07 Dec Choosing a DAW Controller
In the world of professional audio, things are changing fast. With the modern DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), an aspiring engineer can get started with just their computer, no extra analog gear necessary. Although this helps to keep the price low for beginners just starting out, not everybody is a fan of the new digital era. One gripe that engineers from the analog days have with the new “in the box” digital world is the lack of tactile knobs, faders, and buttons. After spending many years tweaking those knobs and faders to perfection, the feel of the hardware under their fingers has become a part of the process for many and using a mouse to navigate a large session can feel tedious and time consuming.
Some people have become quite proficient with mouse gestures and keyboard commands, happy to learn a new workflow and adapt to the changing world. Others feel that moving a mouse around and looking at a keyboard creates a distraction and raises a barrier between what is in their heads and what they are working on. They insist that an engineer is wasting valuable time, and therefore money, each time he or she reaches for a mouse.
This issue has been around since the advent of the digital age in the mid 90’s and many solutions have been created to help resolve it. Since each engineer works in their own unique ways, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, which complicates matters further. This has created a large variety of DAW and software controllers that range in size and functionality, from a single assignable knob, to an entire mixing console with every fader, button, and knob mapped to the corresponding control in your software. Choosing a DAW controller has never been easier (or more difficult). I will take you through a few of the options available today in all price and feature ranges. We’ll start small, and work our way up from there.
nOb- The nOb control is pretty much exactly what it says; an assignable rotary control that can control any parameter in your DAW (or other media production software). If you would like to have the feel of a knob as you write automation, or just a handy scrub wheel to navigate your session, but do not need a full featured controller, this might be a simple and effective solution for you. It also has a couple switches for some additional parameter adjustment.
Price not listed on website.
Behringer X-Touch One Universal Control Surface- The X-Touch One is one of the most popular control surfaces available today. It seems to have found a sweet spot that provides a very full featured one-fader controller for a very affordable price. In addition to the touch controlled fader, the X-Touch One features a rotary knob, scrub wheel, transport buttons, scribblestrip, and 30 additional reassignable buttons for controlling different parameters of your DAW. Aside from being feature-rich and affordable, the X-Touch maintains a small footprint, taking up little of your valuable desk space, further increasing its value. I am a satisfied owner of an X-Touch One and have never had a single hiccup, dropout, or failure. It was incredibly easy to set up and worked flawlessly with almost no effort.
PreSonus FaderPort- The FaderPort is another popular option for a single fader control surface. It is about $20 cheaper ($199.99) than the X-Touch One and provides most of the same features. It sports the touch controlled fader and transport buttons, but does not provide a scrub wheel or scribble strip and only has 18 additional reassignable buttons.
Both PreSonus and Behringer have larger models in the same product lines that offer more faders and are aiming for more of a full-sized mixing board feel. These are also priced affordably and reviewed quite highly.
Slate Media Technology Raven MTZ- While other companies are trying to bring the world of analog back into the digital realm, Slate has taken it upon themselves to create a modern digital workflow from the ground up. The Raven MTZ is a DAW controller with a 43” touch screen, multi-touch, and gesture ability. By combining the computer monitor with the DAW controller, Slate is eliminating all of the distractions and barriers between you and your work. Instead of reaching for your mouse, navigating it where you want and then clicking, you simply need one touch of your finger. In addition, batch commands can be set up to execute up to 1000 commands with a single gesture, saving valuable time. The MTZ supports all major DAWs and boasts 10 ultra precise multi-touch points. It is the newest offering from Slate Media Technology and sells for $2,999. When buying a Raven, the user must purchase a $99 iLok license for each DAW they desire to control. Slate also makes a smaller, slightly less feature-rich version of the controller that is called the Raven MTi2 which sports a screen size of 27.”
Avid S4 24 Control Surface- Avid is the company that owns Pro Tools recording software and has been one of the biggest names in the industry since acquiring Pro Tools. These controllers are purpose built, fully-featured, extremely reliable, incredibly powerful, and generally very expensive. They are made to do more than just control your DAW, however. When used with an Avid interface, the controller has full control over all interface parameters as well, such as preamp options and output levels, making the whole system feel more like a real recording console. The controller can be used with any major DAW and connects to your computer using Ethernet, providing a very efficient and robust communication method powered by the EuCon protocol. There are optional modules that can be added or swapped to change the layout of your controller to tailor its functions to your needs. At the hefty price of $52,995.00, this is certainly not a beginner unit, but you would be hard pressed to find a better, more fully featured software controller anywhere.
Some software controllers have what is called a hybrid design, which includes some analog functionality such as preamps, converters, or monitor outputs. These can be very useful for killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. Some of these units are little more than a DAW controller with a couple preamps, and some are nothing short of a full analog recording console that also controls your DAW. The latter could potentially allow an engineer to utilize the non-linear nature of a DAW, while getting all of the sonic and tactile benefits of an analog mixing console with none of the drawbacks. The following two controllers are examples of this.
Solid State Logic Nucleus- The Nucleus is a full-featured, 16-fader DAW controller. In addition to being considered an industry leading DAW controller, it also sports two top of the line SSL preamps and can be used as a two channel interface. The Nucleus has a multitude of digital connectivity, including USB, SPIDF, SD card reader, and Ethernet. The Nucleus also has mastering grade digital to analog converters that feed two XLR monitor outs for studio monitors, eliminating the need for a separate playback interface. The goal of the Nucleus is to provide a control surface that will eliminate the need to ever touch your keyboard or your mouse, streamlining your workflow and saving you time and money. The Nucleus is a cross-platform controller and can be set up to be used with all major DAWs. At $4,799, the Nucleus is not a cheap option, but it is important to remember that you’re getting much more than a control surface. You are getting mastering grade DAC and ADC, a USB interface, monitor outputs, a monitor controller, two very high quality preamps, and one of the biggest names in the industry, which all factor into the final price.
Solid State Logic AWS 948- The SSL AWS 948 is a top of the line recording console and DAW controller. Sporting 24 SSL SuperAnalogue microphone preamplifiers, 24 additional line inputs, 8 stereo busses, a master bus compressor, and a 4-band master bus equalizer, the AWS 948 is already one of the most desirable mid-sized consoles in production today. With the inclusion of its full-featured touch fader DAW control, this thing is nearly unbeatable. At a staggering price of $106,500, this unit is everything you need to put your DAW based studio on par sonically and functionally with the best analog studios in the world.
As you can see, there are many options out there in the world of DAW and software controllers. Thankfully, there are just as many great options for someone starting out as there are for the professional engineer. This is by no means a complete list but should demonstrate the options and give you an idea of the general features and price range you should expect. As with many things in the audio world, much of it comes down to your preference and preferred workflow. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try something new if you find your first choice isn’t working for you. And if you haven’t given a DAW controller a try, give it a shot! You may be surprised.