Most producers and recording artists typically mix in-the-box using a mouse and keyboard these days. While there is nothing wrong working this way there are a few workflow limitations with mixing with a mouse that some producers cannot live with.
When you mix a session using just a mouse and keyboard you generally have the power to adjust one thing at a time in your DAW such as setting a track’s fader level or pan position, what’s wrong with working this way? Let’s answer that question with another question… Have you ever watched a skilled engineer mix on a large format console or control surface? If you have then you would have noticed that the engineer was most likely using both their hands and all of their fingers to manipulate the board. Engineers that are accustomed to mixing with physical faders often perform a number of mix moves in one go such as balancing multiple tracks together to perfection in what seems like a blink of an eye, try doing that one fader at a time with a mouse! Mixing with two hands is for some the only way to mix as it’s a quick and intuitive way of working which is why using control surface is the preferred route for many to get the job done.
What Qualities Define A Control Surface For Mixing?
Modern day DAW control surfaces generally provide a number of haptics not too dissimilar to those of old school analogue consoles. Most controllers provide banks of motorised faders that recall their positions when switching between sessions, encoders for panning, digital scribble strips that tell us track names, solos and mutes as well as transport buttons for enabling playback and record. There are also some products that provide the same kind of haptics virtually via touch screen. It doesn’t really matter what style of control surface you use, once you’ve learned how to get the most out of one in a mixing workflow there’s a good chance you’ll never go back to mousing around in a DAW.
Not All Control Surfaces Are Made Equal
Even though most modern DAW control surfaces appear similar in form and function there is an important difference under the hood that you need to aware of that could cause you compatibility issues. There are a number of protocols that most control surfaces use to interface the hardware between a DAW you need to know about. All perform slightly differently depending on the DAW you use:
HUI (Human User Interface Protocol) and MCU (Mackie Control Universal Protocol): HUI was developed in 1997 between Mackie and Digidesign for use with non-Digidesign control surfaces for Pro Tools. It is now part of the MCU Mackie Control Universal protocol.
EuCon: Originally developed by Euphonix, EuCon is a high speed ethernet control protocol which carries control information for faders, knobs and displays between control surfaces and whatever the main EuCon enabled application is in focus on your computer, such as Pro Tools.
Diginet: The Diginet protocol isn’t used in any control surfaces currently available on the market. It was used for Pro Tools only control surfaces such as the Digidesign Control 24 and ProControl as well as the Avid C24 and the ICON line.
Top Control Surfaces You Can Buy From $600 For Home Studio Mixing
In this article we highlight a range of control surfaces we feel are very well designed that are fairly small in size and are suitable for placing on desks, without taking up too much space. Control surfaces at the higher end of the market tend to be quite large and require a fair amount of space in a room.
To help you find the best control surface for your budget we’ve featured the following products in order of price (low to high) starting with:
PreSonus FaderPort 8 Production Controller - MSRP $599
Presonus, the makers of Studio One, offers a range of budget friendly control surfaces called FaderPorts. There’s a small single fader device through to a large 16 fader unit with this, the FaderPort 8, sitting neatly in the middle of the FaderPort range providing (as the name suggests) 8 motorised faders, a single encoder for pan, transport and essential DAW navigation controls.
FaderPort deeply integrates with Studio One making it a great companion, that said FaderPort is also compatible with all major DAWs. FaderPort uses both Mackie Control and HUI protocols which makes it fast and easy to control Logic Pro X, Cubase, Ableton Live, Pro Tools, and more. You don’t need to install any drivers, just plug and play. For the exceptional price, build quality, ease of use and compatibility you may wonder why you would need anything more than this for the job of mixing.
Behringer X-Touch - MSRP $719
If the FaderPort 8 isn’t to your liking, then consider the Behringer X-Touch. For the extra investment you get slightly more bang for your buck. Each fader gets its own pan encoder which is a nice touch (pun intended). It can be a slight drag having to select the channel you want to adjust the pan as you need to on the FaderPort 8.
