Most mixing engineers and music producers usually do their mixing on a computer with a keyboard and mouse, all “in the box,” as they say. While it's a pretty common method, there are a few downsides to using a traditional mouse for mixing that you might not even realize.
For starters, when you mix in your DAW with just a keyboard and mouse, you are usually only able to adjust one thing at a time. You can adjust the panning of your track or tweak its volume, but overall, you’re left with limitations.
Now, I urge you to close your eyes and think back to the days of experienced engineers working on big mixing consoles.
More likely than not, you’re imagining them with both their hands on the board, making multiple adjustments simultaneously. Pro engineers are often able to balance and perfect multiple tracks in what seems like the blink of an eye.
If you were to try and do the same thing one fader at a time with your mouse, it'd be a different story.
For many people, the only way to mix is with both hands, which is why control surfaces can be so helpful. Of course, not all control surfaces are made equal, and with so many on the market, choosing the right one for your needs can be a bit stressful.
To help, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite DAW controllers with in-depth reviews so you can get a better idea of what it is you’re looking for.
Presonus Faderport 16
The FaderPort 16 offers a ton of really cool features and might be one of my favorite DAW controllers out there.
For starters, this thing crams 16 fader channels into a reasonably compact design, so it won't hog your entire desk space, leaving you with much-needed home studio real estate. With the relatively small size, you can adjust multiple controls at once, making your mixing feel less like a guessing game and more like a flowing, intuitive process.
Balancing a fader while tweaking your filter settings or dialing in an effects send just feels more like a musical process. Plus, as with many of the DAW controllers on this list, it allows you to rely more on your ears rather than your eyes, which ends up being a major game-changer for your mixes.
The heart of the FaderPort 16 is its 16 motorized faders, which makes it feel like an actual console. These touch-sensitive faders are 100mm long-throw, pretty similar to what you'd find on top-of-the-line large-format mixing consoles.
You can use the onboard faders to control your signal's volume, just like the faders in your DAW. However, they're also versatile enough to handle panning, plugins, sends, or just about any other control you could imagine.
If you're on a budget or just need a simpler setup, there are eight-fader and one-fader iterations available in the FaderPort family. Plus, it comes bundled with Studio One Artist, providing a bit more value than you might expect.
When I first got my hands on the FaderPort 16, I was immediately drawn to having this unit at my fingertips whenever I was mixing. It delivers absolutely flawless DAW control and feels fantastic in the hands.
The 16 faders give you tons of control and freedom, although I do wish that the developers over at PreSonus included a more advanced digital display.
With all of that said, compared to other DAW controller models in the same price range, the FaderPort 16 really stands out. You’d be hard-pressed to find 16 motorized faders and all of these bells and whistles for this price.
- Very affordable for what you get
- Intuitive design
- 16 motorized faders
- I wish the display was a bit better
Softube Console 1 Fader
One of the things that Softube is known for is striking the perfect balance between software and hardware, giving mixing engineers a beautifully hybridized workflow. The company’s hardware seamlessly complements its software, which makes workflow much smoother.
Most modern producers and mixing engineers have grown accustomed to the whole 'in-the-box' setup, and many of them use stock and third-party plugins to replace hardware from yesteryear. But let's face it, as I said before, working with just a keyboard and a mouse isn't always ideal.
With the Console 1 Fader, you get a sweet set of 10 motorized faders, all of which are fully customizable to your liking. You can connect the Console 1 Fader using a USB-A port, and all of the faders are touch-sensitive.
This means that whenever you touch a fader, the corresponding channel lights up in the software. It's a real game-changer because you'll always know which channel you're working on.
One of the biggest downsides to other DAW controllers is that it’s easy to end up lost in a sea of channels, which can be a major productivity buzzkill.
Of course, Fader 1 is not just about managing volume faders and automation in your DAW. With the included tools, you get to be part of the wonderful Softube ecosystem, soaking in that warm analog sound. And there's a bunch of other nifty functions that not only elevate your mixes but, most importantly, make your work easier.
I would say that you might consider pairing up Fader 1 and Console 1, which I’ll get into next, as when you do, you feel like you’re sitting in front of a full-blown mixing console.
This is also because one of the major downsides is that when the Fader 1 is used on its own, it lacks some desirable visual cues, which might be a bit tricky if you’re getting used to working with a DAW controller.
- Ten high-quality faders for ample control
- Plenty of buttons, all of which are freely assignable
- Optimal on-screen display
- Not the most intuitive when used alone
Softube Console 1 Mk 2
The Softube Console 1 is a total game-changer for DAW-centric studios. It's a unique digital centerpiece that lets you swiftly switch between your tracks and take command of EQ, compression, gating, and so much more.
Better yet, Console 1’s software gives you that classic Solid State Logic console sound.
