The ability of modern DAW software to play samples, clips, loops while controlling effects in real time created a market for the control surface. We’ve already reviewed a number of them at Hear the Music, some dedicated to specific DAWs and others more generic. Usually a collection of trigger pads and parameter knobs, each model from each manufacturer seems to take a different approach, though many feature a grid of back-lit trigger pads.
The Samson Conspiracy MIDI Control Surface takes its turn at creating a unique work surface around a 5×5 trigger pad grid. What’s different about the Conspiracy is the feeling of 6 distinct work areas. One drawback of control surfaces made to work with any DAW is that the lack of specific labelling makes the surface one big, confusing mass of controls. The learning curve surrounding what’s where can be steep and multiply that if you use more than one DAW app.
The first thing about the Conspiracy that occurred to me is that those sections break down the learning process. There are 40 controls on the Conspiracy. However, just one section of those six has more than half the controls, that being the 25 trigger pads. The section above it has 16 controls. There’s two sections with 8 controls, one with 7 and a single X-Y pad in the last section.
This breaks down memory processing quite nicely I think, although I’m at the stage of life where I have trouble remembering breakfast. Don’t consider me an expert at this sort of thing. I can still remember the words to the third track on side two of the Osmonds’ Phase III album, released in 1972. And I’m not a fan of the Osmonds. Well, except Marie, but I’m getting away from the point.
There’s a lot to like about the Conspiracy and it’s priced at a level that invites experimentation, no matter what platform you use.
This is a USB class compliant device. Exactly one cable, a USB connector through which the Conspiracy sends control signals and receives power for its backlit pads and buttons. There are no drivers to install. Simply select the Conspiracy within your DAW as a MIDI input and output device and away you go.
The LCD screen reflects not only which control you’re adjusting, but also reports the MIDI CC number that control uses. This again aids the learning process as you have visual feedback at all times. Every control is mappable, so if you don’t like one of the 20 presets, you can change it to do what you need.
Going back to the 6 section design, this means you can group controls in sections as they make sense to you. No unseen designer bends you to their nefarious will.
Some sections are already logical. The upper right, under the LCD screen contains transport controls. Below that is a little mini-DJ mixer, with levels and crossfades. Of course the trigger pads can configure as you need it, as well as the function buttons above. Knobs and side faders can sweep filters or adjust effects parameters. The X-Y pad creates a very interesting way to “perform” parameter changes. It’s really a creative layout for performing and altering songs on the fly.
The trigger pads remain the heart of any performance control surface. On the Conspiracy, the 25 triggers are velocity sensitive and aftertouch enabled. For those not in the know, velocity sensitivity is like a piano key. The faster you press, the louder the note. In the case of MIDI pads, such as these, the fast press earns you a higher MIDI value, which is then used as assigned, usually for a louder note, but not exclusively bound to that.
Aftertouch detects key pressure after the initial note event. On an organ patch, for example, aftertouch could trigger the speed up of a Leslie speaker effect or other modulation.
In software, the Conspiracy’s trigger buttons can change operation between toggle (on/off) mode or momentary (press and hold) mode. The former works well for starting and stopping loops, for instance, while the latter might insert a synth stab as the performer holds the trigger, stopping upon release.
The real fun on the Conspiracy is, for me, the X-Y pad in the upper left. I admit I’m a sucker for these. Essentially, using the tip of your finger, you control, simultaneously, two parameters, one along each of the X and Y axes. This makes for some cool effects, continually sweeping filters or deep modulations, giving movement and life to tracks that may otherwise just sit there.
The Conspiracy and other performance control surfaces are made to play, in all senses. I like the layout of the Samson device, the first that really feels inspiring as a performance tool for me.
The Conspiracy is a low-cost device, coming in well under $200, and while its build reflects this, being largely plastic construction, it’s by no means a chintzy cheap. The pads feel both responsive and sturdy enough to take a typical beating in a raucous club atmosphere. The feel of the knobs and faders is adequate, if not exceptional.
I’ve mentioned the same point with other control surfaces. I’m not sure if the Conspiracy would hold up to night after night gigging. However, if you’re playing that much you can probably justify a $1,000 Ableton Push. For the weekend warrior or studio beat guru, the Samson Conspiracy matches the quality of other devices in its class.
Though dating back about a year and a half, there are only a few user reviews available online. These aren’t particularly useful either. Two Ableton Live users are very happy with it. Another user wants something to happen with the trigger button backlights, but though they’ve left several reviews, each of which I’ve read several times, I have no idea what they’re trying to do, only that it doesn’t seem to be a music application and they’re expecting trigger pads to light based on signal from a computer, rather than the triggers triggering the computer.
Another review doesn’t like the fact that continuous knobs don’t have light rings around them to indicate where they’re set. If this were a mixer or recording controller where the device managed banks of channels, I can see the need, but used as intended, there’s not much value to be had, particularly at the cost of a much more expensive knob, times 14 to outfit the Conspiracy.
There’s not much value here in user reviews as the positive reviewers aren’t particularly talkative. I am comfortable, though, that the negative reviews come down to misplaced expectations. Who wouldn’t like a piece of audio gear to make our tracks sound amazing while at the same time making us a sandwich? It comes down to expectations and keeping them real sometimes.
Performance control surfaces are fun. Of the half dozen or so that I’ve reviewed, this is my favorite. However, I need to qualify that. The Samson Conspiracy is the one that works best with my calcified brain. I could feel myself moving toward an understanding that wasn’t inherent with other devices.
What it definitely isn’t, though, is a matter of this device is good, that device is crap. It comes down very much to feature sets and personal preferences for controllers in the $200 and down price range.
The Samson Conspiracy MIDI Control Surface is a definite candidate in the affordable performance controller class. I definitely recommend adding it to your comparison list if you’re seeking such a device.