The Best DAW Control Surfaces for 2019 [GUIDE]

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From Windows Recorder to Audacity and now to Reaper.

My audio and recording engineer’s journey had taken me 10 years today and I could safely say…

I’m the master of mouse and keyboard editing, above everything else.

But that was before the professional audio world hurled me towards a perfect storm.

In college, I could edit audio for videos without fail using the mouse and a plethora of shortcut keys (I was part of a thesis production that time).

Even projects sent to me five to eight hours before deadline, I could finish with a complete 10-30 minute score of different scores.

But those projects came every two weeks. Not every day.



Some New Products on the Market

Softube Console 1

Softube Console 1

This new approach to controlling DAW’s is very interesting. It’s actually a hardware control surface with it’s own plugins.

It’s not like any other system out there!

This piece of gear will not control your tracks like other midi controllers, instead you should consider this more of a center piece of your hole system.

It’s a channel strip at your fingertips which is integrated and works perfectly with your audio work station.

What it can do:

  • EQ’ing
  • Compression
  • Gate
  • transient shaping
  • low/high cut filters
  • harmonics and distortion
  • and more

Ableton Push 2

Ableton Push 2

As the Title explains: It’s an Ableton controller and a very good one at that.

It has all the control buttons you would expect of an Ableton controller.

Chopping up samples has been integrated into the little screen on the top side of this machine.

Selecting VST’s and tweaking them to your liking is nothing this product can’t do.

This is just a wonderful piece for Ableton users that want to be creative and have controlling functions at the same time.

Akai APC 40 mk2

Akai APC 40 mk2

It’s no secret that I’m an Akai fanboy. Ever since the MPC’s I’ve been loving their products.

The APC is build to be integrated with Ableton, as you can see from the launch buttons.

While this is not a traditional controller it works well if you want to use it live.

But if your looking for a traditional type of machine this might not be for you.

Avid Pro Tools S3

Avid Pro Tools S3If your using Protools to record and mix tracks then the S3 is definitely something to consider.

But even if you don’t use Protools, you can also connect it with any Eucon protocol software like Logic or Cubase.

Note: it also uses Mackie and Hui protocols, so you can use it on virtually any daw.

Much like the Avid Artist series, this surface is very great to use with it’s superb software integration.

If you run an Mac based system you can also use it’s built-in inputs and outputs to monitor and record your signals.

Presonus Studiolive cs18a

presonus studiolive cs18aAre you looking for a Daw controller with a huge built in audio interface, it’s own dedicated dynamic controls and usable for live mixing?

You heard it correct!

This product is made by Presonus for their Studio One audio workstation software, and yes it has motorized faders!

It doesn’t get better if you work with Studio One, except if you want to use another audio interface.

About five years ago, plenty of projects came every single day. I tried everything by longhand (meaning, with mouse and keyboard) and I struggled. I came close to having advanced carpal tunnel. So I feared for my livelihood (and my life of course).

Until a friend showed me how his smartphone turns into a remote for my digital audio workstation at that time (still is, Reaper is awesome). I researched about it and I was missing out on DAW controllers.

Check also this article about: The Best Digital Audio Workstations Ever

My mind exploded. I uncovered MIDI has plenty of uses outside of being note-for-note triggers.

Avid Artist Control

Avid Artist Control ImageThe EuCon protocol is the counterpart of the HUI/ Mackie protocol used by other DAW controllers.

To explain more, it uses your Mac’s (yes, EuCon is mostly for Mac) and Avid’s Artist Control works as a powerful small-sized controller that works with, you guessed right, ProTools and EuCon.

Previously, ProTools could support the Avid 002 and 003 controllers. But it’s time to update the hardware.

How did ProTools fare with this one? Well, it strikes the right chords, to be honest.

“At around $1500, this better be a metallic, durable controller.”

EUCON Extended User ControlThat’s what I’d say if I owned one of these. I borrowed this from a Mac-ProTools-dedicated friend of mine.

The Avid Artist Control has a programmable touchscreen X/Y interface with the company logo, four motorized faders that are also touch-sensitive.

Knobs buttons, controls and even monitoring software are included in the package.

All the parts of the AAC feel solid and feel like luxury when used. Playing around with the motorized faders, I feel enough resistance to say that everything underneath is made of top-quality materials.

Well, for $1500 each, they better have a proper budget for high-quality materials at least.

That touchscreen though!

Avids Amazing Touch ScreenThe most impressive feature I’ve found in this little package is the touchscreen. Load up a project in ProTools and set up functions when you need them.