But here's the deal: Console 1 isn't your typical plug-in controller or DAW controller. It's a software and hardware hybrid that collaborates seamlessly with your DAW. Using the hardware's track selector buttons, you can pick a track and get hands-on with the physical buttons and knobs to fine-tune various parameters, including EQ, gating, compression high/low cut filtering, transient shaping, and, of course, the sweet, sweet sound of emulated analog console distortion.
Pick your track and tweak. Switch it over to another track and keep tweaking. It’s the unique workflow of Console 1.
Every parameter on this DAW controller has a dedicated button or knob found on the hardware. Plus, you've got an unlimited number of tracks at your disposal. All of the parameter changes can be easily automated, and all of your special settings get saved with your DAW project for easy recall.
What's even cooler is that the Console 1 package includes Soft tube's emulation of the legendary SL 4000 E from Solid State Logic. For those who aren’t familiar, it might just be one of the most iconic analog consoles in history.
Even Solid State Logic's own experts gave it their seal of approval.
You'll find the same awesome high and low cut filters, the musical gate/expander control, the classic channel compressor, and the revered black knob E 242 equalizer, all f which come from the original SSL 4000 E channel strip.
I had been eyeing this DAW controller for a while, especially after hearing other engineers sing its praises. So, when I finally got to try it out for myself, I was convinced that this unit was hands-down one of the best for controlling DAW functionality when mixing.
I’ve absolutely loved using it, and it oozes professionalism like no other piece of hardware. The only drawback I can think of is the learning curve. However, the journey is quite worth it, and you’ll eventually get the hang of this controller.
- Tons of high-quality buttons and controls
- Includes a licensed SSL 4000 E channel strip plugin
- Compatible with UAD plugins
- Can be a bit difficult to get the hang of
Icon Qcon Pro G2
ICON's advanced yet affordable MIDI controller hit the scene in 2018, though it is more popular than ever today.
The idea behind a MIDI controller like the Pro G2 is to liberate you from the mouse and keyboard, delivering a true mixing experience. In terms of workflow and functionality, the Pro G2 offers a fantastic solution. With its eight onboard faders, you can easily navigate between various sections and crank out balanced mixes with much more efficiency.
Each fader is also accompanied by a set of buttons, all with unique functions.
It’s also worth noting that it's compatible with HUI and Mackie Control, so it can seamlessly integrate with most DAWs. Top that all off with a beautiful LED backlit design, a jog wheel for quick control and navigation, and a high-speed USB 2.0 port, and you have an incredible unit for an amazing price.
- Excellent functionality for a relatively low price
- Fast and efficient connectivity
- Solid build quality
- Some people say that the MIDI CC assignment functionality is finicky
Presonus Faderport V2
FaderPort offers precise tactile control over mixing and automation with its motorized 100 mm touch-sensitive fader for real-time volume adjustments and automation and 24 buttons with 40 built-in functions.
Everything FaderPort offers is packed into a compact chassis that fits perfectly on even the smallest of desks.
You can control track levels with a simple touch or quickly zoom in on audio files to make edits. It offers an incredibly efficient workflow, complementing your existing mixing methods with an intuitive design.
While you’ll still have to use your trusty mouse and keyboard for most mixing tasks, FaderPort takes care of the hands-on mixing tasks to provide a more tactile experience.
The Session Navigator provides easy access to eight essential mixing functions, while the companion buttons and the large encoder button work together to help you mix and edit faster.
You can resize your tracks, use the arrow buttons to make precise adjustments, measure by measure, use the encoder to zoom in and out on the timeline and scroll across the timeline effortlessly.
Seriously, once you start using Session Navigator, you'll wonder how you ever mixed without it.
Overall, if you have a project studio with limited desk space, it's a fantastic tool for recording automation and making quick tweaks to your project.
Just note that FaderPort has just one fader, so there are a few limitations to be expected compared to other DAW controllers on this list.
- One of the most affordable DAW control surfaces around
- Perfect option for beginners
- Ultra-portable design
- You have to deal with the limitations of a single fader
Korg nanoKONTROL 2
Korg's nanoKONTROL2 is an incredibly sleek and compact DAW control surface that provides control over eight channels for various DAWs. It neatly fits right in front of your laptop or desktop computer keyboard, and with just a single USB cable, it offers impressive control without sacrificing real estate.
For each of the eight channels, you get a fader, a knob, and three switches, all of which are initially set up for volume, pan, mute, solo, and record functionality. However, you can reassign these controllers to do other things, like manipulating envelopes or filters on a VST synth. It even has a dedicated transport control section!
This controller is USB powered via USB, and, with the appropriate connector kit, it's compatible with an iPad. You can easily download software to customize the knobs and faders, and with licenses for three virtual instruments, newbies will be able to jumpstart their music production.
