Steinberg's new CMC Series gives you the building blocks for creating your own custom Cubase control surface.
Cubase users have not been short of choice in hardware controllers over the years, whether generic models designed to work with multiple DAWs, or Steinberg's own forays into hardware, such as the Houston (reviewed in the September 2001 issue of SOS) or the more diminutive CC121 (reviewed in January 2009 and still available). The company's latest offering on this front — the CMC Series — is an interesting one as it is modular, with six USB‑based units each offering a different control set. The potential advantages of this approach are obvious: each unit is priced relatively modestly, making them accessible, and users can, by combining just the units they want, essentially customise the control surface to best meet their own needs. So, just how much control can you actually pack into six paperback‑sized, knob-, button- and (virtual) slider-filled boxes?
Each of the six CMCs is housed in identical casing measuring 18 x 10cm, with the black mounting hosting the controls slightly raised from sleek‑looking white surrounds. The construction is predominantly plastic, with rubber used for the buttons, but the controls feel robust and the appearance is stylish enough not to ruin the ambience in anything but the most minimalist of studio environments.
Where the units differ is in the configuration of controls provided, and these reflect their intended function. The Channel Controller (CMCCH) provides control over the currently selected channel, including fader level (via a touch controller strip), mute, solo, record and monitor buttons plus, amongst other things, the ability to bypass the insert, send and EQ settings and to step back and forth through the channels in your project. By contrast, the Fader Controller (CMCFD) provides four touch-controller strips, allowing you to perform basic level control for any bank of four channels at one time, and giving the ability to move through the channels one at a time or in banks of four.
The Pad Controller (CMCPD) is dominated by a 4x4 grid of velocity-sensitive performance pads, and is intended primarily for use with virtual drum machines such as Groove Agent One or other software drum instruments, although it could equally be used to trigger any MIDI‑driven instrument. The Quick Controller (CMCQC) is, as its name suggests, designed to integrate with the Cubase Quick Control system. It therefore provides eight hardware knobs to correspond with the eight user‑definable Quick Controls available for MIDI, audio, group and effects channels but, as described below, there is extra functionality beyond just the Quick Controls. All four of the CMC units described above also feature a Shift button that allows access to further sets of functions. In addition, both the CMCPD and CMCQC are provided with software editors.
The Transport Controller (CMCTP) provides a fairly comprehensive set of transport controls over and above the standard, stop, start, loop and record possibilities. For example, the touch-controller strip can be switched between jog, shuttle, locate, scroll, zoom and tap-tempo functions, and the 4x4 bank of buttons at the top of the unit offers various other ways to move around the timeline, add markers, and even copy a track. Finally, the rather minimalist‑looking AI Controller (CMCAI) allows you to target an individual parameter with your mouse and then use the large knob to control it. I have to say that I was initially underwhelmed by the idea of this last unit. However, as described below, its usefulness becomes much more obvious in practice and it can also be used in a volume mode (to control main mix level) and a jog mode to move along the timeline.
All the units are supplied with the necessary drivers, and the CMCPD and CMCQC with editing software. After installation, it's just a matter of connecting the USB cable and making sure that the CMC Extension is active (via the Device Setup dialogue) once you launch Cubase. As many of the CMC controls feature LEDs of various colours to show their status, with all six units connected there's quite an impressive light show!
Perhaps less impressive was the spaghetti‑fest of USB cables that appeared on my desk surface. While the units do come with a small plastic clip, allowing them to be physically locked together, their USB connections can't be daisy‑chained and each unit requires its own USB port. With more than a couple of units hooked up, the case for a dedicated powered USB hub is pretty strong, although such multi‑port hubs are not expensive. However, you still have to run individual USB cables from the CMC units to the hub. If, like me, you are not a fan of cable clutter, an additional investment in the CMC Studio Frame 4 (£109) allows four CMC units to be housed in a single mounting frame. I wasn't supplied with one of these for this review, but Steinberg suggest that the frame has room to house a powered USB hub as well as the CMC units themselves, so this would provide a much neater solution, with fewer visible cables to keep tidy.
Also included with every CC unit is a download access code for Cubase AI6. This is a stripped‑down version of Cubase but, as it offers 32 audio and 48 MIDI tracks, 25 VST effects and a version of HALion Sonic SE with selected sounds, anybody new to computer‑based recording ought to find it a perfectly acceptable starting point. Incidentally, Steinberg indicate that the CMC series is compatible with Nuendo, so top‑end post‑production users are also catered for.
