PreSonus FaderPort 16 by Sound-Guy
PreSonus FaderPort 16 Multichannel Production Controller
Sixteen 100mm motorized, touch-sensitive faders and over 80 control buttons on a compact control surface is hard to ignore! PreSonus has added the Fader Port 16 to their arsenal, twice the faders as the FaderPort 8, but only 60% wider than that small controller, with full transport controls, track selection, soloing and muting, and many other functions. You may have wondered, as I have, if a controller like this could really help your workflow. There is some controversy in the audio engineering community on the usefulness of DAW control surfaces, so when I was given the opportunity to find out, I gladly took it. And after a couple weeks, I know my answer.
The FaderPorts will work with many DAWs, but are optimized for PreSonus’ own programs. Just as I started testing, PreSonus announced the latest version, Studio One 4.0, so after some initial testing with version 3.5, I downloaded Studio One Professional 4.0 and finished up using this newest DAW. When I first looked at Studio One I noticed that PreSonus use some terms differently than I’m used to, with the term “Song” used for what I’d call a project. They use the term “Project” specifically for their unique integrated mastering mode which is a fine feature of Studio One Professional, able to link multiple Songs into a single time-line on the Project page, where you can do all the usual mastering tasks, export finished projects to many formats, or directly burn Red Book audio CDs. You can have songs from the DAW mode rendered to stereo automatically for use in the Project mode, and can also use any previously completed audio files (Wave, Ogg Vorbis, AIFF, REX, or MP3). The Project page is similar to standalone mastering programs I’ve seen and can be used like a separate mastering suite, but is tightly integrated into the Studio One Professional version, including FaderPort control of transport actions and track levels. I don’t have the time or space to describe the new features in Studio One Professional 4.0, but they have added some really significant new features. My five stars for audio quality are for Studio One since the FaderPorts don't directly process audio.
Studio One Professional is a fully featured DAW with about everything you need to record and mix audio.
The Project Mode of Studio One Professional provides an integrated mastering suite for completing any audio project.
Having used REAPER for eight years, and Cakewalk Pro Audio/Sonar for 15 years before that, I found Studio One to have a logical design and some powerful features that had me quickly developing my test projects. I use templates that I’ve developed over the years based on suggestions by Mike Senior in his excellent book, Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio at Mixing Secrets For The Small Studio (Cambridge Music Technology). You can read about this approach on the Sonimus web site at Audio Project Templates. Using buses and VCA’s made Studio One easy to configure for such project templates, actually easier than with REAPER. And since I have years of REAPER projects in my files I wanted to see if the FaderPort would work well with REAPER. However, I’ll start with PreSonus Studio One Professional 4.0 since the FaderPort was designed with Studio One DAWs in mind.
Enter the Port
The FaderPort 16 (FP16 from now on) comes in a multicolored box that includes the FP16 itself, an external power supply, a six foot (1.8 meter) USB 2.0 cable, four small rubber foot pads, and some brief, but colorful data cards. You also get web access for a free copy of Studio One Artist, the basic level DAW from PreSonus, and the Universal Control software needed for firmware updates. The FP16 itself is a rather impressive 3.6 kg (8 pound) black metal and plastic unit with a curved front wrist rest. It all looked very black & white, unlike the colorful photo on the box, until I connected the power supply and turned it on!
The FaderPort 16 is a colorful and effective DAW controller, especially for the Studio One series.
The FaderPort has two ways to start - just turn it on to use the last selected operating mode, or press the first two Select buttons while powering up to access Operating Modes and Setup. Using Setup enables adjusting brightness and contrast of the scribble strips, setting fader speed and touch sensitivity, and running half a dozen test modes. The Operating Modes include Studio One, three MCU (Mackie) modes and the HUI (Pro Tools) protocol for DAWs that use those modes.
When I opened my first test project the computer screen displayed a typical DAW layout, but I was startled at a soft “whoosh!” as the faders, all 16, jumped to match the fader positions on the screen! Yes, they are moving faders, but still I was surprised how fast and quietly they took on the project settings.
I touched an FP16 fader and the on-screen fader ‘lit up’, though rather subtly, and when I moved the real fader, the virtual fader moved. No big surprise since my old MIDI controller keyboard does the same thing, but when I moved a virtual fader with my mouse, the FP16 fader moved! They really are moving faders!