It’s a bit tricky at first because you can be overwhelmed with non-ProTools functions including Elastic Props, View, Auto ADV, playlist and others.

They work with the actual program of the DAW controller that works with the DAW through a new touchscreen page (which really looks fancy).

Motorized faders help ease things with quick settings changes on the fly. Re-programmable knobs and buttons make it easier to edit and improve plug-in settings. Each of the faders are touch sensitive. You’ll see their names written on screen after you touch them. This helps you avoid making some rough settings just to see the parameter assigned to your fader.

4 Motorized Faders On The Artist ControlThere’s no question that the Avid Artist Control is intuitive. Transport controls at the bottom right corner make it easy to play, pause, stop and record.

The jogwheel is convenient when moving around ProTools towards different audio clips. Programmable buttons maximize the already-intuitive appearance of the device. Overall, this leaves me speechless.

The only problem I see here is it works so flawlessly with ProTools and Logic that using it with other DAWs would be problematic. That touchscreen won’t activate with other DAWs and it’s the heart of the device itself. Spending $1500 for this means you’re serious with going Avid ProTools until death or until rival DAWs unleash some better options for you.

Presonus Studio Live 16.4.2

Presonus Studio Live 16.4.2It’s a beautifully-designed DAW Controller/Audio Interface hybrid that looks like lots of clutter for some people (like me).

But I don’t really mind it. Clutter means features even if it means losing my head multiple times.

Presonus‘ StudioLive 16.4.2 says what it is;

  • 16 Channels,
  • a FireWire 800 Audio Interface,
  • 16 XMAX preamps,
  • four equalizers with LEDs indicators,
  • two Fat Channel processors for complete audio processing before it lands into your DAW and…
  • a useful LCD for messing with plug-in settings, this is so worth how much you’re paying for it.

Well, maybe.

Like I said, it always depends on if you have any use for all these features. You’re working with 16 channels, preamps and tons of features here. Are you willing to pay so much for such?

Sixteen Channels on The Presonus Studio LiveAnyway, you have a completely metal chassis where each of the 16 XMAX inputs attach along with unbalanced 1/4 jack for your microphones, line ins and inserts just right below.

RCA inputs and outputs and all I’ve mentioned don’t wobble and are tightly-nutted (pardon the term) to freeze as you switch phone jack inputs.

A bit on the large side means a bit on the more-features side.

FireWire interfacing for mixers are a dime-is-to-one. With 16 audio streams simultaneously sending signals from your mixer, you’re going to need a faster route than just USB. Your computer will also send software signals to your mixer and FireWire is the only best choice.

LCD-Screen Presonus Studio LiveRubber buttons are lighted to indicate status and the EQ LEDs work effectively in dark spaces where you don’t want to turn on your computer.

The LEDs are also accurate. The EQs themselves leave me speechless with their mind-numbing focus combined with accuracy.

The Fat Channel is where it’s at. The high-pass filter is great for quick audio fixes in a live or studio setting.

Compressor works effectively, enabling you to adjust with any kind of audio situation with high ratio values (that make it possibly into a limiter).

As a DAW Controller, you could do multiple cue mixes. Don’t worry about running out of tracks, you won’t always be using 16 channels simultaneously to mix in your DAW. But if the situation came to pass, you’re ready.

Dynamics EQing and ProcessingAgain, it’s a bit cluttered, but it isn’t bad news. Everything is there for a reason and you can find areas fairly quick.

The plug-in LCD where you could control your plug-ins is one of the best features I could mention when it comes to intuitiveness. I don’t even need to look at my computer anymore.

Maybe a touch-sensitive fader would also be helpful. I don’t want to look at my computer all the time to see my track’s name being controlled by the DAW.

Expand-ability? This device is already expanded. But still, one cannot realize its full potential not unless they’re working with so many instruments, multiple cues (for DJs) and need many things for their massive audio projects.

But if this is your situation every single time, Presonus’ StudioLive 16.4.2 is the key.

Steinberg CMC USB Cubase USB controllerAhh, Steinberg! Ze Germans are at it again!

They’ve dazzled us with Cubase and Nuendo’s efficiency (despite occasional crashes).

Now they want to give you something so you won’t have to mouse-and-keyboard your Cubase and Nuendo anymore.

The CMC is Steinberg’s only DAW controller to date. But I must say, this needs more work despite its usability.

The CMC honestly looks like an iPad from afar, except it has a glaring knob up top. No, it still looks fashionable.

Choose Which Modular Controller Suits You The BestThe CMC is made of hard plastic. It has a pull-out stand from behind to slant it like your computer keyboard.

