Several manufacturers' attention to compact control surfaces — more specifically, single-fader packs — has sparked a controller showdown of late. Getting the design of a single-fader controller right is harder than you might expect. On one hand, it should be as compact as possible to fit the limited real estate of the average desktop user and meet similar space and travel rigors of the laptop crowd. On the other hand, it should also offer as rich and thorough an interfacing experience as possible through minimal finger strokes. To further complicate matters, individual users often place emphasis on vastly different duties. For some it's tracking, editing or mixing; for others, it's all three.
Frontier Design Group is no stranger to the demands of the evolving DAW environment. While it has also conjured up control surfaces for Tascam's digital mixers, about a year and a half ago, the group released the successful TranzPort — a highly innovative wireless transport controller for a DAW that you can use anywhere in your studio.
With only a passing resemblance to TranzPort, AlphaTrack is a wired USB device optimized to speed up your editing and mixing workflow with maximum control over your tracks, effects and virtual instruments, while consuming a minimum of space. The unit complements the mouse and keyboard, rather than replaces them, and combines many conventional mixing and transport controls with some truly innovative perks that make working on audio projects easier, faster and a hell of a lot more fun.
The install disc featured the latest version 1.1 driver and manager application, but a quick visit to the Frontier site was necessary to pick up the latest documentation and individual native-host plug-in updates. AlphaTrack supports the basic functions of all major DAWs — including Pro Tools and Logic — through HUI and Mackie (MCU) modes, and the native plug-ins for Cubase/Nuendo 3, Sonar, Reason and Digital Performer 5 add further functionality. Version 1.1 also adds support for Apple Final Cut Pro and Soundtrack Pro through MCU. My test system was a dual-core Pentium 4 3.2 GHz with Nuendo 3 as host.
BEAUTY AND BRAINS
AlphaTrack's chic black/blue/graphite color scheme and curvy, clean-line design makes it appealing to the eyes. At just more than one pound, this 8.5-by-6-by-3-inch unit packs a surprising amount of control and functionality (22 buttons and 21 LEDs) into a brilliantly designed interface that's fast to operate and highly informative.
The 100mm touch-sensitive, motorized fader provides true 10-bit resolution for smooth and precise level control. The motor circuits are fast on snapshot recall and offer extremely smooth, noise-free response that rival what I've seen on high-end systems. If you've never had the pleasure of working with touch-sensitive faders before, you'll marvel at the ability to override or modify automation data simply by tapping the fader cap, without having to crudely nudge preexisting data and risk ugly sonic jumps in your mixes. The motor can be turned off if desired.
Near the fader sit backlit Record, Solo and Mute controls for tracks, as well as LEDs for read and write automation. There's also a dedicated Any Solo LED that helps you unearth tracks that are soloed. A large Shift button doubles the actions of many controls to provide additional functionality and can itself be set to “sticky” mode to permit one-handed access to the alternate button and encoder functions.
To the right of the fader group is the parameter control section featuring a 2-by-16-character backlit LCD giving context-specific feedback for three touch-sensitive -rotary/push encoders. Again, these encoders are ones that you'd previously find only on high-end desks. Five mode buttons allow you to quickly switch encoder control between pans, sends, EQ, plug-ins and automation one track at a time. Moving downward, eight multifunction buttons with discrete LEDs take on loop control, track switching, fader/encoder flipping and opening the host channel-editor window. Four of these buttons, labeled F1 through F4, are user-programmable function keys (your application must support this type of assigning). Pressing Shift accesses functions F5 through F8.
The bottom section of AlphaTrack is all about the time line, with five standard transport buttons (also with Shift functions), a bright red Record-armed LED and an innovative touch-sensitive jog and shuttle strip. A firm rubberized palm-rest accents the unit.
On the back panel, a footswitch jack can enable punch-in recording, and a USB connector draws extremely low power from its host with no need for an external supply, a huge plus for mobile users. Like TranzPort, AlphaTrack has no power switch and never really shuts down until you power-off your system.
Whether you're left-handed or right-handed, it feels pretty comfortable to set AlphaTrack to the right or left of the keyboard. I initially placed the AlphaTrack between the keyboard and mouse, thinking it would be a natural extension of the keyboard and take over many mousing duties. For a while that seemed fine, but I noticed that old desktop habits are hard to break, and I often wanted to mouse; I couldn't break the habit enough to lift my arm each time to avoid hitting the AlphaTrack (which is considerably higher than most mice). Moving the mouse between the keyboard and AlphaTrack didn't feel quite right either — too much bumping into the AlphaTrack.
The position I ultimately recommend for left- or right-handed users to try first is with AlphaTrack placed between the keyboard and mouse, but just a few inches behind the mouse. You'll have unobstructed access to the mouse, and the added reach to AlphaTrack's controls feels more naturally like a big mix desk to me. According to Frontier, some folks like to sit back in the speaker sweet spot with AlphaTrack in their laps while mixing. Indeed, it's designed to work with you, not against you.