I spent hours learning both S1 features and FP16 actions, and found some very effective and clever design at play. Switching banks of tracks, 16 at a time, requires a single button push, and all the FP16 faders quickly match the virtual fader positions on the screen. Light-years beyond using my old controller!
Missing in Action
You’ve likely noticed there are no Pan pots above each fader strip - this omission is ameliorated in two ways: you can switch the faders to control panning with a single button push, or can use the small blue Pan/Param(eter) knob in the upper left corner to pan any selected track. I found the first method, using faders, to be fast and effective. Some people have complained that lack of separate pan pots is a serious fault, but I found it basically a “don’t matter” issue - in fact it is much quicker to see and adjust the pan positions with the faders than with a small knob. At any rate, you can quickly switch fader control between levels and pan, and switch tracks, in banks, to any track in a project. In a 96 track test project it took only a second or two to jump to any of the tracks.
Speaking of the one ‘pan pot’ in the upper left corner - it is my least favorite feature, and not really in terms of panning. The knob is tall and a bit ‘wobbly’, and it has a strong detent action that clicks loudly. The only other knob is the Big Blue Knob (BBK from now on) on the right side, which has a clicking detent action as well. On the positive side, both of these knobs are also push buttons able to execute several different functions, like instantly centering pans on a selected track using the small blue knob, or setting markers using the Big Blue Knob.
Another missing item is a master fader. There are 16, not 17 faders. While this may bother some people, it didn’t bother me much at all for several reasons I will describe later.
So Many Buttons, So Little Time
Before I run on too long with these varied comments, I’ll describe the overall control surface. Starting at the top, to the right of the small blue knob are the track scribble strips, small (15x20 mm) LCD displays that show a number of useful things like track names (up to ten characters of the file name), track number, pan setting, and can display a small level meter and gate activity bar. They are a little recessed, and it would have been better to have them sitting up at an angle, but this is no doubt a cost constraint for the design. Since they are LCDs, viewing contrast varies a little with viewing angle, but I found them, if not really attractive, readable as they are, viewing from any comfortable operating position. OLED displays would look much nicer, but would likely add to cost.
Below each track’s scribble strip is a Select button which does exactly that, selecting the FaderPort and DAW track at the same time. The Select buttons light up in various colors, approximately matching the track colors chosen in S1, dimly until selected, then in a brighter mode. I found this effective to quickly associate tracks with their faders.
Below the Select buttons are Mute/Solo pairs for each track, and to the left of the Mute/Solo row are Solo Clear and Mute Clear buttons which will clear (and subsequently reapply) any and all mutes or solos. Very handy.
And, of course, below the Mute/Solo buttons are the sixteen 100 mm motorized, touch sensitive faders. These are the raison d'etre for this console, and I can report they work well with very smooth action, have high (1,024 step) resolution, and a light friction to movement. The faders move very quickly and quietly when automated and are superb for writing automation data to a track. And, they can control more than level and pan.
Heading down the left side there is an ARM button (with a shifted Arm All function) that will arm any selected tracks, or instantly arm all tracks using the shift key. Armed track Select buttons turn bright red.
Continuing down there are four more buttons, Bypass, Macro, Link, and Shift. The top three button have alternate functions using Shift: Bypass All, Open and Lock. Bypass defeats all plugins in the selected track, while Bypass All will disable all FX in all tracks (and reapply them when pressed again). Macro and Open bring up an advanced feature of Studio One Professional, the Channel Editor Macro Control which is beyond the scope of this review, but great stuff! The Link button is a switch that makes the small blue Pan/Param knob control any knob or fader under the screen cursor. You can use the Shift mode to lock the parameter to a given knob to use it without needing to keep the cursor in place. I found this worked better in many cases than using the mouse to adjust an on-screen control, and is actually more intuitive than the two dozen rotary encoders on my old keyboard controller where I sometimes grab the wrong one! But as you will see next, there is an even better way to adjust FX controls.
To the right of the scribble strip and Select rows are four buttons I found myself using a lot. These control the action of the faders, specifically Track, Edit Plugins, Sends and Pan. Track sets the normal mode with faders controlling track volume levels (and pushing the Track button twice adds a small vertical bar level meter to the scribble strip view).
