I will start with the bold statement that I feel solidly qualified to weigh in on Avid’s latest control surface offerings, the Pro Tools | S3 and the Pro Tools | Dock, having purchased the very first control surface available for Pro Tools – the Mackie HUI (Human User Interface) – way back in 1999. Even when I was just starting out making records, the thought of doing it without knobs, faders, and buttons seemed incomprehensible. Since that original behemoth died an untimely and gruesome death, I have since owned a Mackie MCU, a Euphonix MC Control [Tape Op #76], and an Avid Artist Mix. I was an early adopter of both Neyrinck V-Control Pro and Avid’s Pro Tools | Control iPad apps. In addition, over the years of working at various studios, I’ve used the PreSonus Faderport [#59], Behringer BCF2000 [#46], as well as (pre-Avid) Digidesign’s Command 8, Digi-003 [#59], Control 24 and C|24, not to mention their old flagship ICON D-Command surfaces. My current main mix setup at Figure 8 Recording includes an SSL AWS 900+, which is an analog console that, with the push of a switch, snaps into digital mode, acting as three ganged HUIs and allowing 24-channel banks of fader and rotary control via MIDI over Ethernet. Okay, now that I’ve outed myself as both old and heavily into tactile control, let’s dig in.
I’ll address the S3 first. When it arrived, it was a good deal smaller than I expected, both in terms of footprint as well as thickness. This is a good thing, as the whole reason I was interested in trying out the S3 is that I’m setting up a part-time home studio in the Catskills (Spillway Sound). I’ve been looking for a solution bigger than an Artist Mix – which overall I enjoy using – but not as big as an actual console, so I can be closer to my speakers and computer display while still having room for my computer keyboard in front of it. My one ergonomic issue with large-format analog desks – and I still enjoy working regularly on them – is the distance they put me from both visual and auditory information. (Don’t even start telling me to put the computer display and keyboard to the side; them’s fightin’ words. I favor listening to my mix with both ears at the same time.) So, the size of the S3 is a really nice in-between zone for me, since it fits perfectly on my desk. The thin profile meant I had to prop the back up with a small piece of wood to give myself a better angle to reach the controls and read the scribble strips, but that’s a pretty easy hack to get the thing into my comfort zone. Its housing is a pleasing sleek black matte, with stylized silver fader caps and bright yellow clear text on its 32 individual OLED channel displays. The LEDs above the displays are multi-colored to indicate either their current function or the color of the associated track in Pro Tools (or at least an approximation of that color). Overall the S3 boasts a timeless, unassuming look (which I really can’t say for the company’s previous ICON/VENUE aesthetics that looked a bit like they were trying to appeal to toddlers more than to professional engineers). The only visual oddness is “that thing” that happens with LEDs when you move your head fast. The otherwise handy 10-segment bar-graph meters kind of trail and blur in your peripheral vision, which makes me just a bit dizzy, especially in low light.
Functionally, the S3 has 16 faders and 32 rotary encoders, which are all touch-sensitive and feel a good deal more responsive and pleasing to use than any fader or knob I’ve yet experienced on a digital control surface. It connects to the computer via Ethernet and uses Avid’s proprietary EUCON protocol (purchased along with the company Euphonix a number of years back), which has an accompanying EuControl application that runs in the background allowing it to speak to Pro Tools or a number of other DAWs. I will only discuss how it interacts with Pro Tools in this review. That also means I won’t get into any of the uses of the S3 as a live sound controller, which it is designed to be able to do. Back to EUCON for a second though; it’s important to point out that it has a much higher resolution than MIDI, somewhere around eight times as high, you really feel the difference when making small fader rides or long slow fades. There are a whole bunch of other advantages that EUCON has over MIDI, like higher channel count, lower latency, longer track name support, etc. Additionally, Avid is adding new features to the protocol regularly. The taper on the rotary encoders is velocity-dependent, which is really smart. This allows for super fine-tuning when turning them slowly, but thankfully if you’re changing the value quickly by a bunch, you’re not turning the knob forever. Like I said, responsive and pleasing, and super compatible with all of the plug-ins I use (UAD, FabFilter, SoundToys, Eventide, Softube, etc.). The only learning curve is figuring out whether you press the encoder itself, hit the In button, or the Sel button to activate a given switch on a plug-in – but it’s still eons more widely integrated than any other control surface I’ve used.
Speaking of the rotary encoders, there are two rows of them: one right above the faders and one closer to the top of the surface. Each control has a scribble strip clearly telling you what it’s controlling and what the value is, as well as two switches labeled Sel and In for performing various toggle-type duties. The top row allows you to spill out a number of parameters for a given channel while the bottom row can either stay attached to the specific channels that they are over or enter Channel Mode for a different set of parameters. This splitting of tasks over two groups of controls really makes for a smoother experience since you don’t have to back out of a given parameter field as often. As for what the rotary controls can control, there’s the normal stuff: pan, aux send level, and plug-in parameters. But you can also make aux and I/O assignments, quickly insert your default EQ and dynamics plug-ins, and manage group assignments and group on/off statuses. I know these last few features are available on other control surfaces I’ve used, but I always found using them more cumbersome than just grabbing my trackball – not so with the S3. Even with just a couple of months of use, I’m using the control surface for all kinds of things I used to find faster with the keyboard or trackball.
