Frontier Alpha Track:The Sound of One Fader Sliding - EMusician

Frontier Alpha Track:The Sound of One Fader Sliding

Get the most out of Frontier Design Group''s versatile and convenient AlphaTrack controller with these slick tips and tricks. Learn how powerful one good fader can be.
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Get the most out of Frontier Design Group's versatile and convenient AlphaTracker controller with these slick tips and tricks.

On my desktop, I have an AlphaTrack set up to complement my mouse. Normally, my left hand operates the AlphaTrack. When I pivot in my chair to play the MIDI keyboard at my left, my right hand becomes perfectly positioned over the AlphaTrack to run the transport on my sequencer. For more detailed mixing adjustments, I simply pick up the AlphaTrack and settle into the sweet spot between my speakers. At about 1 pound and 8.5 by 6 inches, it fits easily on my desktop or lap (see Fig. 1). And because it''s USB-powered, it needs only a single cable, which is handy for laptop music forays.

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FIG. 1: The AlphaTrack has far more controls than it appears. In addition to the 100 mm, touch-sensitive, motorized fader, there are 22 buttons, a footswitch input, three touch-sensitive rotary encoders (with integrated buttons), and a multifunction ribbon controller. Pressing the Shift button offers even more commands.

Take Control of Your Music

A control surface like the AlphaTrack has several advantages over a mouse that may not be obvious until you try one. A fader provides repeatable, tactile feedback. That lets you learn the feel of the control, developing “muscle memory.” Because a mouse has no physical boundaries to its travel, you have to split your attention between screen and hand, and you don''t develop muscle memory.

Most DAWs let you create fade envelopes by drawing with a pencil cursor or by adding breakpoints to a line. But straight envelopes don''t sound as expressive as fader moves, and drawing envelopes is awkward. Also, you can perform on a fader, interacting with the music, whereas breakpoint and pencil changes typically take effect only after you make them.

In addition, dedicated control surfaces work similarly in different programs. The layout of the transport buttons is always the same, and you don''t suffer the mental discontinuity of translating a typewriter key into a musical command or searching the screen for the right pixels to click.

Get on the AlphaTrack

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Before connecting the AlphaTrack to your computer, you need to install a driver; check Frontier Design Group''s download page for the latest version. While you''re there, grab the plug-ins for any software you use. At this writing, that can be Adobe Audition 2, Cakewalk Sonar, Cockos Reaper, MOTU Digital Performer, Propellerhead Reason, and Steinberg Cubase and Nuendo, and support for more software is on the way. The AlphaTrack''s built-in HUI and MCU modes also allow it to work with Digidesign Pro Tools and Apple Final Cut Pro and Soundtrack Pro.

With supported programs, the AlphaTrack''s controls are mapped to useful functions such as Pan and Track Select, and its display shows the corresponding parameter names and values. Frontier Design Group''s download page also features tips and control diagrams for supported programs; these are quick yet essential reading.

I mainly use Reason (which is supported) and Ableton Live (not yet supported), so I got a good overview of the AlphaTrack''s possibilities. Because the AlphaTrack sends out simple MIDI messages (Control Change, Note Number, and Pitch Bend), I was able to map it to a variety of functions in Live using Live''s MIDI Learn mode. In Reason, though, the native support made the AlphaTrack a true bidirectional remote control. I''ll discuss MIDI mapping in a moment.

Knob Rules

One way the AlphaTrack improves on normal fader boxes is by employing touch sensitivity. The fader and three knobs have a conductive metal surface that registers as soon as you touch it. That means you don''t have to twist a knob to find out what it does or where the corresponding onscreen control is set. Just touch it lightly and the AlphaTrack''s display shows the parameter and value.

Because the knobs connect to detented, endless encoders rather than simple 5-to-7-o''clock pots, turning them left or right will increment or decrement the current value instead of producing jumps. In Fast mode, each click of the knob changes the value by a large amount (which varies depending on the application) for rapid adjustments. You can then zero in on the precise number you want by pressing down and turning; pressing the knob puts you in Fine mode, which changes the step value to a small amount, usually one unit.

