Have you ever experienced trouble when balancing the tracks in your DAW? It’s quite annoying using a mouse to balance the faders in mixing. Right? In this article, I’m gonna introduce you with 5 best control surfaces for Your DAW that will deliver you a great user experience and accuracy in your mixing.
But before let’s get some basic knowledge of Control surfaces.
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What Is A Control Surface?
A control surface is a MIDI/USB device which can be connected to your DAW and used as a controller for your DAW.
Apart from digital mixers, control surfaces don’t have any input/output. We can’t use control surfaces as an input device like analog and digital mixers.
However, today most of the digital mixers can be used as control surfaces too. Along with input/output bus and send, etc features, they have an added feature to control your DAW through MIDI/USB.
But digital mixers are very costly and generally out of pocket for home recordists. The best option for home recordists is, using dedicated control surfaces.
These are cheap and when it comes to controlling the DAW they have more functions than any digital mixer.
From just 1 fader to several faders and limited control to extended control, there are several types of control surfaces available in the market.
You can go for one according to your pocket length.
Why a Control Surface Is Important in a DAW?
There are many reasons behind using control surfaces for home studios.
Control surfaces make our workflow faster than operating with a keyboard and mouse. They are designed with dedicated controls for separate operations like the transport bar, faders, and assignable buttons.
These things make our workflow faster than the keyboard and mouse where we have to struggle with keyboard buttons to remember and slipping on the faders with the mouse.
With controls surfaces, you can extend the scope of your eyes. Yes, you can tune out your eyes from the computer screen and make some fun with analog-style controls.
Actually, an analog environment is a basic need of any studio. No matter how much this digital world captures the audio recording, the feel of the classic analog environment will always be in demand. And a control surface can fulfill this demand in a better way.
Control surfaces are a good example of a classic analog-style user interface with a powerful digital environment working in behind.
Better Mixing results
Now, you are wondering, a controller doesn’t take part in recording as an input-output device like mixers and audio interfaces then how they could make an impact on mixing.
Here I want to describe it with the definition of faders.
Faders are used to control the gain of tracks in mixer and DAWs. The gain is measured in dB. dB is not a linear measuring scale-like meter or kilogram but its a measurement for the amplitude of a wave. When we increase the volume by 1dB the amplitude of the wave doubled.
If you want to know the whole concept of the dB refer to Gain Staging: Secret to Get Good Levels In Your Mix
This doubling nature of dB makes the faders more complicated in balancing low volume instruments. And with a computer screen and mouse you have to struggle hard to achieve your balance.
Here control surfaces help us, where you can play with subtle changes in faders and get a better mixing then computer mouse and keyboard.
Change Studio’s Look
Obviously, a control surface can change the look of your studio. If you managed to get a big control surface you can be able to change the whole look of your studio.
It’s far better than a computer screen, mouse and keyboard-based home studio.
Best For Automation
If you are going to automate your songs then a control surface is a must for you. With control surfaces, you can easily achieve the best automation in no time.
In fact, control surfaces are specially built for automation.
Comes under Budget
As compared to digital mixers with the same number of faders and controls, control surfaces are far cheaper. You can get control surfaces with the fraction of the cost of digital mixers.
So, for the price point of view, control surfaces are the best alternatives to digital mixers.
I know, you are wondering that which is the best control surface for Your DAW? I have several control surfaces and find 5 of them which I’m going to introduce with you today.
5 Best Control Surfaces For Your DAW
There are many control surfaces are available in the market that support your DAW. though, I researched many of them and choose 5 best control surfaces for you.
They are under your pocket length, full of features, and also the great looking user interface. Let’s check out them.
1. Presonus FaderPort V2
This tiny powerhouse will surprise you in every stage of your recording and mixing session. Presonus Fader Port is a perfect combination of low budget and powerful control surface.
However, it’s limited with only one fader its a good start for a home studio. You can get it with just a fraction of money than other standard control surfaces. This 5.5″X9″ small device is a perfect one to replace your computer mouse.
If you are searching for the best control surface for your DAW then this will be my 1st recommendation.
The Transport Control
Presonus Fader Port has dedicated transport control. You get Play/pause, Record, stop, loop and RW/FF buttons just at the bottom of its user interface.
