Mix in the Box with a Maximum of Style: Avid Introduces the Protools S3 Compact Control Surface

It’s impossible to get any infallible statistics on the matter, but mixing in the box may be rapidly eclipsing the analog variety when you account for the wide swath of engineers who record professionally. After all, it’s not just studio owners with million-dollar facilities who are tracking the this year’s killer records. They’re not even the majority. Their breed is, if not dying, then certainly shrinking. I’m hoping we reach a new equilibrium, but the mid-range studio is where a lot of the good work is being done. And many of those spots either do the entirety of their mixing in the box, or at least avoid a true mixing board in favor of summing boxes.

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But those fine folk should not be forced to fumble their way around a DAW via an imperfect control unit like a mouse. They want efficient workflow. They want tactile action. And yes, some of their clients feel more comfortable spending their money on a studio that has a desk with faders on it, because rock musicians are a conservative lot.

Avid had already featured the S3 as part of the larger S3L-X platform, but now the S3 Compact control surface is available as a standalone product. Here are the features:

  • The high quality touch-sensitive/motorized ALPS faders are the same as in VENUE Profile and SC48. They are individually cabled and can be easily swapped out if needed. (IMHO – they feel great!)
  • The Hi-Res OLED displays (above the rotary encoders) are the same as in S6 with a ton of great resolution (128×64 pixels) and provide loads of visual feedback with track names, parameter values, position, graphics, metering and more. (IMHO – they look great!)
  • The 32 touch-sensitive rotary encoders are the same as in S6.   They are heavily damped to provide more fine control and feel. They also act as a long-travel push button to select certain parameters quickly.
  • S3 uses ‘living-hinge’ switches similar in design to S6 switches. Living- hinge switches provide minimal friction and cause little wear, thus improving switch lifespan. (IMHO – they feel great!)
  • The Tri-Color LED’s that match each OLED are the same technology and concept as S6 and provide the user contextual color coding which follows Track Colors in Pro Tools for ease of following groups and also follows the modes for panning (blue), dynamics (green), EQ (magenta), Sends (yellow), and more. To sum it up – the visual feedback on S3 is top notch! (IMHO – when coupled with the OLEDs – this is the best feature on the S3 that really allows you to fly around and know what you are looking at!)
  • A Ruggedized surface – built for the rigors of the road as S3 is part of the VENUE S3-LX system and needs to hold up to touring standards. Many smaller controllers on the market are not designed to travel around.
Obviously a control surface like this one does not come cheap, and project studio owners tend to prioritize the purchase of mics, preamps, converters, outboard gear, monitors, acoustic treatment… in short, tools that improve the sound of your recordings (and one’s ability to judge that sound) before taking it to the next level and splurging on workflow enhancement. But that said, if you’ve spent years mixing with naught but a mouse or trackpad and some keyboard shortcuts, you’re likely drooling at the sight of this unit.
Sound On Sound had a really informative interview regarding the S3 with a Pro Tools product rep, filmed at AES 2014, so I’ll include that below. For more info, head to Avid’s product page.

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Chris Alfano has written about music and toured in bands since print magazines and mp3.com were popular. Once in high-school he hacked a friend's QBasic stick figure fighting game to add a chiptune metal soundtrack. Random attractive people still give him high-fives about that.