There’s really nothing that compares to the tactile feel of working with faders and knobs to dial in audio settings. Clicking and dragging with the mouse trying to hit precise frequencies or gain settings can feel unnatural and take a lot of time as well. That’s where MIDI control surfaces come in. Next in my “Best of” series, I’m looking at the best MIDI control surfaces on the market, weighing their features, and helping you decide which one is the best fit for your home studio.
What is a MIDI Control Surface?
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and was developed in the 80s to allow instruments and computers to talk to one another. MIDI takes analog user input and turns it into a digital signal. In recent years, MIDI functionality has extended beyond MIDI controller keyboards and drum pads to also control functions in your DAW.
A MIDI control surface is a MIDI controller that allows you to integrate the tactile feeling of knobs, faders, and buttons into the virtual environment of your DAW by sending and receiving MIDI messages. I find my control surface indispensable in the recording process, as it allows one-touch arming, muting, soloing, panning and fading of multiple tracks as well as easy access to my DAW’s transport controls all from one device, saving mouse clicks and keystrokes and bringing back that old-school feeling of a mixing console to my home studio.
What Features Should You Look for in a MIDI Control Surface?
With control surfaces ranging in price from under $100 to well over $1000, how do you know what you’re getting for the money and what features you’ll want? Let’s learn about the various parts of a MIDI control surface and what they’re used for:
When you think of the mixing consoles that MIDI control surfaces are designed to emulate, the first thing that comes to mind are rows of faders. Though they can be assigned to any function in your DAW, the faders on a control surface default to adjusting individual track volumes. Some pricier control surfaces come with motorized faders which allow you to observe volume automations in realtime and assist with the mixing process.
Knobs and Rotary Encoders
You would think that knobs are self-explanatory, but on a MIDI controller there are two types: simple knobs like what you’d find on guitars and most stereo equipment, which have a set beginning and end of travel; and rotary encoders, which freely turn 360° with no encumbrance. While knobs are well suited to pan and volume controls, encoders are great for mapping to other functions as well and are typically found on more expensive units.
Most control surfaces have easy one-touch access to the same play, pause, record, and forward/reverse buttons found in your DAW called the transport controls. Many will light up to show the current playback mode, and may even have buttons for toggling record modes like loop and punch.
Mute, Solo, and Record Buttons
Similar to the transport controls, the mute, solo, and record buttons found on many control surfaces allow for quickly setting options on multiple tracks. Used in tandem with the transport functions, these buttons are great for speeding up the tracking and mixing processes without picking up the mouse.
Since you’ll inevitably be working with more than the 8 or so tracks that are standard on most of the control surfaces on this list, there are usually track bank selectors for shifting up and down the logical number of tracks – 1-8, 9-16, etc. Many also have extra function buttons and/or knobs to map to various DAW or plugin functions. More expensive units also may have jog dials, view zoom controls, and LED or LCD displays for menus, timecode, track names, or other info.
An often-overlooked but important consideration when picking a control surface is support for the host DAW you intend to use it with. For example, when I bought my first control surface a few years back, I pulled it out of the box, plugged it in, loaded up my DAW, then proceeded to spend the next three hours trying to figure out how to get it to function in an unsupported DAW. (I very nearly sent it back, but I did eventually get it to work.)
Best MIDI Control Surfaces Under $200
(Please note that since studio gear goes in and out of stock frequently due to high demand and low supply, prices can and will vary. If the listed price for an item doesn’t fall within the category I’ve placed it in, it’s likely because it’s out of stock. In that case, you may want to seek out another vendor, pick a different item, or wait until the one you want is back in stock.)
The most modestly-priced model I can recommend, the nanoKONTROL2 offers full control of eight tracks, including solo, mute, record, fader, and pan knob, as well as transport controls, all in a tiny device that fits just above your keyboard. The track buttons select ascending groups of 8 tracks, and the transport and track-level buttons are backlit to show their current state. Though my next control surface will definitely feature rotary encoders and longer travel on the faders, the nanoKONTROL2 was the right marriage of features and low price with a small footprint for my studio. Having it around has greatly increased my workflow, and I would never go back to using only a mouse.
