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PreSonus Faderport 8

DAW Controller
Published September 2017
By Robin Vincent

PreSonus Faderport 8

The Faderport 8 offers tight Studio One integration at a very attractive price.

A bank of touch-sensitive motorised faders, digital scribble strips, transport and DAW control for under 500 quid$500 you say? Well, all right then. The PreSonus Faderport 8 builds on the success of the original Faderport, where they discovered that we quite like hands-on control over audio software. Maybe a few more faders at the right price would be just the thing to capture those who have found the cost of hardware control just a little bit out-of-reach. Could this bring the joys of external mixing to a whole new generation of mouse engineers?

First Impressions

Compared to many other fader-style controllers the Faderport 8 is remarkably compact. It does take up a fair chunk of your desktop, but it doesn’t overly dominate like the MCU Pro or Behringer X-Touch. Slightly wider than a Native Instrument Maschine, slightly narrower than the Ableton Push — you get the idea. A depth of 30cm seems to be a constant with these sorts of things. The black metal front panel with contoured edge feels nice. Despite the rest of the case being made of plastic it has a good weight to it. The buttons sit well in the panel and feel responsive, the two blue encoders have a satisfying click to them but wobble a bit more than I’d like. The eight scribble-strip screens are brightly lit and on the edge of distracting and are not quite at the optimum viewing angle — you have to lean slightly forward to see them clearly. The fader caps are deep, the movement smooth and nicely resistive, and how great does 100mm of throw feel?

Looks-wise, it owes little to the original Faderport, going for deeper blacks and a more flamboyant transport bar. The layout and hue is presumably designed to reflect the current version of Studio One and the overall impression is that this is one tidy piece of gear.

The two features that are a bit conspicuous by their absence are individual pan pots and a scrub wheel, although there’s a single pan pot at the top left, which acts on the selected channel. Using the big blue knob to step through channels while panning with the other hand works well enough, or you can hit the ‘Pan’ button and use the faders as pan controls. Call me old fashioned, but that just feels weird. The scrub wheel with a crater for a fingertip is an old staple of DAW controllers and hardware machines and its loss will put off a particular collection of users. Scrubbing and jogging can be accomplished by the big blue knob, except that because it’s detented it doesn’t give you the accuracy or feel of a scrub wheel. Otherwise, It’s a very useful big blue knob, just not for this.

When you turn on the Faderport 8 it gives you every impression that it’s crashed or broken. It’s all dimly lit with nothing on the screens and the buttons don’t do anything or change their state when pressed. The manual says it will ask you what mode you want to use it in — HUI, MCU or Studio One — when you first start it up, but I think the review model had been plugged in before. You can force it to ask this question by starting up with the first two Select buttons held. There’s also a Setup option where you can make sensitivity adjustments to the faders and run some tests. I can heartily recommend the ‘Mardi Gras’ test where all the faders dance and the buttons flash merrily.

The Faderport comes alive properly when you launch a project. Before checking out the specialised integration with Studio One, I thought it worth checking out the Mackie Control options in other DAWs.

HUI & Pro Tools

Setting up the Faderport 8 as a HUI controller in Pro Tools is nice and easy. It all jumps to attention ready to go and the whole thing feels positive and hopeful. All the normal functionality is there with your faders: sends, channel and bank select, mute/solo and transport controls. The panning works on the single knob and so does the fader panning option. However, if you move the faders about a bit and then try to bring them all back to centre the panning, the faders no longer correspond to the values in Pro Tools and you’re left with an irregular line of faders. I also discovered that there’s a fair amount of fader bounce when you make broad movements. If you grab all the faders and pull them down, they will bounce — it’s like an echo on your movements. This is more pronounced the number of faders you grab and if you move in both directions. When back in track mode controlling the on-screen faders, it’s easier to notice that this bounce is not reflected in the position of the faders in Pro Tools. So, when you put your finger back onto a fader, Pro Tools jumps a little to catch up.

