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Guide to Control Surfaces

and some notes on the DAW of the Future

by Tweak


Tweak's current rig uses a Logic Control updated with Mackie Control Universal firmware

There you are mixing down your latest soundtrack, due tomorrow at noon.  You've been at it 3 days and nights and have lost all sense of reality. The significant other is screaming about something in the kitchen and you decide you better get up.  Except you can't move, like there is a cable or something keeping you from getting away.  You look and see your mouse cable dangling from a stump on your wrist.  Stump? Where's my hand!   There it is, on the floor. It fell off a few hours ago from all they heavy mouse activity, but your concentration was so intense, you just went ahead and dragged it around with a rather bloody stump.  Now you have to go an get it sewn back on and you'll never make the deadline.

Now if you had a control surface, you would have had to let go of the mouse more often, before advance carpal tunnel and rigor mortis set in.  Indeed your hands would have a cornucopia of buttons, levers, switches and stuff with which you could control your song.  In fact, if you wanted to, you may be able to turn the mouse belly-up and never touch it at all. 

Do you need a control surface?  What types are available? What are the benefits?  Are their drawbacks?  What do I need to know before I get one? 

Let me answer question #1 right now.  No, one does not need a control surface to fully use your sequencer.  The mouse and keyboard can do everything, though perhaps not as intuitively.

Types of Control Surfaces

A control surface is a hardware device that controls functions of the software mixers in your computer applications.  A control surface is not a mixer, though many of them look like them.  Neither digital or analog audio signals travel through them.  When you move a knob or fader, the control surface generates MIDI data which the software recognizes.  Software actually can "write" this data on an automation track in the sequencer.  In turn, the control surface "reads" the parameters of the mixer and displays them on it's screen, if it has one, and will physically move its faders in response to these changing parameters (if it has motorized faders).  

While some control surface/audio interface combination units do route audio signals, those functions should be regarded as separate from the control surface functions of the device. Remember that the control surface does not ever touch the audio; it control the software mixer that does mix the audio.

1. Small control surfaces. 

Some devices that call themselves control surfaces are very small with only a few functions.  Still they meet the definition above in one way or another.

Take a look at Frontier Designs Tranzport which is basically a wireless remote transport for your sequencer.

The Frontier Design's Tranzport is a wireless DAW controller.  You can mount it on a Mic stand.  So its cool for drummers and guitarists or anyone who needs to be away from the computer as they record.  Also nice for sitting in the EZ chair

Another small control surface is the PreSonus Faderport.  The idea here is to give you control over the transport and a single software mixer channel, where you can enable the channel to record, set and use mixer automation modes and automate the parameters your software makes available.  You can switch to other channels.  Like the big surfaces, the fader is motorized and will track the automation data you written to whichever track you have selected. 

Going up another step in functionality is the M-Audio iControl MIDI transport controller.  Some people consider products like the Akai MPD16 and the M-Audio Trigger Finger to be control surfaces, but to me they are more like keyboard controllers with pads instead of keys.  Yet these are evolving.  Korg has released the Pad Kontrol USB Drum Pad Controller.  Not to be outdone, Akai upped the ante with the MPD24 and in January at Namm '08 the demonstrated the MPD32 which adds a large display and sequencer control. 

2. Control Surfaces added to keyboard controllers.  

Some of the higher priced keyboard controllers have bonafide control surfaces.  While typically these are basic, some are getting extremely sophisticated, like the Novation Remote series (review).  The control surface on the ReMote works much like a Mackie Control.  Not only will the ReMote act as a transport, but you can control 8 mixer channels and control the parameters of your software instruments.   You can write automation data too (no moving faders here though).  And you can even use it as a keyboard too (lol!).  In fact, since many people bought it for the control surface functions they made one without the keyboard.  Its called the Novation ReMote Zero. 

Novation Remote Zero SL USB MIDI Controller
Finally, recording in the dark is a thing of the past. The SL shines a light on the murky world of MIDI control by providing 2 giant, brightly lit LCD screens alongside an intelligent Automap mode*, which detects what instruments you have in your project and intelligently and logically maps the controls to the SLís front panel.

Keyboard workstations usually have some for of control surface on them.  One in particular stands out.  The Yamaha Motif XS has nearly all the capabilities of a Mackie Control, except that the faders are not motorized.  It also doubles as a controller for its own synthesizer.  Amazingly, the Motif XS control surface works with Logic, Cubase and Sonar.

