A DAW controller (aka control surface) can really improve workflow and add intuitive tactile convenience to a studio set up. Having physical faders, knobs, buttons and other controls laid out in front of you can really enhance your overall enjoyment and performance over keyboard hotkeys and mouse clicks.
Of course they aren't for everyone but enough people love them that the market has grown to include all sorts of controllers for various setups. Choosing a control surface for your studio can be a tricky task to get just right. Though the name brand of a DAW controller isn't the most critical factor to consider, knowing the best companies out there can help you in your search.
In this article, we'll discuss the top DAW control surface brands.
Note that I tried to not add any DAW-specific controllers, keeping the focus on more universal systems. That being said, options from Steinberg, Cakewalk and Both Novation and Ableton (for Ableton Live) have great controllers for their respective digital audio workstations. I've added links to check out their official websites above.
The Top 11 Best DAW Control Surface Brands Are:
- Slate Media Technology
- Solid State Logic
- Smart AV
Of course, any “best of” list is subjective by nature. I've done my best to make this as objective as possible. I've included not only my own bias but also the opinions of others (in real life; in online forums, and by which brands professionals use).
We’ll get into each of these brands in greater detail to explain why they made this list. I’ll also include an example of a control surface from each of the brands along with a link to their official websites and info on the companies' histories.
Related article: Top Best Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) On The Market
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Avid is best known as the producer of the industry-standard DAW Pro Tools. Its high-end control surfaces work to vastly improve the workflow of this powerful digital audio workstation.
Pro Tools is featured in My New Microphone's Top 7 Best Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) On The Market.
That being said, these excellent control surfaces are designed with EUCON software for integration with other software and digital audio workstations beyond those of Avid. This high-speed Ethernet control protocol allows even the most involved control surface (the S6) to be used with other DAWs. Of course, there may be some hiccups with complete compatibility but it goes to show how strong these controllers are.
Avid offers several superb control surfaces with an option for practically any situation. Easily combine these hardware devices together to build your customizable control surface that is perfect for your studio needs. Some surfaces even allow users to control video software along with the audio.
With so much experience and feedback from professionals, Avid has been able to produce some of the world's best DAW controllers. Whether you love Pro Tools or not, these surfaces are among the finest!
Notable Control Surface: S6
Slate Media Technology
Slate Media Technology is just one of many successful endeavours of Steven Slate (others include Slate Digital and Steven Slate Audio).
I'm not trying to throw you off within the first two brands but these control surfaces are a bit different than the typical DAW controller. They're touchscreens and do not actually have physical sliders. In a way, they are glorified iPads but they've been adopted by professionals around the world who swear by their superb functionality and ease of use.
When I stop to think about it, Slate MT's decision to put a control surface into a touchscreen interface is just another step toward putting the entire recording studio into a computer. Since the Raven MTX was released in 2012, Slate has been producing excellent control surfaces in highly responsive and compatible world-class touchscreens.
So no, these DAW controllers are not your typical tactile surfaces but they are among the best, in a different way!
Notable Control Surface: Raven MTI2
Yamaha is a Japanese multinational corporation and conglomerate with an incredibly wide range of products and services. The company has been involved with audio for a long time and although it doesn't have a huge selection of digital audio control surfaces, its surfaces are among the best in the world.
Yamaha actually only got into DAW controller design after its acquisition of Steinberg Media Technologies (creators of Nuendo and Cubase) in 2005. Since then, Yamaha has been developing integrated products for the DAW market (as well as DAW software itself). The big product to come of this development is the Nuage Advanced Production System.
Yamaha's Nuage is designed for full integration with Steinberg's Nuendo digital audio workstation but will work well with other DAWs as well including Avid's Pro Tools and Steinberg's Cubase.
The Nuage offers unprecedented productivity and flexibility as well as premium audio quality, giving engineers around the world the best tools to get their jobs done effectively and creatively.
Notable Control Surface: Nuage Master
Mackie takes us out of the stratospherically high price points of the first 3 brands into a more affordable class. This brand is well-known for its affordable products that perform well above their price points. This is as true of Mackie's control surfaces as it is for anything else.
