In this brave new world of virtual recording studios and software plug-ins, it's nice to get your hands on something tangible. There's nothing quite like the feeling of real faders, buttons, and dials under your fingertips. Pushing a mouse and typing commands on a QWERTY keyboard are fine for word processing, but not for recording and certainly not for mixing. To bridge the gap between digital audio workstation and musician, we need a machine that translates the virtual, onscreen elements into physical, real-world controls. To meet this need, several companies are now manufacturing MIDI-based work surfaces that look and feel very similar to actual recording consoles. One such machine, just introduced, is the Motor Mix by CM Automation.
Although CM Automation is not yet a household name, the company has been around for almost a decade, working behind the scenes to help develop audio and MIDI products for several big-name manufacturers. So even though it may seem to be a newcomer to the scene, it really isn't. In fact, the experience of the CM Automation staff was undoubtedly instrumental in bringing to fruition this 8-channel, button-laden control surface with motorized faders at the reasonable price of $999.
MOTOR MIX BASICSThe Motor Mix is amazingly compact, measuring a mere 10.5 inches wide by 4 inches high by 12.5 inches deep and weighing only 10 pounds. It's highly portable and can easily be moved around on your tabletop, cradled in your lap, or carried to another location. It's solidly built with a steel chassis and black faux-wood side panels. A rocker-type power switch is located on the rear panel (the unit takes a standard IEC type II cable), as are the MIDI In and Out jacks.
The Motor Mix utilizes bidirectional MIDI communications, which means that it sends and receives MIDI controller data. As a result, when you adjust one of the Motor Mix's motorized faders, for example, and record that move in your software, the fader moves correspondingly when you play the sequence back.
FADING INThe Motor Mix's eight 100 mm faders slide easily, with very little resistance. Are they the smoothest I've ever used? No. But at this price point I have no complaints. There's a slight delay between when you move a fader and when the onscreen fader element responds to that motion, but that's true with all control surfaces of this type. The delay is only visual, however, and does not affect audio or MIDI response. There is no perceptible delay between the time you actually move a fader and when you hear the volume change.
Because there are only eight physical faders and in many situations you will be working with 16, 24, or more channels in your multitrack software, the Motor Mix allows you to step through those channels in various ways to get to the ones you want to control. This is similar to the "fader layer" concept that many digital mixers use. It's accomplished via the left and right arrow switches and the Bank and Group buttons.
You have the choice of advancing through your multitrack's channels in single increments or in banks of eight. If your software's mixer lets you set up groups of nonadjacent faders, you can set the Motor Mix to switch between these by pressing the Group button followed by the arrow switches. My only quibble is that considering how important these buttons and switches are (you push them constantly during a mix), they could be much larger.
Just like on the channel strip of a mixer, there are mute and solo switches above each of the faders. Each physical channel also has a Multi control-a switch you can set to turn functions in your software, such as EQ, dynamics, and delay, on and off-and a Burn switch you can configure for various functions, including record-enable.
FUNCTIONS GALOREOn either side of the faders sits a bank of eight clear-plastic, backlit function switches. In many cases, the switches control more than one function. Primary functions-such as Stop, Play, Plug In, and Undo-are labeled above the buttons. Secondary functions are labeled below. Examples of the latter include Create (for grouping faders), Compare (for comparing plug-in settings), Tools (for toggling between tools), and Mode (for viewing a channel's automation mode). Secondary buttons are accessed by hitting the Shift key-conveniently located at the bottom left corner of the unit's face-while pressing one of the function switches.
Near the top of the Motor Mix are eight rotary pots that can be assigned to control everything from panning to aux sends to the parameters of software plug-ins in the host program. These knobs are rubberized for nonslip gripping and provide some resistance when turned, which is good for accuracy. (Pots that turn too easily can be squirrelly, making values difficult to nail.) A slightly larger knob (also rubberized), called the Rotary Selector, allows you to select the function that the rotary pots are controlling. It has push-button action and is detented. Above it is a two-character LED that reflects the pots' currently selected functions (such as Pan, Aux Send 1, Aux Send 2, and so on).
DISPLAY MEA two-line, 40-character, backlit LCD spans the top of the Motor Mix (about 3/4 by 61/4 inches in size). At first glance I thought it might not be big enough, but after trying out the unit I was pleasantly surprised at the display's usefulness. The Motor Mix's designers did a wonderful job of cramming a ton of information onto this no-frills screen.
Channel labels and parameter names are displayed on the top line, and values and soft-key labels (such as window select, special transport keys, and plug-in select) appear on the bottom line. The buttons directly beneath the LCD act as soft keys. Labels and numbers on the screen are nicely aligned with the channel strips for easy operation. It's simple to see which function lines up with which soft key or pot. A contrast control is located on the unit's rear.