Below the knobs are five mode buttons labeled Pan, Send, EQ, Plug-In, and Auto. In DAWs, these buttons map the knobs to the corresponding functions on the selected mixer channel. For example, in EQ mode, the three knobs control frequency, gain, and Q (resonance). You can move between mixer channels by tapping the AlphaTrack''s Track buttons or (in most cases) by turning knob 1 in Pan mode. Auto mode, short for automation, enables you to record parameter automation moves directly to the DAW track.

In Reason, the AlphaTrack''s knobs control hundreds of different parameters, depending on which device (synthesizer module, effect, or mixer) is selected. Here''s where the built-in display really shines. With Reason''s Subtractor synth selected, for example, pressing the AlphaTrack''s EQ button once maps the knobs to noise decay, color, and level. Pressing it again enters a second mode in which the knobs control modulation envelope attack, decay, and gain. The LED above the pad flashes to indicate you''re in this “Page 2” mode. I noticed that a couple of pixels in the tiny AlphaTrack menu icon at the top of my computer screen started flashing as well! The AlphaTrack is full of these helpful little touches.

The AlphaTrack''s fader registers 1,024 steps, which is eight times smoother than a standard 128-step MIDI slider. Consequently, the fader can be mapped to MIDI Pitch Bend, which offers 16,364 values. With supported programs, you can press the AlphaTrack''s Flip button to transfer a knob''s function to the fader for more precise control. Record-enable, Solo, and Mute buttons next to the fader let you quickly set those aspects of the selected track. I found that especially helpful because the corresponding onscreen buttons in many DAWs are tiny targets to find with a mouse.

Mine the Strip

Another unique AlphaTrack feature is the touch strip. Unlike a normal ribbon controller, it does more than simply adjust a single value. Drag one finger across the strip, and you scroll through your project''s timeline. Drag two fingers, and the speed increases. In Pro Tools, two-finger drags work like a shuttle wheel, accelerating or decelerating the scroll rate based on how far your fingers are from the strip''s center. In Reason, one-finger drags change the timeline position by one beat, and two-finger drags change it by four beats. In Cubase, pressing the AlphaTrack''s Shift button enables audible scrubbing.

The touch strip also responds to taps. Tapping the left or right edge while controlling Reason selects Reason''s left or right loop marker; subsequent drags move the markers. In Pro Tools, Cubase, and Sonar, left and right taps move the playback location to the previous or next marker in the timeline. For controlling a linear parameter like playback position, I found the linear touch strip more intuitive than a jog/shuttle knob.

Map Your Own

The AlphaTrack also has four buttons labeled F1 to F4. In Pro Tools, they''re assigned to Zoom In, Zoom Out, Enable Scrub, and Undo. Pressing Shift changes those functions to Preroll, Post-roll, Audition, and Redo. In Digital Performer, though, you can assign the F buttons to almost any key command by using DP''s Setup/Commands window. The DP and AlphaTrack PDF on Frontier''s download page explains how.

But what about the programs that aren''t yet supported? Because the AlphaTrack has a Mackie HUI mode, you can make it work with Apple Logic, albeit with a few compromises. For details, see the post in Frontier''s online forum at http://www.frontierdesign.com/forum/viewtopic.php?id=713.

As mentioned, I was also able to use Ableton Live''s MIDI Learn function to map a number of AlphaTrack controls to useful parameters. That technique should work with other programs that support MIDI Learn as well.

To add some AlphaTrack goodness to programs that don''t support MIDI control, I had to get sneaky. The AlphaTrack MIDI implementation is on the bundled CD-ROM and also is available online, but one still has to get the application to respond to the commands. First I downloaded a free utility called midiStroke (http://www.charlie-roberts.com/midiStroke), which maps incoming note and Control Change events to Macintosh keystrokes. (For Windows, try Bome''s MIDI Translator; http://www.bome.com/midi/translator.) Refer to the included Native MIDI Mode document, or operate controls on the AlphaTrack and use SNoize MIDI Monitor to see what data they sent out.

