Not to knock the legendary mouse or QWERTY keyboard, but as the popularity of digital audio workstations continues to surge, so does the need to improve desktop ergonomics. Buying a better chair and assuring perfect neck, arm and wrist angle measurements can help fight destructive carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive stress injury (RSI), but nothing can harness the increased horsepower of a new software release like a dedicated DAW control surface. Consider just the time and muscle movement it takes to locate, grab and rotate one EQ knob back and forth with a mouse. Do the same calculation based on simply grabbing and twisting a dedicated EQ knob on a DAW controller, and multiply that effort by a hundred or a thousand times in a single day. You've already saved 30 minutes or more per session — and that's just for EQ.
Mix queried 14 control surface manufacturers about the developments in hardware controllers for software workstations. Hybrid, multifunction control surfaces targeted mainly for DAW software control, and sporting extras like A/D converters, onboard DSP and stand-alone mix capabilities (Tascam US-428, Event Electronics EZbus, Peavey StudioMix) are described in this article; full-function digital mixers (Mackie Designs D8B, Tascam DM-24, etc.) and stand-alone hardware digital workstations such as the Roland VS-1680 and Akai DPS16 that can also control software environments are not. Check out some control surface solutions for your favorite DAW, and your fingers, wrists, back, neck, eyesight, clients and bottom line will all be happy you did.
Designed with Digidesign Pro Tools TDM and Digi 001/Pro Tools LE systems in mind, CM Labs' MotorMix Digital Mixer Workstation ($995) now also supports MOTU Digital Performer. This tidy, compact, 10×12-inch fader work surface has eight long-throw, 100mm motorized faders, dedicated Mute and Solo switches, a Burn button to control audio recording and automation, and rotary pots for instant access to pans, aux sends, plug-in parameters, input/output assignments and channel automation modes. Compatible with software from Emagic, SEK'D, Minnetonka, Steinberg and BitHeadz, MotorMix features a 40×20-character backlit LCD with contrast control to display channel labels, rotary pot position, effects parameter settings and soft key control. MotorMix's group and bank switches and cursor keys allow users to control eight channels at a time. The unit can also be used live, and it responds to Show Control lighting systems. MIDI in/out ports and a built-in power supply are included. The company's new Dashboard Digital Editor Worksurface ($995) comes with built-in Pro Tools support and features full-sized transport keys, a jog/shuttle/scrub wheel, a 15-key autolocator keypad, and eight rotary pan, send, plug-in, automation and monitor level pots. Zoom and track selection navigation keys, eight mute, solo and track-arming switches, and a single-rackspace MF-20 monitor interface for replacing a monitor section are also included on this digital Dashboard.
ShuttlePro Multimedia Controller ($99.95) from Contour Design is an inexpensive, tactile way to jog and shuttle a wide range of audio and video software environments. Thirteen buttons and the unit's smooth jog/shuttle wheel can be independently programmed to control specific software features in Digital Performer (built-in), Final Cut Pro, AudioDesk, QuickTime, Media Composer, Cubase VST/32, Logic Audio, After Effects, Pro Tools and many more platforms for MacOS and Windows users. The 7.75×4.25-inch ShuttlePro sports a rubberized shuttle ring for a better grip, and the ergonomic placement of all function buttons and the jog/shuttle wheel provides one-handed operation and control over a wide range of software parameters and shortcuts.
ProControl ($11,995), one of Digidesign's four Pro Tools-dedicated control surfaces, offers eight channel faders and a master control unit expandable up to 48 channels. Providing 1,024 steps (10 bits) of resolution each, eight touch-sensitive 100mm DigiFaders on the ProControl incorporate a sealed encoder, servo-controlled motor, and a Flex Circuit that emulates the feel, performance and reliability of moving faders found on high-end mixing consoles. All TDM plug-ins can be edited from the ProControl surface, as can write, touch, latch and read modes for fader level, pan, send and mute controls.
Each FaderPack ($6,495) for ProControl contains eight DigiFaders and channel strip sections, and can expand the basic ProControl unit to a 48-channel Pro Tools controller. To interface ProControl with Pro Tools, the optional ProControl Cable Kit ($345) provides two D-Sub-to-XLR female and one D-Sub-to-XLR male cables/connectors.
