Review: Novation 61 SL Mk II MIDI Keyboard Controller
Best feel, sensitivity, and playability of any midi controller keyboard I’ve played
Can be used as a fully customizable midi control surface
Automatically changes knobs/faders to control open effects/instruments via automap
Computer editing software allows for easy manual programming
Automap software allows for not only midi CC commands, but user defined key commands as well
Preview button & touch sensitive faders to allow you to view what a knob/sider is assigned to BEFORE sending any data
X/Y Pad not as touch sensitive as I would prefer
Automap software must wrap all plugins before use
Automap software crashes from time to time
At the higher price range for a midi controller keyboard
I’ve tried many, MANY midi controllers over the years, and I’m confident to say that the Novation 61 Sl MK II Midi Keyboard Controller is simply the best one I’ve used bar none. It simply has the best semi-weighted synth key action I have ever used. Its tight but not springy, and the velocity sensitivity has the perfect feel right out of the box. However, if you dont like its velocity curve, you CAN ADJUST IT to better fit your playing style – a feature I took for granted when I played other keyboards that would not allow you this basic control! Note, I have played other keyboards in the Novation line, including the new Impulse 61, and IMO the feel of the key bed does not compare to the Remote SL. So in my opinion its worth saving up for the SL.
The SL MkII has all the bells and whistles you could ever want in a keyboard. In fact, it has enough extras to double as a control surface – 8 Encoders (Infinite Rotation), 8 Pots (270 Rotation), 8 Sliders, 32 Buttons with integrated LEDs, 8 soft feel Trigger pads, “Xpression stick” for mod and pitch bend control, and “Xpression XY Pad” which can be assigned to any midi CC you want, Octave up/down buttons with LED indicator, Sustain Pedal & expression pedal inputs.
The knobs and faders on the SL MkII are all touch sensitive, and simply touching the top of a control will bring up the corresponding information on the keyboard built in LED display. So this means you do not need to actually wiggle knobs (which will change settings) in order to know what each knob/fader controls! I dont know about you, but I find this to be an AMAZING feature, as I can never remember exactly how I have my many different templates setup. I.e. was fader 3 of my VSL template controlling expression or humanize? Simply tap the top of the fader (or use the “preview button”) and the LED and/or Automap tells me what control its assigned to without screwing anything up. WAY COOL!!!
The SL Mk II can of course function as a standard midi controller and each of its buttons / knobs / faders etc are FULLY CUSTOMIZABLE, either from the machine itself, or via my preferred method, the supplied computer editing software. The editor itself is great – just double click on a button or knob or fader, and a box comes up with all possible changes, including renaming the setting which shows up on the LED. So you don’t have to remember that midi CC10 controls pan, just write “pan” as the name and your good to go! Whats also nice is you can change the display format for 0 to 127 or -64 to 63 which is great for the pan example above. You can also specify which port the knobs send to, which midi channel, define high and low values, etc, all at the click of a button. VERY handy and makes it great for creating your own custom templates. However, what sets the novation keyboards apart from other midi controllers is automap.
The joy of the automap system is that once you wrap your plugins, all parameters are automatically assigned to your keyboards knobs, faders and buttons. So Plug-ins and virtual instruments that would have usually taken a substantial amount of time to manually map are already setup and ready to go! But what if you dont like how its automapped – well no problem! Simply open automap by hitting the “view” button on the keyboard, and drag and drop the parameters in the order you see fit. Then hit the “Set as default” button, and now every time you open this plugin, your custom automap will be used. AWESOME! Whats even more exciting is that automap associates these mapping with each specific plugin, so as soon as you open that Putec EQ, automap is already assigned and ready. Change to your choice compressor, and the keyboards mapping has automatically changed to control the compressor. WAY COOL!!
Another awesome feature of automap is not only does it control plugin parameters, but it can also send key commands!! For example, I have the buttons above my transport controls set to control loop positions in Logic, go forward and back through markers, capture last take as recording, and cycle through presets. No need to remember all these different key commands – just assign each on to a button and your good to go! Simply awesome and really speeds up my workflow.
Now, one drag about automap is that you do need to wrap all your plugins into the automap format. This means that unless you get rid of your originals (which I have done for most of my plugins) you will see double of all your plugins in your DAW. What also stinks about automap needing to wrap plugins is that if you collaborate with other musicians, they MUST have automap installed and those plugins wrapped in order for them to open your sessions. Also, as far as I know, there is no easy way to change auto mapped plugins in your session to non-automapped plugins, so be sure you consider this when deciding if automap is right for you. But remember this is only if you need to share your plugin settings with other people. I collaborate all the time and this has never been an issue for me thus far.
The keyboard itself is not without some nitpicks though. The X/Y pad, though a unique and seemingly useful controller, is not as responsive as I would like. I love using X/Y pads to control multiple parameters at once, and just felt I couldn’t get the level of precision out of the keyboards built in X/Y so I have actually gone back to using my iPad for this functionality. I also personally dislike the small faders! I understand why they did this (so the overall keyboard profile would be smaller) but I dislike them so much that I actually purchased a ZeRO just for longer faders. But this means I now have double all the knobs, buttons, and faders!! TOTAL OVERKILL. If only I could have found a keyboard with the same feel and response as the Novation SL Mk II without all the knobs and faders, but sadly as far as I know non exist.
Bottom line: For someone looking for their first control surface / professional midi keyboard look no further than the SL MK II. Not only does it have the best feel of any midi controller I have played to date, the included autmap software and functionality make this a joy to use. Once you take the time to understand how automap works vs a custom template and integrate it into your work flow, you will wonder how you ever did without it!