The back panel is a  simple affair, with a  power button, a  socket for the external 12V PSU, a  quarter-inch footswitch input and a  USB-B port.The back panel is a simple affair, with a power button, a socket for the external 12V PSU, a quarter-inch footswitch input and a USB-B port.The ‘Edit Plug-ins’ button takes hold of the first four channels and displays the inserts for the selected channel. Or at least I expected it to, but actually it displays the inserts of whatever channel has a plug-in selected. You can’t select a channel on the Faderport 8 and then edit its plug-ins. You must first mouse-select a plug-in in the channel you wish to access and then use the Faderport 8 to edit it. It’s a little bit clumsy. The pan acts as a page turner to get you to all the insert slots and all the parameters of the plug-in once you’ve selected it. Three buttons on the side also light up red: ‘Bypass’ bypasses the effect, ‘Macro’ toggles the compare button, and ‘Link’ allows you to scroll through with a fader and select a plug-in — although that doesn’t work very well as there’s no consistency to the range a single fader throw can scroll through. So, if you’re hoping to swap out your Aardvark plug-in with a Zanzibar one then good luck with that. But if you do come across the plug-in you’re after then hit ‘Link’ again to load it and all the editing functions are right there.

Moving along to automation editing... This is probably why you’d get a hardware controller in the first place: to be able to record fader movements and edit them on the fly. The Faderport 8 appears to handle this with aplomb. The automation mode buttons are found above the big blue knob. Hit ‘Write’ and get riding that fader. The drawing of the automation was beautiful. Very responsive, slipping nicely between latch and touch, read and write.

MCU & Cubase

I fired up the Mackie Control in Cubase Pro 9 and set it to Compatibility mode as directed. All the usual things appeared to be working correctly: fader control, pan, mute and solo buttons, transport, zooming and scrolling were all as expected. So your basic DAW control is all there. When I dug a little deeper things started to get a bit weird. The first issue was to do with viewing pages. In ‘Track’ mode there are two pages for pan, and in Edit Plug-ins mode there are various pages in order to step through all the available parameters. I could not find a control that would move to the next page, until I pressed the ‘Sends’ button. The Sends button is, according to the manual, supposed to display send levels for the selected track — it doesn’t. Instead, it moves the previous selected mode to the next page. That’s handy! Except that it doesn’t cycle through, once it reaches the last page it stays there. So, in Track mode my panning is stuck on page two, which is front/rear panning that I’m not using. It’s also stuck there on Pan mode. With Edit Plug-ins mode pressing the button starts the pages back at page one again, so using this combined with the Sends button gives you full access to the plug-in parameters. But it’s not supposed to do that. Getting back to page one in the Track and Pan mode can only be done, as far as I can tell, by restarting the device and your project.

There’s no button I can find to open the plug-in GUI either. The manual says that you open the plug-in by moving fader 4 in Edit Plug-ins mode, but sadly that does nothing. Fader 3 alarmingly scrolls through all the available plug-ins, but it doesn’t actually load them. So my initial consternation at accidentally swapping the plug-in I was using for something else by the smallest touch of the fader is tempered by the fact that it doesn’t work.

Provided that pressing the Sends button is avoided at all costs then you can at least use the pan controls normally. The Trim button should also open the ‘Sends View’, whatever that may be, but other than changing the display to write ‘Cue Send broken’ across two scribble strips it doesn’t appear to accomplish anything. Then it seems to be difficult to get out of this mode, and the Track mode doesn’t display what it was and if I press Edit Plug-ins I seem to be getting mixed messages.

Cross checking in Ableton Live, I found that it works a lot better. The scribble strips display better information and the workflow comes together a bit more. The Sends button now works to give you control over the sends. The Edit Plug-ins button works and gives you a list of plug-ins to select, by name, and then displays the parameters, but unfortunately the faders that should be editing them seem to still be controlling the track volume. That is until you go back to the manual and realise that you need to press the Sends or Pan button before the Edit Plug-ins button — and then it works. MCU is so terribly inconsistent.

Keeping things simple, changing volumes on tracks, pans, transport, mute and solos all work fine. The act of drawing in automation with the faders is really very nice, except you can’t use the Latch or Touch buttons because the Touch one doesn’t do anything and the Latch button appears to open the mixer console. Read and Write, however, do work. Hooray! Maybe I’m asking too much of the MCU implementation, but I’m largely following what the manual is asking me to do, and it’s disappointing when the hardware experience doesn’t match up.

Studio One Mode

Surely this is the place where the Faderport will shine? As we’ve seen with both Avid and Steinberg controllers, a bit of specialist, proprietary integration can make a whole world of difference. Can the Faderport 8 pull itself out of its DAW control weirdness and do the business in Studio One?

