Is a DAW Controller for your Home Studio necessary?
We all make music for different reasons. For the lucky minority it is their profession. Though for many of us it's a hobby, perhaps bordering on obsession. Especially if you are a true home studio enthusiast. Building a home studio is often based on the pursuit of gear and esthetics as much as it designed for sound and convenience. And that often means unnecessary purchases. If you own a home studio I know you're chuckling right now. However, a DAW Controller or DAW Control Surface, is it a necessary piece of kit or a frivolous purchase? Read on.
When I decided to improve my home recording setup I was first thinking how to improve my capabilities. That resulted in two absolutely necessary purchases. First was an audio interface and the second was a pair of studio monitors. From there it gets a little foggy but I know the floodgates of plugins opened up and I got my start on acoustic treatment. From there, it was clear that the home studio sickness had taken hold of me. What made matters worse was my foray into Youtube as a creator. So not only did my studio have to sound good to my ears, I wanted it to look good too! It was at that point that I realized something was missing. That signature thing that EVERYONE looks for in a "real" studio. A console! Imagine a car without a steering wheel or a park without a slide. There are certain prerequisites that make a thing THAT thing. And as far as a recording studio, you HAVE to have some kind of mixer! I mean don't you?
The truth is, today we really don't need much hardware. Beyond a computer, interface and some monitoring solution everything you need has been emulated in software form. A DAW is a virtual studio. Most classic hardware devices have been recreated in plugin form and it's all accessible via your computer's mouse and keyboard. What's "better" has become subjective. What's "needed" has become a personal choice. So, where does a DAW Controller fit into this equation?
If you don't know, A DAW Controller, also known as a DAW Control Surface, is really just a complex mouse that typically connects to your computer via USB. No sound passes through it so it's not really a mixing board. It is an input device that can send instructions to your DAW or Digital Audio Workstation. That's your recording and mixing software. The DAW is still doing all of the heavy lifting, including processing your sounds. However, the DAW controller brings many of these functions to the desktop. At the core is the ability to grab real faders and ride levels like a mixing board. The huge advantage here is the ability to write complex automation which can be cumbersome with a mouse. And you can tackle multiple tracks at a time. Virtually impossible with a mouse. You also have easy access to pan controls, transport controls and track functions like solo, mute and record arm. This gives you an ability to work on the fly far better than you can with a mouse. A deeper dive into a DAW Controller is the ability to manipulate plugins and virtual instruments. This is an area where I feel a mouse is still better. Plugin controls are indeed mapped to the controller but every plugin is different. And many have very intuitive user interfaces.
So finding the specific function you require in the moment can be a frustrating experience. Unless you are a very disciplined mixer who uses standard plugin chains and you've just trained yourself to know where everything is. That's certainly not me. So grabbing a mouse is just easier. I take a deeper dive into this topic in my "Get Better Mixes with a DAW Controller" video.
So back to the initial question. Is a DAW Controller necessary for your home studio? The answer boils down to the experience that you desire. Can you make great music without one? Of course you can. However, the experience of having a mixer on your desk really gives you that recording studio vibe. Plus having hands on control can be way more efficient, especially for the basic functions of mixing, panning and transport control. And there is no doubt writing automation is far better with a DAW Controller. And important to note, many Controllers have motorized faders so they can follow levels with your DAW in real time. Plus the ability to bank through your projects means as little as one controller can access an unlimited number of tracks in your projects. And you can add extenders to increase the number of tracks on your desk.
So, I think a DAW controller is a great addition to any home studio.
They come in all shapes and sizes so there is likely one to suit your needs. I compare three Icon controllers in my DAW Controllers Buyer's guide. If you are building your first home studio I'd rank a DAW, audio interface, speaker monitors/headphones and some kind of room treatment as your first priorities. Assuming you have a computer already. But if you are at the stage where you are looking to take your home studio experience to the next level, I'd highly recommend testing out some controllers. It really adds a new dimension to your studio. It brought me to a whole new level of enjoyment and it looks cool on the desk too!
Thanks for reading.
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