Modular MIDI controllers [can we try to do some discussion?]

Hey guys,

I wanted to discuss a bit about modular MIDI controllers. Not MIDI controllers for your modular synthesizer, but controllers that are modular (in some sense).

I can distinguish two kinds of ‘modular’:

  • Discrete controllers that can be chained to create a modular system. Every controller can function independently.
    For example the Xone controllers using X:Link: Image & Product page

  • Controllers that can be customized: they consist of modules itself.
    For example the Special Waves controllers: Link

I think both systems try to address that users want a (somewhat) customizable setup by providing small blocks you can combine as you wish, without the clutter of a lot of wires / USB ports.

I was inspired to create this topic because the Special Wave Kickstarter is coming to an end and they (most likely) won’t make it.

So… what is for you a ‘modular MIDI controller’? What kind of system would you be interested in?

Do you mind that every controllers needs it’s own USB port and/or power supply? Do you think controllers need more customizability?

Thanks!

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IMO if you’re using a computer-centric setup, you don’t really need a modular MIDI controller. Just connect as many controllers as you need to your computer and map them appropriately. It’s mostly a software issue of maintaining the mapping between devices between sessions. I prefer my MIDI controllers to not require a power supply apart from the USB cable.

Then let’s also talk about modular MIDI setups that you implement via software! @kisielk, I’d be curious to know how you maintain mappings across sessions, I struggle with it in Ableton.

To be honest, I don’t really. I use a Novation LaunchControl and a UC33. The LaunchControl has some default settings for aux sends and levels which integrates directly with ableton, and then a user mode for mapping custom stuff. With the user mode, I mostly just map things as needed as I work, I don’t try to persist the settings or even remember what they are. However, I don’t really play with Ableton as a live sort of thing, it’s mostly an idea generator and production environment for me.

As far as the modularity of the rest of my studio, I use an iConnectivity Mio10 with all my MIDI devices patched into it. Then I route signals around using their software, and save presets of different setups. That thing is invaluable.

I’ve been interested in this idea for a long time. Having too many controllers often blurs the overview in my opinion so I try to keep my setup as minimal as possible. For this reason I wrote the ‘control’-app for monome 128 grids. This is, in the essence, a dynamic MIDI controls toolbox with which you can place momentary or toggle buttons, faders, xy-pads and keyboards anywhere on the grid to layout your controller. Not having real faders or knobs is a of course drawback. Nevertheless, with some practice this approach becomes workable. And you only need 1 control interface …

Tablet platforms like Lemur and TouchOSC are great in terms of modularity too, but are in my opinion poor companions during performance since there’s no haptic feedback.

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Have you seen Palette? It’s a startup from Waterloo, Canada. Not specifically a midi controller, but can be used to control anything. I’ve played with it at their office and it’s really cool.

Do you think it could be useful if controllers are able to chain one and other? The first controller is plugged in the computer, the second into the first, etc. But they still appear as separate entities on the computer. Effectively removing a bunch of cables.
Or is this more of a non-issue?

So you prefer to have a minimalistic setup that can do all kind of controls, is it also important to be able to switch between modes almost instantly?
For instance the Special Waves’ Mine allows you to change your controller physically, but not that quickly obviously. Would this still be workable?

Do they work well for music? They seem to promote mostly towards graphic designers.

They are definitely marketing towards greaphics/photography, but they will work with anything. There’s a config app that lets you assign them any function for specific applications… I’m sure there would be a relatively simple way to get them sending midi or osc.

edit: just looked at the “Apps” section of their website and midi is one of the options: https://palettegear.com/midi

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Yeah, fast switching between modes is important to me. to I think the SWM modules won’t work for me, idd because changing the layout takes too much time.

A couple starting points for thinking about building one of a kind controllers:


I’ve had my eye on this, on & off, for a couple of years:

http://lividinstruments.com/products/builder/

There’s also the OG in DIY MIDI:
http://www.ucapps.de/

These bits look interesting as well:

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There was a review in DJTT awhile back bemusing that while people seem to get very excited by the propect of modular MIDI controllers… they never seem to take off. I’m in the same camp: They exactly the kind of thing I get very excited about… but the actual systems seem to always fall to short.

In the Special Wave case, while I love the look and idea… the controllers are about 30% too big, and I worry about how they’d hold up in my “drag it out to gigs” set up. With those sized controls, and limited density, and 8x8 grid, it doesn’t seem like there are really that many different things I could do with them: I suspect I’d end up with one layout, and then just keep it that way. So, the physical configurability doesn’t really seem worth 4x the price. Most of the other systems I’ve seen are the same.

I’m exploring MIDI modularity in another dimension: Building a very flexible remote script for MIDI controllers that allows one to easily configure the layout of functions on a controller. I’ll be saying more about this project soon.

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It would really only remove one cable. If due to the placement of the cables you end up with a tangle, you can Velcro them together or just place a USB hub near the controllers.

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Weren’t the Behringer CMD controllers designed to be modular-ish?

Never saw any in the flesh though.

Just to follow up on this: I released an alpha version:

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I’ve found the Behringer BCR2000 to be the most flexible MIDI controller I’ve used, especially when you pair it with an editor like BC Manager.

Hi there,
Im one of the developer of Mine, the MIDI modular controller… Nice to meet you.
We create Mine and we put it on KS. This campaign didn’t go well, but it’s not a problem… Well, I read some comments to understand what people want…
I want to be clear on one issue… Price… Well, the price is not 4X a regular controller and it’s not a bigger controller… (@mzero). But it will not be possible to have a comparison with non-modular device… Our controllers will always cost more, due to the electronic inside on each module. We could do cheaper and we’ll try to do, but we want to stay on high-quality components. The encoder, the fader, the pot are high quality components and we don’t want to change them… Because we asked to the people and they said “stay on high price, but we want quality”. The pad and double button is our mold… We liked also palette (@emenel) but they don’t do velocity neither aftertouch… What we added is 14-bit MIDI and other tricks that I don’t write here that will be never seen before… We are making MINE because we know that jumping from one need to another is not easy with the same controller… If you have suggestions, I’m hungry of advices… please mail to info@special-waves.com I will reply and thank you… Best regards to all!!!

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Welcome, @maxmoioli! I hope you’ll have a look around the community here, see the great range of discussion and exploration we all enjoy together.

I really do think what you achieved with Mine is lovely, and I hope to try it out one day. I sure I’m not the “target customer”, I was only looking at it from my own musical path:

My needs are for MIDI controllers that can stand up to live performance, being hauled out to sessions on a regular basis. I need well built quality gear - it is my musical instrument - but there are other factors too:

  • Size is at a premium - I only have some much space to put out my rig at the venue.
  • Cost is important, because replacement is inevitable.
  • It needs to handle being transported all the time.
  • Flexibility and adaptability is important: Electronic musicians are musicians of an evolving instruments - often evolving from performance to performance.

So you can see, a modular MIDI controller is enticing, but difficult to balance the needs.

In the Special Waves case, I compared it to a common alternative, a Novation LaunchControl XL. Both, “8 strip” style MIDI controllers. The LC XL has 8 faders, 24 knobs, 16 smaller buttons, and 8 other buttons. On Kickstarter, this is pretty much exactly the Mine + Brown bundle. Indeed US$150 to €640 is pretty much 4x the cost. Size wise, 240mm x 240mm vs. 330mm x 270mm is 35% more in the largest dimension (and 50% in table area).

I’m looking for someone who’s making controllers… any suggestions?