By Craig Anderton
As a music software pioneer, Steinberg has had a long history of firsts—like creating the ASIO and VST industry standards. But the 2005 Yamaha acquisition bought a new level of hardware expertise—such as audio interfaces with novel features like the Sweet Spot Morphing channel strip, and the CC121 controller.
The CMC series of six modular, compact control surfaces is the latest in Cubase, Nuendo, and Wavelab-specific hardware.
Hardware controllers in general have been fairly popular, but they haven’t taken over the world. Many people are content to mix with a mouse, or use the control surface aspects built into keyboard synthesizers like Yamaha’s Motif XS and XF series. But there are also the issues of cost and size—in today’s smaller production environments, the space for a large hardware controller can be a luxury.
The CMC controllers do a clever end run around this issue by letting you configure a custom controller system; because it’s modular, you can start off with one controller and expand as your needs change (or your finances permit). For example, if you do a lot of work with plug-ins, the AI Controller makes tweaking them far easier than using only a mouse. If you’re a solo artist who tends to work “one channel strip at a time,” the CH Channel Controller is probably the best choice . . . but if your main thing is mixing, then the CMC-FD Fader Controller with four faders is very useful—especially because you can combine up to four them for mixing 16 channels at a time.
Furthermore, the CMC Studio Frame allows mounting four of the CMC controllers together into a single unit, and there’s also an extension frame for the CC121 that provides a “sidecar” for two CMC controllers on either side of the CC121. If you’re getting the impression this is a well-thought-out series of controllers, you’re right.
The CMC controllers work with Windows XP, Vista, and 7/8, and with Mac OS X Version 10.5.8/10.6/10.7 (dual core processors are recommended; Mac requires Intel). All controllers are compatible with Nuendo 5.5, Cubase 6.0, and Cubase Artist 6.0 or higher. Refer to the chart in Fig. 1 for additional compatibility info.
Fig. 1: Functionality with various versions of Cubase and Nuendo.
With those basics out of the way, let’s look at each controller. Note that while these are Steinberg-specific, the PD Pad Controller and QC Quick Controller are usable with other DAWs, as described later. Also note that these are intended for use primarily with Cubase and Nuendo; there’s limited functionality with Wavelab 7, although I found the TP Transport Controller useful.
The individual controllers have several common elements. They’re the same size (7.25" x 4" x 0.5"), feature a compact (but not cramped) array of controls, have a tilt-stand on the bottom for a more ergonomic front panel angle, offer beautiful industrial design, and connect via a single Mini-B USB port (cable included). Daisy-chaining isn’t possible, but the lower bandwidth requirements than audio allow feeding them from a USB hub.
The only possible wrinkle is that with Windows, the operating system opens up a MIDI port for each controller you use; if you have a lot of MIDI devices, you could bump up against the Windows MIDI port limit. Fortunately, there’s a relatively easy fix that you can read about in this article.
The units with touch faders use an LED-based technology instead of mechanical moving faders, which offer several important advantages. First, no noise! There’s no “clack” when the fader reaches the end of its travel. Second, there are no mechanical reliability issues because there are no motors. Third . . . they look cool. In a way, they bridge the world of moving faders with iOS device-like touchscreen control.
All come with a Tools for CMC disc with software required to run the controllers, as well as software editors for the PD and QC controllers, but check online for newer versions. For example, version 1.1 improved fader response with the CH and FD controllers, as well as some ergonomic improvements like easier channel switching and folder track control. And if you work in low-light situations, version 1.1’s Dimmer Mode feature retains the usual bright glow of activated buttons, but all other buttons that aren’t in use (or activated) glow just brightly enough to be visible.
Unlike general-purpose controllers, as the CMC controllers are by and large dedicated to Steinberg software, there’s no deciphering what a button does as their graphics match a corresponding graphic in your target program (e.g., the EQ enable/disable button shows the DAW’s EQ symbol).
