Although they started off as rugged, assignable control surfaces aimed mainly at Pro Tools, CM Labs' Motormix moving-fader and Dashboard button/jog/shuttle controllers can interface with most digital audio workstations. We put them through their paces.
The market for control-surface hardware has been a major growth area over the past couple of years. And no wonder — although many of the tasks formerly handled in many of our studios by discrete hardware can now all be dealt with inside a computer, accessing that power via a mouse is always the weak part of the process.
The choice is reassuringly wide, from small and handy knob boxes to all-singing multi-motorised fader affairs that rival the best mixing desks in controls, facilities and size. Right in the middle is CM Labs with a couple of compact, but expandable, units that interface nicely with a wide range of software. Both the Motormix and Dashboard interface via MIDI, rather than USB or some other more modern standard, but are no less effective for it. You'll just need an extra pair of MIDI ports (for the necessary two-way communication) for each unit you attempt to integrate into your system.
Both the Motormix and Dashboard have exactly the same compact dimensions and shape: a 10.5x12.5-inch desktop box, suitable for use in even cramped conditions, with a sloped top end that hosts a rather large backlit liquid crystal display — the two-line-by-40-character 'scribble strip'. Power is internal, and connections, such as they are, located at the rear. When the host software is set up to talk to CM Labs' controllers, both take over transport controls, and offer comprehensive mixer control plus the ability to edit plug-in effects and software instruments, and take over transport duties. They are completely different products in many ways, however; the Motormix is more of a mixer and effects editor, while the Dashboard is more of a total replacement for transport and editing controls. But we'll get to these issues as we examine each unit in detail.
When it was first released, the Motormix was more or less focused on working with Digidesign's Pro Tools family, from Pro Tools LE right up to TDM systems. At the time, it made an economic alternative to Digidesign's own control-surface options, and even when the Digi 002 system was released, was an affordable way to add some of that combination controller/audio interface's facilities to an existing Digi 001 system without having to crossgrade. The front-panel labelling reflects this early leaning towards Pro Tools, but as it's MIDI-capable, it can be happily interfaced with almost any MIDI-savvy application. Recent software updates and support from host applications have strengthened Motormix's position in this regard, and given good integration with a host, the front-panel labelling is still general enough to make sense. The scribble strip makes all the difference, offering that clear, instant feedback. I was successful in running Motormix with Pro Tools (v5.x under Mac OS 9 and v6.4 under Mac OS X), Cubase SX (both Mac OS X and Windows XP), and Sonar v3.1.1 under Windows XP.
Motormix's front panel is fairly densely packed with switches and controls, and though some buttons are a little small and some labelling a little confusing, these are only problems while you're getting going. The important labelling is clear, and the majority of switches are backlit and colour-coded green or red, which helps enormously with training the user away from his or her computer screen and mouse. And because you can do nearly everything, including accessing plug-ins and other non-mixing features if your host software permits it, the screen becomes less important as you become more used to Motormix.
One piece of panel space that isn't crowded is the lower section that hosts the eight 100mm motorised faders. In general, the layout of Motormix's front panel is that of an eight-channel mixer. Each channel's fader is joined by mute and solo buttons. Next, a 'burn' button offers multiple functions including record-ready or automation enable, and above that is a multi-function switch that controls various plug-in parameters — bypass and pre/post operation, for example. Each 'channel' features an endless encoder, and although this initially functions as a pan pot, all eight knobs become parameter editors when working with plug-ins, or effect sends, depending on the current situation. The button at the top of each channel is used to select that channel when selecting and editing plug-ins.
A slice of the scribble strip is also a part of a Motormix 'channel': when Motormix is closely integrated with your software, channel names appear here (albeit in highly abbreviated form), as well as a visual indication of parameter value. This indication is usually designed to suit whichever parameter is being shown. Names here change regularly, so if you're working with a plug-in, what you see are abbreviated forms of individual parameters. Incidentally, with software that integrates as well as Pro Tools, the scribble strips will show a warning when a dialogue appears on screen within the software, which is useful if you're trying your best to not to use the screen!
The remaining backlit keys flank the bank of faders, eight at either side, and access various system functions. With the help of a Shift key, 14 of the 16 buttons do double duty, providing direct access to software controls such as disk operations, plug-in access, basic transport and locate functions and input/output assignments. The exact nature of the controls varies depending on the host software you're using and the level of integration it provides. A number of non-backlit switches also feature. These are rather fiddly, but are essential: it's these buttons that scroll through lists of parameters or the stacks of plug-ins associated with one channel, and switch between banks of faders if your on-screen project has more than eight channels (watch those faders jump as you switch banks!).
The bottom line is that your sequencer can be controlled from the Motormix, and that audio (and MIDI) tracks can be record-armed, muted, soloed and so on, whilst plug-in effects can also be edited. Automation can be controlled here, so that Motormix moves not only control the host software, but cause those moves to be recorded into the software. All the while, visual feedback is provided, allowing you to keep your hand off the mouse and eyes off the screen for most of the time.
