If your DAW of choice is Cubase and you're lusting after a control surface to wean yourself off the mouse, take a look at these six dedicated Cubase-specific modules that Steinberg has launched. They represent an economical, flexible approach to building your very own perfect control setup.
The six CMC controllers each perform different tasks that we'll look at in detail after we go over the list and look at what they all have in common. The CMC Series consists of:
~ CMC-CH Channel Controller
~ CMC-FD Fader Controller
~ CMC-TP Transport Controller
~ CMC-AI AI Controller
~ CMC-PD Pad Controller
~ CMC-QC Quick Controller
Each CMC unit measures 7 1/4" x 4" x 1/2". They can lay flat on your desk top, or be slanted up to 1 1/2" tall with an attached flip-out leg, or grouped in an optional desktop case.
They are made of white moulded plastic with a textured black plastic top. Each one comes with its own configuration of illuminated knobs, backlit function buttons, and membrane-style fader touchstrips.
Each unit, when connected and active, has a small white LED glowing in the upper right corner. The CMC modules are USB powered and come with a mini USB cable. External power by way of a DC adaptor is not an option, and if you're using multiple CMCs with an external USB hub, the hub must be powered from its own adapter, not from the computer's USB port.
All but one of the controllers have a Shift key that, when held, adds alternate functions to many of the keys, including some that can be user-defined to your favorite Cubase tasks in the program's device-setup menu. Holding the Shift key while adjusting a fader changes the scale and allows for tighter, more precise movements.
All of the CMC drivers work seamlessly with Cubase for perfect plug-and-play integration with the program. I tested the CMC modules with Cubase version 6.5 and each worked flawlessly; Steinberg has promised to clear up some known issues between Cubase 7 and some of the CMC units.
That having been said, let's dive into the six units on offer and see what they can do for us.
The Channel Controller is a perfect mimic of a Cubase channel. It offers a fader, pan knob, and tactile control of mute, solo, input monitor, record arming, automation read and write, track freeze, and folder expansion (which opens the automation lanes below the track), as well as buttons that bypass the selected channel's eq, inserts and sends.
Each button is backlit to visually match its on-screen counterpart when applicable. The fader is a membrane- or ribbon-style controller incorporating thirteen red LED lights that correspond to the on-screen fader's position. The pan knob is an LED-equipped continuous controller, black when centered, and glowing a brighter and brighter green as you pan to the sides.
A pair of buttons labeled < and > are used for channel selection, and the Shift button completes the layout.
The Fader Controller is a bank of four ribbon faders for control over four channels. If you use it alongside a CMC-CH Channel Controller or Steinberg's CC-121 AI Controller (reviewed August 2010), you have control over five channels. You can use a maximum of four CMC-FD units together, for control over 16 channels.
A pair of < > buttons allow navigating one channel at a time, and a second pair of < > bank buttons lets you move left and right in blocks of 4. This unit also has a Shift key for additional control and function choices. On this unit the Shift key works as follows:
Holding the Shift key and tapping the top of each fader mutes the channel, while tapping at the bottom puts it into Solo. Shift and Channel < moves the entire bank to the selected channel in Cubase. Shift and Channel > turns on metering mode, where each fader on the unit shows the selected channel's signal level. Shift and Bank < changes the fader's mode between Catch and Jump modes. Catch means that the fader's position will not change until you touch its currently set position in the DAW, just like a real fader. In Jump mode, pressing anywhere on the fader surface will cause it to jump instantly to where your finger is. The last button, Bank >, is the only user definable button on this unit.
Lastly, as with the Channel Controller, Shift also allows for smaller fader movements.
The Transport unit contains the controls from Cubase's transport bar, such as Play, Stop, Fast Forward and Rewind, as well as loop, insert marker, move to bar, set locators, nudge and more.
It also has a horizontal ribbon fader that can be set to control jog, shuttle, locate, scroll, zoom, and even tap tempo. I like that it can even be set for pinch to zoom in and out. Here the shift key offers additional locator functions and user-definable settings, as well as (again) finer precision when using the horizontal ribbon fader.