The funny thing is, this little plastic pad looks like a television controller with the button layout. Or even a scientific controller.

The pan knob is made from hard plastic along with the buttons.

It’s feather-like weight guarantees you could drop it a few times and it won’t break, but it might dent that plastic.

The CMC’s features depend on which controller you’ve purchased. Luckily, I have a friend who purchased all six, so I could talk about each one of them for you.

Yes, it can work as a multi-controller with different DAW controller functions. While it’s a bit slow because only one device can work at a time due to driver limitations.

And yes, you couldn’t link them internally like a GameBoy unit.

This Controller Has Knobs For Every Function U NeedThe CH is the channel controller complete with track controls, inserts, EQ and has sensitive fader controls

The FD is a fader controller that uses most of its buttons for leveling. They display channel meters.

The TP has a knob that jogs your timer and controls your zoom. You guessed it, it’s a Transport Controller. You also have the loop, play and record buttons.

The QC has rotary encoders for Cubase or Nuendo’s built-in equalizer. It can also transmit MIDI CC data for plug-in controls

The AI has the AI knob that adjusts anything underneath the mouse pointer, but only for Cubase plug-ins.

The PD is 4×4 drum trigger matrix.

Phew!

Awsome Touch Sensitive Faders On The CMCIntuitiveness is somewhat out-of-whack to be honest. Without the ability to internally link your controllers and only use one instance of each controller, it seems futile to purchase all six.

But it’s a controller that could maximize your Cubase experience. In my experience, I only needed one controller.

The controllers, individually, are pretty easy to use. It’s similar to using your television remote. Buy the controllers you need and you’re all set. You’ve also saved some hundreds of dollars in the process, which makes this a (variable) value-for-money product.

Expand-ability is obvious if you have one or two controllers only. If you need more, then you will have to buy more.

But the lack of third party plug-ins support sort of restricts the expandability of this product. Nevertheless the CMC series can save you money, provided you don’t overdo it (I meant over-expand the series to six controllers).

Behringer BCF2000

Behringer BCF2000No, Behringer wasn’t kidding when they said they’d give away the BCF 2000 DAW Controller for less than $150.

While Behringer isn’t exactly the most original manufacturer when it comes to MIDI controllers and other audio products (I meant they’re not innovative because their products are usually copies) the quality is surprisingly good.

Another thing? Some of their products are gems, just like the BCF 2000.

Behringer is quite a downer when it comes to build. I could recall several guitar pedals a guitarist brought into my studio. While their sound is passable, their build was a bit outrageous with hard plastic and easy-to-rub-off print.

But surprisingly, the BCF2000 is built from some hard plastic. Rotary knobs are fixed tightly and offer quite a resistance similar to high-end DAW controllers. MIDI connectors, phone jacks and buttons look like they’re made from high-quality materials. A bit light though, but it works.

Well, you really get what you pay for. Maybe even more.

Control Surface With DAW Motorized Fader ActionI was completely sold on Behringer’s EIGHT motorized faders. And I mean eight for the price of a $150 DAW controller.

Even at $500 I can’t find a motorized fader in some DAW controllers. It’s only with Behringer I saw the BCF 2000 pull of something like this.

The B-Control is a free software program that’s in (possibly eternal) beta mode, but is quite stable to be honest.

The software allows you to map your DAW controller for better workflow. This might annoy some people because you don’t have any presets. But hey, $150? The price is right, right?

Eight Encoders That Has Different FunctionsIntuitive depends on how well you set your maps for your DAW. You could make this baby work for you as much as you need it to without batting an eye IF you can map your DAW controls efficiently.

This product proves it isn’t in the equipment but on how you use the equipment.

Expandability here is no question because you have seamless numbers of ways to combine knob, fader and button functions.

While it’s annoying that labels aren’t the thing in B-Control for 32 preset memories, memorizing the number of your favorite DAW controller setting isn’t helping.

But again, if it works for your computer and DAW, this is quite a bargain and should last you a long time in use if you give it proper care.

Behringer X-Touch

Behringer X-TouchThis was probably what happened. When Behringer heard everybody loved the BCF2000 (which was probably a long shot in their minds thinking that everyone would prefer pricier ones and they’d get the precipitated customer sediments from the initial market), they tried to bank on it.

So they developed the X-Touch. What’s new? You mean what is new!

While not cheaper than or as cheap as the BCF2000, the X-Touch’s nine 100 mm motorized faders are made of some tough material. Their sliding is just right. Not a bit tighter than the BCF2000, but you know it’s made of quality (and properly fastened).

