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Digidesign Procontrol

Pro Tools Hardware Control Surface By Hugh Robjohns
Published May 1999

Digidesign Procontrol

Pro Tools is virtually an industry standard for music production and post‑production, even though its powerful mixing and signal processing capabilities have previously only been fully accessible through a computer screen. The recent introduction of Digidesign's own ProControl addresses that problem. Hugh Robjohns just loves being in control...

Digidesign's Pro Tools system has grown steadily over the years into a seriously powerful audio production tool with a vast array of third‑party plug‑in effects and signal processors. However, it always seemed to me that its impressive capabilities were restricted by the inherent limitations of a mouse and keyboard interface. After all, here is a machine which has the capability to undertake multitrack recording, editing and processing, and mixdown of the result — an entire studio in a box — but without an ergonomic or truly hands‑on means to control it.

Never a company to rest on their laurels, Digidesign have been pondering a solution to this one for some time. Mackie took a step in the right direction with their HUI interface (reviewed in SOS December 1998), but the challenge for Digidesign was to come up with a more encompassing dedicated control surface which would be both familiar and intuitive to operate, yet capable of controlling every aspect of Pro Tools. It also had to be able to to keep up with the demands of the Pro Tools system as it continues to evolve.

After a considerable effort (which started at around the same time as Mackie developed their HUI) and a lot of beta‑testing, Digidesign have finally presented an impressive solution. The ProControl looks just as a state‑of‑the‑art mixing console should look — in fact, it resembles the Euphonix CS3000 console in many ways. However, the ProControl isn't actually a console at all — it is both far more and far less! It's essentially just a remote‑control panel for Pro Tools, but it acts as a top‑flight recording and mixdown console with a very good edit controller built in. I guarantee that within minutes of sitting down in front of it, most people will be thinking of it as a console.

A Pro Tools/ProControl combination and a bunch of TDM plug‑ins is effectively a highly specified recording console, a multitrack tape recorder, a fully loaded outboard rack, and an automated mixdown console — pretty much an entire studio setup, all in a fully integrated and versatile package which would fit easily into the back of a small car! And, best of all, it's a system which is easy and intuitive to operate for people who would rather push faders and turn knobs than click and drag mice!


ProControl's DSP Assign section (see page 116) can be used to show the plug‑ins assigned to individual channels and, as here, the edit parameters associated with each plug‑in. — The array of buttons that makes up the channel matrix may initially seem bewildering, but it doesn't take long to appreciate the difference between controlling Pro Tools from a mouse and keyboard and using the ProControl.ProControl's DSP Assign section (see page 116) can be used to show the plug‑ins assigned to individual channels and, as here, the edit parameters associated with each plug‑in. — The array of buttons that makes up the channel matrix may initially seem bewildering, but it doesn't take long to appreciate the difference between controlling Pro Tools from a mouse and keyboard and using the ProControl.

The ProControl console is 'just' a dedicated remote control panel for a Pro Tools workstation, so there is no other hardware to find a home for — no extra I/O interfaces associated with ProControl or racks of audio processing equipment — although the slim console does usefully incorporate minimalist monitoring and talkback facilities. However, it is important to bear in mind that ProControl is only as powerful as the underlying Pro Tools environment: it is limited to the existing I/O and TDM plug‑ins and doesn't add anything other than a more practical, ergonomic and visually impressive means of controlling what you already have.

The control surface is of a modular design, allowing up to three additional motorised‑fader panels to be bolted on to the core frame. The basic unit contains a central section which provides the configuration, editing, monitoring and talkback sections, plus one 8‑fader mixer panel, together with comprehensive metering and a time display. Each extension panel adds another eight faders and assignable channel strips, so that the maximum of three extra extension fader packs will provide a total of 32 channel strips. Even with the basic 8‑fader main unit, though, every channel configured in any Pro Tools mix session can still be accessed and controlled through assignability of the available hardware faders.

The only connection between the ProControl surface and the Pro Tools computer is a standard 10BaseT ethernet link (via the usual RJ45 'telephone' connector) which would also be daisy‑chained between any additional fader expansion packs. These would normally be bolted directly to the left or right of the central section (to suit the desired console layout), but they could just as easily be sited separately from the main panel — perhaps adjacent to a rack of keyboards, for example — yet still work as part of the complete installation.

While it will double the cost of a small Pro Tools installation, many will believe the ProControl to be well worth the extra expense for the sake of easier, better and faster operating.

The system is engineered very thoroughly from the ground up — it includes two separate power supplies for the core console unit, for example. One is for the monitoring section and analogue electronics, and a second one powers all the digital controls, switches, LEDs, and fader servos. There is also a comprehensive built‑in diagnostic facility. Since any software‑based product such as the ProControl will inevitably require updates and bug‑fixes from time to time, Digidesign will be making these available on their web site for direct downloading and installation through the host computer.

