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Frontier Design AlphaTrack

August 1, 2007
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Connecting via USB 1.1 or 2.0 and compatible with Windows XP SP2/Mac OS X (10.3.9 or higher, including Intel Macs), AT has custom templates for Audition, Cubase, Nuendo, REAPER, Digital Performer, Reason, Sonar, Final Cut Pro, Soundtrack Pro, and Pro Tools. Although there’s no native Logic Pro support, you can use the AT in HUI mode and set Logic to HUI control. There isn’t complete functionality, but the crucial functions work.

As to other applications and native Logic support, Frontier Design doesn’t like to announce anything until it exists. But a company representative confirmed that support for more programs is in the works (they’ve certainly had a good track record with Tranzport), so check the website for current info — there may very well be some additions since this review was written.

BASICS

AT’s main features are a 100mm moving fader with 10-bit resolution (no “stair-stepping”), three touch-sensitive rotary encoders, 32-character backlit LCD (and 21 LEDs), five transport buttons, 12 other buttons, footswitch jack for functions like punch-in recording, and a brilliant “ribbon controller” that, depending how you stroke it, provides jog and shuttle functions, locate to markers, and scrubbing. Because AT supports bi-directional communication, it works with your mouse; for example, you can use AT’s buttons to select a channel, or just click on a channel and AT will follow along. Unfortunately, though, most DAWs don’t expose “deeper” parameters like EQ bands or plug-in windows to this kind of communication. Pro Tools, and to some extent Sonar’s ACT function, are notable exceptions.

APPLYING ALPHATRACK

I see three big advantages to using AT:

• Writing level automation moves with the motorized fader. I prefer to use automation envelope drawing only if edits are necessary — a real fader lets you add mixing nuances that would be a pain to draw with a mouse.

• Transport control. The ribbon controller makes transport control particularly effective and painless. Major props to Frontier for this feature.

• Changing parameters on “hidden” functions. In some cases, it’s easier to just click on something with a mouse and adjust it — but only if it’s onscreen. With AT, even if EQ or some other plug-in isn’t shown, you can still access it with the AT and touch up various parameters.

The key to using any control surface is to really learn the various functions so they become second nature. You don’t learn AT in five minutes, but Frontier makes the learning process easier by including PDF control layouts: Fire up your printer and refer to them until you know the “lay of the land.”

It’s also important to recognize when to use AT and when not. If you’re jumping around among channels and tweaking visible EQs, on-screen editing might be easier. If you’re fine-tuning EQ on a single track, you’ll likely find that AT makes the process go more smoothly.

While using AT on various projects, the more I used it, the better I got at exploiting its most useful functions. Two recommendations: Raise the back end up a couple inches to slant the AT at an angle, and turn knobs from the side rather than the top, so your hand won’t obscure the display as you tweak.

CONCLUSIONS

So, how does AT compare with the PreSonus FaderPort? While they appear similar, the FP is more of a remote that’s built like a tank, with a first-class motorized fader (downside: It requires using the AC adapter). AlphaTrack is more of a mini-control surface for parameter control, and a major plus for laptop operation is that the AT is lighter and can be bus-powered. The fader doesn’t feel quite as good as FP’s, although AT’s knobs and display offer a lot more control options. Bottom line: For a straightforward DAW remote with level automation that can withstand the most ham-fisted operators, check out FaderPort. For lots of parameter control and clever transport shuttling combined with level automation, AlphaTrack gets the nod.

Overall, Frontier Design has a well-earned reputation for coming up with cool recording peripherals that represent exceptional value . . . which is a perfect description of AlphaTrack.

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