new studio toys

In the last few weeks I’ve added two great bits of gear to my home studio. The first, which I actually received for Christmas, is the Korg nanoKONTROL (Amazon link), a brilliant little MIDI controller that I think just everyone could find a use for.

Korg nanoKONTROL

Korg's nanoKONTROL is a brilliant, affordable MIDI controller

The nanoKONTROL is part of Korg’s nano series of tiny, laptop-friendly controllers which also includes the nanoPAD, with 12 drum pads and an X/Y touch controller, and the nanoKEY, a 25-key keyboard (of sorts). While I don’t think much of the nanoKEY — Akai’s LPK25 (Amazon link), while slightly larger, looks far more practical — the nanoPAD looks good, but I still think the nanoKONTROL is the pick of the bunch.

Its layout, with nine faders, nine knobs, and eighteen buttons, along with a set of transport controls, certainly lends itself to DAW mixer control, but it’s flexible enough to control just about anything. It did a fine job of handling synth parameters on PHASEX, for instance — using PHASEX’s MIDI learn features (just right-click on a control and move the appropriate MIDI controller) I was quickly able to set up the nanoKONTROL’s faders to configure the amp and filter envelopes, and the knobs to control filter cutoff, resonance, and envelope amount, among other things. It’s also brilliant as a SooperLooper controller, letting you pan, fade, and mute individual loops on-the-fly.

As a class-compliant USB MIDI device, it goes without saying that it works perfectly under Linux, but I’ll say it anyway — the nanoKONTROL works perfectly under Linux, with true plug-and-play simplicity. If you want to reconfigure the device, to change the MIDI messages that each controller sends, there’s a native app for that, called Nano-Basket, but Korg’s official app runs flawlessly under Wine, too.

Korg has announced updated versions of its nano controllers, but there’s no hard word on when they’ll be available yet. The nanoKONTROL2 adds a third set of buttons but loses one fader and knob, so I’m glad to have the original.

The Saffire PRO 40 has 8 inputs with preamps, 8 line outs, and ADAT expandability

The other new addition is somewhat bigger: it’s a Focusrite Saffire PRO 40 (Amazon link), a Firewire audio interface with eight channels of analogue I/O. Each input is a combo XLR/TRS jack with a preamp and phantom power, so it can handle up to eight condenser mics, but it’s just as happy handling line inputs from synths. In addition to the analogue I/O, there are S/PDIF and ADAT ports, which can add up to another 10 inputs and outputs.

As a sysadmin I’m quite familiar with how big standard 19″ rackmounted gear is, but for some reason, I was still surprised when I got it home — this thing is big! Now that I’ve made room for it, though, it’s fine, and beacuse it’s replacing not just my old PCI sound card, but also my Behringer mixer, it doesn’t actually take up much more space than my old setup did. Having to run just a single Firewire cable down to the PC is great — I certainly won’t miss running 3.5mm audio cables between my mixer and my PC’s back panel.

Like all supported Firewire audio devices, the PRO 40 uses drivers from the FFADO project, but support for the PRO 40 (as well as the smaller PRO 24, and some competing devices that use the same DICE chipset) is only available in the development FFADO code from Subversion. The current FFADO build in Ubuntu 10.10 is actually a Subversion build that’s recent enough to handle the PRO 40, but before I realised that I’d already installed the drivers manually. It wasn’t exactly plug-and-play, but once I switched to the old Firewire stack (playback doesn’t work on DICE devices with the new stack right now), and got the PRO 40 talking to my Firewire controller successfully (annoyingly, turning everything off and on again helped with this), getting it running with JACK was actually fairly straightforward.

So far, the performance has been fantastic. I haven’t given its preamps a good test with my mic yet, but recordings of my Blofeld via line-in were very clean and noise-free. Even my analogue delay pedal, which I know is a bit noisy, sounds much quieter than before, and with eight ins and outs on the one device, it’s very easy to hook up that delay pedal, send audio to it from Ardour, and then receive the output back in to Ardour. Even with Ubuntu 10.10’s stock generic kernel, I’m running pretty solidly at 8ms latency, which is low enough for my needs.