As I said on last week’s podcast. I’ve been spoiled when it comes to control surfaces and I’ve been of the opinion that as far as Pro Tools goes you’ve needed to spend a lot to get a control surface which will actually earn its keep. That being said there are some encouraging developments in this area, specifically the Pro Tools iPad app, the Avid Dock, the Slate Raven and the new faderport 8 looks promising too.
I’ve had lots of experience using various controllers, from a Mackie d8b (running HUI - terrible), through a Command 8 and Motormix (limited but useable) to an SSL Matrix (not significantly better than the Command 8 for plug in control) to C24s and ICON Worksurfaces. I don’t have much experience using Eucon enabled surfaces and I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say that puts me behind the times. However I think my experience with the previous generation offers some scope for valid comment on what makes a successful control surface.
Critics of control surfaces often refer to them as “big mice”. They are (usually) joking but there should however be a fundamental difference between the experience of using a control surface and using a mouse. When using a mouse you look at the screen. When using a successful control surface you should be mostly looking at the control surface. Good control surfaces give enough visual feedback to allow the user to navigate the mixer without reference to the mix window. This is an area in which I feel the ICON worksurfaces really show their age as modern surfaces use colour and OLED scribble strips in a way which really enhance this aspect of operation.
Screen And Keyboard
You’re still going to need a screen and a keyboard and this is the biggest challenge to ergonomics when introducing a large control surface. Unless you have an integral keyboard like the D Control then you are going to be being hit in the stomach by a keyboard shelf or have a keyboard on top of your surface. SSL conceded defeat on this matter with the Matrix by recessing the faders to allow a keyboard to be placed on top.
The screen presents similar issues as when running at native resolutions, most screens become difficult to read when placed behind a large control surface. Lowering screen resolution wastes real estate and softens the image so much you think you need glasses. Articulated arms offer a good solution but the best arrangement I’ve seen is a screen recessed into the control surface like some modified D Controls or like digital mixers like the Midas Pro X.
Plug In Control
This is where HUI controllers fall behind in my experience. Some controllers like the Artist Mix follow a similar pattern where parameters are accessed across channel encoders. In my experience, while this system works, I revert back to mouse control. This is the acid test of any controller. If it’s easier using a mouse then the controller has failed. The most successful experience I have had controlling plug ins is on the D Control as the layout of the controls in the EQ3 and Dynamics3 plug in UI is mirrored in the dedicated hardware sections. When I was using the D Control regularly I bought McDSP’s excellent Channel G because it followed the same convention.
For other plug in use the possibility to map plug in parameters to custom fader layers is extremely powerful. Custom Faders were the real power user feature of the ICON series and this seems to have been developed and refined further in the S6 but with the introduction of all the visual feedback the ICONs lacked. In fact, while the C24 is fairly similar to the D Command in its mix and automation control, it is in the area of plug in control and especially custom fader modes that it loses out. Though in fairness the C24 is much less expensive.
Capitalising On Pre-existing Knowledge
The biggest strength about Pro Tools specific controllers is exactly that - They are Pro Tools specific. On a D Control (and I’m sure an S6) you already know how to do most operations because the control surface, as far as possible, does it in the same way as the software. For example, to display the volume automation playlist for a track, press the control surface modifier buttons for CMD + Ctrl and tap the fader cap - just as you would in software. You are doing what every control surface tried to do, you are reaching out and touching the software.