After my photography buddies insisted that 90% of photography is your digital darkroom workflow, and convinced me to switch to Adobe Lightroom, I’ve been struggling to get my studio workflow similarly streamlined. I grew up on studio production in the late 1980s, meaning large analogue mixers, one channel per input, and everything mixed down to 8 sub-mixes running to a 1/2″ 8-channel reel-to-reel recorder (Tascam 38). I naturally think in terms of taking everything down to 8 busses, then doing a final mixdown “live” from tape to 2-track. It’s a two-step workflow that I can do in my sleep. It’s also 20 years out of date – long due for an overhaul.
So when I saw this press release from MOTU (makers of my DAW, Digital Perfomer, and my PCI-based audio interfaces) touting a new “high-end” control surface – the Euphonix Artist series – I decided the time had come to make a change. (The forthcoming MOTU Volta plugin pushed me over the top.) I’d heard of tons of difficulties using Mackie Controls and HUIs with DP previously, so reading an honest-to-goodness press release from MOTU left me hopeful they would proactively work to make the Euphonix devices the best control surface for DP. So, I bought a cheap used MOTU 24i to accompany my 1224, and ran every device in my studio directly into the computer. Knowing some of the limitations I might experience being an early adopter, I spent the cash on the MC Mix. I figured that 8 tracks of full-motion faders and endless rotary encoders (MC Mix) would be preferable to 4 tracks + a touchscreen (MC Console), as I’m used to grabbing for knobs and only looking at a meter bridge. Later, I rationalized, I could add the MC Console if I wanted. Also, my friend dys4iK gave me a Shuttle Xpress, which I use as a jog/shuttle/transport device – meaning I don’t need another one just now. (Review forthcoming.)
The MC Mix comes well-packed in an attractive box. The device itself is well weighted, and feels solid in your hands. A big kudos to Euphonix for only using red, yellow and green LEDs; no bright blue LEDs blinding you from this device! The OLED track indicators are also quite attractive and understated, with very little lag and no discernible flicker in my incandescent-lit studio. If I had any complaint about the physical device, it’d be that the rotary and fader knobs are made from metallized plastic. I guess for the powered faders this is understandable – less mass to push around – but a bit surprising based on their look. Still, they slide nicely, and after the initial “plastic surprise,” I haven’t thought twice about the build quality. The box also includes a hefty power supply, and a piece of 6-foot Cat 5 Ethernet cable. This went straight into the second NIC of my DAW. I would have preferred a slightly longer cable coming from the line-mounted power brick to the MC Mix itself, but I can’t complain, really.
Installation was straightforward under OSX 10.5.6. Connect power and the networking cable to the MC Mix, then load the OSX driver. As Euphonix frequently releases driver updates (especially targeted at improving Digital Performer compatibility!) it’s best to download the latest drivers from Euphonix’ site directly, ignoring the packed-in CD-ROM. EuControl launches at boot with a spinning green logo in the Dock. After the EuControl driver detects the MC Mix, the logo stops spinning, and the 8 MC Mix OLED displays change from the Euphonix logo to 8 dotted boxes — a gratifying indication that communication has been established. The control panel for the driver has a large “Upgrade Firmware” button that does exactly what it says, trouble-free. There are also settings to fix specific tracks to specific sliders (“layouts”), as well as toggle various behaviour of the device. I left all of these on their defaults.
The quick start and user guide for the MC Mix are straightforward, and worth a good read. Five buttons on the left of the device select various modes – what the manual calls knob sets. Used in various combinations, you can access all of the features of a traditional mixing console, as well as settings for plug-ins / channel inserts. By selecting a specific channel in the CHAN mode, parameters for a single channel are spread out across the 8 rotary encoders, and can be paged through separately. This is a particularly nice feature, though there are some implementation problems in the current driver that cause difficulty with DP6 (see below).
One interesting shortcut mentioned in the manual – holding Shift and touching a fader – will reset it to 0.0dB. Looking at the silkscreening on my MC Mix, when zeroing the fader the value is actually about 0.5dB; it would be nice if there was a calibration feature in the driver to align 0.0dB exactly with the silkscreened position. As it stands, I’ll just look at the value on the OLED display or my monitor instead.
