.

    If you are a standart preset musician Hypercontrol is fine. But if you want to build your on control schemes it takes you nowhere.

  • poopoo

    If those cakewalk keyboards are anything like the edirol pcr ones then I'd give them a wide berth. The PCR's have flakey usb and keybeds that eventually stick or don't work.

  • http://www.myspace.com/jamesyanisko JamesY

    My Novation Remote Compact 49 w/ automap light is a pain in the rear, never works properly, always has some hiccups that don't even have anything to do with automap.

    I'm not sure if there are just problems with that specific keyboard – or these keyboards in general.

    I have another thought I want to add to this mix. Both with Avid and Novation:

    When I purchase a keyboard controller, I want to be able to assign the buttons / knobs / keys to specific things – and have them easily re-assignable when I switch software. All of my old controller keyboards without their 'smart' functionality worked FINE with this. Now keyboard manufacturers are offering keyboards with a 'light' version of their 'smart' mapping, which a) is MORE of an impediment to my music creation with their devices and b) because for some reason they don't think your purchase of their cheaper controller is good enough for the 'pro' features of the other one. Not only that, in order to get automap to work at all, you need to create a second version of EACH AND EVERY PLUG IN with the automap enabled – DOUBLING my list of plugins, and making it so much harder to navigate.

    I purchased my Remote Compact because of the size of the keyboard. I couldn't find anything else with a knob / fader set up that I liked that would fit where it needed to go. I looked at their more expensive keyboards (and could have afforded it). With my smaller keyboard though, came an extremely difficult interface for making changes to settings on the keyboard without their 'smart' software, and a very limited 'smart' software where I would have to purchase something else to be able to work as easily as my old midi controller keyboards.

    I just don't get why the industry is doing this with hardware….light vs fully capable instruments. No, I purchase my instrument because the feel and form factor work….

    its just really annoying me right now. I'm contemplating selling my novation, and picking up an old edirol keyboard without any smart mapping functions, because I know it will work properly.

    my two cents on the whole smart mapping thing.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @dyscode: There is an editor if you want to go the old-fashioned route; I don't think it's fair to say HyperControl is only for "preset musicians." You're entitled to prefer Novation Automap, of course… just not quite sure what you're saying about HyperControl. (TouchOSC is a different, and yes, wonderful animal.)

    @poopoo: FWIW, this is not the Edirol PCR keybed in the "Cakewalk by Roland" keyboards. It's closer to what you'll find in Roland's synths.

    I will say, it's hard to evaluate long-term reliability, though, other than discovering it the hard way.

  • Kyran

    Isn't there a keyboard with just good keys?

    I'd like something with 61 or more keys and good action, but I don't need pads, knobs, faders, whathaveyou. I already have those things in dedicated other controllers.

    Unfortunately all keyboards with a nice action either have stuff like build in sounds or tons of knobs, smart mapping software etc.

  • http://www.myspace.com/bubblescum Vaihe

    I love Korg Microkontrol by size and features. Small and has pads, sliders and knobs. Works well on studio and stage.

    I also have Nocturn but hate the automap software. It rarely maps anything well so you need to map everything by hand anyway. There is one good script for Live.

    As electronic musician, i don't like semi-weightened keys as i have grown by using old synthesizers that have nothing like semi-weightened keys.

    New Axiom looks good anyway.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Kyran: you mean like this? ;)
    http://createdigitalmusic.com/2009/09/28/studiolo

    Check out their whole line.

  • jg

    I bought an M-Audio 88ES. Love the weight. Seemed durable enough in the 6 months of gigging I did with it (avg 4 gigs a week, setting up and tearing down, so the gear did take a lot of strain). But I absolutely hated the "semi-weighted feel.". It felt like playing very stiff sponges, since there was a very heavy "push back" force. So I got rid of it. I'm using a Casio PX130 right now, but that's also on its way out for the same reason. I love the key feel on my Roland RD300SX, and for unweighted also liked older Roland keys such as the A-33 and JV-90. I'd rather have unweighted than an unnatural feeling "semi-weighted".

