Field Test: Digidesign C|24 Workstation Controller

Feb 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Kevin Becka

UPGRADE OFFERS IMPROVED PREAMPS, INTUITIVE OPERATION

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During this past October's AES, one of the hottest product releases was the new C|24 Pro Tools controller from Digidesign. It was a much-anticipated upgrade to the Digidesign/Focusrite Control|24, the first medium-format Pro Tools controller priced at less than $10k. The handsome 24-fader unit offers a bevy of elegant features, including upgraded mic preamps (borrowed from the 003); two-story, six-character scribble strips; an expanded monitor section; and, most importantly, a more intuitive interface. Because I believe this unit to be of major interest to current Control|24 owner/users, I'm going to compare old to new quite a bit in this review.

LOOKING AT THE LAYOUT

The first thing you notice with the C|24 is its low-profile design. The Control|24 took up quite a bit of vertical space because of its upwardly sloped section. This design accommodated the internal power supply, which, frankly, failed more often than it should have and was a repeating problem for many owners. The new unit has an external and well-vented power supply that leaves the audio on the inside of the controller, where it can't cross paths with its noisy neighbor. Moving the supply outside the unit and placing most I/O on DB-25 connectors allowed designers to flatten the footprint considerably.

The channel strip has a fresh layout that is well thought out, easy to read and doesn't cram too many buttons into too small of a space. The mic preamp gain and rotary controllers are on mushroom-like knobs, with the rotaries offering an LED ring for level and pan reference. Each channel offers the familiar mute, select, solo, EQ, dynamics, insert and send buttons, and now there's also a dedicated input button. One complaint I have is that the input and record buttons are side by side, negating the ability to sweep across with a finger to quickly change the status of a group of channels. I'd like to be able to “hold the first button and push the last,” allowing all channels in between to be selected in reference to these two.

One of the most requested changes for this upgrade, I'm sure, was that the phantom-power buttons (configured in banks of eight as before) be moved to the front of the console; they were on the rear. The scribble strips are expanded, offering six characters per channel and an upper and lower section. The lower section of the strip can be altered as you desire to show momentary or constant fader levels (including the extra 6 dB of fader headroom available since Pro Tools Version 6.4), remaining headroom and more. During certain functions, such as instantiating plug-ins or creating sends, the strip takes on the look of a continuously viewable horizontal display, losing the segmented and confusingly truncated view of the Control|24. One downside is the parallel view of the strips, which renders them unreadable at certain angles. This is a contrast issue and unfortunately is not adjustable. The good news is that because of the low-profile design, you can prop up the back of the unit five to six inches, making the strips more readable when viewing at an angle.

INTUITIVE WORKFLOW

Control|24 users will love that, while the C|24 is much more intuitive, Digidesign didn't try to re-invent the wheel. Bottom line: The C|24 offers better Pro Tools software integration while using the same procedures you're used to on the Control|24. For instance, in the past when instantiating a plug-in, you had to use the rotary controller to go through a long alphabetized plug-in list. Now, when you push insert and then assign, instead of getting a list of all plug-ins, you get a choice of TDM or RTAS; once you select your preference, a list of plug-in categories pops up (EQ, dynamics, instrument, etc.).

After you select your category, you can browse lists specific to your area of plug-in interest. You can go through the list using the rotary controller, or hit the Flip button and use the fader. There is also duplication of certain function buttons, making it easier to get around. For example, when you choose insert, you can go to the dedicated assign hardware button or find it under each insert across the scribble strip. To take a plug-in off the channel, you now push the Default button under the global controls, plus the insert button on the desired channel. From there, two quick button pushes under the plug-in in the scribble strip allow you to revert back to No Insert.

If you have favorite plug-ins in the dynamic and EQ categories, you can now map them to show up at the top of your plug-in choice list. Simply go to Pro Tools preferences and choose your default plug-ins. These will then show up at the top of the procedural list when you instantiate a plug-in (above TDM and RTAS). When creating a send (send/assign), the same hierarchical system makes you choose interface or bus, and then gives you the lists.

