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Digidesign Icon

Hardware Control Surfaces For Pro Tools
Published August 2006
By Mark Wherry

Digidesign Icon

Digidesign's D-Command and D-Control represent perhaps the most ambitious attempt yet to integrate recording and mixing systems. Do these Icons symbolise the future of digital audio workstations, or are they merely expensive control surfaces for Pro Tools?

For those interested in etymology, the word 'icon' came via Latin from the Greek word 'eikon', meaning a likeness, or image, and originally from 'eikenai', an Indo-European word meaning 'to be like'. Without wishing to seem too pretentious, Icon is therefore a rather appropriate name for a system that can be used like a large-format mixing console, without actually being a large-format mixing console.

Icon is Digidesign's collective name for the D-Control (above) and D-Command surfaces.Icon is Digidesign's collective name for the D-Control (above) and D-Command surfaces.

Icon (which was actually derived from the term 'Integrated CONsole') is the general product name given to the combination of a number of Digidesign's products that can be used together as one integrated system for recording, editing and mixing. At the heart of Icon are Pro Tools HD, with its associated array of DSP cards, audio and MIDI interface options, and the Pre eight-channel preamp; but the most significant part of an Icon system is either a D-Control or a D-Command control surface. The D-Control has the appearance of a large-format mixing console, while the D-Command is intended for the project studio and is the most obvious replacement for the company's previous flagship control surface, the Pro Control.

For this review, we'll be focusing mostly on the D-Command and D-Control surfaces, as Pro Tools HD has been pretty well covered in previous issues of SOS. If you want to read a closer examination of the audio interfaces and general architecture, check out Hugh Robjohns's original Pro Tools HD review in May 2002's issue.

Anatomy Of An Icon

Like many high-end digital consoles, the D-Control surface is modular, and a basic system consists of one Main Unit, a Fader Module, and the XMON monitoring system (see the 'XMON' box for more information about this component). The Main Unit contains all the global controls, such as master controls for the control strip, sections for controlling dynamics and EQ plug-ins, a remote control for XMON, buttons accessing general Pro Tools shortcuts, and a full QWERTY keyboard and trackball (which can be replaced with a mouse pad if you wish) for working with Pro Tools.

The D-Command uses slightly cheaper faders compared to the D-Control, but still offers the same functionality in terms of touch-sensitivity and motorisation. The top five LEDs by the fader indicate automation status for that channel, the two below show whether the channel is grouped or in Custom Fader mode, and the Auto Match arrow LEDs indicate whether a fader is above or below the level of existing automation.The D-Command uses slightly cheaper faders compared to the D-Control, but still offers the same functionality in terms of touch-sensitivity and motorisation. The top five LEDs by the fader indicate automation status for that channel, the two below show whether the channel is grouped or in Custom Fader mode, and the Auto Match arrow LEDs indicate whether a fader is above or below the level of existing automation.The Main Unit's meter bridge has eight LED level strips for metering the master output in up to 7.1 surround configurations, and there are multiple LED segment displays to show the Project time and locator positions. In front of the meter bridge is a large flat area to accommodate a VESA-compliant monitor arm that can suspend an LCD screen in front of the console, which makes the Pro Tools display really accessible. This can easily support a 23-inch monitor; Apple's 30-inch Cinema Display might be a problem, but you probably won't want to use such a big monitor in this position for acoustical reasons.

The Fader Module contains the actual channel strips, and each Fader Module offers 16 channel strips with stereo metering for every channel on the meter bridge. Up to five Fader Modules can be used with one Main Unit, giving you up to 80 faders, and I'm sure this would look quite impressive!

The D-Command is designed to provide similar functionality to the D-Control, but in a smaller unit at lower cost. It retains the basic elements, such as dynamics and EQ sections, monitoring, channel strips, XMON and so on, but provides fewer physical controls. Unlike the D-Control, the D-Command Main Unit includes eight faders. An optional D-Command-specific Fader Module provides a further 16 faders, to give 24 in total, but you can only use one Fader Module with each D-Command Main Unit.

Overview

An Icon surface shows as being off-line until you open a Session in Pro Tools, whereupon it springs (quite literally, thanks to the motorised faders) to life. The first area of the surface you might look at is the Transport section, which basically provides a way of controlling the transport in Pro Tools, including a scrub/shuttle wheel. The D-Control also provides a duplicate set of these basic transport commands for controlling the transport of an external machine, although this wasn't implemented at the time of writing. There's a set of Transport Mode buttons that let you enable and disable whether Pro Tools is on-line, loop playback, set punch modes, and so on, and you'll also find a group of Locate button for commands such as Return To Zero.

The Soft Keys section on the D-Control provides access to many different parameters for setting both various surface preferences and triggering commands in Pro Tools. Here you can see the preferences for setting the number and alignment of the left and right banks of Custom Faders.The Soft Keys section on the D-Control provides access to many different parameters for setting both various surface preferences and triggering commands in Pro Tools. Here you can see the preferences for setting the number and alignment of the left and right banks of Custom Faders.In addition to transport commands, the Master Unit also offers quite a number of basic Pro Tools shortcuts, such as a Zoom/Navigate section that enables you to zoom horizontally or vertically, access zoom presets, and navigate to different Tracks and Regions in a Project. The Window Management buttons (12 on D-Control, nine on D-Command) open and close various windows in Pro Tools, of which the common ones are the MIDI Event, Workspace, Transport, Memory Locations, Mix and Edit windows, while the Session Management section contains a handful of global Session controls, such as Save, Undo, Redo and Publish, the last being useful if you want to send your Session as a DigiDelivery.