An optional kit of spare parts is available for the console: this kit includes a complete fader assembly, transport‑button panel and analogue electronics board — all the parts which are likely to take the most abuse. The controller has even been designed so that if one of these components fails in use it is very quick and easy to swap it. Digidesign's service support guarantees to ship a replacement module for next‑day delivery, should the need arise.

As in the case of TDM plug‑ins, Digidesign have encouraged third‑party suppliers to design and build add‑on accessories for the ProControl from the outset. This is a clever move, as it should enable a degree of user‑customisation (as the accessories become available) for no extra R&D cost at Digidesign. I don't know how many accessories might be in the pipeline, but I have seen a combination panel with a QuickTouch keypad, QWERTY keyboard and integral trackball which can be built into the surface. The panel I saw was a pre‑production prototype but it matched both the aesthetics and overall philosophy of the ProControl system perfectly. There's also some furniture in development to allow the console to be used free‑standing.

As the ProControl is a dedicated controller for Pro Tools, it follows that some knowledge of the latter is required to understand the functionality of the former. Unfortunately, I don't have the space here to give a detailed description of Pro Tools, but in explaining the operation of the ProControl I hope the capabilities and potential of Pro Tools will become clear.

Central Section: Monitoring & Transport

The ProControl's eight fully motorised faders have a direct relationship with whichever on‑screen faders they are assigned to: move one, and the other moves with it.The ProControl's eight fully motorised faders have a direct relationship with whichever on‑screen faders they are assigned to: move one, and the other moves with it.

The heart of the ProControl is obviously the main configuration and central control section. This is divided into five distinct areas with clear panel markings. There is a monitoring section, a DSP Edit/Assign panel, a Channel Matrix (which doubles as a text keyboard), a numeric keypad with dedicated edit and window function buttons, and the transport control area.

The top right‑hand corner of the surface houses the control room monitoring, talkback and routing section. This is provided simply as a convenience and is actually completely divorced from the Pro Tools system, although it would normally be connected to allow the main stereo output from Pro Tools to be auditioned. The monitoring facilities are pretty simple, but all the essentials are provided, including three external stereo inputs and the main stereo output from Pro Tools (all interfaced via rear‑panel D‑Sub connectors wired in the DA88 convention). These external sources can be selected and routed to either main or nearfield monitor loudspeakers, and headphones — all with dedicated level controls. Mono, Mute and Dim buttons are provided for the main and alternative speaker feeds, and the stereo mix can also be routed through in place of an auxiliary cue feed for studio headphones. The monitoring can be reconfigured for surround work, if required. The panel also contains a built‑in talkback microphone and level control.

Below the monitoring section is a group of four cursor keys and a numeric keypad complete with arithmetic buttons. A further group of six illuminated buttons provides direct access to the main function windows in Pro Tools (Mix, Plug‑ins, Edit and so on), and two more dedicated buttons are labelled Undo and Save.

Underneath these controls, two more illuminated buttons select shuttle or scrub modes for the large jog wheel at the front of the console. To their right, a set of three buttons reassigns the available hardware faders. Assignment can be performed either singly or in banks of 8, 16, 24 or 32 (depending on the number of physical faders available), allowing any number of virtual faders within a Pro Tools mix configuration to be controlled from the ProControl surface. There is also a Master Faders button which automatically recalls all the 'masters' to the adjacent bank of eight faders within the core ProControl console.

To the right of the jog wheel, a Power Book‑style track pad and associated thumb switches allow the on‑screen cursor to be manipulated, although a conventional (Microsoft) mouse can also be plugged into the rear of the console if preferred. The provision of two thumb buttons and an MS mouse port provides compatibility with Pro Tools on the NT platform, of course, but there are also keyboard shortcut functions normally associated with the Apple and Option keys on a Mac computer.

To the left of the jog wheel, a conventional set of transport controls is provided, with large illuminated buttons which fall conveniently to hand. These are satisfyingly chunky, not unlike those of the Alesis BRC controller, and certainly appear to be very robust.

The meterbridge is an integral part of the ProControl console, and the section above the DSP Edit/Assign panel and monitoring controls houses three stereo bargraphs for the main outputs. These can also be configured for surround‑sound metering if required. An 8‑digit time display can be switched to show absolute time (hours, minutes, seconds), timecode (hours, minutes, seconds and frames), feet and frames (for film applications), bars, beats and ticks (MIDI), or digital audio samples.

I think few Pro Tools users would ever want to go back to mouse and keyboard after spending a few hours with the ProControl.