Edit Plugins works automatically with Studio One’s integrated FX, and can be used with 3rd party VST/VSTi, AU or AAX plugins after a short process to set them up (they will then work every time you use those plugins). In this mode the scribble strip shows which control of a plugin is linked to each fader, and there you go! You can easily adjust settings, and use automation to record FX controls using the faders. I was blown away with how much more effective it is to operate controls with large faders than clicking around a screen with a mouse. Many of my go-to plugins have small controls, some with tiny concentric rings I’m forever trying to correctly access - with the FaderPort setting these is a delight, and I found it easy to view the function identification and parameter values on the scribble-strip without even looking at the FX image on the screen. And playing virtual instruments while controlling multiple sound parameters adds a whole new dimension. I originally thought using faders for FX controls wouldn’t be very useful, but it ends up, for me, being a most significant feature.
Not only can you adjust track levels with the faders, but there are two Sends modes that enable the faders to control aux sends levels. Mode 1 shows all aux sends of the currently selected track displayed on different faders labeled appropriately in the scribble strip. Mode 2 (accessed by pressing Sends twice) shows banks of tracks with a fader for each track, and any track with aux sends displays the first aux send which can be adjusted with the fader. Pressing Send again selects the second aux send of all visible tracks, and so on. Very nice!
One missing function is control of panning and mutes within a Send - the manual claims that the Pan/Param knob and Mute buttons will affect aux sends in the Send mode, but they do not. They affect the channel itself (as they normally do). This is a known ‘bug’ and pretty much the only one I found (and is being investigated by PreSonus). At time of this writing (using Studio One 4.0 and FaderPort firmware 2.02) you need to use the mouse to make any aux sends pan adjustments or mute a send. When corrected, the Sends mode for faders, mute and the Pan/Param encoder will be extremely effective.
Pans and More
The last mode is Pan, which enables very smooth, precise control, and the ability to pan several tracks at once, even in different directions (if your fingers can move that way!). I wasn’t sure I’d feel comfortable using faders to pan, but found I like it. It is very easy to see where a pan is set, even without looking at the scribble-strip or on-screen display, easier than viewing the pan knobs on my old controller.
Below this column of buttons are five more buttons and another shift key. These buttons control the ‘view’ of the faders with All showing all Audio, Virtual Instrument, MIDI, Bus and VCA tracks, and Input, Output, and FX channels, as they are arranged in S1. The other selections limit the faders to the selected type of tracks showing only one type at a time, and focusing fader control to those tracks. I found this intuitive, fast and very useful.
Big Blue Knob Territory
There are two groups of buttons near the BBK, six above and eight below, and all 14 of these have a shifted function! The group above the BBK are automation controls to set automation off, or on in Read mode, Write mode, Touch or Latch mode. There is also a Trim button which is currently not implemented in S1, though it does work in REAPER! These controls are set per track and you can set any number of tracks to any combination of automation settings very quickly using the track Select button and automation settings.
On either side of the BBK are Prev and Next buttons, which are handy in a number of modes. Below the BBK are eight buttons which control what the knob and the Prev/Next buttons do: Channel, Zoom, Scroll, and Bank set the knob/buttons to navigate in those modes while Master, Click, Section and Marker set them to control certain functions. Master makes the BBK a master bus volume control (to make up the lack of a master fader). Click simply turns the click sound on or off, at any time, in Play or Record modes, and you can even record the click to an audio track for use in subsequent tracking. Section makes the BBK nudge a selected event and the Prev/Next buttons move through arrangement sections (more neat stuff in S1 - a dedicated track to label sections like intro, chorus, verse, etc). And the Marker button makes the BBK control the playback cursor in the time-line, and pressing it sets a marker, while the buttons move to previous or next marker. One thing I noticed using the BBK to scroll is that the time line jumps in one bar increments when using S1 (not so using REAPER). This probably reflects the songwriting orientation of S1, and can’t be considered a FaderPort ‘bug’, but I’d like to have increment size adjustable.
Below the BBK area are the transport controls, which are fairly conventional with a Stop, Play/Pause, Record, Forward/Back (with return to start time by pressing both), and a Loop enable button. The Play/Pause button does exactly that, pausing playback, then starting at the same place if pressed again. The Stop button can be programmed to stop at first press, then return to the last start point on second press, or immediately return to the last play position when pressed once, and if pressed again, return to the song start. I really appreciate the location and large buttons used for these controls - they are much more usable than the small controls of my old keyboard controller, which I occasionally press incorrectly.
