Your mouse and keyboard provide a great degree of precision, control, and accuracy for interfacing with your DAW. Hardware control surfaces, with their ability to simultaneously edit multiple parameters, can add an extra degree of expressiveness and creativity. In this article I'll look at some interesting ways of using a control surface in your productions.
I use a Mackie Control Universal (MCU) with Apple Logic Pro 7, but the suggestions here can be applied to most control surface and software combinations. If your hardware is not directly supported by your host application, two excellent pieces of software, LC Xmu and LC Xview (available at www.opuslocus.com), let you operate generic control surfaces in Mackie Control emulation mode with various audio-sequencing applications. (Both utilities require Mac OS X 10.3.8 or higher.)
FIG. 1: Automation written in real time with two faders of a Mackie Control Universal. The faders controlled the filter cutoff and resonance of a bass line generated by Logic''s EVOC plug-in.
Off to the Tracks
Using a control surface at the tracking stage is a good way to begin familiarizing yourself with the unit's various assignment and display modes. With Mackie Control, you can create tracks in your arrangement by holding down the Option button along with the corresponding Select button. You then assign physical inputs in Track Assignment mode. Group parameters can also be set for multiple miking situations, such as recording a live drum kit. Instrument Assignment mode enables you to scroll through and select from your available soft synths.
The hardware buttons cover all the basic transport and record commands. Cycle and Drop zones can be set by locating end points with the jog wheel and then pressing either the Cycle or Drop button, along with the Rewind button (for the left locator) or Fast Forward button (for the right locator). For punching in on the fly, controller assignments can be programmed for tasks beyond the functions of the transport buttons, like record toggle or record repeat.
Move to the Groove
For editing, a Mackie Control Universal and MCU emulation offer a fair bit of control for executing routine editing tasks. The jog wheel doubles as a scrub wheel, which, along with the built-in marker features, makes it easy to position the sequence at any point for editing. The eight function buttons, in conjunction with the Cmd/Alt button, give you access to basic cut, copy, and paste functions and various selection commands.
Once selections are made, holding down the Shift and Nudge buttons puts you into Large Nudge mode, where the V Pots can be used for moving selected objects to designated points (by either bar, beat, format, tick, frame, or sub frame) or to the current song position. The function buttons can also be programmed along with the other modifier buttons for user-specific tasks. Commands for splitting sequences at rounded and nonrounded song positions are useful for routine editing tasks.
Control surfaces really shine when accessing multiple parameters. For example, you can breathe life into static synth parts by automating parameters to give some movement and color to repetitive sections. On the MCU I used the following procedure to create this type of effect by simultaneously automating cutoff and resonance settings of a Logic EVOC plug-in (see Web Clip 1).
In Instrument Assignment mode press the V Pot button of the currently selected track to bring you into Instrument Edit mode. There the synth parameters are displayed horizontally across the entire LCD in multiple scrollable pages. The two-character Assignment mode LCD will display a dot at the bottom right to indicate the Edit mode, in which all V Pots can edit the visible parameters. Engaging Flip mode will allow you to edit the displayed parameters using the touch-sensitive faders, and “play” your controller to the music in real time to create free-form automation (see Fig. 1).
Riding the Mix
Another multiparameter editing job that the MCU makes easier is fine-tuning EQ bands. Multi Channel view is a quick and easy way to access and edit one parameter at a time, but the real control comes when you switch to EQ Channel Strip view. In its default mode, the EQ parameters are laid out horizontally across the full LCD (see Fig. 2). All of the V Pots, or faders when in Flip mode, control the various parameters of a single EQ plug-in. You can sweep gain, frequency, and width amounts simultaneously, which offers obvious advantages over locating each individual parameter with a cursor.
FIG. 2: The LCD of an EQ in Multi Channel mode. All the parameters of a single EQ plug-in are displayed horizontally across the V Pots (or faders when in Flip mode).
When you hold down the EQ Assignment button, other options become available. Pressing the V Pot 7 button allows you to enter a mode similar to EQ Multi Channel view, where a single band can be adjusted for each available track. But in this mode the V Pots control the frequency while the fader controls the gain, and the mute button toggles the mute status of the individual band.
Holding down the EQ Assignment button in conjunction with the V Pot 8 button enables this same functionality in Channel Strip view, where all the EQ bands for a single EQ plug-in are accessible across the display. This feature is a great tool for quickly controlling and editing all the bands from one screen.
An interesting application is to use the control surface to sweep the frequency and width (also referred to as Q) together, on either a highpass or lowpass EQ, to create a resonant-filter sweep effect. For example, I took a small mix and routed it to a bus with EQ on. Then I put the controls in Flip mode and rode the faders, controlling frequency and width of a highpass EQ to generate some interesting nonlinear movement to the groove (see Web Clip 2). These types of effects are great for fade-ins, fade-outs, or breakdown sections.
Live at the Sends
Controlling multiple sends, either on a single channel or across multiple channels, can also yield gratifying musical sound-design results. A common technique used in many pop productions is to increase the reverb level as a track is fading out, to create the illusion that the music is moving farther away as it gets quieter. This is accomplished by subgrouping your tracks, and then setting up a send from the subgroup to feed the signal into a bus with reverb applied (see Web Clip 3). Using Send Assignment mode in Multi Channel view on the MCU is a perfect way to set this up. Global view lets you easily navigate to the bus and call up a reverb plug-in. Then you can simultaneously fade the track down with the fader while increasing the reverb-send amount with the V Pot.
FIG. 3: The Send Assignment display in Destination/Level Channel Strip view. In this mode, you can control all send slots for the selected track.
The same mode in Channel Strip view allows for editing several sends for a single track. This can be very effective if you have different effects set up on various buses (see Fig. 3). You can use your control surface as a real-time sound-design tool to shape the different effects sends over time. This can be particularly useful with rhythmic, time-based effects on the buses (such as delays, modulation, and filters synced to tempo).
I set up a drum loop on a track with four sends (see Web Clip 4). Each send was assigned to a bus with a different effect applied. I used Global Bus view and Plug-in Assignment mode to quickly load the plug-ins on the buses. I engaged Flip mode, so as to use the faders, and rode the different amounts of effects sends on the four buses in real time in order to create some intriguing rhythmic variations of the drum loop over time.
As feature packed as modern control surfaces are, there will be times when you come across unassigned or unsupported parameters. The MCU (or hardware operating in MCU-emulation mode) provides six programmable user modes for these situations. These are accessed by holding down the Shift button along with one of the Assignment buttons. Once in this user mode, adjust the application's onscreen controls for the actions you want the control surface to learn. Enable your host software's “learn” function, and move the V Pot to which you want to assign the function.
With eight V Pots and six Assignment modes, you can assign 48 unique parameters. Add to this the ability to program function buttons with different modifiers, and you have an almost unlimited degree of mouse-free control at your fingertips. Now, to reach nirvana, shut off your monitor!
Eli Krantzberg is a Montreal-based drummer, vibraphone player, bandleader, and home-studio owner.