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Mackie Control

DAW Control Surface
Published December 2003
By Mark Wherry

The original Mackie Control has just been superseded by Mackie Control Universal, which offers the same support for Emagic's Logic as Logic Control.The original Mackie Control has just been superseded by Mackie Control Universal, which offers the same support for Emagic's Logic as Logic Control.

Building on the success of previous mixer and control surface designs, Mackie's affordable Mackie Control promises the best of the soft- and hardware worlds — but will it make you hang up your mouse?

If you asked a musician or engineer to suggest the biggest problem with computer-based audio systems, the chances are they'd grieve over the lack of a suitable tactile user interface for working with music and audio. And while this criticism has become something of a cliché, it still remains true that a large number of users simply don't want to use standard computer devices, such as the mouse, to carry out mixing and other common tasks with a digital audio workstation. To use the obligatory car/technology metaphor, you'd never consider driving by manipulating an on-screen steering wheel with a mouse, so why should those in the audio industry control visual faders with the same rodent-inspired device?

Of course, developers of digital audio workstations have long been aware of this deficiency, and their solution has been to design something that looks and works like a mixer, but which only sends and responds to control information to and from the workstation, leaving the audio signal path alone. Perhaps the first significant control surface for a desktop DAW that really mimicked the design of a mixer was Mackie's HUI (Human User Interface), which was launched for use with Pro Tools in 1998, offering eight channel strips with LED VU metering, along with transport and other editing and mixing controls. HUI has since become supported by other software packages such as Steinberg's Cubase and Nuendo, and the command set used to communicate with HUI has also become something of a standard, emulated by many other devices.

In 1999, Digidesign released their own highly desirable control surface for Pro Tools, Pro Control, consisting of an eight-fader base unit which also featured a host of other mixing and transport controls, with optional eight-fader Fader Pack expander units also available, giving the user the choice of how many physical faders they wanted in their system. Pro Control is still going strong, and an optional Edit Pack was later made available offering a QWERTY keyboard, two joystick panners for surround work, and more. However, the Pro Control's impressive feature set comes at a correspondingly high price tag, with the base, Fader and Edit Pack expander units costing £9758, £5282 and £6098 respectively, putting the system out of the reach of many home and project studios.

Focusrite, in cooperation with Digidesign, would later bring out the more affordable Control 24 in 2001, a non-expandable control surface featuring 24 motorised, touch-sensitive faders, VU metering, a host of editing controls, and 16 preamps similar to those found in Focusrite's Platinum range. However, you don't have to use Pro Tools or have a big budget to add hardware control to your own computer system; companies like JL Cooper, GMedia, Kenton, Peavey, Radikal and Evolution have for many years offered generic control surfaces suitable for a range of budgets and software, with varying degrees of functionality — some models work by simply generating MIDI Continuous Controller information, for example.

Emagic turned heads at the 2001 Frankfurt Musikmesse when they announced Logic Control, a desirable control surface for Logic designed in conjunction with Mackie that seemed to finally offer a serious project-studio-level control surface at a reasonable price. Logic Control, with the required Logic 5 update, took Emagic slightly longer than expected to ship to the public, and it later transpired that Emagic's exclusivity agreement with Mackie was time-limited. So when Mackie's agreement with Emagic ended last year, the company was free to release the same hardware as their own product, which they did in the guise of Mackie Control, a desktop control surface for which any third-party developer was free to incorporate support in their DAW software.

In this review, we'll be taking a look at the Mackie Control hardware and how it works in conjunction with many of the popular MIDI + Audio applications. For more information about the original Logic Control and Logic partnership, it's worth taking a look at Paul White's original review from SOS April 2002 issue; and if you're wondering what exactly the differences are between Logic and Mackie Control, aside from the name, the 'Logic Vs Mackie Control' box should help remove the mud from the windscreen.

Know Your Knobs

Mackie Control is an elegant and professional-looking piece of equipment which borrows from the look of Mackie's other audio gear, measuring 441mm square and 96mm high and weighing in at around 6.5kg. The control surface itself is split into three main sections: one for eight channels of mixing controls, a dedicated master channel and, lastly, a transport and editing section to control other aspects of your workstation. There's a raised section at the top of Mackie Control that features an LCD above the mixing channels, a two-character eight-segment LED display designed (depending on the host software) to show the current 'mix scene', and a further LED display to show the current position of the song from your host software in either timecode or bars and beats. This display can be switched via the SMPTE/Beats Display button, although such behaviour is actually implemented by the host software rather than Mackie Control itself.

