Direct from artists to artists: a crowd-funded design for musicians. Photos courtesy Machinewerks.

Direct from artists to artists: a crowd-funded design for musicians. Photos courtesy Machinewerks.

The Black Dog are titans of experimental techno and house, with a long record to match. (We reviewed – and praised – their latest album, Tranklements.) But you may not associate them with manufacturing hardware.

As the landscape of crowd-funded music hardware grows, though, that’s exactly the venture they’re now willing to take, as the members of that group co-found a new, England-based manufacturing company dubbed Machinewerks. And the results so far already give insights into what they value in controller design and how they use those controllers in their music.

They’re now well on their way to funding a new MIDI controller dubbed the CS X51. On the surface, it’s not a radical departure from other controllers on the market, but the layout looks eminently sensible, and it fits in a nice form factor. There’s a 4×4 grid of trigger pads, plus a crossfader, six fader strips with three knobs each, and then another 2×5 array of knobs. The body is aluminum, and you get the full complement of USB and MIDI DIN, class-compliant / with no drivers. GBP 300 (GBP 275 early bird) buys you an early ticket into the hardware, to ship in January.

It raises an interesting question, one that crowd funding and new preorder systems now makes possible. What if artists could make their own idiosyncratic controllers for their own needs, then test out whether other people wanted them? It could be a chance to see if the itch they were scratching was one other musicians had, as well. But will customers want to pay a premium price and wait months for delivery?

That seems especially important on the CS X51, in that to me it is similar to some other available solutions, both ready-made and (for those with the ambitions) DIY projects. Watching the video, the implication is that other controllers aren’t available with the same features. I was puzzled by that, and asked The Black Dog for more feedback via Twitter. They responded:

We think and feel most controllers are design by people who don’t use them everyday, we design for artists, they design for a market.

We’ve stripped away all the useless things people put on controllers and design something that you can mix and perform on.

Now, I was a bit puzzled by this, in that Texas-based Livid Instruments is also run by artists and designs for artists, and has made similar combinations of pad matrices with knobs and faders, like the Alias 8, OhmRGB, and (with Richie Hawtin), the CNTRL-R. They also offer a DIY solution if you want to make your own controller, though that’s obviously not for everyone.

But if there are other controllers out there with similar controls, then what a unique artist-run company can do is fine tune the details of manufacturing, the specific components, and layout. And because those are so driven by taste, and even nuanced differences can make an artist happy, the test really is whether those artists’ needs match up with customers.

And sure enough, the group is touring with this on the road, using it heavily in studio production, remixing, and live performance.

I asked The Black Dog’s Martin Dust, a co-founder of Machinewerks, to give us some additional details on what they believe makes their offering special, and how they use it. It’s fascinating to get to talk to a favorite artist on the manufacturing side. Here’s what we learned:

Beyond the hardware itself, the CS X51 embodies something of how these artists approach design and control, here working with Ableton Live. And yes, The Black Dog have already been taking protoypes on the road and playing them live, as well as in the studio.

Beyond the hardware itself, the CS X51 embodies something of how these artists approach design and control, here working with Ableton Live. And yes, The Black Dog have already been taking protoypes on the road and playing them live, as well as in the studio.

CDM: Obviously, part of what you’ve done is to build this controller around your experience as artists. Can you tell us a bit about how you perform (or if you’re using this in the studio, as well, how it’s set up there)? How are you mapping the controller?

Martin: We perform in a number of ways, often with two MacBook Pros linked and synced via midi using Ableton. Sometimes we also have synths and drum machines connected, too; we really have no fixed way of working. The CS X51 uses the standard MIDI protocol, so in the studio it’s not unusual to have several machines and synths connected at a time.

One of the points you make is that you were dissatisfied with the controls and layout of other hardware. How did you arrive at this particular array of controls, specifically – the grid, faders, knobs?

We built many different versions and layouts using perspex and MDF to quickly test a layout or box. We just needed to build and test all of the variables. In one corner of the studio we have a pile of designs that for some reason didn’t work. There are many more sketches and CAD designs that people will never see. The design became fixed when it worked in practice, the prototypes have been used in the studio and on the road for weeks.

USB and MIDI are available onboard. There's a software MIDI editor if you want to change control assignments, but otherwise everything works free of any drivers. They've also slimmed down the vertical profile of the unit in design iterations.

USB and MIDI are available onboard. There’s a software MIDI editor if you want to change control assignments, but otherwise everything works free of any drivers. They’ve also slimmed down the vertical profile of the unit in design iterations.

Have a look at the box in practice for a better idea of how this works – here, remixing in the studio.

The Black Dog: Remix Demo Using Machinewerks CS X51 from Electronic Supper Club on Vimeo.

In this video Richard is remixing Atavistic Resurgence live using Ableton and Soniccouture’s Konkrete 3. The aim of this video is to show our process in creating arrangements and remixes. Parts are played and recorded live to find the groove and vibe of the song.

Will there be any opportunity for customization, of hardware or firmware? Had you considered making any components open source, of software, firmware, hardware?

The CS X51 will have an editor so that people can customise the MIDI configuration to suit their set-up. We have considered open source and it’s something we’ll be looking at in the future but for now we are focused on actually getting started and building the CS X51.

Machinewerks: CS X51Demo from Machinewerks on Vimeo.

I was curious about the comments about plastic. What is your objection to plastic, given that plastic controllers can be exceptionally durable? (For instance, Keith McMillen makes a plastic controller and have demonstrated driving over it with a car.) Is the problem cracking? Flex?

