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Control Surfaces Part 2

Integrated Control Surfaces/Audio Interfaces

By Kendall Scott

A hardware control surface can supply many tactile benefits when you work within the seemingly intangible microcosm of your own computer audio workstation. From small single-fader types to larger full-out motorized console models, these units can help speed up your work flow and allow you to become more intimate with your mix. Although they may look similar, the difference between a control surface and an analog mixer is that a controller does not pass audio but, merely gives instructions to your recording software, leaving the audio responsibilities to a separate sound card or audio interface. There are situations; however, where having your audio interface integrated with your control surface could be an interesting alternative.

The first and most obvious benefit of this integration is a saving of space.
If you were considering a control surface and do not already have a solid performing audio interface, you could save desktop real estate by combining these two pieces into one powerful unit. Most computers will come equipped with a simple 1/8” mini jack for their sound output and a similar jack for any type of input. The most logical upgrade from this configuration is to an external USB or FireWire audio interface. A control surface/audio interface combination will produce better audio quality and provide you with professional connections in a single tidy unit.

The second advantage to having these two components married together, especially the smaller units, is the added convenience of portability.
If you work with a laptop and prefer to be mobile with your rig, then having to pack and set up one item, rather than two separate devices, is a time saver. You will also have fewer cables to connect, which could save you the trouble of having to bring along a USB or Firewire hub and its annoying power supply. With a streamlined system like this all you have to do is unpack your laptop, make the necessary controller/interface connections, and you are ready to go.

If going small and compact is your aim, then the new Tascam FireOne and Alesis ioControl units are well thought out and sure to please. The FireOne gives you 2 inputs that can accept either 1/4” line level or XLR microphone level with phantom power. It also has a handy guitar input right on the front, as well as two headphone outputs for working with a partner.
Its transport and shortcut keys are ergonomically placed and its most prominent feature-a weighted, backlit jog wheel-allows you to shuttle instantly to any part of your song. The ioControl is just a bit larger and features 4 analog inputs (2 XLR and 2 1/4") with the ability to add 8 additional digital inputs through its ADAT connection (more on this later). There are 6 fully-assignable buttons, 4 rows of mute/solo/record-enable buttons and 4 multifunction assignable knobs to address parameters like level and pan. Both take up very little precious desk space and are easy to stow in your pack.

The middleweight choices in the controller/interface class are substantially larger than their smaller cousins but add a proportionate amount of power. Although they are still very portable, their additional size and weight mean dedicating a gig bag or case to the unit for guaranteed safe transport. The Tascam FW-1082, Alesis MasterControl, M-Audio ProjectMix I/O, and Digidesign 003 are all very full-featured, multi-input devices that also add the extra dimension of having motorized, touch-sensitive faders. Touch sensitivity disengages the fader’s motor when tweaking and reengages it when you are finished making your adjustments. This saves wear and tear on a frequently-used section of your contol surface.

One feels a sense of comfort when sitting behind these units, as most have a 100mm fader throw and plenty of knobs and sliders to work with. With similar panel layouts, each model provides dedicated transport and navigation sections. All of these pieces give you at least eight analog inputs for recording multiple sources simultaneously, which is an important consideration if your aim is to record a live band, capture a stage performance, or mic a full drum kit. The ProjectMix I/O offers 8 XLR mic inputs, the FW-1082 and 002 both offer 4, and the MasterControl sports 2. If you need even more simultaneous inputs or more microphone connections, then most of these units can be expanded by way of their ADAT connections with third-party devices like the Presonus Digimax LT.

Not big enough? Well, it seems as though some folk always need more. The Tascam FW-1884 gives you 8 XLR mic inputs and provides 8 dedicated monitor outputs for surround-sound mixing applications. Each input channel features an insert for placing a compressor or EQ directly into the signal chain, which is a great advantage while recording a full drum kit or ensemble. There are a whopping 4 sets of MIDI I/O and Wordclock I/O is provided to ensure your ability to keep in perfect sync with the rest of your studio. And, if having 8 motorized channel faders and 1 motorized master fader is not enough, the FW-1884 is expandable by way of the Tascam FE-8 to a dizzying array of 128 live tracks. The FE-8 is an 8 fader expansion module that allows you to connect additional blocks of 8 control channels to your system with a maximum limit of 15 units for a serious-sized mixing environment.

Whether you are trying to keep things small and portable or are designing a larger production studio, the advantages of an integrated control surface and audio interface are worth considering.There are plenty of choices to meet nearly every budget and match any application. The only thing left to do is decide which size and feature set is right for you.

Please note: All prices are subject to change based on current market prices. The prices contained in this newsletter reflect current prices at the time of publication.

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