Motif XS

See more on the Motif in my review


3. Control Surfaces that are dedicated Mix Controllers

These were the first on the scene and are what most people thing of when they think of a control surface.  If there is a standard, it has to be the Mackie Control universal.  The Mackie Control was developed in conjunction with with Emagic, and was first released as a dedicated control surface for Logic, called Logic Control.  (see the pic on the top, Tweak was an "early adopter" of the Logic Control).  Anyway, the original Mackie Control was a MIDI only device using standard MIDI cables, (in the latest, the MIDI commands are sent by USB) has no audio interface functions, but can delve deep into most sequencers, automating volume, pan, plugin effects, soft synths--whatever the host sequencer makes available to it.  The good thing about the Mackie Control Universal is that it a wide range of products support it.  Logic, Cubase, Sonar, and many others have well-tuned implementations.  


Another advantage of the Mackie Control system is that it expandable.  You can add more Mackie Control Extenders if you want to get 8 more channels. There is also a Macke Control C4 Plugin in and Virtual Instrument Controller, which gives you 32 knobs to control your plugs. 

Albert Durig's Mackie Control SystemAlbert Durig's Rig #2

Above we see 2 pics from Albert Vinasco's Rig (used with permisssion) Visit his website.  That is a Mackie Control Universal with 3 expanders and a C4 editor.


While just one Mackie Control can control all the tracks in your song (even if you have 100), many people want to access more than 8 channels at a time.  The expanders give the feel of working at a large automated console. 

An inexpensive control surface that works much like the Mackie Control is the Behringer BCF2000.  Like the Mackie Control it has 100mm motorized faders, but alas, no display.

Behringer BCF2000 MIDI Controller with Faders
The exciting new B-CONTROL Series combines the unlimited versatility of todayís audio software with the feel of real controls. It lets you move real faders and turn real knobs to control all the virtual gear in Cubase, Cakewalk, Logic Audio and other major audio software. Itís the intuitive way to control and create music with a real hands-on feel.


4. Control Surface/Audio Interface combination units

One of the big developments of the last few years has been the introduction integrated audio interfaces with control surfaces. Some even include MIDI interfaces as well, in the quest for the perfect all-in-one solution for the home producer.   The industry forerunner here is Digidesign with the introduction of the Digi 002.  Not to be outdone, Tascam has entered the fray with the FW1884 DAW controller which includes a mixer surface, audio interface, midi interface and mic preamps at almost half the cost of the Digi 002.  The FW 1884 was followed by the Tascam 1082, and more recently the M-Audio Project Mix


Download this image fullsize

click to enlarge

Cakewalk Sonar V-Studio 700 Recording System

Sonar users are rejoicing over the Sonar V-Studio 700 system.  The system includes a control surface with built in audio interface and an onboard hardware synth based on the Roland Fantom.  Check out more pics of this posted by our member TerraSin.

V-studio console



Studio-central member TerraSin's V-studio Rig

Visit his site at :


5. Control surface/digital mixer combinations

These are the biggest control surfaces and as you probably guessed, the most expensive.  These combine a full function digital mixer with complete complement of ins and outs plus control surface functions.  Most notable is the Tascam DM3200 and DM 4800.

The DM4800, for example, gives you a 25 fader surface which has a switch that toggles between control surface and digital mixer functions.  You can add an optional firewire audio interface to the system,  giving it the ability to not only get your sources to the computer, but also get the individual tracks to the digital mixer.  You can mix on the DAW's software mixer and mix on the digital mixer simultaneously if you want, sort of like the way people mix on analog boards.  The difference here is that your tracks stay totally in the digital domain, without passing through any converters.


Tascam DM4800


Not all digital mixers can act as control surfaces.  You have to check each product to see what is implemented.  As I said before, always consider the control surface to be a separate device when it is integrated with a mixer, keyboard, or audio interface.  Control surfaces, big or small, do not talk to audio interfaces or mixers, they talk exclusively to the software mixer and transport in your sequencer.


Advantages of Control Surfaces

You might be surprised.  Working with a control surface completely changes the sequencing experience.  It is much more like working with a a standalone multi-track recorder with the access to standard tape-like transport buttons.  Much like a automated digital mixer too, particularly if your control surface has access to plugins effects, such as eq, compressors, reverb, etc.

Some can even get deep into your soft synths, where you can tweak filters and resonance and envelopes with the knobs on the control surface.  If your control surface has motorized faders, like  Mackie Control does, then you can watch the faders dance as your song goes to town.  Your song can be encoded with a great number of tweaks, so many that it would take 100 hands to do on an analog mixer.  These can include not only volume and pan, but subtle things like slowly shifting the phase on a phase shifter while your guitar track plays, gradually increasing the reverb on the vocal in a chorus, or wild tweaks on a software vocoder. 