The Flip button truly does what it says: Anything that shows up on the rotaries can be flipped down to the faders. For instance, if you're on the Pan layer, now called Home, and you hit Flip, all the faders jump to the middle of the throw and you can pan up and down for left and right. Two more cool features are the latching talkback button that, when double-clicked, stays in the On position and an 8-channel line mixer that can be sent to the monitors.

One odd thing worth mentioning is something I encountered while I was installing the C|24 in place of a Control|24. (See “Quick and Easy Integration” sidebar.) The new unit is Dolby (Film) order in and out, but the older controller was SMPTE order. When you set the 5.1 outputs on the I/O setup page to Dolby, the speakers no longer fall in odd/even pairs. For instance, in SMPTE order, L and R would be on hardware outputs 1 and 2, respectively, and Ls and Rs would be on 5 and 6, respectively. But, in Dolby order, L and C are on 1 and 2, respectively, while Rs and sub are on 7 and 8, respectively. At first, this may not seem like a big deal, but if you ever use the internal multing feature in Pro Tools (Control, drag and drop to another out), you will certainly miss it. In the past, I've used this multing feature to get my stereo bus sub-path out to my 2-track recorder; however, having to use Pro Tools in Dolby order now makes that impossible.

MONITORING AND SURROUND

The monitor section is greatly enhanced, with a scribble strip readout for master gain, two 5.1 inputs and two alternate stereo inputs. A Sum button allows you to add the four sources together in any combination. Switchable monitor modes include stereo, L/C/R/S and 5.1, with individual buttons for either muting or soloing each of the six speakers; a latching button enables the solo function. One of the coolest new functions involves individual monitor trim controls. If you double-click on a speaker's Select button, a Trim screen shows up in the far-right scribble strip closest to the monitor section. You can then use the control room volume knob to raise or lower the gain of the C|24's output to any speaker in ½dB increments.

Surround panning is greatly enhanced by the fact that you can flip the surround pan functions down to the faders, allowing you to grab different combinations together to move the image easily. You can also lock left and right and front and back together, and use two rotaries for surround panning, Etch a Sketch® style. If you don't like either one of these, then you can always purchase the JLCooper surround panner, which integrates nicely with all of Digidesign's controllers. Other improvements make global panning easier: For instance in the past, to go through and pull every channel out of the center of a 5.1 panner you had to go through each track individually. Now you can choose a global option for a single surround-panning parameter and physically go across each channel and change them on the rotaries, or push Flip and use faders.

IN SESSION

I first used the C|24 in a surround recording session with a group of five mics set up in an ITU array (L and R set 30 degrees off-center, and Ls and Rs at 110 degrees). For this I used Audio-Technica AT4051 mics, and on a later session the Holophone H3-D. The first thing I noticed was how much clean gain the mic preamps offered. Each preamp has a highpass filter that I used to take the rumble out of the room when cutting a shaker track. Playback sounded great, as did the mic preamps with the noise floor noticeably lower than the Control|24's.

I was especially interested in how the Holophone would sound with the new unit. When using the H3-D with the Control|24, I had a problem with a “motor-boating” sound on each channel, which is attributable to phantom-power issues. I was glad to hear that no such noise occurred with the C|24's preamps. The feed was clean, and even when I cranked the gain louder than you'd ever need to, the noise floor remained where it belonged — in the basement.

On a stereo session while recording drums, I ran into a problem with a few mics with hot outputs — most notably the Yamaha Subkick and some other condensers used on toms that didn't have pads. Even with the mic preamps turned all the way down, the output was still too hot for Pro Tools. Having a pad at the input would have been great for this situation, but it is not offered on the C|24. In this case, inline pads provided just the attenuation that was needed.