One of the key areas on the Main Unit is the Soft Keys section (see photo below). This is pretty much identical on the D-Control and D-Command, featuring six main displays, each comprising two LCD display strips, and six corresponding switches. The Soft Keys section is used to set various preferences for the surface, in addition to providing access to commands in Pro Tools. For example, you can create and work with Tracks, Groups and Playlists or trigger various editing commands via the Soft Keys, or page through and select different Memory Locations, with the names of the Memory Locations being shown on the Soft Key displays.

Channelling The Strip

There are three different types of channel strips used on the Icon surfaces, starting with the 'Channel Strips' that represent the on-screen channels of the Pro Tools mixer. These are the Channel Strips you get more of when purchasing Fader Modules.

The second type of channel strip is the Channel Strip Master section, which contains global controls that affect the Channel Strips and other related parameters. For example, this is where you'll find the Solo and Mute Clear buttons. There's also a handy Escape key that mirrors the Escape key on the computer's keyboard, which is useful for cancelling out of dialogue boxes that might appear, and an Automation Suspend button to temporarily suspend the reading and writing of automation data. The D-Control features two Channel Strip Master sections, one on each side of the Main Unit, which makes the controls accessible no matter where you place the Fader Modules; the D-Command has just one in the middle of the surface, to the right of the Channel Strips.

Finally, the third type of channel strip is the Focus Channel Strip, which is basically a channel that allows more detailed tweaking than is possible on a standard Channel Strip. You'll see how this ties into other features on the Icon surfaces later in the review. Both the D-Command and D-Control use the Focus Channel concept, but only the D-Control has a dedicated physical Channel Strip just for the Focus Channel.

At the bottom of each Channel Strip is a touch-sensitive, motorised fader that has a range of -infinity to +12dB. The D-Control uses high-quality Penny & Giles faders, whereas the D-Command offers slightly cheaper faders. I didn't mind the faders on the D-Command, despite the fact that they didn't feel quite as smooth as the D-Control's faders, but it's always worth checking out the feel of any surface before you make a purchase.

Next to the faders is a set of LED indicators displaying the status of automation (Write, Touch, Latch, Trim, Read and Auto Match) and grouping for the channel, and showing whether that strip is in Custom Fader mode (which we'll look at later). Auto Match is Digidesign's term for the up/down LEDs that indicate whether the fader needs to move up or down to match the automation recorded for a channel at a given point in the Session.

When a parameter controlled by an encoder is armed for automation, the Automation LED beneath the encoder is illuminated. With the appropriate mode enabled, parameters can be armed for automation by simply touching the relevant encoders.When a parameter controlled by an encoder is armed for automation, the Automation LED beneath the encoder is illuminated. With the appropriate mode enabled, parameters can be armed for automation by simply touching the relevant encoders.Above the fader are the Channel Strip function controls, which is where you'll find the Input Monitor, Record Enable, Mute, Solo, Select and Automation Mode buttons for each channel. These work just as the on-screen versions in Pro Tools ' mixer, with one exception. The Automation Mode of a channel is set by toggling the Automation Mode button rather than using a pop-up menu, though there's also a dedicated Trim button for selecting the Trim Automation Mode.

In order to make it easier to use the modifier keys normally found on the computer's keyboard (Shift, Ctrl, Option/Start and Command/Alt), the modifier keys are duplicated at the bottom right of the Main Unit and each additional Fader Module. This is obviously convenient, and these work in exactly the same way with controls on Icon surfaces as they do in the software.

One small detail I found disappointing, though, is that there's no visual indication on the surface of whether a channel is in Solo Safe mode. A blinking solo light would probably have been annoying, but if the Solo button could have been illuminated with half the brightness, say, that would have been handy.

A Channel Strip's Select button has two different modes of operation, known as Select and Focus, and you can select the current mode with the Select/Focus Mode switch in the Channel Strip Master function controls section. The behaviour of this mode switch is one of the elements of the design you'll find repeated for different mode controls all over the Icon surfaces, where there's a button and various 'mode indicator' LEDs that show the current mode of a particular function. In the case of the Select/Focus Mode switch, there are two mode indicators, one either side of the button, and pressing the button alternates the mode between Select and Focus.

Select mode uses the Channel Strip Select buttons to choose channels in Pro Tools, and there's a useful preference on the Icon surfaces that lets you set whether this Select behaviour should Latch, where selecting a new channel doesn't automatically deselect the previous one, or be ExclOr (Exclusive Or), where only one channel can be selected at a time. Focus mode allows you to use the Select button to set a given channel to be the Focus Channel on the control surface and doesn't affect any channels currently selected in Pro Tools.

The Channel Strip function controls section also includes the Channel's 'Scribble Strip', a small, green, six-character LCD that displays the name of that channel. There are several display modes available to the Scribble Strip here, including the default Track Name Mode and other options allowing you to see which group a channel belongs to, the number of a given channel, the available headroom, or the peak level. The track name is shown as inverted green if the track is disabled, and the D-Control takes the Scribble Strip concept one step further with tri-colour LCDs. If a channel clips, for example, the Scribble Strip turns red.

At the top of every Channel Strip on the Fader Unit is the stereo-capable level meter on the meter bridge. The design could be improved here by including Scribble Strip displays at the bottom of each channel's meter, because when you look across the console it's sometimes hard to see at a glance which channel is associated with which meter. This is only a minor quibble, though.

The XMON Monitoring Controller

The XMON is a 2U monitoring controller that looks exactly like a 192I/O box without anything on the front panel except for the power switch, a mute button and indicator (to mute all audio output), and a MIDI activity light to show when the XMON receives control data from the surface. Both D-Control and D-Command contain controls that can select inputs and outputs, make level adjustments, and so on, for an attached XMON. It's important to note that this monitoring system operates independently of Pro Tools, meaning that the monitoring part of the console is always active even if a Pro Tools Session (and thus mixer) isn't open. This is useful if you have a CD player connected through the XMON, for example, but it does mean that XMON settings aren't stored in a Pro Tools Session and the XMON itself can't interact with Pro Tools.

