The Why and the Why Not of a Control Surface in Film Mix


Film mixes have, for the better part of the whole lifetime of it being in existence, been mixed on large format consoles. The reason behind this I would believe was because it started off with having to handle all the tracks on the desk, as there was no automation.

Film Mixes have always been the most complex mixes that have been around. The reason being that it encompasses Music, Dialogue and Effects as part of its elements and each one is a department in itself. But along with that, it was also important to note that earlier, there was not a huge track density. When that became a necessity, the concept of multi-Operator mixing began. Essentially, there would be a person handling FX, another for Dialog and third for Music. Later, that changed to one person with Dialog and Music and another with Effects. But as technology changed, and as films became more technically challenging, sound wasn’t left behind. So, then started the layering concept in sound design with many more tracks being used, and not only that, later on, it began to be left open without consolidating the various layers, so that the director would have a choice till the very end. All of this was possible only because of the advent of automation on a mix console.

That being said, the control and flexibility required in a film mix is much more. Any requirement that can be met here can always be modified for any other mixes. Unlike Music, the film mix is not largely dependent on external summing boxes or compressors and EQs because of the sheer number of tracks and stems that are employed to create a mix. It is here that the distinct usage of having a Console or a Control surface lends itself to a discussion.

Control surfaces have always been looked as an addendum or an extension to the workstation. Yet, there have been a lot of major movies that were mixed on a control surface, but still the big players still have a leaning towards the Large format console. Lets look at the Pros and Cons involved with a Control surface here.

The Pros

It is not a surprise to many that the flexibility a control surface offers is a huge plus. These pros are the ones that I have seen from my experience as a Film Mixer.

The System

Many people kind of see the control surface as a big mouse. That according to me is a mistake. They don’t see the system as a whole. The control surface by itself isn’t anything valuable essentially because there is nothing to control. It is a system when coupled with the DAW it is controlling. That’s why as a whole, the DAW with the Control surface will have all the power and flexibility of a console. If I were to tabulate all of that quickly, you can see why they are very similar with a fraction of the cost.

Feature Console Control Surface with System
DSP Yes Has flexibility of Native and DSP systems.
Inputs and Outputs Yes Yes. Combined with the system IO.
EQ, Dynamics, Sends Yes Yes. Can control various types too.
Summing Yes Yes if using a separate DAW for Recording
Custom Layouts Yes but functionality varies from manufacturer Depends on the session and sometimes can be created if needed.
Pec/Direct Yes usually embedded. Yes with Third party.
Metering Yes. Yes.
Time code Generation Yes Depends on external generator
Updates Firmware DAW and /or Firmware
Feature addition Not so easy Quick

So, if you look at it as a whole system, there is very little left to beat a control surface in the flexibility and features it offers. So, in a nutshell, a control surface isn’t really a big mouse! There are far more things achievable on the control surface than that on a console.

The technology

As a control surface is coupled with the DAW, any increment on the DAW in terms of features is usually automatically mapped to the control surface. There are some features that may require a variation or a different way of addressing the control on the surface, but it can be achieved. One very interesting feature is the advent of 3D sound formats like Dolby Atmos and Auro 3D. Both these features were primarily developed as plugins to run within Pro Tools. So, while doing a mix, controlling these were the primary feature and it was far easier to control these over a control surface. The reason is that the sessions are very dynamic in nature when it comes to sound formats like these. The workflow lends itself to constant growth and modification in the number of outputs, grouping pans, track management etc. Getting this to be done on a console is not impossible, but the time factor is a thing of concern.

Technology has pushed itself and lends far more flexibility on a control surface than the Console. For example, waveform display of the clips on Pro Tools on the S6 is far more intuitive and instant. The reason being that the control surface is reading the data from the session. For a console to be able to do this, it has to initially buffer the incoming tracks once and then replay that. In this scenario, consider edits and clip shifts across tracks. There is something that can be misguiding there on a console as it would show a buffer and would not know what clip or audio comes or of it has changed until the audio actually enters the IO of the console.

This is where the visual feedback offered is a better experience on a control surface. The customizability of it and the way it lends itself to an update is far better and faster than a traditional console. And when one is pressed for time on a mix, it is these little things that go a long way in smoothening out the creases.

The advent of touch technology isn’t new. But it hasn’t yet reached a mature stage when it comes to consoles. Touch technology is actually made powerful by the use of gestures on the screen. The iPad and Surface are good examples of a new kind of interaction between the user and the machine. Integrating this into a control surface is far more flexible and easier than a console. The pure reason being that navigation is based on the session on the DAW. This means more control, newer methods of track displays and matrixes than what is now possible on a console.

Ergonomics and Modularity

The ergonomics of a control surface and a console are very similar. Both have a proper reach and viewing positions for the meters. But the control surface offers one step ahead in that it can be configured too. Expanding traditional consoles would require a wider area to be covered. The reason is that the modules, the faders and all are dependent on the the DSP that is present. All of this is driven from the DSP of the console as it is directly linked with the channel count and inputs. For a control surface, although it isn’t infinitely expandable, does lend itself to be modular. Case of the S6. The M40s can be extremely flexible in the number of knobs, process modules, faders etc. This also means that as a mixer, there isn’t a lot of movement required from the soft spot during the mix.


