This is the new Steinberg control surface. (See the hands-on video at SonicState.) It’s built to integrate out of the box with Cubase 4, which if you’re a Cubase 4 user should be good. You or I might give it a name like “CubaseControl” or something, but Steinberg has seen fit to call it the CC 121, which sounds like it was lifted off of a MIDI specification. No matter — they can call it Eustice if it’s a good controller.

cc121

But that’s not the only odd thing about the CC 121. There’s a little light that goes on to say it’s “Cubase Ready.” (The marketing materials say this gives it “instant plug and play.” I’m not entirely sure why you need an LED for that, but I guess it’s comforting or something.) Then there’s the control layout, which has so much blank space that it looks a little like someone dropped a stack of encoders and buttons on a piece of paper and glued everything where it fell.

But the oddest thing about the CC 121 is the controller choices themselves. The whole point of previous single-fader control surfaces — at least, so I thought — was creating a compact device that can sit by your mouse. The point of the CC 121 seems to be, well, EQ. There are a full twelve dedicated EQ encoders. For everything else, there’s … uh … one knob. (It’s the one that says “VALUE” on the right side.) It is supposed to be a really smart knob, at least. Here’s how Steinberg describes it:

“Ultra-precision Advanced Integration controller knob with ‘point and control’ support: controls any visual Cubase 4 parameter, internal FX setting or VSTi parameter using mouse pointer selection”

Translation: you can click on any setting in Cubase and control it with our encoder, one setting at a time. Want to control more than one setting at a time? Say, delay time and wet/dry mix? Sorry. There are four buttons so you can change the function of the one value knob, but not the obvious solution of having any more than one knob. I know what you’re thinking. There’s blank space all over this unit, so why couldn’t you just have four “Advanced Integration Controller Knobs”? I think I have the answer: if you did that, you wouldn’t have room for the “Cubase Ready” light.

You may think I’m just using this opportunity to beat up on Steinberg and be snarky, but I’m not.

The Magic of Third Parties and Broad Compatibility

No, on the contrary, this illustrates something I’ve suspected for a long time. Just as most screenwriters shouldn’t direct their own films, software developers shouldn’t necessarily make hardware controllers for their own software. Sometimes the magic works; sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, having choices beyond those the software vendor chose is a good thing. Third-party hardware can work with more than one app (in case you ever use something other than Cubase), it can provide more choices (in case your needs are different than someone else), and it provides the much-needed perspective beyond the folks who built the software. You may not get the brand name of your DAW on the unit, but smart software can still make the out-of-box experience just as integrated. That doesn’t mean I think the software vendors shouldn’t try — as Alan Kay is often attributed as saying, “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” But, even assuming he did actually say that, and assuming we should all listen to him, he didn’t say that you had to make that hardware for your own software, or that you’d be successful all of the time.

Someone out there I’m sure really, really loves tweaking EQ. Congratulations: the CC 121 is for you. For everyone else, you have not one but four excellent choices: Novation’s SL line, Frontier’s AlphaTrack and TranzPort, and PreSonus’ FaderPort. They all integrate fairly automatically with Cubase (even older versions which are incompatible with the CC 121), and give you lots of control. And that’s just compact control surfaces.

Not only that, but Novation, Frontier, and PreSonus all make hardware that works with other stuff not from Steinberg. The AlphaTrack, for instance, just added extensive support for GarageBand 4 (adding to a long list of other supported software), plus software you probably haven’t even heard of — SAWStudio by RML Labs and MultitrackStudio from Bremmers Audio Design. SAWStudio support didn’t grab the Messe headlines the way a Steinberg control surface did, but I’ll bet if you’re a SAWStudio user, you’re really excited. And that’s the point: we choose our software personally, so we should choose our hardware the same way.

Here’s a quick review of the other compact control surfaces available — not only for Cubase, but a lot of other software, as well:

The PreSonus FaderPort does a lot less than the new Steinberg piece — but it also takes up a fraction of the space, meaning you could put this right by your mouse and keyboard and put a full-sized control surface somewhere else if you like. And it has a dedicated punch button, which it looks like the Steinberg unit may actually lack. (I hope I’m wrong about that.)

Works with: Cubase SX 3 / Nuendo 2, SONAR 5, DP 4, Pro Tools 6, Logic Pro 7/8, Logic Express 7 and later versions of each of those. (So, ironically, if you’re a Cubase user who hasn’t upgraded from version 3, you want this instead of the Steinberg-branded unit.)

alphatrack

The Frontier AlphaTrack is currently my favorite one-fader piece, for three simple reasons: it’s got knobs and a ribbon for more control, it has a screen so you can see what you’re doing, and it works with Ableton Live. That easily makes it worth sacrificing some additional space to me. Meanwhile, while you can click stuff and control it with the Steinberg unit, the Frontier has dedicated buttons for its EQ, plug-in modes, and so on, so you don’t have to click at all.