The monitoring section on the D-Control (pictured) and the D-Command is the only part of the console that operates independently of Pro Tools. It remotely controls the included XMON monitoring system.The monitoring section on the D-Control (pictured) and the D-Command is the only part of the console that operates independently of Pro Tools. It remotely controls the included XMON monitoring system. The XMON audio signal path is purely analogue, so you'll need converters and interfaces, such as Digidesign's own 192I/Os, to get audio out of Pro Tools into the XMON. On the back of XMON are four D-Sub connectors for inputs: a Main input for your main stereo or surround output from Pro Tools, a Surround input for a second stereo or surround input such as a CD/DVD player, a Cue input that provides three stereo cue feeds into XMON (useful for headphone monitor mixes), and, finally, a Stereo input that provides four additional stereo inputs. On the monitoring section of the Main Unit, you can select any of these inputs (with the exception that D-Command can only address three stereo inputs from the Stereo input) as the input source, or you can sum the selected inputs together if the Sum button is enabled.

Moving onto the outputs, there are three D-Subs: a Main output, for attaching your main stereo or surround monitor speakers, a Cue output, to output the three Cue stereo cue feeds along with a stereo pair of studio loudspeakers (in a live room), and an Alt Speaker output, to connect an alternative set of stereo or surround monitor speakers. The D-Control's monitoring section features three separate encoders for the output levels of the Main, Alt and Mini outputs, though only one can be active at any time. D-Command has just one encoder which is switchable between these functions.

As you would expect, the output section also includes a calibration mode, along with master Mute and Dim buttons (the D-Control offers a separate encoder for setting the Dim level), and a Mono button. As with the dynamics and EQ sections of the surface, the monitoring section offers Channel switches to mute or solo a given output channel; again, the D-Command supports up to six channels (for 5.1) and D-Control handles nine channels (for 8.1).

For cue mixes, you can adjust or mute the incoming cue inputs independently via three separate encoders and switches on the D-Control, though once again this functionality has been condensed on the D-Command, which only addresses two cue inputs. Cue inputs basically pass straight through this gain stage in the monitor, along with any talkback input, and are routed to the Cue outputs.

Finally, there's also a Utility D-Sub providing external talkback and listen-back mic inputs, AFL inputs (if you have an AFL solo buss set up in Pro Tools), a stereo 'mini' speaker output for connecting a pair of nearfield reference monitors, such as Auratones if you're doing TV work — some people still use them — and a talkback/slate output. Plus, in addition to the control lead that connects to the Main unit from the XMON carrying MIDI/RS422 information for communication with the Icon's monitoring section, there's also a stereo headphone output signal to drive the headphone output on the Main Unit, along with a talkback input signal from the talkback mic built into the Main Unit. The D-Control offers separate encoders and switches for the headphone, studio loudspeakers (useful if you want to slate the talkback into the live room, for example), and AFL/PFL solo options, while the D-Command condenses all of this functionality with the Cue encoder.

Knowing The Knobs

Above the Channel Strip function controls are six (on the D-Control) or two (on the D-Command) rotary encoders. Like the faders, the encoders are touch-sensitive, which is a feature that not even all high-end, large-format digital consoles offer, and their response can be set via the Soft Key preferences. You can choose various velocity acceleration settings (how fast you turn the knob affects the resolution of the parameters you step through), Fixed mode (the normal behaviour of the encoders) and Fine mode, which allows high-resolution adjustments.

Below each encoder on the Channel Strip are an LED to show when a parameter is armed for Automation, and a six-character LCD. Each encoder also has a 15-LED indicator ring showing the current value of the parameter being controlled by the encoder. On the D-Control, both the LCD and encoder LEDs are tri-colour. Every encoder section on this part of the console has an accompanying Select button and a multi-function Bypass/Mute/Pre(-fader) button with two indicator LEDs. The D-Control also has additional Dynamics and EQ LEDs, which are illuminated if an encoder is controlling a parameter from a dynamics or EQ plug-in; these LEDs on the D-Command indicate Clip and Flip. (On the D-Control, Clip and Flip are indicated for an encoder by the encoder's LCD changing colour.)

The encoders in the Channel Strip have no fixed function, and you can set what they should control via buttons in the Channel Strip Mode controls at the bottom of each strip of encoders. The D-Control features eight Mode buttons (Dynamics, EQ, Input, Mic Pre, Inserts, Pan, Bypass-Mute and Sends), while the D-Command offers four (Inserts, Pan, Bypass-Mute and Sends) and both surfaces feature page up and down buttons which are illuminated when an additional page of controls is available in a given mode.

Pressing a Channel Strip Mode button sets the mode for the encoders on only that channel, but if you want to access the sends on all channels, for example, there's a duplicate set of Mode buttons on the Channel Strip Master section. Pressing one of these sets all Channel Strips on the surface to that Mode, which is useful when you want to see all sends at once, or all inserts, and so on.

Pan mode is the default mode, and for a stereo or mono track routed to a mono or stereo destination, the pan controls appear exactly as they do in the Pro Tools software, with one or two pan controls appearing from the bottom up on the encoders. If a mono or stereo track is routed to a surround output, the panning controls are more extensive: D-Control users will find the most common Pan controls on the first page, as will D-Command users; it's just that D-Command users will have to do a good deal more paging to access all the parameters.

