Steinberg's new Houston hardware controller certainly looks space‑age, but is it a small step or a giant leap for the 21st‑century computer musician? Martin Walker takes his protein pills and puts his helmet on...
While nobody would deny that modern music recording software is both visually attractive and amazingly versatile, few musicians from a hardware background would vote the mouse a satisfactory alternative to the traditional knob, switch, and fader interface. The situation is particularly bad in the case of software synths, since these positively demand hands‑on real‑time control for the most expressive results. One solution is to buy a generic hardware MIDI control surface. These provide a clutch of sliders or knobs that can control any hardware or software device capable of accepting MIDI controller or SysEx data, and the more upmarket devices such as Radikal Technologies' SAC2K provide luxuries such as motorised faders which update to reflect the parameters you've chosen to edit, and displays which can show the name and current value of these parameters.
Rather than produce generic controllers which can be programmed to work with any software, however, some manufacturers have chosen to develop devices specially tailored for a particular program, with the aim of achieving even closer integration. Pro Tools users, for instance, can choose from a number of surfaces including Mackie's HUI and Digidesign's own Pro Control, while Emagic have announced a forthcoming Logic Control.
The latest dedicated controller to appear is produced by Steinberg and, not surprisingly, is designed specially to complement their own popular Cubase VST and Nuendo recording software. The Houston VST Studio Controller offers motorised faders and a large LCD window with separate displays above each mixer channel, as well as transport controls, a jog/scrub wheel, and even a numeric keypad for entering values, selecting setups and marker positions.
Designed by Steinberg, but manufactured in the UK by Spirit/Soundcraft, Houston is quite sizeable, at 53cm wide and 43cm from front to back, with a maximum height of about 9cm. Of course, looks are a very personal thing, but for what it's worth I think Houston looks professional, has an ergonomic if somewhat over‑large layout, and seems extremely sturdy, although it could be accused of being a little bland in appearance. The entire casing is mid‑grey, with a few areas highlighted in light grey and a black panel surrounding the LCD and soft control area, while the buttons are in various pastel colours. Across the front is a solid wrist rest that sweeps in a graceful curve round the right‑hand front corner and up the right‑hand side. However, both the rear panel and more significantly the left‑hand side are ruler‑straight, suggesting that an expansion module could feasibly be placed alongside, although Steinberg aren't being drawn on this subject. The left‑hand half is devoted to channel controls, featuring nine motorised 100mm faders from Panasonic with 1024‑step resolution, a large two‑line, 40‑character LCD window with eight 'soft' rotary controls above it, and a veritable forest of illuminated buttons. The right‑hand half includes the transport controls and jog wheel, numeric keypad, and a selection of other buttons for opening various Cubase windows.
There's nothing at all complicated about getting Houston up and running. In theory, it can be connected to your computer either via MIDI or USB; for MIDI connection you just connect up suitable leads to its MIDI In and Out sockets to enable two‑way communication to your computer, and then open the Remote Setup window in Cubase VST's Options menu. This provides various choices (see Other Options box), and once you select Steinberg Houston you'll also need to dedicate a MIDI Input and Output to it. That's all there is to it — I was up and running inside two minutes!
If you want to take advantage of the USB connection, you just hot‑plug it, after which you insert the supplied Cubase VST CD‑ROM. This contains the relevant update for Cubase VST 5.0, along with the Houston PDF manual and USB drivers. A second CD‑ROM contains the latest 1.5.1 PC version of Nuendo, which is also Houston‑aware.
You can use the USB drivers with Windows 98SE, ME, 2000, or XP, and the only difference in operation is that instead of choosing a MIDI Input and Output inside the Remote Setup window, you choose 'Houston' in each case for USB connection. Sadly, despite the fact that I had absolutely no problems running Houston via its MIDI connections, the version 1.0 USB driver, while receiving existing automation data perfectly, absolutely refused to send data from Houston to my Windows 98SE‑equipped PC. At the time of the review, no Mac USB drivers had been released either, and worse still, Cubase on the Mac had yet to be updated for Houston support. This is promised in the next updates, which according to Steinberg should be available the time you read this.
