Over the years I have personally owned a number of DAW controllers. As a mixing and mastering engineer I find them to be an essential part of workflow when working in the box. To work with a mouse only just seems so alien to me now. Below I have listed some of the great benefits of having DAW control and which one I would personally recommend and why.
Hands On Control Of Faders
This may seem like quite a simple feature but there is huge benefit to this over using a mouse. Not only do you get the obvious hands on feel of the fader which will give you a more accurate feel and responsive control. But also you are able to control multiple faders at once. For instance you have a hard left and hard right guitar on two different channels you can independently control these two channels without having to group the faders. As well you can control one sound on your left hand and another sound on your right hand. Allowing you to mix quicker and much more efficiently.
Pots And Parameter Control
As well as fader control most DAW controllers have pots which will assign to various DAW parameters. The most widely used parameter for the pots would be pan control. Using a DAW controller you can really dial in an accurate amount of pan control with pinpoint accuracy and honestly feel where you are placing the sound in the mix.
Control Parameters Without Having To Look
As you use a DAW controller more you will find you control parameters in your DAW by feel alone and you won't need to look at the readout like you would when using a mouse. The reason this is so good is it allows you to focus on other aspects of your DAW instead of having to look at the mixer window all the time.
At a click of a button you can switch to plugin control modes and control any parameter in a plugin using the pots. Now I personally don't use this feature too much. Just because mapping isn't always the best and I actually find it faster using a mouse and keyboard for plugin control.
On most DAW controllers you can switch to send mode. This changes the faders from level control of the channel to send amounts on the sends. By switching to this mode much like the fader control of channel level, you can control the send amounts of multiple channels at once. For insatnce this is great when adjusting the send amounts on drums. You will find you can fly through the drums channels and just increase each channels reverb amount far quicker and more effectively.
No More Need For The Mix Window
Depending on what DAW controller you go for you will no longer need to look at the mix window. The DAW controller is essentially your mix window now. Especially controllers such as the SSL nucleus or Avid S3.
Customisable Control For Pots
This is a really cool feature I'm not sure you can do without a DAW controller. You can essentially create shortcut commands that map to the macro button. For instance I have the shortcut command to splice a clip mapped to macro one. Instead of pressing the shortcut "Ctrl E" I can just click a button on my DAW controller. Saves me maybe half a second but it all adds up.
I know you might say but I have spacebar to press play but a DAW controller does make having all your transport controls directly in front of you. Such as play, stop, record etc. I find the transport control really useful and all DAW controllers have them.
It is essential to have motorized faders, do not buy a DAW controller without. The reason motorized faders are so important is that when you load a session the faders will instantly reset to their correct value.. The last thing you want to do is touch a fader and the DAW fader jump to the DAW controller position. It will mess up your mix every time you load a new session.
The best way to explain what a DAW controller is and how beneficial it is, is think of a DAW controller like this. Imagine you are typing the following sentence. "DAW controllers are really useful tools I would 100% recommend getting". How easy is that to type of your computer keyboard, takes like 10 seconds. Now imagine you take the keyboard away and type that same sentence with the onboard mouse click style keyboard on your computer screen. Going to take you maybe 10 times longer to type that same sentence. It's really the same with a DAW controller. They are in no way essential to your studio but they save so much time and speed up your workflow.
What DAW Controller Should I Buy?
To answer this question you need to ask yourself what do you need from a DAW controller.
Do you just need DAW control?
Do you need interfacing built in?
Do you need mic pre-amps?
How many faders do you need?
If you only need DAW control and no interfacing or pre-amps you can opt for one of the cheaper models under £1000.
How many faders. 8 faders is sufficient for mixing. 16 is great as you can effectively have your left hand control the left 8 and the right hand control the right 8.
Listed below are some of my recommendation on which DAW controller you should buy based on my experience. My first ever DAW controller was a Digidesign command 8 back in 2005. I then upgraded to a Digidesign 003 which was essentially a command 8 but with the Digi 003 interface built into it. After this I then upgraded to a Solid State Logic Nucleus which I still use in my mixing studio to this day. In my mastering studio I first started with an Icon Platform M+ which was great but I found I only ever needed 1 fader in mastering. So I switched it for a Presonus Faderport V2.
Solid State Logic Nucleus £3499
This is my current DAW controller I use in my mixing studio and I love it. I personally only use it for DAW control. It has a built in interface which would be great if I was working in a production studio. But from a mixing perspective the interface isn't large enough for my needs. You may be thinking £3499 for a DAW controller wow that's a lot and you would be right. But it does include 2 super analogue mic pres, which sound great. This option is an all in one producers dream controller as it has everything built into it. You would essentially pick this thing up and go anywhere. Plug into your DAW and have instant interfacing, DAW control and mic pres for recording. Plus it is 16 channels of 8 + 8 faders.
Solid State Logic UF8 £979
This would be my choice of DAW controller right now if I were shopping around for one. I went with the Nucleus a number of years ago because this wasn't on the market. Now the UF8 has released it really does just tick all the boxes for a great DAW controller. It is essentially the SSL Nucleus without the interface and mic pres. So just the essential parts the actual DAW control. It has 8 channels of DAW control in one unit for £979 with the option to expand it with I believe 3 more units making it a 32 channel controller. I contemplated selling my Nucleus and buying two UF8 but I still firmly believe if you already have a Nucleus or can simply afford to buy one over a UF8 then do so as they are better in my opinion, all be it exactly the same.
Presonus Faderport £150 - £700
Presonus do a really nice range of DAW controllers. I personally have 1 of their faderport V2 controllers in my mastering room. Which is a single channel controller and transport control. Which is ideal for a mastering studio setup. Not ideal for a mixing setup which is why they have a larger 8 and a 16 channel version. These are top choice for a more affordable DAW controller option. The 8 channel controller is price at around £430. Which is really reasonable for solid DAW controller that I am yet to find a fault with. The 16 channel version I recommended recently to a friend and his exact words were "Paul this has changed my life why have I not got a DAW controller sooner".
Avid S3 £4399
The Avid S3 looks beautiful but lets face it, it is the mac computer of the DAW controller world. We all know we can get a DAW controller that does exactly the same thing for £700 (presonus faderport 16) but it looks amazing so we have to pay £3700 more for the look of it. I would love a S3 controller just for the way it looks but realistically it isn't anything any other DAW controller can do. At £4399 it is a hell of a lot of money for DAW control.
Icon Platform M+ £257
I used to own an Icon Platform M+ in my mastering studio and it was really good. Solid build and very stable. My only concern was the faders and buttons didn't feel like the more expensive DAW controllers. But what do you want for that price. I mean seriously it controls nearly everything within your DAW at a touch of button or fader for £257. I would personally say buy the Presonus Faderport 8 though as the build quality on that and the faders is far better. But as a budget controller this one is good and does the job very well.
Older Used Digidesign DAW Controllers £?
Do not touch them with a bargepole. They were amazing DAW controllers and look great but and it's a big but I can not lie. You sung that didn't you? These older controllers are not 100% compatible with new OS and DAWs. You will not find updates and you will forever be having compatibility issues that will never get fixed. Believe me they may look nice but they will be so hit and miss if they work or not. The DAW controllers I would include in this list are...
There are far more DAW controllers on the market. The above model I have a lot of experience with and as many of you will know I only ever recommend products I use and work with or have used in the past and have a valid opinion on.
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