AI stands for Advanced Integration, and the Cubase AI knob has become one of my favorite Steinberg inventions. We first saw it in our CC121 review as well as our reviews of the CI2 and CI2+ audio interfaces (August and December 2010).
When you hover your mouse over any slider, knob, or button in the Cubase mixer or, better yet, any plug-in, the AI knob instantly takes control and gives you real-time manipulation of the chosen paramenter. While it works with most (but not all) VST2 plug-ins, its ability to lock the wheel to a set parameter works only on VST3.
The AI Controller knob is also a push-button like those found on the CI interfaces (but not the CC121). On the CMC-AI, pressing it brings up Cubase's Project Assistant, Track Presets, or Preset Browser, depending on what section of Cubase you are in.
Further functions of the AI Controller include Volume mode, whereby the knob controls Cubase's master fader, and Jog mode, where it acts as a jog wheel. The CMC-AI also includes 4 user-assignable function buttons.
The Pad unit is a simple, elegant set of 16 pressure-sensitive, multiple-velocity pads, similar to those on an Akai or Ableton controller. Each pad lights up when struck, going from green to red based on the strength and velocity of the hit. There is a curve setup button, a 4-Velocity mode button where each row becomes one of four velocities between four sounds, and a browser button.
There is a single encoder knob on the unit, to edit internal data when used in conjunction with the included CMC PD-Editor software. This offers precise editing of each pad's functions, MIDI note assignments, and more. Right out of the box it worked seamlessly in Cubase with the built-in Groove Agent 1, as well as with Native Instruments Battery.
The pads are on the small side and very compactly arrayed, so I see this as a compositional tool rather than a performance controller. If virtual drumming is not your thing, you can assign each of the pads to user-specified quick keys and shortcuts, which I liked even better.
The Quick Control unit has the most knobs, lights and buttons of the bunch. It's also the most Cubase-centric. It starts with eight rotary encoders that glow a brighter and brighter green to signify higher value settings. Then it has a Shift key and 12 buttons: four user-defined, two for read-and-write arming, two for channel selection, and a final four that are the heart of the unit, as they select from among this unit's multiple modes of operation.
First is the Quick Control function, which gave this unit its name. In Cubase, Quick Controls are a set of eight user-configurable controls available on every channel, where you can gather that channel's most used parameters from volume, panning and effects-send levels, as well as those of plug-ins placed in that channel's insert slots.
In the past I rarely used Quick Controls, as I found mouse control of the parameters little different from tweaking the plug-ins and such directly, but the QC unit makes tweaking and automation so easy, I am now a big fan. What's more, the unit has an I/O Learn button that makes parameter assignment a breeze.
The other two functions of the Quick Controller are eq, which is similar to that of the CC121 and turns the encoders into the frequency and gain knobs from Cubase's channel eq (this does not yet work correctly with Cubase 7). The last function turns the unit into a general MIDI controller and, like the Pad Controller, it comes with its own standalone editor software for detailed encoder assignment and parameter tweaking.
The CMC Controllers make the Cubase experience much more intuitive and enjoyable in the long run, but they do take some time to get the hang of. For most of us, mousing or trackballing is a hard habit to break, and it will take time to develop an intuitive workflow and memory of which controls do what, and where they are located. That's why I love the modular approach, as it allows you to choose what you need, and grow as you wish.
I have been using motorized fader devices for years, and the membrane/ribbon sliders take some getting used to, but they are better than I initially expected. The entire CMC series of controllers is rugged and well-built, something that doesn't entirely come across from the product photos.
My only gripe with the CMC modules comes from me being a studio neat freak -- I find the multiple USB cables strewn across my desktop to be slightly annoying. However, once I figure out which CMCs will stay at my studio permanently, I will probably cable-wrap them into one larger USB "snake".
The Steinberg CMC Series USB Controllers for Cubase are a wonderful addition to the Cubase experience, and at the new low price of $99 each they are highly affordable. The hardest part will be deciding which ones to get first!
Prices: $99 each
More from: Steinberg, www.steinberg.net