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Control surfaces fit the bill when you've put together a software-based audio studio and working with a mouse just won't cut it.

Part one of this two-part series (“Making the investment,” September 2001, page 80) explored the ways control surfaces are opening up exciting possibilities for the small studio owner looking to service the postproduction community. Let's recap a few points before we proceed.

Perhaps most importantly, post clients have reassessed what they require from an audio post house. Without question, large, well-tuned mixing rooms centered around big consoles continue to play a significant role, especially for theatrical-release feature films. However, the day has passed when an audio facility had to spend at least a quarter of a million dollars on a board simply because clients expected something huge.

How did this sophisticated client evolve? You can thank Digidesign, in large part, for the change. With regard to post, Pro Tools rooms started as offline centers at major facilities. Clients quickly came to see that small monitoring consoles, coupled with Pro Tools, were very capable of turning out a polished final product, especially for the less glamorous work — promos, spots, budget documentaries — that fuels the industry.

Point two: Working with a mouse is tedious. No surprise there. As long as Pro Tools, running on what are now seen as slow and antiquated host computers, was only capable of running 16 or so tracks efficiently, the mouse was acceptable. Faster computers now make it possible for Pro Tools and competitive products to run more than 100 tracks at once. The need for an affordable means of working with faders and for an intelligent ability to interface with workstation hardware and software was present. And so control surfaces — miniature consoles designed to work specifically with workstations — were born.

So you've decided that there are enough local ad agencies, network affiliates, and filmmakers to support a foray into audio post. Which control surface should you buy?

Ranging in price from less than $1,000 to about $12,000, control surfaces come in a variety of flavors. Please note that this is a rapidly developing area of the audio industry, and the surfaces I discuss do not constitute an exhaustive list.

Mackie HUI

Back when Pro Tools 4.0 was still in development, Digidesign and Mackie — widely respected as a manufacturer of high-quality, affordable boards — combined forces. The result was the HUI (Human User Interface).

The most important element in any control surface is the presence of touch-sensitive faders that can be automated. Why? We all love them! The HUI sports eight of these but no master fader. It also includes an Assign section that lets the user configure bus and I/O according to his or her individual requirements.

Critically important is a section that intelligently allows the user to control the parameters of Pro Tools plug-ins. Remember how SSL integrated its workstation, Screen Sound, with its digital console, the Scenaria? The HUI integrates with Pro Tools in a similar fashion, at a fraction of the cost. Known for its ability to build low-cost microphone pre-amps that sound great, Mackie threw some of these puppies into the package. A design feature allows multiple HUIs to be linked together.
List price: $3,499

Digidesign ProControl

If you use Pro Tools and want a control surface specifically designed to maximize power over it, with as many dedicated controls as you need, consider Digidesign's ProControl. It comes with eight 100mm touch-sensitive motorized faders — the best faders of any control surface on the market — and gives tactile access to all Pro Tools editing, mixing, and automation parameters. ProControl can be expanded with up to five Fader Expansion packs, which yield up to 48 channel strips. Digidesign recently partnered with Focusrite to build the Control24, a control surface that includes fewer features than the ProControl.
ProControl list price: $11,995
Control24 list price: $7,995

Radikal Technologies SAC-2K

Radikal Technologies is getting a favorable response to the SAC-2K. In addition to Pro Tools, the SAC-2K interfaces easily with MOTU's Digital Performer, Emagic's Logic Audio, Steinberg's Nuendo, and even E-MU's Paris workstation, which ships with its own control surface.

The SAC-2K ships with nine touch-sensitive faders, including a master fader. One feature that will attract musicians in particular is the program's plug-in control over a large number of virtual (software) instruments and effects that are applicable to post. Radikal has developed the SAC-2K in a way that allows the user to make simultaneous moves on different tracks. While layering is implemented, no parameter is more than one switch away at any time. The SAC-2K provides three user-configurable displays, a distinct design advantage.

Radikal has announced that its SAC-8X expansion units will be available soon. Up to three SAC-8X units, each providing eight additional faders, can be added on to the SAC-2K for a total of 32 channel strips.
List price: $1,849

JL Cooper MCS-3800, CS-102, and Fader Master Pro

Early in the MIDI era, JL Cooper helped add hardware control to the protocol. The company now offers three control-surface products.

The MCS-3800 is its top-of-the-line release. It's supported by Avid, Digidesign, and WaveFrame, among others. The unit has four selectable banks that give the user control of 32 audio channels, 60 programmable keys, five encoders, and transport and jog-shuttle controllers. The eight faders are touch-sensitive and motorized. Expansion capability allows up to 64 moving faders with more than 300 physical function keys. JL Cooper also offers the MCS-Panner option for the MCS-3800, which gives a three-axis joystick controller for surround mixing.

Although most workstation users crave motorized faders, you might consider the CS-102 if they're not crucial to your style of work. It has eight faders, but they're not motorized or touch-sensitive. This budget control surface fits most logically into project studios. Another step down the JL Cooper ladder is the Fader Master Professional. This unit's eight faders, not motorized or touch-sensitive, run off MIDI automation. It lacks a transport or jog shuttle.
MCS-3800 list price: $3,000
CS-102 list price: $799
Fader Master Pro list price: $549.95

Mixed Logic M24

We've seen a pattern developing: Most control surfaces begin with eight faders. Users who need more can cascade multiple units together. Mixed Logic designed the M24 for the user who needs 24 faders off the bat. The larger format of the M24 begs a question. Does Mixed Logic plan on providing all of the connectivity that is associated with a traditional console, including mic pre-amps and converters? “At the moment, the user would need external converters and mic pre-amps,” says Kevin Borrowman, president of Mixed Logic. “The goal is to replace the traditional console, but we opted not to include mic pre's or converters in the M24 because most DAW users already have their own. We felt most would like to be able to mix and match converters and pre-amps to match their personal taste. Planned future Mixed Logic add-on products will address some of these needs.”

The M24 offers a completely dedicated EQ section, a feature not found on many other control surfaces. Templates allow control surfaces to interface with software applications. Downloading templates from the Web will be possible as the number of supported applications increases.
List price: $3,999

CM Labs Motor Mix

Finally, suppose you're a Pro Tools user who wants to spend less than a grand on a control surface. Any options besides the two non-motorized JL Cooper surfaces? Yep.

Motor Mix is a motorized-fader control surface optimized for Pro Tools and Digidesign's budget product, Digi 001 (see review in Video Systems, May 2001). “Our view is that most DAW work can be done economically and comfortably at small computer desks,” says CM Labs president Carl Malone.

For the greatest bang per buck, CM Labs built Motor Mix around clearly defined windows that can be configured to a user's specific work method. Since the unit has fewer knobs and screen displays than some of the higher-priced spreads, this focused way of interacting with the user's monitor is intrinsic to the surface. Multiple Motor Mixes can be cascaded, and CM Labs will soon release a companion piece, Dashboard, designed as an edit-window work surface.
List price: $995


Gary Eskow is a New Jersey-based composer and journalist. “Dream Girl,” a track he wrote and co-produced with Baron Raymonde, a horn player with Rod Stewart's band, is being played each night before the rock legend takes the stage. He writes frequently on audio-related subjects and can be reached at scribeny@aol.com or www.garyeskow.com.

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