After installation, your first task is to calibrate Houston's faders to take account of humidity. You do this by holding down two buttons when powering up, and are even advised to stand well back — not to admire the faders all slowly moving up then down, but so you don't affect the calibration. It takes about a minute, and the results are then stored in Houston's EEPROM. If you subsequently move the Houston to another location then you're advised to do this again.
Next to the nine motorised faders (eight channels and one master) is a vertical column of buttons. These let you select between the different types of mixer channel inside Cubase or Nuendo — Normal channels, VST/Rewire Instruments (depending what's installed or activated), Groups, and the output Busses. Beneath these are two further buttons which let you jump back and forth between different sets of eight fader channels, although sadly there's no indication of the current setting.
A small pop‑up Houston Remote Status window appears on your computer monitor displaying the current channel setting. This also has a drop‑down menu to switch between modes, including an additional one for the MIDI Mixer not available directly from Houston itself. I know audio functions are considered to be far more important nowadays, but those who use MIDI automation will find this absence annoying.
To the left of the faders another vertical button strip provides read, write, and mode buttons for control of automation (the last of these doesn't currently do anything, and is 'reserved for future use'), along with one that activates/deactivates the fader motors if you want to switch to 'stealth' mode. This is actually quite handy when listening to music with a wide dynamic range, since although Houston's faders are very quiet when in motion, you sometimes need absolute silence in the studio control room.
There are three switches above each fader: Select, Mute, and Solo. I'll return to Select in just a moment, but Mute and Solo are fairly self‑explanatory, and intelligently switch themselves either singly or in pairs depending on whether each track is mono or stereo. Nearly all of Houston's buttons are illuminated when active, which makes it far easier to understand what's currently going on. There are also global Mute and Solo Defeat buttons, which is handy considering that the relevant channels may not be currently allocated to the hardware controls, and can therefore be invisible.
Above the fader section is the Control Strip, which consists of a large LCD window and eight 'soft' rotary controls with illuminated LED 'collars' that display their current position. This is done intelligently, depending on the currently displayed parameter. For instance, level controls illuminate from a single dot when fully anticlockwise to a full 270‑degree spread when fully 'up', while pan controls start with a single dot at 12 o'clock when central, and extend clockwise or anticlockwise as you pan right or left.
The functions of the Control Strip are totally 'soft', and depend on your current selection in the Function Matrix above it, which consists of a total of 28 illuminated buttons. When you first turn Houston on it defaults to its Fader Set mode, where each of the eight rotary controls is dedicated to the same parameter and linked to the eight channels currently selected in the Fader section beneath. So, for instance, if you select the EQ1 button in the Fader Set section of the Function Matrix, and the faders are controlling Normal channels, the eight rotary controls can now set EQ1 Gain values for the current eight channels being displayed. Page up/down buttons alongside the LCD provide access to other related parameters — in this case EQ1 Frequency, EQ1 Q, EQ1 Enable, and EQ1 Bypass. The number of pages available depends on the function; to quickly jump from the first to the last you can hold down the Shift button to the left of the faders before using Page up/down.
The top row of the LCD window is always used to display the parameter names or values — you can click on the More button next to Page up/down to toggle between the two, but as soon as you move any rotary control the LCD switches its display from the parameter name to a readout of all eight current values. Meanwhile, while in Fader Set mode the bottom row of the LCD always shows the names you've entered for the eight mixer channels currently being displayed — a great help with complex mixes. Fader Set options currently include EQ1 to 4, and FX Sends 1 to 8, along with buss Routing, Pan, and User 1 and 2, the last two reserved for future use again.
