Over the years, I've watched Cakewalk grow from a basic MIDI sequencer to a full-fledged MIDI and audio tool. With all that flexibility and power, however, comes a multitude of onscreen controls: countless faders, buttons, and knobs vie for limited display space. And using a mouse to control all those parameters can become tedious rather quickly. Ever try mixing a 32-track production with just a mouse? It's like trying to work a real mixer with just one finger. Forget it.
Enter Peavey Electronics. This venerable manufacturer has teamed up with Cakewalk to create an excellent hardware addition to the Cakewalk experience. The StudioMix package combines a hardware surface controller-sporting real knobs, buttons, and motorized faders-with the powerful Cakewalk Professional digital audio sequencing software.
Already a Cakewalk Professional user? Well, unfortunately, you can't purchase just the hardware controller. (For existing Cakewalk Professional owners, the box does contain a free offer for AudioFX effects plug-ins. A free upgrade to Cakewalk Pro Audio 9 is also available to anyone who has recently purchased StudioMix.) However, if you use Cakewalk Pro Audio, you don't have to downgrade to Cakewalk Professional-the StudioMix controller is supported as of Pro Audio v. 8.04.
PLUG IT INEM has covered Cakewalk many times, so for this review I'll just focus on the features that are specific to StudioMix. Starting from the top: installation was a breeze. I installed the software, wired up the hardware, and voila-it worked. Without even cracking the manual, I successfully made adjustments to the Cakewalk transport and onscreen faders using the StudioMix controller.
The controller itself is reasonably compact, occupying less than a foot of space from front to back. If it were a keyboard, it would be about two and a half octaves wide. The surface slopes up gently, and there is a nice wrist rest in front.
It comes with nine fader groups; typically, you'd use eight to control individual tracks and one as a master. Each fader group contains one 60 mm motorized fader, two rotary encoders (infinitely rotating knobs), and one button. These controls have no labels to indicate their function, but there are spaces provided to scribble down your own notes. Your use of Cakewalk will determine what adjustment should occur when a control is tweaked.
To the right of the faders are five additional buttons that trigger various software events or commands, six transport control buttons, and a jog/shuttle wheel. One of the transport control buttons switches Cakewalk's MIDI Machine Control messages on and off, allowing you to control an external tape deck with the same set of buttons.
SPLIT PERSONALITYThe StudioMix controller isn't just a MIDI device; it has audio capabilities as well. On the back of the unit is an XLR microphone input that is supplied with nondefeatable phantom power. There are stereo sets of RCA connectors for a sound card output; a second stereo output that can be used for a DAT, CD, or tape recorder; a stereo line input; and a stereo feed for your monitoring system. Also included is an 11/48-inch headphone jack.
There are separate gain controls for the mic and line inputs, and separate level controls for the monitor and mixdown outputs. What's more, the monitor signal can be switched between the sound-card and tape-deck inputs. But unlike the other StudioMix controls, these knobs don't send or respond to MIDI messages.
I'm always wary of inserting new devices into the audio chain, so I decided to test the noise levels of the StudioMix audio connections. I noticed a bit of hiss and a whining noise when I turned the levels way up. I tried to isolate it by removing my sound card from the chain, eliminating it as a possible culprit. The noise was still there, but it was hardly noticeable at normal monitoring levels. As for the mic preamp, it sounded fine to my ears. I wouldn't put it up against a high-end professional preamp, but it's perfectly decent for casual use.
Those with complex studios probably won't have much use for the StudioMix audio section. Instead, you're likely to have your sound card, microphones, and sound modules wired into a larger mixing board. But if you create your music with little more than a keyboard and a microphone, the StudioMix mixer could be all you need. It's ideal for recording to and mixing from a single 2-channel sound card. In fact, I did just that.
To test the unit, I moved StudioMix, a small keyboard, and a microphone to my office computer (which has a basic 2-channel sound card). I found myself with a nice little composing station.
