Control surfaces are a marvel of DAW technology. These devices act as the physical liaison between the features of a digital mixer, and the tools of your DAW software. They are not an essential piece of gear, meaning they are not “required“ to use the features of your DAW software, rather they are an extension of physical control and offer the convenience of not having to rely on your mouse and cursor to control your functions of your software.
Control surfaces can be used to create more streamlined workflows, increase the intuitive controls of your software based home studio, and improve user satisfaction with real ”hands-on“ control.
This article explains the concept of a control surface, and will provide you with a base of understanding by addressing some common questions and demystifying the functions and features.
Having hands on control of compatible DAW software is a novel idea that uses modern technology to combine the assets of DAW software with the satisfaction of hardware.
Do they do this?
Do they do it well?
Are they practical?
The control surface is a relatively new addition to the home and pro studio gear line-up, and has been creatively developed to be an affordable luxury available for hobbyists, yet intuitive enough to supplement professional studios. In fact many professional recording studios are using large control surfaces in place of a massive analog mixing console.
Control surfaces look and act in a similar manner to that of a digital mixer. Their are however, some distinct differences in how these two devices function.
Digital mixers – mix digital audio from within an external mixing board.
A digital mixer does its mixing onboard, using its own effects, and can output the mix to hard-disk or recorder for mix-down and mastering.
A control surface, in its raw, standalone form, is a midi controller that simulates the faders and adjustment knobs of an analog or digital mixing board – with physical midi controls. These controls are able to function in a versatile way, and can even be customized to compliment the individuals’ production style.
It synchronizes with compatible DAW software and allows real-time control of track levels, panning, third party plugins and other mixing controls. A control surface has given us the feeling and functionality of a digital mixer, for half the cost.
The control surface is a pretty basic idea of adding hardware pleasure to control your music production software. The overall performance of control surfaces is currently very satisfying to use, and they are still progressing.
Firmware updates from developers keep adding more compatibility to more programs. Pro audio software and hardware developers have realized the key to this-products potential is through the coordination of software programs and their midi hardware.
Control surfaces today are capable of upgrading with drivers/firmware etc. So the technology progresses, right with your control surface. Tally another point to the score for the digital recording studio.
Once again, a control surface is just a bare bones controller for your DAW/music software. The beauty of this is that you have yet another option that gives you faders! This is huge, because clicking a mouse or moving a curser is just not quite the same thing, or nearly as rewarding as moving real faders and knobs…
Hybrid Control Surfaces:
There are a growing number of (hybrid) combination units as well.
These are control surfaces that include two or all of the following: audio interface/midi interface/preamps/a/d d/a converters.
These combined units can be very convenient. For the most part, these control surface combinations can wrap up the digital and analog hardware needed for a competent home or project studio.
These hybrid control surfaces extend beyond the transfer of midi data to control mixing parameters of your DAW software.
Control Surface/Audio Interface Integration
These are combo units that integrate the control surface functionality with the features of the audio interface.
Go here to learn about audio interfaces in the home studio.
Digital Mixer/Control Surface Combinations
These are the most expensive units and combine the features and functions of a digital mixer, which includes onboard processing, an array of in/outputs, and the functions of a control surface.
Remember that when combined as a hybrid unit, always look at a control surface as a separate device. Control surfaces talk to the software mixer and transport of your sequencer, they do not talk to a mixer, keyboard, or audio interface.
Research the compatibility and integration between the DAW software in your home studio with that of a prospective control surface. If there is a problem here, you will be in trouble and wish you had done your homework.
Control surfaces and their hybrid combinations appear to be the future, especially for the home studio. I expect the market competition to increase significantly as technology and manufacturing costs become more efficient, universal formats are agreed upon between hardware and software companies, and music technology companies can produce more faders and more options with greater precision and effectiveness, for less money.
Happy Home Recording!