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Review: Numark Orbit Wireless MIDI Controller

If DJing is your game, Numark has something that may level up your life. The Orbit wireless controller with 2-axis motion control feels like a video game. Sitting in both your hands, it lets you thumb and wave your way to multi-colored effects madness like a caffeinated kid on a PSP. But how is its response and programmability? Read on for our play test.

Reviewed: Numark Orbit Wireless MIDI Controllerz
Price: $149 (MSRP), $99 (common retail price) 
Available: Now
Ships with: Orbit DJ and Orbit Editor software, USB dongle, USB cables, user guide.
Weight: 11.2 ounces (317 g)
Dimensions: 7.1 x 4.3 x 0.9 inches (18 x 10.9 x 2.2 cm)
Requirements (for Orbit DJ):
Windows 7 (32/64 bit) or Window 8 (32/64 bit), 2 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo or faster, 2 GB RAM, 1,280×800 display resolution
Mac: 
OS 10.7 or 10.8, 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo or faster, 2 GB RAM, 1,280×800 display resolution

The Good: Wireless operation with a 2.4 GHz frequency USB dongle, or wired use with a USB cable. Motion-controlled, 2-axis accelerometer has almost no latency over a clear wireless connection. Lightweight, handheld MIDI controller with Traktor Pro + GrandVJ mappings (and more program mappings on the way. Rainbow array of 10 customizable LED colors. Rechargeable lithium-ion battery lasts for about 8 hours of continuous use. 

The Bad: Large Virtual Knob feels clunky and slippery in the middle. Occasional latency upon initial wireless connection. Extreme accelerometer motions feel physically unnatural. USB dongle is wider than it should be for cramped laptop layouts. 

The Bottom Line: With a unique feature set, solid build, and affordable price, the Orbit’s versatility and novelty make it one of the more compelling small-format controllers available.

MEET THE ORBIT

You’ve probably seen plenty of people hacking video game controllers to operate their DJ software. Now Numark has basically hacked the portable video game design ethos to create a fully MIDI-compatible controller aimed squarely at DJs and live producers.

The Orbit’s look and feel harkens to the Sony PSP, mirroring its general size, shape, two-handed grip and thumb-oriented control; it even has two top-panel buttons for the forefingers, which are designed to toggle on the 2-axis motion control, courtesy of the onboard accelerometer. Whether its filtering tracks or scrolling menus, the accelerometer controls can manipulate just about anything, and they can both be active at once.

Envisioned as a wireless, handheld controller that lets a live performer tweak two functions via left-to-right or back-to-front motion, the Orbit has hooks in the front and underside for attaching the unit to a strap to wear around the neck or attach to an arm band, belt, etc. But the unit is equally adept as a general MIDI controller for any MIDI-compatible software: music, video, lighting, etc. It’s perfectly suited for tabletop use as well, with rubber feet for a good grip on the bottom, and you can use it wired over a USB cable to a computer if the internal Li-ion battery needs charging. 

No matter how you use it, the Orbit’s 16 pads and four Pad Banks give you ample fodder for your programming delight — 64 pads that you can color code to your liking with 10 LED colors. The big center knob can also have four function buttons (K1-K4)  per Pad Bank, meaning 16 total uses of what Numark calls the Virtual Knob.

The Orbit’s non-volatile memory will store the current settings when the battery expires or when you turn it off with the power switch on the right-side panel, next to the USB port. If you want to create and save more Orbit settings, you can build and store as many as you want with the Numark Orbit Editor software. Any of the controls can be mapped to any MIDI function.

For the price, the Orbit feels very sturdy, yet its low weight will never strain your hands or your gear bag. Its controls are solidly constructed, and the pads particularly have a good middle-ground feel to them: neither too stiff nor too loose. If you end of playing them with your thumbs while holding the Orbit, rather than banging pads with your fingers on a tabletop, you probably won’t generate as much force with your pad strikes. But the Orbits buttons respond very well.

