The Black Dog on designing their own DJ controller, the CS X51

Recently we reported that UK techno fiends The Black Dog had successfully achieved the Kickstarter target for their awesome-looking homegrown MIDI controller, the CS X51.

We hooked up with the group's Martin Dust to learn more about the idea behind the device, and find out how its production is shaping up.

It's a little unusual for a techno act to develop their own controller. Where did the idea come from?

"We've been on the road doing gigs and music for ten years, and during that time none of the controllers we looked at really suited what we needed: a mixture of being able to play everything broken down into parts, and also throwing in some DJ skills as well.

"We own everything: the old Evolution UC-33s, M-Audio X-Sessions, they've all broken down on us. So we just thought, 'Why don't we have a go at designing something we really, really want, instead of spending £600-£700 on something that's not what we really need?'"

"This country is almost convinced we don't make stuff anymore, that we're just a service industry... I don't think that's true."

How did you approach the design process?

"A lot of people invent what we call 'man problems': 'there's not enough knobs on this, there's not enough layers on this, there's no program buttons'. They create a situation where all they're doing is looking at a tech spec, and not looking at something as you'd use it in the field.

"So we decided is to strip away everything that isn't needed, and just present the controls in a way that you can play live and do anything you want. We're not hiding behind a load of gadgets - there are thousands of controllers that are covered in loads of crap you'll never, ever use."

Being proud Sheffield lads, one of the group's priorities was to have as much of the work on the device done in their hometown rather than outsourcing it abroad. What's more, they're responsible for the actual design of the device themselves.

How did you go about making the product a reality?

"One of our friends Darren is one of the directors at MachineWerks. He's a bit of an electronics whizz, and we've all built stuff like fuzz boxes, and effects units for ourselves... we've even had to mend some of the equipment that we've got. We've got an Oberheim OB-8 synth that just keeps breaking!

"We thought that making hardware can't be as difficult as everybody makes out. We like a big learning curve anyway. We spent probably six months designing circuit boards, getting roughs made, getting boxes made and going out to factories. We almost had to learn speak another language, because fabricators are a strange, strange bunch.

"Just to get the product to the state that it's in has taken eight to ten months. It's been an incredible journey, frustrating at times, but also really enjoyable. I guess there's the political side for us as well. Our accountant had advised us that we should approached people in Sheffield to see if we could get funding to help bring some manufacturing back to the town, and that hit a brick wall. So it felt like us against all odds, and we wanted to prove everybody wrong!"

It sounds as if you were really hand-on.

"We started off by getting a copy of EAGLE and doing small circuits. We got photographs of all the early circuits that we did, checked for noise, checked that the routing was right and that it worked.

"We talked to the manufacturers that make our boards. They were really helpful and offered advice; we got them to check things. For coding the M5 chips up and the DIP chips we've got a friend who writes C++, so we wrote a document that described what they had to do. We pulled in a lot of favours, and we've built a really good crew around what we needed to do."

The Designers Republic are also involved with the project too?

"Ian [Designers Republic founder Ian Anderson] is a good friend of ours, we'd been waiting for a project to do together. When we approached him with one of the early prototypes, he loved the political side of it, as it was so odd that somebody was trying to do this in the UK.

"The beauty of working with Ian is he asks so many difficult questions in meetings: 'Are you sure you want to do this? Should it be this colour?' He really questions everything, ensuring that it's really what you want to do. It can be quite like a difficult job interview at times! But it's a good process to go through, and he's very easy to work with. We found his input really beneficial."

As the CS X51 is a straight up MIDI controller that isn't designed to work with a particular piece of software or hardware, it's potentially quite versatile. A promotional video for the Kickstarter campaign shows the device being used to control Ableton Live's mixer in a studio environment.

Do you imagine people will use the hardware in the studio as well as live?

"Yeah absolutely. We mix down on it, I think it can be used anywhere. For one it's a high quality control surface, and two it looks great. All you've got to do is plug it in and take it wherever you are. We travel a lot, and there's only a certain weight that you can take on a plane as hand luggage, so it's designed to be light."

What kit are you using for your live sets nowadays?

"We've got a couple of copies of Ableton across two or three machines, and they are all synced together via MIDI. So we have one master machine sending the clock signal out, and we'll be triggering the effects, synths and samplers live across the top of each other. It's kind of like creating a live jamming session I guess, but it's more rehearsed than that. We know what goes where, but it's different every time."

Do you think there's enough of a demand to support boutique devices like the CS X51 being built in the UK?

"I think there is. We've got a smaller controller already designed, plus an eight-channel slider one, a really small six-channel line mixer, and something that we're not sure whether it's going to be a drum machine or synth, but we've got a circuit board ready for that as well!

"I don't know where it's going to take us, or how long it's going to take us, but we've got good stuff coming that we're really proud of, and really want to get out. The only thing that's holding us up is that we don't have the funds to do them all at once."

"For us, it's great to get a start and that people have put some trust in us. We really want to bring back a little bit of this to the UK, and hopefully start employing a few people in Sheffield to make and manufacture this stuff.

"There are a lot of graduates that end up doing jobs they didn't train for and don't want to do. I think we're wasting those people. This country is almost convinced we don't make stuff anymore, that we're just a service industry... I don't think that's true."

You can find out more about the progress of the controller at the CS X51 Kickstarter page, and get your fix of info and music from the band themselves at the official Black Dog website.