Note that when swapping modules, you need to close Cubase, then re-open with the new module connected. Similarly, if the computer goes into a sleep mode, you’ll likely need to close and re-open Cubase.
That’s it for an overview, here’s the info on the individual controllers.
This provides comprehensive control over a single channel (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2: The CH Channel Controller is a touch-sensitive, LED “moving fader” that controls multiple parameters for a single channel.
There’s a rotary pan knob, and a level fader with 128 steps of resolution (-infinity to +6dB for audio; 0-127 for MIDI). Holding down the Shift button gives 1,024 steps of resolution.
The fader has two automation response modes—Catch mode (the default), where the fader value needs to match the current setting before changing, or Jump mode, where the parameter value changes immediately to the current fader position as soon as you touch it. In Catch mode, an LED shows the current value, so you can just touch the LED and start moving—this sort of combines the best of moving fader and the LED nulling automation used in early automation systems..
You can open up the Edit Channel window, enable/disable EQ/sends/inserts/record/input monitor, mode, mute/solo, step between channels, choose automation read/write, freeze, open/close a folder track’s folder, and open/close a virtual instrument’s window. Holding the Shift button in conjunction with eight of the buttons provides additional default, but easily customizable, functions (with over 100 choices, as selected from a menu within the program)—do loop control, go to markers, and more. Overall, the CH is a powerful way to improve workflow when working with individual channels.
The four faders work similarly to the CH controller fader, with buttons to step through banks (four at a time) or individual channels (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3: To mix four channel levels at a time, reach for the FD Fader Controller.
For example, if the left-most fader controls levels on mixer channel 3, the Bank right button jumps it to channel 7; hitting the Channel right button jumps it to channel 4. You can combine units for up to 16 faders—bank or channel shift operations move all of them together.
Additional Shift key functions can convert a selected fader into a level meter; also, tap above the current fader level to toggle mute, or below the current value to toggle solo . . . cool! And if you hit Shift > Select, the left-most fader jumps to the currently-selected channel. Note that it’s easy to work four sliders at a time with four fingers—consider it “manually-controlled grouping.”
The TP (Fig. 4) provides many more transport functions than the usual play/stop/FF/rewind/etc.—insert markers, nudge forward/backward by a bar, set the locators’ range as well as navigate to them, step forward/backward through markers, and copy a selected track (or if no track exists, create a mono audio track).
Fig. 4: The TP Transport Controller handles far more than the usual play, stop, record, etc. functions.
A novel slider touch controller can do jog, shuttle, locate, scroll, zoom or tap tempo; holding Shift and tapping a part of the controller selects the function. And, you can “pinch” the strip to zoom in or out.
Like the CH, you can also customize switch functions from menus within Cubase/Nuendo’s Device Setup zone. The transport, loop, and marker navigation functions are also useful for Wavelab 7.2.
The 16 touch-sensitive pads generate MIDI notes—PD (Fig. 5) is not just for Steinberg software. Furthermore, you can have 16 banks of 16 notes. Eight banks are editable, seven fixed, and one assignable to virtually any 16 Cubase/Nuendo keyboard shortcuts.
Fig. 5: The PD Pad Controller is ideal for triggering MPC-style percussion interfaces, but also handles melodic notes.
One pad mode defaults to the standard “hit harder = more velocity” protocol, with a tricolor LED indicating level. Another one (“4Velocity Mode”) assigns four velocity settings to four pads that trigger one drum—ideal for predictable velocities.
There are 8 velocity curves, and 8 more with fixed values. The selected curve applies to all pads of any bank until changed.
All these options can lead to some tweaking time, so the included software editing is welcome for assigning MIDI notes to the various pads and banks or selecting velocity curves.
Finally, a browser mode lets you scroll through an instrument’s presets.
The AI controller (Fig. 6) is fabulous, and complements your mouse instead of acting as a stand-alone controller.
Fig. 6: The AI Advanced Integration controller brings the CC121’s way cool AI knob to the CMC controller series.
