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Going mixerless doesn't mean you have to give up hands-on control

By Craig Anderton



If you've decided that a mixerless studio (where you do all your mixing "inside the computer") works for you, you may be having second thoughts about giving up the wonderful hands-on, real time control offered by a hardware mixer . . . not to mention the pure joy of "fader slamming." But you can have your cake and eat it too, by adding a hardware control surface to your DAW software.

Piloting your DAW with a control surface instead of a mouse can help make sessions flow faster and easier. These are good things. You won't necessarily want to give up your mouse -- much of the time, you'll likely have one hand on the mouse and the other on the control surface. But there's no denying the relief of watching motorized faders snap to attention as you make your automation moves, rather than tweaking levels one fader at a time with the mouse.

Two Kinds of Support

Most DAWs offer two kinds of control surface support: generic and supported. Generic means that the software doesn't really know what you're using, so you have to describe its characteristics -- how many faders it has, what you want to control with them, and the like. A supported surface will have code within a DAW that takes advantage of a specific feature set. For example, if a control surface has dedicated controls for EQ, the DAW maps its EQ to these controls.

Note that support is up to the DAW manufacturer, not the company that makes the control surface. This is why a general purpose control surface may support certain functions with one piece of software, and different functions with another. Furthermore, some implementations are better than others. A control surface that's fully supported with one DAW may cover only a few functions with another; however, as most DAW manufacturers recognize the importance of control surfaces, the trend is to deliver ever-improving implementations.

We also need to differentiate between "basic" control surfaces, which are essentially a collection of faders, knobs, and switches, and "interfacing" control surfaces, which may include mic preamps, audio switching, and other interfacing functions. This article's frame of reference is the basic types, but much of this applies to interfacing types as well.

Better Living Through Emulation

Maybe you've taken a real liking to a certain control surface (we'll call it control surface "X"), only to find that your DAW doesn't support it. Or does it?

Some control surfaces can emulate other ones, which may provide a solution. For example, DAW "A" may not support control surface "X," but does support control surface "Y." If control surface "X" can emulate control surface "Y," then bingo -- the DAW and control surface are compatible.

Sometimes you have more than one option, because the DAW will support both "X" and "Y." Which to choose? Try them both, and see which offers better support. Generally if the DAW has some type of "native" control surface -- e.g., it's made by the same company that makes the DAW -- you're better off emulating it than using some other mode of operation.

Making Connections

Although there are differences among units, most install pretty similarly. You'll want to check the unit's manual and "read me" files, but the general procedure involves two main tasks: getting the computer to recognize the control surface, then telling the software to use it.

  1. Connect the computer to the control surface via the method it supports (MIDI in/out, USB, FireWire, etc.). If your unit supports more than one protocol, generally MIDI is the least preferred choice.

  2. Apply power to the control surface before powering up the computer.

  3. Upon booting, you will likely need to install drivers or other accessory software. As with any hardware device, drivers are updated frequently so check the control surface manufacturer's web site for an updated driver. Installation procedures vary from controller to controller, so pay careful attention to any instructions regarding installation.

  4. After installing drivers and re-starting the computer, in most cases you're ready to add the control surface to your software. However, with USB or FireWire, it may be necessary to unplug and re-plug the connection while the computer is on for the control surface to be recognized.

  5. Open you DAW of choice. There will likely be some menu option for specifying a hardware control surface. This is a situation where you really want to look at the DAW's online help to see if there is any specific information regarding the control hardware you plan to use.

  6. You'll have to make sure the program you're using recognizes the ports into which the controller is plugged. If MIDI, make sure MIDI is enabled as an input. If USB, there will be virtual ports that you will be able to choose when setting up the host to accept the controller.

  7. Finally, there may be an additional operation inside your host, such as choosing the controller you plan to use from a list of controllers.

At this point, your controller's faders should mirror the settings of the onscreen faders. If not, there is a connection or driver problem, or perhaps some aspect of using a control surface is not enabled in the host.

If there's any sort of toolbar, menu item, or icon that corresponds to your controller, it may offer further options -- such as operating tips, the ability to switch "pages" on the controller, etc.

Fader Away

If you've read this far, you're obviously into the concept of control surfaces. So here's the most important thing you need to know:

Control surfaces have a learning curve.

Yes, they're physical devices, and you need to develop physical dexterity to "play" them correctly. This involves knowing where the controls are, and what parameters they affect (most control surfaces use bank-switching, so a limited number of faders can do the job of many).

A control surface becomes beneficial only when using it is second nature -- and it can take weeks for that to happen. But overall, the learning process is well worth it.

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