Technology has done a lot for music, but perhaps the most interesting recent development is the widespread availability of music-production tools for the average home computer. One of the most versatile of these is the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) keyboard, which essentially lets the user play a vast array of musical instruments using a single keyboard (or controller). M-Audio has been in the MIDI game from the outset, and the company touts its highly portable Oxygen8 keyboard as the "MIDI controller that started it all." If that's the case, then M-Audio certainly started on the right foot. The Oxygen8 is a well-designed, integral tool for the mobile musician. But novices, beware: Taking full advantage of the Oxygen8 requires practice--and lots of it.
The Oxygen8 alone is simple enough to set up, but you'll want to follow the included instruction sheet to a T; otherwise, it's easy to get confused (for example, in Windows XP, we had to go through the driver-installation steps three times, and that's normal). In order to use the keyboard to generate computer-based sounds, you need MIDI application software. To this end, M-Audio provides Reason Adapted, a scaled-down version of Propellerhead's genre-bending music-workstation software. Setting up the software to work with the Oxygen8 is a trickier matter. The included user guide offers some basic instructions, but we found them insufficient and had to tinker around to make any sound come through (Reason Adapted offers no documentation to help with this problem). Namely, we had to dig into both the software's preferences and the control panel to ensure that the Oxygen8 (simply called USB Keystation in menus) and the computer's sound card were properly enabled. Those using Apple computers will find the process a little easier, thanks to the built-in Audio MIDI setup utility in Mac OS X.
Once you get the Oxygen8 up and running, you'll be rewarded with a feature-rich yet compact music machine. The controller, which measures just 16.2 by 9.0 by 2.5 inches and weighs a hefty but not backbreaking 3.6 pounds, has only 25 keys but is capable of a four-octave transposition in either direction (so it can function much as a full-size keyboard would). While some keyboard aficionados will miss a full-size keyboard, the Oxygen8 addresses the need of producers who record short phrases or transmit MIDI signals without a mouse. You can also program the keys to operate particular MIDI parameters (for example, reverb depth and volume); this function is enabled when you press the MIDI/Select button located above the keyboard. In this area, you'll also find wheels marked Pitch (for raising and lowering instrumental and vocal pitch) and Modulation (for altering the range or intensity of effects); a data-entry slider (for adjusting the value of MIDI parameters); two buttons for adjusting the octave up or down (in one mode, the buttons also select the preset-bank setting); and eight rotary controller knobs (all fully programmable and mappable to the virtual controllers within your software).
Along the back of the Oxygen8 are the USB port, a power jack, and a power switch. The power switch toggles between a setting for USB power and one for external (a wall-wart adapter is included) or battery power (the Oxygen8 can run on six AA batteries). Also lining the back of the device are a sustain jack, for connecting an optional foot pedal ($29.95 at M-Audio), and two MIDI-out jacks, one for inputting from the computer to the keyboard and the other for directly connecting the keyboard to a sound module such as a sampler (allowing you to use the Oxygen8 as a standalone device). Thanks to the Oxygen8's built-in USB 16-channel MIDI interface, there's no need to purchase an extra box, such as M-Audio's Midisport.
All of these customizable features come in handy once you're in Reason Adapted. Each sound bank within the program offers a smorgasbord of instrument variations, which can be fully controlled and modified from the Oxygen8. In addition, the various filters and effects inside each bank can be mapped to the rotary knobs for full MIDI control. Reason Adapted also includes a mixer bank; if you map its functions to the keyboard, you can use the Oxygen8 itself as you would a mixer for live shows. All this functionality translates to one thing: a highly portable music workstation. All you need is the Oxygen8 and a laptop.
The Oxygen8 doesn't disappoint in the performance department. We tested the keyboard with an Acer Aspire 2020 laptop that features a 1.8GHz processor and 512MB of RAM, and we experienced no bugs or glitches. Latency is not an issue; any adjustments we made within the software interface immediately registered with the controller.