This exercise made me wish for one more StudioMix feature. Most sound cards come with only one set of external MIDI ports; StudioMix eats that up, leaving you without a place to plug in an external controller directly. StudioMix does have a MIDI Thru connection, so you could connect the computer MIDI Out to StudioMix MIDI In, StudioMix Thru to your external controller In, and finally the external controller Out back to Computer In. You could also purchase a third-party MIDI merger device, but an extra MIDI input with a built-in MIDI merger would be a welcome addition to the StudioMix console.
HEAR AND OBEYThe StudioMix controller itself is not programmable. Each knob, button, and fader puts out a specific MIDI message on MIDI channel 16; this cannot be changed by the user. It's up to you to configure Cakewalk to respond to the messages the way you want.
To do this, go to the new StudioMix Configuration window in Cakewalk (see Fig. 1). This window provides a drop-down list for each type of StudioMix control (except for the transport controls, which can't be changed). Each drop-down list contains the possible behaviors that the control is capable of. Changing Cakewalk's response to a button, fader, or knob is as simple as picking a behavior from the list.
The StudioMix controller addresses eight consecutive tracks at a time. The behaviors for each of the track controllers are set globally. In other words, you can't configure StudioMix so that one track's upper knob controls pan position while another track's upper knob controls reverb. But you can specify differing behaviors for audio tracks and MIDI tracks.
The fader and two rotary controls can be used to send MIDI Control Change messages, including CC 93 (Chorus Depth), CC 91 (Reverb), CC 10 (Pan), or CC 7 (Volume). For audio tracks your choices are pan, level, and any of up to 16 aux buses that you have configured. I set up the signal level with the faders, pan with the lower rotary control, and effects amount-either through an aux send on audio tracks or a controller level on MIDI tracks-with the upper rotary controller.
The track buttons can control mute, solo, track arming (for recording), aux bus enabling (on audio tracks only), and Write Fader. Write Fader is an option for recording additional automation data on a track that has existing automation data. Basically, it disables the motorized fader movements while recording the new data, so you and Cakewalk aren't fighting each other for control of the fader.
All of the choices for the track buttons are common operations, and here I found myself wanting more buttons on the StudioMix controller. For example, I will often mute some tracks and arm others during the tracking process. I finally decided to set the buttons to Arm for tracking and then to Write Fader during mixdown. I muted and soloed the old-fashioned way. (In this case, "old-fashioned" means using your mouse to make changes onscreen.)
MASTER MIXERYour choices for the master fader group are a little different. The button can control the pre- or postfader status for the aux buses and can also enable the Write Fader mode for the master fader. The fader and rotary knobs can control left or right master signal level, as well as send, return, and pan levels for the aux buses.
If you want to control the left and right master level with one controller (for example, the master fader), you simply link the two onscreen faders together in Cakewalk's Console View window. The master fader group can control any of Cakewalk's available audio outputs; you decide which one by choosing from a drop-down list in the StudioMix Configuration window.
The five buttons to the right of the faders are capable of performing a number of functions. In fact, they can be configured to use any of Cakewalk's Key Bindings (which let you assign about 99 percent of Cakewalk's functions to computer keyboard or MIDI shortcut keys). For example, they could execute common responses to prompts like Yes, No, OK, or Cancel, or they could launch anything found on a Cakewalk menu. (Save, Print, Cut, Paste, Reverse Audio, and Insert Marker are all fair game.) In addition, you can use the buttons to open a StudioWare panel or run a CAL program. I set one up to undo the last operation, giving me a quick way to abandon a botched recording.
One of the more notable Button Bindings (that's what Cakewalk calls them) is the ability to shift the track focus of the StudioMix controller in steps of one or eight tracks. So if the controller is linked to Cakewalk tracks 1 through 8, you can press a button to have it control tracks 9 through 16 instead (or tracks 2 through 9, if you're shifting tracks one at a time). You can travel in both directions through the tracks. You can also shift the master controls to different audio output ports in a similar manner.
