JL Cooper's miniature controller packs 155 controls into a box the size of a book.
If small is beautiful, JL Cooper's CS32 is the Mona Lisa of control surfaces. It really is tiny, measuring a petite 23 x 21.5 x 4.7cm and weighing in at 1.4kg. Yet despite its diminutive proportions, it boasts a feature set that would turn many larger controllers green with envy. It can control up to 32 mixer channels without the need for bank-switching, and provides a full set of transport controls plus a scrub/shuttle wheel, cursor buttons and assignable function buttons into the bargain.
The CS32 is available in two versions, one of which hooks up to the host computer via MIDI and the other via USB; we were sent the MIDI version for review. The review unit seemed very well built, with a sturdy metal chassis that looked as though it would survive life on the road without difficulty.
Portability is clearly high on the Minidesk's design agenda, and the USB version has an advantage here, since it draws its power from the computer's USB port. The MIDI version needs to be connected to the included wall-wart power supply, although JL Cooper have done their best to minimise the inconvenience by incorporating all of the CS32's connections (MIDI In, MIDI Out, power, and a quarter-inch jack for a foot switch) into one custom cable. The manual states that the MIDI version is compatible with any flavour of Mac OS from 8.x upwards, and all Microsoft operating systems from DOS onwards. The USB version will not work under Mac OS 8, DOS, Windows 3.x or NT, but this is just due to the restricted support for USB under these OSs.
The documentation supplied with the Minidesk consists of a 20-page printed manual. There's one page on setting the CS32 up to work with OMS under Mac OS 9, and the task of configuring the USB drivers is dispatched equally swiftly. Pro Tools and Digital Performer users can bask in the luxury of two pages each on getting the CS32 to work in their chosen sequencer; everyone else gets a brusque paragraph telling them that the Minidesk is a generic MIDI controller. There's virtually no mention of Windows at all, and the whole business is not helped by the use of illegible screenshots.
I tested the CS32 with Pro Tools 5, where it is directly supported. Configuring OMS and Pro Tools to work with the Minidesk was straightforward, and it appears to the application as a JL Cooper CS10 with 32 faders — the largest configuration that is supported by Pro Tools 5. Fortunately, Pro Tools' Help documentation includes excellent instructions on using the CS10, which makes the CS32's wafer-thin manual more excusable. However, confusion can still arise because some of the CS32's controls are labelled differently, and there's nothing in the manual to tell you, for instance, that the CS10's Target Channel Strip buttons have become Pan Select buttons on the Minidesk.
The Minidesk provides 32 sets of channel controls, each consisting of a small fader and three buttons with associated LEDs. Each of the buttons has two functions, depending on which of two globally switched modes the CS32 is operating in. In the first mode you get Track Arm and Track Select buttons for each channel, with the centre channel buttons setting and recalling up to 32 memory locations. The other mode, selected by pressing a small red button at the top right of the unit, turns the three buttons into Mute, Solo and Pan Select controls. Target Channel Strip is a much more apt description for the latter function (I guess there just wasn't space to print it), which is used to choose the track that will be affected by the six large rotary controls at the top of the unit.
These rotaries provide five aux send level controls and a panner, the latter oddly located between sends two and three. So small are the rest of the CS32's controls that these seem grossly out of proportion, but they're actually the same size as the rotaries you'd find on any conventional mixer. As well as controlling pan and send levels, they can also be used to adjust the parameters within an open plug-in editing window on the selected channel, although you still need to use the mouse to open plug-in windows from the Mix or Edit views. The CS32's two-digit LED display reads 'PA' if you're editing pan and sends, or 'P' plus a number to indicate each 'page' of six plug-in parameters you step through, but working out which rotary is controlling which plug-in parameter can still involve a fair amount of guesswork.
The other large control on the CS32 is an endless wheel, which can serve as a scrub or shuttle controller depending on which of the adjacent buttons you press. The wheel itself has a nice smooth action, and works very well in both modes. Above the wheel are the transport and cursor controls, plus buttons labelled F1 to F9 and a blue Shift button. These all have well-defined and sensible roles when used with Pro Tools — for instance, F5, F6 and F7 replicate the QWERTY keyboard's Option, Ctrl and Command keys respectively — but it takes a while to learn what they all do, and some sort of overlay would be helpful. The cursor keys take on additional functions when used with the Shift button, such as increasing and decreasing the horizontal zoom level.