Mapping the AlphaTrack Play button (Note Number 94) to the Macintosh spacebar gave me instant transport control over iTunes and BIAS Peak, neither of which supports MIDI control. In Pan mode, I discovered that AlphaTrack Knob 3 sends out a burst of CC 18 messages with a value of 1 when turned clockwise and a value of 65 when turned counterclockwise. It was then simple to map those to Volume Up and Down (Command-Up Arrow and Command–Down Arrow) in iTunes. Figure 2 and Table 1 show some of the mappings I set up for Peak.

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FIG. 2: By running the AlphaTrack''s MIDI output through midiStroke, a free MIDI-to-keystroke utility, I made the F1 through F4 buttons call up plug-in windows in BIAS Peak, which doesn''t support MIDI control. Here, F1, which outputs Note Number 54, is mapped to Command-Option-1 on the Mac, which opens Peak plug-in window 1.

Sample AlphaTrack Native-mode mappings for BIAS Peak

AlphaTrack Button

MIDI Note

Mac Keystroke

Peak Action

Play

94

SPACE

Play/Pause

Stop

93

RETURN

Stop

Rewind

91

,

Jog Playhead Left

Fast Forward

92

.

Jog Playhead Right

Previous Track

87

Command-[

Zoom In

Next Track

88

Command-]

Zoom Out

Loop

86

Command-Shift-Hyphen

Loop Selection

Flip

50

Command-l

Toggle Looping

F1

54

Command-Option-1

Show Plug-in 1

F2

55

Command-Option-2

Show Plug-in 2

F3

56

Command-Option-3

Show Plug-in 3

F4

57

Command-Option-4

Show Plug-in 4

Following the classic laptop-musician joke, my final trick was programming the AlphaTrack to check my e-mail. First I wrote an AppleScript that made my e-mail program connect to the server and download mail. Then I assigned the script to the key sequence Control-Shift-U, using a macro program. Finally, I programmed midiStroke to fire that sequence when I pressed the AlphaTrack''s F4 button. You''ve got MIDI!

The Lone Fader Rides Your Gain

With today''s computers, the challenge is no longer raw horsepower; it''s harnessing that power in an easy, enjoyable way. That''s why “workflow” has become such a popular term. The Frontier Design Group AlphaTrack is a deceptively simple device that can go a long way toward making your computer more musical.

You''ll get the most out of it if you''re running one of the applications that support its touch strip and display, such as Audition, Cubase, Digital Performer, Pro Tools, Reason, Reaper, and Sonar; but the list is growing fast. Frontier''s earlier TranzPort controller now works with 28 music programs. Be sure to check the AlphaTrack forum for the latest news.

I also encourage you to explore the program-specific documentation on Frontier''s downloads page. You''ll discover numerous shortcuts and key combinations that let you do everything from disabling the fader motor (helpful when an open mic is nearby) to toggling your DAW''s metronome on and off. The AlphaTrack may have just one fader, but it offers a wealth of possibilities.

AlphaTrack Specifications

  • Requirements:
    Windows XP (Service Pack 2 recommended) or Mac OS X (10.3.9+) operating system
  • Computer Interface:
    powered full-speed USB 2.0 or USB 1.1 port (unpowered hub connection not recommended)
  • User Interface:
    — One 100mm touch-sensitive, motorized fader
    — One 32-character backlit display
    — Three touch-sensitive encoders, with push-button function
    — Buttons: REW, FFWD, STOP, PLAY, RECORD, SHIFT, MUTE, SOLO, REC-ARM, FLIP, IN, OUT, LOOP, PAN, SEND, EQ, PLUG-IN, AUTO, F1, F2, F3, F4
    — Indicators: RECORD, SHIFT, MUTE, SOLO, REC, FLIP, IN, OUT, LOOP, PAN, SEND, EQ, PLUG-IN, AUTO, F1, F2, F3, F4
  • Power:
    From USB port; no external adapter required
  • Included Items:
    AlphaTrack control surface, 6' (1.8 m) USB cable, CD-ROM, Quick Start Guide
  • Size:
    8.5" x 6" x 3" (22 cm x 15 cm x 7.5 cm)
  • Weight:
    1 lb. 2 oz. (510 grams)