High-end consoles commonly have preamps that can be controlled from the console and stored as part of a recallable mixer template, and Pro Tools has offered this kind of functionality for some time now, when it's used in conjunction with Digidesign's own Pre, which is an eight-channel preamp for connecting mic, line and DI-level inputs. The Pre is a purely analogue box (you'll still need a 192I/O with at least eight analogue inputs) and is remotely controlled from Pro Tools via MIDI. Parameters for the preamp can be edited on Icon encoders where a channel takes its input from a Pre, and the D-Control has dedicated buttons for accessing this function.

From a sonic point of view, the Pre is pretty nice: it's fairly transparent and doesn't add a great deal of warmth or character to the sound. Its only real down side is that there's an audible clicking sound (sometimes referred to as zipper noise) when you make adjustments to the parameters, which means that this isn't the preamp for you if you like to ride levels when recording.

Having a workstation, mixer and microphone preamps completely integrated is incredibly convenient, and while not everyone will necessarily want to use the Pre, Digidesign do at least publish its MIDI control protocol in the Pre's manual (which is freely available on-line) so that other companies can adopt the same protocol. Reso Audiotronics, for example, have already done just that with the Reso Pre 873, an eight-channel unit 'built using a Neve 1073 analogue circuit design', which can be integrated into a Pro Tools environment.

Icon Pricing

Existing Pro Tools users can purchase a D-Control or D-Command surface to complement their Pro Tools systems. The basic price list is as follows (including VAT):

  • D-Control 16-fader Main Unit £42,294
  • D-Control 16-fader Expander Module £21,144
  • D-Command eight-fader Main Unit £11,274
  • D-Command 16-fader Module £10,569

There are also a number of upgrade possibilities from Pro Control and Control 24 configurations, as well as a selection of bundles for those looking to purchase a complete Icon system for music or post-production mixing in either stereo or surround. The bundles include a significant discount as an incentive for purchasing the whole system at once, and as well as the hardware listed, come with DigiDelivery Serv LT and a plug-in bundle. Here are some example bundles:

  • 24-fader D-Command Music Bundle £46,994: D-Command eight-fader Main Unit, D-Command 16-fader module, Pro Tools HD3 Accel Core, 2x 192I/O, 192 AD, MIDI I/O, Sync I/O, Pre.
  • 16-fader D-Control Music Bundle £52,869: D-Control 16-fader Main Unit, Pro Tools HD3 Accel System with PCI cards, 3x 192I/O, MIDI I/O, Sync I/O, Pre.
  • 32-fader D-Control Music Bundle £70,494: D-Control 16-fader Main Unit, D-Control 16-fader Expander Module, Pro Tools HD3 Accel System with PCI cards, Sync I/O, 3x 192I/O, MIDI I/O, Pre.

Inserts

Inserts mode is used to add or control plug-in inserts on a channel, and each encoder in the strip represents one insert slot on the Pro Tools mixer; there's a handy Soft Key preference where you can reverse the order so that the inserts run from bottom to top, instead of the default top down. This is useful because reaching the top knob on a D-Control can be a bit of a stretch. With the D-Control's six encoders per channel, it's pretty easy for the five insert slots to be accommodated, and there's a Soft Key preference that lets you keep the basic pan control on the lowest encoder at all times. However, you'll need to use the Page Up and Page Down buttons to access all the slots on the D-Command's two encoders.

To add an insert to a Channel, press the appropriate encoder's Select key and, just as in Pro Tools, you'll be able to navigate a hierarchical menu of available insert plug-ins using the encoder and the Select button. A nice touch when scrolling through the plug-in list is that the full plug-in name is displayed across the LCD displays of adjacent channels; once you take your finger off the encoder, the name shrinks back to a shortened version on just one LCD again. When a plug-in has been added to an insert slot, its name appears in abbreviated form on the appropriate encoder's LCD display. If the name appears in inverted green, it means that insert is inactive, which happens if you don't have enough DSP power, or you've opened a Session that includes plug-ins you don't have.

To edit the parameters for a plug-in, press the appropriate encoder's Select button and all the encoders on that Channel Strip will show the plug-in's parameters. Since most plug-ins have more than six (or two) parameters, you need to use the Page Up and Page Down buttons to access all of them.

To bypass an insert, you press the Bypass-Mute-Pre button next to the appropriate encoder; if you want to bypass all the inserts on a Channel Strip in one go, press the Bypass/Mute button on the strip's Channel Strip Mode controls instead.

The D-Control has dedicated Dynamics and EQ buttons in the Channel Strip Mode controls, which set a Strip's encoders to control the first dynamics or EQ plug-in on that channel, and pressing them multiple times cycles through any additional dynamics or EQs. Although this is useful, it's worth bearing in mind that both the D-Control and D-Command feature dedicated controls for working with dynamics and EQ plug-ins, which we'll investigate later.

Send Me An Angel

Working with sends is quite similar to working with inserts. In Sends mode, each encoder represents a different send, and, again, this will be more convenient on the D-Control than on the D-Command, where you have to page through more sets of encoders to access all the sends. However, with Pro Tools 7 adding support for 10 sends per channel, even D-Control users will have to use the Page buttons to access all 10 sends.

In Sends mode it's possible for an encoder to show metering for the level of the send and the actual level the send is set to. On D-Control's tri-colour LED encoder ring, you can see the metering in green and the value of the parameter in red. The illuminated Pre mode indicator LED beneath the encoder's Scribble Strip shows that the send is pre-fader.In Sends mode it's possible for an encoder to show metering for the level of the send and the actual level the send is set to. On D-Control's tri-colour LED encoder ring, you can see the metering in green and the value of the parameter in red. The illuminated Pre mode indicator LED beneath the encoder's Scribble Strip shows that the send is pre-fader.

