I’ve never been impressed by Korg’s MicroKontrol MIDI controller, with its horrible spongy keyboard and unyielding drum pads, so I was wary of Korg’s Nano controller range. Eventually, however, the weight of positive reviews for the Nano range of compact controllers swayed me, and so I jumped in and ordered a NanoKey, NanoKontrol and NanoPad (which, by the way, are now available in black, in addition to the original blue-and-white colour scheme).
None of these devices make a sound (unless you count the way in which the NanoKey produces quite a loud, yet somehow satisfying, click when you press the keys!) and are intended purely as controllers for use with your MIDI-enabled software. The devices can be plugged into a USB port on your computer (using the sensibly long USB leads supplied) and be used immediately, although Windows users are encouraged by Korg to download and install its drivers (to provide multi-application support for such devices, or some such thing that Microsoft omitted to include in its unmusical OS), and both Mac and Windows users can download software and configuration files that allow the default settings on the units to be tweaked for use with just about any piece of audio software (Linux users would have to supply their own software – just the way they like it). Korg is a big corporation and doesn’t waste its time telling you exactly where you should obtain the software: you are given a URL to a list of its distributors, and then it’s up to you to go to your country’s Korg site and look for it. That won’t be a major task for most computer-savvy musicians, but a single, direct download link would have been courteous.
The NanoKey is a miniature keyboard with two octaves of miniature touch-sensitive keys plus buttons to raise and lower the current octave, bend the pitch and send modulation. It’s responsive and easy to play, although the keyboard will feel more familiar to typists than to concert pianists. Most users of computer software will be happy enough.
The NanoKontrol features nine faders, 9 knobs, 18 buttons plus transport controls. Korg supplies templates to help you use the device with its Legacy range of software synthesisers, in addition to Logic 8, FL Studio 8, Traktor and Cubase 4: these templates can be written to the NanoKontrol using the software editor available for free download. As a Mac user, I tried, as you might have expected, the Logic template, which sets the NanoKontrol up to control volume fader and pan positions. This in itself is rather limited but the NanoKontrol’s many buttons make it very suitable for use with the third-party LC XMU software, which will persuade Logic that it has a Mackie Control attached. I tried it, and found that this little fader box was then even more versatile (yes, of course it lacks motorised faders and other features, but it takes up a lot less desk space!).
The NanoPad has twelve pads for use by those who like to drum using their fingers. Flam and Roll buttons, when used with the track pad, can be used to provide the expected drumming effects and these make the results of triggering drum samples sound just a little more like the real thing. When neither Roll nor Flam are being used, the track pad outputs controller messages when you use it, providing another way to interact with software plug-ins, provided your music software allows you to tell it how to respond to such control messages. Using Logic’s “Learn” function, I quickly assigned the X axis to the cut-off frequency of a low-pass filter on a software synthesiser, and the Y axis to the filter’s resonance. Fun ensued. The track pad won’t compete with more upmarket offerings, but this functionality was an unexpected bonus, and one more reason not to buy a Kaoss Pad.
The three units (one of each type is the only allowed permutation: don’t expect to be able to store three Nano Kontrols this way without risking damage to them) can be stored and carried in an optional fold-up case made by Korg, which is sold together with a neat USB hub which has four ports and a short, integral lead. There is also a pouch in the case which I found could accommodate the three USB cables – but there then seems to be no room to stash away the USB hub too without risking damage to the controllers (the hub would be pressing against the Nano Kontrol’s plastic controls, which I would not expect to be especially robust). You can fit the USB hub in the case if you remove one of the USB cables. What’s the sense in that? If you are going to have great ideas, such as these cases, and then ruin things by lack of attention to detail, you might as well print “Apple” on the case, not “Korg”.
The Nano series is affordable, if not dirt cheap, reflecting perhaps a sensible balancing on Korg’s part of build quality against manufacturing costs. The controllers are pleasing to use and invite experimenting. Laptop owners will find them to be valued travelling companions (provided they don’t forget the USB hub which they will have to pack separately, remember – how stupid), but the units are fun enough to play with on a personal computer of any size.