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Do You Need a Control Surface for Your Home Studio?
In the good old days of analog recording, when something needed adjustment on the mix you reached out for a fader or knob and not the mouse. Somewhere along the way someone decided that doing all the work in one box work was the way to go.
If you are limited on space or are using a laptop for portability, then you most likely do not need a control surface for that rig. However, if you have a stationary system, you should read on.
A control surface is the digital version of the old analog mixer in many ways. Instead of grabbing the mouse to tweak this or change that you reach up and move a sliding fader, push a button or twist a knob.
Most control surfaces on the market allow the use of the HUI mode (that is short for Human User Interface). It is a standard protocol much like MIDI in that allows different programs and hardware to talk to one another. Most DAWs use this protocol.
These control surfaces allow you to adjust data and not the actual sound. That being said, the majority of them have absolutely no audio capabilities at all. Just think of them as another piece of outboard gear.
Most control surfaces today use standard MIDI connections and some use the faster USB connections. Speed is the main difference but the functionality is very similar. So we are going to focus on functionality and not the connectors.
Some keyboards out there allow you to do some limited work to your music via MIDI. These are not in-depth enough to be considered serious for this purpose, so let’s look at a real control surface.
I’ll start by discussing the Mackie Control Universal (often referred to as the MCU), which is pretty much considered a standard for recording, from home rigs up through pro level studios. Most functions will translate into other control surfaces like the Behringer BCF-2000.
A quick first look at the MCU leaves the novice scratching his or her head. It looks like a plain 8 or 9 channel mixer with a bunch of knobs and buttons on it. To most, this first look is way too confusing and they move on. But you need to dig a little deeper, especially with the amount of money you can spend on them.
Those sliders actually can access as many tracks as you have. You can slide electronically either a channel or a bank of 8 at a time left or right. So whether your mix has 8 channels or 48 channels or more, you can use this board on them all. Does that make it more useful sounding now?
At the top, above the channel strips, are LCDs that tell you which channel you are on as well as other important track information. You can set the record state, mute and solo for each channel as well as pan and volume with the slider.
The master section had dedicated areas and buttons that allow you to do automation, change parameters on your plug-in, set in and out points, and adjust loops. You can even scrub back and forth to find an exact location. Yes, just like an old analog tape machine where you could free spool the reels to get where you wanted to be and you could hear what you were doing, as well.
You can swap between the edit window and the mixer window with the click of a button. You can pop from one marker in the timeline to the next quickly and easily even if you are not on the edit window.
Another huge plus of a control window is the transport. Just like old tape decks, you have buttons for rewind, fast forward, stop, play and record. There is even a feature that gets you to the start or the exact end of the tracks. This is a huge time saver to any of us doing recording. Trust us, physical transports are great.
Yes most of these things can be done with a mouse click and drag or by remembering shortcut keystrokes that allow you to do it. But when you stop and try to remember that information you lose your creative flow and often interrupt what you are doing enough to have a negative impact on the session. And this is all about the music, right? And not memorizing hot-key-combos?
Another great plus for the control surface over most keyboards is that you can plug in a pedal and set it to start, stop or punch in. So you have your hands free to play. Yes, that is another one of those things that you can set an auto punch in/out for. If you do, though, you will again be taking your eyes off the prize and possibly turning a stellar take into a so-so take because you had to take off the musician’s hat and put on the engineer’s hat.
So stop being afraid of this strange looking piece of gear and embrace it. There is really nothing like pushing a button or twisting a knob and watching your computer (and tracks) respond instantly.
A control surface puts the fun back into digital recording and you will find that your sessions will improve and your production will be less stressful. Enjoy!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dash Wilson is an avid home recorder, currently using the Mackie MCU control surface for his own projects.