EditPack ($7,495) is a mixing control surface that adds surround mixing and editing capabilities to ProControl for Pro Tools Versions 5.1 and higher. A built-in custom keyboard and track ball mouse come with each EditPack, as do two patented DigiPanner joysticks and eight 40-segment meters for multichannel output monitoring. Twenty dual-function edit switches provide easy access to a number of Pro Tools operations, such as track duplication, region management, macros, automation and MIDI operations.
Control|24 ($7,995) is Digidesign's newest Pro Tools TDM control surface. The result of a collaboration with Focusrite, Control|24 is a 24-fader surface that includes 16 high-quality preamps based on Focusrite's Platinum line of processors. Illuminated switching for dozens of Pro Tools functions, such as mute, solo, record arm, channel select and automation modes, are included, as well as dedicated EQ and dynamics switches on every channel. Offering hands-on access to nearly every recording, routing, mixing and editing function in Pro Tools, the Control|24 includes 26 scribble strips; dual-channel metering on each channel strip; a high-resolution LED for displaying transport location; two DI (direct inject) inputs on the first two channels; and a comprehensive analog monitoring section capable of 5.1 surround monitoring. An integrated submixer section includes eight stereo inputs, and the Control|24 connects to Pro Tools via a 10BaseT Ethernet connection for MacOS or Windows Pro Tools TDM users. An optional Cable Kit Package for Control|24 ($695) is available.
Emagic's new Logic Control ($1,299) is an expandable hardware controller for Logic Platinum 5 music production software. Developed with Mackie Designs as a plug-and-play controller requiring just two MIDI cables per unit, Logic Control measures 17.5×17.5 and is expected to ship by press time. Depending on available MIDI ports, a virtually limitless number of Logic Control and Logic Control XT expander units ($1,129 each) can function as one Control Surface Group. Groups can be configured independently in order for one to control volume and pan settings, while another edits plug-in settings or track assignments, for example. Though not available initially, user-definable button and fader assignments on Logic Control will replace default controller assignments in future versions of Logic Audio. Penny & Giles 10-bit, 100mm motorized faders are standard on the Logic Control, and surround mixing parameters such as angle, diversity, LFE and surround mode can be controlled via the unit's V-Pots.
The PARIS C-16 Pro ($1,495) from E-mu is a dedicated control surface for PARIS Pro software. Seventeen 100mm faders, a monitor level knob, and dim/mute switches are onboard, as is a weighted jog/shuttle wheel for scrub/jog, shuttle and editing purposes. A multifunction numeric keypad provides access and control for markers, screen views and data entry, and a full complement of dedicated transport, loop and punch function buttons are standard. Sixteen input channel fader sections, a main L/R mix fader section and a master control section are built-in, as are five digital rotary encoders, one rotary potentiometer, 82 push-button switches and 127 LED indicators. Two footswitches may be independently assigned within PARIS Pro to useful functions such as play/stop, punch-in/out, etc.; and an 8-pin RJ-45 connector is used to connect the C-16 Pro directly to its EDS-1000 PCI card via a 10BaseT-type networking cable. The C-16 Pro also features a rotary EQ level knob that controls frequency and bandwidth over four EQ bands. The 20×10.5-inch enclosure is all-steel and weighs 10 pounds.
Event is now shipping its EZbus ($849), a three-in-one unit that works as a software control surface, computer audio recording interface and stand-alone digital mixer. (A front panel local on/off button switches the EZbus from onboard audio mixing to DAW control surface operation.) Twenty-four-bit/96kHz audio I/O and MIDI connections are via USB for Mac and PC users of Cubase, Cakewalk, Logic Audio and other DAW environments. EZbus includes eight locate points, a jog/shuttle wheel, recorder-style transport keys for sequencer or MMC control, and dedicated fingertip access to volume, pan, aux send, mute and solo functions. Thirty-two snapshot memories capture all parameters. The EZbus offers 18 inputs (16 TRS balanced line inputs and two mic preamps with phantom power); analog outputs are via a main stereo pair and alt outputs; and there are eight channels of ADAT Lightpipe I/O and a pair of independently assignable stereo S/PDIF digital outs. Additional features include two parametric bands and a pair of sweep high/low-shelving EQs, programmable onboard dynamics, 24-bit/96kHz converters, low jitter wordclock and asynchronous sample rate support.
