Studio Pro-Audio

DAW Controller round-up

Mon, 02 Feb 2015 11:17

Top: Icon Qcon Pro USB Midi Controller Station, Avid S3 Middle: SSL Nucleus Bottom: Softube Console 1, PreSonus FaderPort, Mackie Control Universal (MCU) Pro
After years now on the digital front engineers are still searching for the ultimate in intuitive DAW (digital audio workstation) control.

While filled with cumbersome gear and a requiring more than a small fortune to build, analog studios of eras past still had the advantage of a lot of control available at your fingertips – especially if you had an automation system – and had added allure on the eyes.

Indeed, many records we love and regard as some of the finest ever produced were made in these now costly-to-maintain relics and, as a result, engineers today are grappling to infuse the way things were done in those environments while implementing the compact workflow advantages of digital.

One of the most effective tools engineers had on the large format analog console was the fader. It’s hugely important to have complete control over your levels and the fader gave us that. In fact, one could argue it is the essence of what mixing is about. Balance is everything.

In the digital domain the mouse becomes tedious and anyone that’s ever written automation with it will understand. For some reason it just ‘feels’ better to touch a fader, close your eyes and ride levels. The answer? A DAW control surface.

While not entirely new news, at this point in time controllers abound; some affordable and modest and some expensive, large and complex. Pro-Systems takes a look at a few from the current crop on offer.

PreSonus FaderPort

The cheapest of the lot and despite getting a bit long in the tooth it’s one of the most successful as well. The PreSonus Faderport offers simple single channel control and works with most major DAWs on both Mac and PC. It features a single 100mm fader that can be used to write single and group channel automation. Additionally it provides complete transport control, pan control, mute, solo, record enable buttons, window view control and automation modes. A footswitch can be used for hands-free punch in/out.

Icon Qcon Pro USB Midi Controller Station

The Icon Qcon Pro USB is an eight-fader controller expands on the basic functionality of the single-fader QCon Lite; a more extensive alternative to the FaderPort. It features eight dual-function rotary encoders, a large backlit LCD display, 18 assignable buttons, illuminated record enable, solo, mute, select and monitor buttons for each channel, full transport control including jog wheel, four- direction zoom buttons, nine illuminated assignable MIDI function buttons, an expansion slot for Icon’s Umix-series USB audio interfaces and two footswitch jacks. It can be expanded by adding Icon EX Expander eight-channel fader wing.

Softube Console 1

The Console 1 is a more recently released controller from respected plugin developer Softube in response, I assume, to have intuitive control over more than just fader levels and offer a complete channel strip control solution in any DAW. Console 1 has a bit of a caveat, however: it is a software and hardware mixing platform. Included with the Console 1 is Softube’s emulation bundle of Solid State Logic’s SL400E console and Softube’s Transient Shaper and the way that it works is that once you have inserted the Console 1 plugin into your chosen DAW channels, control of the channel strip can be handled from the surface by selecting the relevant channel. Changes made on the surface then reflect in the GUI of the Console 1 plugin where all forms of automation can be written. Each channel can also be separately customised by adding in any Softube equaliser and compressor and functions can be grouped for simultaneous control.

Mackie Control Universal (MCU) Pro

A mainstay in DAW control for a while now and still going strong, the Mackie Control Universal Pro has proved its value time and time again for many studio owners the world over. Using the Mackie, HUI and Logic Control protocols over USB, it is compatible with almost every DAW; offering eight 100mm touch-sensitive motorised Alps faders and V-Pot control over software, plugins and virtual instruments. It has more than 50 dedicated buttons for engaging software parameters and features a full transport section including jog wheel. Full meter display is available along with track names and parameters while zoom and cursor buttons (up, down, left, right) aid navigation. Perhaps a little different than the others, the MCU also includes a USB MIDI interface for connecting external MIDI gear directly to your Mac or PC. Software-specific Lexan overlays are included and the surface is expandable by adding the optional Control Extender Pro and C4 modules.

Avid S3

The newest control surface offering from Avid inherited from their S3L live mixing system and borrowing workflow highlights from the flagship Avid S6, the S3, while more expensive than the others so far, provides universal DAW control over the EUCON protocol developed by sister company Euphonix. The S3 is a compact desktop control surface and 4 x 6 audio interface that integrates both the EUCON protocol and local AVB (Audio Video Bridging) I/O over one Ethernet cable (AVB available for OS X Core Audio only). It offers 16 channel strips, each with its own touch-sensitive 100mm motorised fader and 10-segment signal level meter. 32 touch sensitive, push-button rotary encoders (16-channel control, 16 assignable) provide gain control, plugin parameter adjustment and more while a tri-colour LED function indicator is implemented into the encoders for instant visual feedback. There are 32 high-resolution OLED displays that display track names and numbers, detailed metering data from mono to surround sound, parameter names and values, current automation mode and more. Solo, mute, channel select and record/automation enable buttons are available while a four-segment touch strip allows transport control. If you need a job wheel function, the S3 can be used alongside the Avid Artist Transport for extended control. Dozens of dedicated buttons abound to control navigation, automation, control assignment and software control. The local I/O includes two XLR mic/line inputs, two TRS line inputs, two XLR line outputs, two TRS line outputs and a stereo headphone output.

SSL Nucleus

Based on the SSL Matrix, the SSL Nucleus is Solid State Logic’s project studio offering that blends advanced DAW control, SuperAnalogue monitoring, two SuperAnalogue microphone preamps, a USB audio interface and bundled SSL Duende plugins. Like the rest of the controllers in this roundup, it is compatible with all major DAWs and connects via Ethernet to the host (Mackie and HUI protocols) while the 2 x 2 audio interface connects via USB for record and playback facilities to and from your DAW. The Nucleus features 16 touch-sensitive motorised faders in two banks of eight, digital scribble strips with assignable V-Pots and soft keys, user-customisable DAW & key command mapping, configuration through the remote Logictivity browser, an SD card slot for project storage, full transport and jog wheel, illuminated buttons, LEDs and DAW metering, a full monitoring section, two headphone outputs and an iJack monitor input. Finally, it also features a four- port USB hub.


There are many more controller options out there, such as the Slate Raven MTX and MTi (which Pro Systems has covered), the Avid Artist series controllers, the Behringer BC series and the Steinberg CC and CMC controllers (which only work with Cubase). There are more still. However, one thing’s for sure: there is no better time to bring your fingers back into the mix and many companies are offering a host of features at every price range. Happy mixing.