Whether to work with a control surface or not is a personal decision. If you do prefer to have faders, knobs and buttons under hand, the one thing we will all agree on is that the integration between the surface and the software is the key ingredient. Tight integration is why we still have dedicated control surfaces designed for specific software DAWs on the market. Euphonix, however, has developed their Artist Series control surfaces to work simultaneously with many applications, even bridging between audio and visual worlds. These include Apogee's Maestro for Duet, Ensemble & Symphony 64; Apple's Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro and Soundtrack Pro; Metric Halo's MIO Console; MOTU's Digital Performer; Steinberg's Cubase and Nuendo; Avid's Pro Tools (HD, LE and M-Powered), Ableton's Live; and Propellerhead's Reason. When you think about it, this cross-platform integration really shouldn't work, yet at the push of a button, you're working on the same surface in another program without flaw. For this alone, Euphonix's multiple technical and design awards are well deserved.
The Artist Series consists of the MC Mix, the MC Control and the MC Transport, all of which can be used together or alone. They hitch together beautifully, creating a fully modular product line. These surfaces are so versatile that a single user's review really can't cover it all, and there is no way I could (or would!) ever work in enough applications and situations to fully explore the wide range of ways one might use the MC series.
With that said, I will be focusing mostly on what it's like to use the MC Mix to do stereo mixes in Pro Tools -a scenario in which I imagine many Tape Op readers also regularly find themselves. Unfortunately, Pro Tools is the one DAW for which Euphonix has had the most challenges implementing integration. Why? Because -and understandably so -Avid sells their own integrated control surfaces, and the Euphonix software system, EuCon, requires that the DAW publisher open up their software codes for integration. Although a vast majority of software developers have open integration with EuCon, for Pro Tools integration, however, Euphonix must use the HUI protocols that Digidesign originally developed along with Mackie, and the HUI protocols have built-in limitations that make using multiple MC surfaces a little tricky. In a nutshell, the issue is that when using more than one eight-channel MC Mix with Pro Tools, the MC Mix won't be able to splay certain functions out across multiple surfaces. This means that you're limited to using one unit (typically the left-most unit) for calling up and manipulating plug-in parameters. Similarly, banking faders can be confusing when using an MC Mix and an MC Control (total of 12 faders). So for now, sticking with eight channels may be easiest for Pro Tools users, and we can only hope for better integration down the road.
Yet, even with these Pro Tools-specific limitations, I still chose the MC Mix over any other control surface in its price range. Here are the main reasons. The faders are exceptionally smooth and don't clack and jiggle; they are the same high-resolution faders you'll find throughout the Euphonix line. Writing automation with these feels fully professional. The footprint is sleek and small and especially designed to work well laying on a console or between a keyboard and a monitor. In fact, if you have Apple's new aluminum keyboard, it's almost as if they form one unit. The LCD screens are easy to read and don't blind you. If I decide to move to another DAW, the MC Mix is already integrated, and I get the feeling this technology is going to be developed, not replaced by a new model. And, most importantly for me, this is the only control surface under $10,000 that allows you to select automation modes in Pro Tools without touching the mouse.
That last point is at the crux of the MC Mix's integration with Pro Tools because reaching for the mouse to get in and out of automation modes breaks the spell of the tactile connection to the mix. More simply, I can keep my elbows on the desk and my head in the mix. If you think about it, the ability to select automation modes on the Pro Tools-dedicated Icon consoles (and the Pro Control before it) is what really bridges the gap between the Pro Tools and the SSL tactile experiences. Now, for as little as a grand, you can have that experience -well, almost. The one difference is that the MC Mix doesn't accurately display exactly which automation mode you're in, so you do have to look up at the screen. It's certainly not a deal breaker, but worth mentioning in the hope that this visual feedback will come along one day soon.
Working/playing on the MC Mix is intuitive, fast, and fun. I was amazed at how quickly I was moving around on it, and after about an hour, I was not willing to work without it again. The faders are easy enough to understand, yet the touch-sensitive rotary encoders at the top of the unit are where you'll discover your inner octopus. With just a few buttons along the left side of the unit, you can shift the work these encoders do between pan, aux level, EQ controls, dynamics controls, insert selection, and more. The LCDs follow the change in mode with clear visual feedback that helps you know just what you're doing. There is also a "channel mode" which allows you to quickly manipulate individual plug-in parameters on these knobs, and I was surprised to find how much more willing I was to automate plug-in parameters once I had tactile control. Want to lighten up on some compression during a bombastic moment? Select your channel, enter channel mode, pick the plug-in by pressing the corresponding encoder, and there you go. I was making this series of moves in about three seconds after just a few tries. Want to add a little volume ride across that section too? Select your preferred automation mode and move the fader. You can do all of this without touching the mouse.
There are a ton of other standard features on the MC Mix that I'm assuming you'll all expect to be there, such as solo, mute, record arm and channel-select buttons. There are also select and enable buttons associated with each rotary encoder. Once you get a handle on what these do, they offer up deeper levels of software control that become intuitive with use. Like any control surface, there are also buttons for moving the faders across a session in banks or individually, but Euphonix has also built in the ability to freeze a track to a particular fader and map non-sequential tracks to the faders. If you're feeling fancy, you can use time-line markers to call up different maps -something I could see film mixers using to help manage enormous track counts and elaborate mixes.
Even though I found a single MC Mix (just eight faders) to work best with Pro Tools, when I did hook up three of them together, the effect was that I was suddenly sitting at a 24-channel console, not a string of control surfaces. For those of you using applications that can take advantage of the EuCon software integration (see the Euphonix website for details), the temptation to link many of them together will be strong. It's worth noting, too, that buying two MC Mix units gives you a 16-channel control surface for $2000, a size and price-point that's (surprisingly) absent in the market otherwise.
The MC Control and MC Transport open up all kinds of possibilities for further configuring an interface and work-flow to suit your individual needs. The MC Control is a fascinating unit that features four faders, eight assignable rotary controllers, a jog-wheel, transport control, twelve
programmable soft-keys, and a touchscreen with extremely deep programmability. The MC Control is less about tactile control of mix functions and more about building customizable command chains (macros) that can massively speed up your workflow. While the MC Control didn't meet my needs as a mixer as much as the MC Mix, I was fascinated to find myself building macros that would guide me through the menus and submenus of Pro Tools with the simple tap of a button. Those of you who do deep-level editing and programming in your DAW are going to want to check out the MC Control. It's a powerful interface that's begging for you to design a custom workflow and leave the mouse behind.
The MC Transport has an enormous and very positive-feeling jog-wheel with an outer shuttle-ring, full transport and navigation controls, six assignable soft-keys, timecode display and a numeric keypad. Adding the MC Transport to the MC Control, the MC Mix, or both will allow you to nearly eradicate the varmints from your workspace. While the ability to move through your sessions with ease is an obvious advantage, the soft-keys allow you to change the functionality of the jog-wheel and shuttle-ring on the fly. It's a deceptively powerful control surface all on its own, and one that will keep many mundane editing tasks from being so thoroughly annoying.
The Euphonix Artist Series lets you decide which controls you want and how many of them. Their website has excellent information and videos to help you understand which ones would make the most sense for you, and if you're considering any of these, I encourage you to spend some time watching the videos that are specific to your DAW (or DAWs). You'll learn a lot. For those of you who use Pro Tools, don't let the current limitations of integration scare you away. You'll love these surfaces for their exceptionally pro feel, look, flexibility, and expandability. (MC Mix $999 street, MC Control $1499, MC Transport $399; www.euphonix.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.