My name is Dan Cooper and I have been using Pro Tools for music production since 2002 and recently realized I have never used Pro Tools without a control surface.
This led me to think why I use one and why I believe it is so integral to my Pro Tools workflow. I also wonder that because of my dependency on control surfaces if I could ever use Pro Tools without one and run sessions using just a keyboard and mouse.
In this article I want to share my past educational and present professional experiences using Pro Tools control surfaces and hopefully find out by sharing my story with other people their views, experiences and workflows using control surfaces.
My Education In Pro Tools With A Control Surface
As I said at the start, I have been using Pro Tools since 2002. Back then I was a student at The BRIT School of Performing Arts keen to learn studio recording. It was good timing for me and my fellow students as The BRIT School had just installed a new Pro Tools TDM system with a Control 24 control surface in their main control room.
At the time they had two very different control rooms that shared one live room. One was all analogue and was kitted out with a Soundcraft Sapphyre console, tape machine and an array of outboard gear wired to a colossal patch bay, all very daunting for a newbie. The other studio was a digital studio with the Control 24 as the “console” with a much more simplistic layout. My prior experience of recording back then was with Cubase on my home PC pushing faders with a mouse.
My first experience of recording at The BRIT School was in the analogue studio through the Soundcraft console to tape. Everything was patched with every operation being undertaken by our hands and ears. It was an experience I’ll never forget. It took weeks to understand all the routing but we were always told that we were learning skills that can then be applied to any recording environment or system. In other words, once we had learnt the analogue workflow the digital workflow would be an easy transition.
When using Pro Tools we were encouraged to use the Control 24 to operate Pro Tools as much as possible. We were taught compression, noise gating, equalization, effect sends… you name it… by turning the rotary knobs on the Control 24 and by feeling the faders by pushing and pulling them. Plug-ins in Pro Tools 5 back then were nothing special to look at so we would rely on our ears to hear the changes we would be making with our hands on the control surface as we did with the gear in the analogue control room. The benefits being that we were taught to use our ears and hands in harmony. This is a skill that I use today in my profession using my Avid C24.
After finishing my two years at The BRIT School I went to university to further my education in Music Production. I had a great working knowledge of Pro Tools using the Control 24 and the skill sets relating to Music Production. Unfortunately for me the university I attended only had Logic with no control surfaces. I had no problem transferring my software understandings from Pro Tools to Logic but I always felt that when I was tracking and mixing I was missing a very important instrument under my hands… the control surface.
I remember the feeling when mixing with a mouse for the first time with my new skills. I could never be completely confident with the mix choices I made.
- I struggled to get automation correct when drawing lines over waveforms,
- I missed having the ability to put my fingers across multiple faders so that I could pull a fader down at the same time as pushing another up for balancing volumes, AKA riding the faders.
- It felt counter intuitive adjusting plug-in settings without rotary knobs
- I missed visually seeing my tracks under my hands for instant access.
It felt my mixing intuition that was developed using a control surface was gone when I mixed with a mouse. I soon got a bank loan and purchased a Digi 002 Factory, the baby brother of the Control 24. It was great. I used it to pick up from where I left off with my skills using the Control 24. I continued to develop my skills in Pro Tools always feeling connected to the music when using the 002 8-fader surface. From the 002 I moved onto a M-Audio Project Mix then to the Digi 003 Factory. All those baby control surfaces offered very good integration into Pro Tools with similar features.
Eight Years after being taught on the Control 24 with Pro Tools at The BRIT School I launched my own recording studio business in South London called Rodel Sound Ltd. I started with a modest setup with my Digi 003 surface at the heart of it all. Within 6 months my client base grew rapidly and the projects I was working on became larger and more complex. I found the limitation of an 8 fader bankable control surface pretty quickly. I needed more feedback and control from my Digi 003 to handle my sessions. The solution was to upgrade the control surface. I used my past experiences of the Control 24 and invested in the successor… the C24. I have used it heavily ever since I took delivery of it in 2011.
How I use the control surface in my business
Since installing my C24 and using it for the best part of 60 hours a week I can hand on heart say that it was one of the best investments I have ever made in my business. I find using a mouse for the majority of pro tools mixing tasks slower and indecisive. The control surface does a much better job for me, though I still use the mouse for waveform / midi editing.
When using my C24 these days I find myself using plug-ins that have a small number of knobs and settings that sound great. For example, I love using the Maag EQ4, waves CLA compressors, Waves L2, Waves Rverb and all of Slate Digital’s offerings. These plug-ins can be easily called up on the scribble strip on each of the 24 tracks in front of me for instant tweaking. Because these plug-ins have a small amount of options I find I don’t have to look all over the board to find the settings I want to adjust. This speeds up my workflow and gives me that ‘hands on - ears open’ experience I got right at the start of my education in recording. For me this is how I believe I work best.
Control surfaces give me the feeling of not working in the box with the benefits of working in the box. My C24 gives me the ability to respond quicker and more creativity to the music I am working on than a mouse ever could.
Some tips when using a control surface
- Turn off your computer screen. This is a secret weapon I use with some clients. When I believe a client is being drawn into the graphics of Pro Tools I turn off the screen and carry on working. I find the graphics on the computer screen can make some inexperienced people listen at critical stages of a mix with their eyes and not ears. Turning the screen off forces them to use their ears and understand better what I am doing to the music.
- Try not to be reliant on the mix window. All the information on the mix window I need is physically in front of me. I can select plug-ins, adjust bus send levels, name tracks, change input / outputs on tracks, see the levels on the meter bridge and punch in automation on the fly. On some session I find I do not even open up the mix window and just work with the edit window.
- Navigating a project Inserting memory locations and jumping to different points on the timeline is effortless and a huge time saver and again can be seen on the scribble strip.
The down sides to using a control surface
Over the years I have been 100% reliant on control surfaces and I feel it has cost me in one major area. I do not know many Pro Tools keyboard shortcuts / commands. I know a fair few editing commands but I am not sure I could drive a Pro Tools session with purely a keyboard and mouse anywhere close to the speed and intuition I usually work at. To be honest though, it doesn’t really bother me but I fear one day… just one day I may be caught out.
The other possible problem is support down the road. Pro Tools 11 does not support the control surfaces that started it all. The Digidesign ProControl and Control 24. Part of me believes that Avid just wants rid of past hardware that still holds the Digidesign logo…. but that’s just me.
Sure, ProControl and Control 24 may be a bit old but one day my C24 and the D-Command will be as well. These surfaces provide a valuable workflow for a lot of professionals and I don’t see any other surfaces available that can offer the same hands on physical integration with Pro Tools.
It will be a shame if Avid decides to put the C24 and D-Command in the unsupported category with future Pro Tools versions as for if that day happens…. I may have to learn my keyboard shortcuts and mouse skills.
Think of it as someone that has been driving an automatic car for so long that it will be a pain to learn to drive a manual car.
What do you think? I’m really curious to hear some opinions.
- Are control surfaces useful in today’s music production workflows?
- If you have invested in a control surface, do you think you get the most of it?
Dan Cooper is the owner of UK based Rodel Sound more here www.rodelsound.com
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