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FRONTIER DESIGN GROUP TranzPort

10/1/2005

FIG. 1: Frontier Design Group''s compact TranzPort wireless DAW controller is an excellent solution for controlling recording -devices remotely. It is a flexible unit that would be suitable for many studios.

Every time I want to record my own musical performance from inside one of my tracking rooms, I struggle with running a 30-foot MIDI cable from my MOTU FastLane MIDI interface in my control room out to a MIDI controller (a Casio CZ-101) in the studio. I then send MIDI commands from my CZ-101 to control various functions in Digital Performer (DP). That works great, except that I can't see record levels from the studio. Fortunately, there is an excellent solution — the Frontier Design Group TranzPort lets you control your DAW and monitor its levels remotely without even touching a MIDI cable.

Unplugged

The TranzPort is a compact, bidirectional, wireless DAW controller that works with Mac OS X (10.2.8 or higher) and Windows 2000 or XP (see Fig. 1). The TranzPort controller interfaces with a supplied transceiver, called the Bridge, which plugs into a USB port on your computer and allows the remote to operate your DAW from at least 33 feet away. (The manufacturer claims that the unit can work as much as 100 feet away from the remote, depending on physical orientation of the unit, interference from other wireless devices, and other factors.) As of this writing, compatible DAWs include Digidesign Pro Tools, MOTU Digital Performer, Apple Logic, Propellerhead Reason, Adobe Audition, RML SawStudio, Steinberg Cubase and Nuendo, and Cakewalk Sonar and Guitar Tracks Pro.

The TranzPort's installers, software components, and documentation are provided on a CD-ROM. Setting up the TranzPort was a breeze. I had to install some drivers and a “plug-in” (in this case, an invisible DAW interface), connect the Bridge to an available USB port, and insert four included AA batteries into a compartment located on the bottom of the TranzPort. (The TranzPort uses only batteries and doesn't have an Off button; it does, however, go into a low-power Sleep mode after a user-programmable time has elapsed without any activity.) TranzPort has two control modes that emulate either Mackie Control (for use with Cubase and Nuendo) or HUI (for use with Pro Tools). There is also a Native Control mode for use with DAWs that allow the creation of custom control surfaces, such as Digital Performer, Logic, Audition, and Sonar. (Native mode converts the TranzPort's commands into wireless MIDI messages.) I reviewed the TranzPort using its version 1.0.0 driver and version 1.03 plug-in with Digital Performer 4.52 and OS X 10.3.8.

Character Reference

The TranzPort features a 2 × 20-character LCD screen. When you first open a project in your DAW, the TranzPort activates itself in Track Mode, in which the unit's LCD shows the name of the project's first audio, MIDI, or aux track and its fader level and pan position, along with the sequencer's current timecode location. You can then use the TranzPort to step or scroll quickly through each of the project's tracks and view their parameter values on the LCD screen. An alternative to Track mode is Bus mode, which shows the project's buses (Master tracks in Digital Performer). During DAW playback, the LCD shows the mono or stereo level(s) for the currently selected track or bus using a horizontal bar graph.

Eighteen dual-function buttons and a data wheel, which offers multiple detents, are situated below the TranzPort's LCD. Pressing and holding down an additional Shift button allows you to toggle the buttons to perform their alternate functions. Button functions include basic transport (play, stop, rewind, fast-forward, record, return to start, go to end); record-enable, mute, and solo for the currently displayed track (and respective clear functions for all tracks); and adding and stepping through markers in either direction. Other functions are creating in and out points for and activating or disabling auto-punching and global looping, and multiple-level undo and redo (to a maximum of the host DAW's capabilities). Increment and decrement buttons let you step through all the tracks and buses in your project, and variously colored status LEDs show the current track's record, mute, and solo status. An Any Solo LED flashes when any track, not just the currently selected one, is soloed. Other LEDs light up when the DAW's auto-punch and memory-loop functions are active. A Link LED lights to confirm the TranzPort is within working range of the Bridge.

You can also use the TranzPort's Shift and Stop buttons in Native Control mode as modifier keys for most of the other buttons to execute additional user-definable DAW functions. In Digital Performer, for example, you assign such custom TranzPort key bindings in the Setup-Commands window. Using the TranzPort's data wheel, you can scroll your DAW's current timecode location forward or backward in time, scroll quickly through track displays (which is useful for projects that have large track counts), or adjust the playback level and pan for the currently selected track.

In addition to the 18 dual-function buttons noted above, there are additional local-control buttons that check the TranzPort batteries' strength and toggle the LCD's backlight on and off. Frontier Design Group maintains that four fresh alkaline batteries will give the TranzPort roughly 100 hours of active operation (not in Sleep mode) with backlighting turned off.