In applications such as Digital Performer, multiple Mackie Control XT extenders can be added to provide as many faders as you need.In applications such as Digital Performer, multiple Mackie Control XT extenders can be added to provide as many faders as you need.The main mixing area of Mackie Control features nine motorised and touch-sensitive 100mm Penny & Giles faders for the mixing channels and master channel. These feel fairly smooth under the fingers, although they can be a tiny bit noisy when a group of them are responding to automation — nothing serious, but marginally more noticeable than on, say, a Yamaha digital console like the DM2000 (which is admittedly over 10 times the price of Mackie Control). Above the eight mixing faders are three rows of buttons taken straight from Mackie's D8b console, which light up when enabled for channel solo, mute and selection, followed by a row of eight channel activity LEDs.

Although it's a shame that Mackie Control doesn't feature dedicated VU meters for each channel, as Mackie previously implemented for HUI, having an activity LED is at least a step up from some control surfaces, such as Steinberg's Houston, which offer no immediately obvious visual feedback as to whether signal is being output from a given channel. Despite the fact that some host software manufacturers implement channel metering to some extent in Mackie Control's LCD above the channel faders, a further nice touch would have been for Mackie to use a tri-colour LED for channel activity so you could see some indication of the signal's strength, especially if there are any peaks.

Above the activity LEDs is a row of Record Enable buttons, which light up appropriately red when enabled, followed by a row of eight Mackie V-pots, taken, again, from the D8b console and HUI. For those who haven't played around with one before, a V-pot is an endless rotary controller and button, with the current value indicated by a ring of LEDs around the circumference — not quite the same as the pots on a System 5 Euphonix console, for example, but easy to control and get feedback from all the same.

The back panel features a DC power connection for the supplied power adaptor (it's perhaps a shame a power supply wasn't build into the unit), two software-assignable quarter-inch jack footswitch connections, an external control input for connecting an expression pedal, and a set of MIDI input and output ports to connect Mackie Control to your DAW.

Unlike some controllers such as Steinberg's Houston, Mackie Control doesn't provide a USB or Ethernet connection, so you will need a separate MIDI port for each Mackie Control and XT extender in your system. Unlike some controllers such as Steinberg's Houston, Mackie Control doesn't provide a USB or Ethernet connection, so you will need a separate MIDI port for each Mackie Control and XT extender in your system.

The fact that Mackie Control uses MIDI to connect to your system is actually my main criticism of the unit, since it obviously means you need a spare MIDI input and output on your MIDI interface to accommodate a Mackie Control. No big deal, you might think, but firstly, not every MIDI interface has a large number of inputs (compared with the number of outputs); secondly, not every DAW user requires more than a couple of MIDI ports anyway; and third, if you buy the optional Mackie Control XT and C4 units as well (see box below), this means you'll need three pairs of MIDI ports, as they each require their own connection. If MIDI has to be used (as opposed to Ethernet, as with Pro Control) I think that the inclusion of a built-in USB MIDI interface would have been a big improvement, especially since many similar control surfaces, such as Steinberg's Houston and Radikal Technologies' SAC2k, offer such a USB port. The SAC2k even goes so far as to offer a built-in USB hub as well.

But Wait — There's More

The new C4 add-on will be ideal for those users who miss the tactile control of synthesizers and effects units in the virtual world.The new C4 add-on will be ideal for those users who miss the tactile control of synthesizers and effects units in the virtual world. For some, one of the most appealing aspects of Mackie Control is the potential for expansion: if eight faders aren't enough, you can build a bigger system by purchasing Mackie Control XT units. The Mackie Control XT is basically the eight channel strips from Mackie Control built into a horizontally smaller, but otherwise similarly styled enclosure, complete with an additional LCD strip along the top, although without the transport and function buttons, and the master fader, of course. As mentioned in the main text, each additional XT unit connects to a dedicated MIDI In and Out port on your MIDI interface, and the XT units need to be directly supported by the host software, so this is something you will want to check before purchasing. Most of the major applications already support Mackie Control XT, such as Digital Performer, Pro Tools and Sonar — Nuendo and Cubase are notable exceptions.

