Keith McMillen Instruments SoftStep MIDI Controller

July 12, 2011

imgWhether for operations like choosing patches on early rackmounted multieffects such as the Boss GP-8, or handling synth-guitar presets, guitarists have been using MIDI foot controllers almost as long as MIDI has been around. These controllers range from fabulously flexible (but stage-hogging and expensive) custom systems by Bob Bradshaw and Pete Cornish to small, inexpensive gear like the Rolls Midibuddy. Keith McMillen’s new SoftStep ($289 retail/$259 street) is part of a new generation of USB, MIDI foot controllers—one with a wealth of revolutionary tricks up its sleeve.

SoftStep is small: 17w" x 4", and barely thicker than a CD jewel case, and it weighs slightly over a pound. This might at first appear insubstantial, but handling it soon reveals the toughness of its elastomeric and graphite composite construction. Club guitarists will be especially pleased that it is guaranteed beer-proof.

Ten 2w" square footpads sport both large numbers and borders that light up in ultra-cool “Tron” blue, making for easy reading on the darkest stage. An additional four 7/8" square pads are arranged in a diamond shape to the right. Normally used to step through “Scenes,” they can also be programmed to perform other functions.

The ultra-slim rear panel contains a 1/8" port for an expression pedal (a 1/4" to 1/8" adapter is included); a USB port to connect to a computer for programming the pedal, software control, and pedal power. It also has an expansion port for a SoftStep MIDI Expander (sold separately) that allows you to control a MIDI synth and/or rack effects without a computer.

SoftStep represents a huge leap forward over other foot controllers, where the switch options are pretty much limited to on/off. Pads 1 through 0 can indeed perform on/off functions, triggered by long or short single taps or double taps— each tap type sending different MIDI information. They are also touch sensitive in a way that responds to direct pressure, X/Y movement, and rotary pressure—delivering continuous controller information to modify virtually any MIDI controllable parameter.

SoftStep is not simple to program, but once you understand the various screens, the control possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Space doesn’t permit going through all of them, so let me highlight some functions I found useful.

Programming pads to different CC numbers let me use SoftStep to control various effects in IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube or Native Instrument’s Guitar Rig. Turning pedals on and off was easily achieved with Toggle mode. The real fun began when I set Guitar Rig’s LFO modifier to sweep through the frequency of the cutoff on the Pro-Filter. Dedicating a single pad to both Pressure and Foot On modes allowed me to use greater pressure by my foot to speed up the rate of the LFO and less to slow it down, while the same pad turned the Pro-Filter on when my foot was on the pad and off when I lifted it away.

If this sounds too techno for you, imagine using similar options for a wah effect: stepping on the pad turns the wah on, pressing down increases the treble, backing off moves toward the bass end of the wah’s range, and removing your foot shuts it off. I dedicated the expression pedal input to volume control, and SoftStep allowed me to choose among sine, cosine, or logarithmic curves to shape how the volume changed as the pedal was pushed forward.

The software’s Modulation page reveals that each pad has six “Mod Lines.” This means that you can program each pad to perform six separate functions at once. True tweakers can modify one line with another, creating complex chains of control. Various options allow you to set the sensitivity of each Mod Line control separately. I found this essential, as I often play seated, giving me less available pressure for the pads. Another cool quality was the dead-silent switching; some controllers work well, but the clank of their mechanical switches make them unsuitable for accompanying acoustic musicians in intimate concert or recording settings.

SoftStep takes some getting used to, as it is as much like learning an instrument as using a controller. Keith McMillen’s support staff is excellent, eager to help, and continually coming up with improvements in response to customer requests, as well as templates to make programming simpler. If performing with MIDI is part of your musical palette, SoftStep is a must have.

KUDOS Strong, lightweight construction. Incredible levels of control.
CONCERNS Steep learning curve.
CONTACT Keith McMillen Insturments, (877) 812-0408;

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