Frontier also makes a wireless unit called the Tranzport — no fader, but jog, shuttle, and key record buttons, plus a screen. It works with a huge array of software (even FL Studio), and since it’s wireless can be ideal for using when you’re recording.

Works with: Audition, Logic, Cubase, DP, Live, Final Cut, Guitar Tracks Pro, Nuendo, Pro Tools, REAPER, Reason, SONAR, Soundtrack Pro, Tracktion, GarageBand, and now SAWStudio and MultitrackStudio, and maybe more by the time you’re reading this.

remotezero

It’s got quite a lot more than one fader, but the ReMOTE ZeRO SL (and the rest of the SL line) is worth a mention here, because a) it’s relatively compact (if bigger than the other options here) and b) it can automatically map to software parameters and plug-ins in the software. Like the Frontier, there’s a screen, which means you can use this without being glued to your computer monitor — or, via a new update, you can get even oversized screen feedback that you don’t have to squint at. It lacks a jog wheel, and the faders aren’t motorized and have a throw that’s too short for extended use. But for plug-in tweaking, it wins handily — and aren’t a lot of Cubase users VST nuts, anyway? (As I was saying, the point isn’t One Control Surface To Rule Them All, it’s One Control Surface That Fits You.)

Works with: Via Automap Universal, Pro Tools, Logic, DP, Ableton — and, yes, Cubase and Nuendo

What Will You Use?

With all of those choices, you can see one reason why you might get the Steinberg unit when it comes out: the jog wheel is nice. But you have a much broader array of choices. Heck, if you really like that Steinberg logo, print it out and tape it to your unit of choice.

Are you a Cubase user? Is the CC 121 what you want? What are you using to control your DAW of choice? Let us know in comments.

  • Alleyf

    Well.

    i doubt that it will work with Cubases 4:s own vst3 instruments. I think they forgot to program the CC codes to control the plugins.. So whats the use of controller surface ?

  • http://www.audioelectronic.net Gustavo

    Steinberg doesn't have the greatest history with making hardware controllers. Remember the "Houston"?

    I'm surprised Yamaha didn't help them with this, now that they own an interest in the company. Something based on the 01x would have made so much more sense.

    No plugin or virtual instrument controls either. If i'm clicking with the mouse, I might as well drag the knob with the mouse.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Actually, I think that one, horribly-overtaxed knob *does* do effects plug-ins. According to the specs, it controls any:

    "Cubase 4 parameter, internal FX setting or VSTi parameter"

    Now, since it's only one knob, it's fairly useless, but it is there.

    As for Yamaha, they may *have* helped them with it. There's similar integration on the new Yamaha MIDI keyboards — and those are *also* missing the number of controls you'd want to do anything useful.

    But the reason I made the broader point is, you can get just that kind of integration with gear from Novation et al, and not Steinberg. So I wonder why you need the software developer to make hardware for you in the first place, especially if — in this case — the competition does a better job.

  • http://www.geocities.com/fkmooney kempton

    I doubt that anyone actually needs the software developer to build any controllers. It sounds like steinberg just wants to cash in on the controller market and without a lot of experience in it, this is what they came up with. I dig cubase, although I don't use it anymore, which I suspect is the story for a lot of people. This translates into a loss of marketshare for steinberg, which might push them to diversify their product line. And with the controller market being so broad, I bet they hope to accomplish this by people recognizing their brand.

    Just speculation.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Oh, sure, the reason *why* they did this is clear.

    Though, um, why they did *this*, less clear. ;)

    I think there are a fair number of people still using Cubase. Was never a big choice for me, but I do hear it tends to be more popular in Europe.

    This is interesting, for instance (though can't be taken as market share):
    http://www.google.com/trends?q=cubase%2C+ableton%

  • Ashton

    I think the cc121 design isn't bad. The layout at least. I like the fact that its not crammed with buttons and knobs. The actual selection of buttons and knobs is poor, but the cleanlyness and spaciousness is kinda nice. I've worked on big consoles and no matter how well I learned the layouts you still spend time looking through knobs and buttons to find the one you need.

