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Do You Need a Control Surface?

Everything in a DAW we know can be taken care by mouse and keyboard commands, but are we missing something by not having that tactile fader whilst mixing, or those shuttle wheels when editing, or solo switches when tracking?

Prolonged DAW users fight the threat of Carpal Tunnel syndrome and whilst not suggesting a controller will solve that totally on its own, it does also invite a varied way of working. Whether to a traditionalist who grew up on mixing consoles, to those who have never used a Desk but feel they want more of a hands-on approach to software manipulation, this is a modern dilemma, whether you’re ITB (in-the-box) or using a hybrid system.

We don’t always think about it, but with mouse and keyboard control we tend to only tweak one thing at a time, whereas with Control Surfaces, complex multi-functions can be carried out at the same time. The daily use of smartphones has made us all a little more tactile in our ways...

So I guess the question is, what will one do for your workflow?

Control surfaces come in a variety of sizes, and whilst I’m going to focus on a few units in order of price that are dedicated Mix Controllers, it is worth mentioning that many times you can combine an existing keyboard controller, or dedicated programming pad surface to work with a DAW for mixing. These allow you to travel with portable writing rigs or add another level of manipulation to an existing setup.

Many products by Akai, M-Audio, Novation ( including their own software AutoMap ) through to Native Instruments Maschine, Ableton’s PUSH controller, Nektar ( with vast knob controllers and motorised fader ) and Softube’s Console-1 all do a variety of DAW / Plugin manipulation. But as they work as MIDI controllers they are more than capable of mix control, if a little time is spent mapping your desired controls correctly for your needs.

Presonus Faderport

If portability or space is an issue you can’t get much smaller than the Presonus Faderport. Designed with one fader but with transport control, automation control, Pan, Mute and Solo, this is a USB connected device which runs under HUI or Native mode and works with all the main DAW’s. Great for laptop users who like to travel light but miss the touch of a fader.

Presonus Faderport | KMR Audio

Mackie Control Universal Pro

One of the first small format controllers released in a 1998 partnership with Digidesign ( now Avid ) was the Mackie HUI ( Human User Interface ) to work with Pro Tools 4.1 at that time. This developed a protocol called HUI which has been adopted by most control surface manufactures and DAW’s, enabling multi-compatibility between devices.

Mackie Control Universal Pro Control Surface  | KMR Audio

HUI is what is behind the current Mackie Control Universal Pro and Mackie Control Extender Pro. This was originally developed in partnership, in a previous version, with Logic but now works with all the main DAW’s with overlays for key commands and V-Pot control.

They consist of two units, the main base unit with 8 motorised faders, V-pots and transport control, and the expander with 8 faders and V-pots. Both units connect via MIDI over USB and can be expanded to run up to 3 expanders off the Main Unit ( a Midi interface if required if you wish to run more than 3 expanders )

Avid Artist Series

When Euphonix became an acquisition of Avid, their popular control surfaces were given a facelift to adopt everything new about the updated Pro Tools Software and the Euphonix EUCON software.

Avid Artist Series Control Surface | KMR Audio

Allowing better DAW integration via Ethernet for Logic Pro, Cubase, Nuendo, DP and Final Cut Pro this provides much faster resolution than MIDI, whilst allowing you to control multiple applications and DAW’s allowing switching between them in use from the one controller.

There are three in the series. Artist Mix, offers 8 touch sensitive faders and 8 rotary encoders, and transport control. Artist Control, which has 4 faders, and the unique touchscreen that is programmable for any EUCON enabled device. This touchscreen can issue multiple control commands at a single touch and is totally programmable. And finally Artist Transport, which is a large shuttle wheel and soft keys to trigger shortcuts or key commands within your software of choice. Mix and matching Avid Artist Series units appeals to those who want flexibility and need to switch between a variety of software applications on the same machine.

Slate Pro Audio Raven MTI

The idea that a control surface has to be made with physical faders was blown wide open when Slate Pro Audio released their original RAVEN MTX controller ( see below ) This has spawned a smaller sibling in the 27” RAVEN MTI. With the new V2.0 software that has just been released, there’s no better time to get to grips ( literally ) with a 6 touch multi-touch display HD controller that connects via USB 2.0 and DVI.

Slate Pro Audio Raven MTI Control Surface | KMR Audio

The MTI allows you to carry out multi functions like you would on a traditional control surface. Where the power lies is within the V2 software, this allows for custom macro commands, and ‘quick keys that allow one-touch controls to carry out multi functions, saving vast amounts of time. Slate have also invested many man hours in creating macro commands for the Post and the Music industry, so whilst you can create your own, you may never need to. Currently, it works with Pro Tools 10 and 11, and Logic Pro X. Development is in place for Cubase, Ableton, Digital Performer etc. The ergonomics and backlit LED have been designed at an angle that is comfortable to work out, and with the future software updates, customization and flexibility are the key here.

Solid-State-Logic Nucleus

SSL designed the Nucleus with some extra features taken from the SSL Matrix for a complete recording solution. Consisting of 16 faders, assignable soft keys and V pots, it also includes two SSL Super Analogue mic preamps connecting to your DAW via Ethernet and a USB audio interface, with the flexibility to switch between 3 connected DAW’s with customizable control and key mapping.

Solid State Logic Nucleus Control Surface | KMR Audio

The feel of the Nucleus has been designed for real world usage, with chunky transport controls. jog wheel and high quality motorised faders. It also has a monitoring and headphone output, so a complete package should you require it, or use it as a very well laid out, smooth feeling controller.

Smart AV Tango

Smart AV have developed their own ARC Technology and have now released MonARC software which is a scrolling based channel overview to run on their touch screens. Combining a 22inch touchscreen and hardware motorised faders, pots, shuttle wheel, soft keys and OLED displays on all programmable buttons connection is via Ethernet and currently, supports nearly all the major DAW’s. A Tango V2 is available shortly which has an appearance upgrade, as well as some functions. For the user that wants the best of both worlds, touchscreen and hardware control.

Smart AV Tango Control Surface | KMR Audio

It’s worth mentioning that there are larger format controllers such as the SSL Matrix, which has 40 inputs, fully featured monitoring and 16+1 Faders. The larger 46” Raven MTX with analogue monitoring section, and the larger customizable Avid EUCON driven S6.

So really whatever your budget, and workflow, getting hands-on has never been easier…go on, try it.

By Nick Mitchell

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