I wonder what producer out there doesn’t imagine himself/ herself in front a large format mixing console when they think about what they do. However, most project studios nowadays do not employ a console in their setup for two obvious reasons: cost and size. However, most of us still feel the need of a better way to interact with our digital studio, Pro Tools – the mouse and keyboard just seem so far from creative most of times when mixing; they are great for editing but even for this job it would still be nice to have a more tactile way of doing things.
Out of this need of more tactile and natural interfacing with the DAW came the DAW controller. They come in all shapes and sizes and there are plenty manufacturers out there making DAW controllers that either have lots of pads or a console-like look, with faders and rotary encoders. In this article I will try to explain how Pro Tools communicates with such devices and I will also be talking about the relevance of including such a device in your setup.
DAW Control Protocols & Pro Tools
In order to control features and parameters inside Pro Tools, a language must exist that both the DAW and the controlling device use. This is called a control protocol and there are three main control protocols.
This protocol was created by Mackie and Digidesign in 1997 for Mackie HUI, the first control surface for Pro Tools. HUI or Human User Interface allows for non-Avid/ Digidesign hardware such as the Mackie HUI to take control of basic features of Pro Tools such as faders, panning, mutes, solo, automation and some restricted plug-in control. HUI is a protocol that uses MIDI and is now a industry standard used very widely. Many hardware controllers/ consoles with a control surface layer such as the Yamaha DM2000, Novation Launchkey, SSL AWS900, etc use this protocol. Most if not all DAW software implement the HUI protocol.
The SSL AWS9000.
2. Mackie Control
This protocol is developed by Mackie and is very similar to HUI, being used in all Mackie control surfaces such as the MCU Pro. Note that units that run Mackie Control must be used in HUI-emulation mode with Pro Tools.
The Mackie MCU Pro.
This protocol was developed by Euphonix and is owned by Avid since they purchased Euphonix. This is the only protocol that is fully implemented in Pro Tools. The main difference between EUCON and HUI or Mackie Control is that it runs over Ethernet and not MIDI which means it is a lot faster and has much higher resolution. It is the only control protocol that can take full control of all Pro Tools features including plug-in selection and parameters. All devices which have EUCON can also be ran in HUI mode or Mackie Control mode meaning you can use them proficiently with all major DAW’s. All Avid control surfaces employ this protocol – the Artist Mix is a great example of such a product.
The Avid Artist Mix.
HUI vs.EUCON – Which is the better protocol?
There are few products out there that use EUCON and they are all quite expensive. However there are quite a few HUI/ Mackie Control based controllers with much lower price tags that allow you to take control over basic Pro Tools functions such as levels, panning, mutes/solos and some plug-in control. When I say some plug-in control people might get excited – let’s see what kind of control can we get out of a HUI based controller for plug-in controls. A good example of a controller that can do this is is the Icon Qcon Pro.
The Icon Qcon Pro.
Note that not all plug-ins are mapped automatically. Native plug-ins work but a lot of third party products don’t. Let’s watch this video of the people from Icon explaining what kind of plug-in control you get (skip to 4:30 if you do not want to see how a HUI device is configured to work with Pro Tools):
Ok, that doesn’t look that bad right? You can get used to it right? Well, sincerely I tried using an app called TouchDAW on an Android tablet which works exactly the same as the Icon Qcon Pro only costs almost nothing. The functionality and looks of TouchDAW is super impressive considering the price tag – however after trying it in multiple projects I stopped using it as I realised it just took so much more time to use that instead of the mouse and keyboard.
I got used to it and I worked as fast as I could with it but it just couldn’t compete with the mouse and keyboard. If you have an Android tablet lying around or and Android phone you can get the app and try it yourself – the only scenario in which I found it useful is when tracking or if you are handing the tablet to the artist who is recording so they can mix the headphone cue they are receiving themselves.
The “Hardware” user interface look in TouchDAW.
On the other side of things EUCON based control surfaces take pride in their power of controlling Pro Tools seamlessly. Let’s take a look at the type of control we can expect from a EUCON based controller such as the Artist Mix from Avid:
So, after all, it still seems a little complex, right? Pressing all those buttons to select a plug-in? It is a two second job with the mouse. All this menu layers can get quite confusing and get your attention away from your work. So after all is EUCON worth it? If you have the money, it might be worth it. After you get used to working one of these I am sure that it can come in handy, especially for those working with post-production. However for most users out there, users like me, to spend thousands on a control surface that is so complex to use seems quite counterproductive. So, is there a better way?
