Orla Commander C80
MIDI Controller Keyboard
Simon Trask takes command of Orla’s 88-note weighted keyboard, and brings the sensitivity of the concert pianist to this MIDI module interface. Will the C80 respond?
With 88 weighted keys and its own flightcase, this is one fat controller that could end up playing on your tracks...
And still they come... With offerings from Orla, Peavey, Fatar and Soundscape Digital Technology either newly or imminently available, the MIDI controller keyboard evidently refuses to lie down and play dead. True, it's never going to court mass appeal, but clearly there is a market for an instrument which can provide an 88-note weighted keyboard, rugged construction, multiple MIDI Outs, and 'one-touch' configuration of sounds from an array of MIDI modules, but which forgoes any sound-generating capabilities of its own - the formula which is now well established for this type of instrument.
Put simply, the dedicated MIDI controller keyboard is an instrument designed to appeal to keyboard players, particularly to the stage performer. Yet potentially it has wider applications in a sequencer-based MIDI setup. For instance, if you don't have need of all 88 keys for playing, you can dedicate those you're not using to remote MIDI control of various sequencer functions. And if your sequencer can record on multiple MIDI channels within a track, you can take advantage of the split/layer configurations a MIDI controller keyboard lets you create. Also, it's possible to use the programmable MIDI sliders often found on dedicated controller keyboards to record realtime parameter edits into a sequencer.
Italian company Orla have stuck to the tried and tested formula with the Commander C80. Their latest controller keyboard creates a good impression from the outset. For one thing, it comes built into its own flightcase, the lower half of which effectively acts as an extension and reinforcement of the instrument's own casing. All you need do to set up the instrument is to remove the lid of the flightcase.
A glance over the C80's front panel shows that it presents its controller capabilities in an admirably clear and readily accessible manner, while a play on the keys reveals a well-balanced keyboard action which is firm without being sluggish. In fact it occupies the happy middle ground between a typical lightweight synth keyboard and the exaggerated 'piano' feel which some controllers opt for. Consequently, it's well suited to pianistic articulation, yet equally, doesn't feel wrong for the myriad of other sounds available to the keyboard player these days - many of which work best with a light touch.
So far so good. But what about the all-important MIDI control facilities? Here the C80 reveals itself to be competently if not comprehensively kitted out. For a start, it allows you to program up to four independent Sound Control Sections (keyboard zones) together with Rhythm and Custom sections for each of 100 onboard and 100 card Patches.
Using the Rhythm Section you can pre-program a remote selection - via MIDI - of drum machine patterns (using patch changes) or sequencer/drum machine songs (using song selects), together with a tempo setting which takes effect should you hit the Start button on the C80's front panel. The Custom Section lets you assign MIDI patch numbers and controllers to the two dedicated front-panel Patch buttons and Control Change sliders respectively. You could use these to, say, switch between two effects programs on a dedicated multi-effects processor and control two of its effect parameters in real time.
Once you've programmed a series of Patches, you can string them together in any order as a Chain, and then step through the Chain using the front-panel Data dial or a footswitch. Using this approach, you can pre-program the order of Patch selection for each song in a live set, say, and so avoid the need to remember individual Patch numbers. Although the footswitch only lets you advance through a Chain, you can move in either direction using the Data dial - always useful if you accidentally get ahead of yourself!
Up to 20 Chains (10 internal, 10 card) can be selected without the need to change cards. Internal C80 Patches can also be selected remotely via MIDI on a user-programmable MIDI channel, opening up the possibility of automated Patch selection, perhaps as part of a song programmed into a sequencer. Incidentally, all C80 data can be dumped via MIDI SysEx for remote storage purposes, and of course subsequently loaded back in via MIDI.
Each of the six Sections in a C80 Patch can be routed to any one of the four MIDI Out sockets on the instrument's rear panel. This means that layering can only be accomplished by setting two or more keyboard Sections to the same note range and assigning them to the relevant MIDI Outs and MIDI channels. Consequently, you have to trade off splits for layers - unlike on Cheetah's Master Series 7P and 770 (RIP) and the forthcoming MS7000 and MS8000 from Soundscape Digital Technology, which allow you to create up to four layers within each keyboard zone.
To help you keep track of the instruments and patches that each Patch is using, the C80 lets you enter an instrument name per Out (the presumption is that you'll only have a single instrument hanging off each Out) and - if you have the patience - a patch name for each patch-change number. The relevant names will then be displayed automatically in the LCD when you select your output routings and patches.