Of course, there are still some things I find faster with the keyboard, such as using transport controls (since I use a keyboard with a number pad), zooming, etc. However, the S3 has a number of user-assignable buttons that can replace simple key commands but can also select any menu item (including things that there aren’t key commands for) such as opening up the Playback Engine dialog. I’ve missed having user-assigned controls since my MC Control died a few years back, and the S3 has a lot of them– I counted 26 in total, including dual-layer buttons. On top of that, you can save different configurations in the EuControl software for various tasks (i.e. a tracking configuration versus an overdub configuration) and recall them instantly. One problem with the soft keys on the S3 is that the Touch Strip soft keys are right under your palm when you’re operating the right-hand faders, so it’s too easy to accidentally trigger the functions that you assign to them. The default function is transport controls, but only when the Surface Shift button is depressed. I guess they’re trying to fit a lot features into a little space, so maybe it was unavoidable, but it does seem like an odd placement. Another issue is that there are no digital displays for these buttons, so I’m either committing them all to memory or using good old-fashioned console tape.
It should be noted that there is also an entire analog I/O portion of the S3. This includes two mic inputs and two line inputs, as well as two stereo outputs. There is also a 4-in/6-out interface that connects to the computer over the aforementioned Ethernet cable at sample rates up to 48 kHz. The top row of knobs can split to give you control over the gain for the mic pres as well as the hardware output levels, so you can use the S3 as both a front end for your DAW as well as a simple monitor controller, complete with a talkback circuit. It also has an onboard headphone amp, which I found to be pretty noisy. I tested all of these functions, and they’d be handy to use in a mobile situation or in a pinch, but I prefer to use my external mic pres and a dedicated monitor controller.
Overall, the first peeve I had with the S3 was the fact that it’s confusing which set of Select and Record buttons go with which channel fader – two other engineers made the same comment while working at my place. They seem closer to the fader to their left but are paired with the fader to the right. Next, I had intermittent problems with the Solo and Mute switches’ responsiveness. Sometimes they would double-trigger when I hit them once, and sometimes they didn’t seem to respond at all. Another bummer is that there is no indication on the S3 that a track is inactive in Pro Tools. HUI protocol shows an “@” symbol before any inactive tracks, and I’d love to see something like that in an update for the S3. If you hide the tracks in Pro Tools they don’t appear on the surface, so that’s the workaround for less confusion. Other than these few things, the S3 is pretty amazing. Since the S3 is so deep, there are a myriad of cool features I’m skipping (like the many wonders of VCA Spill), but I have to save some room to talk about the Dock!
Simply put, the Dock is a way for you to use your iPad (check Avid’s website for compatible models) and the (free) Pro Tools | Control app to build much of the functionality of the discontinued Artist Control, which was a pretty great controller for its time. The Dock has nine rotary encoders, but only a single channel of Fader/Solo/Mute/Record-enable control. There’s a big Jog/Shuttle wheel, dedicated transport controls, and a whole slew of buttons (almost all of which can be user-assigned – I counted 45 of them). The top 16 of them are meant to interface directly with the iPad, that is, they control Soft Keys within the Control app that you can set up yourself in EuControl. The functions are labeled on the iPad, and each Dock button glows the same color as the associated Soft Key. The color-coding is definitely helpful, since my iPad mini doesn’t have the right scale to line up perfectly with all of the buttons (I assume a full-size iPad would). The rotary encoders also work in tandem with the iPad. When you’re in the Channel page of the Control app, there are eight boxes that show values, and turning the corresponding knob changes your value for pan position, send level, plug-in parameter, etc. These are also not aligned properly for the iPad mini, and don’t have LEDs to help, but it only takes a second to adjust your thinking to ensure you’re turning the right knob.
The Dock also has an Ethernet connection, and theoretically you can jump it off of the second Ethernet port on the S3. However, I found that it made my whole system extremely laggy (running Pro Tools 2018 on an iMac with an i7 processor and 32 GB of RAM). Hooking the Dock up instead to the Ethernet port of a Thunderbolt expansion hub seemed to solve the lagging problems. You need either wi-fi or the Lightning to USB Camera Adapter kit [Tape Op #128] for the iPad to communicate with EuControl on the Pro Tools computer. To be perfectly clear, you don’t need the Dock to run the Control app on the iPad; I’ve been using it for years when I need to control Pro Tools from the live room (or the couch). I definitely think of the Control app as a much more robust and attractive solution when paired with the Dock, however, using touchscreens only goes so far towards making me feel like I have full tactile control.
I could go on with many more details about both of these control surfaces, but I will sum up my position on both here: they’re both totally amazing, but also both feel overpriced to me (and to the other engineers that came through my studio to test the S3 and the Dock). If you have dough to spare, they will make your daily workflow easier and more pleasurable – I’m sure of it. At five times the price of an Artist Mix, the S3 doesn’t feel like it has five times as much functionality once I subtract the things I won’t be using it for (interface, monitor control, and live sound controller). It does have twice as many faders, four times as many knobs, and a whole truckload of buttons to speed up everyday tasks, but if it were closer to 60-75% of its current price, I’d recommend it to everyone without hesitation. Likewise, the Dock is pricey, especially since you have to own or buy an iPad to use it. But even with that financial caveat, these are both extremely cool products, and I hope enough people buy them to keep them on the market until I decide I can afford them.