What is a Control Surface and Why Do I Need One?

© 2012, 2016 Harmony Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.

Music creation today

Before the ascent of digital recording technology and computers, music was produced primarily in professional studios. These were impressive affairs with their special acoustic rooms and glass paned control booths. At the heart of every studio was a larger mixing console with its array of knobs, faders, switches, lights and meters. The mixing console screamed "we're in the business of making music!".

Today music production is quite different. No longer are purpose-built studio complexes necessary; much music is now made in "personal studios" often found in dedicated rooms in the musician/producer's home, or even in the bedroom. Digital audio, and especially inexpensive, powerful computers have made this all possible. The recording studio of yesterday with its tape machines, effects racks, and yes even the mixing console, has now been virtualized inside applications such as Reason, Logic Pro X, and GarageBand.

Yet for all the advantages modern digital music production offers, something has been lost. Music making for many is now enacted in front of the computer. The "luxury" of a favorite, inspiring place where you can play your guitar, sing, or bang on some drums (or drum pads) has been compromised to fit within the computer-centric way we now make music. Also gone is a kind of physical intimacy with transforming raw recordings and sounds into a finished song. Moments spent teasing just the right track levels, or adjusting an equalizer setting to make a vocal "pop" have been replaced with "mousing around" and clicking. If you have never laid your eyes on a "professional" mixing console, let alone placed your hands on it, then you probably do not even realize the loss; those who cut their music production teeth many years ago still feel the grief.

Alas all is not as dire as that. Today there are "control surfaces" that can be used in conjunction with music software to fill the role once played by the mixing console. A typical control surface offers an array of faders (or equivalent) to control software track level and overall mix volume. Rotary "knobs" and switches affect changes to on-screen controls like EQ settings and record and mute settings. All of these functions, the association of device controls with software functions, are left to how the software handles the control surface. Some control surfaces even include LCD "scribble strips" to label the names of tracks, something once done with masking tape and a pen.

The Mackie control surface (photo at right) is an example of a current generation "pro quality" control surface. It is supported by numerous music software applications (but alas not GarageBand). It offers eight "channels" (tracks) of simultaneous control. If your song has more than eight tracks then you use a "bank function" to move the eight channels to control a different set of tracks in your song. Think of this as an eight track window into your song that you can move around as needed. Most control surfaces use a similar scheme.

The Mackie includes controls that are representative of those found on many control surface devices. Highlights include:

My Image

Track faders - used to adjust the volume level for each track, a key element of achieving a well executed mix.

Mute and solo buttons - an important aspect of mixing is getting different tracks to "hang together", to blend in a way to achieve your musical goal. When a song grows beyond a handful of tracks it can be hard to hear the contribution of each track in a way to make adjustments or other mixing decisions. Mute buttons provide a rapid means to take a track out of the mix so that you can concentrate on just those tracks you wish to focus upon. Press a track's solo button and only that track is heard, perfect for zeroing in on a particular instrument or vocal.

Record enable buttons - when these buttons are active the corresponding track is ready ("armed") for recording, meaning that when you engage the record button in the transport controls (see below) your software will begin recording new material to that track. One advantage of using a control surface is how fast and intuitive it is to do things like record a new track, or record a new section in an existing track.

Track rotaries - each channel may have a rotary, or rotaries, that are assigned different roles depending on your software's current operation mode. For example if you wish to adjust how much reverb is applied to a track the rotary is set to control a "track send" to the reverb effect. Then when you adjust the rotary, more or less of the track is sent to the reverb. Rotaries are some of the most powerful, yet hardest to use features of a control surface. A "real" mixing console would dedicate a rotary to each control. So the EQ section might have five, eight, or more of them per track, making EQ adjustment fast and easy. No so with a control surface. Rotaries are shared across many functions, and sometimes across tracks. This is one of the areas where many control surfaces compromise.

LCD display - usually resides above the channels and serves different roles, again depending on what the software is currently doing. Sometimes it is used to provide a message or feedback to the user, almost like an alert box on the computer screen. Other times it shows the names of settings assigned to things like rotaries, and their current values. A common "resting condition" is to show abbreviations for the track names.

Transport controls - most control surfaces feature a dedicated set of buttons to control recording and playback. The PLAY button starts playback. Pressing it again either pauses or stops playback, depending on the software application. RECORD places the application in "record mode" and either starts recording when pressed, or when PLAY is next pressed (GarageBand starts recording immediately). Fast Forward and Rewind move the playback position rapidly through the song. A "jog wheel", or equivalent, is also used to move through a song.

The benefits of using a control surface in your studio

Many first time control surface users approach the device with the expectation that the track faders and rotaries are the most important benefit of using a control surface. And while those are quite useful, a potentially larger productivity boost is derived from using the transport controls, the mute/solo buttons, and the track record enables. The reason is that these are activities that you constantly perform through the song's production. In fact it is here that many users can find exciting benefits from using a control surface.

To illustrate, suppose you are a guitar playing song writer and you want to "lay down" a rhythm track idea for a song. Without a control surface, you are pretty much stuck standing, or sitting in a chair, very close to your computer work station area just so that you can select "new track", and then click on the transport's record button. If you've remembered to set "count in" then you have a measure to pick up your guitar, gather yourself, and get ready to strum the first chord on the downbeat. That's a lot of activity better spent getting yourself "into the moment".

