Controlling a DAW with just a mouse can be a challenge. But many personal studios lack the space to house a full-size mixer or control surface. For studios in which space is at a premium, JLCooper Electronics offers the CS-32 MiniDesk, a 32-channel control surface that is small enough to sit on the palm of your hand.
The CS-32's channel-strip banks are divided into two groups of 16, with one bank placed above the other (see Fig. 1). Each channel has a miniature fader that offers a smooth, continuous resistance. Three small dual-function buttons, each not much bigger than the head of a pin, reside above each fader. The stenciled text that describes each function is tiny and extremely difficult to read (the white print on a gray background doesn't help). Fortunately, the same functions apply to each channel, making the button locations simple to memorize.
The first button above the faders toggles between track arming and muting. The button above that can select location-points or solo the track. The top button selects a track or enables the CS-32's solitary pan knob for that track. Overall, the CS-32 feels solid, but its small size necessitates that the controls be placed uncomfortably close to each other.
The angled panel above the fader banks has a two-digit Value/Mode LED, a track-null indicator, and six potentiometers. The functions of the pots depend on the software application being used: typically, one knob controls pan position, and the others control plug-in parameters or send levels. The jog wheel takes care of scrubbing and shuttle functions, and you select the mode of operation using the buttons above the wheel. Transport controls are conveniently located just above the jog wheel.
Near the transport controls are four cursor buttons. In MOTU Digital Performer 4.1, the left and right buttons control horizontal track magnification, and the upper and lower buttons control vertical magnification. In Digidesign Pro Tools, the buttons access a second bank of 32 tracks.
Above the cursors are nine user-configurable Function keys and a Shift button. The tiny red button at the top determines the operational mode for the three buttons above each of the faders.
MIDI OR USB
The CS-32 is available with MIDI ports or a USB port. I reviewed the USB version, which has its USB plug at the end of a 6-foot, nonremovable cable. (I wish it had a built-in jack that accepts a standard USB plug, because a hard-wired cable is difficult to repair or replace.) The USB-powered CS-32 must be connected directly to your computer's USB port or to a powered hub.
A ¼-inch footswitch jack sprouts from the USB cable just above the USB plug. Although this is fine for laptop use when your computer (and hence, the USB plug) is nearby, for studio use it would be more practical if the footswitch jack were on the rear panel of the CS-32. That way, the jack could be near the user, even if the computer were some distance away.
READY FOR ACTION
Concerning the CS-32's minimum system requirements: if your computer is capable enough to run the software that you want to control, it's capable of running the CS-32 software, too.
Installing drivers, called Keysets, from the CD-ROM that accompanied the CS-32 was simple. The disc provides Keysets for Ableton Live, MOTU Digital Performer, and Propellerhead Reason, but you can press the CS-32 into service for other digital audio applications by remapping functions in the provided software control panel (see the sidebar “Keyset Editor”). In its default state, the CS-32 works as a generic MIDI machine control device. I tested it with each of these programs using my dual-processor Mac G4/1.42 GHz, running OS X 10.2.8 and got mixed results.
You can download CS-32 software that supports Digidesign Pro Tools (Mac only), Cakewalk Sonar 2 and 3, Steinberg Nuendo, and Cubase SX and VST. JLCooper Electronics can also supply a beta Keyset for Emagic Logic, but as of this writing, it isn't posted on the company's Web site. In addition, the product's spec sheet lists support for Digigram Xtrack, Merging Technologies Pyramix, Sony Pictures, and Soundscape R.Ed (which is now Sydec Soundscape Editor), but I was unable to find software for these programs on JLCooper Electronics' Web site.
To operate the CS-32 with Digital Performer, you need to load the Keyset only once. With Reason, you have to load the Keyset and then launch the program from the provided Reason RNS template each time. Likewise, Live requires that you load its Keyset and then launch the program from a default ALS template.
When I began testing the unit with Digital Performer 4.1, I couldn't get the program to respond to any of the CS-32 controls. At MOTU's suggestion, I removed the Digital Performer Preferences file, which made the device responsive but unpredictable. For example, pressing a track-arming button muted the associated track. Then I discovered the red Mode switch, which toggles the behavior of these buttons. Unfortunately, neither the manual nor the related Digital Performer PDF document mentions the Mode switch.
I continued to have problems using the CS-32 with Digital Performer: the program quit unexpectedly when I switched to another application. I tested several driver upgrades, and although each added more stability, Digital Performer always crashed eventually. Removing the control surface driver from Digital Performer's setup menu returned Digital Performer's stability.
I also tested the CS-32 with Steinberg Cubase SX 2.01 under OS X. It took a couple of tech-support calls and some fiddling with the control panel to get the CS-32 to work properly. I ended up using the Cubase Device Manager, which lets you customize CS-32 functions, instead of using the CS-32's control panel. For example, I was able to assign an unused Locate button to bring up Cubase's Drum-Map editor, and another button to delete Continuous Controller messages. All in all, the CS-32 is well suited to handle just about any task in Cubase.
