Those with limited budgets need not suffer the dread mixitis rodentus, the horrible condition caused by excessive mouse-handling while mixing. Indeed, various devices to protect you from plague-carrying vermin are available for just a few hundred dollars. Offering the most important features — such as faders, buttons, and transport controls — of their high-end counterparts, these affordable control surfaces put two-fisted mixing well within the reach of almost anyone.
The less-than-$1,000 price range is not the place to look for an all-encompassing solution, though, and you will see that each device has its niche. To compensate for limited feature sets, they provide useful extras ranging from audio I/O and easy connectivity to built-in effects. Each comes with a bundled digital audio sequencer program (or includes a built-in sequencer), enhancing its appeal to cost-conscious users and beginners alike. I'll take a look at four control surfaces with prices ranging from $379.00 to $899.99 and describe what each unit has to offer.
In this group, the Peavey StudioMix ($899.99; see Fig. 1) provides arguably the tightest integration with its host software. That stands to reason because the StudioMix was created jointly with Cakewalk and doesn't directly support other applications. It offers fewer options than the other moderately priced units, but its options are especially well suited to Cakewalk's functions. The StudioMix ships with Cakewalk Professional 8 (Peavey offers a free upgrade to Pro Audio 9), and the unit is also compatible with Cakewalk's top-of-the-line Sonar. Not included in this roundup is Peavey's PC 1600x ($399.99), a generic 16-fader MIDI control surface without dedicated transport controls or bundled music software.
The Doepfer Regelwerk ($650; see Fig. 2) is a MIDI fader box and an 8-track analog pattern sequencer. It is the odd bird in this roundup, as some key functions of the other control surfaces are not included in Regelwerk's feature set. The Regelwerk, on the other hand, offers 24 faders — far more than the other units. Not for the fainthearted, the Regelwerk requires more MIDI savvy to program than the others; however, it's also best geared toward real-time MIDI performance. The 5U rackmountable device has a clean-looking, no-nonsense, industrial look and feel.
The most flexible unit of the bunch is the Tascam US-428 ($625; see Fig. 3). A bundled version of Steinberg Cubasis VST only scratches the surface of the US-428's feature set; Tascam's Web site keeps an updated list of compatible host programs. The US-428's audio I/O alone is noteworthy, offering four 24-bit inputs and two 24-bit outputs — more than most USB audio interfaces.
Edirol's U-8 ($379; see Fig. 4) is affordable and comes bundled with IK Multimedia Groovemaker DJ and a custom version of either Cakewalk Home Studio 9 or Steinberg Cubasis for Windows. The Groovemaker DJ software lets you play, mix, and randomize grooves on the fly with control of eight stereo loop tracks. The U-8 incorporates a set of useful built-in effects that can be used nondestructively or applied during tracking or mixing. The unit's interface is dominated by EZ-Recording wizards designed to simplify the setup process.
The No. 1 advantage of using a control surface is that multiple hardware faders are better for mixing than a single mouse or trackball is. The tour of these interfaces therefore begins with faders. The Regelwerk aside, all the control surfaces feature eight channel faders along with a dedicated master fader. The U-8, the StudioMix, and the Regelwerk offer 60 mm faders, and the US-428 provides 45 mm faders. As with the heavy hardware, additional banks of eight faders are a button press away. The Regelwerk has a clear advantage: it allows direct control of its 24 faders without bank switching.
When I first reviewed the U-8, writing fader automation from the control surface wasn't possible. Thankfully that has changed, at least with the Cakewalk version. With the other units, automation has been a primary selling point from day one. Only the StudioMix's faders are motorized, which makes updating automation much easier and looks way cool.
The US-428 offers a single Pan knob that controls the selected track; the U-8 has no pan controls. The StudioMix has two knobs per channel that are assignable to pan, aux send, or level. The allocation of two knobs per channel combined with the fader motors and the ability to swap assignments (for example, using the fader for pan) gives the StudioMix a decided advantage for real-time recording of mix automation.
Each channel strip has one or more corresponding buttons. On the U-8, the buttons are clear and illuminate to indicate solo, mute, or record-ready status. Interestingly, only solo can be set directly by pressing the button. The US-428 has two sets of buttons (select and mute/solo) and three rows of LEDs (mute/solo, record-ready, and select). The StudioMix has one button per channel, but it can be assigned to mute, solo, record-enable, write fader (automation record-enable), and aux-enable. A Modifier key to let you switch assignments on the fly would be a welcome addition to the US-428.
Except for the Regelwerk (which offers Start and Stop buttons only), the units provide standard transport controls, which are especially nice to work with. QWERTY equivalents for Start, Stop, Rewind, and so forth are built into every music-production program — I haven't actually clicked on a Rewind icon in years — yet punching a dedicated button to start recording feels so much less like word processing.
Precise positioning is achieved with Data/Jog wheels, and the StudioMix includes a real Shuttle control, as well. A Shuttle control is the collar around a Jog wheel that allows variable-speed fast-forward and rewind; the Jog wheel provides precise manual positioning. Like the motorized faders, the StudioMix's full-service Jog/Shuttle wheel contributes to its more serious professional feel.