The other main mode of the Control Strip, Selected Channel mode, uses an ergonomic idea popularised by the Spirit 328 digital desk, where all eight controls have different functions related to a single channel. The Selected Channel options in the Function Matrix are EQs, Aux, Inserts, User1/Dynamics, User2, User3, Routing, and Pan. Now the function of the Select button above each channel's Mute/Solo buttons also becomes clear — you use it to select which channel's parameters get the Control Strip. Only one channel can be selected at a time, and this also happens automatically if it's soloed.
A third Control Strip mode, Global mode, uses four dedicated buttons. Send Masters alters the eight VST Send Effect levels, while Send Effects lets you alter any parameter for any of the currently activated channel plug‑ins. The first page in the display lets you choose which plug‑in to edit, and the contents of each additional page contain up to four different parameters, depending on the individual plug‑in. This is to accommodate longer parameter names, but it does make operation more confusing, since rotary controls one and two for instance both change the first parameter, three and four the second, and so on. Steinberg say that any correctly written VST‑format plug‑in can be controlled, although no doubt a few of the freeware ones won't declare their parameters properly without an update. I checked out quite a few plug‑ins, and all the Steinberg ones worked correctly, as well as the entire PSP shareware range. Sadly, however, DirectX plug‑ins don't declare their parameters in a suitable fashion, and so remain invisible to Houston.
The other two Global modes are Master Effects and Instruments. Unsurprisingly, these control the global insert effects in the Master Mixer, and the parameters of VST Instruments. Now we're talking! I tried out Steinberg's LM9 drum machine, which worked perfectly, while most of Neon worked apart from the waveform readouts (Houston's controls worked, but the values were displayed as 0 through to 1 rather than the waveform types and footage), and every one of NI's Pro 52 parameter names appeared correctly in a total of 18 pages. The shareware VST Instruments I tried also worked fine, including Big Tick's Rainbow. Some HALion parameters appeared, but trying to alter them elicited only a 'non implemented' message — let's hope a new driver appears with full HALion support soon.
However, I think Steinberg will have to rethink the current way of declaring the parameters of multitimbral VST Instruments such as Model E. While I could see on the VST monitor that Houston was editing all the Model E parameters correctly, none of their values were visible inside Houston's LCD window. Moreover, each of its MIDI channels added 35 additional parameters, each channel starting at a different offset across the LCD window. In total there were 149 parameter pages, and I started screaming for my mouse long before I reached the desired page using the page up/down buttons! Another limitation (at least in this version) is that although moving a Houston control updates its on‑screen representation, the reverse is not true — if you do grab your mouse to tweak a setting, Houston won't know about the new value.
Overall, with the VST driver version that I used, I would give Houston a cautious thumbs‑up for controlling VST Instruments, although I hope that Steinberg will refine things with future updates to make navigation easier.
To the right of the screen is a small selection of Song and Edit buttons, which allow you to Save your song or Revert to the most recently saved version and Undo or Redo your last action. Yes, No, and Cancel buttons operate these actions in open dialogues and windows. Beneath these are three further rows of buttons, with the numeric pad alongside.
The top row is labelled Windows. Its Sets button lets you use the numeric pad to switch between whatever Windows Sets you've saved in Cubase VST. Up to 99 are supported — for numbers greater than 10 you press the 10s button on the keypad first, followed by the 10s and digits values. This is extremely useful, and since Windows Sets are currently alphabetically sorted in VST, I suggest you rename them with a number at the front so that the most useful ones become single key‑presses.
The Main, Edit, and Studio buttons automatically bring the Arrange page to the front, open the editor appropriate to the currently selected events (Shift+Edit closes it again), and open/close the Channel Mixer window. However, sadly you can't currently use the Edit button to open the currently selected VST Instrument or plug‑in.
The Markers row has three buttons, allowing you to Jump, Capture, or Delete locator/markers. In each case you subsequently select whichever one you want with the numeric keypad. The pad can also be used with the Fader Sets button to display different combinations of channels in the on‑screen mixer; you set these up using the Views menu of the VST Channel Mixer. There's also a Zap button alongside the keypad, which you can use to quickly move between the last two Jump positions you've selected.
