Digi takes command with this motorised fader controller. Brad Watts salutes.
It can’t be denied that Digidesign is the market leader in digital recording systems. While its high-end TDM systems are often criticised for being exorbitantly expensive there are the ‘entry-level’ gateways to running the industry standard ProTools software. The 001 made a big splash when it first appeared a few years back. For the price of a professional DAT recorder (a technology that was fast becoming obsolete) you could jump into the ProTools arena confident your work could be easily transferred to a studio running the more expensive TDM systems. I’d propose that the 001 was responsible for a large degree of further ProTools market saturation. Even smaller 16-track facilities could enter the fray as the 001 could easily record 16 tracks at 24-bit – at a very modest price. With this end of the market secured, Digidesign turned its focus to the Control24 – a virtual mix surface designed to run with TDM rigs but no doubt to also take on the countless creations born from the 001. After years of being the posh digital system, Digidesign now had the market covered from bedroom through to final production. Time marched on, and so did people’s expectations as to what was an acceptable sample rate. Soon 96k became the new buzz specification and all of a sudden any piece of equipment that didn’t offer this magical spec was apparently stuck out the back with all the old NS10 drivers (strange thing is, I’m yet to meet a studio that runs at anything other than 44.1k). Digidesign heeded this high sample rate call and released the Digi 002 – a control surface utilising technology derived from the Control24 but folded into a home studio-sized Firewire-based production station. The 002 was (and still is) a new kind of hardware – with control surface, audio interface and Midi rolled into the one box. At the time of its release, the first question I asked the Digidesign sales reps was ‘would the 002’s control surface drive a normal TDM system’? A very definite ‘no’ was the answer. They obviously had a pretty good idea as to what was waiting in the wings.
The Command 8 is essentially the control surface from the Digidesign 002 with the ability to control any flavour of ProTools TDM and LE above version 6.4 – a free upgrade to v6 LE owners… HD and Mix owners must pay an upgrade fee. Currently only these systems will support the use of the Command 8 but, according to Digi, an upcoming version 6.4.1 will support D24 Mix systems – these being the last upgrades to support D24/Mix and the last to support the Digi 001. Admittedly, this is sad news for 001 owners but then there are a number of additions to the software that should keep them happy for a while to come. Apart from the Command 8 and Icon (HD only) support, fader gain has been increased to +12dB and is selectable at the creation of a session between +12 and the previous +6 standard. This feature does in fact give the faders a more ‘analogue’ feel, in that it is more closely in line with how an analogue console performs. SMPTE frame rates of 24 and 23.976 are now supported for those working with HDTV formats along with hierarchical plug-in menus (about time) and track position numbering. The timeline display has also been improved with a constantly visible transport and the ability to set the ‘zero feet+frames’ point to anywhere within a session. HD owners will be ever so pleased to know v6.4 includes automatic delay compensation – saves getting the calculator out when you least want to.
At the time of writing, the only version available to me was LE 6.4. So armed with a borrowed MBox and my new 14-inch iBook (oh okay, my wife’s new 14-inch iBook) I launched into the task of setting up the Command 8. The iBook was running OSX 10.3.3 for which 6.4 is now compatible. Installation went off without a grumble. I simply booted LE after a restart, selected the Command 8 as a Midi controller under the peripherals menu and proceeded to use the system. The Command 8 sprang to life immediately, and functioned as you’d expect. Connection to the controller is via USB, plenty of bandwidth for the control information and the Command 8’s ‘one-in/two-out’ Midi interface. The Command 8 also features a rudimentary analogue mixing section courtesy of the longtime Digidesign partner, Focusrite. This consists of two sets of inputs on 6.25mm jacks. Each has a dedicated button to swap between –10 and +4 settings. These inputs can then be monitored via the top panel control room level pot. A nearby ‘external source’ button throws the monitoring to the second input. Beside the Control Room level pot are dedicated buttons for mute and monophonic monitoring. Output to monitoring is again 6.25mm jacks with –10/+4 switching. The remaining jack input allows you to plug in a foot-pedal for punching into record. Stand-alone mode does not perform in the same way as the 002 though. It simply bumps the Command 8 into Midi controller mode. Very handy, but almost a given with any motorised fader system.
Build quality is of the usual high Digidesign standard and the unit isn’t so large that you’ll be searching for space to place it. The omission of a dedicated master fader (as with the 002) helps keep things narrower. The absence of a jog wheel also keeps the size down, however, I can’t help wondering why this traditional control surface tool has been left out of the picture, especially when the Command 8 will drive TDM systems. The depth of the unit measures about 420mm so all controls are well within reach. The faders are of course touch sensitive and offer smooth and responsive movement over their 100mm travel. All the buttons have a squidgy feel, but function effectively. I was more concerned with the feel of the transport controls – decidedly toy-ish, and require a jolly good prodding to engage. Another minor niggle is the headphone jack placed directly beside the headphone level control knob – the headphone’s actual jack plug gets right in the way.
Overall I think the Command 8 is a good ProTools controller as it’s simple, relatively cheap (compared to anything else that will drive ProTools software to this degree) and won’t take up a great deal of desk space. Although, I do think Digidesign could have offered a little more than a simple reworking of the 002. Especially for the folk who have already shelled out thousands on HD systems (although, granted these people are serviced by Control24 and ProControl), I’d had like to have seen a jog wheel and perhaps a little more input from the Focusrite people. Another output for a second pair of monitors would have been thoughtful. Really, though, the most important feature is the eight touch-sensitive motorised faders. This is why folk buy control surfaces and for the money it’s not a great deal more when you’re investing in the top shelf equipment.
The Command 8 may not fall into the ‘hold the front page’ category (which is somewhat of a departure for Digi hardware releases) but it’s a solid, useful and flexible tool. Just to tie in with my introduction: there are simply so many copies of ProTools in its many guises out there that a Digidesign-based controller like this will be welcome news for many.