Mackie will also shortly be shipping C4, an additional expansion unit for the Mackie Control system, which is physically the same size as an XT unit, but instead of faders, C4 offers 24 V-pots with accompanying rows of LCD screens — according to Mackie. Actually, if you look at the picture of C4, it seems like 24 V-pots in addition to the usual eight along the top of standard Mackie Control channel strips. But aside from this technicality, what C4 will offer is a set of V-pots ideal for controlling plug-in instruments and effects, for example, or any other parameters and functions the software developers dream up.

While there are many control surfaces featuring rotary controllers already on the market, which are much cheaper than what Mackie will charge for C4, Mackie's unit has the advantage of endless rotary controllers that can respond to automation, and the labelling afforded by the LCD screens. I think C4 will be a great addition for Mackie Control users, and am looking forward to see how the software developers implement suitable support and functionality.

One Size Fits All

Once you connect Mackie Control to a MIDI interface, Mackie's responsibility comes largely to an end, because from this point it's up to third-party software developers to offer support for Mackie Control in their applications. Fortunately, most of the major music and audio applications now support Mackie Control (to admittedly varying extents), including Cakewalk's Sonar, Digidesign's Pro Tools (including LE), Mackie's Soundscape and Mixtreme, Magix's Samplitude and Sequoia, MOTU's Digital Performer, RML Labs' SAW Studio, Syntrillium's Cool Edit Pro and Steinberg's Cubase SX and Nuendo.

Given the generic nature of Mackie Control, it would be both difficult and limiting for Mackie to impose what action on Mackie Control should be triggered by pressing the various buttons. So to allow software developers the maximum amount of flexibility when deciding how to make use of the upper set of buttons above the transport controls, Mackie have worked with the various third-party companies to supply so-called Lexan Overlays. These are basically self-adhesive panels that can be fixed onto Mackie Control, providing manufacturer-specific labelling for certain buttons; and while this isn't perhaps the most elegant solution — not to mention a little too Blue Peter for my liking — these Lexan Overlays do at least allow you to tailor Mackie Control for the application you're going to be spending the most time using. Mackie supply a couple of Lexan Overlays with Mackie Control for Steinberg and MOTU software, for example, and additional Overlays are available from Mackie's web site, costing $10 each, plus a further $10 per order for shipping and handling.

On the manual front, Mackie supply relatively little documentation with Mackie Control, other than a brief quick-start connection guide — although, in fairness, there's little else they can actually provide. Instead, it's up to the third-party developers to properly document their Mackie Control implementations, and most have pretty good PDF documentation, which can either be downloaded from the respective manufacturer's web site or from Mackie's own Mackie Control product information web pages at www.mackie.com/products/mackiecontrol.

Cubase & Nuendo

Most of my time with Mackie Control has been spent using Steinberg's Cubase SX or Nuendo as the host software (other applications are covered later in this review and in several boxes), and Steinberg's support for Mackie Control has been slowly improving over the last year to the point where it's really quite good now. However, it's worth remembering that when Emagic were touting Logic Control, Steinberg also had their own dedicated control surface for Cubase and Nuendo called Houston, which has perhaps enjoyed similar success to the Apollo 13 space mission. Actually, it wasn't all that bad, but having used both, I'd certainly recommend Mackie Control over Houston, partly because I prefer the feel of the former's plastic buttons to the latter's rubber offerings, but also for technical reasons such as Mackie Control's touch-sensitive faders and expandability (see the But Wait — There's More box).

Mackie Control is configured via Cubase and Nuendo's Device Setup page, which allows you to assign Macros and Key Commands to Mackie Control's function buttons and pedal switches.Mackie Control is configured via Cubase and Nuendo's Device Setup page, which allows you to assign Macros and Key Commands to Mackie Control's function buttons and pedal switches.Using Mackie Control in Cubase or Nuendo is really easy, and OS X users won't have to worry about configuring the Audio MIDI Setup utility in order for Mackie Control to work correctly, which is the case with other applications like Digital Performer as we'll discuss later. In Cubase or Nuendo, simply open the Device Setup window, add a Mackie Control device, and set the input and output ports to specify the MIDI ports to which you've connected your Mackie Control on the MIDI interface. Mackie Control should instantly come alive, and you can use the Device Setup window to reset the Mackie Control communication (which is useful if you need to restart the unit for some reason), in addition to configuring the actions of the function keys and pedal switches. These actions can be any Key Command or Macro, and it's quite neat to be able to assign one pedal to Play/Pause and the other to Return to Zero, for example.