JLCooper Electronics offers a dizzying list of audio and video control surface solutions, and has now added the MCS-3800 ($2,999.95; $3,499.95 with simulated granite wrist rest), MCS-3000x expander ($1,999.95), MCS-Orbiter ($1,999.95), and MCS-ClipShot ($4,999.95). The company's MCS-3000 Series of Media Command Stations offers a variety of flexible, customizable configurations. The MCS-3800, with two expansion slots for USB, Ethernet, GPI, RS-232 and other control interface cards, includes eight 100mm motorized, touch-sensitive faders, 100 locate points, 60 user-programmable function keys, and built-in SMPTE/EBU and MIDI timecode readers. Five rotary encoder controls, a 2×40 backlit LCD, numeric keypad and an optically encoded concentric jog wheel/shuttle ring are also included, and the 3800 is expandable up to 64 channels using the company's MCS-3000x expander units. The MCS-3000x is an 8-channel MIDI controller that provides eight 100mm motorized faders and 32 assignable function keys for Avid, 3DV, MOTU, Soundscape and other DAWs. The MCS-3000x also works as a standard MIDI fader controller for programs like Cakewalk, Cubase and Logic. Also new, the MCS-ClipShot ($4,999.95) is a switch palette featuring 40 multicolored LED buttons capable of displaying text and graphics; 20 lighted buttons; and a 2×40 backlit LCD screen.
The MCS-Orbiter is a touch-sensitive, motorized joystick controller now supported by Steinberg Nuendo 1.5.3, and the MCS-ClipShot, the newest addition to the company's MCS-3000 Series. The latter is a tactile switch palette with 40 multicolored 24×32 LCD buttons that also function as a QWERTY keyboard; 20 lighted buttons; and a 2×40 backlit LCD that provides instant video clip or audio playback triggering for broadcast, post-production and other applications.
Mackie Designs released the $3,499 HUI (Human User Interface) as the first control surface for Pro Tools, circa V. 4.1 software. This classic, touch-updatable controller measures 21×23 inches, and features eight assignable 100mm motorized faders, full transport controls, DAE and TDM plug-in control, keyboard shortcuts, window buttons and two built-in balanced XLR Mackie mic preamps. V-Pot rotary controls and a vacuum fluorescent alphanumeric display for showing all plug-in parameters are included, as are a switch matrix for assigning channel status and/or global session attributes, a numeric keypad, a jog wheel, a keyboard shortcut section and dedicated transport/locate/selector functions. An analog control room section can control up to three sets of speaker/headphone controls, and a talkback mic is included.
The Martinsound PanMAX Automated Surround Panner ($1,995 processor; add $1,695 for console-mounted remote) adds surround functionality to existing hardware consoles and DAWs, allowing users to make repeatable dynamic sound motion and parameter changes. Surround panning is handled by three motorized faders and a joystick on the remote unit. The PanMAX also sports 10 stereo input sources, automated control over divergence and stereo width, and SMPTE-lock capability for frame-accurate replay of previously recorded joystick and fader motions. The base unit PanMAX comes with eight outputs and is expandable from 10 up to 16 input channels.
Midiman's new, futuristic-looking Surface One ($799.95) is a completely user-configurable virtual control surface that was expected to ship last month. Connecting via USB or MIDI, the Surface One, which can function without a computer, has user-definable touch panels, virtual buttons, thumb pads, and 16 rotary encoder knobs that promise to control any MIDI-compatible software program or hardware. Users can manipulate “objects” such as virtual channels, buttons and knobs; and any object on a Surface One is programmable and can transmit any message communicable via MIDI, including volume changes, note on/off, alterations to any parameters and program changes. Utilizing a Smart Fabric fiber-optic-based, touch-sensitive material developed by the Canadian Space Agency as its primary interface, the Surface One converts touch information into MIDI to control MIDI-compatible devices. Surface One's special fabric can read up/down, left/right and pressure information concurrently; can be used as a virtual mixer to control sequencing software, soft synthesizers and sample players; and can even be used as a virtual Light Board controller. Various motions, such as touch, double taps and finger pressure, can trigger different MIDI commands, and any pressure applied to the top or bottom portion of a fader can create independent channel fade in/outs.
