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The best control surfaces can make the music production experience much more hands on. Find the right one for your needs in this guide.
Our Top Picks
Best for home studios: PreSonus FaderPort 8
“While the features and controls are nice enough, what makes the FaderPort stand out is the deep integration with most DAWs”
Best for pros: Zoom LiveTrak L-12
“If you can overcome the affordability factor, you'll find that the LiveTrak is extremely competent”
Best budget: Akai Professional MIDImix
“Despite buid quality concerns, excellent DAW integration and tons of control options make this a winner”
Most portable: Korg nanoKONTROL2
“It's tiny enough that you can take it anywhere. Also takes almost no space on the desk for small studios”
As a producer, so much of your time is spent fiddling around with your DAW. From switching tracks to controlling the volume, so much of it happens with the mouse and, sometimes, the keyboard.
While these can suffice, they're hardly intuitive. Dragging the mouse does not feel the same way as dragging a fader to control the volume. Using a complicated multi-key keyboard shortcut to switch tracks isn't the same as tapping a single button to do the same.
There comes a point in every producer's journey when intuitiveness and speed trumps everything else.
And at that point, you should invest in a control surface.
A control surface essentially brings your DAW out of your computer screen and onto your desk. It adds a layer of intuitiveness to your production that a keyboard or mouse or even a MIDI controller can't offer. Switching tracks becomes easier. Controlling EQ is more intuitive. Panning feels more natural when you have a rotary knob to do it.
Most importantly, a control surface brings back, well, control to your production. Fine changes and automations, always hard to do with the mouse, feel tighter and more intuitive when you do it with a control surface.
Keep in mind that the definition of a “control surface” itself is hazy. It includes everything from MIDI controllers and mixers to dedicated DAW controllers. As long as it helps you “control” the DAW, we consider it to be a “control surface”.
With this in mind, let's take a closer look at the best control surfaces you can buy right now.
If you need options for a specific DAW, refer to our top picks for:
8 of the Best Control Surfaces for Every Need
Depending on your budget, DAW, and need, here are our picks for the best control surfaces on the market right now:
PreSonus FaderPort 8
The 8-fader variant of the massively popular single-fader FaderPort brings all the goodness of the original FaderPort, but with even more control options. You get the aforementioned 8 faders. You also get a sessions navigator, dedicated DAW controls to switch channels, and very handy high-res scribble strips. It's perfect for most small studios and power users alike.
The Presonus Faderport 8 is a very good DAW controller. With it, you can physically control a large number of parameters in the DAW. The build quality is very good. The optics and the clarity of the controls, thanks to the backlit soft buttons, are also very good. Compared to the competition, the motorized faders are very quiet.
The fact that the “Mix Management” functions, with the help of which you can adjust the mixer view of all channels on virtual instruments, buses, or VCAs, does not work under Cubase is extremely unfortunate. Pressing the All button only opens the Channel Settings window. It doesn't work in Ableton and Sonar either, but it does in Logic and Studio One.
Presonus receives extra praise for the ability to adjust the FaderPort 8. For example, the speed of the faders can be set on a scale from 1-7. Also, the touch sensitivity can be adapted to your own needs.
What I don’t like
Working with the Presonus Faderport 8 is a lot of fun, intuitive and purposeful. However, depending on the DAW, you have to make some compromises here and there. It' works best with the in-house DAW Studio One if you want a truly plug-and-play experience.
Recommended for: I recommend this for artists and professionals with their home studios. Works great when complemented with a nice MIDI controller or keyboard.
Best Single Fader: Behringer XTouchOne
With the X-Touch One, Behringer is expanding its range of DAW controllers to include a compact model with just one (motor) fader. The construction is impeccable. The housing consists of an aluminum/plastic mix. You don't need to worry about the intended use in the studio.
Since the controller works on a Mackie/HUI basis, it is compatible with all common DAWs. This makes the area of application correspondingly large but leads to some inconsistencies in combination with Cubase.
Cubase users can only hope that Behringer/Steinberg will find a way to integrate the controller even better. With the firmware update 1.07, there were already improvements, but the X-Touch One for Cubase is currently not fully recommendable. With other DAWs, the mentioned problems don't seem to arise. So, everyone should find out beforehand or try out what works with the DAW controller.