UP AND AWAYGetting the Motor Mix to work with your software is a relatively simple process: plug it into your MIDI interface, assign it a port, and choose the Motor Mix profile in your multitrack software. (The profile is written into the software and enables the program to recognize and interact with the Motor Mix.) I tested Motor Mix on my Mac using two different digital audio programs: Digidesign's Pro Tools 4.3.2 and Steinberg's Cubase VST 4.0. (Many digital recording and sequencing programs for Mac and Windows support the Motor Mix fully or partially. To find out about support for a particular program, check with the software manufacturer. According to CM Automation, the company's Web site will so on offer compatibility information.)
Because Cubase has a Motor Mix profile, it was a snap to get it working. However, at the time of this review, the Motor Mix was only partially supported in Cubase. Even though a controller profile appeared in the VST Remote menu, the Motor Mix controlled only faders, mutes, and solos. All other functions, including transport control, required the mouse and computer keyboard. Even so, I had a lot of fun doing fader moves and hitting mutes and solos-all in real time. Supported features worked smoothly, and I envision that Cubase and the Motor Mix will make for a killer combination, especially for remix-oriented personal studios. Full Cubase support for the Motor Mix should be available by the time you read this or very soon thereafter.
At the time of this writing, Pro Tools does not offer a Motor Mix profile. (CM Automation reports that one is in the works.) However, the Motor Mix can be set to Pro Tools mode, which gives it control over a wide array of functions. CM Automation accomplished this by designing Pro Tools mode to address the Mackie Designs HUI profile that already exists in Pro Tools. (The HUI is a dedicated Pro Tools control surface.)
Due to the lack of a specific profile, not all of the Motor Mix's buttons are active when using Pro Tools. (Some controls on the Motor Mix aren't addressed in the HUI profile, such as the Next and Last keys for stepping forward or backward between locate points. These keys will work when Pro Tools supports the Motor Mix with its own controller profile.) Nevertheless, I was able to access just about everything I needed in Pro Tools directly from the Motor Mix's front panel.
Functions without discrete buttons can be controlled via soft keys. For instance, there aren't RTZ, End, or Loop transport controls, but pressing the Transport key brings these functions to the LCD. Then all you need to do is hit the appropriate soft key beneath the listed function, and voila-it's executed. This design facilitates some interesting ergonomics. With the soft keys doubling certain discrete keys, as is the case with the FF and RW controls, two types of FF and RW are available at the same time. The hard FF and RW keys are latching (they stay on until disengaged), whereas the soft FF and RW keys are momentary (they're active only when depressed). Pretty neat. Pro Tools supports up to four controllers, so four Motor Mixes can be used simultaneously. (That's 32 channels with a street price below $4,000!) They're even designed to be easily attached into one large unit.
MASTERING THE MIXBefore I tested the Motor Mix, my expectations for it were modest at best. After all, I'm a HUI user, and I'm accustomed to that product's large size, meter bridge, jog/shuttle wheel, numeric keypad, and analog I/O-none of which the Motor Mix offers. But once I got up to speed on the Motor Mix (it didn't take long), I discovered that its features and performance greatly exceeded my expectations. I found the control surface to be very intuitive, and I needed little more than a cursory glance at the manual to grasp the basic operating principles. (The thin and somewhat sketchy manual is not one of the product's strong points.)
One fact to bear in mind is that the Motor Mix is a work surface dedicated to handling operations that occur within the mix window of your audio software only. Therefore it offers no control over editing functions. CM Automation decided to address the edit window separately and is developing a full-featured work surface that will handle those functions.
FINAL ADVICEWhen shopping for a control surface, explore your options before making a decision. Besides the Motor Mix, there are several other dedicated controllers with moving faders on the market: Peavey's StudioMix, JL Cooper's 3800, and the Mackie Designs HUI. The HUI and the 3800 offer larger work surfaces, a jog/shuttle, and a meter bridge (the HUI also features analog audio I/O), but they are considerably more expensive than the Motor Mix ($3,495 and $2,895, respectively). The StudioMix could be real competition for the Motor Mix. It has many of the same features as the HUI and the 3800 (including a jog/shuttle wheel and analog I/O) and a retail price of just $899. However, the StudioMix works on ly with Cakewalk software, has no LCD, and offers only half the number of buttons found on the Motor Mix.
As more software manufacturers begin to support the Motor Mix, it will undoubtedly become a personal-studio staple. Does it have the breadth of features that its more expensive competitors do? No. But it gets the job done, and you can't beat the price.
Erik Hawkins is a musician and producer working in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area. Check out his fledgling indie label at www.muzicali.com.