However, many control surfaces have dedicated transport controls but imagine a control surface you can hold on your hands when operating. You don’t need to bend towards the recording table every time to take action.
This is an added advantage of Presonus Fader Port and makes you more comfortable in a long recording session.
Full-Length Motorized fader
Presonus Fader Port’s just one fader could be annoying when you encounter with it the first time.
Read the above “Better Mixing Results” section again, where I described how dB is calculated?
Due to the doubling nature of dB, in the low ends, you struggle in balancing your faders on the computer screen. In the low ends like below -10dB, a very small movement of fader can change the sound dramatically.
Here a full-length 100mm physical fader helps you to optimize your mixing. With hardware faders, you can play with those small volume changes without struggling with your computer mouse.
Presonus Fader Port has not only 100mm standard fader but the faders are motorized too. The motorized fader helps you to create some awesome automation in your tracks.
And if you are a Logic Pro X user then Presonus Fader Port’s motorized fader will be a great automation assistant for you.
Other Transport and Edit Buttons
Along with transport control at the bottom, Presounus Fader Port has a full range of dedicated transport and edit buttons.
With these buttons, you don’t even need to touch your keyboard throughout the session. Presonus Fader Port has 24 buttons covering 40 different functions, and all this feature you get in a compact 5.5″X9″ chassis.
Let’s have look on those buttons and functions.
- Drop Marker, Next/Prev Event, Next/Prev Marker
- Undo/Redo, Arm All, Click On/Off, Solo/Mute Clear
- Session Navigator: Track Scrolling, Timeline Scrolling
- Channel Controls: Level, Pan, Rec Arm, Solo, Mute
- Automation Controls: Write, Touch, Latch, Trim, Read, Off
Do you still need your keyboard? I think, no.
Some Other Useful Functions
Presonus Fader port comes with 360° button encoder and footswitch input for hands-free start/stop. This feature is useful for musicians who record individually.
Presouns Fader port is compatible with both Mac and Windows and native Studio One support and HUI and Mackie Control Universal emulation. Which means its compatible with any DAW supporting these algorithms.
Presonus Fader Port has USB 2.0 connectivity and can be connected with any computer via USB.
Presonus Fader Port Price
Presonus Faderport is sold below $200. You can check out the exact price here
2. Mackie MCU Pro
Mackie MCU Pro or Mackie Control Universal Pro is one of the best control surfaces available in the market. However, you have to spend a good amount of money, if you are going to own this amazing gear.
The price range of Mackie MCU Pro is $1099.99 to $1499.99 on most of the online merchant websites. Although, this is a high priced gear even it is far less than a good digital mixer.
There are digital mixers available in the market at a low price but they have some major limitations like non-motorized faders and lack of display panel etc.
If you go for one with the above features, you have to invest at least the double amount of money from Mackie MCU Pro.
Mackie MCU Pro has one cool thing that I really like, ie; it can be expanded with add-on units Mackie’s Extender Pro and C4.
Actually, these expansions make this USB control surface a full-featured control surface for almost all DAWs available in the market, But if you don’t have a budget, I don’t recommend you to buy those expansions.
These 2 expansions will cost you $1000 to $1200 extra.
Mackie Universal Pro Transport Controls
Just as the Presonus Fader Port, Mackie MCU Pro has an easy to use transport control. This control can help you in all the major operations in Your DAW. For transport and edit controls Mackie MCU Pro has a dedicated area in its user interface.
In this area you get standard transport controls like play/pause, stop, record, etc, as well as the clip and track edit features.
You can add effects on your DAWs tracks. Cut/paste, redo/undo, delete and other editing operations can be also done by this panel.
Here are some features of Mackie MCU Pro’s transport panel.
- Function select: 8 assignable function keys.
- Global view: Here you get selection buttons between the tracks like MIDI tracks, Audio tracks, instrument, busses, output, etc. This feature helps you to jump from one to another.