A control surface can help here if it is placed properly in your studio. This is a common mistake made by control surface users. The control surface is seen as an extension of the computer screen and mouse and is often placed on the work surface along side the mouse and keyboard. And for many activities later in production, like mixing, this is a desirable location. But during the early stage of capturing your musical ideas, where small annoyances can become huge creativity killers, you are probably better served with the control surface close at hand to where you create your tracks.

Imagine your studio is set up with a control surface "at hand" where you play your instrument or sing your vocals. The combination of track record enables, track mutes/solos, and transport controls affords the opportunity to get multiple tracks down quickly without the distraction of a computer! Need to record another track of the bridge? No problem, use the "jog wheel" or fast-forward/rewind to move to before the bridge section, hit record enable on the track, then press record on the transport controls.

Using a control surface placed easily at hand to where you make your tracks can be an enormous workflow improvement. Your focus remains on the task at hand - recording your music ideas, without the distractions a computer sometimes imposes whether you like it or not.

Notice that this scenario hardly makes use of the faders and rotaries, features often seen as the reason for using a control surface. Their importance is more "toward the end" of production when ideas have already been recorded, culled, and edited. This "mixing phase" often requires a different type of work area, one where hearing the mix's details is paramount. And the reality is one where you also have ready access to a diverse set of music software edit and processing commands and actions. For most users placing the control surface on the same work surface with the computer does make sense while mixing. Even so it can still be enormously liberating (and gain a fresh perspective on a mix) to "sit back" into the sweetspot of your studio's sound system to play different sections of the song with different mix settings.

All of this highlights the fact that a control surface that is physically large and heavy either leads you to have multiple control surfaces (one per place you need to use it), or to make a compromise about what its role will be. And most users seem to gravitate towards the mixing end of things, which is unfortunate as the benefits during "idea capture" are immense.

This is one reason why portable solutions such as those available for the iPad and iPhone are so compelling. Sure you give up some of the physicality (and let's face it, "sexiness" ) of actual faders and rotaries but what you gain is instant portability, the freedom to move anywhere your Wi-Fi reliably reaches to capture, edit, mix, or evaluate.

Delora Control Surface Apps

See our full line of control surface apps for iPhone/iPad that support GarageBand, Logic, Reason and Kyma.

How do music applications support control surfaces?

Control surface devices, like the Mackie, connect to your computer using either MIDI, USB, or for some high-end models, a network Ethernet connection. Depending on the model these may require installing extra drivers or other software before they can be used. Once installed they are usable with a given audio application only if that application specifically supports the device. This last point is very important: a control surface is only useful to you if your software supports that specific device.

Full-featured music production software like Logic Pro, Reason, or Ableton Live include built-in support for a number of control surfaces. This is something that the music production application developer includes, perhaps working in partnership with the control surface manufacturer. Sometimes the music production application developer offers a "control surface API" so that third party developers or device manufacturers can craft their own support for that particular software application. Thus is it very difficult for a user to add an unsupported device to their favorite music sequencer or other application.

The reality today is that most music production applications only support a handful of control surfaces. Generally these are the devices that have proven over time to be popular; newer devices face an uphill battle for inclusion (and eventual acceptance by users). This is why control surfaces largely remain as they were when they first gained popularity ten years or more ago. A company wishing to offer a new control surface for use with those applications is faced with a classic chicken and egg problem. For their product to be successful it must be supported by the application, but before the music production application will support the controller it must be popular (and "successful"). So the control surface provider must either adapt their product to “emulate” one of the standard controllers supported by the music production application they wish to work with, or if the music production applications offers some type of “control surface API” they must invest in creating their own custom “control surface driver”. Many control surface providers opt for the first approach, which is why many control surface products, including a number of iPad applications, mention that they are "Mackie Control" compatible. This approach though does tend to compromise the user experience; regardless of how the control surface looks underneath it must translate all its actions into the supported control surface’s (like the Mackie), and thus suffers from its limitations.

So do I really need a control surface?

This might be an interesting question to ponder when considering the purchase of a $1,000 USD control surface but if you already have an iPad, an inexpensive control surface app is a bit of a no-brainer. iOS apps such as our rsTouch (for Reason), lpTouch (for Logic Pro and Logic Pro X), gbXRemote (for Garageband 10), and gbTouch (for Garageband ’09 and ’11) liberate you from having to sit in front of your computer while you record, and even to some extent, mix your song. Just taking your hands off the mouse and sitting back in the chair while you listen to the second chorus for the tenth straight time can bring new perspectives and ideas. Mute the third backing vocal track and you discover the mix now sounds more open and inviting. Tweak the lead guitar level up a tad to really add excitement. Add a little extra high frequency sizzle to your drum cymbals so they really groove. All of these things are possible without touching your computer mouse. Need to re-record the guitar part? Take your iPad over to your guitar and amp, arm the track for recording, hit record, and flail away. Your creativity is unshackled from the chains of your computer work area!

Another easily overlooked benefit is that a control surface often frees up precious computer screen real estate. For example, a control surface like rsTouch provides full access to Reason’s Main Mixer. It can be operated even when the Reason Main Mixer screen is hidden. Often a control surface mitigates the need for a larger computer monitor, or even a second display. This is an important benefit in this day and age where notebook computers are the weapon of choice for many musicians and producers.

Finally, don’t overlook how a well considered control surface enhances the feeling of immersion in your music production activities. Manipulating a plugin’s faders, rotaries, and switches directly with a multitouch control surface operating on an iPad or iPhone can enhance the feeling of connection with your musical activities. For some users this feeling is never quite achieved through manipulating a fader or rotary using a mouse on a computer screen. And the more immersive the experience the easier it is to get lost in your music!

. . . Yes, you do!