Link: I-Creative | Price: $140/€82/£79 | User Guide: PDF
Link: G-Board | Price: $95/€94/£69 | User Guide: PDF
There’s plenty of high-end controllers to drool about these days – but when you’re just starting out and are still in the process of working out your individual approach to making and performing music, these may be a little bit too expensive to dish out on. Most of them are also too heavy with features, overwhelming beginners and, due to most functions being pre-mapped and/or locked down, also teaching them nothing about MIDI mapping. Thankfully, there are options in the entry-level product range – Icon’s line-up of units is one of them. We’ll start by checking out the I-Creativ and the G-Board.
Admittedly, I’ve walked past Icon’s booths at many trade shows, and my initial reaction always was “meh, move along”. This is mostly because their gear doesn’t exactly look premium, but that’s not really doing it justice. You can’t tell if a product actually delivers unless you spend some time working with it – and up until now, I’ve never actually done that.
The I-Creativ is built around a translucent touch pad with a 16×8 grid of red LEDs underneath – reminiscent of Korg’s Kaoss Pad 3+ with similar depth, but about 30% wider. It also has a simple three-digit display (again, similar to the ones found on Kaoss Pads), a single fader, four rotary encoders and an infrared sensor called AirLight…
…probably because AirFX was already taken. Remember these Alesis units? Pepperidge Farm remembers. This sensor technology is pretty much the same as Roland’s D-Beam, but you normally wouldn’t expect anything like it on a controller in this price range. There’s an additional rotary encoder to adjust the unit’s internal BPM and cycle through the “AirEffect” presets – fancy feature names aside, this simply scrolls through 10 different MIDI mapping layers assigned to the sensor.
The touch pad can operate in 6 modes, which are accessible via 6 buttons to the right. Each mode (except for Piano) has multiple layers, switchable via 8 buttons to the left. The modes are as follows:
Moving the finger across the touch pad triggers notes – simple as that. If you use Ableton Live, placing a Scale device on a MIDI track is an easy way to keep this in check.
2 layers of 8 triggers represented by LED squares that provide nice visual feedback when you tap them (see pictures). The default mapping works nicely with Drum Racks in Ableton Live – except there’s no velocity sensitivity, of course.
2 layers of 8 touch faders per bank represented by LED columns – useful for volume control, rack macros, effect sends etc.
This is pretty much what the Kaoss Pads do when you use them as MIDI controllers rather than effects units. Moving the finger across the pad outputs two MIDI CCs, one for the X and one for the Y axis. Mapping this to effect parameter control makes sense. There are 8 layers.
Another unexpected feature on a unit in this price range: a built-in arpeggiator with 8 layers of 8 patterns. Sadly, it’s not programmable directly from the unit – but you can load your own MIDI files using Icon’s iMap software, so it’s actually not an arp but more like a very simple sequencer. The visual feedback on this is a simple animation, more than enough to tell you which pattern is currently playing.
This is pretty much identical to Pad mode – 2 banks of 8 triggers. The visual representation is a little different and the preset note values are also a few octaves below the Pad mode ones which makes it easier to avoid double mappings.
The sensor works quite OK within a range of about 15cm above the unit. There’s nothing “3D” about it though – just like Roland’s D-Beam, it simply measures the distance to the surface that reflects infrared light (e.g. your hand) and translates that to a single MIDI CC. Of course it’s not nearly as high-res as, say, a Leap Motion sensor, so I wouldn’t use it to control anything that needs precise adjustment – but it’s not meant for that. Think rough filter/modwheel action, delay or reverb sends – that will work! Although there is no bypass switch (except maybe selecting another MIDI CC which isn’t mapped yet), the positioning of the sensor in relation to the touch pad is good, making it unlikely to trigger it by accident. Finally, you can define a reset MIDI CC value in the editor – this is the value that gets sent out by default, when your hand is not in range. A small detail – but a very welcome one, depending on what you want to control.
The unit is USB class-compliant and therefore plug’n play. The iMap tool is lightweight and works as advertised, although it’s not pretty – but it’s not like you’re ever going to use it on stage, so who cares? The basics are covered, and they’re covered well.
