PreSonus ATOM by Sound-Guy
PreSonus ATOM Production and Performance Pad Controller
Sixteen velocity and pressure sensitive pads, twenty-one buttons and four knobs on a small (just under 8x8 inches, about 200 x 200 mm) solid chassis. For US$150 street price. Sounded like a useful little controller to me, especially since I just upgraded one of my drum “machines” and it has a maximum of 16 drum/percussion sounds per kit.
The ATOM comes in a colorful box, as PreSonus always provides, with the ATOM itself, a USB cable (runs on USB 2), some info sheets and a card providing the user with a free copy of Studio One Artist (must be downloaded). Since I already use Studio One Professional, I didn’t download anything, but I did go to my PreSonus account and register the ATOM serial number. The unit feels solid, has four good sized rubber “feet” on the bottom, and sits very securely on a flat surface. I have mine on a slanted surface, tilted up towards me, and it doesn’t try to slide at all.
ATOM ready to go in the “keyboard” mode - pad 1 sends C, pad 2 sends C#, etc.
The ATOM itself is not colorful until it’s powered up via its USB cable, and then its buttons light up and its pads take on various colors depending on the mode used. When it is offline or connected to a non-PreSonus DAW or instrument, the pads light up in one color, and the color indicates which bank is active (it has eight banks - which means up to 128 possible sounds or loops can be accessed!). When connected to Studio One with an active instrument, the pads take on the color of the corresponding virtual instrument pads (such as Impact XT) or light up in a pattern mimicking a piano keyboard (e.g., Sample One XT and Presence XT), both pretty slick methods of helping to quickly see what each pad will activate.
There are ten buttons laid out vertically on each side of the main pads, and these are organized into Song, Event, Instrument, and Mode on the left (along with a Full Level, Note Repeat, and Shift key), and Navigation and Transport buttons on the right (along with a small recessed 11th Setup button). Using some of these controls will light up certain blocks of the main pads: for example, when the Setup button in the Song section is pressed, pads 9, 10, 13 and 14 (marked Duplicate, Delete, Browser and Tempo) illuminate. Likewise, Set Loop in the Song section illuminates pads 15 and 16 (Loop < and Loop >). Nicely designed and logical.
The small Setup button on the right side starts a quick setup mode and lights up all the pads in blocks of colors, with specific parameters controlled with each: Pads 1-3 control the pad modes of Drum, Keyboard and self-test (Mardi Gras mode); pads 5-8 set the pressure type between Off, Control Change, Polyphonic Aftertouch, and Channel pressure. The pressure threshold and mode are adjusted with pads 9-12, and pads 13-15 control the velocity sensitivity of the pads. Having the option of channel aftertouch or polyphonic aftertouch is fantastic - I haven’t had a controller with polyphonic aftertouch since I sold my Ensoniq keyboard years ago. I found it was not easy to control and I had few sound modules that could respond - but on a pad controller used for drums, it is an excellent feature as I describe below.
What About the Feel?
The pads have a firm, rubbery feeling when struck, and if pressure is applied after striking, you can feel the center of the pad depress a small distance. This is very much as I like a drum pad to feel, no sloppy, clicking buttons. Both the velocity sensitivity and pressure control feel right to me with the default settings, and playing around with the setting variations provided noticeable changes, but all in a good playing range.
The various control buttons also have a good responsive feel, very much like the buttons on the FaderPort series. Speaking of FaderPorts, I have both my FaderPort 16 and the ATOM connected at the same time and they both do their separate jobs as expected.
And I Repeat
The Note Repeat button provides a very flexible way to create precisely timed beats, at 1/4 to 1/32T note intervals (using pads 1-8), and I found enables varying the velocity of repeated notes (drum hits, percussion, etc.) while repeating simply by varying the pressure on the pad used. This enables adding dynamics to a beat while maintaining precise timing. Or, if you want very even, mechanical hits, press the Full Level button while in Repeat mode, and every hit will be at maximum velocity.
OK, there are only four, but when I started playing around with them, having them control such things as pitch, filter cutoff frequency and resonance, I lost an hour just morphing samples all over the place - a lot of fun, and an astounding range of sounds using only a single sample. That was with only three knobs!
And it is easy to set what virtual instrument control each knob affects, and between different instruments the same knob may have different functions (like pitch control in Impact and frequency cutoff in Sample One). While in the Repeat mode described above, you can use knobs in real-time to create some fabulous evolving pads.
