The title of the workshop is: 

Control Surfaces and the User-Interface


Where have all the good knobs gone?

Nothing is more disruptive to the creative process than a tool lacking an intuitive interface.  It is simply not possible to cram enough knobs and buttons -- plus a large enough display -- on what has become the standard package size: a single-space rack panel.  Quite literally "on either hand," a pointing device such as a mouse, trackball or pen only appears to be the nearly elegant solution.  However, any device that reduces all actions to the same "point and click" motion is totally un-healthy. (Why wait for repetitive stress to do permenant damage?) 

The solution is a "universal" dedicated-hardware interface.  What good is all that DSP if the interface obstructs the user's ability to take full advantage of the available sonic manipulating power?  And, with all that supposed "power," when will devices have enough intelligence to communicate "what's wrong" rather than display a completely useless and nearly unreadable error message? 

This workshop -- on Control Surfaces and the User-Interface -- is slated for the ’98 AES in San Francisco.  You are invited!


Carl Malone: CM Automation; Chatsworth, Ca. USA 
Dave Hill: Crane Song ltd; Superior, Wisconsin USA 
Morten Lave: TC Electronic; Denmark
Brian Slack: Digital Sound & Picture; Los Angeles, Ca. USA 

ã 1998 by Eddie Ciletti

Where have all the good knobs gone?

Back in the vacuum tube era, audio gear was living large with plenty of space for controls and metering.  Even before the digital revolution, however, typical front panel real estate had already shrunk to a single rack space, a meager 1.75 inches!  "Apres Dig," the number of controls was further reduced to a Data Entry Wheel and a hand full of "arrow buttons."  Computer software "virtually eliminated" and emulated the control surface, distilling the whole enchilada down to a single input device: the mouse!


The power of digital is very much appreciated, but the end result is not unlike what happens when the federal government "reduces" taxes. In reality, the tax burden is shifted to state and local governments. Net gain = 0 


Behind the illusion of getting a sophisticated device "on the cheap" are hidden costs, one of which is health care for repetitive stress injuries. No one ever got carpal tunnel from using a grease pencil or a razor blade, the only damage is the possibility of a poked eye or a serious cut. These are not repetitive stress issues — make the mistake once and it’s not likely to happen again.


As workstations become our primary tools, the interface will become important to our health as well as our productivity! Enter the control surface manufacturer, the state and local government of audio.  These "third party" entrepreneurs are quite literally putting the power of "control" back into the hands and the fingertips of the user.


The skill of software designers can not be discounted. No matter whether the end product is on a monitor or embedded into a front-panel, the ability to create an intuitive interface is a skill that should be encouraged and rewarded. Indeed, this sort of feedback must go both ways. Products must be designed so that the user can get right to work — at least with basic features — without reading the manual.  Conversely, there must be enough intelligence built in to all products to help the user overcome obstacles.

The purpose of the ’98 AES workshop on "Control Surfaces and the User-Interface" is to put users in contact with both designers and manufacturers for an interactive session.


Representing Control Surfaces:
CM Automation

Mackie Designs has produced two digital control surfaces - the recently released HUI DAW control surface (it currently interfaces with Pro Tools 4.1 and other systems forthcoming) and the UltraPilot (the control surface portion of the Ultramix automation system). Ultramix is a three-pieced "gig" comprised of the W95/Mac based automation software, the UltraPilot control surface and the Ultra-34 VCA level controller. The UltraPilot is a lap-sized 16-fader device with both dedicated and soft switches. It communicates via 10baseT cable to the Ultra-34, a 34 channel half-normalled VCA patch bay.

Carl Malone is the mastermind behind the Mackie hardware, plus many of the "surficial" design aspects.
Carl also owns a company called CM Automation.  He current interface is called MOTOR MIX.

JLCooper Electronics is known primarily for their MIDI products including patch bays and MIDI/SMPTE interfaces. In addition, as a "third party" vendor, they have created several feature-enhancing add-ons such as the MMC-88, which provides midi machine control interface for the Tascam DA-88.  After the success of their CS-10 Control Station, they developed the MCS series, an entire line of sophisticated control surfaces not only for audio but also for video and graphic design.

Eli Slawson is responsible for supervising engineering development schedules and personnel at JLCooper.  He tolerated an unending attack of questions (click here for the Q&A).

Eli provided this most profound reflection...

JLCooper’s first fader controller was part of an automation system made in 1986-87. In 1989, when I wrote the manual for the original "FaderMaster," I said in the introduction, "You've probably noticed a trend in recent years for music manufacturers to remove knobs and sliders from their equipment to cut down costs. Ironically, this trend has paralleled the development of increasingly sophisticated products. Never before have we had access to products with so many features, but with so little control.

