From compact units that can slip into a laptop case to consoles that resemble professional studio mixers, control surfaces are making computeraudio productions more of a hands-on experience than ever before.
Cakewalk by Roland's VS-700C console offers direct control of the company's SONAR 8 software.
Digidesign's C | 24 offers extensive hands-on control for Pro Tools.
Akai's APC 40 is specifically designed for users of Ableton Live.
Steinberg's CC121 offers transport and fader control for Cubase.
The Euphonix MC Control augments its hardware knobs and faders with a touchscreen interface.
Korg's nanoKontrol is small enough to slip into a laptop case yet boasts eight knobs, a transport, and eight nonmotorized faders.
Computer-based digital audio workstations (DAWs) are incredible tools, but the hours of jockeying around with a mouse and QWERTY keyboard can turn even the coolest project into a chore. A control surface can vastly improve your creative flow by giving you immediate command of your mix, push-button access to important software commands, and intuitive and flexible control of playback recording, and song navigation.
If you're looking to add a control surface to your studio, you'll be glad to know that there's something available for just about every budget and application. But before we weigh the options, let's define the general category: A control surface is any device that can be used to access individual settings in a piece of music software. Within that very wide field, you'll find models that are designed to work with a particular brand of software, as well as "universal" controllers that are equally compatible with four or five programs. Some models have motorized faders that move automatically to reflect changes in the software's mixer; with others, the faders may command the software, but do not themselves change position unless you physically move them. A growing number of devices include touch screens in addition to&or in place of&hardware knobs and faders. Some control surfaces can be as large as an oldschool mixing console; others are small enough to carry to gigs.
While most control surfaces do little or no actual audio routing, some models also sport built-in audio interfaces. Then there are the true "moon lighters"&devices such as some digital audio mixers, synthesizers, and MIDI keyboard controllers that can be configured so that their various knobs and faders control your music software without affecting their internal sound processing.
The Right Profile
No matter what kind of control surface you choose, it'll only be as effective as its ability to access individual parameters in your software. While almost any MIDI device can be used for basic tasks like starting playback or changing the volume of a single track, most of the better control surfaces employ a complex combination of MIDI controller and system exclusive messages to get deeper inside the software. This allows them to command many channels at one time while simultaneously accessing the software commands that would otherwise require the mouse and/or QWERTY keyboard.
two-way conversation; the software sends messages back to the controller so that it "knows" how each of its faders, knobs and buttons is assigned.
Predictably, with something as complex as music software, there's no universal standard for which of these messages controls what software feature. In order to communicate effectively, the controller and the software need to have a compatible setting, a called "profile."
Universal controllers, such as the Mackie Control Universal Pro, can store numerous profiles, which can be switched when you change software applications. The functions of some of the hardware controls may change each time you switch the controller's profile. (The Mackie comes with plastic overlays that relabels them.) For example, that button above the transport bank may open an auxiliary send in Cubase, but it may set a marker in Logic, or trigger a loop in Live
Back in the late 1990s, Mackie's HUI (short for Human User Interface) was the first controller to really catch on as a controller for Pro Tools. Because of its early popularity, most software applications come with HUI profiles, and many digital mixers with control capability offer a "HUI emulation" mode. This can make it easier to switch between apps without reconfiguring the controller, though you may not be able to access some of the more advanced software commands, and some of the hardware buttons may have no function in a given piece of software.
Control surfaces that are designed for specific programs, such as Cakewalk by Roland's VS-700C (for SONAR) and Digidesign's compact Command|8 (for Pro Tools LE) and larger C|24 (for Pro Tools HD), are pre-configured for their respective software. Such task-specific devices can be great because every control on the unit has a job to do&there won't be unassigned knobs or features that seem inaccessible. Note that not all application- specific controllers come from the software's manufacturer: Akai's APC 40 is a third-party device specifically for Ableton Live; its buttons correspond directly to Live's clip launching slots.
Get Your Motor Running
Although you can do a great deal with "passive" faders, control surfaces with motorized faders give as close to a traditional mixing experience as you'll find in the virtual world. Once you get past the novelty or watching the faders zing up and down, the practical benefit is that the faders let you see the relative levels of multiple channels at one time, and always reflect the actual setting of the channel. Because of this, you can use the faders to "read" your mix, even when the software's mixer window is not visible. With passive faders, the fader's position might have nothing to do with that of the channel: you need to move the fader to "capture" the current setting. Knobs, on the other hand, are typically not motor-controlled. You'll have to rely on the controller's display to show the knob's current position vis-a-vis the parameter it's controlling.
Unlike a hardware mixer, a control surface doesn't need to have one fader or set of knobs for every track. Most devices have channels grouped in banks that can be rotated at the touch of a button. For example, at launch, the mixer might have faders 1-8 assigned to mix channels 1-8; you hit a bank switch to assign these same faders to channels 9-16, 17-24, and so on. You can usually also move the fader assignments one channel at a time (say, from 2–10), but this can get a little confusing; you'll have to remember that fader 2 was assigned to channel two, but is now assigned to channel 3.
Looks Can Thrill
Although they can't offer the kind of detail provided by a computer monitor, some control surfaces can convey enough information about your mix to free you from looking at the computer screen&which in turn leaves more screen space for other elements of your project.
Elements of your project. Most of the motorized-fader models employ a combination of LCD screens (offering text information about a given channel) and LEDs that indicate things such as the position of a given knob or the status of various switches. This isn't always the most elegant way to see the information, but it works.
Though they have less physical hardware, touchscreen-equipped models bridge the display gap by displaying more information on the controller itself. JazzMutant's universal Dexter and Lemur use touch screens to control all of their functions. Others, like the M a c - c o m p a t i b l e Euphonix MC Control, combine the screen with hardware knobs and motorized faders. The screen shows each knob's current function, lets you reassign the knobs and can activate software commands.
They Get Around
While there's no doubt that having banks of knobs and faders is definitely an upgrade over mouse mixing, a good set of transport controls may be even more valuable, especially when you're tracking and editing. A controller with a built-in jog-shuttle wheel lets you navigate quickly through a project or fine-tune edit points. It also helps to have buttons for setting markers, loops, and punch in/out points on the fly. Some models even include a footswitch input for handsfree punch recording.
You don't need a full-sized console to upgrade your transport. Universal devices include the Euphonix MC Transport, PreSonus Fader Port, and Frontier Design's wireless TranzPort. The Steinberg CC121& which sports a single fader, a set of knobs, and a transport&is specifically tailored to work with Cubase.
Ultimately, using any control surface is as much about "feel" as it is about features. If possible, demo one thoroughly before adding it to your arsenal.