Moving-fader controllers for computer-based studios are big news at present, and Radikal's SAC 2.2 can be used with a wide range of software sequencers and instruments. Jack of all trades, or master of none? We find out...
A significant proportion of musicians are now working almost entirely within the computer domain, but the ergonomic limitations of the familiar mouse and keyboard have proven to be a major restriction in the ease of operation of most MIDI + Audio platforms, as well as traditional DAWs. MIDI fader boxes have been available for many years now, and can be used very successfully to facilitate live multi-channel balances. However, recently there has been a pronounced trend towards altogether more sophisticated remote controls, such as Steinberg's Houston, Emagic's dedicated Logic Control, and the generic Mackie Control.
Radikal Technologies was formed nearly eight years ago, initially as a distribution company for 'innovative studio equipment' in Germany, but subsequently developing its own product lines. The first product was launched at the Frankfurt Musikmesse in 2000: the Radikal SAC 2K (Software Assigned Controller). This touch-sensitive moving-fader hardware controller was designed to operate with any audio DAW or MIDI sequencing platform, with the aim of simplifying and speeding up operation by providing dedicated hardware faders, buttons and knobs. It could also be used to control other MIDI devices, such as synths and processing plug-ins. Although Radikal's first product suffered from some significant software problems -- including disappointing fader resolution -- the overall design, build quality and ergonomics were impressive.
Last year, the company launched the successor to the 2K, the SAC 2.2. This is a thoroughly tweaked and improved version of the original, with a brand-new operating system and revised electronics. Owners of the original SAC 2K can upgrade their units free of charge to be fully compatible with the 2.2 operating software and benefit from various circuitry improvements too.
The SAC 2.2 is, as its name suggests, a software-assigned controller, meaning that its specific functionality is controlled by the firmware it runs in concert with the software of the audio DAW or sequencing system with which it is interfaced. In essence, though, it is designed to operate software mixers and related audio-processing parameters.
Most of the big music software companies incorporate support for the SAC; it's already compatible with Steinberg's Nuendo and Cubase (SX and the older VST), MOTU's Digital Performer, Digidesign's Pro Tools, Emagic's Logic Audio, Cakewalk's Sonar, and Ableton's Live, as well as other systems (see www.radikaltechnologies.com for a complete list). It really is as simple as plugging in and selecting the SAC option as the remote controller for the appropriate software.
The controller normally operates in a 'slave mode' whereby controller functions -- fader moves, button presses and so on -- are relayed to the host software, which implements the commands and sends back the appropriate indications to the SAC. Thus, if you press a button and it doesn't light up, it is usually because that particular function hasn't been implemented in the host software interface, rather than it being the fault of the SAC itself.
As might be expected, the different software companies are providing different levels of integration with the SAC, so some programs enable a greater degree of remote-control functionality than others. In all cases, though, the fundamental audio mixer and transport functions operate fully, and the differences really lie in the extent to which you can control plug-in functions and the like. Since these functions are only dependent on the host software support, new software revisions will often extend the SAC functionality with a particular program.
The hardware surface is surprisingly large, measuring 620 x 320 x 80mm (WHD). Running across the angled rear of the panel are three sets of four rotary encoders, each with 31 red LED position markers. The encoders also act as buttons, and can be used for a variety of functions with different programs -- perhaps to reset an EQ or a pan control, or to activate a source selection, for example.
Above the encoders are three two-line, 40-character illuminated LCD windows which normally show the track name corresponding to each channel on the top row, with the encoder function below. When an encoder is adjusted, the display provides the data value -- all obvious and intuitive stuff. Directly below the first two LCD windows and encoders are two rows of illuminated buttons which nominally provide channel mute/solo and select functions for the audio mixer of the music production or editing program being used. There are also eight 100mm touch-sensitive motorised faders associated with these controls, plus a ninth fader which normally provides control of the master output level.
Dividing these faders into two sets of four, a vertical array of 20 illuminated buttons (shown on the right of the picture above) provides mixer mode switching, allowing you to access the EQ controls, pan functions, inserts and so on, and to access alternative groups of channel faders (1-8, 9-16, 17-24 and 25-32), and track categories, such as 'Audio' (digitised audio tracks), 'MIDI' (MIDI data tracks), 'Instrument' (virtual instruments), and 'Input' (live input sources).
As an aside here, the SAC also incorporates facilities to address and control virtual instruments which can exist as independent devices without host VST software, such as Native Instruments' Pro 53 and B4. The virtual instrument editor functionality is being constantly expanded all the time to accommodate new instruments -- again, precise details and the latest firmware necessary to make the instruments SAC-compatible can be downloaded from the Radikal web site.
Part of the difficulty in describing this controller is the fluidity of its functionality. For example, whereas some programs will respond to the Track Bank buttons as fixed fader pages of eight channels, others (such as Pro Tools and Cubase) respond to these buttons in a completely different way! In these two specific cases, the 1-8 and 9-16 buttons increment the bank of faders through the available tracks one channel at a time, while the 17-24 and 25-32 buttons provide an eight channel-wide fader page facility. It all comes down to how the software writers have chosen to implement the interface, so the supplied application-specific button overlays with the appropriate legending (of which more in a moment) are essential to avoid confusion.
Depending on how the unit is being operated (either in 'Mixer' or 'Channel Select' mode) the various buttons and encoders can be used to adjust one parameter on eight different channels -- its default configuration -- or eight parameters on one channel. The latter creates a kind of virtual channel strip, affording you considerable flexibility in how you choose to manipulate your audio.