JLCooper reverses that trend by bringing you back into control. Our controllers provide quick, continuous remote access of various parameters for all kinds of MIDI devices. I had no idea that we were creating an industry!

Representing Product Design and User-Interface:
Crane Song
TC Electronic
Special Guest

TC Electronic hit the jackpot with their "Finalizer." Recently updated, the Finalizer is the answer for the project studio needing an all-in-one mastering tool. It features a three-band compressor and limiter. (Users can select the two crossover points.)  In addition, digital levels can be normalized (raised to the maximum level before clipping) and equalized, the stereo image can be summed to mono OR made wider. There are 25 factory and 50 user presets.

The Finalizer is a perfect example of a powerful product that manages to be intuitive and modestly friendly considering its minimal mechanical user-interface. It does have MIDI I/O.

Morten Lave, the Chief Software Engineer at TC, managed to squeeze in some time to answer my many questions.  Click here to view that dialog.

Crane Song LTD manufactures two audio products, both with lots of knobs and switches. The STC-8 is a sonically transparent, Class A compressor/limiter with perhaps more adjustable parameters than any other similar product.  On the digital side, HEDD — a harmonically enhanced digital device — is a 24-bit digital audio converter with two unique knobs labeled "Triode" and "Pentode." These controls add the type of harmonic artifacts associated with vacuum tubes.

Dave Hill is the chief designer at Crane Song.  Click Here for Dave's Industry "To-Do" List!
He was previously responsible for the design and manufacture of the Summit product line.

Soundscape manufactures a power digital audio workstaton with an incredibly intuitive user-interface.
It interfaces with the JL Cooper CS-10 control surface.

Questions and Answers by Eddie Ciletti (of MST) and Eli Slawson (of JL Cooper), respectively.

Q1.) Is there an approach you/JLC would like manufacturers (or users) to take in order to make life easier?

A1.) The users are doing the right thing to demand controller support. It begins by asking this question: What do you do when there's a "picture" of one knob on a computer screen? Move it with a mouse. Now what do you do when there are two knobs?

More Audio and Video workstation manufacturers need to view control station support as necessary, with regards to "day to day" high speed use of their product. Often the software product is released first, and then two years later a version update is released that can respond to a controller.

I think software developers who provide the user with ability to "map" functions to the controller are going in the right direction. This lets the user decide which software functions are used the most often.

Q2: For a company to support your products, is it safe to assume that "addresses" for all of the controls must be provided so that a "look-up table" can permit links to their virtual "handles?"

There are really four answers to this question.

A #2 part (1)

Yes. The developer has to "write code." For example, Softimage engineers wrote a "plug in" for their application which relates to the MCS-3000 Series protocol. Their software can read the numbers from an MCS-3000 Series product when a control is moved. But they go farther in that they allow the user, via a drag and drop interface, to customize the controller, to put the desired functions on the most convenient button. In addition, Softimage, Merging Technologies, Sonic Solutions and "others" implement two-way communication, to write their own messages to the LCD display, light the LEDS and of course move the motorized faders.

A #2 part (2)

No. In this case, JLCooper has to make the appropriate changes. For example, in the case of Digidesign's Pro Tools 4, their "table" is called a "Personality File." We really wanted Digidesign to make a Personality File for the MCS-3800. Or provide us with the tools to do so ourselves. But apparently their allocation of development resources seemed to prevent this. Since they already had made a good Personality File for the Mackie HUI, Digidesign provided us with that information.

We made the MCS-3800 perform in a similar fashion to the HUI's command set. So now the MCS-3800 works great with Pro Tools and Digidesign did not have to make any changes to their "tables". It is even possible to just swap them. As far as I know, JLCooper's MCS-3800 is the only controller other than HUI that will work with the HUI file.

A #2 part (3)

Both parties work together and write code. Much of our work is OEM. In the case of the Emu Launch Pad, or the Akai DL-16, these respective manufacturers provided us with a protocol, and we developed a controller to their specifications.

A #2 part (4)

Nobody writes any code. Most Sequencers and many digital audio workstations already have a user interface to "learn" controller commands. So the user can set up their own application to respond (in varying capacities) to the FaderMaster Pro, the CS-10.2, or the MCS-3800.

Question #3a: Do the CS-10 and the MCS-3000 emulate each other?

A: #3a

They do. Hold the left-arrow button on the MCS-3800 while powering up, and it goes into "CS-10 Emulation Mode."  But remember that the MCS-3800 has a lot more controls than the CS-10.2.  The CS-10.2 represents a relatively small sub-set of the MCS-3800's control capability.

