How to pick a DAW controller

Do you need a control surface? Nick Mitchell knows the solution you require.

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

Prolonged DAW users fight the threat of carpal tunnel syndrome and while not suggesting a controller will solve that on its own, it does invite a varied way of working. Whether to a traditionalist who grew up on mixing consoles, or 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 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 a controller do for your workflow?

Control surfaces come in a variety of sizes, and while I’m going to focus on a few units in order of price that are dedicated mix controllers, often 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 a setup.

Many products by Akai, M-Audio, Novation through to Native Instruments Maschine, Ableton’s Push, Nektar (with vast knob controllers and motorised fader), and Softube’s Console 1 all do a variety of DAW/plug-in manipulation. 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.

Small format

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 DAWs. It’s great for laptop users who like to travel light but miss the touch of a fader.

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 manufacturers and DAWs, enabling multi-compatibility between devices.

HUI is behind the Mackie Control Universal Pro and Mackie Control Extender Pro. Originally developed in partnership, in a previous version, with Logic it works with all the main DAWs with overlays for key commands and V-Pot control.

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

When Euphonix was acquired by Avid, its control surfaces were given a facelift to adopt everything new about the updated Pro Tools software and the Euphonix EUCON software.

Allowing better DAW integration via Ethernet for Logic Pro, Cubase, Nuendo, Digital Performer, and Final Cut Pro this provides much faster resolution than MIDI, while allowing you to control multiple applications and DAWs, enabling multi-switching in use from the one controller.

There are three control surfaces in the series. Artist Mix offers eight touch-sensitive faders and eight rotary encoders, and transport control. Artist Control has four faders and a touchscreen that is programmable for any EUCON-enabled device. Finally Artist Transport has a large shuttle wheel and soft keys to trigger shortcuts or key commands within your software of choice. Mixing and matching Avid Artist Series units appeals to those who want flexibility and the need to switch between a variety of software applications on the same machine.

Physical changes

The idea that a control surface has to be made with physical faders was blown wide open when Slate Pro Audio released its original large Raven MTX controller. This has spawned a smaller sibling in the 27in Raven MTi. With the new V2.0 software now available there’s no better time to get to grips (literally) with a six-touch multi-touch display HD controller that connects via USB 2.0 and DVI.

The MTi allows you to carry out multi functions like you would on a traditional control surface. Where the power lies is in the V2 software, which allows for custom macro commands, and quick-keys that enable one-touch control to carry out multi functions, saving vast amounts of time. Slate has also invested many hours in creating macro commands for the post and music industries, so while you can create your own, you may never need to.

SSL designed the Nucleus with some features taken from its SSL Matrix to provide a complete recording solution. Consisting of 16 faders, assignable soft keys and V-Pots, it also includes two SSL SuperAnalogue mic preamps. Connecting to your DAW is via Ethernet and it has a built-in USB audio interface, with the flexibility to switch between three connected DAWs with customisable control and key mapping.

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

SmartAV has developed its own ARC Technology and has now released MonARC software, which is a scrolling-based channel overview to run on its touchscreens. Combining a 22in touchscreen and hardware motorised faders, pots, shuttle wheel, soft keys, and OLED displays on all programmable buttons, the connection is via Ethernet, and currently supports nearly all the major DAWs. A Tango V2 will be available shortly complete with an appearance upgrade, as well as some additional functionality. It is ideal for the user who wants the best of both worlds between touchscreen and hardware control.

It’s worth mentioning there are larger format controllers such as the SSL Matrix, which has 40 inputs, fully featured monitoring, and 16+1 faders, and the larger customisable Avid S6.

So really whatever your budget and workflow, getting hands-on has never been easier… why not try it?

Nick Mitchell is a KMR Audio product consultant and freelance engineer and producer. All the products mentioned are available for demonstration through with showrooms in north London, Richmond, and Berlin.