The QWERTY keyboard that I use with my DAW is a fully-programmable Cherry SPOS G86-61410 (Tape Op #56) designed for use with Point of Sale register stations. Any keycode, key combination, or sequence of keys (up to 10 keycodes each) can be assigned to any of the hardware keys, and these assignments are stored on the keyboard itself - no special drivers necessary to use this keyboard once it's programmed. An 18x3 grid of keys with clear, removable keycaps sits above the QWERTY keys, and these can be easily labeled to reflect whatever key assignment you've given them. I have mine set up so that often-used commands can be accessed easily with a single keypush, without having to contort my fingers and hands to press hard-to-remember combinations of modifier keys; it's a real workflow enhancer. Unfortunately, the 54 keys in the 18x3 grid, some of which are the standard Fn keys by default, can be used up quickly, leaving you wishing for more keys to program and label. You can program multiple "layers" in combination with the modifier keys, but that defeats the purpose of single-keypush operation.

Apparently, that's what Brian Daly and Mark Whitcomb, the co-owners of DNA Music Labs, thought too. Brian had already spent quite some time experimenting in the realm of human- computer interaction (HCI) specifically as it relates to DAWs, before he himself tried the G86-61410. He soon graduated to a Cherry SPOS Rows and Columns Keyboard which offers a total of 144 clear keycaps for programming. As Brian eloquently explained to me, "A more philosophical question about HCI design is underneath the choice of 144 keys. Namely, it allows a far greater amount of commands to be immediately available at all times. I find that as soon as I have to think about shifting modes, I lose a little focus. By having permanently fixed buttons connected to specific functions, I think it makes more for a real interface - less virtual - and my experience is qualitatively different." That keyboard is now available from DNA Music Labs as the Hotkey Matrix with the layout optimized for Pro Tools 10 for Mac OS X. (PT 8 and 9 are also supported, and a Windows version is planned.)

The keys on the Hotkey Matrix are grouped by function, location, and color. For example, Save and Save As commands are assigned to grey keys in the lower left corner. Page and Zoom keys are pastel green in the lower right. Track and Clip functions have their own shades of green and yellow respectively in the center. And so on. Given the breadth of capability in Pro Tools, some of the key assignments relate to features I never use. But that's true for any product that offers a large selection of functions. With that said, it didn't take me very long to get comfortable using about 75% of the Hotkey Matrix regularly, and I think that's a testament to the deep thinking that went into this layout.

The Hotkey Matrix's underlying Cherry keyboard itself is of the utmost quality. It features much-revered Cherry keyswitches, and the build quality throughout is top-notch. I will admit, though, that I'm not a fan of the soft color palette that DNA Music Labs chose for the labels; some of the key groupings are hard to differentiate under indirect studio lighting. But I also know that it wouldn't be too difficult to print my own labels (as I've done with my own Cherry keyboard) and insert them under the keycaps.

It's important to understand that the Hotkey Matrix does not replace your standard QWERTY, so you'll need room for both keyboards at your workstation. But also keep in mind that you only need one finger to operate the Hotkey Matrix, so it doesn't have to sit directly in front of you. With the Hotkey Matrix to the left of my QWERTY, I access it with my left hand like I would an autolocator, and I am definitely faster because of it. Just as importantly, at the end of a long session, my fingers, wrists, arms - and brain too - thank me for not repeatedly twisting them to trigger key combinations like shift-command-option-WTF? ($249.99 direct; -AH 

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

Or Learn More