Adding a send is like adding an insert: in Sends mode, press the Select button in the encoder group that represents the send slot you want to use, and navigate through the menus with the encoder and Select button to specify where you want to send the signal. Once a send has been added, you can adjust the level with the encoder. One really neat touch is that the encoder ring of LEDs can act as a level meter for a send.

When an encoder is acting as a send, the channel's Bypass/Mute/Pre button is used to either mute a send or set it to Pre-fader mode, with two indicator LEDs above indicating its status, while pressing the D-Control's global Bypass/Mute button in the Channel Strip Mode controls section will mute all sends on a given channel. Additional settings for a given send, such as pan, are accessed by pressing the appropriate encoder's Select button to display the send settings across the encoders.

One feature that's especially convenient for working with sends is Flip mode. The Channel Strip Master section has a Flip button for each row of encoders. Simply press Flip and the corresponding row of encoders will be swapped with the faders, the Flip button will light up, and on the D-Control, the encoders' LCD Scribble Strips will become orange to indicate that they have been flipped. On the D-Command, each encoder's Flip light illuminates instead. This facility has numerous uses: in Sends mode, for example, you could Flip the first row of encoders, which might be controlling the first Send slot for a headphone mix, to the faders, causing the channel volume to appear on the first row of encoders instead.

The D-Control also features a variation on Flip mode, known as Flop mode, which transfers any other row of encoders to the bottom row. It's a nice touch to put encoders' controls in a more convenient position, but I preferred to use the 'bottom to top' arrangement for encoders most of the time.

Custom Faders

By default, the Icon surface mirrors the order of faders in Pro Tools ' Mix window, which is generally fine if you're working with smaller Sessions that have no more channels than you have faders on the surface. The usual banking system is implemented for accessing additional channels, but to make mixing more manageable, there are also several different Custom Fader modes available from the Custom Fader controls on the Main Unit of the Icon surface. One of the most useful is a feature you'll find on most higher-end digital consoles — it's called a Custom Group in Icon terminology — where you can assign a given channel in Pro Tools to a specific fader on the surface. For example, if there's a drum kit in the Session, you could create a Custom Group that contains only the individual channels for the drum kit. Now, when you want to make an adjustment to a drum kit channel, instead of banking up and down the console to find the drum kit channels, you just recall the drum kit Custom Group.

Here you can see the parameters of the reverb plug-in Revibe displayed via the rotary encoders of the D-Control in Custom Fader mode. The yellow-on-red display of certain Scribble Strips indicates that that parameter is also assigned to the faders, and note the blue Custom Fader LED next to the faders, showing that the channel is in Custom Fader mode. This makes plug-in editing easy, especially with plug-ins that have a large number of parameters.Here you can see the parameters of the reverb plug-in Revibe displayed via the rotary encoders of the D-Control in Custom Fader mode. The yellow-on-red display of certain Scribble Strips indicates that that parameter is also assigned to the faders, and note the blue Custom Fader LED next to the faders, showing that the channel is in Custom Fader mode. This makes plug-in editing easy, especially with plug-ins that have a large number of parameters.Creating a Custom Group is easy, and when a channel strip is in Custom Fader mode, a blue 'CF' indicator lights up next to the fader. The reason each fader has its own CF indicator, as opposed to there being one global CF indicator for the whole surface, is that it's possible to partition the console so that only a few channel strips become Custom Faders when CF mode is activated, and the rest of the channel strips behave normally. In this case, banking up and down channels causes only those channels not in CF mode to scroll.

Unfortunately, it's not possible to choose any number of faders to be available in CF mode, but there are plenty of options. On the D-Command you can assign four, eight, 16 or 24 faders (the whole surface) to be Custom Faders, while on D-Control you can set the number of Custom Faders in banks of eight. On either surface, the Custom Faders can be justified to the left or right of the surface. While it would be nice to choose an arbitrary number of Custom Faders, this isn't a big limitation. A further addition to CF on the D-Control is that it's possible to have two banks of CFs on the surface simultaneously, which can come in particularly handy if you have the Main Unit sandwiched between several Fader Modules.

The D-Control can store up to 48 Custom Groups, accessed via four pages of 12 Bank Select buttons, while the D-Command offers eight. Custom Groups can be named and edited once created, and channels in the Custom Group are ordered in the same sequence they're added to the Group. This means that if you want to re-order the sequence you have to remove channels and add them again. A nice touch is that it's possible to add the same channel twice, should you want to see different settings for the same channel, such as inserts and sends, simultaneously on adjacent strips.

One slight drawback of the D-Control's Bank Select area is that, unlike the Soft Keys, the buttons for triggering the different Custom Groups don't have Scribble Strip displays. This inevitably means that you end up with little bits of paper on the console to help you remember what a given button represents, which is a bit annoying, especially since Custom Groups are stored within the Pro Tools Session and can therefore be different in every Session. On the plus side, though, it is possible to access the Custom Groups via the Soft Keys, so you can see the Group names.

Because the Custom Group behaviour is handled by the Pro Tools software and stored in a Pro Tools Session file, a welcome feature in future versions of Pro Tools would be a Custom Group editor window for Icon users. Although it's easy to set up Custom Groups using the surface, being able to manage and rearrange them by dragging and dropping on-screen objects would be useful. Hopefully, this would also make it possible to import and export Custom Groups between different Sessions that have similar track layouts; as it is, you have to set up the Groups every time in every new Session.

