As a video editor who started in the days of linear suites, tactile control surfaces are near and dear to my heart. It’s one of the things I miss in the modern nonlinear edit suite. Control devices, such as transport controls and mixing panels make you more efficient and elevate the performance capabilities of the room, not to mention, lessen operator fatigue. Euphonix entered the market years ago as a manufacturer of large, digitally-controlled, analog mixing consoles. They are a leader today in digital consoles for recording studios, live broadcast and video/film post production.
From this heritage, Euphonix has developed the Artist Series – a line of smaller audio/video controllers, based on their EuCon communications protocol. These products include MC Control, MC Mix, MC Transport and MC Color. The first three units can be used with various audio applications, like Nuendo, Digital Performer and Pro Tools. When Apple introduced Final Cut Pro 7 late last year, EuCon support was added, so Final Cut Pro, Soundtrack Pro, Color and Logic Pro can now communicate with these Euphonix surfaces in their native protocol. You aren’t limited to emulation using Mackie Control or HUI protocol.
The four Artist Series controllers are designed to be mixed and matched based on your needs. MC Transport is a control unit to drive your timeline, similar to Contour Design’s Shuttle Pro, the Lightworks edit controller or the discontinued Avid MUI. It has a large jog/shuttle knob and a number of programmable soft keys. MC Mix features eight motorized faders with additional soft keys and adjustment knobs. It is intended purely for mixing without any dedicated transport control section. MC Control combines transport, application commands and mixing into a single unit.
The real news came when Euphonix introduced MC Control, a control surface designed specifically for Apple Color. Tangent Devices and JL Cooper already made panels for Color, but at $1499, the Euphonix product finally brought the price into a range that made it attractive for the average Final Cut Studio owner.
Euphonix loaned me an MC Control and MC Color for a few weeks. They were tested at different times and not connected together, but there’s no issue in running multiple panels at once. After a simple installation process, the EuControl software is placed into your Applications folder and runs resident on your Mac. The panels themselves connect to either your Ethernet port or an Ethernet router. Multiple panels require a router or switch.
A couple of key points. If your Mac Pro has two Ethernet ports, then only Port 1 works correctly. In my case, I also had to turn off the Airport (wireless) card to have the panel be recognized. Once each was set up and working, the panels performed without issue on both a 17” MacBook Pro laptop and a MacPro tower. The last step in the process is to select the Euphonix controller in each application’s Control Surface dialogue.
MC Control works with either EuCon, Mackie or HUI protocol, so it can be used with FCP6 as well as FCP7. EuCon control adds functions not available under the others. The first feature to jump out at you is the colorful central touch screen, surrounded by a series of soft keys and soft knobs. These are application-specific, so if you have both Final Cut Pro and Soundtrack Pro open at the same time, the display and button functions will change as you toggle between the two applications.
The right third of the panel is home for navigation and transport controls. The left portion houses four motorized faders. These have a very smooth tactile feel and are the biggest selling point for the unit. The faders function the same way as the virtual faders do within the application, so you can set clip levels or use them to write automation mix passes. Like most mix controllers, MC Control has Nudge and Bank functions, so the four physical faders can be used with more than four timeline tracks. Nudge shifts the group over one track at a time. If you press Nudge once, then faders 1-4 shift to tracks 2-5. If you press Bank, it shifts in groups of four tracks at a time, so faders 1-4 control tracks 5-8.
Final Cut Pro’s mix tool is based on mono tracks. A stereo track in FCP is simply two linked mono tracks that are panned left and right. Soundtrack Pro, however, combines a stereo pair into a single stereo track. An eight-track FCP timeline made up of four stereo pairs shows up as four stereo tracks when sent to Soundtrack Pro. In other words, a stereo clip ties up two faders in Final Cut, but only one in Soundtrack Pro.
Fortunately MC Control is smart enough to follow this. I set up a test mix of the same material in both Final Cut Pro and Soundtrack Pro and then quickly bounced back and forth. MC Control had no difficulty in going between the two – each time resetting the fader positions, redrawing the touch screen and swapping between stereo and mono tracks. MC Control gives you a wide range of access to each application’s common commands, however, you are not able to control some items, like filter parameters. That communication isn’t sent out from FCP over EuCon to the device.