We just don’t like plastic controllers, and, to be fair, we don’t like over-built heavy metal units either! It’s not that plastic is wrong in itself, it’s more to do with the design values and build quality of the options out there. Many of the units currently available just look and feel like cheap kids toys. We wanted something more substantial, something that aesthetically looks and feels better.

Also, while I share the frustration with some of the controllers you mentioned, I brought up the Livid Alias 8 in that it was one specific example I could cite of something in the industry that with similar build values and control complement to yours. (Each has 16 trigger pads, a bank of knobs, and a bank of faders.) That’s not to say that it would suit your needs, but then I’d want to get more specific – looking at that, what do you see missing?

Not sure the Alias 8 is that similar to the CS X51; you wouldn’t mistake one for the other. Over the last 30 years console mixers and DJ mixers have followed very similar patterns. This general design concept is familiar to artists and producers everywhere. What we set out to do was to take this known standard and apply it to a MIDI based set-up, ideal for live and studio work. We wanted it to be natural within minutes and I think that’s something we achieved.

Everyone has their own ideas about controllers and people invent their own problems before they’ve even used one. We designed, tested and built ours and it works within the requirements we defined. We also think it should and will work for many other people too.

Let’s get into specifics of build quality. What are you doing that improves build quality, in particular?

We’re using the best quality components available on the market to build our machine. We’ve tested all the rotaries, sliders and knobs to the point of breaking and we source the best quality metals and finishes. There’s little to no point in us building something that we’re not proud of. We just didn’t want to cut any corners because we are the audience for this machine. This is what we want and expect.

More reading:

It’s also worth having a look at an in-depth article with the (excellent) Attack Magazine:

MACHINEWERKS: THE BLACK DOG BRANCH OUT

If you’re intrigued, you can check out more details and back the project on Kickstarter:
CS X51 USB/MIDI Control Surface by Machinewerks Ltd

http://www.machinewerks.co.uk/

  • Justin Reed

    I love the idea of class compliant midi hardware, if the software is well designed that could be really nice for integrating with classic kit…

    What i don’t see is who will pay $450 for this at retail when there are options available for 2/3 that cover all of this functionality.
    I’m looking at offerings from Novation or in particular – what does this do that the zeroSL does not?

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Higher-end components, basically, put this in a different category than the Novation. But then that makes competition more like Livid Instruments. (Or maybe Faderfox, but I expect they’re putting him in the “too small” bucket!)

  • lokey

    better faders and better pads. this looks like a winner to me. $450 seems inside the range of reasonable, high but certainly not gouging. buspowerd controllers with quality faders are virtually nonexistant outside of the all in one ’2deck dj controller’.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Well, right, and I assume these are of the two-fader variety. With Doepfer’s Pocket Fader discontinued, that’s otherwise mostly the realm of someone like Livid.

    • lokey

      i recently started pricing out faders for my mk2 controller, after being disappointed that behringers mm1 midimixer cant be bus powered. 4 pro x faders are going to run around $600 :[ all i really want are a bunch of playable scratch faders a la the vestax faderboard. it seems most non-oem faders are either cheap high friction ‘line faders’, or over-the-top expensive crossfader replacements…

  • Nagasaki Nightrider

    More expensive than Livid, similar build-quality, looks and seemingly behaves the same, but Black Dog!

    So, I’m done with the bet-hedging crossfader on the right side. Let it die. The asymmetry annoys me from a aesthetic standpoint, and do we still need to keep the two-decks DJ paradigm on life support for the MIDI controller age? Apparently, enough people want them to move Akai, these guys and others to throw them into the control surface mix, but I wonder how much they actually get used. Even the Octatrack has one. Elektron’s is hardwired to do something cool, but I’m still not convinced.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Yeah, I assume they use it for something. I don’t think I spotted the mapping in the videos they’ve released so far. (Sorry, should have maybe asked about that specifically!)

      Actually, in VJing the crossfader is handy. ;) Maybe more so than in music.

    • lokey

      id disagree with that, myself, a nice crossfader is very useful in my opinion.

  • martin

    i´m into black dog´s music since years but highly doubt that the market needs another usb-controller that adds nothing new to the ones allready available, unless i´m missing some unique feature here..

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Well, it does make me ponder – what do we need in USB controllers? What is missing, generally?

    • lokey

      better faders, better buttons that are as responsive as arcade buttons, playable mod wheels or joysticks. but thats me. everything is going to be missing something for someone, it seems. why custom controllers and ‘usage agnostic’ devices like the monome seem like the future to me, compared with tightly integrated single purpose devices like the 4track control.

    • Charlie Lesoine

      Nothing really. What we need is more hardware instruments. Not more hardware controllers.

    • http://tobto.org/ seo freelancer

      for about me: I look for a simple controller which would have all tactile channels in one package – Moving physical fader/s (Big!), Rotating knobs, touchscreen for 2…5 points X/Y movements.

  • vjair

    any idea if this does 14 bit midi ?

  • Eric Allen

    Make the pads larger RGB and veloctiy sensitive and it would be amazing for sound design. At least RGB you can’t expect to compete without it!!

  • Andrew+Deb O’Malley

    Seems like a scaled down CNTRLR (which has been working great for me) . . .

  • Jay

    I’m surprised it wasn’t mention anywhere here, but this unit is built with the Livid Brain v2.

    • Jim Warrier

      I have not saw this mentioned anywhere. Where idid you see the info?

  • Jim Warrier

    Im suprised they are only aiming this at the audio producer and DJ market. Im sure some VJ’s would find this a nice controller although is does seem a but to close to the Livid controllers its nice to see this type of hardware being manufactured in the UK.
    Someone commented that this controllers use the Livid Brain? Is this correct. I got the impression for the article and Kickstarter page that this was all designed by themselves.