Review: PreSonus ATOM SQ
Designed for tight integration with Studio One, this PreSonus beat controller promises to play nice with other DAWs too. But with so many controllers on the market, can it beat the competition?
The market for live-performance MIDI controllers is flooded with quality options of all shapes, sizes and feature sets. Most of these controllers can be configured to work with Studio One, should that be your DAW of choice. But let’s face it, the thought of setting up a new control surface or controller keyboard to work with Studio One – which includes configuring custom mappings for those features to which you need quick access – might leave you looking for DIY projects around the house.
PreSonus’ recently released Atom SQ looks set to eliminate such faff. The successor to its Atom controller sports a host of features to get you banging out beats and taming your favourite DAW in no time.
The new kid on the block
Upon taking the Atom SQ out of its packaging, we’re immediately struck by its solid build quality. Although the casing is plastic, the Atom SQ feels robust in the hands and is slightly bigger than expected. In fact, it’s the exact width of our mid-2014 MacBook Pro, and sits only a couple of centimetres higher. The Atom SQ’s face is finished in matte black, lending it a chic look that should complement your other desktop devices.
The Atom SQ features only two connections: a Kensington lock slot and USB-C. The latter sits on the rear of the unit, and we wonder whether it might have made more sense were it located on the side: we have to move the Atom SQ a few centimetres to the right to use it in front of our laptop. On our studio desk, it’s not an issue.
The Atom SQ sports 32 velocity- and pressure- sensitive fingertip-sized RGB LED pads. The pads feel solid, not squishy, and are configured in two rows and slightly offset from each other like on a piano keyboard. To the left of the top row of pads, there are two smaller + and – buttons for pitch bending and octave up/down duties. Above the top row of pads is an assignable touch strip that features small LEDs to indicate the value of the parameter to which it’s assigned. The touch strip can be used for modulation, pitch bending, channel volume and more.
To the left of the touch strip are eight assignable buttons and the unit’s transport controls. The buttons (A-H) can be used for drum bank changes and octave changes (in keyboard mode), and can also be assigned to send MIDI messages.
Atop the touch strip are eight encoders, all of which feel chunky and robust, and have just the right amount of resistance so that they feel good under the fingers. When the unit is initially connected to Studio One or Live, these encoders will be preconfigured for common functions But they are otherwise freely assignable.
To the right of the encoders, there is a screen surrounded by context buttons, a scroll knob, navigation buttons and the Setup button. The screen and surrounding buttons change contextually based on the mode you’re in, which can be selected via the buttons on the left of the screen, labelled Song, Inst, Editor and User.
Atom, the bomb?
Connecting the Atom SQ to your DAW is simple, with little setup required. The unit’s PreSonus symbol will turn from green to blue to show that it has synced with Studio One. Just open a project and you’ll be able to get to work immediately.
Transport controls allow you to play, stop and record, and enable the metronome via the Atom SQ. Additional functions can be accessed via the Shift and the transport buttons. The menu screen starts in Song mode and displays the transport section along with several options: current tempo; loop selection (you have to set a selection on screen first); zoom loop (to show only the loop you’re working with on the timeline); add markers; scroll from marker to marker; and enable input quantise.
Using the arrow buttons beneath the scroll knob, you can scrub through Console functions such as opening the Console and Inspector panels, soloing/muting tracks, and record-enabling the current track. Click one of the arrow buttons again to move to the Arranger menu, and again to the Effects menu. Soon, you’ll be able to do everything you would on a computer with Atom SQ.
In Instrument mode, you can open the Instrument browser, scroll to different instruments, open the instrument (which creates an instrument track), open the preset folders within those instruments, and open presets. If no preset is selected, the instrument will open on the default preset for that instrument. Clicking the Instrument Editor in this screen opens the instrument on your computer screen, and the eight encoder knobs will actively change the parameters of that instrument.
Just beat it
Selecting Studio One’s Impact virtual drum machine and clicking Load Selected creates a track and opens Impact. The two rows of pads then change colour to show that the Atom SQ is now in Drum mode. From here, the arrow buttons show options for adding patterns, parts, plus chord and arp effects, as well as event-editing options. Further navigation takes you to the Performance screen, where you can assign functions to the touch strip and +/- buttons, turn on note repeat and set its rate and gate settings, and enable/disable pad pressure.
The Atom SQ’s screen and various menus makes it easy to get started in terms of song creation, with all your presets handily listed for you. There’s little need to look at your DAW at all. Adding patterns turns the Atom SQ into a drum performance controller. Each pad plays a different drum instrument and can be colour-coded in Impact and displayed on the Atom SQ, making drum selection quick and easy. In Editor Mode, the Atom SQ displays drum notes on the top row, while the bottom row becomes a TR-style sequencer, with the 16 pads now pattern steps. Just select a drum from the top and enter notes on the bottom. Things work similarly for other virtual instruments, the difference being that the pads turn into a keyboard instead.
We can confirm that the Atom SQ’s integration with Live comes instantly too. The only difference is that the navigation buttons are used to move between Live’s scenes and tracks. Live users should seriously consider the Atom SQ, especially given its price and versatility. Plus, PreSonus even throws in Studio One Artist, Ableton Live Lite and two loop packs specifically curated for use with its unit. There are many controllers that do the job well but few have the kind of integration that the Atom SQ does.
Do I really need this?
The Atom SQ’s integration with Studio One and Ableton Live is so tight that it makes us wish every company could model itself after PreSonus in this regard. While there are cheaper alternatives out there, you’d have difficulty finding any that match the deep functionality of the Atom.
The TR-style step-sequencer and the arpeggiator allow producers to put tracks together quickly and efficiently, while the context menu screen ensures that inspiration comes courtesy of your performance rather than staring at your computer screen. The inclusion of Studio One Artist and Ableton Live Lite means you’ll be able to get going right away, despite your home setup.
- Tight Integration with Studio One and Ableton Live
- Eight assignable encoders
- Assignable touch strip
- Context-sensitive menu screen/keys
- TR-style drum sequencing
- Expressive arpeggiator
- Velocity- and pressure-sensitive RGB LED pads
- User-assignable buttons
- HUI/MCU modes for other DAWs
- Poly pressure support
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