Central Section: DSP Edit/Assign & Channel Matrix

The array of buttons that makes up the channel matrix may initially seem bewildering, but it doesn't take long to appreciate the difference between controlling Pro Tools from a mouse and keyboard and using the ProControl.The array of buttons that makes up the channel matrix may initially seem bewildering, but it doesn't take long to appreciate the difference between controlling Pro Tools from a mouse and keyboard and using the ProControl.

The DSP Edit/Assign panel is used to control the vast array of plug‑ins available for Pro Tools. It consists of eight identical rows of controls, each with three buttons, an 8‑character LED display, and a rotary encoder knob. At the bottom of the section is another LED display showing the name of the channel, group, or plug‑in processor that the panel is currently assigned to. Two further buttons provide master bypass and compare functions.

When a channel is assigned to the panel it shows which, if any, DSP plug‑ins are currently installed in its five insert points. Each can be bypassed with a button to the right of the corresponding control knob, or all processing can be removed via the Master Bypass button at the bottom of the panel. When a specific plug‑in has been chosen with the Select button on the left, the panel provides access to the functional controls for that device and the LED displays label each strip with its function. As an example, a compressor plug‑in might provide controls for threshold, ratio, attack time, release time, and output gain.

A subsidiary role of the DSP Edit/Assign panel is to inform the user that there is an important text message displayed on the computer screen. This would normally be a warning message or instruction of some kind, and since it is entirely possible to drive Pro Tools from the ProControl without needing to look at the screen, it was felt necessary to incorporate this vital prompt!

The Channel Matrix section is a 4x8 array of buttons with a further 17 around its periphery — all illuminated. It might appear rather confusing initially, but it is really no worse than trying to find your way around an unfamiliar jackfield, and once you're conversant with it, it is faster and easier to use. The matrix serves a number of purposes, which are determined by seven status buttons along its lower edge, plus buttons labelled Alpha, Utility and View on the left and right sides. The Alpha button is the easiest to explain: it allows the matrix to be used as a keyboard for entering names to label mix channels and so on. However, since it doesn't follow the normal QWERTY layout it is certainly not the easiest keyboard to use.

In View mode, the buttons illuminate to show the status of 32 channels of Select, Mute, Solo or Record/Ready status, and a set of four bank buttons on the right recalls further blocks of 32 channels. The matrix can also be used to select channels to form groups, or to clear selected channels of a specific function. The Utility button provides access to console diagnostics, amongst other housekeeping functions.

In many cases, the matrix panel is used in conjunction with the DSP Edit/Assign panel, as this is where many of the options and controls related to the selected functions are displayed. For example, if Utility mode is selected the various options are presented in the DSP Edit panel LED windows and are activated via the buttons there.

Fader Panels

ProControl uses proprietary long‑throw motorised faders, specially designed by Digidesign.ProControl uses proprietary long‑throw motorised faders, specially designed by Digidesign.

The first point to note about the fader panels is that they have a genuine two‑way relationship with their corresponding on‑screen faders. Move a physical fader and the virtual screen faders move accordingly; drag a fader on screen and the matching fader on the ProControl eases up or down in sympathy. And this applies to any allocated fader, whether it is a channel, master, aux return or even a MIDI controller. However, the ProControl goes further, providing the distinct advantage that all its faders can be moved at once, if desired — an impossibility when dragging a mouse on the computer screen!

When designing the ProControl, Digidesign couldn't find a commercial motorised fader which met their requirements, so they set about creating their own. The device they came up with provides a professional 100mm travel and generates a 10‑bit (1024‑step) control output, enabling an extremely high degree of resolution. The fader is touch sensitive, fully motorised, and feels just like a normal fader in use — friction is not excessive, nor is the motor argumentative.

Having said that, I should point out that the machine I played with was a hand‑built production model — as, indeed, all of the first few batches will be. In time, when all the production‑line niggles have been ironed out and the necessary quality controls are in place, it will be sent out of house for manufacture. For now, a group of highly trained technicians in America are adjusting each and every fader drive belt to make the action feel just right!

As might be expected, faders can be grouped together for easier control, and the groups can then also be grouped for multi‑layer nesting, if required. A column of five buttons immediately to the left of the DSP Edit/Assign panel is concerned with creating, editing and suspending these fader groups.

The entire fader strip is very tidy and uncomplicated. Above each fader is an 8‑character LED display to show the current channel name (ie. the track it is controlling on Pro Tools), as well as its position when the fader is moved. The rest of the strip contains nine buttons, split as five below and four above a single rotary encoder. The two largest buttons above the fader provide Solo and Mute functions, while a third button is labelled Select and is used in conjunction with the assignable facilities. A black button associated with a column of hidden‑until‑lit indicators is part of the automation functions (see 'Automation' box). Above the rotary encoder knob another LED display identifies its current function, and a stereo LED bargraph meter completes the strip facilities.

