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Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) are great, there’s no questioning that. Every once in a while, though, staring at a computer screen and trying to control the parameters of your recording software with a keyboard and mouse can get tedious. There’s just no replacing the tactile feel that analogue mixing boards offer. You can touch the faders as they move up and down. You can punch-in tracks with the push of real, physical buttons, and you can control those oh-so-subtle pans with the gentle roll of a finger.
Enough romanticizing. For all their greatness, big, expensive mixing boards are not exactly the most practical addition to your home studio. OK, so the DAW solves the space issue. What about that physical touch? Well, that’s where the control surface comes into play. By adding a physical workspace mapped to your specific recording application, you can (somewhat) replicate the feel of a real board while tracking in the digital realm.
Where do you begin? We’ve rounded up a few of our favorite control surfaces below. So go ahead, tweak those knobs and slide those faders until your heart’s content.
If you’re not a Pro Tools aficionado, then this might be for you. Sonar is a great DAW that’s easy to use, and now easy to control with the VS-700C. The VS-700C Console offers broader control and deeper editing and mixing functionality for SONAR than any control surface on the market today. The VS-700C’s dedicated implementation of ACT (Active Controller Technology) further sets it apart from all other hardware control surfaces. ACT dynamically remaps controls based on how the user is working in Sonar. Also, with the press of a button, the VS-700C provides instant control over any V-Link compatible video and imaging hardware, including the Edirol DV-7 line of direct linear video editing systems.
Avid Command|8 for Pro Tools
OK, so you’re a Pro Tools guy or gal, after all. That’s fine. Avid (formerly Digidesign) has got you covered, of course. The Command|8 puts integrated, tactile manipulation of Pro Tools TDM or LE systems running on Windows XP or Mac OS X at your fingertips, more affordably than ever before. While there are several compact control surface options from third-party manufacturers compatible with Pro Tools, only Command|8 was made by Avid and Focusrite specifically for Pro Tools. As a result, Command|8 provides a great deal more sophisticated control with Pro Tools software, and has been tested and qualified specifically for Pro Tools.
Borrowing elements from Avid’s higher-end control surfaces, Command|8’s eight bankable channels of moving faders, rotary encoders, and displays enable you to control Pro Tools with the hands-on feel of a traditional analog console. A simple USB connection facilitates communication between Command|8 and your computer.
For the budget conscious, or for those who simply don’t need a large piece of hardware taking up valuable real estate on their desk, the FaderPort from PreSonus connects to your computer via USB and delivers complete transport controls for fast and efficient recording, along with a high-quality, touch-sensitive, motorized fader for writing fades and automation. The other plus is that it’s compatible with virtually all major DAW programs (Pro Tools, Sonar, Cubase, Logic and more). So if you don’t need something huge, or a control surface that’s designed specifically for Pro Tools or Sonar, this might be the model to check out.
Mackie Control Universal Pro
Here’s our choice for the control surface that demands the most attention. It’s built tough, it offers a ton of features, it’s priced right in that sweet spot, and it doesn’t take up an entire desktop. Plus, it’s fully expandable, if you find that you do need more control (or have more room) down the road. The display is great, the transport controls are flawless, and it works more seamlessly with differing DAW systems than any other control surface we’ve seen. Bottom line, you owe it to yourself to check out the MCU Pro if you’re even remotely considering building a home studio, or working on home recording projects. Mackie even supplies pre-labeled overlays for YOUR preferred recording software, so it not only functions like the MCU Pro was designed for your software alone, it looks that way, too.
Some elements of product descriptions courtesy of their respective manufacturers.