LCD Scribble Strips show you the names of your tracks and their parameters. It is properly housed with its own surface real estate. Rotary controls feel stiff and has enough resistance for precision settings.

X-Touch Has Super Fast Responding FadersAnd that motorized fader noise from BCF2000? Gone!

That jogwheel isn’t just to move your project left to right. It allows you to select “scenes”.

If you’re familiar with the term, you know you’ve got some great value for money. Scenes are complete DAW projects that you could move to and fro from, and the jogwheel allows you to select one to two projects with its shuttle wheel.

If you’re fretful about the Ethernet connection (this is EuCon, by the way), you could always connect your interface to the computer using a 2×2 USB/ MIDI interface if you like working with a desktop.

Eight Dynamic LCD Strips On The Behringer X-TouchYou’ve got some six buttons that help automation along with a read/write function. Transport controls (new) allows you to set markers in place.

Group your tracks and perform multiple automation’s all at once. Yay!

Achieving a fast workflow with the Behringer X-Touch is easier this time around. Those LCD Scribble Strips display the track and the plugins you’re working on.

Grouping for automations as mentioned earlier takes off much time from workflow. Motorized faders make everything seamless.

Big Sensistive Jog WheelExpandability is no question here. Having no presets for any DAW is an advantage and disadvantage.

First, you can be sure it works with almost any DAW. Second, you can map everything anywhere you want!

Some buyers might be turned off due to the slightly higher price tag.

But if I were you and you loved the early BCF2000, you’d get the X-Touch because only $2000-priced DAW controllers could provide these types of features and usability.

SSL Nucleus

Nucleus from Solid State LogicOkay, if you’re filthy rich and you’re a beginner who wants to make a living out of becoming a musician, audio engineer, DJ or everything else entertainment or otherwise, Solid State Logic’s Nucleus is everything you’ll need. It’s a hybrid DAW Controller/Interface.

Why am I saying this?

The SSL Nucleus is priced as much as every equipment you might have in your studio (or maybe I’m exaggerating).

Just like the PreSonus Studio Live 16.4.2, it is quite heavy and bulky because you’ve got a sturdy, metal-chassis housing 16-channels of controllers, a preamp and monitor amplification (for your low-impedance trusty studio friends) that come with SuperAnalog signals.

What was that again?

The SSL Nucleus Has That Proffesional LookAnyway, everything fits nicely. Rotary knobs, faders and buttons all put themselves tightly into place with that nice resistance fitting for something priced like this.

SuperAnalog Circuitry gives you clear gain at 75db. No distortion, not unless your microphone has some snips in it or you’ve got a low quality guitar pickup running on lin-in. It has everything a normal mixer has, including the +48 phantom power, phase invert, 80Hz HPF and more.

As an audio interface, it could handle up to 192khz of recording quality. Wow

Pan knobs have 11 LEDs on their side that give you the centre position with a red color.

The SSL From Left SideIt also has its own Ethernet connector.

Connecting through the Ethernet ipMIDI, the SSL Nucleus transforms from a lifeless audio interface into a colorful instrument that is quite bulky.

I believe SSL intended to use all on-board features to help you focus more on your mixing through software without fiddling with too much your plug-ins. I still have about 30 left after mapping my Reaper functions.

SSL’s Nucleus is quite expensive and it could be used on other DAWs. Mixing effectively without using your plug-ins is amazing, but if you use the Nucleus with plug-ins, you could save some CPU power and achieving more sounds.

It has support for third-party plug-ins, making this product quite the gem it should be on this list.

Livid Instruments CNTRL:R WH

Livid Instruments CNTRL R WH USB MIDI-controllerI don’t really recommend this DAW controller to beginners.

But…

If you’ve got some background in engineering or coding, Livid Instruments’ CNTRL:R WH is that one controller that’s quite a pain at first, then ends up giving you the best time of your life doing some audio.

First, it’s made of some light but durable aluminum. It could survive a moderate fall (don’t even try higher falls; a friend of mine paid dearly for that test). Buttons are made of high-quality rubber. A 4×4 matrix of infinite rotary knobs sit in the middle. Full-rotation knobs appear on the left and right (yes, all 4×4. It’s appalling).

You get four faders on the left and right and a 4×4 grid of buttons in the middle. More buttons, more fun!

But when you see it, you feel like it’s lacking in personality. Colorful, but it has no edge, somewhat.

But I wasn’t fooled. I knew that 2×16 row of buttons below were step sequencers that send MIDI CC notes to your DAW. If you’ve noticed, it’s quite similar to the Ableton Live Stepp:r with its name-styling. It actually works perfect for that, according to a friend.