ORBIT DJ AND EDITOR SOFTWARE

Numark includes some software that you can download after you register the Orbit’s serial number on their site. The Orbit DJ software may not seem like much right off the bat. But it actually can be useful for both beginner DJs and for experienced people to get ideas on how they will use the Orbit in their workhorse software, whatever that may be. 

Orbit DJ has A and B “decks” where you drag and drop music from your hard drive. The software graphically shows you the exact functions of the the Orbit’s buttons, and mirrors the colors of the hardware. The four Pad Bank layouts include transport; cue playback, setting, and deleting; auto and manual loops for both decks, as well as FX pages for both decks that include 8 tempo-based effects, as well as 3-band EQ with EQ kills. The Virtual Knob is used for deck volume, crossfading, and EQ adjustment.

It’s not really a live performance software, but it lets you have some fun with the Orbit out of the box, and it can give you some good suggestions for Pad Bank layouts and color codings for your own mappings.

The Orbit Editor in use (click to expand)

On deep end of the software spectrum, the Orbit Editor is the traditional MIDI editing program for creating and saving control layouts. You can retrieve the current mapping from the hardware load, modify, and send existing maps to the hardware, or create something entirely new.

The editor has a couple of nice shortcuts to autofill the pad mappings to ascending MIDI channel numbers or Note/CC numbers if you want to.

TRAKTOR PRO MAPS

Although there are Numark videos showing mappings for Ableton Live and Serato DJ, the only mappings available from the official Ozone site were three Traktor Pro 2.6 maps and one for Arkaos GrandVJ.

These Traktor mappings are smart; a single control often does multiple things. For example, when you’re using the Virtual Knob to browse tracks, the software jumps to Browser view; as you load the track with one of the buttons, it jumps back to Mixer view.

There’s a 2-deck and a 4-deck map; the 2-deck one seems like the most fully functional. With it you can really run a full set, although the more prepared the tracks are, the better. The Pad Banks on this mapping take care of Deck A Transport, Deck B Transport, Deck A FX, and Deck B FX. The transport decks even have a Shift key built in, giving you lots of flexibility with the buttons and Virtual Knob. You can set, trigger, or delete cue points; control loops; browse, seek, and load tracks; and work the crossfader, pitch fader, track volume, and key value. The shoulder accelerometer buttons control filters A and B, which you can control simultaneously with some un-self-conscious twirling and twisting motions.

The FX decks are even bigger treats, as three of the Virtual Knob settings control the dry/wet levels and effect amounts for custom FX groups designed to add flair to build ups and breakdowns with a single fluid movement of the knob. These banks let you quickly access a battery of 13 effects, some of them, like Beat Masher 2, in multiple incarnations. With the Beat Slicer and Echo Freeze effects you can either toggle or hold them on. Most of the these effects have one or two parameters tied to the motion controls, so while the effect is either toggled or held on, you can also hold one or both of the shoulder buttons down and perform motion-controlled tweakery.

Creating a mix with the Orbit doesn’t feel quite as fluid as with a big controller or a mixer, but within a half hour of exploring the Traktor map, I was performing credible mixes with familiar music in my collection. It’s also just a fun, new experience to use Traktor with the wireless Orbit, whether you’re jumping around the room or reclined back in a chair with your feet up. Of course, pairing the Orbit with other small controllers or one other main controller will really open you up to specializing the Orbit’s functions to just the whiz-bang, ooh-ah type stuff, while the others handle the ordinary routines.

THE ORBIT IN USE: HOW DOES IT PERFORM?

Early on, Orbit answered the big questions about wireless latency and the response and resolution of the motion control. Besides some rare hiccups, it performed up to professional performance standards. Upon initially pairing with the USB dongle, we occasionally experienced some early latency, but after 30-60 seconds or less, the unit was sending signal with no noticeable latency.

The results from the motion controls also impressed us. Take for instance the typical adjusting of a track filter or effect parameter. A flat Orbit represents a knob in the center position, and rotating the Orbit 90 degrees to the left, right, front or back represents the knob all they way left or right, depending on the situation. The response to the software felt immediate; the knobs turned as quickly as we could rotate the Orbit. Not only that, but the response also sounded very smooth. There was no notching effect involved with the motion control. Even when using both shoulder buttons to manipulate both motion controls, the results sounded great.