The bottom row of buttons is labelled Functions, Data, and Cursor. The Functions mode lets you use three of the numeric keys to cut, copy, and paste, while Data is reserved for future use. Entering Cursor mode lets you perform exactly the same moves as you would with your computer cursor pad, such as selecting tracks and parts, and some of the spare keys in this mode act as Alt, Tab, and space bar — handy on a PC to select from the main menu options for instance.
The final set of buttons are the transport controls, a cluster of five devoted to Stop, Play, Record, Rewind, and Fast Forward, along with an Arm button that lets you select tracks for recording. Alongside these is the Jog Wheel with finger detent, along with a Jog button that is once again 'reserved for future use'.
Houston's motorised faders move smoothly, are very quiet, and there's no fiddling about with nulls and update procedures — you can grab a moving fader at any time and drag it somewhere else to update the automation data in Cubase, and as you switch from one channel bank to the next all the faders and rotary readouts update automatically. I didn't spot any restrictions due to the limited resolution of MIDI data, either. According to my tests the motorised faders responded quickly and accurately to both fast and slow fades, and also generated their full 1024 steps of resolution, even though VST's own on‑screen faders only generate and display 128 discrete positions. The rotary encoders are also capable of a similar resolution where required, for instance with the Effect Send levels, which can be adjusted in 0.1dB steps over a 100dB range.
However, while all the smaller illuminated buttons have a very positive feel, the larger ones like the transport buttons and numeric keypad did feel a little 'soggy' and imprecise, and need pressing in the middle for a reliable response — it's possible, for instance, to click the record button at the edge and have nothing happen. For this reason, I wouldn't like to use the cursor mode very often unless Steinberg add a delay repeat key function.
If you're used to editing with the mouse, where you move a fader while watching the audio levels in the adjacent meters, it's initially disconcerting not to get this immediate visual feedback. In this respect it would help if the Hou ston's current channel selection (1‑8, 9‑16, 17‑24, and so on) was either displayed somewhere on Houston itself, or the relevant channels were highlighted in some way in Cubase. This would provide quicker visual feedback — as it is, you either have to check the channel names in the Houston window to orientate yourself, or match the shape created by the eight faders to what's displayed on your monitor screen. Like all LCD displays, Houston's has a finite horizontal viewing angle, and although this gives good clarity when you're perched in front of it, its readout is not particularly bright, and becomes almost invisible once you move more than a couple of feet to the side.
In general, however, using Houston was a truly liberating experience, and the more time I spent with it the more I was impressed. There's loads of control here, and I especially liked the way it has been extended to the plug‑in effects and VST Instruments: although there are currently limitations in these areas, most of these could be overcome with an updated driver. Houston provides extremely comprehensive control of not only all the normal audio automation features such as level, pan, mute, and effect send levels, but also every parameter of each channel, insert, and master effect, including the dynamics sections, and full control of each VST Instrument as well, without ever reaching for your mouse.
While I can see plenty of Steinberg's professional Nuendo users being tempted by Houston (indeed, its colour scheme was changed in the final stages of production to fit in with Nuendo's 'family look'), it may seem expensive to Cubase users. With the basic version of Cubase VST 5 selling at around £250, £1000 is a lot of money to lay out for a controller, however good it is. Here I think Houston's tight integration is at once its greatest strength, and a possible weakness. It provides a wonderful control surface for VST as well as VST Instruments, and since its design is fairly 'soft', its functions can also be updated as Cubase itself gets new features. However, this design approach would also make it perfectly feasible for Houston to be used with other software. Some form of Houston support is likely in Wavelab by the end of this year, according to its developer Phillipe Goutier, and apparently DSP Factory support has also been confirmed, but support for third‑party applications is less certain.
If this does arrive in due course then Houston will become far more attractive to those who regularly use several applications, although I doubt that Logic Audio will be high on the list (similarly, Emagic's imminent Logic Control is unlikely to support Cubase VST or Nuendo). I can fully understand this, although it's still frustrating for many users.