I mentioned lack of a master output fader, and that the BBK can be used to adjust this level, but there is another really nice way to adjust the master level, using a fader! In the Track/All view, if you bank over to the last bank of faders (using the Next button), you will find the right-most fader has become the master fader. And of course, you can automate this if you are prone to automate the master output level.
And there are more things you can do from the FP16. The six buttons above the BBK each have a shift function which provide three user definable functions, plus Save, Redo and Undo. And the eight buttons below the BBK can be shifted to duplicate the F1 thru F8 function keys of your computer keyboard.
How Well Does It All Work?
In short, I am far more impressed than I had expected to be! Being asked to review the FaderPort was a great opportunity, but with a risk! An opportunity to check out whether such equipment could actually improve workflow without spending any money (since the FP16 was only loaned to me, darn!), and a risk because if I really liked how it worked, I’d need to buy one!
The FP16 is very pleasant and efficient to use, with only a few functions buried behind extra button pushes. Switching though a project with 96 tracks using a mouse on a DAW can be slow and clumsy. With the FP16 I could move in 16 track blocks, see which tracks were then assigned to each fader, and, best of all, every fader sets itself to the exact level (or pan setting, aux send, or FX level) of the DAW settings, unlike my old keyboard controller where moving a physical fader out of sync with the DAW fader results in some unwanted DAW fader movement. This alone makes the FP16 a very worthwhile addition to a mixing (or recording) suite. It’s not intended to replace a mouse, but I found it reduced my mouse use to a fraction of what it had been, and provides much better control over DAW and FX adjustments.
The integration with S1 is excellent, with pretty much everything working quickly and correctly. Did I observe any glitches? Yes, as mentioned above the aux sends mode doesn’t yet control pans and mutes as it should, and early on I saw a few odd things, especially with 3rd party plugins, but after updating the FaderPort firmware to 2.02, I couldn’t replicate these problems. There is one odd thing I noticed that may confuse a user the first time they see it - the very first song after a ‘cold’ start of the FP16 will start to play when you press the Play/Pause button, and then will ignore the Play/Pause and Stop buttons (actually all buttons) for about 15 seconds! I assume the FP16 is sorting out things internally, because once it’s finished all the controls work quickly and correctly from then on, even when you load new songs to edit. I just consider this an oddity, and having to wait 15 seconds once a day for a control surface that can save me hours per project is no problem.
In many hours of use over a couple weeks the FaderPort worked flawlessly. So, can I live without one? Not really! Even though Studio One is new to me, and quite different than what I’m used to using, it’s becoming my favorite DAW. However, I’ve got all those gigbytes of projects in REAPER, so what can it do for me with my current DAW?
Other Days, Other DAWS
My long term DAW is REAPER, and it understands basic MCU (Mackie Control Universal) protocol. As I mentioned, at start-up the FP16 can be set to use MCU or HUI protocols in addition to the PreSonus proprietary control. PreSonus have tested Logic, Cubase and Sonar, as well as Live, Nuendo, and ProTools, and they work well with the FP16, providing more functions than I found with REAPER, although only PreSonus DAWs will utilize all the controls I’ve described.
Once I got the REAPER settings right (required two instances of MCU-Logic connections, with an 8 track offset on the second one.), the FP16 responded with full 16 fader control, solo/mute control, transport controls, and automation controls. With REAPER the resolution of the fader levels around “unity gain” was an astounding 0.01 dB! Studio One likely has the same resolution, but shows only 0.1 dB increments in its readout. With REAPER the faders also cover its full gain range, up to +24 dB (why don’t all DAWs go that high?).
I loaded several old REAPER projects and noticed that the scribble-strips show only the first six characters of the track names, likely a limitation of the MCU protocol, which dates back almost 20 years, but likely a REAPER issue too. I didn’t find this to be much of a limitation since pressing a Select button lights up the appropriate track in both REAPER and the FP16, so you quickly know where you are in a project. The level meters in the scribble-strip also work with REAPER, which was a nice surprise.
Bank switching works a little differently, likely due to the MCU protocol which was designed for 8 tracks - banks switch in blocks of 8, rather than 16, not a serious problem. My old keyboard controller also switches in blocks of 8, but with no coordination between the DAW and the controller, and the faders do not match the DAW settings when blocks are shifted, so the FaderPort is far superior.
