Buying Guide: DAW Control Surface
Table of Contents
- What is a control surface?
- Control surface functions
- Small control surfaces
- Desktop control surfaces
- Console-style control surfaces
No doubt about it, the amount of power your software recording and sequencing setup gives you borders on the ridiculous. You can record, playback, and edit dozens of audio and MIDI tracks at once; insert virtual effects and instruments; trigger MIDI events; and author powerful, professional music while lounging in your jammies. Of course, doing all this on your computer means a lot of clicking and dragging with your mouse, which can get old really quickly. Not to mention the damage done to your carpal tunnels with all that repetitive motion.
The mouse is a wonderful invention, but it just doesn’t offer the kind of tactile experience that makes modern music production easy, fun, and fast. You need something that’s conducive to your spurts of creativity. To really get into the groove you need a few buttons, knobs, and faders to punch, twist, and push around. That’s where control surfaces come into the picture.
Adding a control surface to your computer recording setup can completely change the recording and sequencing experience. Suddenly, instead of hunching over a mouse using a single pointer to manipulate an onscreen fader, you’re moving a real fader and punching a real button to record. You push a fader up or turn a knob down, and the software responds. It brings you much closer to the ease of using a multitrack hardware recorder, and much closer to your music.
What is a control surface?
A control surface is a piece of hardware that connects to your computer to provide physical manipulation of your music software through MIDI. It can take many forms, from very large to very small, but all are designed to make music production in the software realm easier, faster, and more natural for musicians. The array of buttons, knobs, and faders provided by most control surfaces will probably seem very familiar to musicians involved with audio production, whether live or in the studio, as many were borrowed from their hardware-based predecessors. And for software jockeys who’ve never touched a real mixer or recorder, don’t worry—these units are also designed to be intuitive.
In general, most DAW (digital audio workstation) control surfaces provide command over basic software music production tasks like track selection, mixing, editing, and volume control, as well as vital transport controls: stop, play, fast forward, rewind, and record. Often a control surface will also have assignable controls that will allow you to customize its functions based on the tasks you need to manage. And these days, most control surfaces are plug-and-play with most major DAW software, so your programming time is minimized and your production time is maximized.
Even though most control surfaces offer mixer-like functions, they are not true mixers as most cannot handle audio. Just to muddy the water though, some control surfaces do have audio I/O and handling capability. Another word of caution—certain controllers and interfaces will operate only with certain software programs, so read carefully to confirm that the control surface you want will work with the software you have.
Control surface functions
The control surface illustration below includes the industry-standard functions you’ll see as you consider which DAW controller fits your setup and workflow. (Roll your mouse over each description to see that section highlighted on the control surface.) Not all controllers will have every feature shown here, and some will have more controls or additional functionality. Remember, it’s all about what you will use and what works for you. Make sure that you don’t pay for features you won’t use. But you should also try to future-proof your setup by thinking about the types of projects you’d like to work on and making sure the controller you buy covers those needs.
- Scribble strips:
A scribble strip is a small electronic screen on your control surface that displays names of tracks, parameter values, and other information related to the track you have selected. Some control surfaces display scribble-strip type information on one central screen, while others do not have any type of scribble strip functionality.
- Additional display:
If your control surface has any other displays beyond the scribble strips, it will probably provide information about track playback, the controller's mode of operation, or other feedback from your DAW software. Some controllers offer this, others don’t.
- Channel strips:
This section of the control surface is designed to let you manipulate the tracks of audio or MIDI in your recording or sequencing software. These channels control your audio like a mixer, but instead of actually routing your audio through the control surface, they control the virtual mixer in your software. The controls on each channel will often include traditional mixer functions such as solo and mute, as well as an assignable knob for controlling EQ or plug-in values. Many controllers allow you to assign your channels in banks, so you can have control over all the tracks in your projects.
- Function select keys:
The purpose of this section is two-fold. It can replace functions normally handled by your computer keyboard and provide added functionality specific to your control surface/software combo. Different areas of your software can be accessed and controlled by function buttons that mimic the “F” keys on your keyboard (F1, F2, etc.), as well as replacements for the Shift, Control, Command/Alt, and Option keys. MIDI sequencing functions can be accessed, software windows can be toggled and selected, etc. When well designed, this section can be a huge time saver, allowing you to pretty much ignore your keyboard and mouse during production sessions.
- Transport controls:
The word transport is taken from old-school analog tape recorders and refers to the tape transport controls for play, stop, record, rewind, and fast forward. That’s what these controls replicate for the digital age.
- Navigation controls:
In a continuing effort to get you to put down the mouse, some surfaces give you these controls for navigating through your software. They let you select various parts of the graphic interface of your software and edit your settings.
Small control surfaces
Just as the title implies, these controllers won’t take up much of your desktop property. Easy to plug in and set up right beside your mouse or keyboard, these tiny titans of music production are great for personal recording setups and on-the-go artists. And while they aren’t big on size, their streamlined set of features can still have a big impact on your music making. Usually you get a single fader or knob, transport controls, and specialized track functions like selection, panning, soloing, and muting. Some units even boast touches like an automated fader or wireless operation.
Desktop control surfaces
If you’d like to get both hands into the act when you’re working on your music, you might want to consider a larger control surface. By stepping up to a bigger DAW controller you get more faders so you can control more tracks at once. Instead of flipping from track to track as you would with a single-fader control surface, you can assign each fader to control a specific track, letting you make changes to multiple tracks more quickly. Usually you get additional controls for navigating your software interface and switchable modes of operation.
Many controllers offer functionality beyond just transport control or track adjustments. You’ll have to read the manufacturers materials carefully to determine what types of assignments are possible, but usually the setup process is relatively straightforward. Most even come with templates that automatically integrate your controller with popular DAW software like Cubase, Pro Tools, Logic, Live, and others. Others offer selectable modes of operation that optimize your workflow in doing specific activities. Some advanced controllers give you the ability to program your own modes. While programming your own control profiles can be time consuming, you'll reap the benefits with customized, timesaving setups that optimize the way you work.
Console-style control surfaces
Perhaps you grew up dreaming of your own studio with a glowing, blinking, gleaming console to craft your aural masterpieces. But those fantasies were dashed when the recording studio shrunk to the size of a computer. Now your console dreams can live on with a professional console-style control surface. Modern recording technology is amazing, but smaller is not always better, and many producers find their productivity is enhanced with a big board instead of a big computer screen.
Console-style controllers aim to replicate the recording console experience and performance while integrating the abilities of your music software and all your music studio equipment to create a modern music production environment. And since some console-style control surfaces do double-duty as digital mixers, you can handle analog and digital audio thus gaining a lot of extra power over your production environment. There are also console-style surfaces which provide monitoring but no audio interface or preamps.
High-fidelity performance, customization capability, and efficiency are the features you are buying with console-style control surface. Channel strips have dedicated EQ buttons; the controls over audio editing are much more precise; you’ll have multiple bus and routing control features; integrated displays and advanced controls will almost completely replace your computer screen … the list of capabilities goes on and on. If you’ve got your computer, software, preamps, processors, monitor array, control room, and live room in place and are looking for that one last piece to pull it all together, the console-style control surface may well be it.
There is a trade off: You lose some of the plug-and-play-ability of a desktop controller. But manufacturers assume when you invest in a piece of equipment like this, that you’re not going to switch your setup around as often. So choose wisely and be prepared to spend more time setting up a console-style controller versus a smaller surface.