Review: Keith McMillen Softstep MIDI Foot Controller
Pads can be set to control a wide range of parameters ranging from midi CC’s to notes, and even key commands
Pads respond not only to on/off, but are pressure sensitive and directionally sensitive as well
Computer editor to customize the layout of your softstep
Light and strong construction
Lack of per pad hardware and/or software monitoring
The midi editor is not very intuitive and will require time and patience to learn
Bugs and strange behavior in the software which can cause major frustration
Looking for the ultimate foot controller? Look no further than the Keith McMillen Softstep. Coming in at just 1.3 pounds and standing less than 1″ at its tallest point this USB powered foot controller is extremely portable and very durable, but what makes the SoftStep really powerful is that its not simply an on/off button board like many other foot controllers on the market (though it can be programed to act as such) – but rather each pad is TOUCH SENSITIVE, allowing you to send out multiple different midi messages depending on how the pad is manipulated! For example, each pad responds to velocity (how hard you stomp on the pad), vertical pressure (how much pressure your applying to the pad), X/Y roll (rolling your foot across the pad) Rotation (turning your foot in a circle) and more. WAY COOL! I find some of these control methods work better than others (I personally couldn’t wrap my foot around rotating on the pad – at least in consistently successful manner) but I have successfully setup my pads for velocity and vertical pressure and they work REALLY WELL!!
For example, in one of my setups I use the softstep to control my guitar stomp boxes. Tap on the pad to turn on the effect, and then for effects like Wah, vertical pressure controls the wah pedal. This way I have in essence a toggle and expression pedal in one pad – VERY COOL! For effects I need more control, or a way to set it and forget it (like a volume pedal for instance) I still use an expression pedal. The soft step has an expression pedal input. But with some tweaking of the parameters I could probably get by with just the softstep alone. And keep in mind, this is all done on the individual pad level, allowing you to fully customize the unit.
I also use the softstep is to control Virtual instruments while playing my WX5 midi wind controller. Since both my hands are busy playing WX5, I’ve programed the softstep to change patches via key switches and apply mod wheel and expression via foot pressure, all without having to stop playing. This leads to some really creative performances that would have been a pain, if not impossible, to do on another foot controller.
Customization is relatively painless using the provided SoftStep editor software, though I must admit the amount of possibilities can become overwhelming. Everything from the individual amplitude of each CC and the linear response curve can be customized. There is an “easy” editor as well, which is designed to allow people to make simple edits to their softstep, though I personally found the easy editor did not offer the level of control I needed and basically worthless. However, maybe someone might find it useful. And unfortunately their full editor is on the other side of the spectrum and borders on the coding, so be prepared to do a lot of experimentation. Unfortunately the softstep manual is not very good, nor are their youtube videos (which haven’t been updated for the softstep since 2011 – Still waiting on that promised Logic tutorial Keith McMillen support team!!) but with some experimentation and a LOT of patience, I was able to get the editor to do what I need it to – but be prepared to work for your reward here.
Unfortunately the softstep is not perfect. The LED display on the unit is nice, but its limited to only 4 characters!! Really?! Granted it is large enough to read while standing, but it leads to forced abrivations that I later forget their meaning. Speaking of forgetting, its also a shame that there are not LED’s above each pad which you could rename. I must admit I sometimes forget what I programmed to what pad. Was it pad 6 that controls my Wah pedal or was that pad 7? Having individual LEDs above the pads, or better yet instead of the numbers on the pads, would have allowed me to properly label each pads function. If this is not possible, at the very least they should have some sort of “performance mode” view in the softstep software where you can easily see the layout of the softstep in a sizable window, letting you know exactly what each key is assigned to. While the current softstep layout is great for programming, it has way too much going on to be able to figure out at a glance while performing, plus the actual function names are in extremely small type, as well as the corresponding pad number. I can’t be the only one out there who could benefit from this, can I? There are other units out there (like the novation Zero) that have LED’s above each knob and fader, there to remind you what each key’s purpose is and its GREAT for people like me who run complex midi CC control for each instrument. I take full advantage of the numerous scene layouts available on the softstep, so I dont only have to remember 10 buttons, but potentially over a hundred!
I also find the softstep software to be very buggy, especially in Hosted mode with Logic pro. The idea behind “hosted mode” is that the software acts as a bridge between your softstep and your DAW, allowing you to program and store you presets on your computer instead using the limited onboard RAM in the softstep itself. However, this software sends out extra messages that cause Logic in particular to react in a bad way. Lets take a simple example, turning a pad into a mod wheel. I open softstep, activate the first mod line, set the source to “pressure live” destination CC1, and when I record into Logic, softstep is indeed sending midi CC1 data. YEAY! However, its also sending midi CC77, midi CC78 & midi CC79, which ends up messing up my other instruments that use these midi CC’s!! I tried a similar test with sending note messages – set the source to “Foot on” set the destination as “Note Set” and set the note to 39 velocity 100. Again, when I record into logic I get the notes (YEAY) but I got midi CC68, CC70 & CC71 data as well! The only solution to this odd behavior, as recommended by Keith McMillen soft step support, is to only use the soft step in Standalone mode, and not hosted mode. What this means is I have to edit my scenes and store them all in the unit itself, instead of being able to keep the soft step software open and store presets as files on my computer. Bummer.
Light at the end of the tunnel:
Though I just put it down pretty heavy in the last few paragraphs, let me make it clear – this unit is FAR from bad. In fact, I think its the best midi foot controller on the market today! Its light, portable, extremely durable and “beer proof.” Small enough to throw in a backpack but strong enough to put up with the rigors of the road. Though it may take some effort, the unit is fully customizable and able to be setup to your specific wishes and wants. It reacts to multiple foot gestures, and sends out multiple parameters, be it midi CC, Notes, pitch bend, Program messages, MMC, OSC, and even actual QWERTY keyboard commands – all on the PER PAD LEVEL. Thats unparalleled control and customization in any other foot controller. Use it live for controlling your virtual effects and instruments, or use it in the studio to control your DAW. Its really an amazing piece of kit. If only they had a more user friendly editing software and the addition of LED feedback per pad (or at the very least a “performance view” software) this unit would be perfect.