There is some variation in what can be controlled with the faders in different DAWs, with the approved ones capable of levels, pan, plugin editing and sends, though the actual buttons/methods may vary from the S1 implementation. With my version of REAPER I could only control channel levels and pans, not aux sends or FX parameters, although there is no doubt a way to make these modes work if someone put in the effort.
Yet some functions work even better in REAPER than Studio One! Using the Scroll mode and the BBK with REAPER is a delight - the time resolution changes automatically with the screen scale, and has a resolution of about 2 microseconds per encoder click (!) zoomed all the way in, which is certainly overkill. At realistic zoom levels, the resolution is perfect, and the BBK encoder actually acts as a scrub control with REAPER (not so with S1). Since REAPER is more an engineering DAW than Studio One (which is more a music/song-writer DAW), this difference makes sense to me!
Markers with REAPER can be dropped in anywhere by pressing the Marker button (unlike S1 where you press the BBK), and the Prev/Next buttons take you to the previous and next marker location, same as in S1.
The transport controls also work well, though slightly differently than in S1. The automation buttons also work, except the Off button - in REAPER you use a Bypass control, and with a little work I expect one could make the Off control trigger Bypass, but since I rarely bypass automation, I didn’t miss this. On the other hand, the Trim button does work in REAPER, even though it doesn’t yet work in S1! Other functions worked in REAPER better than in S1, such as panning multiple tracks at once, although again, PreSonus is aware of this and will likely address it in a S1 update.
So while there are a lot more choices of control using Studio One (or using one of the tested and approved DAWs), I found Reaper and FP16 to get along well enough for my use. With both DAWs, the FaderPort proved to be a very effective workflow accelerator. If you mix a lot, especially with high track counts, the FaderPort 16 will make your days much more pleasant! I found it to become pretty well indispensable for me, so I’m buying the review unit!
You can spend more money for 16 tracks of motorized, touch-sensitive faders in a DAW controller, but I can’t see how that money would be well spent, especially if you use Studio One. The FP16 is solidly built, functional, colorful, efficient and fun to use! There may be a few features missing that you’d expect (like separate pan pots), but I found the design more than makes up for this with some clever alternate control procedures, and there are many useful functions I’d never expected. With Studio One DAWs the integration of the FaderPort controls is truly impressive, and I’ll be using Studio One Professional more from now on. If you use a DAW other than Studio One, especially one of the PreSonus tested/approved programs, the the FaderPort will provide an excellent range of controls.
The FaderPort 16 is definitely worth consideration if you mix a lot. And if you don’t have the space or spare cash for the “Sixteen”, there is the FaderPort 8 with pretty much all the same features, and eight motorized, touch-sensitive faders for half the cost.
Sixteen 100 mm motorized, touch-sensitive, high resolution faders!
89 buttons and knobs, plus those faders, to control channel levels, transport functions, navigation functions, mutes, solos, automation modes, aux sends, pans, and even plugin parameters.
Provides HUI and MCU protocols for use with DAWs other than Studio One to provide motorized, touch-sensitive faders, automation controls, transport controls and other functions dependent on the DAW used.
Compact form factor, less than 20 inches wide (less than 50 cm) and less than 12 inches (about 30 cm) deep.
Automated scribble strip shows track number and name, pan info, and displays a small level meter and gate activity.
With Studio One Professional the FaderPorts will provide control of the integrated 'Project' mastering mode, as well as the DAW functions.
Comes with free Studio One Artist (but you'll want Professional!).
Not many issues! The pan/mute “bug” I mentioned in the Send mode is known and being investigated by PreSonus.
LCD scribble-strips are not state-of-the-art OLED and look a little out of place, but I must admit they display fully readable information.
No separate pan pots, but I don’t find this limiting considering the faders can control pan. The single pan pot is usable, but is not the greatest feature.
Scroll mode with the Big Blue Knob has a fixed resolution of one measure per encoder click, requiring mouse use to set the cursor to a finer resolution.
Use with DAWs other than Studio One may limit control somewhat, although still exceeding what my long standing keyboard controller can do. But not really a FaderPort issue!
Can’t think of anything else - as I said, not many FaderPort issues at all. A really fine and useful control surface.
Product Info FaderPort 16 | PreSonus
FaderPort 16 is $999.95. FaderPort 8 is $499.95. Prices in US dollars.