Whether 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
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; keithmcmillen.com
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