When you hover your mouse (no click or drag necessary) over an adjustable parameter, the big knob controls it. This works for just about any parameter in a Steinberg product (there are some exceptions, like the Padshop sample start time, and some anomalies—in the mixer, EQ enable/disable works, but not enable/disable for inserts or sends). It also controls third-party VST 2.4 plug-in parameters if they’re scroll-wheel controllable. Furthermore, you can “lock” a parameter to continue adjusting it regardless of the mouse pointer location.
Pushing on the knob opens the Project Assistant if no project is open, lets you choose a Track Preset (and therefore track) if the project is open, and if a plug-in has the focus, opens a browser; but note that browsing audio or instrument plug-in presets works in real-time. For example, you can bring up a VST instrument's GUI, press down on the AI knob to open the browser and while turning the knob to browse presets, play your MIDI controller and audition each preset in real time. Also, the plug-in's GUI updates itself in real-time and reflects the parameter changes (I.e. ADSR, filter, resonance, etc). This promotes far better workflow compared to using the mouse to load up individual presets and audition each one individually.
Two “bonus” modes use the AI wheel as a way to control main volume or jog, and four of the buttons can be assigned to any keyboard shortcut (like the PD). It’s hard to realize just fast and easy it is to tweak parameters with the AI wheel until you use it, but it leads to a very fluid, effortless workflow. Kudos.
With the QC Quick Control editor (Fig. 7), three main modes offer hands-on control over a channel’s Quick Controls, channel EQ adjustment, or generate MIDI controller messages. The Quick Control implementation is as slick as the AI knob—go into Learn mode, hover the mouse over a control, turn a knob—assignment done. The Shift button lets you do things like turn EQ bands on and off.
Fig. 7: The QC Quick Controller controls EQ and channel Quick Controls, but it’s also a general-purpose MIDI controller.
The QC can control channels, but these are QC channels. For example, one channel could control the levels on mixer channels 2 and 3, and the panpot on 4, while another controls levels for channels 5, 6, and 7. Switching among these retains your assignments. Additional options include automation read/write buttons, and with Shift, eight buttons can select keyboard shortcuts. The software editor is as slick as the controller, even letting you how decide how the LED in the middle of a knob reflects parameter value changes.
These are efficient, ergonomic controllers that streamline working with Cubase/Nuendo. The compact size is a plus, and the way Steinberg circumvents standard moving faders saves money and mechanical headaches. What’s more, the choice of controllers are slanted toward your interests: If you like to tweak plug-ins, choose AI. If you’re into percussion instruments, go for PD. But there’s also some overlap among units, so you can use them for more than might be apparent at first. Furthermore, there's a bonus—you can download a free copy of Cubase AI6, which is much more robust than typical "lite" software.
Granted, if you end up buying all the controllers you’re at around half the price of a Mackie Control, which is more universal and offers more general-purpose functionality. However, the CMC series’ orientation toward Cubase improves workflow dramatically (you don’t have to mentally translate what “F1” stands for) and the industrial design applied to the CMC series makes them readily adaptable to just about any studio environment. Furthermore, a controller like the AI has no equivalent (except for the AI knob in the CC121 controller, CI2, and CI2 PLUS USB audio interfaces)—and falls under the category of “If I could have only one controller for Cubase, the AI would be it.” Again compared to other controllers, I have to say the LED fader concept is very 21st century compared to old-school motorized moving faders.
I don’t envy Steinberg’s marketing department—how can you convince customers that controllers can improve their workflow unless they’ve had a chance to actually pilot a session using them? Well, that’s where reviewers come in: I’ve been able to use all of the controllers on actual sessions, and yes, they indeed make a difference. Sure, I have my favorites; specifically, the AI, CH, and FD. But they’ve all proven themselves to be clever and useful. Steinberg has taken a novel approach to DAW control, and the CMC series delivers an ergonomic, cost-effective way to interact more fluidly with Cubase and Nuendo.
Craig Anderton is Editor in Chief of Harmony Central and Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. 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.