M-Audio Axiom AIR 49 Review

Function: MIDI Controller
Price: $399.99
What’s New: For years, the M-Audio Axiom line has set the standard for MIDI controllers with unbeatable quality, flexibility and keyboard feel, and the brand new AIR 49 is no exception.  The AIR 49 is a 49-key, synth-action MIDI controller with an abundance of knobs, faders and pads, and “Hypercontrol” built-in smart mapping software.  With the AIR incarnation of controllers, the Axiom line gets both a physical and internal overhaul that keeps all the great things about the original and adds a few pretty awesome bells and whistles. 
Features:  The keys, as expected, feel amazing and the piano-style keys make it ideal for both synths and piano.  The orange backlighting is a nice change from the classic Axiom blue, and the screen is tilted up to make it easier to see the control screen from the front.  The back port features an on/off switch, power supply in, MIDI I/O, USB and inputs for sustain and expression pedals.  Eight knobs, nine faders, nine buttons, (including dedicated playback control), twelve pads, and pitch and mod wheels round out the control surface, which is beautifully laid out and labeled.  Everything on the control surface can be assigned to 3 different MIDI banks, and the colors change depending on which bank is currently selected.  The pads are velocity and pressure-sensitive and feel great for drum programming or sample triggering.  Hypercontrol works just like it claims, mapping everything on the control surface to perfection on almost all the popular DAWs.  One of my favorite features on the AIR 49 is that each rotary knob will light up one at a time when you turn it, making it easy to keep track of which knob you’re currently using.  For example, if you’re using a knob to pan a guitar, then want to turn it up a bit and listen back, you can easily see which knob controls the guitar pan if you want to keep tweaking it during playback. 
Build: At just under 11 pounds, the Axiom AIR 49 is extremely light (especially compared to my 16 lb original Axiom 49) but feels rock solid on a stand or desk.  The white and aluminum finish is sleek and modern looking, vaguely reminiscent of the Axiom Pro series but making the statement that the AIR is a different controller entirely.  The back even has a space to run cables under the keyboard to hide cords and prevent tangling.  My favorite feature on the new look is that the faders are thick and flat, making them almost impossible to break off and lose (which happened to all but three of mine on my 8-year old touring Axiom).
Software:  Included with the Axiom 49 is a copy of Ignite by Air Music Technology, ProTools Express, and believe it or not, an iLok 2 for Windows or Mac.  Claiming to be a musician-centric recording software, Ignite looked more to me like a mini-fridge covered in multi-colored magnets at first, but after a few minutes, it proved to be a lot deeper than my first impression.  First of all, the sounds are great.  Whether you’re looking for a drum kit or string ensemble, all the sounds load fast, sound fantastic and work perfectly with the AIR 49.  The workflow takes a little more time to get used to (especially if you’re used to working in a more traditional DAW) but makes perfect sense once you get the hang of it.  Gone is the linear graph of ProTools or Logic, and in comes clip recording.  In some ways, similar to Ableton Live, Ignite allows you to record different instruments and ideas without having to worry about tracks or MIDI channels, or bus sends.  You record an idea, see it turn up as a brightly colored bar on your screen, play another idea, put them together and thus make a song by stacking all of these ideas together.  While Ignite might not be a mixing substitute for ProTools 11 and Logic X, its fantastic sounds and intuitive interface makes it a perfect entry-level DAW, MIDI sequencer, or songwriting tool.  More than enough to start making and recording music right away, the software bundle is a great value and a fresh look at organizing and capturing musical ideas.  One note of caution, the software including Hypercontrol only works on Macs running Apple Lion or later, (and on PCs running Windows 7 or later) so Snow Leopard or Vista users will need an update to get the full experience of AIR. 
Bottom Line:  It’s the hands down the best we’ve seen.  The AIR 49 is by far the best Axiom yet, and the feel, look, and control surface makes it our new favorite MIDI keyboard controller. 
Church Use: If you’re looking for a MIDI keyboard that feels great for both synths and pianos, want to trigger loops and tracks, and have control over your entire DAW with a touch of a button, the Axiom AIR is a perfect controller for you.  
For more information about the AIR 49 and other products by M-Audio, visit m-audio.com.

