For many bedroom and project studios nowadays, one piece of gear — the mouse — has replaced a whole spectrum of individual components and entire pieces of traditional gear. For some, mice have become volume faders, pan pots, EQ trim controls, mute and solo buttons — the list goes on and on. For music producers, the upside to this phenomenon is that now all that is needed to create an entire album single-handedly is a decent computer, some good software and a pair of headphones.
One drawback to the all-powerful mouse concept is the resulting lack of real-time human interaction or “feel” in mixing and production. Ask any serious DJs or live-sound engineers, and they can tell you about the importance of feel in the mix. If something is too loud when you mix on a traditional console, you reach out and turn it down. If the drums are too loud, you can pull down all the relevant faders using multiple fingers. But imagine you were mixing a band live with Digidesign Pro Tools: Would it be as swift and easy as reaching out with one hand and, in one motion, pulling down the faders?
ALL HANDS ON DESK
Fortunately, with advances in technology comes cooler gear at lower prices, not to mention competition among manufacturers. Therefore, the current climate is one that also contains a plethora of remote controllers that supplement your virtual recording fetish by getting your hands back in the mix. DAW control surfaces are to digital audio software what mixing consoles are to analog audio, and like traditional consoles, they now come in a wide range of sizes and prices. Some function purely as software remote controls while others do double duty as audio and MIDI interfaces. A few choice pieces even moonlight as stand-alone mixers; some are generic whereas others are application-specific. One of the earliest models to popularize the control-surface concept was Mackie's HUI, or Human User Interface. The HUI was replaced by the current Mackie Control Universal, which is capable of controlling Pro Tools; Apple Logic Pro, Logic Express and Final Cut Pro; Steinberg Nuendo and Cubase SX; Propellerhead Reason; and more. It has one master and eight channel faders that are touch-sensitive and fully motorized, along with all manner of assignable buttons; universal potentiometers for pan, EQ, sends and so forth; and a physical transport.
Although the Mackie Control and most other control surfaces on the market can bank across multiple channel groups (for example, faders 1 through 8 can control channels 9 through 16, 17 through 24 and so on), if you are used to working on larger analog boards, Tascam has you covered with its US-2400. The US-2400 is a full-size 24-channel remote controller. Like with the Mackie, all master and channel faders are motorized, touch-sensitive 100mm long-throw types; each channel has an assignable rotary encoder; and a hardware transport is onboard. In addition, every channel has manual select, solo and mute buttons, and the US-2400 provides a joystick for surround panning. If both of these options are more robust than you need or are simply too expensive, several other options are available from M-Audio, Behringer, Doepfer, JL Cooper and others.
ARRIVING IN THE NEW WORLD
Control surfaces that are fused with audio and MIDI interfaces abound in even more sizes and price ranges. An example of the smallest is Tascam's US-224, which features one master and four bank-able channel faders, a hardware transport section and data wheel, two channels of audio I/O and a MIDI I/O interface, all neatly wrapped in a less-than-laptop-size, USB-bus-powered box. For you dedicated Pro Tools users looking to get tactile, look no further than Digidesign's Digi 002. This FireWire-based piece sits on the mid-to-high end of the scale and sports eight bankable channels, each with a touch-sensitive, motorized fader and an assignable motion-sensitive rotary encoder. The robust I/O section includes eight analog inputs and eight analog outputs total, including four microphone preamps on XLR jacks with individual gain, one MIDI In and two MIDI Out ports, S/PDIF and ADAT optical I/O and a wide array of audio outputs. The Digi 002 is designed specifically for use with Pro Tools LE and Pro Tools — compatible plug-ins. As with the simpler MIDI-only control surfaces, these all-in-one desktop-recording controller/interfaces are also produced by manufacturers such as Edirol, Yamaha and others.
Although not specifically a control surface and in a class all its own, one alternative worthy of a mention is Jazz Mutant's Lemur. This odd creature features a 12-inch touch-sensitive LCD similar to that on ATM machines yet is capable of tracking and responding to simultaneous finger movements. The hardware unit comes with a Linux-, Windows- and Mac OS X — compatible software editor that features an expandable library of UI objects including faders, switches, pads, keyboards and more that can be dragged and dropped to build custom user interfaces. The Lemur certainly does not adhere specifically to traditional console parameters, but just think about what it could do in a surround mix or with your favorite soft synths.
For classic, creative bands like The Beatles or Pink Floyd, the mixer (in the hands of a great sound engineer, of course) was treated just like another instrument rather than just a bunch of pathways for sound. Today's technology of control surfaces and other peripherals represents a new creative paradigm for bridging the gap between the creative hands-on world of traditional analog mixing and the sterile-yet-accurate world of digital recording.