The only real beef I had with my review unit was that its four tiny rubber feet wouldn't sit perfectly flat on any work surface. The balance was just fractionally off but ever so annoying. I put a few layers of Scotch tape under the culprit to fix it.
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So, what's it like to edit and mix a full tracklist with just one fader and a keypad of controls? On AlphaTrack, it's surprisingly efficient.
When first opening a project, the LCD displays three adjustable parameters, one for each of the touch — sensitive encoders. The exact parameters displayed depend on which of the five mode buttons is pressed below the encoders. That will normally default to Pan, displaying Track, Marker and Panning position. When any one of the encoders or the fader is touched, the display instantly updates with additional information about that parameter, including more precise numeric readouts for values, longer track or parameter names and larger level or bar graphs. Turning or pressing an encoder will engage changes, and releasing the encoder returns you to the previous display. This form of cooperative on-demand menu scaling proved inspiring and liberating from the usual doldrums of chasing the mouse cursor.
The encoders are a bit stiff to turn, and their incremented detents are not as fine as I'd like. Also, the fader cap could use a deeper curvature.
Cubase/Nuendo has the ability to view or access only specific types of tracks or buses. AlphaTrack conveniently allows selection or filtering of these views, including user-preset views, from an encoder. Strangely, the Cubase/Nuendo implementation doesn't allow you to select a track with the mouse and have controllers such as AlphaTrack follow; therefore, AlphaTrack must initiate all track selection. Frontier is working with Steinberg on a solution that will still allow all of AlphaTrack's other elements (sends, EQ, plug-ins, etc.) to follow as normal.
For hosts that support user assignment of controller functions, you can load up a handful of your most frequently used commands or edit strings. In Nuendo, for example, you assign such custom key bindings in the Device Setup window where there are literally hundreds of functions available, making the AlphaTrack extremely adaptable to many different needs. Even the footswitch is user-definable. The real time-saver of AlphaTrack, though, is also its coolest feature: the touch-sensitive jog and shuttle strip.
What may look like any other ribbon controller has the unique ability to distinguish between one finger sliding across its surface — initiating jog mode — or two fingers spaced slightly apart, which shuttles the time line. Faster and more intuitive than a wheel or mouse, user dynamics make it even more powerful. Sliding both fingers slightly to the right shuttles the time line slowly in that direction; slide your fingers further to the right and the time line moves faster. Slide your fingers to the left to slow things down or go backward. Lift one finger and precisely scroll the playback where you want it with the other finger, or you can tap on the ends of the strip to navigate through your projects' song markers. Driver version 1.1 added audio scrubbing in Cubase/Nuendo by holding down Shift while touching the strip. I can't believe it took this long for somebody to come up with such an ingenious system.
JUNIOR TRACK STAR
As with my beloved TranzPort, AlphaTrack hasn't seen a day without use in my studio. Quite simply, AlphaTrack works the way you work. It is optimized to handle the same type of in-depth mix and edit tasks as any large-format controller out there, only easier and oftentimes faster.
In stark contrast to the many science lab-style control surfaces available, AlphaTrack is immediately comfortable, familiar and intuitive to use. The layout puts commands ideally within reach of any finger, making it possible to multidial with two or more fingers without skipping a beat. You can literally ride the fader while touch-assigning an EQ band, dialing up a Q value and navigating song markers without lifting your wrist.
Logic and Logic Express are the only two major DAWs not to have native support of AlphaTrack yet, but many of AlphaTrack's basic features can be used productively with Logic in HUI mode by selecting it in the Preferences/Control Surfaces/Setup screen. It's also worth noting that because each plug-in individually determines which, if any, of its parameters are revealed through the DAW's user interface to controller devices, you may come across the oddball plug-in that you won't be able to control fully with AlphaTrack.
Trumping devices such as the PreSonus FaderPort, AlphaTrack is the only one of its kind to provide integrated window views and tactile knob control of your EQ and plug-in world, not to mention user-assignable access to custom edit functions and a jog system that will blow your mind the first time you try it.
FRONTIER DESIGN GROUP
ALPHATRACK > $249
Pros: Most feature-packed single-fader controller on the market. Motorized 100mm high-resolution touch-sensitive fader. Three touch-sensitive rotary encoders and 32-character backlit LCD displays parameter names, values and bar graphs. Innovative Jog/Shuttle touch strip. Native, HUI and/or Mackie Control support for nearly every DAW application.
Cons: Rotary encoders are a bit stiff. Chrome finish on some controls can be slippery.
Mac: PPC or Intel; OS 10.3.9 or later; powered USB port
PC: Windows XP (SP2 recommended); powered USB port