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The Unique Geek

The Unique Geek
January 7, 2011

Control Your Music – How to pick a controller

Back in the olden days there weren’t even faders; there were only knobs. You recorded to tape and turned a knob for everything. Thanks to a brilliant fellow by the name of Tom Dowd, we now assume that when you mean to increase or decrease the volume of a track, you grab a fader. The linear fader allowed Tom (best known for his Ray Charles production work) to control numerous channels simultaneously as he could have his fingers on may channels at once. It’s a faster way to work as well.

EMI Console Circa 1960

Today we get used to working with a mouse and qwerty keyboard for so much. Once many of us made (make) the transition from an analog mixer to just a mouse we think life becomes easier. Many a musician has decided to get rid of the analog mixer and increasingly go virtual – away from a world of wires. Suddenly, there is more real estate on the desk. Now, there is room for the whole box of pizza next to my keyboard!

Mixer and Cables

After you have rid yourself of that clumsy box of knobs, faders and wires you feel a weight off of your shoulders and everything in your mind clears. A slight sense of euphoria washes over you. Then, you realize it might be time to get off the meth and focus on your music instead. Think about it – what kind of weirdo feels euphoria over getting rid of the analog mixer? But, the next feeling you’ll have weeks later is cramping in your wrists.

Once you get rid of faders and knobs and do it all “in the box” (as they say with a DAW) you’ll feel it in your wrists. It’s just not possible to work for hours on end with nothing but a mouse and qwerty without it tiring your hands and wrists. Once this happens it’s time to think about a control surface.

Logic Faders

If and when you get into a control surface, especially one with motorized faders, you’ll get the chance to do something else musically (not mutually) beneficial. You’ll be able to do what someone like Tom Dowd would have done – mix with your ears. Too often in the DAW we just mix with our eyes.

Mixing with your eyes is awfully counterintuitive. It’s hard not to think in terms of what the numbers say (-3.5 dB, -12.3 dB, etc) when you are staring at them all of the time. What will work better and get you mixing faster is to not think so much and listen more. At least for me, anyhow, thinking doesn’t help much. If I think about the mix, I tend to spend more time doing just that – thinking. It could be that my being mentally challenged is slowing me up. But, I recently found that I can get a rough mix faster by listening to the music, moving the faders and not looking at on-screen faders at the dB value for each channel. The best way to force yourself to do this is just hide the mixer screen on your DAW. Only look at the waveforms if you must stare at something.

Even if you don’t have motorized faders (faders that move on their own) any control surface will help you a lot. It is faster to have banks of faders and knobs than it is to constantly be grabbing the mouse, zeroing in on a small pan knob on screen and then clicking and dragging on it. And let’s decide whether all knobs will click-n-drag from horizontally or vertically – can we already? But, I digress – imagine a world where you have a solo button, a mute button, a record enable button, a fader, a pan knob and a send knob exists on each channel – not virtually, but for real.

National Lampoon's Vacation

First thing’s first – how do you decide which one to buy? As the man says to Clark Griswold in Vacation after Clark asks what the repair will cost, “how much you got?”  This is, essentially, how you’ll decide which control surface to buy. But, let’s be more formulaic. Here are your categories, to my mind:

1.      Surface and I/O (like the Digidesign 003 or the Cakewalk V-Studio)

2.      Motorized only (like Euphonix controllers)

3.      Knobs and faders only (like Akai APC40 or Korg’s NanoKontrol)

4.      MIDI keyboard with surface control (like M-Audio Axiom Pro or Akai MPK series)

Armed with these 4 categories in mind, simply start choosing your surface based on one of four questions:

1.      Do I need an interface and control surface at the same time?

2.      Do I want to work with motorized faders since I have an I/O already?

3.      Do I simply want knobs and faders and I need no feedback from them?

4.      Do I need a new MIDI keyboard, so I might as well get one that can be my control surface too?

On question numbers 2 & 3, we are just deciding if we consider motorized faders important or not. Motorized faders are cool – really cool. Yet, they are functional too. It’s not just they move on their own (after you have automation written), but they also show you what your mix looks like even if the only thing on your computer monitor are the waveforms or plug-ins. You can always just look down and see what is going on with your mix. “Duh, why don’t I hear the bass…oh, the fader is all of the way down.” It’s a question of money though, of course. Also consider this, for someone who uses two computer monitors (one on waveforms and one showing the mixer) having motorized faders isn’t as crucial as you can always see what your mix looks like.

MPK Screen

Once you’ve decided on one of these four categories, then you start choosing based on price and on how much work it might take to get up and running. Some control surfaces come with presets to work with a DAWs and many synths out of the box. With others, you need to either train your software or program the controller to respond to all of you movements you want to make.

There is one last thing to keep in mind. I have talked to many who used to own a control surface and now don’t bother with it because they gave up on it. The only reason why a control surface won’t serve you well and make your life better is because you won’t commit to it. Just like a marriage, you gotta work at it. Ironically, though, the more you work on your controller – the more you might neglect your marriage. It just never ends does it? Anyway, if you force yourself to not touch the mouse, then you’ll be forced to find a way to make your control surface do the work. After a couple of weeks of this you’ll find yourself working much faster in the studio.

One more last thing to keep in mind. Do learn your keyboard short cuts. Every DAW has a laundry list of keyboard short cuts that (with the press of a couple of buttons) do a lot of tasks that you’d be fumbling through menus to find. The real bad man is the mouse. The mouse is the carpel tunnel maker – so make the keyboard shortcuts and control surface take away 90% of what you were doing with the mouse.

Carpel Tunnel, Yikes!

[And if you love both music and documentaries, you have to see Tom Dowd & the Language of Music. If you don’t love either, you should be put down.]

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