More Custom Fader Modes

Although Custom Groups are independent of the long-established Mix and Edit Groups in Pro Tools, it's possible to use the Custom Fader mode on the surface to access these types of Group as well. Other Custom Faders modes include Tracks mode, which enables you to assign only tracks of a certain type within the Session to the Custom Faders, where Bank Switches 1-5 bring up all Master, Audio, Auxiliary, MIDI and Hidden tracks from the Session to your CF bank. This is particularly useful for keeping a small CF bank of just Master Tracks, since neither Icon surface offers dedicated Master faders — and with this feature, there's almost no need.

Another really nice Custom Fader mode enables you to fill all the encoders on the CF channels with parameters from a single plug-in. This works better on the D-Control where you have more encoders, of course. Once the plug-in parameters are laid out on the encoders, you can make use of their touch-sensitivity to bring certain parameters down to the faders in the CF channels, which is useful for gaining easy access to basic reverb parameters such as room size, pre-delay and so on. In Automation Enable mode, you can also simply tap the controls to toggle automation arming for these parameters. Very neat!

The best thing about plug-in mapping in Custom Fader mode, though, is that, unlike Custom Groups, the maps can be imported and exported between different Sessions, and Pro Tools remembers the plug-in maps for the last Session that was opened when you start a new one.

Digidesign Icon

Dedicated To Dynamics

Having a dedicated set of controls on a mixing console for adjusting the built-in dynamics and EQ parameters on a given channel is pretty common, and the Main Unit in both Icon surfaces features such dedicated controls. As Pro Tools users will know, the application's mix engine doesn't actually offer built-in dynamics and EQ for audio channels; if you want to use either dynamics or EQ on a channel, you simply insert a suitable plug-in. So the really neat thing about the Icon's dynamics and EQ controls is that compatible plug-ins automatically map their parameters to the available controls on the surface. For instance, you don't have to think about how to adjust the threshold of the compressor, depending on what compressor plug-in you're using: the threshold parameter of a compatible plug-in always maps to the Threshold control on the surface. I say compatible, because obviously a plug-in needs to present its parameters to Pro Tools in a specific way for the full Icon functionality to work. Fortunately, most plug-ins are now Icon-aware.

Digidesign IconIn these three pictures you can see how the parameters of a Pro Tools dynamics plug-in (in this case, Smack!) are mapped to the dedicated hardware controls for adjusting dynamics on both the D-Control and D-Command surfaces. Notice how the rotary encoders on D-Command have more mode indicator LEDs underneath that light up to show you what parameter a given encoder is controlling.In these three pictures you can see how the parameters of a Pro Tools dynamics plug-in (in this case, Smack!) are mapped to the dedicated hardware controls for adjusting dynamics on both the D-Control and D-Command surfaces. Notice how the rotary encoders on D-Command have more mode indicator LEDs underneath that light up to show you what parameter a given encoder is controlling.When you select a channel as the Focus Channel on the surface, the first EQ and dynamics plug-ins used on that channel are automatically mapped to the Main Unit's EQ and dynamics sections, and you can toggle to the next suitable plug-in on the channel by pressing the relevant section's Cycle button. If you want to keep a given instance of a plug-in mapped to the EQ or dynamics sections when you select a different channel as the Focus Channel, such as for an EQ or limiter plug-in on the master channel, both sections feature a Lock button that keeps the current plug-in 'locked' to those controls when you change the Focus Channel.

Both the EQ and dynamics sections offer Channel Select switches for use with multi-mono plug-ins, which comes in handy when working in surround. The D-Control features nine Channel Select switches (L, Lc, C, Rc, R, Ls, Cs, Rs and LFE), allowing you to control up to eight (for 7.1) channels, whereas the D-Command offers six Channel Select switches (L, R, C, Ls, Rs and LFE) for six-channel (for 5.1) mixes. The Channel Select switches offer various different modes, such as Link mode, where you can select which channels are linked, so that altering a parameter on one channel alters the same parameter on all other linked channels. This can be useful if you want to treat the left and right channels as a pair, or maybe omit the LFE channel so that it can be treated independently.

Pressing a Channel Select switch in Select mode sets which channel's parameters should be edited on the surface, and a nice touch is that if the surface's 'Channel Window Display' preference is set, the plug-in's editor window in Pro Tools also displays the selected channel's parameters. You can also toggle the appearance of the EQ or dynamics plug-in editor window by pressing the Window button in the EQ or dynamics section. Finally, Bypass mode enables you to mute specific channels, and a Master Bypass switch is also provided in both EQ and dynamics sections, to bypass the entire plug-in.

In terms of the available controls, there are 15 parameters for dynamics, controlled by 12 encoders on the D-Control and six on the D-Command, with a Page button to access the ones that won't fit on these. D-Command users will be pressing the Page button a little more often to access all the functions, but Digidesign have been pretty smart in putting the six most common controls for dynamics processors on the first 'page': Knee, Ratio, Attack, Release, Gain and Threshold. The D-Control's dynamics section offers eight-LED meters for input and output levels, Compressor/Limiter Gain Reduction and Expander/Gate Gain Reduction, plus an additional Clip indicator LED. This is great for visual metering feedback from the plug-in without having to open the plug-in's editor window on screen. On the D-Command, the Compressor/Limiter and Expander/Gate Gain Reduction displays share one eight-LED section, and instead of both input and output-level metering, there's an eight-LED input level display with a Clip indicator for the output signal.

D-Control Surround Option

When the D-Control first shipped, the lower right-hand panel under the monitoring section on the Main Unit was empty. However, this space can now be filled with the optional Surround Panner, featuring two separate banks of panning controls and a touchscreen. Each bank offers a non-motorised, touch-sensitive joystick for panning in a 360-degree sound space, two Punch switches for punching in and out of automation writing with the joystick, and an encoder (as found in other areas of the surface) for controlling parameters such as position and divergence, as set by the Panner Control switches underneath.