The Mixer's Channels in Cubase and Nuendo are, as you'd expect, displayed in the same order, from left to right, on Mackie Control as they are visible along the on-screen mixer, and you can scroll the eight-channel mixer selection from left to right one channel or eight channels at a time by pressing either the Channel Up and Down or the Bank Up and Down buttons respectively. Mackie Control's channel strips work exactly as you'd expect them to, with the volume fader, Mute, Solo, Select, Record Enable and Pan controls all performing the appropriate tasks. As mentioned in September's Nuendo review, it seems a shame that Mackie Control doesn't automatically update the current view of eight channels to automatically encompass a newly selected track on the software, which is the case with Logic and Logic Control, but Steinberg aren't the only ones guilty of not implementing such functionality.

On the plus side, though, in order to make navigating Mackie Control really easy, the top row of function buttons (covered by the Lexan Overlay) is reserved for selecting eight Fader Groups, which correspond to the first eight user-defined Mixer Views. This is really handy as it allows you to create Fader Groups for the different Channel types (Audio, MIDI, Group, and so on), or put together convenient groups of eight Channels that you need to access on a regular basis, without having to get repetitive strain injury from the Channel and Bank Up and Down buttons.

Accepting The Assignment

By default, Mackie Control is set to the Pan Assignment mode, meaning that the V-pots are used to control the left and right pan settings of the corresponding channels. An Assignment mode can consist of several pages on the LCD display, and in the case of the Pan Assignment mode, for example, selecting the second page will reassign the V-pots to front and rear pan controls, which is obviously useful if you're working in surround.

Other Assignment modes allow you to adjust the send effects settings for corresponding channels, although not every Assignment mode works by using the V-pots to adjust settings on the channels they align vertically against. For example, the EQ Assignment mode enables you to adjust a channel's EQ settings by assigning all the V-pots to the EQ parameters for the currently selected channel. And this behaviour is also true for working with inserts, master effects and VST Instruments, although the currently selected channel has no effect on the latter two modes.

In order for some applications to see Mackie Control on OS X, such as MOTU's DP4, you may need to create a virtual representation of how Mackie Control is connected to your MIDI Interface using OS X's Audio MIDI Setup utility. In order for some applications to see Mackie Control on OS X, such as MOTU's DP4, you may need to create a virtual representation of how Mackie Control is connected to your MIDI Interface using OS X's Audio MIDI Setup utility. One aspect of using Mackie Control with SX or Nuendo that verges on the annoying (and which is confusing until you read the manual) concerns the Page Up and Down buttons, used to navigate the various pages of the LCD display in the Assignment modes, which are rather deceptively labelled as the I/O and Sends Assignments buttons on Mackie Control. Similarly, access to the send effects settings for each channel is achieved by pressing the 'Dyn' Assignment button, although this didn't bother me quite so much. However, since these are the sorts of problems Lexan Overlays are designed to get around, it seems a shame that Steinberg's Lexan Overlay wasn't designed with an extra rectangle to encompass the Assignment buttons, as is the case with the recently released HUI Overlay.

Although this has been promised many times, the current versions of SX and Nuendo don't offer support for the Mackie Control XT expander unit — the lack of C4 support is forgivable since this is a relatively new unit. However, I read an interesting post on Steinberg's support forums at www.cubase.net, suggesting you can take advantage of SX and Nuendo's ability to add more than one Mackie Control device in the Device Setup window to make use of a single XT unit. The idea is that you add two Mackie Control devices in SX or Nuendo, and assign one to your base unit and one to your XT unit. The XT unit will be fixed and only able to show channels one to eight, but you can use the base unit to nudge between banks of eight channels as usual. I didn't test this myself, but it sounds logical, and would at least allow XT users to get some mileage out of their unit until official support is included.

