Control surfaces play an integral role in my tracking and mixing workflows. In this article I list a number of important control surface features and typical selling points, which I would personally want to see incorporated in a single control surface product at some point in the future. This is a bit of a wish list, I know, but if a device did one day come about with these particular features then it would certainly be my ultimate control surface.
I’ve owned several over the years ranging from small 8 fader devices such as Digi 002, Digi 003, M-Audio Project Mix through to my current one - the C24. I’ve also worked on several other surfaces including the Control 24, D-Command and most recently the Avid S3 that we tested recently for Pro Tools Expert:
A well thought control surface is a joy to use, far more intuitive than any mouse and keyboard workflow can provide. Out of all the control surfaces I’ve worked on I can hand on heart say that there is no one perfect solution, which does beg the question, have we yet to see the ultimate control surface?
Value For Money - Does Price Reflect Usable Feature Set?
Price is a major factor in my studio purchasing process, not in terms of affordability, rather in terms of value for money. When I’m considering a control surface I want to know, without doubt, that I’m investing in a product that will provide me with a set of useful features and time saving controls that I need and will use daily at a price that reflects those qualities.
There are several options available today occupying the higher end of the market such as the Avid S6. While these upper end solutions do look like amazing systems they are clearly not targeted at small to medium sized studios on modest budgets. There are two more tiers of control surface to consider if large format console style control surfaces are not affordable options for you:
The Middle Ground Control Surface: Such as the smaller touchscreen Slate Ravens and Avid S3 boards and C24, which surprising is still a current Avid product.
The Entry Level Control Surface: For budget minded professionals with the likes of Presonus FaderPorts, Icon Digital Pro and Behringer offering a wide range of solutions..
Reasonably priced “middle ground” control surfaces are typically priced between £3,000 - £5,000 these days. By comparison, people who are looking for a low cost unit typically spend between £500 to £1,000 on entry level devices. Within the entry level to middle ground range of control surfaces you really do get what you pay for. The rule of thumb to follow these days is that the higher the price of a control surface the better the features, the deeper the integration with whatever DAW you are going to use it with and the better the build quality as well. Value for money in the higher range of products can be difficult to appreciate, unless you are a power user working on high budget fast turn around content.
For me my absolute limit on a control surface would be in the upper end of the middle ground territory of £5,000, slightly more if the device was a no brainer.
Ergonomics - Has It Been Designed With Users In Mind?
The design, layout and overall feel of a control surface combined with ergonomics, are what matter to me. I don’t want primary buttons and encoders that I need to reach for every few seconds positioned in obscure places as I know I will end up not using them in favour of a mouse and keyboard. A control surface has to give me the impression that it was well thought out and designed to be the better option for mixing over using a keyboard and mouse, otherwise what’s the point of the control surface?
Such smart design choices aren’t always possible to include as budget control surfaces have some corners cut to keep price down. While I appreciate fact of R&D and product design I still expect to see that a high level of thought has gone into the controls the surface does have under my fingers.
Large consoles like control surfaces, such as the legacy Pro Tools D-Control, are epic to work on, however, there are plenty times when you are working a mix on one of these that you will find your bum lifting out of your chair to twist and encoder that’s just out of reach. Luckily you can focus a lot of your Pro Tools tracks and plug-in parameters to be within your main centred position for quick and easy access but doesn’t this kind of make the rest of the desk pointless? In opinion, yes it does. Why have a massive console like control surface with lots of encoders that are clearly too far to reach? May as well have a smaller form factor board. This is one of the reasons I love using the C24. It’s looks big in pictures but when you sit behind one you find that every encoder, button and switch is in very each reach.
For me ergonomics is key to the success of a control surface experience. Every position of a function needs to be intentional, well thought out, easy to find, grab and purposeful in everyday audio tasks.
A well designed control surface doesn’t just help break your mouse and keyboard mixing habit, you’ll also find that you’ll be less visually dependant on your computer display as well. If you get plenty of useful visual feedback from your board then there’s a good chance you’ll barely use your DAW mix window. Meters, track colours (such as the ones in the Avid S3) and “scribble” strips for track names and plug-in parameters that are clear and easy to read are the main visual aids that help us see important aspects of our sessions under our hands. Colours are a luxury though, only EUCON supports this in Avid’s Pro Tools Dock, S3 and S6 hardware Control surfaces. I’ll admit I thought these were a bit gimmicky at first but after spending some time with an S3 I must say colours are essential in a control surface as navigating large sessions can be done far quicker than relying solely on fader positions and scribble strip displays.
Just The Essence Of A Control Surface - Nothing More
Many control surfaces of old like the Digi 003 were so much more than just a control surface. They featured built-in audio interfaces, monitor sections and headphone amps. As great as these all-in-one units were the pro audio world has moved on… or has it? Recently PreSonus, the makers of Studio One, announced a new 64-channel digital mixer and USB audio interface called the 64S that they describe as “the world's ONLY 64-channel mixer at this price!”, being around $4,000. This thing looks it could be the Swiss Army knife for live and studio work. Think of this as the Digi 003 on steroids for today’s market.
