Take Control

Once upon a time, you had three choices in MIDI hardware control surfaces: The Peavey PC1600, Peavey PC1600, or the Peavey PC1600. This wonderful little box gave you 16 faders and 16 switches that you could program to send out anything, from continuously controller data to strings of sysex. It’s still a great box — when you can find one, as it’s no longer in production.But the slack has been taken up by an ever-growing number of hardware options. In addition to dedicated hardware devices like those shown in the picture, keyboards like the Yamaha Motif XS are sprouting control surfaces, as are master MIDI keyboards. Digital mixers often let you create a “MIDI layer” where the faders send out MIDI data instead of control levels, panning, and the like. There are also controllers optimized for soft synths rather than mixing, like Native Instruments’ Kore. So, what explains the sudden proliferation of controllers?
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YEAH, WHY THE SUDDEN INTEREST?

There are three main factors driving this phenomenon:

• The act of mixing used to be a physically satisfying experience that was just plain more fun than drawing envelopes with a mouse. While being able to fix things like envelopes with a huge degree of detail is a real plus of digital systems, people missed the all-important physical component.

• Soft synths and sequencers have made it increasingly easy to add hardware control by providing “hooks” for receiving control data. With most modern software, if there’s a variable parameter, chances are you’ll be able to control it via MIDI.

• Protocols have been developed to simplify control assignments. It used to be a pain to program every knob and slider to send out the right data. But thanks to MIDI learn functions, features like Sonar 6’s ACT, and Reason’s standardized control template, manufacturers can provide presets which you just call up — and you’re ready to control.

CHOICES, CHOICES: A PRACTICAL EXAMPLE

Controllers range all the way from single-fader controllers with motorized faders (PreSonus FaderPort, Frontier Design Alphatrack) all the way up to what are basically large format mixers without audio, like Digidesign’s D-Control. In between you’ll find USB and FireWire control surfaces, with or without audio interfaces.

The closer you can define your needs, the easier it is to find what you want. For example, I needed to upgrade my PC1600x for my live performance act, which centers around Ableton Live. I wanted longer-throw motorized faders, additional rotary controls for doing functions like filter sweeps, pushbuttons at the top of the fader instead of the bottom, extra pushbuttons to select scenes, and compactness — I’d gotten spoiled by the PC1600’s small size. Also, 16 channels were essential.

After surveying the field, the only box that fit all those requirements (except for 16 faders) was the Behringer BCF2000 B-Control, but it did have a mode that made it easy to cascade two units for 16 faders. Besides, the price was right, so I took the plunge and ordered two.

I was glad I checked the manufacturer website for updates, as there was an editor that greatly simplifies programming the various controls, along with some driver updates. There were no problems involved in installing or using the boxes (aside from having to plug the box into a different USB port to recognize the software update I’d installed), and the documentation does the job. The feel of the faders was adequate but not fabulous (expected, given the price), but having a 100mm throw was a significant improvement.

Although Live’s Scenes don’t store different track levels per scene, it was possible to create presets in the BCF2000 that would change track levels when I changed scenes. Of course, this is where moving faders really shine: You can just grab the fader and proceed from the preset level setting. I also tried the BCR2000 with Sonar; that worked as well, although I haven’t gotten into the depths of programming it for ACT yet.

CONTROL IS GOOD!

Yup, it sure is. If you’re trying to get a live vibe in the studio, and feel that mixing boards are instruments, the same can be said for control surfaces. And given the choices, there’s no excuse to procrastinate any longer.