Before we move on, it's worth mentioning that the Motormix's self-test routine is worth a look for an instant idea of what the unit can do: the faders do an excellent dance, and everything flashes rhythmically. The last item of note is the Motormix's nine-pin Accessory port on the rear panel next to the MIDI In and Out ports; CM Labs obviously had plans for expansion from day one. More about this when I've looked at the other controller in this review...
If you think that merging the Motormix's faders with the Dashboard's digital audio workstation control-set seems like a logical idea, then so do CM Labs. With their imminent Motormate, that's pretty much what they've done. It's twice as wide as one of the units covered in this review, and offers the functionality of both. To summarise, eight 100mm faders, eight continuous pots, a mass of backlit buttons, a large scribble-strip LCD, time display and transport and locate controls are all featured on this new unit. Full control over studio and control room monitoring is also provided, together with potential control over the Sixtyfour router, as with Dashboard. Motormate is also expandable by adding up to three further Motormixes, making a really super-sized, integrated moving-fader controller.
Though fully half of Dashboard's front-panel real estate is capable of being almost as much of a mix and digital audio workstation controller as Motormix, what grabs the eye first is the lower half of the panel — the area with the big knob, if you'll pardon my frankness.
This large controller is flanked by controls aimed at giving you precise control over your hard disk recording system, in whichever form it comes. The knob itself can function as manual locator and shuttle or scrub control. Being able to scrub and shuttle audio (backwards as well as forwards) is very handy, for loads of operational reasons, but also for sonic creativity: a song can be shuttled very slowly indeed, with obviously huge and crunchy pitch drops, and if you have some way to record the result (an external CD or Minidisk recorder, perhaps) then that's another little tool in your sound-design armoury! It has to be said, though, that this functionality works best in Pro Tools — sadly, the jog/shuttle wheel isn't recognised in current versions of Cubase SX.
Real transport controls are provided along the bottom, and the numeric keypad can be used to access the locator functions of your software. Editing is also possible in ways that recordists who've never moved out of their software might not expect, adding stand-alone DAW-style functions to whatever you're running on your computer. For example, with the help of the knob, it's possible to precisely highlight chunks of audio, and cut or copy and paste whatever's highlighted to another track or location. If this sounds good, that's because it is! In some sessions, you may find that the only time you look at your computer monitor is when you're editing audio, which is as it should be: everything else can be done from the Dashboard. The little cross of navigator keys, just above the jog/shuttle wheel, really get you deeper into your host software, providing access to edit tools, zoom controls and more.
Another visibly different feature of the Dashboard is the central time display, which shows you where you are in a song in whatever frame of reference you choose in the host; whether you prefer beats and bars or minutes and seconds, the display reflects this, further keeping your eyes from the strain of the monitor.
The sloped upper half of Dashboard's control surface is pretty much an abbreviated version of the Motormix, effectively providing eight mixer channels. All the same facilities are available — mute, solo, record- and automation-enable and so on — but level control is handled by the little continuous control knobs rather than faders, which can also be switched to control pan and edit plug-in parameters. This way of working is perhaps a little less comfortable than on the Motormix, but not impossible.
A big difference here is that audio can be handled directly. The Dashboard also has one of the aforementioned nine-pin Accessory ports — on this unit, however, the port is joined by a 15-pin socket labelled Audio I/O. This connects to a supplied Monitor Interface Module (MIM, shown overleaf), a little box of jack sockets that gives you control over your your monitoring situation. Two pairs of stereo outputs from your audio hardware can be patched to the MIM, and the MIM's outputs can then be patched to two destinations, labelled 'control room' and 'studio'. You can, of course, patch them where you like if you don't actually have a separate control-room monitoring and studio-foldback system.
The Dashboard provides control over monitor routing and levels, and even comes equipped with connections for a talkback mic (this is routed to the 'studio' outputs) and headphones (the phones socket is tucked under the leading edge of the front panel). This integration almost gives you the feeling that the Dashboard itself is the recorder, rather than the big chunk of fan noise and monitor that usually has precedence!
And it doesn't stop at stereo monitor control: if your software and recording hardware are working in surround, then so can Dashboard, but for that you'll need to invest in some more hardware. An RS232 socket, also at the back, interfaces with another piece of CM Labs' hardware, the Sixtyfour studio router, which functions as a central patching location for the ins and outs of your digital audio workstation's audio-interfacing hardware, and any studio effects units you might have in your rack.
I used both the Dashboard and Motormix with a range of software on Mac and PC. Best results were to be had with Pro Tools v5.2.1 under Mac OS 9 and Sonar v3.1.1 on a Windows 98-equipped PC. The hardware functioned well with Cubase SX on both platforms, but not with the full integration and plug-in control found in the first two software systems; as mentioned in the main text of this article, the jog/shuttle wheel of the Dashboard seemed to not be recognised by SX, and the transport controls were also ignored.