It's difficult to do justice to every function of all the CMC series units in a review of this length so, instead, I'll focus here on some specific examples to illustrate what is on offer, starting with the unit I was initially most puzzled by — the CMCAI. To me, the purpose of all the other CMC units was obvious, but the AI only reveals itself when you actually use it and, while some of the other units might be described as a 'master of one' type of function, the AI is a bit of a 'jack of all trades'.
As described above, the large rotary knob operates in three main modes; AI, volume and jog. Volume and jog are straightforward: simply press the appropriate button on the unit (they light up when selected) and then rotate the knob to adjust the master volume or move the time-position cursor forwards or backwards along the project's timeline. Also included are four 'function' keys, whose purpose can be defined in the Device Setup dialogue. I configured these to switch between my main Cubase workspaces, but almost any menu‑based command can be assigned, so the effect is like having four dedicated keys for key commands. The combination of the rotary knob and the two arrowhead buttons also allows browsing. Pressing the knob (which produces an audible click) from the Project window opens the Track Preset dialogue, at which point the arrow buttons allow you to move between fields and the rotary knob up and down lists. Once you've found the preset you want, pressing the knob again selects and loads that preset. Exactly the same functionality applies if a VST instrument is the currently selected object; one press opens the browser dialogue, and then you can navigate to the required instrument patch. This works perfectly with Steinberg's own VST instruments, but is a bit more unpredictable with instruments from other manufacturers.
So far, so good... but AI's main trick is subtly impressive. When the AI mode is selected (the AI button glows a lovely shade of blue), simply pointing your mouse at any adjustable control in Cubase instantly brings that control under the operation of the AI's rotary knob. Now, you might be thinking that a hardware control unit is supposed to help you avoid having to use a mouse, but in practice the combination of mouse plus hands‑on control makes perfect sense. With mouse in right hand and the AI positioned under the left (although it will, of course, work the other way round for all you lefties), it simply becomes a matter of pointing at something you want to adjust and twiddling the knob to adjust it. This worked with controls for plug‑in effects, EQ controls in the Inspector, and everything I tried it with in the Mixer window, including channel faders. After even a few minutes of operation, you realise that simply identifying a control with your mouse is much easier than having to both identify, and then adjust, it. Yes, you only get to control one parameter at a time, but it is a much more intuitive process than using the mouse alone, even for mixing. The only thing I was left hankering for here was a mode that allowed the AI knob to toggle switches on and off — hover the mouse over the switch, press the AI knob, and the on-screen switch gets pressed. This would be great for engaging EQ channels or switching mute or solo type buttons so you needn't do any clicking with your mouse: the mouse would just serve as a pointing device. Maybe this is something for a software update?
Of the other units, the CMCPD and CMCQC were perhaps my favourites. While I use a basic electronic drum kit for playing in MIDI drum performances, I'm sure I'd get plenty of use out of the PD unit, simply because of its convenience. This kind of 16‑pad, drum‑trigger hardware is a popular format on hardware drum machines, sample-playback units and some MIDI master keyboards, and the CMCPD implements the function very well. The pads seem to respond nicely to velocity, and light up in a sequence from green (low velocities), through orange to red (high velocities) when used. You can adjust the velocity curve (there are 16 presets listed in the PDF documentation), and the '4Vel Mode' transforms the operation of the unit to provide control over just four MIDI notes (one for each of the four columns of pads), with each row offering a different but fixed velocity for that note. It also features a Browse button that allows you to open up the instrument's preset browser, providing that it follows Steinberg's conventions. The solitary knob located at bottom right then allows you to browse through the presets and, if you then press the knob, load the selected preset. For even more tweakability, Steinberg have included a stand‑alone editor that allows you to configure both the MIDI note numbers associated with each pad and the way the unit responds to velocity. Should you need to go beyond the possibilities offered by the default settings, this is all pretty intuitive.