The personality of each controller becomes clearer when you go beyond the channel strips and examine what additional functions are present. For the most part, I'm talking about buttons: how many are there, and what can they do? With the StudioMix, the answer is a simple five buttons, and they can be assigned to almost any Cakewalk menu item, screen layout, StudioWare panel, or CAL macro. Because two buttons are typically assigned to bank switching, that leaves three assignable buttons. The assignability is as great as the number of buttons is inadequate.
Above the U-8's transport controls is a set of buttons devoted to markers and modes. You can set or locate to markers, turn looping on and off, and enable or disable autopunch. Farther up are buttons to help navigate dialog boxes. Dedicated buttons select windows or menus, represent Yes/Enter and No/Exit, and provide cursor control. The Data/Jog wheel is as much a part of the control set as it is a part of the transport controls. Additional buttons and knobs are devoted to the U-8's EZ features and effects.
Like the U-8, the US-428 has buttons just above its transport controls for setting and locating to markers. Nearby are two unique buttons: Input Monitor makes the first four channel faders control the direct-monitor mix of the US-428's four input channels; Null disengages the faders from writing values long enough for you to set them to correspond to current values.
The US-428 contains a cluster of three knobs and four buttons to control the host program's EQ settings. The buttons select between four frequency bands, whereas the knobs modify gain, center frequency, and bandwidth. To the right of the EQ cluster are four buttons to select Aux sends, an Assign button, and three software-specific function keys, which in Cubasis VST are used to open the Audio Mixer window, to open the VST FX Send window, and to toggle between open windows.
The Regelwerk has no knobs, but it boasts an impressive collection of 72 buttons and 56 LEDs. In addition to its function buttons, rows above and below the 24 faders help program the step sequencer and pattern playback. Having three separate banks of eight faders at your fingertips eliminates the need for bank swapping to access more than eight channels. That makes the Regelwerk well suited for simple level-riding tasks that don't require full integration with a DAW as well as for modulating other MIDI parameters in real time. (The Regelwerk looks somewhat like a small lighting console, which would make it a good control surface for operating a MIDI-controlled lighting rig.)
Audio I/O is another area of major differences among the three controllers. The StudioMix most resembles the “big iron” insofar as it offers the ability to route analog audio to and from your audio interface. A single mic input and L/R line inputs are complemented by stereo sound-card input and output, stereo monitor output, stereo tape input and output, headphone output, and MIDI In, Out, and Thru. All audio connections are unbalanced RCA except the mic (XLR) and headphone (⅛-inch). Four front-panel knobs control relative mic, line, mix, and monitor levels.
The U-8 goes one step beyond the StudioMix: it functions as a stereo 16-bit, 48 kHz audio interface. Various inputs are available, including line, mic, and guitar levels, as are 16-bit S/PDIF digital I/O and MIDI In and Out. A single RCA output pair and a stereo ¼-inch headphone jack allow monitoring. Oddly, the mic input is an unbalanced XLR connection.
Not just a controller, the US-428 is also an impressive USB audio interface, with four ins and two outs providing 16- or 24-bit, 44.1 or 48 kHz audio. XLR mic inputs (balanced) and ¼-inch line inputs are available, with two ¼-inch inputs switchable to guitar inputs. Add to that two MIDI Ins and Outs, a 24-bit S/PDIF digital I/O, RCA main outputs, and a stereo ¼-inch headphone out, and you have quite a bit of connectivity.
Software compatibility is the key ingredient for these controllers. If a control surface doesn't work with your favorite program, it isn't much good. With the StudioMix, the compatibility issue is easy: it works with Cakewalk Professional 8 or later and Sonar. Theoretically, you could reverse-engineer a controller map to let it control another program, but do you really want to? Give Peavey credit for excellent execution of a limited vision.
The U-8 works nicely with its bundled version of Cubasis or Home Studio 9, but don't plan to use the unit with other software. The Edirol Web site has teased about Mac and Windows 2000 drivers, but there's no sign of them. The U-8's built-in effects, however, are generally good, which adds value to the bundle.
The Regelwerk is not designed for any specific software, but it has an extensive set of Auto-Learn features for recognizing and storing MIDI commands. In many ways, it is the least useful as a DAW front end. It doesn't provide a full set of dedicated transport controls or even knobs for panning. It is quite powerful and highly programmable as a MIDI fader controller, and it's perfectly suited for live, dynamic MIDI performance or as an interface for a software synth. Its built-in pattern-based sequencer and other unique features, such as its eight control voltage and gate outputs, may appeal to some users.
The compatibility champion is clearly the US-428. The only one of the four to support Macs, it provides tactile control for Digidesign Pro Tools, Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) Digital Performer, Emagic Logic Audio, Steinberg Nuendo, and other programs. It also has been adapted for use with software synthesizers. One of its coolest applications is to control Native Instruments B4. Imagine the irony of emulating the legendary Hammond behemoth with a laptop and a MIDI keyboard while the compact US-428 provides virtual drawbars and control of things such as preamp drive, vibrato speed, and audio I/O. Try doing that with a mouse!
Brian Smithers is associate course director of MIDI at Full Sail Real World Education in Winter Park, Florida. You can reach him through his Web site, http://members.aol.com/notebooks1.