Question 3b: Does this mean that several emulation "options" could be built into the MCS-3800 or that it will only do one per "eprom" plus the limited CS-10 command set?

A: #3b

Currently there is only one EPROM, which has many different protocols built-in. There's a User-programmable mode, two special proprietary protocols used by developers, CS-10 emulation mode and the Pro Tools mode.  The "host system" computer sends a message to the MCS-3800 to automatically switch it into the correct mode.

Question #4: Does the MCS series support MIDI? Other Serial Interface? Parallel Interface?

A: #3: The MCS-3000 Series has MIDI standard.  It also has two card slots for optional plug in cards for RS-422 (for computer control), RS-422 (Sony 9 Pin for VTR control), RS-232, and GPI.

The compact controller, Media Control Station 2, or "MCS2", is available in four different versions: MIDI, RS-232, Sony 9 Pin and Apple Desktop Bus. The CS-10.2 is available in MIDI and RS-232.

Question #5: What keeps you so busy?

A:#5: Taking the time to give thorough answers!
Seriously, my duties include supervising engineering development schedules and personnel.

On the subject of pricing…

Q6a.) How much does the current pricing reflect the anticipated number of units to be sold?

Q6b.) How many MCS units does JL-cooper expect to sell as either off-the-shelf or OEM versions?

Q6c.) What determined the initial pricing of the unit and how might that change in the future. For example, if the unit sold really well, could the price be expected to drop OR is competition more likely to determine the price?

A #6:

Pricing is based on very scientific and sophisticated algorithms, which factor in mean solar flare activity based on geodetic survey data, and how many times my cat circles before laying down. Seriously though, we generally consider this to be proprietary internal marketing data, which if released may aid and abet the competition.

Q7.) The MCS looks really cool. Is its layout determined by the need to make it more generic -- so that more different types of users (audio, graphic, video, etc) can use it? Or, can it be customized when OEM'ed?

A7.) Its layout was determined by what we thought would work well for a variety of applications, and it seems like we were right.

Q8.) Are any "less tradional" work surfaces in the works?

A8.) Yes, though I'm not at liberty to tell you about them.

Q9: Is there, by any chance, a rack mount kit for the CS-10 so that is could slide like a drawer?

A9: That's a good idea! Although JL Cooper doesn’t makes a rack-mount kit, perhaps the CS-10.2 could be velcro'd in to one of the many keyboard drawers sold as computer accessories?

I've seen some creative ways of re-mounting and stylizing CS-10's before. One of the most surprising was in the Nagra booth (really) at NAB a few years ago. There was a Formica counter-top with a "built-in" CS-10. They had apparently pulled the controls and front panel off, replaced the black wheel with a silver wheel, and drilled some holes in the countertop to mount the CS-10 from underneath. I never did find out who did it and what it was for.

There's one company that re-paints CS-10's gold. But the most impressive is Digital Sound and Picture's repackaging of the JLCooper MCS-3800 into a custom glass console, which I am told will be on the cover of Mix.

Return to where you left off

Q & A between Eddie Ciletti (EQ/MST) and Morten Lave (TC Electronic), respectively.

Q1: Concerning the size of the front panel and the usage of available "real estate."
     How are the choices made?   Or perhaps, more specifically, how does cost determine the physical interface?

A1a: (single / double height, for example)?

The size itself does not have a great influence on cost.  It is certainly an advantage to use a standard extrusion (form factor) rather that redesign mechanics for each product. From the costumer point of view, I believe that rack space is precious both in studios and on tour. Some products demand the increased size though - due either to large displays or to the general complexity of the device.

A1b: (number of dedicated controls?)

At TC we try not to compromise. The number of keys and encoders does not need to affect the price that much, if you try to reuse knobs and plastic pieces from previous products. Sometimes we need to compromise of course - if our designer wanted a quarter color VGA LCD screen on a $1500 unit we would need to ask him to reconsider!

Q2: Is there a MIDI "controller" standard for parameters such as those used in an equalizer (bandwidth, frequency, level, etc)?

A2: There is no real standard for this, and it is my opinion that MIDI is not the standard to use for remote control of effect devices. MIDI is a point-to-point unidirectional connection originally defined to connect keyboards to synths. A new standard is on its way (AES24) and, both as an active committee member and as head of software development at TC, it is my belief that this is the future for sound system control ranging from project studios to large permanent installations. MIDI is OK for simple automation of parameters and program changes.