I've been a fan of the Quick Control system ever since Steinberg introduced it, and if you make plenty of use of these controls, the CMCQC could quickly become a very useful tool. Like the CMCAI, it includes four 'F' keys that can be user-programmed via the Device Setup dialogue, although in this case you get eight options, as a second four can be accessed via the QC's Shift button. While intended primarily for use with the Quick Control system, the CMCQC actually has three modes. With the Q button selected (that nice blue colour again), the rotary knobs link with the eight Quick Controls on the currently selected track. If you press the f/Q Learn button, a learning mode is switched on. You can then simply point the mouse at a particular control available on the selected track (including those on a VST instrument, although this works in a more intuitive way with some instruments than others), twiddle the desired knob on the QC, and the two are linked. With the EQ button engaged (it glows a soothing green), the hardware then controls the current channel's four‑band EQ settings. By default, the knobs control the gain (upper row of knobs) and frequency (lower row of knobs), but if you engage the f/Q Learn button in EQ mode, the lower row of knobs switches to controlling the Q setting of each EQ band — very neat. Using a combination of Shift and the top four buttons allows the four EQ bands to be toggled on or off. Pressing the MIDI button engages the third mode of operation, where the knobs essentially become generic MIDI CC controllers. The supplied CMCQC Editor software provides full control over the options available in this mode. Finally, as well as letting you through channels to select them, the four buttons at the base of the QC allow automation read and write to be engaged — which is very useful, given that the unit's main application would be to make real‑time changes of synth, effects and EQ parameters.
As indicated earlier, both the TP and CH units do pretty much what it says on the tin, and both provide some excellent features, but a few additional comments about the CMCFD are worth making. In terms of what it does — providing fingertip control over groups of four mixer faders — the concept couldn't be any simpler, and the red LEDs in each strip provide a clear indication of the positions of the selected bank of faders. The fader control itself has a number of modes. Catch mode (the default) means that the fader only responds once your finger reaches the current position of the fader, whereas Jump mode (engaged by holding the Shift and left Bank buttons) means that the fader position jumps to wherever you touch the strip. In addition, if you hold down the Shift button while using a fader, this provides higher resolution control for subtler fader adjustments
Aside from channel and bank selection duties, there are a number of other key combinations that offer the ability to mute or solo a channel. Finally, up to four CMCFD units can be linked together (with or without the Studio Frame 4) to provide a 16‑channel system. In short, the CMCFD has a lot to offer but, for all sorts of very understandable reasons, it is not the same experience as putting your hands on real faders, and I suspect that may be an issue for more purist types.
Which of the button‑filled CMC series pushes your own buttons will, of course, depend upon how you use Cubase. Top of my list would be the QC, PD and, as a surprise to me, based upon my initial reaction to the specs, the AI. Top off that lot with the TP, with everything housed in a Studio Frame 4, and at a cost of about £600$750 that would represent a lot of control for a (relatively) modest outlay. Equally, I could see that a second bundle of four FDs in a Studio Frame 4 would appeal to those who spend much of their time adjusting faders. However, if you wanted to do both of these things, you'd have to be a pretty serious Cubase user, and there are a range of competing controller options you might also choose from. For the less‑obsessed, hobby‑level recordist, the cost of one or two CMC series units is still relatively accessible, and you can pick those that will be of the most use in your circumstances.
On a more general level, if you're going to invest heavily in any hardware platform, you always need to factor in what its likely life span might be. I've no particular issues with the physical durability of the CMC units; they seem well constructed and, treated with care, I'm sure they will stay the course. What I would want to consider is how long my hardware investment will be valid before changes in technology mean that the hardware becomes redundant, as it no longer reflects the functionality of the host software. Again, for the casual user buying one or two units, this is probably an insignificance, but if you're considering spending upwards of £1000$1000 on any hardware control system — from Steinberg or any other manufacturer — it is, unfortunately, just one of the unknowns you will have to live with.
The functionality and flexibility of the CMC series is very impressive. Serious users will appreciate being able to build a control environment that suits their specific needs, while existing Cubase users on a tighter budget can start small and develop a system over time without too great an initial investment. As the entry price includes the bundled Cubase AI6, a single unit might also make a good launching pad into the world of Cubase for those just starting out.
Steinberg's own CC121 provides similar functionality to the CMCCH and AI, with bits of the QC and TP thrown in for good measure.
Although none of the following offers such tight integration with Cubase, there are plenty of other controller options available. At the budget end, the Presonus Faderport, Korg Nanokontrol and Behringer BCR2000 and BCF2000 all provide various elements of the hardware control available from the CMC series. Alternatively, MIDI master keyboards such as the Akai MPK series include faders, buttons and rotary knobs for about the same price as four CMC units. If budget is less of an issue, the Mackie Control, Euphonix MC Control and SSL Nucleus all have plenty to offer, in very professional hardware formats.