AKAI Professional MIDImix
This offering from AKAI has has tons of analog control in a small interface. It features controls for eight channels, with a fader, three knobs, toggleable solo/mute, and record arm button for each channel. There’s also a separate master fader which comes in handy when using it for live performance or automation, and bank up and down buttons for working with larger projects, all built into a small, affordable unit.
Best MIDI Control Surfaces Under $600
Nektar Panorama P1
Nektar’s Panorama P1 packs a ton of control into a smaller device. It has eight channels of faders and rotary encoders plus a master fader, eight additional encoders, ten assignable LED-backlit buttons, a large complement of toggleable transport and function controls, plus a small color TFT display for in-depth menu system. The mode buttons above and below the display allow you to quickly cycle through 20 presets for mixing, transport, and track-level controls. Also has a MIDI footswitch jack for easy start/stop with an instrument in your hands. With out-of-the-box functionality for every major DAW, the P1 is a very attractive option for plug-in-and-go MIDI control.
The X-Touch by Behringer is a prosumer-level DAW control surface with an enormous feature set for the money. Each of its eight channels has an assignable rotary encoder, colorful LCD “scribble strip” readout for displaying control messages, record arm, solo, mute, and track select, plus a 100mm motorized fader. To the right of the main track controls are a ninth motorized fader control for master volume, LCD timecode display, function, automation, and utility buttons, transport controls, plus jog dial and navigation arrows. On the rear you’ll find footswitch and expression pedal input jacks, MIDI in/out, USB hub, and ethernet connectivity. Once you learn how to use the controls you could easily throw your mouse in the trash and use only the X-Touch for controlling your DAW. (Just kidding, don’t throw away your mouse.) Behringer also sells a more affordable version with a single fader if the price tag proves too much, and for those on the other end of the spectrum they also sell X-Touch Extender modules with eight additional channels of control.
Incredibly popular among our Home Studio Enthusiasts Facebook group, the Presonus Faderport has many of the same features of similarly-priced or even more expensive options, but also comes with a copy of PreSonus Studio One Artist. Eight 100mm motorized faders, mutes and solo buttons, and LCD “scribble strips”, plus a single rotary encoder with track select and mode controls give you command of eight tracks at once. The large transport and recording controls, jog dial, footswitch jack, and assignable function buttons give you plenty of control over your sessions. For those on smaller budgets or greater demands than the 8-fader version, the Faderport also comes in 1- and 16-fader versions.
Best MIDI Control Surfaces Over $600
Icon QCON Pro G2
The versatile QCON Pro G2 from Icon boasts nine motorized faders, backlit LCD displays for showing track info and timecode, transport and zoom controls, jog dial, record, mute, solo, select, and rotary encoder for each of 8 channels, plus a ton of other function and recording settings buttons. The system can be expanded to up to 32 channels by adding additional QCON EX modules, making it a good alternative for poducers looking for large-format tactile controls.
Slate Media Technology Raven MTi2
When is a raven like a mixing desk? When it’s a Slate Raven MTi2, that’s when. More like a touchscreen computer than a traditional control surface, the Raven has a 27-inch touch-sensitive HD display for loading up the mix window of your favorite DAW, saving you screen real estate on your computer monitors and allowing limitless direct control of your DAW. The Raven software makes working within your DAW faster and easier than with a mouse alone, and the screen size makes this the highest number of channels that can be controlled at once for the money. Slate also makes a two-screen version that is built into a desk for larger studios.
The Mackie Control Universal Pro (MCU Pro) is one of the oldest control surfaces on the market and set the standard by which nearly all the others communicate with DAW software. Many of the other controllers on this list have closely mirrored its user interface as well. Designed for use in professional studios, the MCU Pro is a rugged piece of equipment that will stand up to years of use. Featuring eight channels plus a master fader, the MCU Pro has 100mm motorized faders, mute, solo, select, record, and rotary encoders for each channel, assignable function buttons, transport and zoom controls, and jog dial. There are two LCD displays along the top for track-level info and timecode and two inputs for external MIDI footswitches. Mackie also sells the XT Pro for adding more channels.
Best MIDI Control Surfaces for Home Studio 2021 – The Bottom Line
That’s it for our round-up. I hope you found the perfect unit for increasing your home studio workflow. If you’d like to ask more questions of actual owners of many of these MIDI control surfaces, join us in our Home Studio Enthusiasts Facebook group.