Rounding out Cakewalk's StudioMix Configuration window are resolution settings for the rotary controls and for the jog/shuttle wheel. You can choose between coarse, medium, and fine resolution, although the wheel can also be set to Frame, Beat, or Measure. Incidentally, the jog/shuttle wheel can be used only to move Cakewalk to different parts of your song. You can't program it to do other things. (Not that I'd want to anyway-using the wheel is an incredibly quick way to scoot around in a song or locate hit points in a video file.)
PUTTING IT TO USENow that StudioMix is set up just right, how do you actually go about using it? The closest tie-in between StudioMix and Cakewalk exists in Cakewalk's Console View (see Fig. 2). You can consider the StudioMix controller the physical manifestation of what you see on the Console View screen (or at least a portion of it). Move a Console View fader, and the corresponding StudioMix fader moves along with it. Twiddle a StudioMix knob, and you should see something move in the Console View.
When I'm tracking, I set the StudioMix buttons to control each track's arm status and used the faders to set each track's relative volume for monitoring purposes. Recording a track was as simple as arming a track, finding my start point (with the rewind or jog/shuttle controls), and clicking the Record button. But because of the way I was working, I had to visit the computer keyboard whenever I wanted to change tracks.
I tend to set up my MIDI tracks, channels, and patches in advance. I keep my MIDI controller fixed on MIDI channel 1 and let Cakewalk "rechannelize" everything to the currently selected track. I found that I had no way to change the current track selection with the StudioMix console. My cursor keys weren't too far away, but an "auto-select the most recently armed track" option would have saved me a few keystrokes.
Mixing down is also an easy process. If you have many tracks, you may want to group some faders together in Console View before you start. With a bit of creative track rearranging, you can set up eight consecutive faders representing eight different fader groups. Then when you move the StudioMix controls, Cakewalk will be moving scores of faders for you.
When you're ready to mix, enable the Write Fader mode for the tracks you want to record, switch on Record Automation in the Console View, and start playback. Your fader movements will be recorded in Cakewalk as you make them.
FOR HACKERS ONLYAt this point, I'm sure many of you are thinking, "Gee, what a cool controller. Can I use it with another MIDI sequencer?" The answer is, Not very easily. I hooked a MIDI monitor up to the StudioMix controller to see what sort of messages it was sending. Each button, fader, and knob sends a unique Non-Registered Parameter Number (NRPN) message on MIDI channel 16. And, as I mentioned earlier, you can't change the messages that the StudioMix controller sends.
NRPN messages are actually four MIDI continuous controller messages sent in sequence. The first two messages indicate the parameter to be changed, and the second two indicate the value to change it to. Because the individual messages are simple continuous controllers, you can record and play them back in your sequencer, and everything will work smoothly.
But for a program to respond to such a message, it would have to properly receive the first two messages and know to wait for the second two. If you wanted to use the StudioMix controller with another program, that program would have to understand how to deal with NRPN messages and let you define the behavior when it receives a specific message from StudioMix. Other than Cakewalk, I haven't seen such a program.
THE FINAL VERDICTPerhaps my favorite aspect of this product is its simplicity. Connect it, and it immediately starts working. All the cables you need are included in the box (although I did have to go into my gadget bag for a couple of audio adapters).
Sure, the controller puts out only a fixed set of messages. But since Cakewalk knows what messages to expect, configuration is easy and quick. I'd like to control even more of Cakewalk with real knobs and buttons, but this controller delivers the right amount of capability; with more controls, StudioMix could be too cumbersome to use.
Cakewalk's online help system offers plenty of good documentation, but a 27-page Quick Start guide is all you get in printed form. As an experienced Cakewalk user, I found the documentation adequate; however, I think it would be tedious to learn a product as complex as Cakewalk Professional entirely from the online help. (There is a complete User's Guide in the form of a PDF file.) Some video tutorials on the CD-ROM should provide a healthy head start for Cakewalk newbies.
I can't put it any simpler than this: If you're a heavy Cakewalk user, you need to be using the StudioMix controller. Many tracking tasks become easier, and much of the tedious mouse-clicking is eliminated during mixdown. Check this thing out!
Allan Metts is an Atlanta-based musician, software/systems designer, and consultant.