In Action – CueMix
Before jumping into Digital Performer, I figured I’d give the surface a spin with CueMix, using the Mackie Control and HUI emulation modes. Often I’m just jamming in my studio, and don’t want the weight (and intimidation!) of a full DAW. CueMix most closely matches the analogue mixer I used to use for just this purpose, letting me set pans and levels via faders and knobs, controlling the rest via MIDI routing. This requires drag-and-dropping the CueMix application onto the Euphonix control panel, selecting the correct emulation mode, and rebooting (!) Once you’ve finished that, you create a new Mackie Control or HUI device in Audio MIDI Setup, connecting the new Euphonix MIDI device to the Mackie Control or HUI device via one in and one out port. Be sure to set the manufacturer and device in Audio MIDI; CueMix uses this to determine the correct emulation mode. (The Euphonix MIDI device sports 4 pairs of in-out MIDI ports, presumably necessary if you link together up to 4 MC Mixes or 3 MC Mixes and 1 MC Control. I just used the first pair of MIDI ports.) Finally, you enable and configure the control surface from the Control Surfaces menu in CueMix. I checked the Application Follows Control Surface setting in the menu, in the hopes that CueMix would scroll horizontally as I paged left and right with the MC Mix. Sadly it doesn’t, even with EuControl set to Auto-bank to selected track and CueMix set to Application Follows Control Surface. (Incidentally, it’s disappointing that CueMix doesn’t get wide enough to shall all of my channels, even though I have the screen real estate. CueMix will show a maximum of 24 channels + 1 master horizontally. Fixing either of these two problems would result in a useful workaround.)
Immediately upon trying the Mackie Control emulation mode, I encountered a problem. The track titles displayed on the MC Mix OLED displays were actually the track title for the first channel, spread out across the first 6-7 OLED displays. Switching to HUI mode correctly assigned track names to each track, but there are still bugs: I can only display the first 3 letters of a track name, plus a single digit. As an example, a track named “CS-80 L” displays as “CS-” only. I also noticed that CueMix’s faders go from -inf to 0dB, while the silk-screening on the MC Mix goes from -inf to +12dB. Not a problem – EuControl maps +12dB (MC Mix) to 0.0.dB (CueMix), giving you the full slider length for use in CueMix. Support still isn’t perfect: the MC Mix shortcut of holding shift and tapping a fader to set it to 0.0dB still uses the (approximate) silkscreen 0.0dB level, which translates to -4.9dB in CueMix. Similarly, the gain for each track displayed on the OLED is with respect to the silkscreening, not the CueMix level (-inf to +12.0 dB). So, with the fader all the way up, the OLED displays +12.0 dB, but CueMix recognizes it as 0.0dB. This is a minor nuisance, but one I’d have not expected, especially in emulation mode. This is further complicated by the fact that live channel levels don’t display on the MC Mix – only in CueMix itself. (Sadly, this limitation still exists in DP6 as well.) The blame here may well lay with MOTU in their HUI control of CueMix; I’ve not used a real HUI with CueMix so I don’t know if it has the same limitations.
Of the other controls, mute and solo work as expected, except for the fact that the MC Mix has an “ON” button instead of a “mute” button. This is a strange choice on the part of Euphonix, but one I can live with – as long as I make the mental shift to expect the button to be lit instead of extinguished. Bank Left and Right, along with Nudge Left and Right, work as expected, shifting channels by 8 or 1 across the surface of the MC Mix. OLED displays and illuminated indicators shift along as expected. Pan works fine – though the rotary encoders are a bit jumpy with fast movements, they’re just fine at slower speeds. Oddly, trim mode won’t stay selected; after a fraction of a second, the rotary controls switch back to pan mode. This is a definite bug. Finally, none of the other knob set buttons have any effect. As a result there’s no way to access input mutes from the MC Mix, nor the CueMix talkback buttons.
This one isn’t documented, but is very helpful: switching CueMix’s console between output buses is accomplished using the Mix button and each fader’s SEL button. In this mode, each channel represents a pair of outputs, with bus muting working via each channel’s On button. Once you’ve switched to the bus you want to work with, use the Input button to return to channel mode. Once I discovered this, it was a snap to mix and assign my 34 inputs across the 14 outputs I have between my MOTU 1224 and 24i interfaces.
In short – despite its many small bugs, HUI mode for CueMix is functional, allowing me access to volume, pan, mute and solo across all available CueMix buses. Hopefully, MOTU will bring native EuControl support to CueMix as well, possibly updating the application to match their newer CueMix FX application for FireWire interfaces. (A girl can dream, can’t she?)
Tomorrow: the MC Mix under Digital Performer 6.01.