The difference is instant. From the detail on the scribble strips, the hue of the track select buttons and the resolution of the faders, this is an altogether more pleasing experience. The information on screen is far more verbose, giving track numbers and a much less clunky pan display. The ‘Select’ buttons reflect the colour of the track on screen, not precisely, it’s more of a hint, but is nonetheless welcome. The fader movements are now smooth and accurate. You can sense the 1024 resolution as opposed to the 128 steps you find in HUI or MCU mode. There’s also no fader bounce. The faders do what they are told and stay there just as you would expect faders to do.

Moving to the Editing Plug-ins mode, the clearer information on the strip makes it a doddle to move about and select the right plug-in. It’s possible to edit up to 16 parameters assigned to eight buttons and eight faders, but that does seem to be it. There’s no page turning, or access to further parameters. The pan knob in this instance switches nicely between inserts on the selected track. Although it doesn’t tell you what effect you’re editing — you have to look up at the screen to see which GUI is open. Editing of the allocated knobs is possible in Studio One by bringing up the Faderport 8 External Devices editor or right-clicking the knob in question and pointing it to the last moved fader. I’m a little surprised that this isn’t paginated. The Pro EQ, for instance, has 16 knobs and I’d really like to get to all of them.

Allocating third-party plug-in parameters to the Faderport 8 External Devices Editor.Allocating third-party plug-in parameters to the Faderport 8 External Devices Editor.

Another disappointment is that the Faderport 8 is initially disinterested in third-party plug-ins. When selected they offer no parameters and the faders drop to zero rather petulantly. What you then have to do is manually drag-and-drop controls from the plug-in to the Faderport 8 External Devices editor. It works well enough, and it does get saved with the plug-in so it’s ready-mapped next time you want to use it, but it’s a bit of a hassle. In both HUI and MCU mode the Faderport 8 is able to automatically pull out a bunch of parameters and values. Even basic MIDI learning is simpler than this, so I’m not sure why PreSonus chose to make it more complicated.

The Sends button displays the levels to the effects tracks, smartly and smoothly as it should be. The Pans fader option has none of the issues I saw in Pro Tools. All the values are precise, accurate and move smoothly both on-screen and on the scribble strip.

On either side of the faders are some buttons that are Studio One specific. On the left is a Bypass/Bypass All button, which will bypass all the plug-ins on the selected track, or all the plug-ins in the project if you hold the Shift key. Next is the Macro button, which gives access to the eight knobs and eight buttons of the Macro controls for the channel. You can set up whatever parameters you want to control from whatever plug-ins you have loaded as a Macro and have instant access to them. That’s very cool indeed. The Shift-Macro command to open the Macro GUI seems to always open with a plug-in GUI rather than the Macro controls, which is a little annoying. At the bottom is a rather useful little ‘Link’ button. This enables a kind of ‘mouse-over’ control of any knob or parameter to the solitary Pan pot. I say “kind of” because you have to click on the control you want to link to the Pan pot, rather than hover, but it achieves a similar thing.

On the right side of the faders are some show/hide buttons. You can filter out everything except the chosen track type. It’s a bit all-or-nothing at the moment, you can either see all the tracks or just the selected type, you can’t filter out only the inputs, or see the VI and Bus tracks together on their own.

The Faderport 8 doesn’t take up too much room on your desk, measuring 301 x 334 mm.The Faderport 8 doesn’t take up too much room on your desk, measuring 301 x 334 mm.

Over by the nice big blue knob are a number of buttons which change its function. The Channel option moves the selection from channel to channel, scrolling the project on screen but not affecting the Faderport, whereas the ‘Prev’ and ‘Next’ step through the channels on the Faderport without changing the selection. ‘Zoom’ turns the knob into a horizontal zoom control whereas the 'Prev'/'Next' buttons change the global track height. ‘Scroll’ certainly does not do any of that scrubbing, instead it leaps forwards or backwards one bar and the buttons now step through selected tracks. With ‘Bank’ we’re back to channel selection again, but this time the buttons change the channels on the Faderport 8 in banks of eight.

