Review: Novation ZeRO SL MkII Midi surface controller
Can be used as a fully customizable midi control surface
Automatically changes knobs/faders to control open effects/instruments via automap
Full size faders with great feel (for plastic faders)
Buttons/Knobs have LED light feedback
Speed Dial gives knob control over any parameter your mouse is hovering over
Decent 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
Automap software must wrap all plugins before use
Automap software crashes from time to time
SL MKII editor software is not layed out for the ZeRo but rather their keyboard line
Pads are poor and basically worthless in my experience
ZeRO SL MkII is an awesome piece of kit that has become an integral part of my work flow. I was in the market for a midi control surface that I could program to control my numerous virtual instruments and plugins. What lead me to Novation was the Automap system, which automatically maps plugin parameters to the device! So instead of spending all my time custom mapping each plugin I want to use, Automap has all this already layer out for me for each plugin I want to use! But before I get ahead of myself, lets talk about the unit itself.
The ZeRO has 8 faders, 8 encoders, 8 pots, 8 trigger pads, 32 assignable buttons and a crossfader. 6 of the buttons serve double duty, in that while in “transport mode” they allowing you to play, stop, record and loop as well as navigate backwards and forwards in your DAW – functionality I use ALL the time. The knobs and faders are all touch sensitive, and simply touching the top of a control will bring up the corresponding information on the 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 top row of knobs on the Remote are “endlessly rotating” and each one has a ring of LEDs to show you the current value of that parameter. This is GREAT as it allows me to get a good overview of the levels of certain parameters just by looking at the ZeRO. One small nit pick is that there is “light bleed” which can be seen in the next “hole.” I sometimes wish that all 16 knobs were endless, but the variety in the feel between endless and the regular knobs (regular knobs seem to have more feedback and require a bit more force to move) welcome when performing different types of automation. Whats great about the 8 faders on the ZeRO is that they are longer than the ones that come on the novation keyboards, giving you higher resolution for your automation. This in fact was the main reason I went with the ZeRO.
The ZeRO can be used as a standard midi controller and each of its buttons / knobs / faders etc is FULLY CUSTOMIZABLE, either from the machine itself, or via my preferred method, the supplied computer editing software. Whats odd about the software editor though is that its layout is setup for their keyboard line, and NOT setup as the ZeRO, which is slightly different. Though this is initially confusing, it is not a deal breaker as 99% of the ZeRO can be customized in this editor (with the only missing assignment being the crossfader – I sent them a feature request on this YEARS ago and still no change). 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 ZeRO apart from other midi control surfaces is automap.
The joy of the automap system is that once you wrap your plugins, all parameters are automatically assigned to the ZeRO’s 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 ZeRO, 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 ZeRO’s 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 ZeRO is built out of plastic, but does not feel cheap in any way. The build quality is surprisingly well done and it feels like it will last in the studio no problem. I would be worried about gigging with this unit though as one drop in the right place could cause damage (though I did drop mine at a gig and it still works fine). ZeRO can be used as a flat desktop unit, or used how I do with the provided feet which gives the unit a nice viewing and working angle. Novation even provides a surprisingly long, heavy duty USB cable. It really feels they have thought of everything.
I’ve only scratched the surface on what this device can do, and all this functionality for under $300 is a STEAL!! You will have to spend some time understanding how automap works vs a custom template, but once you start to integrate this device into your work flow you’ll wonder how you ever did without it!