Apogee Quartet Review

Apogee QuartetFunction: USB Audio Interface for iOS and Mac
Price: $1395
What’s New: What can possibly be better than the Apogee Duet 2?  How about a Duet with twice the inputs, twice the outputs, and upgraded hardware?  Meet the Apogee Quartet.  Apogee Quartet goes far beyond a two-channel upgrade from Duet 2: loaded with features, simple to use, charming to look at, this is our favorite Apogee interface yet.  Bridging the gap between the Duet 2 and the Symphony, the Quartet runs off of an included power adapter and connects via USB 2.0, providing four XLR/1/4” inputs with selectable 48v, six outputs plus a dedicated headphone out, ADAT/SMUX in, word clock out to sync external AD units, and even provides a USB input for an external MIDI keyboard.  Quartet keeps the touch-pads and individual LEDs like the Duet 2, but features individual pads for each input, master and headphone output, and three user assignable pads for functions such as dimming, sum to mono, output mute, or switching between outputs.  In addition to seamless connectivity to Mac, Quartet also connects to iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch.  We got to go hands on with the new Apogee Quartet and were thoroughly impressed on every level. 
Build Quality: Apogee products have always been built like a tank, and Quartet is no exception with its aluminum exterior, slanted front, signature Apogee single big knob, and solid connectors on the back panel.  As a rack mount aficionado, I was a bit surprised when I heard the Quartet would not be rackmountable, but after using it for a few weeks, it’s easy to see why the Quartet should sit on your desk.  The single knob volume control is perfect for a desktop application, and the output switching makes you feel like you have a dedicated monitor control in addition to a pro interface.  No dangly cords or breakout cable for Quartet; all the connectors are neatly positioned in the back of the unit with the exception of the headphone out, which is on the right side near the bottom. 
Functionality: Quartet could not be simpler to use.  Each of the four channels have their very own touch pad with color LED’s to indicate input type, metering, phantom power, grouping, phase, soft limit and clip data.  The output section has three meters for each set of outputs and a dedicated headphone meter to see all the outputs individually.  Maestro 2 provides settings for I/O routing, sample rate, and individual control all the ins and outs of the Quartet.  The digital inputs provide an extra 8 channels for connecting an additional A/D converter.  USB 2.0 works perfectly, and I don’t miss the firewire connection of the Ensemble at all. 
Sound Quality: Sound quality is where Quartet really shines.  The microphone preamps are clear, pristine, and quite transparent, a big upgrade from the Ensemble.  For a clean, clear, full sound, Quartet pres beat out several vintage and high-end outboard pres that added a bit more color to the sound.  Apogee pres sound fantastic on dynamic, ribbon, and condenser mics, and I was especially blown away by the sound quality of the direct ins.  When tracking my Nord Electro 3, I found the pianos to be more focused and more three-dimensional than I’ve ever heard!  My other favorite sounds were male vocals and acoustic guitars.  Quartet pres also do a great job loading ribbon mics, and I loved the combo on drum overheads, acoustic instruments and room microphones.  The Quartet’s clocking and AD/DA is terrific and provides a big, open, pristine sound quality that makes every outboard unit sound better than ever.  Quartet’s latency was so low it was essentially a non-factor in my test, but if you’re using an older machine, Maestro 2 offers an even lower latency recording option. A longtime Apogee user, I ran the Quartet side by side with both an Ensemble and a Duet 2 and noticed marked improvements in sound quality from the Ensemble.  The Duet 2 was closer in sound, but to my ears, the Quartet had a smoother top end and slightly more depth the to the music.  Technically, the mic pres and conversion on the Duet 2 and Quartet are nearly identical, although I have a hunch that Quartet’s hefty, dedicated power supply might be the determining factor in my sound test between the two. 
Value: Apogee Quartet blew away my expectations in both build and sound quality, and in ease of use and functionality.  Using the Quartet feels like you have two devices built into one: a professional 4×8 interface and a monitor control device with fantastic digital to analog conversion.  Quartet connects seamlessly to Mac, iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad but still has no Windows connectivity, so if you’re a Windows user you’re out of luck for now.  Digital inputs increase the value of the Quartet as you can use Apogee’s clocking and conversion to expand to up to 8 more channels.  At $1395, Quartet is not cheap, but its intuitive design, superior sound quality, and seamless, integrated iOS connection make it head and shoulders above any other interface in its class and well worth the money. 
Bottom Line:  The look, feel, and sound of the Apogee Quartet make it a perfect interface for serious musicians and producers in any recording situation. 


For more information about the Quartet and other Apogee products visit apogeeditigal.com

-Andy Toy

Keith McMillen QuNeo Review

Function: USB MIDI control pad
Price: $199
What’s New: Get your 3D glasses ready: the QuNeo is a brand new 3-dimensional MIDI control pad from Keith McMillen Instruments.  16 pads, 2 rotary sensors, and 9 sliders make the QuNeo incredibly versatile for beat making and loop triggering.  16 pads are set up in a 4×4 grid, similar to the classic MPC setup, but instead of hardware knobs and sliders, all of QuNeo’s controls are touch sensitive recessed pads/rotaries.  Multi-color LED lights mark the position on the sliders/rotaries and when used with Ableton Live, the pads control notes, trigger loops, or simply make the lights dance on the beat depending how you program them…but that’s not even the best part: every pad on the controller is touch and pressure sensitive.  Depending on how hard you press the pad, you can trigger different layers of effects, notes, loops, filters, or anything you can think of.  The pads are divided into different sections each so pressing different places on the pad can trigger different MIDI events if desired.  For example, press a pad once to play the loop, press it harder to raise the volume, and drag your finger around the surface to control a delay/filter once the loop is going.  Crossfade this loop with another loop with a slider and mix the entire thing with the side sliders and rotary knobs.  As strong as the QuNeo is in Ableton Live, it’s not just for loops, if you are a keyboard player, you use the pad to change patches and control virtual effects: use each pad to turn on a new layer of sound, turn on/off effects, control feedback/delay time, or reverb time and amount or even tap the tempo of time-based effects.  The controller can also be used to control lighting and video effects via MIDI.  The QuNeo is a truly groundbreaking MIDI device that offers control of every parameter imaginable with a touch of your finger, and allows the user to not only utilize the device as a transport for loop triggering, but also treat the pad as a performance instrument itself.  Whether you’re triggering loops and stems or looping live on the fly, or just need a comprehensive MIDI controller, I can’t emphasize enough how much power is in this device.  QuNeo brings a whole new level of control to MIDI performance.


For more information about the QuNeo and other Keith McMillen products visit keithmcmillen.com. 


-Andy Toy