    Very interested in what the Numa Nano would be like, but someone described it as a heavy feel, and I prefer lighter like the RD300SX.

  • jg

    P.S. I used the 88ES with Linux on my gig, and the USB class compliance worked great.

  • Evan

    I thought the mpk's were class compliant as well, at least I dont remember having to install anything for the 25

  • leMel

    I'm stuck with an old fatar studio 610. I have this weird thing with controllers – the uglier, the better. I like them to look and feel and act like toys. And let's hear it for mini-keys: I also use a Korg microKontrol, but I wish they would reissue it with their new mini keybed (ala the microsampler and XL) – those have the best minikeys EVAR.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Evan: M-Audio definitely aren't the only class-compliant keys. Now it's time for me to make a list, huh? ;)

    Heck, even on Mac and Windows, it's nice knowing in an emergency on the road you don't have to install drivers…

  • http://dancerobotdance.com Brian

    After two weeks with "Hypercontrol" on an Axiom 49 Pro last summer, I was quite happy to return the thing and go back to my old Axiom 25. It was awful using Ableton Live. It would randomly drop control, the pads didn't work with Live's Impulse, AUs and VSTs were handled inconsistently, and M-Audio apparently decided that they'd quit responding to their support forum regarding the Pro line and left threads hanging for weeks. It made the act of Making Music so difficult that I just don't believe in any of these silly auto direct hyper idea. Give me a simple way to map CCs and quit trying to take over my software.

    I still like my Axiom 25. But reading John's answers to your questions and discerning the limitations of DirectLink makes my head hurt.

  • gusDW

    I have a Novation SL compact 49. Had it for about a year, and as a basic midi keyboard it's quite functional. But yes, like others, I do have a problem with the automap software. The fact that there is a separate software layer which Novation claims to take the pain out of MIDI mapping just seems a bit convoluted to me. There should be no need to look at a laptop screen to see what you're controlling, it's counter-intuitive ( at least from a performance point of view). I'm quite intrigued by the direct-link / hypercontrol protocols being offered by M-Audio (a company, which to be fair to say I've avoided in the past, based on my own experinces of their build quality and stability) for this very reason. Will be defintely checking out the new Axiom!

  • dynamique

    Heard APC keys suck… True? ^^

  • dynamique

    …mpk.

  • Kai

    @dynamique

    It depends on what kind of feel you're going for. The MPK's have pretty solid feel to them which for synth style action, works surprisingly well with rhodes and piano sounds; I also find them more reassuring to use than the novation and m-audio style keybeds for my tastes. By the gods of music I wish i could get the keys (and knobs) from my Moog LP on a pure midi controller though.

  • TweakingKnobs

    In my experience M-audio SUCKS !

  • carlos

    i've had an oxygen 2 octave controller for about 2 years now. it still works fine. on the other hand, i bought a novation nocturn 49 in april. it is now dead. it died for no reason at all. my mac wont recognize it because it says it's using too much power,and it is not a problem unique to my computer. in addition, the nocturn software is a NIGHTMARE to use. i hate it.

    in retrospect i should have bought either an oxygen (nice review), or studio logic weighted. you seriously do not need all those knobs unless you plan on doing some serious effects processing at the same time as you do the midi inputting.

  • apoclypse

    I've had my Axiom for about 3 years now if I'm not mistaken and it still works fine. The only frustration I have is that my transport buttons maps get lost in Logic all the time. i have to remap them on a regular basis. Other than that the controller works perfectly and I have had no issues with its quality or durability so far. I'd definitely get the new one if the old one didn't work so well.

  • http://soundcloud.com/demojam Demojam

    What's wrong with Axiom25? The semi-weighted keyboard feels great, and you can map everything to everything. However I hate the clicky(instead of smooth) encoders. And not many software supports encoders…

  • http://facebook(djsanti) santi

    Hello, sorry I know which keyboard from Novation Nocturn 49, rpo axiom 49 m-adio could go well for me I use Logic Express 9 I also like the A-500PRO Cakewalk say it's good let me know thanks