Whether for mixing or synth programming, touchscreens are having a major impact
by Craig Anderton
Mixers used to be so predictable: Sheet metal top, faders, knobs, switches, and often, a pretty hefty price tag. Sure, DAWs started including virtual mixers, but unless you wanted to mix with a mouse (you don’t), then you needed a control surface with . . . a sheet metal top, faders, knobs, switches, and a slightly less hefty price tag.
Enter the touchscreen—and the paradigm changed. Costly and noisy moving faders have been replaced by the touch of finger on screen, and the controller’s digital soul provides more functionality at lower cost. And if your application can talk to a a wireless network, iOS devices can provide wireless control.
GENERAL CONTROL SURFACES
iPads now replace expensive mechanical control surfaces. For example, Far Out Labs’ ProRemote for the iPad is Mackie Control Universal-compatible, and offers up to 32 channels (16 simultaneous on an iPad) with metering and 100mm “virtual moving faders.” Ableton Live fans can use Liine’s Griid, a control surface for Live’s clip grid, while Neyrinck’s V-Control Pro serves Pro Tools users but is compatible with several other programs as well. The cross-platform DAW Remote HD from EUM Lab supports the Mackie Control and HUI control surface protocols, and handles pretty much any DAW that can respond to those protocols.
MIXER-SPECIFIC CONTROL SURFACES
PreSonus is big on straddling the hardware/software worlds with their StudioLive mixers. First came Virtual Studio Live software for computer control; then SL Remote (Fig. 1), which links the computer to iOS devices for wireless mixer remote control. Yes, you can play a CD over your sound system, and tweak your mixer to optimize the sound as you walk around the venue—or control your own monitor mix, EQ, compression, and a lot more from onstage.
Fig. 1: PreSonus provides extensive software support for their StudioLive mixers, including an iPad remote and personal monitoring app for all iOS devices.
PreSonus also introduced QMix, an iPhone/iPod touch app that basically replaces personal monitoring systems by letting you monitor from the mixer itself through their ingenious “wheel of me”—dial in the proportion of your channel to the rest of the mix (“more me!”).
Lots of companies, including high-end ones, like iPad control—Yamaha, Allen & Heath, Behringer, Soundcraft, MIDAS, and others provide remotes for their digital mixers.
Some mixers use the iPad as an accessory. Behringer’s XENYX USB Series mixers include an iPad dock; the mixer can send signal both to and from the iPad—use effects processing apps, spectrum analyzers, record into GarageBand, and the like. Alto Professional’s MasterLink Live mixer also has an iPad dock, with the iPad used for mix analysis, recording, and replacing a bunch of rack gear with iPad-controlled signal processing.
MIXER MEETS RECORDING
Why stop with mixing? The Alesis iO Mix looks like a dock, but it’s a four-channel recorder with an iPad control surface. Take the concept even further with WaveMachine Labs’ brilliant Auria, which packs a full-function 48-track recorder, with a complete mixer interface and plug-ins from PSP Audioware, into an iPad. It works with several tested interfaces; this sounds like science fiction, but it really works.
Windows 8 enabled multi-touch for compatible laptops and touch monitors, and Cakewalk’s SONAR adapted the technology to a DAW environment (Fig. 2). Mixing with a touchscreen monitor is an interesting experience—I found it worked best if I laid the monitor on my desk, titled it up at a slight angle like a regular mixer surface, and combined “swiping” for general moves and mixing along with a mouse for precise changes.
Fig. 2: Starting with Windows 8, Cakewalk SONAR supported touchscreen control.
In the “huge and not exactly cheap” touchscreen category there’s Slate Pro Audio’s Raven MTX (available exclusively from GC Pro) that has not only the same functionality of the big hardware mixers of old, but pretty much the same size as well. And for DJs, SmithsonMartin’s Emulator ELITE is a tour de force of touch control for programs like Native Instruments’ Traktor and Ableton Live.
Mackie’s DL1608 (Fig. 3) builds a rugged, pro-level hardware mixer exoskeleton around an iPad brain—although you can also slip out the iPad for wireless remote control.
Fig. 3: Mackie’s DL1608 builds a hardware exoskeleton around an iPad brain, with the hardware handling all I/O and audio mixing/processing.
It’s a serious mixer with the Mackie pedigree: 16 Onyx preamps with +48V phantom power, balanced outs (XLR mains, 1/4” TRS for the six auxes), and hardware DSP for the mixing and hardware effects—the iPad is solely about control. Each input has 4-band EQ, gate, and compression; the outputs have a 31-band graphic EQ and compressor/limiter, along with global reverb and delay. If you don’t need as many inputs, the 8-channel DL806 also offers iPad control.
Line 6’s StageScape M20d (Fig. 4) uses a custom 7” touchscreen for visual mixing based on a graphic, stage-friendly paradigm with icons representing performers or inputs; touching an icon opens up the channel parameters and DSP (including parametric EQs, multi-band compressors, feedback suppression on every input, and more).
Fig. 4: The Line M20d uses a custom touch screen whose icons represent an actual stage setup rather than simply showing conventional channel strips.
There are also four master stereo effects engines with reverbs, delays and a vocal doubler. You can even do multi-channel recording to a computer, SD card, or USB drive, and it accepts an iPad for remote control.
Like the Mackie, it’s serious: 12 mic/line ins (with automatic mic gain setting), four additional mic ins, and balanced XLR connectors for the auto-sensing main and monitor outputs. But the M20d also incorporates the L6 LINK digital networking protocol, so the mixer can communicate with Line 6’s StageSource speakers for additional setup and configuration options.
ARE WE THERE YET?
Although touch control hasn’t quite taken over the world yet, it’s making rapid strides in numerous areas. Of course smart phones and iPads started the trend, but we’re now seeing applications from those consumer items creeping into our recording- and live performance-oriented world. Granted, sometimes touch isn’t the perfect solution—there’s something about grabbing and moving a hardware fader that’s tough to beat—so the future will likely be a continuing combination of tactile hardware and virtual software.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.