- Automation controller keys
- Utilities: Save, undo, enter, etc
- Transport bar
- Cursor controller
Display Panel of Mackie MCU Pro
Mackie MCU Pro comes with an inclined display panel for the monitoring of your recording process. This display panel is very useful for the visual monitoring of tracks. You can monitor the mixer of your DAW without entering the mixer window on your computer’s display.
However the display is not like your computer display but when you get familiar with it, you can easily monitor your session on it and save a lot of space on your computer’s monitor.
Faders and Automation
In Presonus Faderport you just get one motorized fader, but with Mackie MCU Pro you get 8 full-length motorized faders as well as a master fader for controlling the master volume.
With these full-length motorized faders, you can seamlessly and accurately mix your projects as well as do some amazing automation.
The added benefit of 8+1 faders is, you don’t need to change the bank every time to jump from one fader to another so the mixture will be easier and time saving for you.
Other Features of Mackie MCU Pro
Panpots and track buttons (Solo, Mute, select, record): Mackie MCU Pro has 8 dedicated panpots above the faders as well as track buttons for each track. With this feature, all the work can be done by Mackie MCU Pro. You don’t even need to look at the mixer window of your DAW.
VPot Assign and fader banks: This area is just above the master fader. VPot assign is used for adding plugin effects on a selected track, assigning send, Equalizing a track, etc. The fader bank panel is used to switch the track banks, and channels.
As you know Mackie is known as one of the best manufacturers for audio mixers, obviously the look of Mackie MCU Pro will tell you about their rich history of manufacturing mixers. A vintage-style finish makes it a beautiful gear for your studio.
Mackie’s Extender Pro and C4
These 2 expansions will not only increase the beauty of your studio but also are very useful gears. If you want to extend Mackie MCU Pro’s faders from 8 to 16 then just add one extender pro. And if you want to add some other functions like controlling sequencers or plugins of your digital audio interface then you can use Mackie C4.
With these expansions, you can have all in one DAW controller in your hands.
Mackie MCU Pro is compatible with all the major DAWs. Whether it’s a Windows-based DAW or Mac-based you can use Mackie MCU Pro control surface is compatible with all of them.
Mackie MCU Pro
As I have told you above it fluctuates between $1000 to $1200. However you can click here to check the latest price on Amazon
Mackie MCU Extender Pro
Just like Mackie MCU Pro, the price of extender also fluctuates between $850 to $100. If you want to check out the latest price, click here.
3. Avid Artist Mix
Do you know Avid?
Everybody knows about Avid and its state of the art DAW, Pro Tools. Many Hollywood studios use Pro Tools for the best workflow and quality. I personally love Pro Tools as it is one of the fastest DAW and accelerates your workflow dramatically.
But Avid is not limited to Pro tools or its award-winning Video Editing software. There are many more gears and software Avid has. And one of them is Avid Artist Mix.
Avid Artist Mix is a versatile control surface and can increase your workflow dramatically. It costs around $1000.
The price is similar to Mackie MCU Pro but the brand Avid is just awesome. IF you get this control surface in your studio, it will not only increase the workflow but also give a charm to your studio.
However, most of the features are the same as Mackie MCU Pro.
Let’s get some more details of its features.
Faders and Panpot area
It comes with 8 full lengths ie; 100mm motorized faders and the same number of panpots as well as other track buttons like solo, record enable mute, etc.
The one feature I really miss in this control surface is the master fader. In MCU Pro we get a separate master fader for controlling the master volume but in Avid artist mix, we don’t have this feature.
Like other control surfaces, you can change the fader banks which are sets of 8 tracks.
Avid Artist Mix has a long display where all the operations can be monitored. The design of the display is similar to Mackie MCU Pro. You can monitor each track individually in the display panel.
Whether it’s controlling the volume and panning or assigning effect plugins on the tracks, all this work can be monitored on the display panel.
Lack of dedicated transport panel
The second thing we miss in Avid Artist Mix is a dedicated transport panel. It doesn’t have any transport panel which is a drawback for a control surface. However, Avid cleared that it is a control surface for mixing and not for recording controls. Even, it should have a transport control.
If you want to go with branding then Avid can be a better solution but for more features, I recommend Mackie MCU Pro.
Sold around $900 to $1100. You can checkout the latest price here.