The X-Touch features quite a few more buttons, though we have read several reports from users in forums about X-Touch compatibility issues with Pro Tools, which is well worth investigating for yourself if you are considering one of these devices.
We’ve have had a brief play with one of these. The build quality far exceeds Behringer’s products of old which is positive. The faders feel nice and responsive under the finger and buttons feel satisfying to press and are well placed for easy access. What sets the X-Touch apart from most of the other control surfaces in this list its main counter display. You’ll be surprised at how useful it is having this in your line of sight when working a long tracking or mix session.
Slate Media Technology RAVEN MTi2 - MSRP $999
Slate Media Technology’s RAVEN range of control surfaces are in a totally different league compared to the control surfaces we’ve already mentioned. They are large multi-touch displays which responds to finger touches and gestures similar to how we interact with tablet devices and smartphones which makes RAVEN displays incredibly instinctive to operate upon first use.
The MTi2 is the second generation of the baby RAVEN range boasting a 27” display in a slim enclosure and adjustable stand for setting the perfect viewing angle. The multi-touch technology is only part of the package, the software is where you’ll find the magic and mojo of the RAVEN. The multi-touch abilities kind of play second fiddle to the smart batch command system, which makes long winded processes such as exporting stems in Pro Tools as simple as clicking a virtual button in the RAVEN command. Slate has clearly reimagined what the control surface user experience should be for the future and with the RAVEN software 3.0 they might have just cracked it!
RAVEN is compatible with most popular DAWs including Pro Tools, Logic Pro X and Studio One though you only get one activation of the RAVEN software which works with the DAW of your choice. If you opt for the Pro Tools activation and decide at a later date to switch to Studio One you will need to pay a small fee to get the appropriate RAVEN software for your DAW.
Avid Pro Tools | Dock - MSRP $1,199
We have past the $1,000 mark in this article and at first glance it might look as though we could be getting less bang for our buck? It’s the Avid Pro Tools Dock and it only has one fader, hold on a minute, we also need to buy an Apple iPad? This option appears to be getting quite expensive… is this worth it?
Let’s cut straight to the chase. Yes, the Avid Pro Tools Dock isn’t a cheap solution as it does look limited but it’s not a bad deal, not by any stretch of the imagination.
The Avid Dock and the Pro Tools Control App are indivisible, once you understand that the whole package starts to make sense, it brings tactile control to the parts of the app which benefit from it and brings deep touchscreen control to Pro Tools. Before we tried it we thought it wouldn’t add much to running the App on its own. We were wrong, it makes the App so much better and it worth it on its own but if you add an Artist Mix or an S3 it gets really interesting with near S6 levels of control.
Avid’s Pro Tools Dock is the cheapest entry into a hardware based EuCon control surface. It’s features extend into the free iOS Pro Tools Control app which is a necessary component to the system. The Dock can be used as a single device, of course with an iPad inserted into its base, or as part of a larger system. The Avid S3 fader based control surface or Artist Mix are also both EuCon enabled making those the only options currently available that can expand the Dock’s control surface experience.
PreSonus Faderport 16 - MSRP $1,299
We’re back with another offering from the Presonus FaderPort range, this time with the FaderPort 16 boasting twice the number of faders of the FaderPort 8 for just over half the price, we’re not sure how pricing structure works?
If your mixes regularly have high track counts and you need quick and easy access to them then the FaderPort 16 is surely worth checking out. It is by far the cheapest 16 fader control surface you can buy today.
Avid Artist Mix - MSRP $1,399
The Avid Artist Mix has been around for many years. It was the first mainstream controller that brought the EuCoN protocol to the masses and has proven to be a very popular device in the Pro Tools crowd. The Free Pro Tools Connect app can also work in conjunction with this which is a nice touch. Think of the Artist Mix as the very essence of a control surface. Eight faders, clear digital displays, encoders for pan and plug-in control… sadly no transport but that can be accessed if used with the Pro Tools Control app.