Overall, though, I enjoyed the experience of using Mackie Control with SX and Nuendo — the implementation may not be perfect yet, but I think Mackie Control is the most fluid control surface I've used with SX and Nuendo at this time, and it's a noticeable improvement over Steinberg's own Houston.

Samplitude 7.1

The use of Mackie Control with Samplitude 7.1 was covered in the Samplitude review published in SOS June 2003, and, to recap, the basic operations of Samplitude can be controlled fairly easily from Mackie Control. The transport and jog/scrub wheel controls work well, as do the navigation and zoom controls, and the main mixing area makes mixing much easier, including auxiliary and EQ controls, once you understand the eccentricities. A particularly nice touch is that when the V-pots are showing pan settings, for example, you can press a V-pot to reset a pan to the centre position — if the mixer is flipped with the V-pots representing volume, pressing a V-pot sets the volume on that channel to 0dB.

However, Samplitude's Mackie Control implementation can also be a little quirky, especially in the way the number of channels available on Mackie Control mirrors the number of Tracks currently displayed in the Mixer window. For example, if your Mixer window is set to only display four Tracks, no matter the number of Tracks in your VIP (Virtual Project), only the first four Track names will show up on Mackie Control. However, when the Mixer window is resized to show eight Tracks, all eight Tracks of the on-screen Mixer window are correctly displayed on Mackie Control.

When you have more than eight Tracks in a VIP, Mackie Control's Channel Up and Down buttons always slide the controls up or down by two channels (instead of one), which is both liveable-with and a little bit annoying. However, these Channel Up and Down buttons only work if Samplitude's Mixer window is set to display eight Tracks — if you extend the Mixer to display 10 Tracks, for example, you can no longer access Tracks nine and 10 on Mackie Control. On the plus side, though, I can see why Samplitude's developers might have chosen this route because when you have an eight-Track mixer on screen, it's kept in perfect sync with Mackie Control, so pressing the Channel Up and Down buttons affects both Mackie Control and the on-screen Mixer.

Another small issue I noticed when getting to grip with Mackie Control and Samplitude was that the Mute button on the fifth Channel didn't work, which was rather annoying. However, with a quick search of the Samplitude forum I discovered this was a known issue and could be corrected by forcing Samplitude to relearn the fifth Mute button — problem solved. These anomalies will hopefully be fixed at some point, perhaps even in the latest 7.12 maintenance release; unfortunately, I didn't get chance to try this.

Digital Performer 4

Digital Performer has supported Mackie Control and the XT expander units since version 3.1 on OS 9, and for this review I was using Digital Performer 4.01 on OS 10.2.6. Because of the way MOTU fully embrace Core MIDI in DP4, in order for DP4 to see the port on the MIDI interface to which you've connected Mackie Control, you'll need to first add a new device to represent Mackie Control in the MIDI Devices page of the Audio MIDI Setup utility and connect this using virtual cables to your MIDI interface (as illustrated in the screen shot, above). Audio MIDI Setup already includes a profile for Mackie Control, so you can go right ahead and double-click the new device and, in the Properties sheet, set Manufacturer to Mackie and Model to Mackie Control.

Once you've done this little ritual, you can configure Mackie Control in DP4 itself by choosing Control Surface Setup from the Setup menu. In this window, you select Mackie Control as the driver, and specify which Mackie Control units you've connected to what physical MIDI ports. By clicking on the '+' button within the Mackie Control Driver box you can add additional units, and while I didn't test it with this number of units, I was able to add an additional 39 XT units before hitting the bottom of my display. So presumably, if you had 39 XT units (in addition to the base unit) and enough spare MIDI ports, DP would allow you to build a pretty large control surface system — 320 faders, to be precise.

I think DP4 currently has one of the best implementations of Mackie Control around, with plenty of nice touches such as that when a modal dialogue is displayed (which is a window that effectively blocks out the rest of the system until you deal with it), Mackie Control's LCD screen reports this and you can OK or Cancel the dialogue directly from the Enter or Escape buttons on the unit. The LCD screen can also show level meters, by, perhaps unsurprisingly, toggling the Level Meters button on MOTU's Lexan Overlay. And in addition to showing bars and beats or minutes and seconds, the time display can additionally toggle between timecode and samples, which can be useful when making selections.