JL Cooper's publicity material claims that the CS32 'fits in the palm of your hand'. This is unlikely to be strictly true unless you are a character in a Roger Hargreaves book, but it's not that much of an exaggeration. You can certainly hold the Minidesk in one hand and manipulate it with the other, although it's sufficiently heavy that you wouldn't want to do this for too long. I found myself using it very comfortably on my lap, and you would have no trouble finding a space for it in even the most crowded studio. Its total surface area is around half that of a typical laptop computer, and the USB version in particular would add a lot of functionality to a portable setup, with minimal space overhead.
Of course, the CS32's miniscule dimensions do mean that it is compromised in some ways compared to a full-sized hardware controller. The most obvious limitation is the design of its faders: they're not motorised, and with less than an inch's worth of travel, they don't allow precise control of levels. The miniature sliders themselves take a bit of getting used to — it's rather like using an ordinary mixer that has lost all its fader caps — and as they are black and sit on dark brown fader tracks, it can be hard to see their position at a glance. Their motion is stiff enough to make sudden level jumps difficult, but this is probably sensible given the crowded layout, as it means you're less likely to move a fader by accident. In practice I also found that hitting the buttons cleanly was rarely a problem.
Because the faders aren't touch-sensitive or motorised, you have to move them through the 'pass-through' point before the on-screen faders start to follow them. Two small arrow LEDs show whether the fader on the currently selected track is above or below this point. The two-character LCD also provides some useful feedback, and the Mute, Solo and Track Select LEDs work as expected, but users will need to look at their computer screen for anything more than basic tracking and level adjustment. With 32 faders, no scribble strip and no way for your sequencer track names to be displayed on the CS32, it can often take some thought to work out which Minidesk fader corresponds to which on-screen channel. This is not helped by the panel legending — it's obvious why the lettering has to be small, but why does so much of it have to be in white on a light grey background?
One or two important functions also seemed to me to be missing when used with Pro Tools (unless they're simply overlooked in the documentation). I couldn't find any way to switch between Pro Tools' Edit and Mix windows using the CS32; and while you can define, select and separate audio regions using the scrub/shuttle wheel, it doesn't seem possible to nudge them or clear them.
I'll admit that when I first set eyes on the CS32, I found it hard to believe that anything so small could really be a useful aid to tracking and mixing. While it would be wrong to say that the Minidesk's titchiness has no ergonomic consequences, however, it turns out to be quite an impressive piece of kit. Save for a few luxuries like motorised or touch-sensitive faders, it really does offer the features of a full-sized, professional control surface in a package the size of a hardback book. If anything, JL Cooper have perhaps gone too far in their quest to fit as much as possible into a tiny space; personally, I would be willing to sacrifice half of the faders in order to have the remaining 16 operate over a decent range. As it is, the fader travel is too short to allow levels to be controlled with any precision.
You probably wouldn't want to use the Minidesk for mixing where a full-sized controller was at hand, then, but even if you discount its faders altogether, it's still a pretty useful thing to have around. Unlike any other portable controller I can think of, the Minidesk allows you to operate a DAW such as Pro Tools without constantly having to go back to the mouse and QWERTY keyboard. Not only can you adjust nearly every mixer parameter, but the CS32 is also genuinely helpful for audio editing. The implementation of a proper scrub/shuttle wheel alone sets it apart from budget controllers such as Peavey's PC1600X or Kenton's Control Freak. When you add to the equation the Minidesk's dedicated transport controls, function and cursor buttons, and ability to record-arm or mute and solo 32 tracks without any bank-switching, I think many buyers will find the CS32's additional cost easy to justify.
I can imagine a lot of people who have studios based around a CS10 or similar control surface buying a CS32 for mobile work, as it offers almost the same feature set as its big brother. Even those who never leave the studio may find reason to invest in one, however: Pro Tools, for instance, supports up to three MIDI control surfaces simultaneously, and the Minidesk could make an invaluable remote controller to complement a fixed, full-sized fader board.