M-Audio Axiom Air 61 MIDI Controller
Review by: Jason D. Buchwald
|Features Usability Documentation & Product Support Price Other Comments
Contact Info Overall Rating—Product Summary
There was a time when the MIDI keyboard controller market was relatively small. So small, in fact, that many performers just used a regular synth as a MIDI controller. Those times have long passed, and the MIDI controller market is overflowing with options at every price point. In fact, there are so many choices now that it’s hard to make a decision as to which is the “best” one unless you have a very well defined set of requirements for your controller.
M-Audio has been making MIDI keyboard controllers longer than most, and their newest offering, the Axiom AIR series (which includes 25, 49, and 61 key versions), combines some great features with a smattering of surprising quirks. As always, so much of a keyboard’s feel is a matter of personal taste, and some features may not be important to some while mission critical for others. If you are in the market for a high-quality 61-key MIDI keyboard controller, the Axiom AIR certainly merits your attention.
If knobs and sliders are a must-have on your controller short-list, the Axiom definitely has you covered. There are sixty-one semi-weighted keys with aftertouch; on the left side, twelve trigger pads (i.e., drum pads) that respond to pressure and velocity; in the middle, nine 70mm faders with associated buttons; and on the far left, eight rotary encoders. Between the faders and rotary encoders is a backlit LCD display (orange background with black letters) that provides a great deal of information about whatever control parameter you are altering at the current time. Underneath this display are several additional buttons for parameter selection as well as the transport controls.
The LCD is angled towards the user, which is a very welcome and appreciated touch. Another nice feature is that the drum pads and encoders are also backlit, as are the buttons. Strangely, none of the faders are, though you could make the argument most of the time you won’t be mixing or using drawbars in the dark!
On the left side of the keyboard are octave +/- buttons, adjacent to the pitch bend and modulation wheels. Finally, on the back side, you’ll find a power switch, 9V DC power input, USB port that not only powers the Axiom (in place of the wall wart) but also carries MIDI In/Out data, a sustain pedal input, expression pedal input, and a Kensington security slot compatible with laptop style cable for theft prevention (probably the most unusual feature to find on a controller keyboard).
One of the most important features, though, is the Axiom’s Hypercontrol function set. In a nutshell, these dedicated buttons (there are three pairings: a Hypercontrol button pairing to the encoders, a Hypercontrol button pairing to the faders, and a Hypercontrol button pairing to the trigger pads) automatically map the Axiom’s controls to common DAW features and settings (i.e., transport controls, panning, etc.). There’s even a second Hypercontrol button next to the encoders and faders, and this allows you, for example, to make the faders control mixing functions in your DAW or be automatically assigned to you effect or instrument plug-in. In order to take advantage of the hypercontrol features, however, you need additional software from M-Audio. The automatic assignment of Hypercontrol depends on having the right software for your DAW, so if M-Audio doesn’t support yours, you’re out of luck for the plug-and-play approach to controller simplicity, though you can alternately assign any parameter via the now ubiquitous “MIDI Learn” function in just about all DAWs and plug-ins. Supported DAWs at the time of this review include Ableton Live 9.0.5, Cubase, Logic Pro 9, and Garageband. Sadly, Pro Tools is listed as “under development” (and to think, Avid used to own M-Audio). Given that Pro Tools is our studio standard, we were unable to test Hypercontrol.
The keyboard also comes with additional software: included in the package is a card with a website address to download Ignite. Labeled as a “new way to craft music,” it utilizes many of AIR’s fantastic plugins, as they are the creators of the software.
Finally, the keyboard includes a copy of Avid’s Pro Tools Express, which allows recording up to 16 tracks of Pro Tools goodness. This provides a great way to get into the Pro Tools world if it’s new to you, as the session files are compatible with the whole Pro Tools line when you’re ready to upgrade to the full Pro Tools product. You need an ilok 2 USB dongle to run the software, but a mail-in rebate card is included to obtain one. The Axiom is supposed to include this dongle, but unfortunately, ours did not (perhaps because it was a review unit).
The Axiom is a strange beast that combines the great with the not so great. We will start with what we liked.
As a basic controller, it’s plug and play. We plugged into the USB port on our Mac Pro, and the Axiom was recognized right away by our plug-ins (and even stand-alone applications like AAS’s Lounge Lizard). Since we couldn’t use the Hypercontrol buttons (as described earlier), we did the “one by one” MIDI learn, which worked fine. Once we had things assigned the way we wanted, the Axiom worked as it should, no problems. And since there are plenty of controls on the Axiom, it’s very well suited to live use. There are 128 memory locations for you to save custom MIDI setups.
The LED screen is bright, has several sections to give information, and is tilted towards the user, which we thought was great. We appreciated that as soon as any given controller was moved, the screen would automatically display settings for that control to reflect the current value we were adjusting. Furthermore, most of the controls are backlit, making this controller very easy to see on a dimly lit stage.
Despite so many strengths, some aspects of using the Axiom were a bit surprising. Despite M-Audio being a part of Avid and the keyboard including a copy of Pro Tools Express, it blows our minds that the Hypercontrol software functions with other DAWs but not Pro Tools. Hopefully this will be rectified soon.
Another thing that might bother some players is that that the Axiom has only twelve drum pads, not the traditional sixteen. While this might not be a deal-breaker for some, those who rely upon the familiar four-by-four grid might be disappointed (and for some odd reason, there are 16 pads on the smallest member of the Axiom family, the 25). There’s also no dedicated volume (MIDI volume) control knob or slider. While it is easy enough to assign one, we were surprised that this wasn’t part of the default control layout.
While the vast majority of the controls are backlit, the faders are not. This was a bummer, as having backlit faders on a dimly lit stage while in drawbar/organ mode would be awesome! Of course this would have driven up the cost a bit, so we can understand the decision not to do this at this price point.
One thing we wished the Axiom controller featured is electronic rotary encoders that illuminate around the knobs to indicate their position. As it is, we had to start moving the controls to see what values they were set at, and there aren’t even markings on the case to help visualize the settings.
For many, the biggest questions may simply center around how the keyboard feels. In our opinion, the Axiom had a good, though not outstanding, keyboard feel. The keys felt a little spongy to our taste, but not so soft that we couldn’t live with it. What bothered us more was that the keys felt very polished and slippery. If the keys had a rougher texture to them, we would have preferred that. With so many MIDI controllers on the market, if at all possible, you should really get out to a store to play a bunch of them as what feels right for one player may be totally wrong for the next.
The Axiom comes with a well-written manual with many diagrams and explanations, and best of all, it’s clear and to the point. There is also a good amount of information on the website to help clarify things and assist with installation and downloads.
The M-Audio Axiom AIR 61 (MSRP $599.95) sells for just under $500. Assuming you have the right DAW, this is definitely a solid controller, and the deal is especially nice given that it includes Pro Tools Express and Ignite software.
Hopefully in the near future we can say a little more about the Hypercontrol software and Ignite software, but even without it, the Axiom is a solid controller that will likely fit many musicians’ needs, though the pro player may need to seek a more robust hardware solution.
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