7 Steps to Cleaning Up Your "ACT" with Hardware

by Craig Anderton

ACT (Active Controller Technology; in SONAR) is a powerful protocol, and its complexity can be sufficiently daunting that some people never take advantage of it. However, one of the rarely-considered advantages of a powerful protocol is that it’s often powerful enough to be used in a more basic way. So if you’ve wanted to take advantage of ACT without having to reach for the aspirin, you’re in the right place.

The conventional approach to ACT is using templates that let you apply hands-on control to various instruments and effects. This usually implies having a dedicated controller, spending some time setting up assignments and creating templates, and so on. However, you can also treat ACT more like a “controller scratch pad” that’s easy, efficient, and works with just about any MIDI controller. It’s the ideal solution for when you simply want some hands-on control without having to venture very far into left-brain territory.

Step 1: Choose Your Controller

One of my favorite ACT controllers is Native Instruments’ discontinued Kore 2 controller. The industrial design is first-class, it’s built solidly, and there’s enough functionality for what we need. Another advantage is that when NI stopped supporting Kore, the eBay prices took a major tumble. Although the examples in this article are based on Kore, please note that the same principles apply to virtually any MIDI controller.

Step 2: Grab Your Software

Many controllers have dedicated drivers, so if needed, make sure you have the latest. NI still offers the 32/64-bit Kore 2 Controller Driver 3.0.0 and the latest NI Controller Editor, which you can download for free from their site. Follow the instructions when installing, or you’ll wonder why the controller doesn’t work.

(Note: With the Kore 2 controller, you may first be greeted with an unusable bright red display. No worries: Hit Kore 2’s F2 button, navigate to Set, hit Enter, and use the navigation buttons and data wheel to control the Contrast and Backlight parameter values.)

The Controller Editor for NI’s Kore lets you specify various characteristics of the Kore 2 controller. In this picture, a button is being assigned to output a trigger when pushed down.

Various controllers may have options—such as assigning buttons to a latch, toggle, or trigger mode. Many of them have editors; Kore 2’s is somewhat more sophisticated than many others, but again, the principles are the same. In the case of Kore you open the Editor, select Kore Controller 2 from the drop-down menu, and use the Edit button in the Templates tab to choose New. This creates a general purpose MIDI control template. (While you’re at it, I recommend assigning the eight main buttons associated with the pots to Trigger, and action on Down. For a shift button, assign the monitor [speaker icon] button to Gate, again with action on down. Go to the file menu, and save the configuration as “Sonar ACT.ncc.”)

Step 3: Set Up SONAR

Your controller communicates with SONAR via MIDI, so go to the Edit menu and choose Preferences. Select MIDI Devices, and under inputs, enable your controller’s MIDI in (don’t use MIDI out with ACT, as it’s not bi-directional). After making your assignments, click on Apply.

Also under MIDI preferences, click on Control Surfaces. Click on the Add New Controller/Surface button that looks like a little gold star, then from the Controller/Surface Settings pop-up, select ACT MIDI Controller (not the name of your particular hardware controller, if it’s listed) from the Controller/Surface drop-down menu. Choose the device’s MIDI input port (enabled previously as a MIDI Device), and select None for the output port.

Click on OK in the Controller/Surface Settings box, and you’ll see the ACT MIDI controller listed under Connected Controllers/Surfaces in the Control Surfaces preferences. Click on Close.

Step 4: Take a Trip to the Links

Now you need to do a one-time setup to link your controller hardware to ACT. Here’s the step-by-step procedure.

1. From Sonar’s Utilities menu, select ACT MIDI Controller. The ACT template appears.

2. Click on the Active Controller Technology Enable check box in the lower left.

3. If a preset exists for your controller, for example you have a Line 6 KB37, choose it from the Presets drop-down menu and then click on the Options tab. Look in the Comments box for instructions on how to set up your controller, and you’re pretty much ready to go. But we’ll assume your device doesn’t have a preset, so choose the Default preset.

4. To start with a clean slate, click on the Options tab, then click on Defaults and the Clear MIDI Learn buttons. Next, click on the Controllers tab.

5. ACT assumes a default controller with eight rotary controls, eight sliders, eight buttons, and a button you can dedicate as a shift key to have eight additional button functions by holding down shift and one of the buttons. Kore 2 has no sliders, so we’ll use the rotary controls and buttons.

6. Now link Kore’s eight controls, in order, to the eight rotary control cells in the ACT template. To do this, click in the lower half of the R1 (R as in “Rotary”) cell and rotate the first controller knob. Now click in the lower half of the R2 cell, and rotate the second control. Proceed until all eight controls are assigned to cells R1-R8.