‘Master’ turns the blue knob into a master fader. Now you probably didn’t notice the absence of a master fader. Eight faders on a DAW controller seems completely natural, except that nearly all other controllers have a ninth fader for master control. PreSonus make up for this slightly sneaky omission by letting you do it from the increasingly adaptable big blue knob. The buttons remain as bank selectors. ‘Section’ lets you skip around in the arranger from verse to chorus or whatever using the buttons. The knob, in this case, does nothing unless you select a mixer channel (with the inserts closed) and it will open the side panel on screen for you — that’s a little bit odd. Our last button is ‘Marker’, which steps through the markers on the project with the buttons. The knob just scrolls bar by bar, but if you push the knob down it’ll drop a marker for you.

With the ‘Shift’ button toggled these buttons become function keys 1-8 and so can open the console, editor, inspector and so on. I feel that some of those, the console for instance, really requires their own buttons.

Finally, there’s the automation. It was slick in Pro Tools and I’m hoping for similar performance in Studio One, but without all the trouble with the buttons. And, thankfully, it is. It’s beautifully smooth, responsive, either on single tracks or multiple tracks, easily switching between latch and touch. Simple, effective and elegant. If there was one thing I’d like to see that would be the ability to pull open the automation lane from the Faderport 8. Aha, but of course I can add that as a user control under one of the three user-defined buttons. ‘Expand Envelopes’ is what I want and I’ve assigned it to User 1 — fabulous.

Conclusion

Although the basic functionality is there, the MCU and HUI support promises much more than it delivers. Rummaging around the Internet there are people out there using these modes successfully with Pro Tools, Cubase and other DAWs. However, there does seem to be some miss-steps here that push the Faderport 8 into being less than ideal in certain DAW control areas. Issues with fader jumps or meters appearing to be seconds behind the audio can be ignored or worked around, but when basic, documented functionality is inaccessible, or when buttons trap you in places you can’t back out of then the onus is on PreSonus to provide a more workable user experience. With much of my Faderport 8 time outside of Studio One I found it’s a wonderful thing that unexpectedly trips up, falls over and plummets down a chasm of frustration.

In Studio One, though, it’s an entirely different story. Had they released the Faderport 8 as purely a dedicated controller for Studio One then this would be a five-star review, no problem. The integration is slick, smooth, intuitive and, above all, useful. It drops nicely into the Studio One workflow and, with a little bit of setting up of third-party plug-ins, gives you great hands-on control over everything in your project. I do miss those pan pots and many will miss the scrub wheel, but you probably won’t notice the missing master fader [especially if you own the original Faderport, since the two work well together and its single fader can serve this function - Ed].

With a street price of £419$499 Faderport 8 undercuts the Behringer X-Touch and any other motorised DAW controller by quite a margin. And let’s not forget that it comes with Studio One Artist in the box. MCU and HUI quirkiness aside, it’s a great price for a classy controller that’s perfect for the Studio One user — just be careful if you use it with anything else.

Feedback

I spoke to PreSonus about the issues with HUI and MCU modes I’d encountered during the review process, and they responded with the following answers. As you can see, some of the problems are likely to be addressed in future firmware updates, whilst others are due to inherent issues in the HUI and MCU protocols.

  • The issue with the access to pages of parameters in Cubase is a known problem and is on their to-do list of custom implementation.
  • The opening of GUI’s issue in Cubase is also known and came about when fixing a problem in Logic in firmware 1.1.
  • The inability to open or load a plug-in when scrolling through in Cubase is apparently expected behaviour — the fader only scrolls through the plug-ins, it doesn’t load anything.
  • The fader bounce in Pro Tools is most likely due to latency on the USB bus. They are working on improving the overall timing efficiencies for an upcoming firmware release.
  • Centre pan not aligning when using faders in Pan mode is an issue with the physical translation from HUI to Faderport 8. The current implementation takes a 10-bit value from an encoder, truncates it and maps a delta value for the change on a fader.
  • Plug-in scrolling is caused by fader resolution relative to the length of your plug-in list. They’ve suggested that maybe if they used the big blue knob instead this might give smoother results — something they’ll look into.

Finally, in a bit of good news for other DAW users, PreSonus say, “Several other DAWs have either implemented their own native mode or are in the process of doing so (Ardour and Magix have this available now). We’ve published the MIDI specification for native mode in the manual for anyone who would like to create their own custom macro to use in lieu of MCU or HUI.”

Published September 2017