Other competing products such as Radikal's SAC2K do work with both applications, but don't incorporate such special features such as being able to open various VST windows. However, the SAC2K does also work with Digital Performer, Pro Tools, Logic Audio, Samplitude, Soundscape, and a selection of soft synths including Reaktor and Reason. Your choice will therefore obviously depend on what software you run.
Expansion is another issue that potential users are asking about, especially since Emagic's Logic Control will have optional Control XT 8‑fader expanders, although once again these will be tightly integrated with Logic Audio. However, Steinberg are saying nothing specific on this subject, other than this may be possible in the future.
Despite these questions, Houston is still a mighty impressive product. None of the current controllers will completely replace the combination of computer keyboard with mouse or trackball, but Houston pushes the envelope further than any other controller I've reviewed to date with its numeric keypad, dialogue buttons, and ability to open various VST windows by remote control, although it's still impossible to point and click or enter filenames. If it's in your price range, do get a hands‑on demo, and I think you'll be won over.
- Nine Panasonic 100mm motorised faders with 1024‑step resolution.
- Eight 'soft' rotary encoders with LED position indicators.
- Large two‑line, 40‑character LCD window.
- Function Matrix with 28 illuminated buttons.
- Transport controls with large jog/shuttle wheel.
- Numeric keypad for entering values, selecting setups and markers.
- Extra dedicated buttons to open VST windows, control markers, and change numeric keypad to cursor or basic editing modes.
If you want a hardware control surface for Cubase VST, Nuendo, Logic, or any other application that responds to MIDI data, there are quite a few options at different price points.
Cubase VST itself now directly supports the CM Motormix, JL Cooper CS10 and MCS3000, Radikal SAC2K, Roland MCR8 and U8, Tascam US428, and Yamaha's O1V, as well as a Generic Remote option. Features vary quite a bit, as well as prices, mainly depending on whether motorised faders are on offer, and if you're looking for an upmarket controller then you should study the feature set and options carefully. One special case is Yamaha's O1V, which at a similar price to Houston incorporates a digital mixer! However, none offers quite the same amount of integration and control over VST/Nuendo as Houston does, although with a suitable Steinberg‑written driver there's no reason why some of them couldn't. After all, it's only a matter of converting MIDI data to the desired internal command. In their favour, they can be used with other software, which does make them more cost‑effective.
If you're on a tighter budget, the Generic Remote option can be set up to work with most non‑motorised controllers, albeit with 128‑step MIDI resolution. Even Gmedia's Phat Boy can be pressed into service to provide control over eight parameters, although a user‑definable model like Kenton's Control Freak Studio Edition with 16 faders and buttons makes a lot more sense, since it can quickly be switched between controlling audio levels, pans, mutes, and effect send levels 1 and 2. Generic remotes can also be used to control MIDI automation and even VST Instruments. The main disadvantage is that without feedback of current values, it's almost impossible to update any automated parameter smoothly on any but the first pass.
- Operating System: Windows 98SE, ME, 2000, or XP; Mac OS 9+ (support forthcoming).
- Host Application: Cubase VST 5.0 (PC: revision 5, Mac: revision 2) or Nuendo 1.51 or later.
- Connection: dedicated MIDI In and Out, or USB.
- Motorised faders and 'collared' rotary controls provide instant visual feedback.
- Excellent integration of many Cubase functions.
- Full parameter control of all plug‑ins and VST Instruments.
- Opens VST Windows remotely.
- Functions can be added or updated from host application.
- MIDI or USB connection.
- No obvious indication of which eight channels are currently being controlled.
- No Mac support as yet.
- Transport and keypad buttons don't feel very positive in use.
- LCD isn't bright enough, and provides poor side visibility.
- Can only switch to MIDI Track Mixer control from within VST.
- Too large? Occupies more desk space than needs to.
- USB driver didn't work fully on review PC.
Houston is an ambitious design that provides excellent control over VST/Nuendo, including plug‑in effects and VST Instruments. At £999, however, not all users will be able to take advantage of it.