Putting Presonus’s new 64S desk to one side for the moment, the current studio gear trend is to own a variety of different components to make up a personalised studio rig instead of being forced to put all of one’s studio gear eggs in one basket. The Digi 003 was great as an all-in-one but many users didn’t like the mic preamps, which was a pain as you were stuck with them if you liked using the Digi 003 as a control surface.
Choice is nowadays many and varied when it comes to studio gear, that’s why the trend for control surfaces to be all-in-one units is perceived by many as an old fashioned concept. The Avid S3 has a simple built-in AVB audio interface but considering my demands I don’t see the point in this as I already have interfaces, preamps, monitor controllers and headphone amps. Wouldn’t it have been better to not include an audio interface that some people may use and offer the device at a lower price as just a control surface? Audio people like choice these days. Why not pair your favourite audio interface with a particular monitor controller, headphone amp and of course control surface? It’s sort of a pick and mix modular setup that can end up being a unique mishmash of your own choosing. After all, an all-in-one control surface product you are using is no different from the same one someone else is using in their studio.
Touch Is Not For Everyone
Because I am partially sighted tactile is the key feature for a control surface especially for buttons that depress provide a real sense of action and purpose. The layout of the buttons on a control surface can quickly be committed to memory which helps users glide their hands over a section of the board to command a function, such as transport or automation. When using touch screens, you need to look and then place your finger there, they really don’t work for me because I am partially sighted.
Some control surfaces have other forms of buttons that I’m not a fan of. The Avid S3 has a touch bar for transport. The texture of this strip doesn’t have any feel to it, there’s no sound when you tap it to start playback, there’s no sense of a button being pressed… no, I’m not a fan. This type of action feels disconnected, similar to how I feel when I’m using touch devices such as iPads to control a DAW session. I feel like I have to look at a button, which isn’t a physical button, aim a single finger and hope that I can “press” the button quickly, often missing to hit the button at all.
Real buttons that raise out of a control surface are like braille to a blind person. For instance, our brains know that our fingers are laying on let’s say the transport. If we know our index finger is on PLAY our brain knows without thinking that our middle finger is hovering over RECORD ready to use. Simple little unconscious things like this cannot be recreated with pseudo touch buttons or touch screens. For me, the ultimate control surface keeps the tried and true mechanical feel to it’s buttons.
Years ago Mackie sold a very cool affordable modular control surface range which included a main fader unit with transport & other main command buttons, an extender 8 fader unit and a unit with only encoders. This wasn’t the first system to offer a modular workflow, remember the Digidesign ProControl, but it was one of the most affordable systems back in the day. Many other developers have followed since. Avid used to have the Artist series with the Avid Control, Artist Transport and Artist Mix, but only the Artist Mix is still a current product. Icon Digital offer something quite similar in their product range as well as Avid with the S3 and with Pro Tools Dock and S6 has been designed to be modular.
Modular control surfaces are cool as everybody’s needs are different. Some users may only need 8 faders when others demand more. Some may need just a central unit when others need the Starship Enterprise. Whatever the case may be, choice and flexibly are important. The Avid S6 is currently the gold standard in control surface modular, as you can see from building your own virtual S6 on the RSPE website, but it would be great to have some more choice in the lower ranger of the control surface market for budget minded audio people like myself.
Modular control surfaces are also a great way to build up a system. Let’s say you can’t afford all the units in one go, easy, buy each unit as and when you can afford to invest. If I were looking to get an Avid S3, Dock and iPad I would spread the costs if money was tight.
Cross Platform Compatibility
This goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. The ultimate control surface must work across all major DAWs. EUCON is the protocol but it’s not open for third parties to incorporate in their control surfaces, which limits your choice to Avid’s product line, if you want deep integration with Pro Tools. That sid Eucon will work with other DAWs so an Avid solution could be the answer even if you aren’t going to use their DAW. Avid control surfaces of old, including the Digidesign models I keep banging on about and the C24 don’t register with any other DAW except Pro Tools, which was always a moot point but at least EUCON these days does away with those frustrations of old.
However with the inclusion of HUI support in V-Control Pro from Neyrinck you can now use some of the old legacy Digidesign products like the Pro Control and Control 24 with other DAWs like Logic Pro.
What Would Make The Ultimate Control Surface For Your Studio?
To summarise, the ultimate control surface for me would be priced around the £5,000 mark, well designed with end user experience in mind, not overly large, have mechanical buttons, would include some modular add-on units in the product range, would work flawlessly in all DAW’s and be just the essence of a control surface. That’s a tall order! I may never see such a device, but we can dream right?
What features would make the ultimate control surface for your needs and studio work?