Digital Performer's Control Surface window allows you to configure Mackie Control support, enabling you to specify how many XT units you've connected to your system. Digital Performer's Control Surface window allows you to configure Mackie Control support, enabling you to specify how many XT units you've connected to your system. On the subject of making selections, DP provides a neat way of using the jog wheel in Scrub mode to make selections by first locating the start point, and then holding down Mackie Control's Shift key while using the wheel to locate the end point of the selection. Once a selection has been made, you can use the left and right arrow keys on Mackie Control to toggle between the left and right points of the selection, in order to make further adjustments to the selected point by using the Shift/scrub technique again.

You can assign the expression pedal to a fader or V-pot by holding down Option and Command, and pressing either the Select button or V-pot for the Channel's fader or V-pot you want to assign. This provides a great way of using a pedal to control a channel's volume or anything else, such as the overall return level for the reverb or a filter plug-in's cut-off control.

Like Steinberg, MOTU are also a little bit guilty of Assignment-button-labelling confusion, with the Lexan Overlay not fitting around the Assignment button section of Mackie Control. The DP assignment mode for accessing other parameters via the V-pots is slightly unusual in that you press the I/O button to enter assignment mode on the LCD display, using the V-pots to access Pan, Send Value (for setting send effect levels or mutes), Send Out (to assign the outputs of send effects), Input (for setting track inputs), Output (to set track outputs), Effect (for adjusting plug-ins) and Preferences modes.

The remaining Assignment buttons on Mackie Control can be used as shortcuts for the assignment modes, except for the infamous Dyn button, which DP uses as a 'default' button. Pressing the Default button puts Mackie Control into Default mode, where you can press a channel's select button or V-pot to set the default value on that control. So, for example, with volume and pan assigned to the faders and V-pots respectively, pressing a channel's select button or V-pot sets volume to unity gain or pan to centre.

As I mentioned earlier, I think Digital Performer's Mackie Control support is well thought-out, mature and has many, many little features designed to make the most of the control surface. This is perhaps partly due to the fact that MOTU have long had support for Mackie's HUI, but whatever the reason, Mackie Control is an ideal partner for Digital Performer.

Pro Tools

The original Mackie Control units come with v1.x firmware, while later units and Mackie Control Universal (see box) are supplied with v2.x firmware — the firmware version is displayed when you first switch on the unit. And the reason I'm writing this is because v2 significantly added HUI support to Mackie Control, which allows you to use both Mackie Control and XT units with Digidesign's Pro Tools software, setting up Pro Tools as if you were using a real HUI device.

When you first switch on a v2 Mackie Control, you'll be prompted as to whether you want to use HUI or standard Mackie Control mode, and the unit will remember this setting the next time it's switched on. However, this setting isn't permanent, and you can change your mind later by holding down the Select buttons on Channels one and two during Mackie Control's initialisation sequence.

From this point forward, using Mackie Control with Pro Tools is pretty much the same as using HUI with Pro Tools, although there are some factors to be aware of such as that Mackie Control's master fader is disabled since HUI never had a master fader. Also, while Mackie Control XT is supported, only pan settings can be controlled via an XT unit's V-pots — all other parameters need to be controlled on the main Mackie Control's V-pots instead.

If you have a v1 Mackie or Logic Control, you can add HUI support by ordering an upgrade kit from Mackie that costs $99 plus shipping and tax (where applicable), and it's worth noting that the upgrade involves fitting a new chip inside your unit.

Mouse Trap

A question that's often asked by those considering the purchase of a control surface concerns the issue of whether a budget digital mixing console would be a better alternative. Consoles like Yamaha's original 01v cost only a fraction more than Mackie Control, for example, and you'll get a digital mixer in addition to the ability to use it as a basic control surface; although with this particular example you won't be able to control all the facets of your host software in the same way you could with Mackie Control. But staying with Yamaha, more expensive consoles like the new 01v96 offer an improved control surface implementation that works particularly well with Steinberg's Cubase and Nuendo, for example; and the forthcoming 01x will further blur the distinction between digital mixers and control surfaces.