Each rotary encoder has a ring of 15 LEDs around it for instant positional feedback, and the scribble strip above also provides detailed numeric information about the current setting. The rotary encoder defaults to pan control, but can also be allocated to input or output levels, or any of the five stereo auxiliary sends. This assignment is performed by a group of 12 buttons to the left and applies to all eight faders on that panel. The button beneath each rotary encoder enables pre/post switching, and one very nice touch is the provision of a 'Flip' mode, allowing aux send levels to be set up on the faders — a real benefit when it comes to deriving a headphone cue feed. By the way, the five stereo aux sends available in Pro Tools can also be split into 10 mono sends and routed to any available hardware output or any of the system's 32 internal busses.

The four buttons at the top of each channel strip provide one‑touch controls for record/ready switching, insert/send switching, EQ in/Edit, and Dynamics in/Edit. Once again, these are all illuminated, so the console status is always very clear. To the left of these buttons, a group of four master buttons provides functions such as Master Record, Insert Bypass, and global EQ/Dynamics bypass. Another four buttons are currently unassigned and are labelled F1 to F4.


The ProControl certainly lives up to its design aims. It is a very effective controller for the Pro Tools system and, as far as I could tell, does everything! There seems to be nothing that can't be controlled directly from the console — from zooming the waveform displays and scrub editing to setting up mixer channels or configuring TDM plug‑ins.

I think few Pro Tools users would ever want to go back to mouse and keyboard after spending a few hours with the ProControl — it works that well, and it is so completely integrated with the workstation. A lot of Pro Tools users only use the system for editing, or recording and editing — many still use outboard mixers simply for the hands‑on aspect of the mixdown. With ProControl, the entire project can now be completed within the workstation, retaining its TDM plug‑in capabilities and making full use of its sophisticated automation, but with the very tangible benefits of physical hands‑on control, real faders and proper knobs.

While it will double the cost of a small Pro Tools installation, many will believe the ProControl to be well worth the extra expense for the sake of easier, better and faster operating, as well as because of the fact that it removes the need for a large analogue console purely for monitoring and to 'create the right impression' in the studio! Indeed, it enhances the capability of any Pro Tools system to such an extent that I would consider it an essential component for professional users.

ProControl Cost In Context

There are very few systems around which are directly comparable to the ProControl/Pro Tools combination. The HUI is £5000 cheaper than the ProControl (the cost of the Pro Tools hardware remains the same for a given capability, of course) but it is really intended for smaller post‑production applications, whereas Digidesign's new console is better suited to a larger‑scale music production role.

The granddaddy of this digital audio workstation + mixing console approach has to be the Fairlight FAME system, which comprises the MFX3 workstation and an integral control surface derived from Amek's DMS console. Although it is rather unfair to make direct comparisons between the Fairlight and Digidesign solutions, I'm going to anyway! In fairness, they take very different approaches to the problem and are aimed at entirely different sectors of the market, and while FAME has been around for a considerable time now and is well sorted, the ProControl will inevitably go through a brief period of bug fixing. However, in very general terms the two systems offer broadly comparable facilities, capabilities and overall ergonomic goals. So the fact that there is roughly a factor of three price differential between these two otherwise similar 8‑fader systems is very impressive indeed.

Technology advances at such a rate these days that what was once completely unaffordable to the smaller studio is now within budget capabilities. Just for the record, an 8‑fader FAME system would cost around £71,000, whilst a basic Pro Tools Mix Plus package with an 888 I/O module and core ProControl panel would cost under £20,000. If you were to go completely overboard and look at a fully loaded Pro Tools system with, say, five extra DSP farms, 24 channels of 24‑bit I/O and a 32‑fader ProControl console, the whole lot would probably still cost under £50,000. (The figures given here are based on list prices and are exclusive of VAT.)


The automation capabilities of Pro Tools are extensive, and the ProControl surface allows the operator to make the best use of them. A bank of 12 switches selects the operating mode and enables the various elements for automation. Available modes include Write, Touch (ie. automation moves will only be recorded while the controls are being moved), Latch (all automation is written from the point the controls are moved to the end of that automation pass), Trim, Read, and Off. The different elements of the system can be enabled independently, and separate buttons are provided for faders, pans, mutes, aux send levels and mutes, and TDM plug‑ins.


  • Controls every aspect of Pro Tools.
  • Good ergonomics.
  • Quick to learn and use.
  • Attractive price (see 'Price In Context' box).
  • Modularity.
  • Third parties developing accessories.


  • Limited monitoring facilities.


The ProControl brings some much‑needed ergonomic hands‑on control to Pro Tools. Elegantly designed, quick to learn and easy to operate, this control surface turns a very good workstation into a superbly integrated studio system with every function available at the fingertips. If the mass‑production versions turn out as well as the early production unit I played with, it's a sure winner.