Tech Corner – Control Surfaces

Not much is more engaging to me than finding a new piece of technology that can fit into the editing room. My latest discovery is Touch Portal. It is remote control/ macro software that works on a tablet that sends commands to a computer.

I have previously used one (or more) external control devices in my editing system, including one of several X-Keys  programmable keypads (pictured). These connect to the computer CPU via USB-A. Each keypad can be controlled by one of several different programming software systems. I have usedKeyboard Maestro from Stairways software to trigger simple to very complex macros. The XK-16 keypad costs $110. The XK-80 keypad is $250.

My more recent addition was a Stream Deck keyboard by Elgato. It comes with its own setup software for working with many different programs, mostly for live streaming. I’d mostly used it just to trigger simple keystrokes, or more complex Keyboard Maestro macros. There are icon packs for Premiere Pro. Avid icons have to be self-created. The Stream Deck XL (pictured here) has 32 buttons, is mounted in a solid base, and costs $250.

The Touch Portal software is free. My favorite price. Opening all the features costs $12. Pictured here, Touch Portal is running on an iPad mini, which could be found on Amazon for about $300. But I already had this iPad, so really the cost of this new tech is ust $12. These are buttons I’ve set up for Avid Media Composer,currently at version 2022.2. Touch Portal has many advantages over the other systems I’ve used. An X-Keys keypad connects over a USB cable, which always seems to get in the way. X-Keys has a macro software program, but Keyboard Maestro is much easier and more flexible. And you have to hand label each button. Stream Deck isn’t s

imple to set up. The software requires a lot of setup for a new system. The icons change depending on your application, but the buttons don’t have much in the way of design controls (font, color, shading). And it sits in a hard, nonadjustable stand. It attaches with a USB cable, which again you have to manage.

Touch Portal solves so many problems. It connects over WiFi to your CPU pretty effortlessly. The included software allows you to set the number of buttons per row and per column. The displayed setup is 8” x 5”, which seems to be a good compromise of size and number. It can go up to 15” x 7”. Each button can trigger a simple keystroke (e.g. command+S for ‘Save’). Or it can run a series of preset commands (a macro), executing events such as Input Key Press, Start Application, Open File,

Run Apple Script. It has the ability to store variables, loop actions, and other more sophisticated programming functions. It can extend to Keyboard Maestro, but I’ve not yet had the need or the ability to understand, how. The software includes enough design elements for font, button color/shading, button borders to lessen the need for specific icons. But any icons needed have to be created. In my case, Affinity Designer was used to create the limited number of Media Composer icons I needed.

And it is brilliantly fast. Each button instantly triggers a macro on the linked computer. It does require finding a good iPad stand. I found the best design for me from PRW+, which runs about $30 on Amazon. It can position any height or distance relative to my monitors, plus it is heavy and sturdy. I’ve combined this control surface with an additional iPad, which works as an Audio Mixer control surface.

The software on the second iPad is Avid Control, and is a free download from Apple’s App store. It also connects over Wi-Fi, although it takes time and patience to make it operate smoothly with Media Composer. “Apple is now a chip company,” [tech pundit] Leo LaPorte, MacBreak Weekly podcast, episode 790 (Nov. 2). In the 2017 Q4 edition of CinemaEditor, the Tech Corner article is titled “Is Apple, Inc. Just a Phone Company?” At the time it was true. Apple hadn’t updated their desktop or minicomputers in years. And the laptops were moving away from pro features and performance, in exchange for thin and light. We’d all like to be thin and light, but that doesn’t work great for a professional computer. Now at the end of 2021, that has all been reversed. Yes, Apple is a phone company. According to the website BusinessOfApps,

Apple had $365 billion in revenue in 2020, 52% of which was from the iPhone. That’s $190 billion in phone sales. But Apple is once again developing its line of computers. They released the wildly powerful (and expensive) redesigned Mac Pro in December, 2019. And now they’ve released laptops whose feature sets deserver the moniker ‘Pro.’

The heart of the laptop design has been a new generation of chips, called the M1, M1 Pro, and M1 Max. All the reviews have been very positive about the increased performance, cool operation, the replacement of the disliked generation of keyboards, and the replacement of the touch bar by traditional function keys. I speculated in 2017 whether I might get a Windows laptop to replace my 16-inch 2014 MacBook Pro. Apple until recently had shown no hint that they’d be making anything but thin, light, stylish underpowered laptops. But I just was delivered my new MacBook Pro, M1 Max laptop. Woo hoo! It is the16-inch model with 32GB of RAM, and a 1TB internal drive. Although the price tag is steep (don’t ask!), there are still numerous additional expenses. First, almost all my external storage devices for Avid projects use the USB type A connector. The MBP has only USB type C connectors … although they are Thunderbolt 4 connections. Confused? Yeah, me too. So, the first added purchase was an external hub that has four USB-A plugs and three USB-C connectors. That’s an added $300.

Then there is adding software, and generally setting up the new computer. I never use Apple’s Migration Assistant because I really want to pick and choose what goes onto a new computer. Of course, most all the software I rely upon have updated versions, which require additional $$$ for upgrades. This is the full 64-bit version of the macOS (Monterey, 12.0.1), so many programs that weren’t updated (QuickTime 7, Final Cut Pro 7, MPEG Streamclip) won’t work. Certain software can run on it but isn’t optimized for this version of the OS, so the system activates a software interpreter called Rosetta. It has taken me most of two days to move every file on to the new computer and download all the necessary software.

And what doesn’t work? Media Composer. Of course. I’ve tried installing the version from Avid’s Beta program. No go. Then I downloaded what I thought was my paid account, which runs with a dongle. No go as well. So, I was stuck until Marianna at Avid waved her magic wand, and blessed my new system. Which happened a day later. Pilot error. I had chosen the wrong license in the Avid Link App to activate. Media Composer works brilliantly on the new system.

Thunderbolt 4: When Apple moved to the USB type-C connector (pictured above) it added a wealth of confusion. Every previous USB connector, A or B, had a unique design making the differences obvious. The current type C connector however works with multiple types of USB and Thunderbolt specifications. Wait … how did Thunderbolt get in there? There is no single wayto plug it in, as with most previous connectors. And the same cable can support numerous speeds and power specifications. But most cables or receptors aren’t marked, so there isn’t any way to tell what is what. Remember this: always use Thunderbolt 4 cables. They carry all data and power for all earlier types of USB or Thunderbolt connectors. Fortunately, the new MacBook Pros come with 4 Thunderbolt ports.

Curious observation: Almost all the software I’m installing on the new laptop is not from Apple’s App Store. Most of the software I use can only be bought directly from the developer. The speed difference between the new laptop and my 2018 Intel i7 Mac mini is spectacular. Exporting a 100-minute sequence with multiple BCC effects and a timecode burn-in: the Mac mini took 94 minutes, the MacBook Pro took 43 minutes. The laptop is better than twice as fast in exporting to .MP4 video file.

Exporting a 20-minute sequence to Apple ProRes 422 on the Mac mini took 7 minutes. On the MacBook Pro, 2 minutes. But oddly, rendering a simple timecode burnin took slightly longer on the laptop. Media Composer has never taken advantage of computer GPUs, which is my guess for the difference. But the laptop has special chips to work with ProRes.

Needless to say, the new laptop is a great purchase, and works extremely well with the control surfaces for editing. Turns out, these were the droids (control surfaces) I was  looking for…
Harry B. Miller III, ACE

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