I have finally established what is missing for me when it comes to MIDI controllers for computer based soft synths.
I am right handed, it is as simple as that.
Here is how it goes.
My studio is laid out right handed.
That means that I have my computer screen directly in front of me, with the keyboard below it, the mouse to its right.
I have a MIDI master keyboard on my right hand side and when I stand up to play the guitar I can operate the computer or play the keyboard.
If I am programming sounds on my VSynth, I tend to play the keys with my right hand (I am not as articulate with my left and it is not my main instrument) and tweak the controls with my left hand as I play. The response is immediate and I can really fine tune filters and envelopes against the way I intend to play the sound. It is ergonomically workable.
Using an Akai S series sampler got me to much the same place. It was quick and efficient. I stabbed away at the MIDI keys and dialled around the OS like a madman.
It is not lack of controls that makes my current set up unworkable. I am used to using one value slider for everything. Skipping around the data entry can be simply moving my hand to another knob, or moving the cursor to another value. Sure from time to time I grab two things at once but rarely more than two, though it is possible on a Roland TB303 with practice.
What I notice is, when I program a soft synth, I have to grab a control and use the mouse with my right hand. This means I either have to stop and check the changes, making my programming less fluid. Or I have to attempt to use the mouse with my left hand (not really workable). Even more unworkable, try playing a keyboard with my left hand.
It just doesn’t have the same level of workability.
The iPad bridges this gap in some applications but again most of these software knobs are fiddly and hard to operate left handed.
Auto-Map doesn’t do it for me, because I never know what knob does what, nor which page I should be on, let alone the fact that when I do want to play parameters off one another’s values, they are often on different pages.
What I need is a single intelligent physical knob that knows what I want to control and when. If it was the size of the alpha control on a Roland synth and continuous that would be perfect.
Ideally I should be able to touch my screen layout and for the knob to be in the middle above my MIDI keys. If I could reach out and touch my screen, letting the computer know “I want to control this” and then have it auto-mapped to my controller, I would be happy.
Okay forget touch screens on DAWs, that will become common place in about three years. So right now, it would be almost as workable if I had two knobs in front of me, like on the Akai, allowing me to use one to find a parameter and the other to set its value.
There are plenty of really complicated ways to do it as well. I could spend a lifetime of evenings setting up OSC et al.
A simple way that simply responded to everything would be better. A key to tab through parameters even and value entry?
Anyway, now I know what the problem is, perhaps I can solve it.
Perhaps it is just a case of finding a trackball which is easy to use with my left hand?
If you have any ideas of what might work for me, I would love to hear from you.
Some ideas outlive others,
Mark Tinley is a music technologist and sound artist (est. 1982) and appears as a regular panelist on SonicTalk, the SonicState Podcast