Some Weekend Reading- SmithsonMartin KS-1974 Review

I recently had the pleasure of testing and reviewing the SmithsonMartin KS-1974 midi controller for PLSN magazine. The following review is re-printed here, and you can find the full article HERE. It was my first time with a MIDI controller and there was a bit of a learning curve. About a day’s worth. The console is that easy to set up and use! If you run any software that uses MIDI as an interconnect, than the SmithsonMartin line of controllers are worth looking at. The award winning Emulator Modular software is light, easy, and well thought out. Yes- they are a bit pricey, but the build quality alone is worth it, not to mention the functionality. There is a sale going on RIGHT NOW on the Emulator DVS, the big screen version with an RP projector- the same one used by Infected Mushroom on their current tour. As far as technical support, Pablo Martin (Guru of all things tech at SM) and Alan Smithson were all over any question I had. It’s refreshing to be able to speak with the owners/creators directly when it concerns a product- a luxury that is rare in the Biz. On that note, read on:

Control is something we all love to have, and in the entertainment industry- it seems we can never have enough. I find that my colleagues in the sound department have issues with this, but that’s a different subject….

Control over the rig is an issue that the lighting folks have had a handle on for a long time, but it seems like the more gear is added under the auspices of ‘media’, or LED’s, or LED panels, or the ubiquitis term ‘video’, the more it falls the the lighting guy/gal and their desk to actually make the stuff work. I’m a big fan of integration (until now referred to as ‘convergence’) , but there are times when the oldest axiom in the biz becomes painfully clear and that is “the right tool for the right job”. Lighting consoles seem to be actually diverging into two separate classes- those that can control media and those that can’t. Those that can’t are great for running lights (or DMX if you prefer), and that’s about it. Those that can are becoming complex (and thus expensive) to the point where you really do need a separate media server(s) and probably a person or two to take care of the video side of the rig. By the same token, dedicated video controllers are not simple beasts either. They seem to have evolved into the same complexity. I see more and more shows needing just the right amount of control over both and there are very few tools for that. Looking forward over the next few years, we see the rise of media software like Resolume Arena, Arkaos, Modul8, and the like coupled with the rapid advance of touch-enabled devices. Vickie Claiborne outlined the plethora of control available for the LD on a touch device (Video Digerati, Jan. 2012).

All of this is fine and good, except you get to control your rig with interfaces designed by someone else. On a smallish (or many) screens. Enter the KS-1974 from SmithsonMartin.

Using the company’s premier app Emulator Modular, the KS-1974 allows you to make and use your own layouts for popular VJ/DJ/Lighting software like Resolume, Traktor, Ableton, GrandMA, etc. on a completely knob/fader-free 4-point touch surface with 22” of hardened glass real estate in a retro wood-and-metal enclosure. No knobs, no faders, no encoder wheels- you decide what gets placed and where.

Console…or?
To be clear- the KS-1974 is a MIDI controller. That means you can control MIDI enabled software that, in turn, will control whatever else you have hooked to it. It uses highly accurate and extremely responsive four-point touch sensors behind chemically strengthened glass. There is ultra low latency, 4ms, and it can withstand constant usage as well as the occasional liquid spill with no faders or knobs to wear out.

I used a Bootcamped Macbook Pro 17” running Win7 32 bit with 16gb of RAM for this test. Running under a virtual machine works, but I found the software to be a bit dodgy this way. Just run it under native Windows and it’s rock solid. I also used Resolume Arena 4 as my starting point to run Emulator Modular on top of. In fact that is literally what you are doing- running Emulator on top of the software that you wish to make an interface from. You can turn ‘transparency’ on and see right through to whatever you want to control, and then simply lay controls (button, fader, encoder) on top of it. The key is planning….but wait- why don’t I just use the interface that’s there already? Well, that’s the whole point…someone else designed it- not you. And you’d be using a mouse or some dinky touchscreen. You may have a better, more comfortable way to see/use your workflow….

Planning out your interface

As with most things, careful planning is necessary. Your software will likely have a MIDI map of what channels control what. Making a careful layout of your buttons, faders, and knobs will be key as well as knowing these channels. Once buttons are assigned you then map the channels to them and viola! Your very own interface. With Emulator Modular, you get six separate pages of usable space to put controls on- encoder wheels, faders, knobs, X-Y pads, and decoration. The software is snappy and works well with the 22” of screen of the KS-1974. It’s a solid feel to run a set on this albeit a little odd to get used to. After running it for about an hour I kept wanting to touch the screen of my laptop! In the initial planning and build stages, a mouse is entirely necessary for the right-click contextual menu in order to lay out your controls.

I/O

The KS-1974 has no power switches and the cable harness that comes out of the back includes a 12v hook, DSub15, HDMI, and USB. An external power supply was included as well as a copy of the Emulator Modular software. The build quality is extremely high and just feels good to control a show from it. The wood styling and angled stance is a nod to the great consoles of the 70’s…The 4ms response time is barely noticeable and the surface is very robust. This console works outstandingly well for music/mix-only software, but what about video? If you’re using a late-model Windows PC, you’ll need to set up a three screen scenario, using the third screen as your output, as the console will be your second (extended) desktop. On a bootcamped Mac, you’ll need to use a MiniDisplayPort->Dual DVI adapter to use the second screen. Another option is to use two computers, one running your initial setup and simply network the second as the media slave. Whatever rig you use, you’ll need to have some beefy processing to go along with the right I/O schema, and keep track of the USB ports (you may want a decent hub)- or simply use FireWire to store your media. There is a small, but growing, user community and the possibility of exchanging pre-made templates as well as MIDI maps for other apps is there. I’ve seen screenshots of GrandMA, Ableton, Traktor, and Arkaos.

Final Thoughts

There are already a number of touch-enabled control apps out there for lighting and video but none are as ‘boutique’ or elegant as the KS-1974/Emulator combo. Let’s be clear- the KS-1974 is a performance console. Could you program the video portion of the rig from here and then simply have the lighting people cue the video app via MIDI? Absolutely, as long as you’ve done the pre-planning. A lot of programmers spend long hours just learning a console, let alone mastering it. But now they have the freedom to make their own and that has a huge potential in time savings as well as creative possibilities. Emulator Modular on the KS-1974 took me about 2 days to get the hang of. There is no doubt that touch-enabled technology will be making it’s way into our market. It’s only a matter of time before manufacturers start to integrate it heavily into future control products- SmithsonMartin just did and it’s here now.

What it is:
The KS-1974 MIDI controller from SmithsonMartin running Emulator Modular.

What it does:
22” of touchscreen to make your own control layout/schema for VJ/DJ/Music/Lighting production software

What it costs:
$1799, includes a lifetime license and copy of Emulator Modular, + $349 UDG carry-on bag

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