4. Novation Launch Control
If you are finding a control surface which you could use in your home studio as well as outside recording then Novation Launchpad is for you.
However it has limited features but for a price point of view, you get an awesome device below $200. For budget home studios it would be a perfect fit.
It’s built for Ableton Live but work seamlessly with other DAWs like Logic Pro X and Pro Tools.
This tiny control surface is able to control all the features of your DAW’s mixer. Let have some detailed look at the Novation launch control.
- Novation provides 16 buttons, 24 knobs, and eight faders (Non-Motorized), to work seamlessly with your DAW to give you total hands-on control.
- You can assign buttons, knobs, and faders to any parameters in Logic Pro X, Ableton Live and Pro Tools.
- You can create your own fully customize layouts with the included software editor.
- It is bus-powered so you don’t even need a power adaptor. This feature makes it more mobile than other control surfaces.
- It has also 24 rotary pots with the 300-degree motion which can be assigned for any parameter in your DAW mixer.
Novation launchpad has eight 60mm non-motorized faders. These faders are good for mixing but the lack of motors in faders makes then useless in automation. If you want to add some automation to your tracks then you have to rely on your mouse and keyboard. However, for volume balancing, 60mm faders work well.
Novation Launchpad Expansion
Novation Launch control can be used with Novation Launchpad. By owning both of them you get full control over your DAW. Launchpad has assignable buttons that can be used as transport and edit controls. In fact, if you want a full-featured control surface, you need both of them.
Use it anywhere
With bus-powered features and lightweight, it is perfect for outside recordings like concerts programs. Just plug it in with your laptop and make the magic happen.
Novation Launch Control is compatible with all The DAWs which run on Windows and Mac and support HUI.
Sold around $150 to $175. Chekout the latest price here
5. Korg nanoKONTROL2
A tiny but very powerful device, Korg nanoKONTROL2 is our last control surface in this buyer’s guide. As from the name, it’s a nano-device. But don’t underestimate it because of the small user interface.
Imagine under 70 bucks you get 8 faders and also a transport control which you missed out in costly control surfaces above. Neither Novation Launch control nor Avid Artist Mix has dedicated transport controls. But Korg nano KONTROL2 has this feature.
This tiny control surface has eight faders, eight knobs dedicated solo, mute and record arming buttons as well as dedicated transport controls.
Korg nanoKONTROL2 transport panel in detail
Its transport panel has Play/Pause, Stop, FF/Rewind, and record buttons. However, like Presonus Faderport and Mackie MCU Pro its transport control is not very rich but what do you want in just 64 dollars?
You can also set markers by the dedicated buttons given just above the transport panel.
Faders, knobs and other mixer controls
It has 8 non-motorized small faders and 8 dedicated knobs. These faders are not full length but can be used precisely in mixing if your hands set up on the faders.
the knobs can be used as pan pots to achieve good stereo balance in your tracks. As well as you get dedicate solo, mute and record arming buttons for each track.
The other buttons on the left upper side of the panel can be used to change the track banks.
It’s compatible with all major DAWs across Windows and Mac environment including Logic Pro X and Pro tools . Its USB bus-powered device so you can use it with your laptop and iPad also.
The cool thing I like in Korg nanoKONTROL2 is it is very small and can be carried anywhere.
NanoControl sold around $60 to $70 online. You can checkout the latest price here
All right guys…
Here I have provided the details of 5 best control surfaces for your DAW. I think now you have a clear picture of your future control surface. In this buyer’s guide, I have provided with low range as well as high range control surfaces.
If you have a budget then you can go with any high-end control surface like Avid Artist Mix or Mackie MCU Pro and if you are under budget then you can go with Presonus Faderport, Novation launch control or Korg nanoKONTROL2.
If you ask me, there are 2 recommendations by me
I personally recommend control surfaces equipped with dedicated transport controls and both the control surfaces have transport dedicated panels.
However, the last choice is yours.
If you have any query on these control surfaces then drop your comment below, I will answer your queries. Make sure to share this article with your social circle so that your friends could also choose better gears for their home studios.
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Gautam Roy is a recording engineer and a blogger from India. He loves music, writing and travelling. He is also an active investor and a successful entrepreneur.