Using Pro Tools v6.4 under Mac OS X was a strange experience — at first, neither controller would work. I eventually found a little 'legacy MIDI controllers' pack of software drivers for Pro Tools v6.4, for Mac OS X and Windows XP on Digidesign's web site (at www.digidesign.com/download/controllers). This collection is apparently provided to new users in the 'unsupported folder' on installation CDs, but I wasn't aware of this, as my recent upgrades have all been done via downloads from Digi's web site. The upshot is that 'personality files' for Motormix and Dashboard, and a handful of other controllers, haven't been tested with Pro Tools v6.4 and aren't officially supported. I can confirm that once these drivers are downloaded and installed, Pro Tools will work with both devices, but with not quite the same level of integration as with earlier versions. Although all the features (and Dashboard's wheel and locate functions) worked, the feedback on the Motormix scribble strip was missing, though the Dashboard scribble works perfectly.
CM Labs also note that their products are currently supported by Emagic's Logic family, Cycling '74's Max, MOTU's Digital Performer and Symbolic Sound's Kyma workstation, amongst others. I would advise that you double-check the level of that support before committing to either unit, though.
Now to that nine-pin Accessory port... It's essentially there to allow the Dashboard and the Motormix to work together. In fact, a number of CM Labs products are equipped with Accessory ports, and can also be interfaced with, and controlled from, the Dashboard.
Of course, the Motormix and Dashboard can be used together without the Accessory port — simply hook each up to its own I/O pair on your MIDI interface, and you're ready to go. There is actually an advantage to this method, since it creates a 16-fader bank, composed of the eight channels on Motormix and the eight on Dashboard. Adopting the so-called 'piggyback' mode, where the two units are connected via the Accessory port, creates a certain amount of duplication: the fader bank is eight channels wide, and both units can control the same group of eight mixer parameters. There are advantages to piggyback mode, though, namely that just one MIDI I/O pair (attached to the Dashboard) is required, and plug-in edits can be made on the Dashboard whilst mixer changes are handled on the Motormix.
You can even go beyond two units: up to four Motormixes and one Dashboard can be linked to create a super control surface with fader banks 32 channels wide. Whatever you choose to do, and however you choose to do it, CM Labs have a number of extras to help you physically link the new hardware (if your software can handle this); even the simplest options produce a result that looks like the joined machines were always a single piece of hardware.
As mentioned earlier, this piggyback idea even extends to other CM Labs' hardware, such as their Sixtyfour router or forthcoming MP8 eight-channel mic preamp. If you want, you really can relegate your computer-based DAW to the role of passive recorder, and handle all the control functions via CM Labs hardware.
Before I start to sound too carried away, I should mention that some of the buttons and controls are rather small. The faders and pots have enough space around them, but there are so many buttons surrounded by a lot of text that working with either can be a bit overwhelming. Familiarity comes with use, of course, and most of us will focus on the functions we need to access most.
There's also the issue of MIDI being the interface of choice. This is quite logical in its way: Motormix, Dashboard and the forthcoming Motormate (which merges the functions of both devices into one super-controller) all use System Exclusive data to transmit and read knob and switch changes. But in the minimal modern home and project studio, are there going to be enough MIDI sockets available to accommodate multiple units? Personally, I was lucky to have a spare small interface knocking around, so there was no problem. And, of course, using a Motormix and a Dashboard piggybacked together results in only one MIDI In/Out pair being needed. It's also fair to point out that the devices have been in production, or development, since before USB was so ubiquitous. The bottom line is that you may have to budget for more MIDI interfacing if you don't have an interface with enough ports. Having said that, a simple USB-equipped dual MIDI interface could cost you £50 or less at UK prices.
If you're concerned that eight faders isn't enough in the case of Motormix, even with fader banking, then use will prove to you that this isn't the case. The faders move fast, the display is informative, and though ideally you would have more faders, in practice, this never becomes a problem. If you need to work with certain faders side by side, but can't quite adjust the bank to suit (it can be nudged one fader at a time), then you can hide tracks on screen (if your software allows this — Pro Tools does), or move them to somewhere better in your virtual mixer, and the hardware faders on the Motormix will instantly update to reflect the way the tracks are laid out on screen. And although the Dashboard has no faders at all, it still manages to be mixer and sequencer controller admirably — whatever form the sequencer takes.
It's a small thing, but the sloped design of both these devices is just plain attractive, as well as functional. And overall, build quality is excellent, with a robust feel that promises a long working life.
One bugbear for me is that much of the current documentation focuses on Mac OS 9 and OMS. I know that there are still many pro facilities and engineers that have good reason to be working in this environment — why try to fix something that you've spent years ensuring isn't broke? — but I'm sure CM Labs could reflect this without sidelining the facts of current developments.
The design of both of these units is really top-notch. If they seem expensive for what they offer, that might be due to each unit's compact size. This is deceptive: clever design means that the 'scribble-strip' LCD remains informative, echoing what's on-screen within the host software, and there are enough dedicated buttons (many of which offer further visual feedback via backlighting) that the feeling is given of working within one level most of the time — a huge improvement over feeling as though you're navigating through multiple OS levels.
If the price is a concern, then a little sharp shopping around will reveal that savings of over £300 can be made on either unit in the UK at present. Prices at around the £500 mark makes them a much more attractive proposition.