One big advantage of having a control surface is that in a mix, one can achieve any console sound they need regardless of the manufacturer. Today plugins that provide warmth, buss processing and coloration are far more advanced and offer much more flexibility and choice. You can get the sound of a Neve, or an SSL on any channel you wish and how many of them that you require. On a traditional console this wasn’t possible. And in a film mix, this just isn’t there. From my experience, the sounding and harmonic subtleties are in play only when to comes to music. The challenges endured when it comes to handling tough locations and scenes in a film doesn’t lend itself to so much manipulation and processing as is present in the music world. Yet, using a control surface, that isn’t lost.

The argument can be made that the console can work with any DAW that has these plugins. Yes. That is true. The point I am making here is that in the investment part, it is actually more bang for buck compared to a console and its control features.


This in all obviousness is the most powerful part of a Control surface. Temp mixes are an important part of film making and sound design as there are a lot of instances where it affects the edit and has an influence on the director giving him a sonic map of the movie. The workflows for films are greatly evolved from what it used to be especially when Media Composer and Pro Tools have a very transparent and flexible two-way workflow in surround sound. This means that the temp mix can be maintained all the way till the end of the sound post and there is no redundancy in work and no work goes wasted. Corrections can be done within the Media Composer, and bought back to Pro Tools to be tweaked and sweetened. The transfer of ideas between the Director, editor and Sound head is more direct and open now.

This is where the strength of a control surface truly shows. By having the flexibility of controlling tracks and elements from many different editors and locations, till the very end, with the ease of having conforming done on one end (the DAW) only, the time saved and ease of work is huge.

This also brings a very important advantage to light. The automation is saved on a single entity, i.e., the session. Conforming edit changes both on a session and the DSP console can be and is very time consuming and complicated. It is also much more easier to have a backup of the sessions with total recall even years later on the session rather than having it both on the Console and the session.

The idea of controlling multiple systems using a control surface has an advantage in itself. In order to achieve this same track count with a console, that would mean more IO and more DSP. This increases the cost involved along with the signal routing management.


The DSP of a console is what defines the number of channels it can process. On contrast, the DSP for a DAW, the HDX for example offers more processing and channel count for the cost than what the Console can offer. And not only that, since the DSP is used for plugin processing, there is a better chance of more creative changes and workflow enhancements happening on a control surface rather than a console. For example, having pan plugins like Spanner that offers a lot more functionality and features compared to a traditional console is better of done on a control surface, thereby having more creative output.
The Audio engine of a DAW is an often-overlooked factor. With 32bit float and 64bit float summing, this is far more headroom than what a traditional console can offer. It means that there is no possibility of an internal clip in the signal. It is also here that a major chunk of audio manipulation can happen with complete flexibility, maintaining really high fidelity of the audio. For example, working with a 32bit wav file, makes it impossible to clip on processing. This will not be possible by signals being sent outside through a converter because converters by design are limited to 24 bits.


Cost and simplicity

The cost of installing and maintaining a control surface is far less than a traditional console. There is very little involved in the actual set up of a control surface as it usually is just an Ethernet cable that connects to the DAW in question. The Console on the other hand has to integrate all the I/O converters, the DSP processing, the console to the DSP connection, automation engine, etc which can make maintenance far more complex than the control surface.


The Cons

The disadvantage of a control surface isn’t huge, but there are certain places where the console shines more than a control surface.


Although Summing is possible in both, the console offers far more flexibility in choosing the monitoring path and summing when it comes to handling multiple systems. A control surface by design is limited in terms of the number of systems it can handle. Technically, a console can handle inputs from a number of systems and has the flexibility to quickly adapt to receiving input from a new system. For a Control surface, it is dependent totally on the capability of the DAW to achieve this.

Multi-user workflows

The advantage when it comes to multi-user workflows on a console is far more than a control surface. Independent control of the input and monitoring is far more flexible on a console. The ability to quickly solo, monitor, route, send aux, etc are far easier on a console in a multi user environment than it is on a control surface. The Console also offers a better scalability in such cases where users can also independently work on their section of the mix.

More Robust Monitor Control

A traditional mix console offers better monitor control especially when dealing with multiple systems. The ability to independently handle the input signal routings is far more robust on a console than when it comes to a control surface. Also the presence of dedicated switches for singular functions like Aux sends, A-B IO switching, group and mix assignment etc makes it a bit better because as mixers a lot of these are muscle memory and helps in dealing with a complex mix. Fold-down on a console is also achievable faster compared to a control surface, which is dependent on plugins and the way the session is set up.

Fixed DSP

Having a fixed DSP allotted to the signal path irrespective of the DAW means that the control flexibility is more when looked at a view from multiple systems. This also means that a console can have a better allocation of the Aux and Bussing structure based on this. Although this may be limited in number, it still is an advantage when knowing that it is a fixed value.


All this being said, both have a distinct advantage in certain areas compared to the other. The place where it actually differs is when it comes to the price factor. Feature wise, both are powerful enough to stand on their own when considered as a whole system. The ideal condition would be a hybrid mix format where the best of both worlds are taken into account, like the System 5 console.