MC Color is the first Euphonix panel to extend beyond an audio-centric world. It is optimized for Apple Color and features three trackballs with z-rings, touch-sensitive soft knobs, programmable soft keys, transport controls and dedicated keys to copy and paste four color grades. Euphonix did a good job of packing Color’s various tabs, buttons, rooms and controls into this panel. That’s no easy feat, as Apple Color is the most complex and foreign GUI that a typical FCP editor will encounter. It does take a while to get used to MC Color’s layout. The controls all do multiple duties and are contextual – changing as you move through Color’s various tabs, known as “rooms”. Once you use MC Color for a while, you’ll learn which common tasks are mapped to a knob, soft key, trackball or z-ring.
The main reason you’d use a control surface for color grading is the trackballs and that’s where I’ll focus. The three trackball/z-ring controls are designed to adjust the color wheels. These are the main tools for shadow, midrange and highlight color balance and levels. That’s a common function of nearly every color grading application. The trackballs move smoothly, but the default range of movement is very fine. It takes a lot of spins to move from one side to the other of the on-screen color wheel. You can adjust the sensitivity for faster movement, as well as assign a multiplier button to accelerate the amount of travel.
I cranked up the sensitivity to 50 (about midway in its range), which made the cursor travel faster, though actual cursor movement on-screen seemed a bit coarse. The tactile response of the trackball itself was still smooth, however. Since the trackballs works with optical sensors, you can’t just give the trackballs a hard spin and have inertia move the cursor faster. You get better results with a slower, steadier approach. Euphonix suggests a sensitivity setting of around 33 and then use the 10x multiplier soft key when you want to accelerate mouse/trackball movement.
Another favored colorist’s tool is Curves. This requires a mouse or a pen to place points along the curve graph. MC Color lets you turn the center trackball into a conventional trackball mouse. You can use this to navigate around the curves and inject and adjust points along a curve. Even though MC Color controls Apple Color well, I’m not sure I would use it exclusively without mouse or keyboard. At times, I found it simply faster to click or move something with the mouse than to use a soft key or trackball. Bear in mind that I approach it with a video editor’s mentality and the design of MC Color reflects input from a number of professional colorists.
Euphonix’s Artist panels are top-notch controllers. They are well designed and well-constructed. Light, but not light-weight. One good reason to buy a surface is to ease the wear and tear on your wrist from repetitive stress disorder, caused by long-term mouse use. An even bigger reason is to be faster and more productive. You mix better when you can grab more than one fader at a time. You fly through color grading when you can use both hands to adjust multiple parameters simultaneously. This is something mixers and colorists have known for years.
Each of these panels is designed with different tasks and working styles in mind. I’m a big keyboard user, so I prefer using it for transport control – a throwback to the linear days, I suppose. I hate to mix automation passes with the mouse; therefore, MC Mix holds more attraction than MC Transport or MC Control. If I were doing daily color grading sessions, MC Color would definitely be a “must have” accessory. Thanks to the small form factor of the Artist Series panels, I could easily fit both of these panels side-by-side on my desk. They would neatly fit between my keyboard and the two computer displays of my system. Obviously another editor might choose to mix and match panels in a different configuration. The good news is that Euphonix is offering a lot of power at a very attractive price. Even adding all four panels costs less than many of the other items purchased for a professionally-equipped Final Cut Studio suite.
NOTE: This review was written prior to the announcement at NAB and completion of Avid’s acquisition of Euphonix. The Artist panels currently work with ProTools under Mackie emulation, but one can only assume that down the road, Avid’s audio and video products will integrate the EuCon protocol. At this time it is unknown whether a panel like MC Color will eventually work with Media Composer, Symphony or DS. According to comments from Avid personnel, it is their intention to see the Artist Series panels continue to work with as many systems – including competitors – as possible.
Written for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC).
©2010 Oliver Peters