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Steinberg CC121 Controller ($549 MSRP, $430 street)

January 1, 0001
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0.0SteinbergCC121_option4Yes, I’m a fan of hands-on control, and I’d rather mix with a moving fader than a mouse. But not all controllers are created equal; general-purpose controllers sometimes make uneasy partners for existing programs. Maybe that’s why we’re seeing more dedicated controllers for particular programs— tight integration matters when you’re supercharging your DAW of choice. The CC121 basically translates a Cubase/Nuendo virtual channel strip to hardware. The build quality is very solid, with positive buttons (most of them illuminated), a 100mm moving fader, metal front panel, and uncramped layout with a relatively small footprint. Conceptually it recalls the Frontier Design AlphaTrack, but also folds multiple Cubase-specific features into a more substantial package.

INSTALLATION

The CC121 connects to USB 1.1 or higher and can be bus-powered, but then the moving fader becomes a manual fader. Providing enough juice to move the fader requires plugging in an included AC adapter. Computer-wise you need to install a CC121 extension and USBMIDI driver; they’re compatible with Windows XP/Vista (including 64-bit), and Mac OS X 10.4/10.5. It’s all straightforward, but follow the directions— particularly when updating firmware.

CC121 ELEMENTS

There are five main CC121 sections.

Transport controls. You have Play, Stop, Record, Fast Forward, Rewind, Loop on/off, Jump to previous marker, and Jump to next marker (if no markers are present, then these jump to the project beginning or end, respectively).

EQ control section. This is a highlight, as it lets you access the Cubase channel strip’s four-band EQ with the same kind of convenience as hardware EQ. But most importantly, the CC121 continuous encoder knobs have a great “feel”: Turn the knob fast to fly past the values, but turn it slowly for exceptionally high resolution. Each of the four bands has Q, Frequency, and Gain controls, along with a band on/off button, and a bypass all bands button. An extra mode, new to V1.5, allows using these knobs as Quick Controls, as well as to edit send status and level.

Channel strip controls. In addition to the moving fader, there’s a panpot with the same “accelerometer” feel as the EQ knobs, and “utility” buttons for Solo, Mute, Automation Read, Automation Write, Monitor, Record Enable, Open VST channel strip editor, and Open VST instrument panel (if present). These have bright LEDs that make it easy to parse the button you want to push; and the button layout is staggered, so it’s hard to hit the wrong button accidentally.

AI knob. This is truly innovative. When a window has the focus, hover your mouse over an automatable parameter (you don’t even have to click on it), or just about any control on a VST3 plug-in, and you can edit the value with the AI knob. This makes adjusting parameters easy—hover, adjust, hover, adjust. It also BREAKs with the controller mantra of “avoid using the mouse” by instead providing a super-ergonomic combination of using a mouse to choose the parameter, and your hand to change it. One drawback: Results will be variable with non-VST3 plug-ins; VST2 compatibility is limited to parameters that support scroll wheel control, and you can’t control some effects at all. However, I did test the AI knob with plug-ins from Cakewalk, Virsyn, and others, with generally good results.

Custom functions. An additional knob can control your choice of Main Mix Volume, Metronome Level, Control Room Volume, or Control Room Phones, and you’ll also see four buttons that are assignable to a plethora of functions. These assignments are made within Cubase’s Device Setup menu; for example, you could assign one button to Zoom In and one to Zoom Out, and each time you hit the button, go to the next zoom level. If the button selects a function with variable values, then the knob controls that parameter for as long as the function is enabled.

There’s also a footswitch jack on the back that’s assignable to multiple functions—not just obvious ones like transport control.

CONCLUSIONS

The CC121 is a classy box: well-built, highly functional, and useful. While not cheap, if you log a lot of hours with Cubase, the CC121 improves workflow enough that it would likely pay for itself over time—and you’ll have more fun running Cubase, too. Sure, there are lots of inexpensive general-purpose controllers; but for Cubase/Nuendo users, the Cubase/CC121 connection is about as tight as James Brown’s rhythm section.

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