7. ACT allows for four banks of controls, and we need to link to these as well. From the drop-down menu to the left of the R cells, select Bank 2 and similarly link the knobs to the Bank 2 cells. Do the same for Banks 3 and 4.

8. Now assign the buttons similarly: click in the lower part of each button cell (B1-B8), and click on the button you want to assign to it. Again, assign them to the four sets of button banks.

9. To assign a shift button, click on the ACT template’s Shift Learn, then click on the button you want to use as a shift control.

10. After all the assignments are made, rename the template’s Default preset (e.g., “Kore 2”) and save it so you don’t have to go through this kind of setup again.

Note on the ACT template that some controls have a green background, and some blue. Green means a control is excluded from ACT, so no matter what you do with ACT, it will always have the same function. To be able to use an excluded control for ACT, go to the Options tab, choose the control from the drop-down menus, and uncheck “Exclude this bank (or button) from ACT.” For example, I unchecked all Shift-button and button settings (except for B7 and B8 in all button banks, for reasons we’ll see later) so the buttons would always be available for ACT.

Step 5: Start ACTing

Now insert some effects into a track to practice using ACT. Drag the Sonitus Compressor, Cakewalk Tempo Delay, and Classic Phaser into a track FX bin.

Click on the Classic Phaser. The ACT template now shows which parameters are assigned to the rotary controls. Turn the controls on Kore that correspond to the rotaries, and you’ll see the Classic Phaser parameters move.

Now click on the Tempo Delay to give the focus (ACT follows whatever has the focus). There are more than eight controls, but ACT has banks to access other parameters. You could choose these from the Bank drop-down menu, but note that Button 7 defaults to selecting the next higher Rotary and Slider bank with each button press, and Button 8 defaults to doing the same thing with the button bank. So if you push button 7, the second bank of parameters appears, and now you can adjust Mix and Level with rotaries one and two.

The ACT template shows what the rotary and button banks control. Note that the four buttons are assigned redundantly, so I don’t have to remember which group of four buttons controls specific parameters. Buttons B7 and B8 are excluded from ACT in order to choose different rotary and button banks.

Next, check out the Sonitus compressor. Again, we have hands-on control over the parameters—but there are some complications, as the defaults for which controls affect which parameters may not seem logical, and it can be a hassle to look at the template and try to correlate knobs to parameters. Or some parameters might default to sliders, which this controller doesn’t have. Fortunately, as the controls are linked to the template by MIDI, we can assign any control to any parameter.

Step 6: Customizing the Links

Minimize the template, as you don’t really need to edit it any more. Click on the Tempo Delay; suppose you’ve already set up the Delay Time, and you simply want to experiment with the EQ so that four knobs control, from left to right, EQ mode, low, mid, and high.

To do this, click on the effect’s ACT Learn button. Move the four effect parameters you want to assign, then move the four hardware controls. The first knob you move will link to the first parameter you moved, the second knob will link to the second parameter you moved, and so on. You can also do this in the reverse order—move the controls first, then the parameters.

ACT Learn has been used to assign the seven Transient Shaper knobs to the Kore controller’s first seven rotary controls. Note that the order in ACT mimics the order on the Transient Shaper.

After doing the assignments, turn off ACT Learn. A dialog box tells you how many parameters were moved, and how many controls. To keep the assignments, click on Yes. Now the four controls affect the four parameters you chose. These assignments remain in place until changed, even if you close and re-open Sonar. You don’t even have to save the ACT template to retain the custom mappings, as it stores only the link assignments between hardware and ACT—the custom mappings are just sort of magically saved within the ACT Data folder (which you should back up periodically, in case you need to re-install Sonar someday).

Step 7: Advanced ACT

What’s cool about this approach is that instead of having to memorize or look up which banks of controls affect which parameters and so on, you can work with the same knobs, re-assigning them as needed. For example, you might do a custom assignment of a synth’s filter envelope parameters. When that’s tweaked, you might re-assign the same knobs to control filter cutoff and resonance, velocity, and envelope amount. Also note that a single parameter can map to multiple controls.

It’s also worth spending some time on the ACT template’s Options page. For example, you can choose whether parameters jump immediately to the hardware knob settings when moved, or the control position has to match the parameter value before it will move.

If you haven’t worked with ACT, give it a try—once your links are set up, you’ll find it’s easy to customize ACT to provide hardware control for the task at hand.

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