We tested it without a lot of active Wi-Fi networks in the area-  other (2.4 GHz band) devices and microwaves can interfere with the signal. The wireless signal range is estimated at about about 100 feet (30 meters) with a clear line of sight. [Note, 7/8/13: The Orbit and its USB dongle communicate over a 2.4 GHz frequency–the same as many Wi-Fi networks and other devices. It is not, however, a Wi-Fi device that sends packets of data that could be interrupted.]

A possible concern is just the physical movement of the Orbit itself. While not a huge bother, the motion of twisting the Orbit a full 180 degrees from left to right and back or from back to front and back both feels and looks a bit awkward. You won’t always want such extreme movements, and you’ll get more used to it in time.

The feel of the Virtual Knob also caused some concern. While it’s a giant knob, you pretty much have to touch it specifically at the edges to get it to move well. The top finish of the knob is covered with small serrated concentric circles, giving it a slippery feel that simply does not respond well with a thumb or finger on top of the knob instead of the rubberized edge. You also have to apply a fair amount of pressure to that edge. This means if you’re trying to execute quick maneuvers and don’t quite hit the edge with the right amount of pressure, either your timing will be off, or you aim might be off and accidentally hit a button instead. Again, it’s something to get used to in time, I just wonder if that much unusable knob space could have been used for something else.

Numark advertises 8 hours of continuous use from a charged battery. In our tests, with a fully-charged battery we had the unit powered on for just about 10 hours before it shut down, although some of that time was in sleep mode. If the Orbit stays inactive for three minutes, it will enter sleep mode, which consumes some (less) energy. You just need to move the Orbit or press any control for it to instantly wake up.

FLOATING IN SPACE

It’s hard to resist the appeal of the Orbit. It’s often the case that a $100 piece of gear either sacrifices build quality for features or feature for build quality. Neither is the case here, and there’s high-performance wireless connectivity and motion control, which are still unusual at any price point.

As with many controllers, the magic is in the mappings. The current Traktor maps showcase the potential of the unit quite well, and could serve either as a good inspiration or jumping off point for people’s own mapping. It’s not going to be for the faint of heart to come up with mappings as sophisticated as Numark’s Traktor maps, but to MIDI mapping veterans, it’s just business as usual.

While the Orbit could suffice in almost any small-format MIDI controller situation, it really is uniquely designed for its specialty, which is wireless, handheld control. That means controller users will probably fall into one of three categories: those who are already using some wireless and/or handheld gear in performance, those who are not yet using such gear but might be interested in doing so, and those who are not using such gear and couldn’t care less about it. Props go to Numark for potentially alienating some customers for the sake of making a cool, unique device.

Markkus Rovito is the DJTT Technical Editor – have something you’d like to see reviewed or questions about the Orbit? Let him know in the comments below. 

  • Julio harris

    Yo tengo. Virtual Dj No puedo instalar orbit ?

  • Tom Razin

    there should be a wireless midi plug/adapter so all my controllers can be wireless.

  • Jim

    This device looks ridiculous. Like a children’s toy. But it is $100. I bought one.

  • Jim

    This device looks ridiculous. Like a children’s toy. But it is $100. I bought one.

  • Mad Zach

    this would be the tits for a vj set

  • djtakesnorequests

    Is this compatible with Serato DJ ? Thanks, community.

    • Markkus Rovito

      As long as you have a Serato DJ-approved controller, you should be able to use the Orbit as a secondary controller and create mappings for it in Serato DJ.

  • DJ_ForcedHand

    I didn’t want to like this controller, because it seemed silly to me at the time and I already had a Maschine Mikro Mk2, however I played with one at Guitar Center and it seemed… actually… pretty good. While you CAN use this as your only controller, I get the feeling that the designers made that an after-thought and really focused on the color-changing buttons, the knob, and the fun of using the X-Y motion-control. This (to me) felt natural, unlike the playing around with the MF3D. I felt like a dog on a leash with the MF3D and was ‘reminded’ by the USB cable that I had exceeded my movement range when it tugged back on me… or when it simply came out of its’ socket (and interrupted my fun).