The DAW control surfaces from Mackie use the Proprietary Mackie communication protocol for seamless music production software integration. This allows the Mackie surfaces to connect to nearly any DAW and offer the organic feel of faders and knobs in addition to your choice of workstation software.
Not only do the Mackie products play nicely with a great variety of DAWs but they also work incredibly well together. Extend your Mackie surface to the size you need and have yourself an awesome (and affordable) control surface for your studio!
Notable Control Surface: MCU Pro
PreSonus is a well-respected brand in the audio world. They produce software (including the Studio One DAW), loudspeakers, mixers, audio interfaces and, of course, control surfaces.
The FaderPort series features the excellent control surfaces of PreSonus. These controllers are compatible with Windows and Mac OS. They're also universal, using Native Mode to interact with PreSonus Studio One; HUI emulation to control Avid Pro Tools, and the aforementioned Mackie Control emulation for compatibility with Logic, Cubase, Nuendo, Sonar and Live. That's just what PreSonus can guarantee. These surfaces will likely work with most other DAWs as well.
Studio One, Logic Pro and Ableton Live are featured in My New Microphone's Top 7 Best Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) On The Market.
PreSonus's control surfaces are designed to be intuitive and efficient. The company created the FaderPort surfaces to help musicians and engineers get their work done in a more satisfying way without taking anything away from the tried-and-true mouse + keyboard combination of controls.
Notable Control Surface: FaderPort 16
iCon Pro Audio is another multifaceted audio company, producing keyboard, interfaces, headphones, microphones, monitors, processors and, most notably, control surfaces.
These sleek controllers are both powerful and simple to use. They integrate with the majority of popular Digital Audio Workstations and digital mixers with iCon’s universal DAW mode.
On top of all that, they're affordable, making them an excellent choice for amateurs and professionals alike.
Notable Control Surface: QCon Pro X
Behringer gets a spot on this list with its impressive DAW control surfaces. Like iCon Pro Audio, Behringer's surfaces are affordable and impressively compatible, being equipped with HUI and Mackie Control for seamless integration with the majority of digital audio workstations.
These colourful models are super user-friendly and allow users to easily control parameters within the DAW of their choice for a more intuitive and enjoyable mixing/production experience.
Notable Control Surface: X-Touch
This one's a bit strange in the fact that Focusrite no longer produces control surfaces. That being said, they're discontinued Control 2802 is one of the best to have even been produced. Check one out for yourself if you can find it on the used market.
This DAW controller doubled as a 32‑input analogue console with a bus compressor. It worked well with multiple DAWs and was surprisingly affordable for the functionality.
Notable Control Surface: Control 2802 (discontinued)
Solid State Logic
Solid State Logic is perhaps best known for its ultra-high-end studio mixing consoles. It would make sense that a company so dedicated to producing the best consoles could put together the best control surfaces as well. That's exactly the case with SSL.
Solid State Logic's control surface is largely inspired by the classic designs of the best consoles in the world. Using an SSL control surface is kind of like getting your hands on an SSL board. Of course, nothing could be the same, but the feeling is reminiscent.
On top of the excellent feel of an SSL control surface (which is a big selling point of any control surface), the product works tremendously well.
The Nucleus2 featured advanced DAW control; transparent SuperAnalogueTM monitoring with talkback; SSL console grade mic pres; pro-quality Dante audio interface, and bundled SSL Native plug-ins. This helps professionals (or others that can afford it) to streamline their workflow and helps them to focus on the sound and not the screen.
Notable Control Surface: Nucleus2
Smart AV has unfortunately gone out of business but their Tango DAW surface controller was (and is if you can get one used) one of the best to have ever been produced.
It combines a large colour touchscreen with a generous selection of tactile controls to offer users full flexible control over their favourite DAW.
Notable Control Surface: Tango (discontinued)
Softube is primarily an audio software development company focused on creating the most accurate digital software recreations of vintage, tube, and otherwise analog sound.
In addition to a wide variety of superb software instruments and processors are equally, if not more, impressive hardware controllers.
These control surfaces offer a unique hybrid between hardware and software with emulation software of the legendary SL 4000 E-Series console from the aforementioned Solid State Logic.
With a Softube control surface (or surfaces), we don't only improve workflow but also enhance sound quality at the same time.
Notable Control Surface: Console 1