The CS-32's Reason template does not support track arming. Instead, the buttons take on their alternate role of muting tracks in the mixer. The Reason template provides 14 faders, with track 16 assigned to the Master Fader. The transport controls all worked fine, and the rotary controls in conjunction with the Pan Select button functioned the way they should. The Reason template leaves many unassigned parameters open, and I had great fun assigning and reassigning knobs and faders to sweep soft-synth parameters.
WORK IN PROGRESS
EM associate editor Geary Yelton also tested the CS-32, and his overall experience was similar to mine. One of his complaints concerned the footswitch jack. The first time he tried to remove a plug, the jack's plastic shell separated from its metal parts, stripping its threads and leaving the plug still firmly in place. After that, the only way to remove the plug was to firmly grasp the metal ring at the jack's terminus.
Ultimately, a controller is only as good as its software and the support the product receives. It is in these two areas that the CS-32 falls short: it lacks well-organized documentation, and, frankly, the technical support I received was disappointing. At the very least, the documentation should spell out all the steps required to get the CS-32 up and running, and not just most of them.
Configuring the CS-32 was often a matter of sifting through the hard-copy manual and a batch of individual PDF documents; consolidating that information would be a boon. If your experience is like mine, be prepared to contact JLCooper Electronics to get the CS-32 up and running with your system.
Once I got the unit set up properly, it worked fine — in most cases (its problematic behavior with Digital Performer remains a mystery). However, the value of the CS-32 is in its adaptability to so many software applications and its compact size, which makes it suitable for laptop-driven DAWs. Once the manufacturer sorts out the documentation, support, and driver issues, the full promise of the CS-32 will be realized.
Since leaving the Bay Area's sunny climes, EM contributing editorMarty Cutlerdivides his time between teaching, doing freelance MIDI projects and gigs, and shoveling snow.
Out of the box, the CS-32 sends MIDI Machine Control (MMC) messages. However, because different software packages require different sets of commands, JLCooper provides Keyset Editor, an application that can adapt the unit to your favorite digital audio sequencer (see Fig. A). The Keyset Editor turns the CS-32 into a control chameleon of sorts, adding considerable versatility to the unit overall. The GUI is a mock-up of the control surface, and the software lets you load the template for your application, verify that your controls are working properly, or create a new template (called a Keyset) if your music software is not directly supported.
From the File menu, you can create a new Keyset, Import a Keyset (you need to do this only once), or Export (save) a Keyset. The Edit menu lets you cut, copy, paste, or clear Keysets. Be sure to export any Keysets you have created or modified before you quit, as the application does not automatically prompt you to save upon quitting.
The Keysets menu provides a list of currently imported application templates. You use the Actions menu to set all controls to Native MIDI or Developer mode. The MIDI menu sets the CS-32 to the appropriate mode for the application: standard or enhanced variants of the CS-32 or CS-10 emulation, which emulates another JLCooper controller that is supported by other third-party software.
Although the CS-32 sends a set of fixed messages, the Keyset editor remaps the device's output based on your selections. Once you have edited the template, you can name and save it for later recall; the template remains in the Keysets menu, and the software will automatically configure the unit based on the application that is in your computer's front window. Once you have the software templates you need and the CS-32 is online, you do not have to load the application again.
You can edit a template while the hardware unit is running or offline. When you press a button, turn a knob, or slide a fader, the software reflects your physical actions by highlighting the equivalent graphic element. The upper- right-hand panel has three tabs. There, you can map a hardware move to a MIDI event, an ASCII keystroke (including modifier keys, such as Shift or Command), or use the Special tab for assigning a CS-32 action to Developer mode, if you want to develop an application that does not use MIDI.
A radio button beneath the MIDI tab lets you choose Native MIDI, in which a default control assignment is attached to a fader, button, or knob, or you can choose the Custom MIDI button to select from a drop-down list of MIDI messages. For example, you can assign a fader to send Channel or Polyphonic Aftertouch, or even Note-On messages. A pair of windows lets you set the value of the first and second Data byte, so you can constrain the values of your chosen data type. Another button lets you send the message over successive MIDI channels. If your system gets unruly, you could use this to assign Note-Off messages over multiple MIDI channels or just send a System Reset message. A selection box at the top right of the software lets you latch button presses so that a message assigned to it will remain in effect until you press the button a second time; otherwise, releasing the button turns the message off.
CS-32 MiniDesk Specifications
Number of Channels32Faders32 (reassignable)Knobs6 (reassignable)Display2-digit LEDDigital PortsUSB or MIDIOther Connections¼" footswitchPowerUSB port (external supply for MIDI version)Dimensions8.5" (W) × 1.5" (H) × 8.0" (D)Weight2.75 lb.
CS-32 MiniDesk (Mac/Win)
FEATURES3.0EASE OF USE2.5DOCUMENTATION2.0VALUE2.5RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Very small footprint. Supports a number of Mac and Windows DAW applications. Customizable. Fader and knob operations are smooth.
CONS: Controls are cramped. Scattered and incomplete documentation. Tiny, hard-to-read labeling. Minimal visual feedback.
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