The touchscreen is split up into two main areas that represent the current state of the surround panners controlled by the joystick. In a way, this compensates for the lack of motorisation in the joysticks, since the touchscreen shows the movements, and if the joystick's position gets out of sync with the channel's actual pan position, the screen shows two separate cursors. Digidesign have implemented what is termed a 'proximity takeover' effect, so you can move the joystick to roughly the position of the current pan position before the joystick takes control again, eliminating 'jumps' in pan position. You can, however, do the reverse and have the current pan position snap to the location of the joystick; and, since it's a touchscreen, you can move the pan cursor on the screen with your finger instead of the joystick.

As with the Dynamics and EQ sections of the D-Control, the Surround Panner shows panning for the Focus Channel and features a Lock button to lock the focus of the currently selected Channel (or Channels), if you want to change the Focus Channel for other parts of the surface. A handy Link mode enables you to set whether the panners control the two mono sides of a stereo track routed to a surround output, or two separate mono tracks.

The added bonus of the Surround Panner is that the joysticks can also be assigned to control other parameters instead of just panning. For example, you could assign the 'X' axis of one joystick to an EQ plug-in's frequency parameter and the 'Y' axis to the gain control of a single band.

EQ Control

The D-Control's EQ section features 19 controls for five bands of parametric EQ plus high- and low-pass filters, and an additional two controls for setting the input and output level of the EQ plug-in. This perfectly fits plug-ins like Digidesign's own EQ III or Sony's Oxford EQ, for example. The filter strips each include two controls for setting Q and frequency, plus a Notch/Shape selector switch, while the low- and high-band strips add a third control for gain. The low-mid, mid- and high-mid-band strips are almost the same but don't have the Notch/Shape selector switch, and all strips offer an 'In' button, to toggle whether that band is active or not in the EQ plug-in.

The D-Command offers the same functionality as the D-Control, but condensed down to 12 controls organised into four strips, each of which is shared — for instance, the low EQ band and high-pass filter share a strip. The EQ section also offers metering: two eight-segment LED meters for input and output levels, plus a clip indicator, on the D-Control, and a single eight-segment LED meter for the output level on the D-Command.

Overall, the implementation of the EQ and dynamics sections is simple and brilliant, and it illustrates one of Digidesign's advantages, in that there are few companies who could coordinate such tight integration of third-party plug-ins with a control surface in this way. There are plenty of mixing consoles with dynamics and EQ sections, and there are plenty of workstation-based mixers with dynamics and EQ plug-ins, but no-one has bridged these two worlds quite as successfully as Digidesign.

In Use

The curious thing about products such as the D-Control and D-Command is that they don't actually add any new features to your system or improve the sound quality. However, what they do add is usability, and an Icon surface improves the Pro Tools user interface and experience tremendously, especially if you prefer working with physical mixing surfaces instead of the mouse. In terms of usability and integration, a small feature that impressed me when I first saw an Icon surface was the way in which touching controls that are automated can automatically switch the automation view for the relevant track in Pro Tools; what's great about Icon is the way in which you start to view Pro Tools as an extension of the surface, rather than the other way around, as with most other systems.

Digidesign IconDigidesign IconHere you can see an interface for Sony's Oxford EQ plug-in in Pro Tools, alongside photos showing how the same plug-in is mapped to the D-Control and D-Command's respective EQ sections. As you can see, Oxford EQ is particularly well suited to the D-Control, having all five bands of parametric EQ plus filters. Don't try this EQ curve at home, though...Here you can see an interface for Sony's Oxford EQ plug-in in Pro Tools, alongside photos showing how the same plug-in is mapped to the D-Control and D-Command's respective EQ sections. As you can see, Oxford EQ is particularly well suited to the D-Control, having all five bands of parametric EQ plus filters. Don't try this EQ curve at home, though...However, the integrated workflow isn't quite seamless just yet. For example, there are many operations in Pro Tools that are blocked when the transport is running, such as adding a send to a channel or changing I/O routing. There are, of course, a mixture of technical and legacy reasons why this is the case; but if you're used to working with a stand-alone mixer alongside Pro Tools, you're probably not used to having to stop playback to add a send to a channel. I'm sure Digidesign will work towards improving this area of Pro Tools for D-Control and D-Command users in the future, as that is Icon's raison d'être.

When you compare the D-Control to large-format competitors, it would also be nice to have more flexibility on the input and outing routing. For example, Pro Tools has the ability to send a single channel to multiple outputs, but there's no way to access this from the surface — it would be neat if you could use the encoders to mult outputs from a channel. On the input front, meanwhile, something that Pro Tools can't do right now is to assign two inputs to a channel and A/B between them.

However, the Icon surfaces do have some neat tricks, such as D-Control's Inline Console mode, where if you have an auxiliary track routed as the input to an audio track, you can control the level of the auxiliary track input from the bottom encoder of the audio track by pressing the audio track's Input button in the Channel Strip Mode controls. This is especially useful where you have an audio input from a controllable preamp like the Pre as the input for the auxiliary track, as Input mode for the audio track receiving this signal displays both the level for the auxiliary track on the bottom encoder, and the preamp settings on the subsequent encoders.

On the aesthetic aspect of the D-Control, one slightly pedantic comment I have is that, compared to other consoles, it's a shame the arm rest at the bottom part of the surface isn't bigger. It's quite common to lean over consoles with your arms (especially at those times when you're burying your head in your hands!) and D-Control isn't particularly welcoming in this area — not to mention for those people who like to kick back and put their feet up on the console! (It does happen...)

