I had a chance this past weekend to get up to one of the local big box music stores and check out some of the gear. This little box seemed to have slipped past the radar, but I had just read about it online recently and it was one of the things I wanted to look at while I was there.

If you’re a Live user (like I am) you don’t really need much of an explanation what this is or what it does. But for those of you not initiated, this is more or less Novation’s stand alone control box that has been taken from their newly introduced LaunchKey series of controller keyboards (which has also now been extended to the Mini!), sans one row of launch buttons.

It’s use is pretty self explanatory in that it’s got 16 knobs that you can assign to Live’s various controls as well as 8 buttons that you can use to trigger clips with or use as a drum controller. And then on the right hand side of the unit, you’ve got a set of directional controls for moving the control grid up, down and around Live.

The first thing that I really want to say about this (after we’ve gotten the standard blurb out of the way) is that by far, hands down, this little box has the best build quality of the entire LaunchKey line. On the whole, the line feels cheaply produced; the knobs are tiny, the body feels plasticy and it’s not something I would call an investment, but rather a temporary rental until you’re forced, one way or the other, to buy a new one.

But in contrast, the Launch Controller feels solid and well built. The knobs are large, yet soft to grip and they have that satisfying resistance as you turn them. And best of all, they have stops. Why is important? Because over the years we’ve seen a shift away from pots and towards endless encoders. Which is great if you’re an overzealous recording engineer that really needs to dial down that pan setting to something microscopic. But for us synth guys and people that use Live in a DJ-esque way by tweaking effects and filters, it’s a quick trip to carpal tunnel syndrome as on the average, it takes 2-4 complete revolutions to sweep 0-127 in MIDI values. Yet on a pot (potentiometer), you can sweep the same range with one full turn, which is also a spot on emulation of real synthesizers and recording gear.

In my opinion, I would skip the LaunchKey series and just get this to add on to anything that you may already be using as a controller. Or just buy it if you need extra knobs for your VSTs and given Novation’s new open architecture, this will also work with FL Studio or any other DAW. And at 99$, it’s worth it, IMO.

I remember back in the day how sought after M-Audio’s little boxes of knobs were for the same reason and until now, we’ve never really seen anything similar. If you do any sort of computer based synth work or recording and you’ve also been lamenting the loss of pots, definitely jump on this.

Be sure to check out the Novation Launch Controller @ Zzounds

As passionate as I am about music, most of the time it gets relegated to hobby status and I’ve often found it difficult creating an ideal multipurpose workspace as I also share my desk and computer between my other hobbies and needs on a daily basis. So needless to say, I’ve been in the market for sometime looking for a controller that would fit my specific needs. Namely, that is something that was compact enough to fit my rather slim Ikea desk, something that had enough sliders, knobs and possibly drum pads and something that also wasn’t too hard to tuck away in a closet or cupboard when not in use.

I had first read about the Samson Graphite in an in store brochure at my local Sam Ash and I was very intrigued about it as it looked like it fit my needs with it’s numerous on board board controls and compact shape. So quite naturally the first thing I did was look online to see if there were any reviews of it. Sadly, I only found a smattering of forum posts that showed some general curiosity in the Graphite, two brazenly negative reviews on Amazon.com and one professional review from Craig Anderton.

So between the negative reviews and Craig’s polite review copy, I was understandably apprehensive about taking a leap of faith in buying the Graphite and I figured at worst, if I didn’t like it, I could return it for store credit. However once I had gotten the Graphite home and unboxed it, I quickly realized that most of my fears were unfounded.

The first thing I noticed when I picked up the Graphite was how heavy it was; that’s certainly a good indication that there’s a metal chassis inside! And that’s quite a rare feature in MIDI controllers and an even rarer one considering that the Graphite is priced at $199 street. So for any of you with live aspirations, I’m quite confident that the Graphite will survive normal wear and tear and then some!

One of the things I like about the Graphite is that it has a really cool look with rounded corners and an overall slim feel to it. As you can see in the photo below, it easily fits within the narrow confines of my desk.