The only feature that really gives me a headache is the arpeggiator. While this is an excellent idea on paper, it just doesn’t hold up in practice. At first, I thought that 64 patterns would be a lot of fun, but then I realized there’s absolutely no way to sync them to anything. You can adjust BPM manually, but you can’t restart the internal clock and you also can’t slave the unit to the MIDI clock output of your DAW or DVS. I can handle setting up MIDI clock offsets between different pieces of kit manually and I’m very patient – but not patient enough to beat-match with an encoder that adjusts the global tempo in 1 BPM increments.
There is no global quantisation either – so you can’t jump between patterns in sync, and even if you had perfect timing, the unit would mess it up for you because there is a significant lag when going between patterns. Finally, when a pattern is playing and you switch layers, it stops. Long story short: good idea, failed execution.
Most people probably won’t use the arp though – and setting that feature aside, the I-Creativ is actually a pretty decent MIDI controller. The fader and knob section doesn’t scream quality, but does the job. The pad is pretty responsive, and the AirLight sensor is a very cool addition – and unlike the arp, you can go between its mapping layers without unexpected value jumps.
It’s too bad you can’t make bi-directional MIDI mappings, so you won’t get anything beyond the built-in visual feedback – but with all the different pad modes and their layers, I would say it’s definitely possible to take the I-Creativ, add a basic audio interface, make a fully functional Traktor mapping and DJ with it – or just use it as an affordable effect controller to add to an existing setup.
As you can probably tell from the pictures, there really isn’t much to talk about here. The G-Board is a floorboard-style MIDI controller with 8 stomp triggers, and that’s about it.
The triggers are surprisingly heavy-duty, offering a lot of resistance and a loud click. I wouldn’t use this for tapping BPM, or triggering a loop recorder when you’re using a microphone. I also wouldn’t use it if you’ve got people living on a floor below yours – they probably won’t appreciate the noise. However, it’s still not a bad choice for DJs, because the tactile feedback from the stomp trigger makes it easy to tell when you’ve actually “clicked”. So you could, for example, use the G-Board as an affordable controller for capturing scratch loops.
The only question I have is: whose brilliant idea (pun very much intended) was it to give a controller like this a glossy surface? I mean… it’s designed to be stepped on, come on. Still, just like the I-Creativ, while it’s neither pretty nor perfect – it works.
DAISY-CHAINING… OR NOT
Initially, I wanted to give Icon serious praise for adding another USB port to the unit. In theory, this is supposed to allow you to daisy-chain multiple devices so that they only occupy one port on your laptop. Sadly, despite my most sincere efforts to get this to work, it didn’t. According to Ion, you’re supposed to open the iMap tool and set the secondary controller to slave mode (master being the default). Yet no combination of cables worked, USB ports with different power output levels had no effect either – and I’ve tested this on three laptops running Win7/64 Pro SP1. While the units receive power, MIDI signals from the secondary unit just don’t arrive at the host. To be fair, I can’t try this on OSX and my guess is CoreMIDI could possibly handle this better, but let’s be honest – this is really only relevant for Macbook users who have to struggle with having 2 USB ports. My laptops have 5 of them, so I really couldn’t care less. But hey, look on the bright side – you can still charge your #phone for #selfies with #groupies in the #club.
Well, you get what you pay for – but what you get is by no means bad. Actually, I’m honestly surprised by how decent the I-Creativ is. Although you have to map everything yourself, it’s good practice and you’ll get exactly what you want in the end – if your software allows it (I’m talking to you, Serato). One of the things that surprised me about both these units is their weight. I expected something as light as, say, a Korg Nanopad or Akai LPD8 – but they’re a lot heavier. They’re all plastic on the outside though, so there’s probably some “quality enhancement” going on – I wanted to open them to take a look, but it seems like they’re designed to be opened only once. As to the G-Board, I didn’t expect any miracles in the first place – it’s basically just 8 buttons.
In the end, these units both do their job, and if you want something basic – why not try them? From what I’ve seen at NAMM, the glossy surfaces are a thing of the past and future Icon gear will have nice, matte black cases. We’ll have to keep an eye on that development.
– low price tag
– basic, but solid implementation of all features but the arpeggiator
– no visual feedback via MIDI out
– no MIDI clock sync, poor BPM controls