Optional accessories for the TranzPort include a foot-switch (for punching-in and -out by way of a ¼-inch jack on the TranzPort's right side), a mic-stand adapter, and a padded bag. You can purchase each item for $14.95 or the entire bundle for $39.95.

Can You Hear Me Now?

I used the TranzPort to remotely control DP 4.52 while tracking my vocal and acoustic-guitar performances in one of my tracking rooms. Walls didn't seem to compromise the TranzPort's wireless transmission and reception. But my review unit worked reliably only at a maximum of about 28 feet away from my DAW, which is nevertheless sufficient for most small studios.

It was easy to add new tracks with the TranzPort. Setting markers, memory-cycle (loop) points, and auto-punch-in and auto-punch-out points on the fly was also a breeze. The TranzPort's ability to step sequentially through markers (in either direction) helped expedite isolated punch-ins. I also put the TranzPort's Undo button to good use whenever I needed to nuke the last record pass. After a great take, I could remotely invoke the Save command in Digital Performer using the TranzPort, a welcome convenience. It was also great to be able to solo or mute any combination of tracks while recording or playing back, and then clear all solos or mutes afterward.

I was happy to note that the TranzPort could execute most of its functions (with the exception of user-definable commands) even with all Master toggles disabled in Digital Performer's Commands window. The unit also reliably updated timecode locations after auto-returns to a stopped position; it didn't need Digital Performer's transport to be rolling to see timecode. The TranzPort also has a helpful two-button prompt to clear error messages in Digital Performer that would temporarily disable (until cleared) the DAW and TranzPort.

FIG. 2: The TranzPort works equally well hand-held, on a desktop, or mounted on a mic stand (using an optional adapter).

One of the TranzPort's most valuable features is its excellent multisegment LCD level meters. A vertical bar at the top of the meters' range indicates maximum level before clipping and, when clipping occurs, it is replaced for several seconds by a square box. A Big Meter mode dedicates the entire LCD to a large 19-segment stereo meter complete with -1, -4, -9, -24, and -42 dBfs scale markings, which is an outstanding feature. There is one caveat: as of this writing, the TranzPort's track scrolling and advanced meter functions were not yet implemented for all DAWs that the unit otherwise supports, so check with Frontier Design Group to see if these important functions work with your particular DAW.

The TranzPort can display only levels of signals passing through the CPU and not those of inputs being shunted directly from a computer audio interface's input(s) to its output(s), as in DP's zero-latency Direct Hardware Playthrough mode. Also, aux tracks in Digital Performer were displayed as MIDI tracks by the TranzPort — nominal fader levels of 0.0 dB were often shown in the TranzPort's LCD as 90, and +6 dB (the maximum fader value) was shown as 127. But the TranzPort's overall reliability was solid, and I observed only one isolated instance of buggy behavior during my review process.

The TranzPort's optional mic-stand adapter swivels roughly 110 degrees on axis with a mic stand, tilting more than enough to present a suitable angle for easy use (see Fig. 2).

Control Issues

The TranzPort works best when recording one track at a time because its LCD can display parameter values and levels for only a single track. Though a MIDI keyboard (with DAWs that support MIDI commands) can also execute many of the TranzPort's functions, it's convenient to have such a compact device — especially one that's wireless — with many functions screened right on the controls. MIDI keyboards can't give you the bidirectional response — such as the multisegment level metering and record, mute, solo, auto-punch, and loop-status indicators — that the TranzPort provides.

It's a bonus that the TranzPort does not rely on MIDI commands being enabled in native applications, because that allows you to unlink such commands from MIDI performance gestures when recording MIDI parts in the control room that are out of reach of your DAW. Overall, the TranzPort offers an elegant and unique solution for remote recording at an incredibly low price.


EM Contributing Editor Michael Cooper is the owner of Michael Cooper Recording, located in beautiful Sisters, Oregon.

TRANZPORT SPECIFICATIONS

Operating Range 33 ft. (typical)
Operating Frequency 2.4 GHz
Footswitch Jack ¼" punch-in/punch-out, for use with normally open switches
Power Requirement (4) AA batteries
Battery Life ~100 hours (alkaline batteries, active use, backlighting off)
Dimensions 5.5" (W) × 2" (H) × 7" (D)
Weight 1 lb.

PRODUCT SUMMARY


FRONTIER DESIGN GROUP
TranzPort

wireless DAW controller $249

OVERALL RATING (1 THROUGH 5): 4

PROS: Highly portable. Wireless operation precludes cable clutter. Bidirectional functionality allows metering and status indicators that standard MIDI controllers can't provide. Most functions don't rely on MIDI remote commands being enabled in your DAW.

CONS: Consistently reliable working range is only sufficient for very small studios. Can display levels and status indicators for only one track at a time. TranzPort displays aux tracks in Digital Performer as MIDI tracks.

MANUFACTURER

Frontier Design Group
www.frontierdesign.com

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