Over the years we’ve used control surfaces including the Evolution X-Session, U-Control, Bitstream 3X, CNTRL, Novation, Akai, Fader Fox and Lemur. I think we’ve tried just about everything, even trying kit belonging to other artists while at gigs. They all have their good and bad points but the common problems were the lack of controls or the size and weight of the units. For us, the Bitstream had the controls but it was heavy. It also had really stiff, slow sliders and rotaries, which made it hard to do fast actions. It was impossible to snap mix on it.
Some of the cheaper ones just feel like toys that you’d expect a child to take in the bath. It’s the complete opposite of what we are doing. We didn’t want to build a piece of plastic with nasty unresponsive controls. We knew that would look and feel shit. We know we’re not going to be the cheapest but there’s a very good reason for that: we haven’t cut any corners. We want the best components, build and finish that are realistically possible. After all, we want the CS X51 for ourselves!
The design process
The first stage was to design and build something that fulfilled our requirements. We had three things in mind: feel, quality and beauty.
When we started there were a lot of different ideas floating around, but once you actually start to look at them more carefully and build mock-ups, it’s easier to see what works and what doesn’t. We’d often just try the layout on paper, placing the knobs on a printout to see and touch it in a physical form rather than on screen. It took a long time to find a layout that actually worked. Only then would we try the design in laser-cut Perspex with working controls.
Then we moved onto the aesthetics and engineering of the outer case designs. Again, many options were tried and tested to get the look and feel right, some of which we’re still refining now. There’s been a lot to learn throughout this process, including software like AutoCAD which we’d never normally use, but it was worth it. We’ve come a long way from early code and functionality development on the Arduino platform, through to an early PCB design, and on to the close-to-finished product you see today.
many options were tried and tested to get the look and feel right, some of which we’re still refining now.
We built many test PCBs so we could try all the different types of sliders and rotaries that are available. We needed to test whether or not they worked properly and were tactile in use. We’re very happy with components that are now in the working prototypes and we’ve been using these units in our live and DJ sets throughout the summer. I can’t tell you the number of knobs, buttons, sliders and rotaries we’ve imported – the studio looks like a Maplin store!
All of this hard work has really paid off. When we’ve demonstrated the CS X51 to other people the reaction has been really positive. That’s very important to us.
The Designers Republic
We’re working with The Designers Republic on the logo and faceplate design. We’ve been friends with tDR since they started and have always loved Ian Anderson. He knows how to ask the difficult questions. We’d come out of meetings wondering if there was actually a sun in the sky because he’d questioned everything!
They’re probably most famous for their work with Warp, Coke and the Wipeout games, but as we live in the same city we also get to see some of the smaller projects they work on. For us they’ve always been about ideas, wit and a brave attitude. We’ll be working with them on the next machines so it will be an ongoing process.
Ian explains it a lot better than I can here in this interview.
We aren’t trying to please everyone
We’ve aimed for a focused set of features rather than something very personal. We aren’t trying to please everyone. At the early stages we allowed other people to try our development machines and they all had opinions. However once they started to use it in a real-world situation it started to make more sense. Then all the comments became the same: “I love it”, “When can I have one?” and “It feels so natural”. It’s the last of these that rings true for us. All that time we’d spent designing and building everything was paying off. The downside was that we’d come back two days later and they wouldn’t want to give it back.