In addition to its four MIDI Outs, the C80 provides two mergeable MIDI Ins and two MIDI Thrus; Thru 1 transmits a straight copy of the data appearing at In 1, Thru 2 a straight copy of that appearing at In 2. The incoming MIDI data can also be routed to the C80's MIDI Out sockets, but in this instance there are various things you can do to it first. Orla's controller keyboard provides very flexible MIDI filtering capabilities, letting you strip out a wide range of MIDI Channel and System data - the former on both a channel-and an Input-specific basis, the latter, of course, 'only' on an Input-specific basis. All in all, these filtering capabilities give you as much control over the MIDI input from sequencers, drum machines and other keyboards as you're likely to need; for instance, letting you prevent clashes of sync or active-sensing data, or of control changes.
Incoming MIDI data isn't passed through the C80's Patch configurations, so you can't give split and layering capabilities to an external keyboard which doesn't have them itself. However, the C80 does let you remap each incoming MIDI channel on each MIDI In socket to any other MIDI channel and to any one of the four MIDI Outs, so there's plenty of useful flexibility in other ways.
The C80 provides two approaches to Patch editing via its backlit LCD. Within each LCD software page, one shows you single parameter settings for all Sections, the other multiple parameter settings for any individual Section. In both cases, the matrix-style layout and accompanying individual parameter buttons to the right of the LCD window make Patch editing quick and easy.
In addition to the zoning and output routing parameters already mentioned, the C80 lets you program, per Keyboard Section, key velocity and channel aftertouch response, transposition amount (up to +/- six octaves in semitone steps), pitchbend range (only up to a tone in either direction), modulation amount, sustain on/off, MIDI DDL, a patch change together with (if needed) a bank select number, and poly or mono performance.
The DDL lets you set the elapsed time from initial note release to the first repeat, the time interval between repeats, the number of repeats, and volume and pitch offsets which are applied to successive repeats (so you can have delays fading in or out, and/or rising or falling in pitch). Meanwhile, mono performance mode gives you a choice of last-note priority, high-note priority and high-note priority with retrigger. Although, because MIDI notes will always trigger the attack stage of a new note, these can't accurately recreate the old monosynth performance modes.
The C80 also lets you balance the volume levels of the four Keyboard Sections in real-time using four dedicated front-panel sliders, while a separate Master Volume slider gives you volume control over some or all of these Sections (the selection being user-programmable). The latter doesn't simply send out the same volume level for all Sections; instead, you can program a maximum level for each Section, and the C80 will operate between 0 and the programmed level in each case. Clever stuff, and it allows you to preserve an overall balance between the Sections.
The C80 also provides Start and Stop/Continue buttons and a tempo slider on its front panel. Couple these with the Rhythm Section parameters mentioned earlier and you've got a very effective means of controlling sequencers and drum machines remotely via MIDI from the C80. In this scenario, you call up a C80 Patch which in turn selects the relevant song on your sequencer (always assuming the sequencer will respond to MIDI Song Select commands, that is!) and sets the tempo that the song will play back at - courtesy of the Patch's Rhythm Section settings. Then you hit the Start button on the C80's front panel and off you go. The idea, of course, is that this same Patch also calls the appropriate initial sounds and split/layer texture onto the C80's keyboard.
You can always use the tempo slider to quickly alter the pre-programmed tempo before hitting Start. Alternatively, as the Rhythm Section lets you limit the tempo range of the slider, you can set zero deviance from the programmed tempo - a useful insurance against any accidental nudging of the slider!
It should be apparent by now that the C80 has plenty going for it. But what about any shortcomings? Well, the fact that it doesn't provide layering within its Keyboard Sections could be regarded as a potential shortcoming - as could the fact that you can only assign a single instrument name to each MIDI Out (well, you might want to control more than four sound-generating instruments!). And seeing as there is a MIDI DDL, it's a shame you can't sync it to MIDI clock.
Rear-panel foot controls are on the limited side, too. There's only one footpedal input (dedicated to master volume control), and a single footswitch input. The latter is a seven-pin DIN socket, which means the only way you can use a sustain pedal with the C80 is to buy Orla's own four-way footswitch board - a bit of a cheek, if you ask me. What's more, you don't gain the option of using multiple sustain pedals. Instead, the functions are fixed by the C80 as start, stop/continue, chain advance and sustain on/off respectively.
But when all's said and done, Orla's controller does feature an 88-note weighted keyboard which is a pleasure to play, it's ruggedly constructed and easy to use and understand (hey, an accessible MIDI controller keyboard!). Its capabilities are, if not the most sophisticated on offer, enough to satisfy many a musician.
If I was shopping around for a MIDI controller keyboard, I'd definitely put the C80 on my list of possibles. But I think I'd also want to try out Soundscape's new twosome before deciding what to go for. Then there's Peavey's DPM C8 (already popular Stateside) and the Fatar range to consider... In the meantime, answer me this: who (or what) is really in control?
Prices: Commander C80 £1199 Four-way footswitch board £57 inc VAT
More from: Bluebridge Music Ltd (Contact Details)
Review by Simon Trask
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