Hands-off control of instruments and DAWs has become the latest ‘big thing’ in production. But how does it work?
As software has become more powerful, it has taken on far more features than ever before. Advanced DAWs, virtual instruments and effects and DJ apps can do stuff that would have boggled the mind just a couple of decades ago. The only problem with this is that a computer mouse isn’t really the ideal way to interact with such feature-rich software.
In terms of creativity, we often need to do more than one thing at once, or at least not be slowed down by hunting for and digging around in menu items.
As such, there has been a concerted push in recent years to improve the controller experience and make it one that people go to as their primary means of working with music software instead of a novelty extra. In truth, computers are likely to remain at the heart of many people’s setups, because they are simply so powerful and multi-functional that to replace them would take many different hardware products.
However, the way things seem to be going is producers are being encouraged to interact with the computer less and with controllers more, leaving the computer as the ‘brain’ of the system, but the controller taking over the creative role.
You can see this most clearly with companies such as NI, which are working hard to make just such a future happen, though there are many others doing the same. This idea of making the computer ‘invisible’ has been around for a while, but it’s only in the last few years technology has started to make it truly possible.
Most of the controllers on the market can be used in generic MIDI mode, but almost all are better suited to linking up specifically with the application or instrument that they have been designed alongside.
For years, MIDI control meant triggering drums from pads or changing filters with knobs – and though this is still possible, users expect a much deeper level of integration now. A bit of performance control doesn’t equal making the computer near-invisible.
As noted, Native Instruments has done a huge amount of work on making its instruments and applications respond almost entirely to input from its hardware, enabling people to perform, record and edit from the hardware, while the computer does the heavy lifting. The company has three main product lines and all now have companion hardware that enables almost full hands-off operation.
The Maschine beat-making system has Mikro, Maschine and Studio controllers with varying levels of functionality, and the Traktor DJ system also has multiple controllers, with the largest S5 and S8 systems having built-in audio mixers and interfaces, too. The Komplete Kontrol software and hardware allows extensive control of the company’s instruments and also third-party VST plug-ins.
All these hardware units can also use MIDI templates, which you can create yourself to control any software or hardware.
Another developer that does this kind of stuff, albeit with a wider scope in terms of what it supports, is Nektar. The company’s Panorama and Impact range of controllers come with mapping for some leading DAWs straight out of the box (Bitwig, Cubase, Logic and Reason) as well as 93 physical controls and a large colour screen for visual feedback.
NI’s Traktor Kontrol S8 has a futuristic workflow designed to make sense to old-school DJs and progressive producers
They also have shortcuts for macros so you can, for example, send chains of commands or keystrokes without having to use the computer keyboard. A grid of pads also lets you play beats.
An even newer series is Akai’s Advance keyboard controllers. Again, these have a multitude of physical controls and a colour screen, but in this case, the VIP software lets you catalogue, control and map all your VST instruments for use inside your DAW.
A similar system is used by Novation, whose Impulse controller keyboards use the Automap software to map hardware to software parameters. Again, there are multiple sizes of controller depending on your needs.
Although there’s a lot of focus on all-in-one keyboard controllers, because most people would prefer using one device over using three if possible, some controllers are more unique. Softube’s Console 1, for example, is a specialised mix controller unit.
Install the software and you get a software version of the SSL 4000 E channel strip, plus a dedicated way to manipulate this for any channel in your project. The hardware has a fixed layout, but is the same for every channel; so the idea is you move between tracks and, for each one, dial in settings for EQ, compression, gain, filters and more using the dials. It’s pretty specialised, but also an amazing way to mix in an old-school way using cutting-edge computers.
Mixing is an area where hands-on controllers can really help you improve the sound of your tracks, freeing you from the mouse and giving you a ‘real’ mixer experience, one which anyone who has tried it will probably admit is superior.
Nektar’s Panorama combines a vast range of MIDI options, DAW shortcuts and transport control into an all-inclusive creative tool.
They range greatly in cost and featureset: at the more affordable end are units such as the Nektar Panorama P1, Behringer X-Touch and Novation Launch Control. The Avid Artist Mix is a little more expensive, but great for mixing with Pro Tools.
If you go a few notches up, you start taking steps into the world of dedicated touch-screen mix controllers, far bigger than anything running on the iPad. For example, the PreSonus StudioLive CS18AI works with Studio One, and Slate’s Raven MTi2 Production Console can be used to get touch-based control of most major DAWs.
As you can see, there is a great selection of controllers out there, depending on what you’re trying to control and what your budget is. If you‘ve bought into one particular software ecosystem, such as NI’s, then you’re probably best off with their controllers.
If you want to turn your controllers to lots of different uses, you can do this with most units, although you’ll be able to save some cash by selecting hardware that isn’t targeted at one company’s software. All told, there’s never been a better time to get into remote-controlling your music sessions.
4 Of The Best
• Web www.native-instruments.com
• Price £729
NI’s Maschine Studio is the big boy on the block, a performance powerhouse with near-total control of the Maschine software without having to ever go near your computer.
• Web www.softube.com
• Price £479
Console 1 is a dedicated mix controller that focuses on the bundled software channel strip modelled on a classic SSL unit. It provides an analogue console-style mixing experience with a much smaller footprint.
Akai Advance 61
• Web www.akaipro.com
• Price £459
As well as being a USB MIDI keyboard, the AKAI Advance series has serious controller functionality, including the ability to map your VST plug-in collection for use inside your DAW. Two more-compact models are available in addition to the 61.
• Web www.nektartech.com
• Price From £175 (P1)
Nektar’s mix controller has multiple faders, transport controls and rotary dials, plus a dedicated colour screen and maps for some leading DAWs. Use it to control your mix sessions or send key combos to your software to perform advanced functions. Other range options, e.g. the P6 below, merge the tech with a keyboard controller.