Mackie MCU Pro - MSRP $1,699.99
The Mackie MCU is a popular control surface. Like the Avid Artist Mix the MCU has been around for many years with many adoring fans. What makes the MCU so popular is its simple modular design. You can expand the main MCU Pro’s 9 fader unit (as seen in the picture above) with extra banks of 8 faders and even an encoder unit for controlling plug-in settings (see picture below). The most expensive part of this system is the main MCU Pro unit, the extender units are far less in comparison though the overall price of a large 16 fader modular system with encoder unit will total a bill close to $5,000 which feels a bit pricey for what it is but a fully loaded Mackie control setup does look mighty fine…
Slate Media Technology RAVEN MTZ - MSRP $2,999
As we’ve already alluded to, Slate’s RAVEN multi-touch control surfaces are brilliant. What they don’t provide in terms of tactile feedback they certainly make up for in terms of control and command capabilities. The MTZ is Slate’s latest offering in the RAVEN range boasting a massive 43” display. To give you an idea of the size of the MTZ it is very nearly the footprint of an Avid C24 making this the largest control surface in this list. You may need a large desk to put this on if you are considering one. The MTZ visual faders are practically life sized and the main display can easily show 24 faders in the window.
Avid Pro Tools S3 - MSRP $4,999
This is the third Avid EUCON enabled control surface in this list, which was released back in 2014. At the time it was received with some disappointment from Pro Tools users as it appeared to be just a quick rehash of Avid’s S3L-X live sound controller instead of being a unique product all of its own developed from the ground up for the studio market. Despite this, the S3 is a very good control surface. It’s rock solid, built like a tank and a key modular component if paired with an Avid Dock and Pro Tools Control app. Check out our video to see it in action:
Solid State Logic Nucleus 2 - MSRP $5,799
SSL’s Nucleus 2 is the most expensive control surface in this list and it’s hard to see why it commands such a massive price tag? If you look a little closer you’ll find that this isn’t just a control surface, it’s also a Dante audio interface and monitor control… SSL style, meaning you get world class sound in and out of your DAW with a beautifully designed and built control surface.
If you are looking for just a control surface then this may not be for you, though if you are considering a complete studio upgrade in which you change your audio interface then this all-in-one package may just be the perfect solution. Considering SSL’s reputation for outstanding sound quality the price tag doesn’t look too bad now does it?
Honourable DAW Control Surface Mentions
The following control surfaces are what we consider to be slightly left field from the main dedicated DAW offerings we’ve mentions so far. If none of the options we’ve featured floats your boat then the following honourable mentions maybe of interest to you:
Softube Console 1 MKII - MSRP $549
Softube’s Console 1 is a control surface, just not in the traditional sense like the products we’ve been exploring in this article. It provides several labeled encoders that control the parameters in the console 1 console plug-in emulations. There are several emulations that can be purchased separately ranging SSL, API and Neve. Out of the box users get the SSL SL 4000 E included. The console 1 can also control UAD plug-ins as well as some basic channel operations in DAWs such as Studio One, Sonar and Cubase but it’s main role really is for mixing analog console style with your fingers.
Neyrinck V Control Pro
Our second control surface honourable mention goes to Neyrinck’s V Control Pro. It’s loved by many and is by far the most affordable solution for getting hands on with your mixes, that is of course if you already own an iPad. V-Control Pro is an application for Mac and Windows computers that connects controllers to software using almost any popular touch enabled device. The app can be run on multiple devices for up to 32 simultaneous tracks of DAW control and V-Console includes a V-Window feature that lets you control plug-in controls from the original plug-in screen with your fingertips with improved insert and plug-in edit pop-ups.
V-Control Pro needs some of your attention, it’s a seriously impressive system that’s worth every penny, if you are unsure then test drive the free lite version.
Have Your Say - Are Control Surfaces Important In Your Mixing Workflow?
DAW control surfaces don’t generally fall under the category of studio gear essentials, but as we stated earlier there are many producers and recording engineers who rely heavily on them to get their work done. Are you one of those types of engineers? Do you need a control surface in your workflow? If so, what control surfaces can you recommend to The Production Expert Community?