    But all this doesn't matter to me because I don't even use Cubase.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Yeah, I should have said — spacing can be a good thing, because it can help with muscle memory. But, then, if the overall footprint gets larger, you would want some extended functionality, which this is missing.

  • Ashton

    agreed

  • http://www.cornwarning.com chaircrusher

    I have a Novation Remote Zero SL, which I love, as much because it lets me label controls when I put together an insane live performance patch. That's what always annoyed me about other MIDI controller. You have to draw templates around the knobs. What's that you say? I can't remember my knob assigments? Hey, I'm old! Give me a break.

    I'm eagerly awaiting the new version of the Automap stuff. The current driver/automap stuff isn't that great — when I first installed it, the transport controls worked in Cubase 4. Now? Not so much. De-installing and reinstalling didn't do much.

    The drum pads along the front edge I've come to like, even though they don't look or feel very promising. I find I can tap in rhythm on them, and that's what matters.

    I have an Akai MPD16, and that thing blows. They might be able to fix the response in the driver — if they gave a shit, which apparently, they don't. I got it because I loved working on MPC's but there's no comparison in the feel.

  • http://jackit.sf.net/ Paul Davis

    you can pry my Peavey PC1600X from my cold, dead hands!

  • efluon

    This should be a great remote for mixing. Fast eq-and level-control at fixed positions. Never mind the labels on the power led or the jog-"wheel". And as this unit is made by yamaha, the hardware will be a lot better than the houston. Steinberg did one nice remote before (the ID) btw, it is just a little expensive and not distributed by steinberg (but by the manufacturer, wk audio).

    I'd prefer a faderport anyway.

  • http://stretta.blogspot.com Matthew Davidson

    After my experience with various control surfaces, I'm not convinced that the ability to tweak two or more effects parameters at once is worth the technical overhead required to setup and assign those parameters for a product of this type. To accomplish this, either the device quickly gets complicated or compromises are made to make the feature pointless.

    This looks like a hardware representation of a typical default Cubase channel. No assignments necessary (except that multifunction knob, of course) – dead simple to operate. If you don't mind the extra space next to your keyboard vs. one of the alternatives – and this seems like a minor issue – it looks like an interesting product.

    I'm not a big fan of physical control surfaces in general – it didn't take long for me to look at editing effects parameters on a HUI (or similar) to wonder how squinting at a small LCD was somehow better than seeing the parameters represented on a nice GUI.

    I found entering automation graphically with the mouse more satisfying for me, personally. Before DAWs, productions usually had three phases: a tracking phase, an overdub phase and a mix phase. Today, everything is jumbled together and the mix happens as the project progresses, so much of the time, by the time you're done tracking, the mix is also mostly done, so you don't need to put 10 fingers on faders to mix from scratch.

    There have been times when I wanted to 'perform' or 'feel' the automation for a particular track, and I found the Presonus Faderport to be exactly what I needed. Very useful, not overly-complicated. Compact.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Matthew — I don't see that as a colossal technical obstacle.

    So, okay, having one "automatic" knob makes some sense. But why not have a manually-assigned knob next to it? Or for that matter, why would it be so hard to point-and-click to assign two knobs versus one? You could, say, hold down keys 1-4 and click and assign to the associated knob.

    I'd say that's a tiny bit of technical overhead for a huge usefulness payoff. And as the wet/dry versus delay time illustrates, if you're limited to one knob, the actual usefulness of the hardware falls to zero and you wind up just having to use the mouse.

    There are other solutions, as well — not perfect, but I still think better than this.

    The SL approach is of course to let you scroll through parameters and access them through hardware that way. Now, admittedly, this *isn't* ideal when you have lots of parameters … but then you can have the software let you pick your favorite "macro" parameters, as in the Ableton Live device racks, or as KORE does with its 8 knob software setup.

    It's not rocket science. And the fact is, you could do this with the SL and Cubase.

    And if you don't like squinting at the LED, then again, Novation has a solution for you — put the parameters up on your screen and make them really big. (There's a certain amount of squinting at Cubase's interface — sorry.)

    But I agree, the mouse is a generally underrated input device. I just still find it useful to augment what you're doing with the mouse sometimes.

  • MonksDream

    I'd like to add my perspective as someone that's been mouse-only for years and recently purchased an AlphaTrack.

    After using Live and Logic/Sonar for the last few years the mouse-only approach was beginning to cramp my style and I went looking for a transport control. I bought an AlphaTrack and I immediately felt the difference that having actual knobs and buttons – even software-encoded ones – makes. There is a reason that the layouts of mixers and tape recorders are still emulated in most software: it works.