To the right of the faders is a dedicated transport section complete with a jog/scrub wheel which is encircled by further buttons to access locate memories, assign 'To' and 'From' points, and to toggle between Scrub and Shuttle modes. There is also a Shift button here, providing extended functionality for everything else.
A large LED numeric display mounted above the wheel provides time and location readouts in hours, minutes, seconds and frames, or beats and bars.
A further array of 12 buttons above the display, marked 'Software Navigation', can be used to navigate the various windows and functions of the software program you're controlling, and to input numeric data -- although personally, I found my existing computer keyboard a better solution. Finally, to the right, six further buttons are used for channel-strip assignments.
In all, the panel provides 67 illuminated buttons, 13 encoders, and nine faders. Of course, while the various DAW and MIDI sequencing platforms provide similar basic tools, much of their specific operation is very different from one another, and thus the panel controls will be required to operate different functions depending on the host program. This obviously makes it impossible to mark the panel with the correct legends for every function, although many do remain consistent. As mentioned earlier, Radikal have overcome this problem by providing pre-cut templates to overlay the various button arrays with appropriate control legends for the major programs supported by the SAC -- a reasonably workable, if not ideal solution. On another practical note, while many of the permanent panel legends are printed in white paint, a lot are marked in a dark red, and these become completely invisible under low lighting conditions, which I found frustrating!
Moving around to the rear of the unit, I found the SAC to be rather well equipped. In addition to the expected trio of MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, there are also five USB sockets. The USB link can obviously convey more data faster than a serial MIDI connection, and, given the potentially huge amount of control and display information passing back and forth between the controller and computer, the USB should therefore provide less latency.
A 'Type B' USB socket (the square variety) provides a link with the host computer while four 'Type A' sockets (the flat type) are arranged as a four-way powered USB hub linking through to the Type B socket, usefully expanding the connectivity of the computer. The SAC can communicate with the computer either via MIDI or USB (once the appropriate USB drivers have been installed). Usefully, the USB hub can also be used independently if required, and if the link to the computer is established via USB, the serial MIDI ports on the SAC can be used as an external MIDI interface. These are really handy extra functions which provide a lot of flexibility. The final connector is a co-axial 10V power supply input which is derived from a small in-line switched-mode power supply.
I tried the SAC with both Digidesign's Pro Tools and Steinberg's Cubase VST v5 systems, while Editor-In-Chief Paul White hooked it up to Emagic's Logic (see the box above). With both my attempts, installing the unit was relatively simple and trouble-free using MIDI interfaces, with full bi-directional control being established without problems. Configuring Pro Tools with the SAC took a little more effort than Cubase, but the driver CD-ROM supplied with the controller contains excellent PDF files which advise on how to configure the system and what functionality to expect.
The fader resolution -- an issue with the first-generation SAC -- seemed fine, fades proving smooth enough on auditioning regardless of the speed. However, the fader motors do emit a very audible whine which could become rather irritating in a quiet control room. On the plus side, though, they don't 'chatter' like some of the early Yamaha digital mixer faders did!
The rotary encoders feel nicely weighted and are velocity sensitive, allowing both radical changes and precise adjustments, as necessary. The ring of red LEDs around each encoder provides clear positional information, and the manner in which the LEDs are illuminated -- either singly or in blocks -- provides a visual clue as to the currently assigned role.
The LCD windows are bright and clear provided you are in front of them, but as with all LCDs, their viewing angle is limited. I found that if the controller was placed to the side of me it became quite hard to read the displays without leaning over. In most situations, I would imagine the operational area would be set up with the SAC immediately in front of you and below your computer monitor. However, if you prefer to have a musical keyboard in front of you, for example, with the SAC off to the side, you may experience problems in reading the displays unless the unit can be angled towards you.
It certainly proved possible to operate both Cubase VST and Pro Tools from the SAC with relative ease, and I feel confident that other software platforms would be as simple and efficient in their integration with the SAC. The only real problem I had was in translating from one system to the other. The functionality of the surface was so different that it was easy to become confused, especially if I forgot to change the supplied button templates over! Of course, this wouldn't be an issue for you if were only using the SAC with one software program, as you'd quickly become familiar with the control functions assigned to your particular application. However, given that the SAC is designed as a controller for many different types of software, users planning to change applications frequently might well become confused.
The SAC is put together very nicely, with good ergonomics, high-quality buttons, encoders and faders, and clear displays. However, this all costs money, and the SAC 2.2 is relatively expensive as the current crop of hardware controllers go. What's more, its inevitably 'generic' nature inherently leads to a degree of sub-optimisation and potential confusion in its control allocations. Button overlays may be a pragmatic solution, but they're not really one which appeals when buying a product for this kind of money!
Another fly in the SAC's ointment is the inclusion of remote-control facilities within most digital mixers -- a trend which is set to continue. Many potential Radikal customers might well prefer to purchase a digital mixer to handle source routing and monitoring, as well as benefiting from the onboard remote-control facilities which rival those of the SAC 2.2 very closely in some cases.
I would recommend that any interested parties arrange a careful and extended hands-on assessment of this product in conjunction with their own preferred DAW or sequencer software. Such is the disparity of integration and functionality between different software platforms that no review can really do this product justice -- the ergonomics and operation change so much depending on what it's used with that a personal assessment is really the only option. It is also worth thinking through possible future equipment upgrade paths to ensure there will be no duplication of facilities between controller and mixer -- assuming you're going to have a mixer at all, that is.
The bottom line is that if you are seeking a well-engineered, highly flexible hardware control surface for your DAW or MIDI sequencing software, and don't mind the small ergonomic compromises that have to be made for the sake of a generic interface, the SAC is probably as good as it gets!