The Future Of Control
When people in the industry talk about where this control technology is going a recurring topic is brought up. Instead of the classic console-like shape of the controller why not have a huge touch-screen and be able to touch Pro Tools directly without the need of another app to bridge the gap? Such products already exist and the most successful one is made by Slate Digital. Their revolutionary product called the Raven comes in several shapes and sizes (and prices) but they all essentially provide a similar set of features.
The Slate Raven MTi2.
In my opinion, as far as control surfaces go, this is the single most useful controller on the market. Why? Because you are interfacing directly with Pro Tools and instead of having to remember button combinations to do things such as plug-in selection you get features such as on screen buttons for all sorts of multi-key actions that will have you working a lot faster. Being able to work with the actual UI of the plug-ins you are used to instead of reading small text above an encoder that hints you to what you are modifying makes just so much more sense. But don’t take my word for it, take a look at how this thing works:
There is simply no other product out there that allows for such intricate control – and not just the mix window and plug-ins but also editing, track naming, batch commands and a lot of other things – in my opinion this doesn’t only control Pro Tools; it makes Pro Tools more powerful than ever. It might be an overstatement, but I will let you decide on that. But what if I am an old school kind of person and don’t want a fancy big touchscreen instead of the classic console setup I am used to? Is there really nothing else beyond EUCON and HUI based controllers? One product that seems to fall exactly into that category is The Console 1 from Softube.
Softube Console 1. The hardware unit on the bottom and the plug-in UI above.
I mentioned this product in our Christmas article. The Console 1 is an amazing product. It is basically a hardware MIDI controller with rotary encoder knobs that works together with a dedicated plug-in also called Console 1 (which ships with the hardware). This isn’t a DAW control surface per-se. It’s main purpose isn’t controlling Pro Tools but controlling its dedicated plug-in.
So how is that useful, you may ask? Well, for all intents an purposes, the Console 1 plug-in (default) is a very powerful mixing tool, as it reproduces the SSL 4000 E console accurately. Insert it across all your tracks and practically have a huge SSL console with all your track running into it inside Pro Tools. Sure, purists might say that the original sounded different and it probably did, but is it really important? As long as it is a great mixing tool, is it that important that it is identical to the original? However, the people from SSL endorsed this product and I think they might have a pretty good idea about how an SSL console should sound. And such an endorsement reflects a lot more than the opinion of some hard-headed audio engineers.
The ultra cool thing is that you can load any Softube EQ, Compressor or Gate into the Console 1 and make all sorts of experiments such as running the EQ of a Trident console into any Softube compressor – this modular nature allows you to create the channel strip of your dreams. The second edition of the product has just been released at NAMM 2017 and Softube announced that the the Console 1 mkII will boast even more power than the first edition for less money as now, people will also be able to load UAD plug-ins into console 1. There are over 60 plug-ins from Softube and UAD combined that now work with the Console 1.
I keep trying to envision the perfect setup for my studio and it is hard. Having tried both products that have EUCON and HUI, I have to say that I am not impressed. The basic control of HUI and the menu diving in EUCON kind of scare me away. However, again, I recommend that all those interested in HUI control surfaces for Pro Tools should try TouchDAW on a tablet before committing to a big buy – it is simply exactly the same as a hardware controller only on a tablet and very cheap.
I think that in my dream studio I would have both a version of the Raven console and the Console 1. Having both is a mix between two worlds – you can use the Raven to do things like automation, batch commands, selecting and using other plug-ins then the ones that work in Console 1, creating headphone cues, adding FX return tracks, editing, creating groups and basically everything that doesn’t have to do with signal processing and you can do all your signal processing from the Console 1. While that’s a pricey setup it is actually cheaper than buying some EUCON control surfaces which to me, is a sign that Avid kind of lost the battle of being the best provider of control surfaces that have total integration in Pro Tools.
The future is coming and I think it is coming in the form of touch-screen controllers and dedicated hardware+software combos such as the Raven and the Console 1.