Compared to most control surfaces on the list, it's super affordable and extremely compact. However, the one downside is that it’s not as intuitive.
Unlike many other DAW control surfaces, it does not have motorized faders. However, if you're looking for a budget-friendly piece of hardware to gain control over your DAW, this one might do the trick.
- Incredibly affordable and compact
- Connects via USB mini
- Eight faders
- None of the faders are motorized
SSL UC1 Controller
The UC1 layout lines up with the Bus Compressor and Channel Strip plugins it commands, which are based on the hardware found in SSL's classic mixing consoles. For practicality, the Channel Strip control is divided into two parts, including the filter and EQ section and the Compressor, Gate/Expander, and Channel Control section.
In the center lies the Bus Compressor and a physical dB reduction meter.
Both the Channel Strip 2 and Bus Compressor 2 native SSL plugins come free with UC1, which makes it an excellent value.
The controls for Channel Strip 2 are located on the right and left sides of UC1, with In and Out gain controls in the black strips. The layout of these controls closely mirrors the Channel Strip plugin's user interface, and they're pretty intuitive for newcomers or anyone familiar with SSL channel strip plugins.
The Filter Section in the upper left houses a High Pass and Low Pass filter for removing unwanted highs and lows, and just below, you'll find the SSL EQ section with HF, LF, HMF, and LMF bands, all of which have adjustable frequency bandwidth.
If you're an SSL plugin fan and want a hands-on mixing experience, this unit delivers like no other. I absolutely love the design and functionality of the whole thing, and it’s hard to expect anything less from SSL.
- Best DAW controller for SSL lovers
- Connects via USB-C
- Included metering functionality
- You might feel limited by the ties to SSL software
Behringer X Touch
The Behringer X-Touch is one of the most popular DAW control surfaces on the market today, offering nine touch-sensitive motorized faders for breezy hands-on control.
These motorized faders provide save and recall functionality for various parameter positions and let you record and playback automation in your project. The 92 illuminated buttons are handy for quick parameter access, while the encoders can be assigned to tasks like EQing and panning.
You also have the large jog wheel for more precise edits.
One of the neatest features is the LCD scribble strips, which provide track identification and parameter range visualization for a more efficient workflow. Add the dual foot switch inputs and the expression pedal input, and you have the ability to control your DAW with your feet, too, which I find quite interesting.
However, as a guitarist, being able to start and stop recording with your foot while working alone is a game-changer for speed.
The X-Touch supports both HUI and Mackie for added DAW compatibility, and it can even serve as a 2 x 2 USB MIDI interface for connecting other DAW controllers or MIDI devices.
X-Touch is very comprehensive, putting your DAW at your fingertips and allowing you to control all the relevant parameters in your project. And just like its BCF2000 predecessor, the X-Touch can also function as a MIDI control source.
One of the main downsides to this controller is that everything feels a bit crammed onto the small interface.
- 92 buttons with a wide range of controls
- Plenty of assignable faders and rotary controls
- Relatively affordable
- Everything feels a bit cramped on the control surface
Mackie Control Universal Pro
The Mackie Control Universal Pro is your ticket to complete hands-on control over any compatible DAW. With motorized faders, bidirectional connectivity, and LED-encircled V-Pots, each of which provides 'mirrored' feedback, it's one of the most powerful DAW control surfaces around.
It's instantly intuitive as a basic mix controller for panning and volume adjusting, but there's a bit of a learning curve if you want to unleash its full potential. The great thing is that this budget-friendly DAW controller is compatible with all major studio software packages, and it even comes bundled with Tracktion.
In terms of design, it retains all the faders, knobs, and buttons as the previous model (don’t fix what ain’t broke, right?). However, they upgraded the Penny + Giles faders for a smoother feel, added a bit more responsiveness to the jog wheel with more weight, and improved the button.
You can connect up to three expanders or MIDI interfaces directly via the MIDI I/O on the back of the Control Universal Pro. The limit here depends on your DAW and desk real estate.
One thing to note is that while C4 Pro can be used without the Control Universal Pro, Extender Pro cannot.
Overall, the nine-fader design provides ample control over your project, and the overall layout is well-designed and easy to navigate. It's not flashy by any means — just a straightforward Mackie controller.
- Nine faders for ample control
- Very sturdy build
- Easy to expand on with backside connectivity
- The overall design is very bland
Controllers are becoming a common sight in modern studios, and it’s easy to see why.
Not only can they streamline your workflow, but they can also help you save valuable time that would otherwise be wasted relying solely on your mouse and keyboard. Whether it's a portable single-fader DAW control surface or an extensive 16-fader DAW control surface, having that added bit of physical assistance is always welcome.