In terms of the actual surface design, the layout of controls on the D-Control is quite spacious, partly because the rotary encoders each take up quite a bit of room. I quite liked the spacious nature of the surface, although I know a few people who think the controls might be a little too spread out, and while the D-Control isn't physically much different in size to similar surfaces, I think this gives it the feeling of being slightly bigger. The D-Command has almost the opposite quality; although it doesn't feel overcrowded, it does feel different to the larger Icon surface.

While the two surfaces follow a similar design aesthetic, there are a few quirks when it comes to consistency. For example, some of the controls are in geometrically different parts of the surface, and where the Utility button is yellow on the D-Control, it's green on the D-Command. This is perhaps a little pedantic, but when I first started using the D-Command after the D-Control, I was looking for the Utility button and I'm sure I would have found it quicker if the colouring was consistent.

On the subject of button colouring, the one feeling I did have about the colour scheme of the Icon surfaces (one that I know others share) is that there are just too many green buttons! As Kermit the Frog so eloquently said, 'it's not easy being green', and, at times, it really does become hard to distinguish different areas of the console with a casual glance. You do get used to it, but I can't help thinking some contrast in the design would have helped here.

Getting Started With The Icon

Assuming you already have a Pro Tools HD system up and running, completing an Icon system by adding a surface and XMON is fairly straightforward. Each element of the control surface (the Main Unit and Fader Modules) connects to the host computer (the one running Pro Tools) via 100-base Ethernet, so to get started you can simply connect your computer, Main Unit and any additional Fader Modules to a network switch. If you need to connect your computer to a LAN or need Internet connectivity via the Ethernet port, it doesn't seem to be a problem to connect to a larger network with the same switch, although I noticed I often needed to unplug from a network when performing the firmware updates that are frequently supplied with new versions of the Pro Tools software.

The minimum requirements recommended for a computer to be used with an Icon surface are either a dual-processor Power Mac G5 or dual-processor Windows XP machine with 2GB RAM. There are no recommendations for clock speed, but from my experience I would say at least a dual-2GHz Power Mac or a dual-2GHz Xeon/Opteron system. The reason for these requirements is that the majority of processing required by an Icon surface is taken care of by the host computer, so if you run a large number of HTDM or RTAS plug-ins with an Icon surface, you're going to need a fair amount of power. On really demanding projects, for example, occasionally I noticed the level meters becoming a little sluggish.

The audio output from your Pro Tools rig needs to be connected to the main audio input on the XMON; if you're using a 192I/O with an analogue output card, this is a simple matter of using one D-Sub-to-D-Sub lead from the 192I/O to the XMON. Next, connect a pair of speakers to the outputs of the XMON for monitoring using an appropriate D-Sub breakout cable (not included), and attach the control lead from the XMON to the D-Control or D-Command Main Unit.

Iconclusion

What I find most interesting about the Icon system is that Digidesign have, in effect, built a mixing console with an integrated digital audio workstation in the reverse order to that which most manufacturers have chosen. The company started off with a computer-based recording system that had some basic mixing capability, later adding effects and more comprehensive mixing functionality with TDM plug-ins and more DSP power in Pro Tools III, before introducing control surfaces like Pro Control and Control 24 to tie the whole system together in later versions of Pro Tools. In the case of Icon, the mixer is the digital audio workstation.

Traditional mixer manufacturers, however, have taken pretty much the opposite approach, starting off with mixing engines and control surfaces, and only later adding the ability to control digital audio workstations. Notable examples include Yamaha in the project-studio world, SSL at the high end, and now Euphonix, also in the high-end market, with their System 5 MC, which is probably the Icon's closest competitor.

The D-Control's Transport section provides familiar transport controls for using both Pro Tools and an external machine, although the functionality for the latter isn't implemented in the current version of Pro Tools at the time of writing. The Master Record and Auto Input button in the top left of the picture enable all suitable channels in Pro Tools for either record or Input.The D-Control's Transport section provides familiar transport controls for using both Pro Tools and an external machine, although the functionality for the latter isn't implemented in the current version of Pro Tools at the time of writing. The Master Record and Auto Input button in the top left of the picture enable all suitable channels in Pro Tools for either record or Input.The problem these other manufacturers face when competing with the Icon, though, is that Pro Tools is the most widely used digital audio workstation, and Digidesign have locked everybody else out from creating feature-rich competitors. Non-Icon surfaces from other manufacturers communicate with Pro Tools via Mackie's HUI protocol, which, while adequate for delivering basic operation, provides nothing like the functionality and integration that Digidesign's own control surfaces offer. Digidesign, of course, would be foolish to invite competition when they have a perfectly good (and growing) console business; but all this does mean that if you want a control surface primarily for controlling Pro Tools, you really would be best off investigating either the D-Control or the D-Command.

The big question for manufacturers and users alike is whether studios are ready for the level of integration offered by products like the Icon, and, ultimately, the dependency on one system. You can still integrate outboard gear with the Icon, like any other mixing system, of course, but there's a big difference between having a Pro Tools system attached to a dedicated mixing console, and a system where Pro Tools is the mixing console. Digidesign would argue this difference is the company's advantage, and conceptually I'd have to agree that integrated systems are the obvious progression for studio hardware.

For as long as Pro Tools remains the most widely used digital audio production tool, Digidesign are uniquely positioned to offer perhaps the best level of integration of any system. Arguably, no other company has such tight control of hardware, applications and plug-ins, and the Icon really shines where these strengths are fully utilised. There are still a few rough edges, but overall, the Icon is a stable platform that is constantly being improved. The D-Control and D-Command are great controllers for Pro Tools, and more importantly, for a large number of customers, especially those in music, the Icon stands up as a system in its own right, comparable to and instead of a large-format console (in the case of the D-Control). Personally, I can't wait to see what the future holds for integrated consoles. 

Published August 2006