Another nice advantage is for those doing MIDI tracks.  You know how at your mixer you often have 16 tracks all piped down the same 2 channels.  That makes your experience at the mixer one of setting global volume, and that's about it.  With a control surface you can have a hardware fader for every track, every channel of your multi-timbral module.  This makes mixing your midi tracks much easier.

Akai MPD32 USB/MIDI Pad Controller
Akai's flagship pad controller with genuine MPC pads. The MPD32 is Akai Professional's ultimate velocity-sensitive pad controller for musicians and DJs. Modeled after the industry-standard MPC series, the MPD32 delivers the most expressive software beat control available.

large product image

Alesis MasterControl Firewire Audio Interface and Control Surface

Drawbacks to Control Surfaces

Sounds like a dream?  It is, and it is reality as well, sometimes.

The main thing you have to do is figure out is how well your sequencer supports the control surface. If the software does not support the control surface, it is not going to work very well, if at all.  How well a control surface works with your sequencer is a function of two things:  1. the commands your sequencer has available for the control surface to transmit to; and 2. the actual capabilities of the control surface.  Just because your sequencer can pass plugin parameters to a control surface does not mean the control surface will have the ability to read them and send them back. 

A lot of people go with the Mackie Control Universal because it is so widely adopted by software makers. 

However, other surfaces may have differing degrees of support for your sequencer, and vice versa and information is hard to come by. While some control surfaces say they use the Mackie Control protocol, sometimes they do not implement it as fully  Because of this, I highly advise doing extensive research before settling on a control surface.  It pays to stay on safe ground. 

Perhaps the most unanticipated drawback is where, exactly, are you going to put it?  The large control surfaces like Mackie and Logic Control are like a big 17x17 pizza box.  Ideally, you want this directly in front of the computer monitor, so you can look at the control surface display and just shift your eyes slightly upward to the computer screen. But other things need to go there too, like your computer keyboard, your mouse, and maybe even your midi keys too.  I have finally reconfigured my whole rig to make room for my control surface as you see at the top of the article.  Below you see the problem.


Note the awkwardness of my previous setup that really did not have space for my control surface.

The Future?

Tascam FW1082 Firewire DAW Controller
The new FW-1082 audio/MIDI interface and control surface from Tascam not only provides tons of audio and MIDI I/O to small studios, but offers a control surface with moving faders for a previously unheard-of price. The FW-1082 features 10 inputs, including four balanced XLR mic inputs with phantom power. Two MIDI inputs and outputs are also included, plus S/PDIF digital I/O. Eight channel strips each feature a 60mm touch-sensitive moving fader and select/solo/mute buttons, and a moving master fader is also provided. The FW-1082 includes the latest Tascam software bundle: Cubasis LE 96kHz/48-track recording software, GigaStudio 3 LE streaming sampler and Nomad Factory plug-in demos.

The integrated control surfaces are pointing the way to the future, I think.  Imagine a 24-fader/channel Project Mix?  We'd be breaking into the territory of the large scale digital mixer.  Tascam has already broken the seal on this one with the introduction of the Tascam DM3200 and DM4800 which we already talked about.  While these units are the high end for now, its only a matter of time before such designs are put in more modest formats.   For today, the present is bright;  We don't have to buy 3 boxes just to get a home studio DAW up and running.  I expect we will see much closer collaboration with the software and hardware developers as control surface/mixer and audio interface combinations gain a foothold. 

It also means that for many of us, the analog mixer may be creeping off into the sunset.  Eventually I expect seamless integration between the controllers, software, MIDI and audio.   The solutions will be so compelling, I predict, that the only people going mixerless will be those on a severe budget.  One thing that has to happen is that manufacturers must sit down and talk to each other, agree on common formats for data shuttling.  Agreements are always exciting in this industry.  That's how MIDI was born, and the same kind of cooperation will lead us to the studios of the future. 

Summing it all Up

Perhaps the best thing about control surfaces is that they don't get old.  With every sequencer update, there is another possibility that your control surface just got added features.  Its nice to have a piece of electronic gear that actually may get better with age. 



Cool Quote:

I passionately hate the idea of being with it. I think an artist has always to be out of step with his time.

Orson Welles (1915 - 1985), 1966


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More Articles by Tweak on Mixing

Mixing and Mastering
Choosing a Mixer for your Studio
Understanding your Mixer
Digital Mixers
Classic Analog Mixers
How to Hookup a Mixer
Guide to Control Surfaces
How to use EQ
How to Use a Compressor
Using Pan Controls
The Perfect Mix
Review of the UAD 4k Processors
Mixing on a Virtual Console
Tascam DM3200 Resource
Mackie 8 bus Console Resources
Elements of Mastering
Mixer catalog List


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