What I don't like
There are some inconsistencies in using the controller with Cubase because the X-Touch One always remains in an 8-channel group – unless you ask it to do so yourself. In other words, if I select channels 1-8 in the DAW mixer with the computer mouse, the X-Touch One follows without any problems. However, if you choose a higher channel than 8, the X-Touch One does not display anything, so the controller does not synchronize with the selected channel. Mind you; this only applies to the use of Cubase.
Recommended for: The X-Touch One is definitely not the smallest DAW controller that you can currently buy, but I personally like it very much. I recommend it for beginners and intermediate producers. The training period is practically zero with the right overlay. It's easily one of the best control surfaces as far as ease of use and value for money are concerned.
Most Portable: Korg nanoKONTROL2
Almost everyone is familiar with the Korg nano controllers. They are small, cute, and now quite useful even with the iPad for its music apps. With these, they result in a mini studio with style. The first generation Nanos were and are very original, quite popular, and were undoubtedly very successful commercially. But there were also complaints because their construction (plastic and of low quality) did not make them the first choice, at least for continuous use. Generation 2 is now available in a revised, more elegant design, with some new functions.
At 32 by 8 cm and perhaps one centimeter in height, Korgs Nanokey 2 is like its predecessor. It is very small and also very light. It weighs about as much as a ceramic coffee cup. It is, therefore, actually the ideal tool that can be placed anywhere on the desk.
The small keyboard fits anywhere and is then a tool besides the mouse. And that's probably the best way to understand it. It's a musical tool with a high standard, useful and also quite universally applicable.
Like its brothers, Nanokey 2 comes with interesting software per se. These are namely M1LE (old workstation legend as a plug-in, ideal for 80s fans, unfortunately, slimmed down in terms of patches), EZDrummer Lite (drum module, pretty suitable for simple applications), and the Lounge Lizard Session, a very decent electric piano from AAS, maker of Tassman. There is also a small discount for any LIVE or a plug-in for one of the Ableton sequencers.
What I don't like
The very practical CC button of the predecessor, which turned its keyboard into a universal controller, is unfortunately missing.
Recommended for: The NanoKontrol isn't really a full-fledged DAW controller, but it adds a great deal of functionality to any studio desk without taking up much space. Keep it next to your MIDI keyboard to change tracks, launch clips, and control key parameters on the fly. In terms of sheer portability, it's easily one of the best control surfaces on this list.
Best Budget Control Surface: Akai Professional MIDImix
At the beginning of 2015, AKAI presented the MIDImix, a pure MIDI controller in a compact format. It is used to control a DAW remotely. You can mix now and everywhere with this little piece!
The AKAI MIDImix provides an 8-track mix surface with the most necessary elements on a size of around 23.9 x 20.1 x 3.0 cm. At the lower end of the housing, it starts with eight 30 mm faders. Plus, there's a master fader, directly above each fader is a Rec Arm and Mute button to arm or mute the corresponding track. If you want to listen to a track solo, you have to press the solo button at the right end of the row in addition to the mute button.
With the MIDImix, AKAI has a compact MIDI controller in its program that masters the essential basics for remote control of a DAW or plug-ins.
Each of the eight channels has three potentiometers for remote control of various parameters. The user interface is completed with the three soft buttons Bank Left, Bank Right, and Send All. As I said, everything is kept nice and compact. We'll see later whether this is beneficial in practice or what can be done with it at all.
What I don't like
The engineering is excellent. The area of application is quite large thanks to faders, potentiometers, and buttons in the 8-track design. Only the potentiometers should have been a bit more handy or larger. Otherwise, the MIDImix does what it should. For a price of just under 100, there is not much to criticize here.
Recommended for: The Akai MIDIMix is less a control surface and more a MIDI controller. Yet it can function perfectly well as a DAW controller, especially if you use Ableton or Logic. Given the small price tag, I'm happy to consider this to be one of the best control surfaces on the market right now.
Best for Pros: Zoom LiveTrak L-12
With the Zoom L-12, Zoom promises us a lot. It's a digital audio mixer, an audio interface for Mac, Windows, Linux, and iOS, and a 14-track audio recorder – all in one device. Zoom has established itself as a market leader for mobile recorders in recent years.
The sound quality of the preamps, which is always very important to me, has also improved tremendously in recent years. Zoom now also builds very good audio interfaces and is compatible with the F8. And F4 also made its way into the professional broadcast sector. We'll see whether the Zoom L-12 will benefit from these technical developments and allow high-quality, professional recordings.