The Peavey StudioMix ($899.99) is a DAW control surface and computer audio/MIDI interface that comes bundled with Cakewalk Professional 8 for Windows. Assigning any of the unit's eight motorized faders, five macro buttons, eight track arm/mute/solo buttons and rotary knobs to various mixing parameters is easily handled within Cakewalk. A jog/shuttle wheel is included for shuttling audio, and the unit features a main/aux master control module, rotary mic gain and line gain pots, and mix out and control room monitor controls. The unit's back panel bristles with stereo tape in/out; stereo/mono monitor out; soundcard stereo in/out; stereo line and mic in; and MIDI In, Out and Thru connectors. The package comes bundled with many ready-to-use virtual control panels for various MIDI-compatible audio devices. All cables and adapters are included.
Peavey's PC 1600x ($399.99) is a programmable MIDI fader control system with up to 50 customizable presets. A 20×2 display, up to 100 scenes, dual-CV gate inputs, 16 faders, 16 buttons, MIDI In/Out, MIDI merge, MIDI filter and SYSEX dump/receive round out this popular MIDI controller's lineup.
Radikal Technologies' SAC-2K Software Assigned Controller ($1,849) is a futuristically ergonomic control surface that automatically recognizes a wide range of DAW programs when the units are connected over the USB bus. Users of Cubase, Pro Tools, Samplitude, Digital Performer, Soundscape and other DAWs can assign any of the SAC-2K's nine touch-sensitive motorized faders, 12 rotary encoders with 31-step LED parameter displays, nine track-select buttons and 12 navigation buttons to their recording environment. The controller also supports PPG Wave, Pro 52, Mercury-1, B4, EXS24, Reason and several other soft synth programs. Multiple locator and plug-in parameter displays are onboard, as are a jog wheel and scrub button, four location markers, one system button and a four-way USB hub for connecting additional USB devices.
Radikal's SAC-8X Expansion-Unit ($1,299) is an 8-fader (motorized) MIDI/USB hardware controller that expands the functionality of the SAC-2K base unit. The number of additional SAC-8Xs available depends on your DAW's remote-control support; Pro Tools users, for example, can chain up to three units for 32 tracks of control.
Houston ($1,499), a new MIDI/USB control surface from Steinberg, is designed and engineered for the company's VST and Nuendo platforms. Almost every parameter in the audio engine and every VST Instrument can be displayed, controlled, edited and automated from Houston, including the VST MIDI Track Mixer. Nine touch-sensitive motorized faders, eight rotary encoders with LED position indicators, full transport controls, a jog/scrub wheel, numeric keypad and a large LCD dot Houston's facade. Houston requires that users of Windows 98SE/2000/ME and MacOS 8.6 through 9.1 have Cubase 5.0 or Nuendo 1.5.1 or higher, and a free USB port or multiport MIDI interface. (A Mac USB driver is under development as of this writing.) Besides Cubase and Nuendo, other programs currently supported by Houston include Pro Tools (Mac/PC), Logic Audio (Mac/Windows), Deck LE (Mac), Digital Performer (Mac), MXTracks (Windows) and Native B4 (Mac/Windows).
The Tascam US-428 ($625) is a tandem USB computer audio and MIDI interface/DAW control surface codeveloped with Frontier Design Group. Dedicated aux/send, transport controls, mute/solo buttons and locate keys are included, and the unit supports an unlimited number of 8-fader banks. An EQ module supports control of up to four bands of fully parametric EQ. Thirty-two channels of MIDI I/O are supported, and a host of audio connections make the US-428 a good audio interface: 24-bit D/A and A/D converters, two balanced XLR inputs, a pair of ¼-inch TRS, two unbalanced ¼-inch inputs switchable to hi-Z for guitar and bass input, and S/PDIF I/O. The US-428 can receive four channels of audio in and simultaneously output two channels via a hot-pluggable USB port. Both Windows and Mac versions of Steinberg's bundled Cubasis VST are now included, or users can instead opt for a BIAS Deck LE bundle. Current drivers and plug-ins necessary to support the US-428 can be downloaded from Tascam's Website for these other programs: Pro Tools (Mac/Windows), Cubase VST V. 5.0x (Mac/Windows), Nuendo 1.5 (Mac/Windows), Logic Audio 4.7 (Mac/Windows), Digital Performer 2.7 (Mac), Minnetonka MXTracks (Windows) and Native Instruments B4 (Mac/Windows).
Randy Alberts is an audio and music journalist in Montara, Calif., and a frequent contributor to Mix.
CONTROL SURFACE MANUFACTURERS