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My Ideal Control Surface for DAWs

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat to fellow musician Nadir Omowale earlier this week and it got me thinking about what I would like to see in my “ideal control surface”.

The introduction of scripting in some of the DAWs (notably, but not exclusively FL Studio) is starting to result in small but sometimes significant improvements in functionality that are in the spirit of, but go beyond, the standard Mackie (MCU*) Protocol implementations of old. Forward thinking hardware manufacturers are building on this “new wave” of development and starting to offer higher resolution displays (Mackie is / was based on a very limiting 7 characters for each Mixer track but is easily extended beyond that with todays technologies and software enhancements) offering up the promise of more accurate and informative descriptions coupled with icon representation of the content of each track (as we often see in DAWs themselves – example below.)

Software showing “icon” representation of instruments and track names beyond
7 char limits – can we get this reflected in our hardware controllers?

I would like to see hardware manufacturers giving us “home recording artists” additional ‘real estate’ for our controllers (I am already loving the ICON QCon Pro X with it’s dual displays!) and I am hoping that it is only a matter of time before software standards emerge across DAW manufacturers to enable the easy integration of things like icons and other aspects of DAWs that were not around when MCU was introduced (As a “budding” musician myself I am taking this opportunity to brain storm a quick list below – but I am sure there are other ideas worth including).

Things I might like to see in my future DAW controller*

  • Colour LCDs – and a tie in between the colours used in a mixer and on the control surface itself (but just to be awkward – I want a “black and white” option button as well!)
  • Graphic Icons depicting content – can make decision making by producers a split second quicker and also improve the aesthetics of the controller? (These icons could be automatically provided by the DAW though creation of a standardised set similar to those in FL Studio reproduced below)?
  • More software enhancements to standard MCU implementations (at the time of writing I have already seen outlined and implemented at least 5 small but significant enhancements over and above my own understanding of what is “standard” MCU functionality – I would certainly expect more to follow, both from me and from other independent developers out there!
  • Longer descriptive content of track names (an obvious one, though sometimes the brevity of being limited to 7 characters could also be seen as an advantage, in terms of succinctity/ergonomics)
  • A logical layout. I have heard this more than once and it relates to there being a lack of common knowledge of certain aspects of Control Surface / Mackie functionality. While everyone understands what the faders, transport and pan pots do – when it comes to the functionality hidden behind those 4 other key buttons (“Stereo”, “Sends”, “EQ”, “FREE”- and especially “Effects”) the functionality of pots and sometimes the faders completely changes and is often a source of confusion. It is my belief that musicians can only really tolerate at most a couple of different functions for each button/controller – and even then – one function is preferred! A change of colour in the background of the displays that mirrors the unique colour of each of these buttons (that should light up when chosen) would go a long way to helping with this issue.
  • Opportunities to change default content of displays (EG between 7 character and longer descriptions or by ‘switching the content of the displays on dual screen surfaces like the ICON QCon Pro X’ (something that I am already implementing in an upcoming script release for FL Studio – and perhaps for other DAWs as well?)
  • Additional opportunities for Descriptive content (EG category and manufacturer of Plug Ins for instruments and effects used inside the host DAW, keeping tabs on which guitar provided a particular sound etc etc)
  • Additional controls on the control surfaces themselves (EG Whammy Bars, Touch Screens etc.)
  • “Lyric synchronisation” – while by no means a strictly necessary feature I would love to have a display that shows me the current lyric that relates to the song pointer position I am currently positioned at. (I haven’t seen this in any DAWs yet but it seems to me to be an nice option and something that could be reflected in a forward thinking control surface that had a “spare” LCD!)
  • Enhanced plug-in controls – while the MCU was forward thinking in offering a methodology for controlling effects and plugins the popularity of separate dedicated controllers such as the Softube Control 1 point to a possible future addition to a Control Surface – after all who doesn’t wouldn’t want an SSL style channel strip as a part of their Control Surface? (Crude Mock Up below)
  • Tie-ins to Virtual Reality (I love what Korg are proposing in this space – ultimately it will offer all home studios an environment similar to the “ultimate studio” – like the one at the top of this post!)

*Initially we might see these emerge between “forward thinking” partnerships between the often separate software (DAW) and hardware (Control Surface) Companies with independent developers perhaps helping to provide “the glue” 🙂

My ultimate control surface – mock up

My sincere apologies to ICON and SSL – I am sure a designer could do this concept justice!

NB In the above example the Channel Strip would always reflect the currently selected track using continuous style “VPOTS” that reflect the current settings within a linked DAW based plug in. It would also be nice if the design was such that it could be added next to the main unit in a similar fashion to extenders – and could perhaps be purchased separately, or as a “bundle” with the main unit itself?

The screen to the top right represents a “thin client” LCD configurable and DAW linked panel built in to the controller per this post: (NB The area in the middle of the screen “FL Studio” in this example should be a touch screen mouse targeting the host (DAW) machine.

Examples of Musical Iconography that could be reflected in the Control Surface Interface:

(From FL Studio)

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