It has never been so easy to get great pictures so quickly. Zoom is definitely on the right track, and the L-12 is a lot of fun to use. The Japanese have pinned “We Are For Creators” as their slogan, and I can only confirm that.
Some items for the next version are already on my wish list. Maybe there will soon be something like an L-12 “PRO” version that has MIDI, ADAT, and alternate takes on board and with which external preamps can be integrated more easily. Measured by the range of functions and the offered sound quality, the retail price is incredibly cheap.
What I don't like
First, there are no effects on the individual headphone outputs. Also, line inputs from channels 1-8 are not suitable for every periphery. Recording channels are fixed and cannot be reassigned. It is not possible to copy tracks within a project, and finally, there is no MIDI.
Recommended for: Although it's technically a mixer, I would still consider the Zoom L-12 as a type of “control surface” that works particularly well for bands and engineers. The great value for money, robust controls, and tons of I/O options make this one of the best control surfaces for serious producers.
Most Versatile: Nektar Panorama P1
Switching from one track/mode to the other is often a bit cumbersome with MIDI controllers. The fader positions, of course, no longer match those in the DAW after the change. Motorized faders could, of course, help here, but very few controllers have them. The P1 mitigates this problem. It marks the current position of the faders with a red line when changing. So you have at least a rough overview of where the P1 fader picks up the value in the DAW.
With the Panorama P1, the manufacturer Nektar brings an excellent USB controller onto the market. A variety of control elements allow both the remote control of individual tracks and their settings, as well as the editing of plug-ins and software instruments. It becomes really comfortable connected with one of the DAWs Cubase, Logic, and Reason supported by automappings.
The manufacturer Nektar could undoubtedly add more in some places. Although most points of criticism could be resolved with a firmware update. However, it's a very well-functioning controller that can save a lot of work with a computer mouse. This thereby significantly improves the workflow.
What I don't like
Incidentally, it would have been nice if the P1 could be tilted forward a bit. This would let you have a better view of the display. When the controller is standing a little to the side, you have to get up to read the display accurately.
Recommended for: If you want something that can double up as a DAW controller and a MIDI controller, look no further than the Panorama P1. I recommend it as a valid alternative to more expensive controllers. Also, it offers very seamless integration for Logic Pro.
Best for Ableton: Ableton Push 2
I f you're using Ableton, there's no two ways about it: you want the Ableton Push.
Ableton Push 2 is the new version of the Ableton controller. This improves the experience with Ableton Live thanks to a total redesign, among which its new full-color screen stands out. Now with the new Push, it is easier to create rhythms, notes, chords, and work with samples, all without the need to look at your computer.
The new Push 2 has been designed and created by Ableton from initial planning to final engineering. It is a bit thinner and a bit lighter than its predecessor, making it easy to carry around.
The new multi-color high-resolution RGB display is constantly adapting to show you precisely what you need. You will be able to see in it all the parameters of the devices.
Finally, I will like to ask the question: is it worth selling your Ableton Push 1 to buy an Ableton Push 2 for more or less than $800? If you spend a lot of time with samples and their work, the change could be really worthwhile. This is because the Ableton Push 2, with its really extremely good display, is in direct competition with other controller-software options from other manufacturers.
However, if you don't value working directly with samples and have the first Push your own, the price difference of around $300 is not worth it, in my opinion.
What I don't like
Asides the high price, there's no other point I could use to dissuade you from getting the Push 2. Get it if you have the budget!
Recommended for: The Push 2 pads are carefully crafted to provide a perfect feel for musicians of all types. Whether playing drums or synthesizers, Push adapts to your musical needs, with pads and controls that give you a fast and comfortable workflow. It equally good as a production and creativity tool as it as a DAW controller – easily one of the best control surfaces I've ever seen.
Over to You
If you want more direct and intuitive control over your production, you need a capable control surface. Hopefully, this guide will help you find the best control surfaces for your requirements.
For more recommendations and advice, don't hesitate to reach out to me here.
Check our other recommendations:
- Ableton Push (Official website)
- Nektar (Official website)
- Behringer (Official website)
- PreSonus (Official website)
- Akai Pro (Official website)
- October 19, 2020: Article first published