.. B&H Photo Video Pro Audio - Speed Up your Workflow with Surface Controllers
Home < Pro Audio < Newsletter

Speed Up your Workflow with Surface Controllers
By Kendall Scott

Printer-Friendly Version

The current computer recording boom has placed an amazing amount of power under our fingertips. It is truly amazing to think that the simulated recording environments now provided by today’s audio recording programs would have taken entire rooms full of gear to recreate in our not-so-distant past. Alhough these programs and home-recording solutions do not eliminate the need for professional-level production facilities, they have changed our studio workflow and our recording and mixing methods. When we consider the fact that a fully automated mix can now be easily manipulated with only a trusty mouse and computer monitor, it may be time to consider new ways of injecting some of the human element back into our current recording setups.

Adding a control surface to your computer workstation is a great way of getting more hands-on access when it comes to shaping your own personal recording process. Controllers can speed up your workflow and help make repetitive functions less complicated, thereby smoothing out the mixing process. Since many of our workspaces are already cramped with keyboards, monitors, drum machines and the like, let’s start small.

Tape-style transport functions are a great convenience when punching in or working with multiple takes of the same passage. One of the most exciting dedicated transport options now available is the Tranzport by Frontier Design Group. This handy device not only boasts a small footprint but offers comprehensive, battery-powered, wireless control of your computer workstation from anywhere in your studio or adjoining room. The benefits of this are twofold. First, you will be able to escape the unrelenting operating noise of your computer by working at a greater distance from its noisy fans and hard drives. Second, you will be able to position yourself in a more comfortable and creative space that may not necessarily be immediately in front of your computer. There are dedicated buttons for often-used functions like marker/locate, solo, mute and "record arm," which eliminate the need to run back and forth to your DAW and allow you to create comfortably and without interruption.

The Presonus FaderPort and Tranzport by the Frontier Design Group

With the majority of our recording mechanism located invisibly inside our computers, we sometimes forget that many of these components need constant adjustment to keep them working harmoniously. One great oversight that is easy to make in our "set it and forget it" computer world, is to neglect the dynamic qualities that bring a sense of excitement and vibrance to our recorded listening experience. When a capable engineer goes to work on a large format console the results can be spectacular indeed. The physical layout and immediate availability of equalization, muting, and fader controls leads to a more physically involved approach that can contribute almost as much to the final product as the music itself. Before the days of automation, mixing passes were rehearsed until just the right take was documented with as many hands as it took to get the job done. This tactile experience helped impose a unique and recognizable sonic signature on the recorded music that we have grown up with.

There are several contenders for our next level of DAW controller that not only offer transport and track control, but add fader control as well. The Presonus FaderPort and the Frontier Design Group’s AlphaTrack both offer a touch-sensitive 100mm long throw fader for controlling automation and subtle level changes in real time. Now you can dial in your single or grouped fades quickly and accurately while writing automation moves that would be tricky at best to execute with your mouse. The FaderPort features a well laid out control set that fits comfortably under the hand and allows you to jump between channels, choose window views, and make immediate panning adjustments with minimum effort. The FaderPort adds three touch-sensitive encoders, a 32-character backlit display, and an innovative jog-and-shuttle strip for fast timeline control.

Frontier Design Groupís AlphaTrack

All those who thought that they could do without one of these small wonders, may be pleasantly surprised at just how effective and addictive they can be.

If you have the workspace available and yearn for more immediate knob gratification, larger controllers like the Mackie Control and Mixed Logic M24 behave even more like a true console than their smaller counterparts. The M24 features 24 motorized faders and a dedicated equalizer section that allows familiar EQ controls to be carried over from one manufacturer to another. The Mackie Control is expandable to increase the number of immediately available channels and gives you your choice of more track control (the Extender) or more plug in control (the C4) as you grow. JL Cooper has divided the functions of the console into several separately available units that can be pieced together into your own favorite combination.

The Mackie Control with the Extender and the C4 (from left to right)

With only one fader and a handful of knobs available on a smaller control unit, you must first select which track you wish to address before making any desired adjustments. This can prove to be a fair compromise when desk space is a factor, but the more components of your mix that are made instantly available for fine tuning, the quicker your creative thoughts travel from your mind to the physical world. Multiple fader groups and knobs also means access to several parameters simultaneously without having to page through cumbersome menus, to add just a touch more background vocal, or solo to your bass track. With eight or more faders available, sculpting your drum mix becomes a much more focused and instinctual process. Now you can begin the truly gratifying process of mixing more with your hands and ears, and less with your eyes.

Top Pro Audio categories:

- Recording
- Desktop Audio
- Keyboards & Synths
- ENG, EFP & Broadcast
- Live Sound & PA
- Accessories

Please email feedback on this article, or suggestions for future topics, to emailfeedback@bhphotovideo.com.