    I agree with Peter. A faderbox doesn't replace the mouse or the keyboard but augments them in a very useful way. I find that my tracking and mixing is much more fluid.

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  • beatmkr

    I don't understand why most of y'all are so against the one universal knob thingy. I think it's a damn good idea.

    This is actually something that I've been wanting for years (although not on Cubase). The best way to describe it is as a device to augment the mouse.

    I don't like having to look down at my control surface or futzing with pages when I want to change a parameter… don't tell me you've never touched or changed the wrong parameter before. With a universal knob, I would never have to look away from the screen… one hand on mouse, the other hand on the knob. No fuss, no mistakes, just point and tweak.

    Why one knob and not two or four? Because the whole point is to skip the need for assignment. So this wouldn't work with multiple knobs.

    I'm not saying one universal knob is all you need. Having a bunch of knobs is great. But a lot of times I just want to grab that parameter on screen and tweak it, NOW, without having to thiink about assignment.

    That being said, I don't like the way Steinberg implemented this contoller. It should be smaller. And I don't use Cubase.

  • JJ

    I agree with most commenters that Steinberg made a big boo-boo in making this an Cubase only controller.

    This sort of controller is perfect for 'my' personal set up. I already own a Kore, so controlling AU/Vsts is all set. But I find when mixing, I get a cramp from the awful Apple mouse, and find myslef on Safari looking at reviews of the AlphaTrack and Faderport.

    If I could use this thing in Logic 8, I would be the first in line to purchase one on day of release.

    The fact that there is a dedicated button to bring up my VST, I could use that to activate Kore and control any other plugs I want. I use the Logic EQ, and yearn for dedicated buttons to control it. This thing is a dream and my worst nightmare.

  • MonksDream

    JJ – Have you tried the Alpha? You just might like it.

  • http://www.darrenjones.com djaychela

    OK, first up, remember Steinberg's history with hardware – poor support and generally poor hardware (particularly with the Houston, a disaster that was very long-winded and painful), but I think they've missed the point again with this – yes it provides a few controls which may be useful some of the time, but with only one encoder there'll be as much messing about to alter which parameter is being edited as to edit it.

    I was lucky enough to chop my Houston in for a Mackie Control and despite Steinberg's brain-damaged implementation of this excellent control surface it provides a useful way of working with the software, but I think the single-fader route isn't the right way to go for me; I'd prefer more faders as the whole "fader paging" route is quite a trial – having to do this for every channel change would be really hard work.

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  • Petter

    Thanks for your great insight. It helped me to understand that there are other solutions out there that are more flexible. I feel sorry for once choosing to work with Cubase as I feel they are moving the wrong direction.

  • DatA blOppy

    That comment about the free ringtones, summed it all up for me….

    …thanks.

    Well, I work mostly with external equipment for synthesis and processing, rarely with vsts. A controller like this that is mainly geared towards eqing and level adjusting sound great to me. I look forward to demoing one of these out and seeing how it affects my work flow before I go on the internet ranting about he things it doesn't have. Cubase to me is just a daw, for everything else, there's KYMA.

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  • Pingback: Create Digital Music » News from Steinberg Land: Cubase 4.5, CC121 Hardware Integration

  • Rudi

    Fact is, the CC121 has much better built quality than the Faderport or the Alphatrack (and the knobs don't click with 120db). And, it's not right to say '…because it requires clicking with your mouse to tweak a single hardware knob' – you don't have to click, you just have to move your mouse pointer above the parameter you want to change. But the CC121 is not my end all blabla – a mixture between an Alphatrack and the CC121 would be my choice. CC121 built quality plus touch pad plus AI knob working for all VST and the possibility to move functions to the fader – that would be my dream controller.

  • http://www.christopherscotthamilton.com Christopher Scott Ha

    Ok,I just bought the CC121.Yes.I love it.Yamaha built this and the driver for it.You cn tell.A hammer would not hurt this thing.Fader port and such..plastic and really…Kinda cheapo looking.

    Sure..Its over priced to me and yes..I STILL have to grab the darn mouse to do things.What I do not like is installing the AI4 software that came with it to get it to work.I mean..come on.

    They are for SURE moving into advanced Intergration on all new software things.Watch Namm.Hence..AI…get you USED to having and seeing this.

    Me,a guitarist and vocalist..much easier than without.its dedicated.Isnt this why SO many people are pro tools?We KNOW what thse things can cost.

    They shoulf build the licecsse into the hardware instead of a plastic crappy dongle.I do not like it.Cheap made.I have replace 2 of them.