With Impact XT, I first thought at first that knob use was rather limited since there are only four knobs and there are separate control panels for each of the sixteen pads (and, of course, 8 banks of pads). But ATOM has a button on the left side (Preset +/- Focus) that is the key to all kinds of mayhem! If you press Shift and this button, the button changes color (from blue to gold) and turns on Pad Focus. This enables you to adjust parameters like Pitch, Filter Cutoff, Resonance, and Gain for the current pad using the appropriate knobs, select another pad, make adjustments on that one, and so on. You can lock the focus onto the last selected pad by turning off Pad Focus so you can control the last pad’s parameters while you play other pads, or keep Pad Focus on to allow control to move to the most recent pad played so the knobs control that pad’s parameters. Once I figured this out, I found I could really make things rock. With a recorded sequence playing, you can quickly move knob control to any pad and tweak away in real time.
The (Preset +/- Focus) button has another function in ATOM when you want to edit patterns in Studio One (only available for Impact XT at this time). In the pattern edit mode you can enable Pad Focus to let you quickly audition each pad’s sound.
Note that the Impact XT virtual instrument has a button titled Pad Focus near the top, on the right of its panel, and this switch will also switch on Pad Focus. At the time of writing this review there is a minor issue that PreSonus is working on. In order for Pad Focus to be Off, both the software switch of Impact XT and the ATOM focus control must be off. If either switch is on (or both on), pad focus is on - and Studio One and ATOM do not communicate this to each other. Took me a few minutes to figure why a project wasn’t responding right when I ran it a day later. Very minor thing and might be fixed by the time you read this.
While the knobs are not as precise as those on the FaderPorts, with some “play” when rotating them slightly, they are fine for tweaking instrument parameters ‘on-the-fly’. They have rather slow control if turned slowly - they require two full turns to cover the full range of instrument controls (these are digital controls and rotate freely clockwise or counter wise as many turns as you want), but they have an acceleration action built-in so that twisting them faster creates more control movement. I’m hoping PreSonus make this sensitivity user adjustable since it still seems a bit “sluggish” to me. But overall I’m happy with the knobs, and glad they are included.
Studio One or Studio One
PreSonus say that ATOM and Studio One integrate tightly so you can create music quickly and easily. This is true if you use Studio One 4.1.0 or higher, and the latest version, 188.8.131.52941 as I write this (I kid you not!) has the most features functional. If you are still using version 3.5, you should update (for many reasons!). PreSonus had to develop code so that Studio One can ‘converse’ with ATOM (it’s a two-way communication), and as I understand, they are planning to add/improve ATOM related features in version 4, but will not be updating 3.5. ATOM will work with Studio One 3.5, but without all the integrated functions of 4.1.xxx.
That said, the integration with the latest version is excellent, enabling one to produce beats, play virtual instruments, and trigger sound effects and loops, as well as control features in Studio One such as transport functions, instrument browser, preset changes, loop point settings, and so forth. Furthermore, operation with other DAWs (at least with REAPER) is excellent (only the DAW doesn’t send info such as color settings back to ATOM). And with a drum module such as BFD 3 used standalone, the drums respond beautifully to pad velocity and you can use the polyphonic aftertouch to choke a cymbal or mute a drum. Very useful. I even programmed BFD 3 to respond to the ATOM Play and Stop buttons for playing it standalone.
Is It for You?
For my use, ATOM is excellent. It is compact, solid, and works fine with both PreSonus software and other programs that I frequently use. If you need 40 or 64 pads and/or are an Ableton fan, then it would not be your top choice (and likely you already have a controller). But for controlling drum modules and virtual instruments in a DAW, especially in Studio One, ATOM is a winner.
Sixteen velocity and pressure sensitive pads, twenty-one buttons and four knobs.
Eight banks to provide up to 128 sounds or loops.
Compact (just under 8x8 inches, about 200 x 200 mm) with a solid chassis.
Comes with free Studio One Artist (a hundred dollar program itself).
Works with about any DAW or standalone sound module.
Very powerful control with Studio One 4.1.1 instruments.
Very fair price (US$150 street price at this writing).
Requires latest Studio One version for best operation, but at least the Artist version is available for free (a US$100 product alone). And any version 4 user can (and should) update to the latest version.
Knobs could be more precise in operation, and adding a knob sensitivity adjustment would be great, but I found them quite usable as they are.
Product Info: ATOM | PreSonus