While dozens of MIDI keyboards and smaller MIDI controllers offer a certain level of hands-on control over the recording and mixing of DAW tracks, power users will really luxuriate in the next-level workflow of a more deluxe DAW control surface: The Icon QCon Pro X—with its motorized faders for the master channel and eight track-channel strips, dynamic displays, and tons of dedicated DAW function buttons—feels like a graduation gift for producers entering the next chapter of their musical life (see Figure 1).
Fig. 1. With a comprehensive control set, high-res motorized faders, and helpful displays and meters, the QCon Pro X provides a professional large-console feel in a reasonably priced USB control surface.
Specifically, the QCon Pro X adds to the feature list of some of its lower-priced competitors, as well as its little brother the QCon Pro ($599 street)—dual 2-line backlit LCDs, a vertical panel with LED meters for the eight tracks and a stereo meter for the master channel, and a DAW control module that comes with labeled overlays for nine popular software programs. While the QCon Pro X uses the Mackie Control and HUI protocols, it has selectable internal mappings for Steinberg Cubase and Nuendo, Ableton Live, Propellerhead Reason, Bitwig Studio, Avid Pro Tools, Apple Logic Pro X, PreSonus Studio One, Samplitude and Reaper. It also comes bundled with Cubase LE (Mac/Win) and Samplitude LE (Windows only) software. This makes the control surface an attractive proposition for regular users of multiple DAWs.
BUILT FOR BUSINESS
Fig. 2. The rear panel has three connection ports for 8-fader QCon Pro XS expansion units to build a console with up to 32 motorized faders.
While the QCon Pro X should be able to find a space in most small studios, it is a spacious and very solid unit with a professional heft to it. Measuring roughly 19" x 16", and weighing in at 13 lbs, the solid metal chassis is bolstered by rubber feet that provide a secure desktop grip. For larger rooms, there are three USB slots on the back panel specifically for Icon QCon Pro XS expansion units, so you can configure a setup with up to 32 motorized faders (see Figure 2). (At press time the QCon Pro XS modules were not available for purchase.) Also around the back are two footswitch/pedal connections, a high-speed USB 2 port and a DAW Auto/Manual switch.
Fig. 3. The mighty DAW module, a marquee feature of the QCon Pro X, can be customized for the nine internal DAW modes and includes labeled overlays for each program.
With that switch in the Manual position upon power up, you scroll through the nine internal DAW modes and choose your overlay for the DAW section (see Figure 3). (Cubase/Nuendo mode is the default.) Each DAW has a slightly different feature set, but outside of that section, everything else essentially functions the same regardless of the software.
The nine touch-sensitive, 100mm motorized faders have blue LEDs that light when touched. They are very responsive (with 10-bit resolution) and capable of fine adjustments over slight movements. Two sets of arrow keys let you scroll through tracks one at a time or in sets of eight at a time, and the faders snap to their new positions very quickly and accurately. A Lock button stops the user from adjusting fader levels; when locked, the motorized faders still snap to their positions when you scroll across tracks.
The Flip button swaps the controls between the eight track faders and the push-button rotary encoders, which is very handy because the rotaries have multiple uses depending on your DAW, and you may often want the smooth feel and easier multicontrol manipulation of the faders rather than the encoders. The encoders, however, have 11-segment multicolor LED rings showing the value position, and their push-button function most often returns the setting to its original or default value, such as the center position of the Pan control. The blue backlit display above the encoders also shows the track names or parameter names being controlled with their current values. If you touch or adjust a fader, the display instantly changes to show the parameter and values that the fader represents.
There are too many scenarios to go over in this review for each DAW mode, but depending on the software, the encoders (or using the Flip button, the faders) can adjust the track’s input source, panning, EQ, effects-send amount or common parameters of VST, AU, RTAS, or Direct X plug-ins. Although I tested the QCon Pro X a bit with Reason 9 and Bitwig Studio, I used it primarily with Ableton Live 9, where you cannot control plug-ins directly. However, you can assign the encoders or faders to the eight Macro controls of any Instrument Rack, Effect Rack, or other device. Such multifunctionality, along with the Flip button, went a long way to make the QCon Pro X a very fun and powerful master controller to wield.
Each of the eight channel strips has buttons for track select, solo, mute, and record-arm. The vertical top panel also has a 10-digit display for showing the playhead position of your project in either SMPTE or beats/bars time.
The transport-control section includes a jog wheel with scrub function and record, play, stop, loop on/off, fast forward, and rewind keys. Directional arrow-keys navigate the selected tracks up and down or the playhead postion left and right. With Zoom engaged, the arrow keys zoom in or out on the selected track, making it wider/narrower or taller/shorter.
DIFFERENT DAW ICONOGRAPHY
While the QCon Pro X’s DAW module works somewhat differently in each DAW mode, there’s a lot of overlap to what it does. There are nine Function buttons, which often work like certain keyboard keys, such as Shift, Option or the F1-F8 function keys. For Live 9, some of those buttons controlled the on-screen layout by selecting Session or Arrangement view, the Clip or Device view, or by showing/hiding the Browser and the Clip Detail view. Then there are the aforementioned Assignment buttons for determining the function of the rotary encoders.
The Automation or Utilities buttons do things like enter Draw mode, punch in, punch out, undo, redo, save, toggle metronome, or control different automation functions. Most software modes offer the ability to add markers and jump to the previous or next marker or jump to the start or end of a loop or an entire project.
My only real complaint here is that, while most of the DAW modes use the entirety of the DAW module controls, the Ableton Live mode left 11 of the buttons unassigned. They are just MIDI controls, so they can be assigned to things using Icon’s iMap software. However, Icon itself warns that the process can be tricky unless you fully understand the MIDI structure of your DAW—a proposition I couldn’t test because at press time the Mac version of iMap was not available. That wouldn’t be a huge deal, but iMap also handles the updating of the QCon Pro X’s firmware. So Mac users may want check whether iMap is available when you read this. You can also find a list of the DAW module’s full functionality for some of the available DAW software at the QCon Pro X product page on Icon’s website.
HIGH Q RATING
There’s no doubt that recording and mixing tracks in-the-box on the QCon Pro X felt miles ahead of the point-and-click mouse experience and was faster, more precise and more convenient than using the mixing controls on a MIDI master keyboard. You can quickly work with multiple channel strips while simultaneously adjusting multiple panning, EQ, send, plug-in, or other controls on the faders. There are many navigational options to suit your needs, and having a slick and diverse control surface like this one in front of you gets you that much closer to playing your DAW like an instrument and achieving mastery of it, at the same time that you work faster and more creatively.
In the case of software that has dedicated controllers built specifically for it, such as Pro Tools and Live 9, the QCon Pro X in some ways won’t be as elegantly integrated with every creative possibility. However, if you’re using multiple DAWs on the QCon Pro X’s list of internal mappings, it’s incredibly handy to switch programs and still have just as capable of a control surface at your fingertips.
At less then $900 street, the QCon Pro X is priced competitively for what you get, which is similar to the Mackie Control Universal Pro ($1,099 street), except with the addition of the nine DAW templates with overlays. If you can live with fewer displays, less pronounced level meters, and a less specific approach to adapting to each individual software program, you might be all right with other options such as Icon’s own QCon Pro.
9 DAW modes with customized overlays. Clear and descriptive dynamic displays. Responsive touch-sensitive motorized faders. Multifunction encoders and faders.
At press time, no Mac version of iMap software. Limited documentation. No MIDI I/O.
Markkus Rovito drums, DJs, and contributes frequently to DJ Tech Tools.