Q3:  I have the TC reverb plug-in for Soundscape.  Is TC working on a Finalizer plug-in for Soundscape or any other product?

A3:  At the Amsterdam AES, Soundscape announced the Dynamizer for Soundscape and MasterX for ProTools is shipping.
       Both products are based on Finalizer technology, but they are not Finalizers.

Q4: How hard is it to convert an existing piece of dedicated hardware into a plug-in?

A4:  It depends on the plug-in platform DSP, available memory and processor cycles, and the complexity of the algorithm. Some algo's can be straight ported, but those that use platform-specific hardware will need to be rewritten.

Q5: What could be done to make "conversion" easier?

A5: There is not just one answer to that.  If DigiDesign put our ASIC on their farm card it would be easier for us to port our code - but what about others then?  Another interesting issue in the Plug-In business is how to protect your algorithms.

EC Comment: Regarding the Finalyzer,  I compliment you on logical approach to "programming" because I was able to use the product without reading the manual. I think this is very important.

Q6: How much time is spent refining the user interface?

A6:  When we started developing the Finalizer we already had the algorithm developed (M5000 MD2). Basically all the time was spent developing the Finalizer's interface.  The task was to bring the complexity of the MD2 down to a level where anyone could use it from day one. On the other hand we did not want to limit users too much when they got more experience.

Return to where you left off

Return to the top of the page

Email Eddie

Return tothe MAIN Directory, a.k.a. the HOME page

Dave Hill of Crane Song on the topic of machine-to-user feedback.

This could easily be subtitled...

"Why Isn't it Working?"

There are not many devices that give status indication of the digital audio signal.  DAT machines may indicate that a signal is present, but little more.   Implementation of the copy protection bits is inconsistent at best and unpredicatable especially when you need to make a copy in a hurry!  The Creamware TRIPLE-DAT, for example, does indicate "lock" on the computer screen when it sees an acceptable signal, but only complains about sample rate AFTER recording is initiated, not in set-up mode.  I will talk about what is needed and why.  We might be able start a "movement" if enough people ask for it.

Beyond the "black box," signal integrity starts and ends with cabling.  I have not messed with high-end cable, just proper impedance coax.  Using microphone cable for AES and cheap wire for s/pdif may seem to work at first, but "mysterious errors" can often be traced to funky cables.  At other times, products that do not have the "correct" input impedance will wreak havoc even on "good" cables.


  1. Frequency of received data
  2. A data-valid flag exists within the digital audio bitstream although it is not correclty implemented by all manufacturers.
  3. S/PDIF copy status
Receiver errors may include one or more fo the following:  The Crystal Semiconductor receiver chip has output pins for some of these flags.



There is more than a little misunderstanding about the relationship between digital and analog levels.

  1. What is digital zero, 0dBfs?
  2. What is the "reference" or "nominal" level of a digital signal and how does that translate in the analog world?
  3. Why is there more than one reference?  (Why isn't it more consistently implemented?)
  4. How does the above affect the digital-to-analog interface, a-k-a analog signal processing headroom?
  5. If we move to 24-bit conversion, how much digital headroom is needed when signals are processed?
  6. How accurate is the implementation of digital metering?
  7. Head room and noise considerations: The advantages of 24-bits and the practical limits regarding the noise floor.

I am looking for a way to create an inexpensive-but-meaningful jitter indicator. I would to prefer to stay out of the "jitter argument," but do feel there is a certain "threshold" where jitter does become a problem.  Of course, one could argue as to where that threshold is...  Assuming that a "good" system is well-below the threshold and that "cable-issues" can create problems "well-above," a indicator capable of such range would be helpful.   Many convertors at the low-end of the food chain are crap anyway, so jitter isn't really an issue there.  While it is not safe to assume that quality gear = low jitter, it would certainly be better to know when signal integrity is above or below a threshold rather than "guess" and falsely attribute certain sonic discrepancies to jitter.

Here is another question.  Do we in the audio industry want cheap or accurate digital / analog audio gear?  Computer prices continue to fall, but for anyone who has lost a day's work because of a machine crash, there is perhaps a need to establish a "minimum standard" of features and specs to ensure a reliable, robust computer system no matter whether the "data" is audio, video or bookeeping.  This "standard" applies to computer hardware and software.  Reliability has its price!

Many people shop for audio gear with nothing but buzz words and name-brand recognition. When it comes to determining the quality of digital audio conversion, we need to bridge the gap between marketing and engineering to help make complex technology more understandable.

Return to where you left off

Return to the top of the page

Email Eddie

Return tothe MAIN Directory, a.k.a. the HOME page