Across the deck of the Graphite, you’ve got nine faders, eight endless rotary encoders, sixteen buttons that can be assigned to a variety of functions, four drum pads (with your choice of nine velocity curves) and transport controls. In addition to all of that, you’ve also got octave up / down buttons, transpose buttons, pitch bend and modulation wheels and a handful of dedicated buttons for programming the Graphite to send MIDI CC commands as well as managing and editing control templates for DAWs such as Live, Logic and Cubase.

I’d like to side step here for a second and say that I’m not a fan of rotary encoders. The sliders on the Graphite are quite smooth and the encoders are equally as such with little click to them. In fact they feel quite good and even better than on more expensive controllers that I’ve tried. However my issue with the encoders isn’t due to their quality; it’s due the fact that they are often billed as being “high resolution”. What this translates to is that they need several turns to sweep the full range of MIDI values (0-127) whereas their potentiometer brethren only require a single twist left or right.

And quite unfortunately the Graphite has one of the longest throws I’ve felt on a rotary encoder at nearly 2.5 to 3 turns. I really wish the controller manufacturers would realize that most of us use the encoders for synth tweaking and the current crop of these endless encoders are tedious to use. However the good news is you can use the sliders instead as a throw up and down will suffice to run you through the full breadth of MIDI values. But I digress..

The Graphite also gives you two virtual banks of controls which in effect doubles your amount controls. The Graphite is also billed as being a semi weighted controller and in one of the online reviews that I read, the reviewer had stated that Samson had glued metal weights to the undersides of the keys and in the process of shipping, several had fallen out and were loosely rattling within the box.

While I had no such problem and I failed to detect any weights on the keyboard, the Graphite didn’t feel to me like it had a semi weighted action. If I had to describe it, I would call it transparent. It wasn’t weighted, nor springy or clacky, but just rather transparent feeling and as such, it’s quite playable. In fact to me, it felt very similar to the key bed on the Roland Fantom. And it’s also worth noting that the Graphite supports aftertouch, something you never see at this price point.

And finally, out around the back, you’ve got the standard connections for a sustain pedal, USB, MIDI out, a 9v adapter (not included) and a full sized on / off rocker switch, which is a further testament to the exceptional build quality of the Graphite.

Connection to your PC or Mac couldn’t be simpler as it’s completely bus powered and class compliant. Included within the box is a USB cable, a manual and a CD of Native Instrument’s Komplete Essentials. An editor for the Graphite is also available as a free download from the Sam Ash website.

And so in conclusion, with the minor aside of the encoders, the Graphite is a handsome, compact and sturdy controller that’s brimming with features at an unbeatable price. I would whole hardheartedly recommended the Graphite to anyone looking to purchase their first controller or as an addition to their setup.

And if you were so behooved, you can really get into the guts of the Graphite and program every controller with a MIDI CC command (of which a full list is included in the manual) to control your external gear with. That’s another feature you don’t often see on controllers and it’s just one more reason the Graphite can really find a home in your setup. And if for some reason 49 keys is too much for you, the Graphite is also available in a more compact and portable 25 key version.

The Graphite (and its brother Carbon) are Samson’s first venture into the keyboard controller market. And from what I’ve seen in the Graphite, they’ve created an affordable and stellar debut product!

See the full site at Sam Ash for more details.

Key features:

  • 25-key semi-weighted keyboard with aftertouch
  • Programmable master fader, 8 encoders and 4 buttons for hands-on control over your DAW and virtual instruments
  • 4 velocity-sensitive trigger pads with aftertouch (two banks) for drum sounds and samples
  • Large LCD display provides real-time feedback
  • Includes MIDI Out, USB and sustain pedal connections
  • Compact design, perfect for live performance and studio applications
  • Dedicated Transpose and Octave buttons, Pitch Bend and Modulation wheels
  • 3 zones for creating splits and layering sounds
  • Adjustable velocity curve for both keys and pads
  • USB bus powered
  • Bundled with Native Instrument’s Komplete Elements software

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