What was noticeably missing during the session was the 10-key pad from the Control|24. It was a quick way to navigate to a marker and, in truth, is literally worn out from use on the Control|24 that I'm used to working on. The C|24 addresses marker navigation differently, in that they can now be brought up on the lower row of the scribble strip. I personally like the new marker feature, but would like to have also retained the 10-key pad; it would be more convenient to have something as important as session navigation on a dedicated keypad rather than have it be relegated to a switchable software feature.

IS THERE A C|24 IN YOUR FUTURE?

With very few exceptions, the C|24 is nothing short of great. Better monitor control, vastly improved mic preamps, intuitive design and improved Pro Tools integration make it a surefire winner. Studios looking for an upgrade from an existing control surface, or mouse-mixers in need of a way to put Pro Tools under both hands and send their rodent into semi-retirement will love this unit.

The best part is that jumping from a Control|24 to a C|24 is easy in terms of features and installation. Once I found my most often-used buttons, I was blazing through my favorite features in short order. As for the price ($9,995), Digidesign makes it very attractive for those who currently own a controller. The company is offering a 40-percent discount with a Control|24 trade-in; if you own a third-party controller worth more than $2,500, Digidesign will knock the price down 30 percent. If you're looking to make Pro Tools feel more like a console, you should check out the C|24; it takes the app to a more hands-on level at an affordable price.

Digidesign, 650/731-6300, www.digi design.com.


Kevin Becka is Mix's technical editor.

Quick and Easy Integration Going From Control|24 to C|24 in Two Hours

There's no question that the best way to integrate gear into a studio is through a professional patchbay. But what if you have to switch out gear quickly with incompatible connectors when it's hard-soldered to a patchbay? This was the situation I encountered when reviewing the new C|24 from Digidesign. On the upside, the studio in which I work has a Control|24 built into a custom desk, with all connections going through a professional TT patchbay. On the downside, the harnesses that work with the Control|24 are not compatible with the C|24 because the newer unit uses DB-25s for most of its connections. I had very little time to make the change, so resoldering the patchbay connections with new harnessing was out of the question. However, after a quick read of the manual and some homework using photos of the backs of both units, I was able to do the physical turnaround in about two hours — all for less than $400.

The first and biggest hurdle was getting line and mic inputs from the old patchbay harness into the C|24. The Control|24 uses 16 male XLRs and 16 male TRS to accomplish this; the C|24 greatly simplifies this with DB-25 connectors. Getting from old to new was easily tackled by buying four of the shortest DB-25-to-female-XLR snakes I could find. The XLR mic inputs from the patchbay were then plugged into two of the new snakes, which were then plugged into the C|24's DB-25 mic inputs — done. Because I couldn't find a DB-25-to-female-TRS snake to handle my line inputs, I used the other two XLR-female-to-DB-25 snakes and bought 16 XLR-male-to-TRS-female barrel turnarounds. The 16 line inputs were plugged into the female turnarounds and then into the two other snakes, which, in turn, were plugged into the DB-25 line inputs.

The easy part of the swap was line out to Pro Tools, Pro Tools sources in, external sources in and monitor speakers out, which are all on DB-25s on both units; those are just plug-and-play. The slate out, however, which is on a TRS on the old unit, is now on a DB-25, along with some other I/O. To get it back to the patchbay, I used the same method as I did with the line inputs. I solved the problem by using another short DB-25-to-XLR-female snake and a TRS-to-XLR-male turnaround.

The most vexing issue in this install was getting out of the C|24's DB-25 monitor outs into a Martinsound MultiMAX monitor controller. I should say that the C|24 has a nice monitor section, which should be enough for most applications; it was, however, a few features short for use in this install. The problem is that the Control|24's I/O is configured SMPTE in and SMPTE out (L/R/C/S/Ls/Rs) and the C|24's I/O is Dolby (also called Film) order (L/C/R/Ls/Rs/sub). This caused a problem when going out of the new unit into the MultiMAX, which is on a DB-25 in SMPTE order. It worked perfectly for the older unit, but was not in the right order for the new. The only solution is to wire a custom DB-25-male-to-male with one side in Dolby order and the other side in SMPTE.
Kevin Becka






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