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Review of the Novation ReMOTE 37 SL
With Notes on the AutoMap template for Logic 7.2
The Idea behind the ReMOTE SL series is groundbreaking. It attempts to solve the major problem behind all controllers with assignable knobs and faders, namely, how can a the controller automatically configure itself itself to the task the artist is doing at a particular moment. Most keyboard controllers only give you basic knobs for which you have to assign MIDI continuous controller events so it can control your software synths and samplers. Some may give you templates you can call up when you run the application to give you some specific controls. But the Novation ReMOTE SL series go one step further. It "knows" when you have launched an application and maps itself to it. It senses when you have instantiated a software synth and maps to it as well. The benefit is clear. Lets say you have an FM7 on track one and a Pro 53 on track 2 and Atmosphere on track 3. Simply hit the right top cursor down and you can watch the definitions of the knobs and faders change as you select a track.
AutoMaps. The magic behind it all is Novation's AutoMap templates. There are AutoMap templates for Reason, Cubase SX/SL3, Nuendo, Logic 7.1 and above and the Ableton Live 5. As far as I can tell Sonar is not yet supported. Of course, you don't have to use the automaps. You can create your own user templates from the front panel, or download some from Novation's site. In the box you have 40 slots for templates and you can replace the ones you don't need with ones you do need using the tools you can download from Novation. There is also a downloadable template editor for both Macs and PCs.
The Build quality: I have the 37 key version of the ReMOTE. They keyboard action is light and synthy and extremely good feeling. It is my favorite part of the unit. While I have never regarded myself as a fast keyboard player, on this board, I really have the feeling of being one. Whoa! It smokes! Aftertouch is just the way I like it. Velocity can be scaled to taste. I find the default perfect. Plenty of global parameters to tailor the keyboard to your hands. I give the keyboard an A.
The REMOTE uses a spring loaded joystick for pitch and mod functions. On my unit, the stick was "sticky" on the right side. It did not always return to center. I am hoping this will smooth out in time. The X/Y touchpad is good. Not quite up there with a Kaoss controller, but it will do. The knobs are the endless rotary detented type on the top row and fixed and smooth on the second row. The faders are small, plasticy, and feel like that. None of these items have a precision feel, which I feel is important when dialing up sounds, but they do the task they need to.
The two video screens are white text on purple and display 8 parameters each. There is a contrast control for reading the screen at odd angles, but I wish they had raised the screen a bit and angled it towards a user in the sitting position. You can set the ReMOTE screens to automatically jump to the knob or button or fader you touch which is nice. I find the octave button perfectly placed for fast execution while playing a musical passage. There are 8 drum pads. These are a rubber-like material and feel kind of stiff, but they work quite well and are velocity sensitive. But don't sell the MPD16 yet.
My experience in Logic 7.22: I have to say it took me longer to get a handle on the ReMOTE SL37 than any other gear in recent memory. Of course I tried to get it all working without reading anything (mistake number one). Yet once I read the basics, I was still a bit bewildered for a few minutes. I updated the OS and templates several times and still could not find the Logic AutoMap. I did not know that the Logic 7 AutoMap template was "built in" to the "Universal AutoMap", a point which is not mentioned anywhere till you read deep into the bowels of Novation's website. After giving up and running logic anyway I was happily relieved to see the screens change and display Logic's track names. Yes. Automatically. It did not take long to figure out how to navigate the different screens. Once done, things worked rather "logically". Navigation is actually intuitive. High marks here.
I was expecting less performance in Logic. But in the end, I am rather pleased with it. You can navigate up and down the track list, select and record enable the tracks, set and automate volume, pan, mute, send (just one) and solo. The handy transport controls work perfect. Things that were not accessible in the Logic Automap were the various track parameters, (transpose, quantize, velocity, delay, etc) and instrument parameters on the left side of the screen. Likewise, the note editors were not accessible (except for inputting notes of course). Pressing one button switches from "track mode" where 8 tracks are shown on the screens to "instrument mode", where you can view and edit the parameters of your software synths. As you move a knob, you see the knob on the computer screen move; likewise, if you move a control on the computer you see the parameters update on the ReMOTE. If you have the automation engine turned on in write, latch or touch mode, you can write automation directly from the ReMOTE. Charming. To it's credit, neither the ReMOTE nor Logic crashed during 2 nights of heavy controller traffic.
As I write this out I am going through my softsynth collection seeing what works and how well.
Nearly every, but not all, softsynths I have tried had parameters to edit and many softsynths have pages and pages of parameters. Too many? The MOTU's MX4, which had a whopping 157 screens! Then others just give you a blank screen, like MOTU's Ethno, for example. Some softsynth controls are poorly laid out, such as Stylus RMX, whose parameter order makes little sense and has knobs assigned where switches would work perfectly. Heh, nothing like twisting one of those endless knobs several revolutions to turn on solo and mute. The Polysix had more than a few parameters that did not scroll, and I noticed a few soft synths that did not refresh the screens when parameters were moved with the mouse. Reaktor 4 made little sense (though to be fair, Version 5 might do better). Vokator actually works to my surprise. The best templates give you your most used parameters in the first screen. Some that work well are the MiniMoog V, Pro 53, Korg Legacy MS20, Atmosphere and Trilogy.
Logic's own soft synths work very well overall. The simpler they are, the better they work in this kind of environment. Instruments like the EFM1, ES1, ESE, ESP are nearly perfect. The EVP88 is quite nice. The EVD6 is complex, yet excellent. Likewise for the EVB3; the ReMOTE gave me many new ideas for B3 sounds. The mighty ES2 and EXS24 sampler are laid out sensibly enough to work with them. Sculpture's 14 pages are a bit daunting, but it is a rather daunting softsynth. UltraBeat's 27 pages were enough for me have my hand gladly returning to the mouse and eyes to the monitors.
While the Novation ReMOTE duplicates many functions of a device like a Mackie Control, it can be used effectively with one, where the MC controls the mix and tracks and the SL edits soft synths.
Summing Up: Overall, the ReMOTE SL has its plusses and minuses. As this is not a cheap unit, I feel the build quality could be a little bit better, but it passes, thanks mainly to the good feeling keyboard. As I think I have shown, it's working pretty well with Logic, but I hope that the templates get a few more optimizations to remove minor parameters and put the important performance controls where they are most accessible.
The all-important questions for all products in this class: Is tweaking up patches simpler and easier than just using the mouse and screens of your computer? Not yet, though we are closer. If you don't know what you are doing it will slow you down. Those with an extensive background in how MIDI and synthesis works will get the most out of this product and will find new ways to generate sounds creatively. I can definitely see getting the big coarse chunks done on the computer and fine tuning on the ReMOTE. Is it good for adding performance gestures as you record tracks? Yes definitely. You can automate things far beyond the standard filter cutoff and resonance. Can it help you control your sequencer? Absolutely. And that is the best part. It is miles ahead of your basic $200 controller, and I expect it to get better with time.
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