No, it’s not the title of some strange gothic-erotic novel, neither is it Edgar Allan Poe’s collected poems for the iPad. This is about my experiences with Slate Pro Audio’s groundbreaking multitouch production console – Raven MTX.

Many moons ago I predicted – or rather begged – the audio industry to jump on the touch bandwagon. At that time it was perhaps not practical but it was clear to me that it was part of the future. We saw small implementations here and there, for instance in the Euphonix/Avid Artist series. When the iPad later hit the market I again pleaded my case for touch controllers, at that time I wasn’t alone and several controller apps have seen daylight since then. Slate Pro Audio took it all many steps further and blew us all away when they introduced the Raven, a controller/production console that may very well replace your ICON or mixing console if you want to head in the box. At this year’s Musikmesse I got a chance to try it. While calling this a review might be a little too bold, I think I actually got a fairly good grasp of what it would be like working with it.

slate-raven-mix

First of all, let me be very clear from the start: those who call Raven “nothing more than a giant iPad” with a not so slightly condescending tone are just as clueless as the people who call the D-Control “a giant mouse”. This is a whole other level.

Mixing

Raven isn’t just a big touch screen reflecting your Pro Tools screen, if it was, it would be severely lacking when it came to the mix window. Let me explain. Pro Tools is not a multitouch application, which means you can’t grab one or two or three faders at once. You would be narrowed down to “click and dragging” one fader at a time. Team Slate solved this by adding another mix window which is in fact multitouch (up to 12 points, I believe) so you can grab multiple faders at once. The Slate mix window, if I may call it that, of course mirrors the Pro Tools mix window. There is however nothing stopping you from work in the Pro Tools mix window if you want to.

There are some cool little tricks added here as well. For instance, you can grab one fader and then drag your finger to another place in the mixer, pull another fader with another finger and control them both simultaneously. It’s a bit hard to describe but it makes perfect sense when you’re sitting by the console. Other useful details include simply dragging your finger across all the buttons on each channel strip. This is an extremely efficient way to do things like mute ten tracks at once. Each channel can also have a different icon to quickly identify it, sort of similar to Garageband and Logic. Another very effective feature is the possibility to move the faders in extremely small increments. I hope Steven forgives me for forgetting the number, but trust me, it’s so ridiculously low that MIDI controllers and the like are no way near it.

You might have noticed the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. It gives you quick access to various useful features. In Pro Tools that might mean the transport, switching between grid and slip mode, and so on. The toolbar is completely customizable and you can decide how big the toolbar should be by adding or removing “racks”. See the picture below and you’ll understand what I mean. In the toolbar you also have hotkeys. These can be any shortcut you want. Very handy.

slate-raven-toolbar

Plugins and editing

Leaving the mix window. What about controlling plugins? They show up exactly like they would on your regular screen and you can tweak them just as easy. If you’ve tried controlling plugins on your iPad… Well, this is nothing like it. On the Raven you’re plugins are BIG! They do however suffer from the same illness as the Pro Tools mix window in that they’re not multitouch. Expect plugins from Slate to be in the future.

Let’s talk editing. Unlike the mix window, the edit window doesn’t have a Slate counterpart and I’m not sure it would make much of a difference. Editing works just as flawlessly as I hoped. Select the multi-tool with the grabber set to ‘scissorhands’ (stupid Avid for not actually naming it that) and select, cut and drag with ease. Select the pencil tool to draw automation. I even had a little fun drawing in MIDI notes in the MIDI window. Changing the various values, such as velocity, was a bit clunky however. I guess if you used the pen and drew the changes it would be better.

I will not talk about the audio quality of the analog parts of Raven since I didn’t listen to them. I will however mention the quality of the screen itself. It’s very bright and doesn’t get hot. I didn’t sit long enough to see if it would tire your eyes after hours of work but I believe you can change the brightness of it. Remember that my encounter with Raven was at a trade show floor and there had probably been thousands of sticky fingers touching the console before I got to it and I wasn’t bothered by any kind of marks. Pretty impressive! I can also say that the physical knobs felt fine. They’re apparently digital which means they won’t be “scratchy” in a few years.

All sunshine and flower-powdered puppies?

I hope that you get at least a little bit excited about Raven when you read this. While I have high thoughts about Slate and his minions, and his products usually impress me, I’ve been worried that Raven might actually not be able to live up to that. I’m glad to say that I was fairly quickly proven wrong once I got some quality time with the console! But is it all sunshine and flower-powdered puppies? No. There are some questions left to be answered, at least for me.

Question number 1: How is it working with a screen that size for eight hours, or ten, or fifteen? I don’t get a headache from reading on my iPad for a few hours, but Raven is many times larger, and if you’re going to touch it you will sit fairly close.

Question number 2: Is finding a fader on the touch screen somehow harder than finding a physical one? I think I already know the answer to this one. Yes. Will I get used to it? Probably. I think this was my main concern when Raven was introduced but I don’t think it will end up being a big deal.

Question number 3: How will working with a touch screen make my hands feel? Here’s a very personal one. I suffer from joint problems, which is one of the reasons why I’m obsessed with not ‘OK controllers’, or ‘good controllers’ but ‘bloody great controllers’. Mousing around is death to my hands, working with knobs and faders are not. Is touching? We’ll see.

raven-mti

Question number 4: Raven MTX looks impressive but is it too big? Think about it, big gestures are not always the best ones. When using a drawing tablet, for instance, it’s actually sometimes nicer to use a smaller one. Smaller gestures, less effort. I guess if you feel like that, Slate has got you covered with the Raven MTi.

Question number 5: A.K.A. the million dollar one, would I pick Raven over a controller with physical faders? Extremely tough one. Over most of them I would. Over something like a D-Control? That’s harder. Obviously Raven will make you edit stuff in a very different way, so if that is your thing the decision will get easier. You also have to wonder about shelf life, there’s no reason why Raven couldn’t have a completely mind blowing update in 10 years time that makes it feel just as new then as it does now. It is after all mainly a screen and software.

The more I think about it, I expect the legacy of Raven be one of two:

  1. A flash in the pan, “that’s soooo 2013” kind of thing. What the hell were we thinking? TOUCH SCREENS?! Send them to the junkyard with the hippies.
  2. Something a lot of people are afraid to jump on until the next generation – the generation that grew up with touch screens on their phones and on their tablets – take over. Some will, some won’t. Therefore mainly a bridge between now and the next decade touch screen controller… Even though I happen to know that Slate has already sold quite a few.

Regardless of legacy, or if I will ever get one or not, or if the Ultimate Warrior ever makes a comeback, I was pleasantly surprised by Raven and applaud Steven for finally bringing the world a proper touch screen production station.

Find out more about Raven at Slate Pro Audio.

Opinions are like you-know-what, so what’s your’s about The Raven? Share it in the comments field, but do it like Fonzie – cool.