    I recommend playing with an accelerometer controller at least once because it will bring back childhood memories of playing with airplanes. You really get a sense of ” rrrrrRRRRRRRRRrrrrrooooooooOOOOOwwwwwwOOOOOrrrrrrrrrrrr….” when you move the controller around. I was tempted to install a machine gun sample on one of the buttons, but the sales person wasn’t having it, so I mapped a fast rimshot loop… which was kinda’ odd.

  • Anonymous

    i already have a wireless hand held midi controller, its called an ipad

  • ithinkmynameismoose

    Looking at it the only use I can really see is using it as hotcue triggers (1-8 on decks A and B) for Traktor Scratch Pro.

    • DJ_ForcedHand

      Do you use the Remix Decks in Tracktor, how about Effects?

      • ithinkmynameismoose

        I control effects with an F1. I don’t really use the remix decks.

  • Morten Nestander Varsi

    Never gonna buy that..

  • Smokey

    Reminds me of “Simon Says”

  • Chris

    If batman were a dj, this would be his belt buckle….

  • Big C

    I see this honestly as being a really interesting tool for lighting.

    • Cody Lanoue

      I want to use it with rand VJ and Martin Light jockey. I think it would be great!

  • Stewe

    Pretty cool device to play around with. Nice review!

  • Edward Midgley

    Or just buy a MidiFighter 3D?

    • DJ_ForcedHand

      What do you feel the MF3D has that makes it a better purchase than the Orbit? I thought that the wireless connectivity at least made the Orbit more fun.

      • Edward Midgley

        The fact that the knob in the middle makes me think the Orbit is awkward, and also how playable, easy to use, and better looking the MF3D is.

        • DJ_ForcedHand

          I’ll be honest, the knob gets in the way if you’re trying to play a 4×4 trigger grid, I hit the knob with my finger quite a few times when I tried it out. To be fair, everything is awkward the first time you do it. If you buy one, you’ll either learn to pick your fingers up a bit higher, or play the buttons as two sides (4×2 left and 4×2 right).

          That being said, the buttons are “squishy” (like the Novation Launchpad or Native Instruments Maschine) which is nice if you’re playing fast, for a long time, or both. I use a Maschine because it’s more playable to me. I know the MF3D has buttons on the side, but they’re not as ergonomic as the Orbit shoulder buttons… it’s also nice to see what bank you’ve selected at a glance.

          The simple fact that you (the DJ) can spin around (and dance unfettered within a reasonable distance) without losing connection to the DJ program is certainly important. If someone wanted to crowd-surf with a MF3D, they wouldn’t make it very far.

          Playable: I’d say the MF3D has a slight advantage on a flat surface but only because there’s a knob in the middle (the MF3D doesn’t have a knob so it’s not as flexible). When you pick up the devices and play them, the Orbit doesn’t have to be tethered and that makes a big difference… the Orbit walks away with portable control.

          Easy to Use: I’m going to say since there is a multi-use knob, clearly visible bank buttons, and the shoulder select buttons, the Orbit has the clear advantage here.

          Better Looking: The MF3D is a box with a cable hanging out of it, the Orbit looks like a hand-held videogame console… tough call there.

          • Edward Midgley

            I guess a lot of it is down to opinion, I would find this controller more of an ‘extra controller on the side I SHOULD use’ rather than the MF3D which I would find to be far more of a useful tool and would use all of the time when mixing and performing live. Though I can see why some people would prefer the Orbit, in my opinion it’s a no-brainer for the MF3D.

          • DJ_ForcedHand

            I think the MF3D would be a much better product if it had velocity sensitive buttons.

          • Chaser720

            I got a hold of one of the Orbits today at Guitar Center and the buttons weren’t really comparable to my Maschine. I’d say more like the F1 without the click.

          • DJ_ForcedHand

            Oh absolutely, The Maschine has velocity sensitive buttons (which to me has a secondary function of changing a parameter via pressure being applied… and the buttons are bigger too).

  • Someone

    first!