However, nobody's going to buy a digital mixer to use it only as a control surface, so the issue of whether to buy a control surface like Mackie Control or a console like the 01v96 comes down to way you see yourself wanting to work. A digital console is a cost-effective way of acquiring some mic preamps and A-D/D-A converters, in addition to the tactile control surface, but if you actually want to use its mixing functionality, your audio signals are going to be travelling between the console and your DAW more than some would like. The advantage of remote controlling a DAW with a control surface in the same way you'd work with a mixer, of course, is that all the signal routing is kept inside the DAW, although you'll need to budget for separate preamps and converters if you're using the system for recording.

My personal preference is for a control surface over a digital console, and I've used Mackie Control successfully in many tracking sessions with Nuendo — by successfully, I mean that the session has been made easier by having Mackie Control. It's perhaps worth remembering that not everyone uses their DAW for recording, and there are plenty of situations where preamps are unnecessary and only a stereo (or multi-channel for surround) D-A converter might be required, such as for mixing, mastering, or composing using software instruments. For all of these situations, Mackie Control is a perfect addition to your workstation. Even if you're a hardcore mouse user, there's no doubt that life is made easier by the addition of a Mackie Control — just being able to grab a fader to change a level, rather than having to ensure the mixer window is open, locate, and drag the correct fader, is a tremendous (if somewhat obvious) bonus.

Despite this, though, I think a control surface is most useful when you figure out a working method that encompasses both the control surface and standard computer input devices, such as the mouse and keyboard. While being able to tweak plug-in parameters via V-pots is great, sometimes it's simply quicker (and easier) to click a few on-screen buttons to change a parameter, rather than navigating the page system of a small LCD screen — this is what large, desktop computer screens were supposed to liberate us from after all! And this is where the many of the host applications need to become more intelligent, in order for users to make the most of Mackie Control.

At the moment, many Mackie Control implementations mimic the behaviour of a digital mixer, which is a good start, but I think a more symbiotic relationship is required between the control surface and host. If the user opens a plug-in window on the screen, for example, the control surface should automatically put itself into a mode where the plug-in's parameters are accessible. And while many Mackie Control implementations allow this to some extent, they often force you to click through a number of options to get to the parameters for the on-screen plug-ins window, to stick with the same example.

In conclusion, though, Mackie Control is a great piece of hardware that fills a gap in the project studio market for those who don't use Pro Tools or can't afford a system such as Pro Control, but want to be able to control their music and audio software with a professional control surface that features moving, touch-sensitive faders. However, whether Mackie Control is the right control surface for you depends on the host software you're using because, to paraphrase George Orwell, while all Mackie Controls are equal, some Mackie Control implementations are more equal than others.

Logic Control vs Mackie Control (vs Mackie Control Universal)

While the first releases of Logic and Mackie Control (including the XT units) were basically the same hardware, the units differed in the way they communicated with the host software — there was no way Logic Control could be used to control anything other than Logic, and, similarly, there was no way Mackie Control could be used to control Logic. This was particularly annoying for Windows Logic users who'd been left stranded by Emagic, although at least Emagic made steps to open Logic Control support to other manufacturers by releasing the technical details of the protocol used to communicate with Logic Control.

However, imagine my delight when the situation radically changed as I was finishing this review. Logic and Mackie Control users can now download MIDI files to upgrade their base and XT units so that Logic Control gains Mackie Control functionality, and Mackie Control gains Logic Control functionality. But perhaps the biggest news is that Mackie Control itself has now been transformed into Mackie Control Universal, which combines the behaviours of Mackie Control, Logic Control and HUI into a single unit that should be available by the time you read this. This also means that once the current stocks have been sold, Logic Control won't be available as a separate product any more, and Logic users will need to buy Mackie Control Universal instead.

Mackie are using the Logic Control front panel labelling by default for Mackie Control Universal, and are supplying additional Lexan Overlays for Digidesign's Pro Tools, MOTU's Digital Performer, Cakewalk's Sonar, Syntrillium's Cool Edit Pro, and Steinberg's SX and Nuendo, with additional Lexan Overlays available from Mackie's web site as before. Existing Mackie or Logic Control users will be able to upgrade to Mackie Control Universal functionality by ordering the upgrade kit available mentioned in the Pro Tools box, although the only reason for doing this is if you require HUI support.

Published December 2003