FIG. 1: The Dexter control surface sits neatly on your desktop, giving you hands-on control of all mixing and plug-in effects parameters.
When JazzMutant introduced its Lemur multitouch graphical control surface, the typical reaction was shock and awe. The eye-popping price was shocking, and the look, feel, and function were awe inspiring. The company's second offering, Dexter, follows in the Lemur's footsteps. Upon learning the price was $3,299, my first reaction was, Wow, that'll buy you a high-end computer and a lot of software. On the other hand, this is one impressive piece of gear, and by the time you read this, JazzMutant will probably have released a new version (free to Dexter owners) that allows the unit to toggle between the Dexter and Lemur software at the click of a button.
Unlike the Lemur, Dexter does not require you to design your own graphical interface, program its output, and set up your software to respond. It works right out of the box with the software it supports: Cakewalk Sonar and Steinberg Nuendo and Cubase on the PC, and Cubase and Apple Logic Pro on the Mac. The unit's 14.5 × 1.2 × 11.6-inch frame sits neatly on your desktop and is mostly taken up by a 12-inch, 800 × 600-pixel screen (see Fig. 1). Installing the hardware and ancillary software is quick and painless. For installation details, see the online bonus material at www.emusician.com.
Dexter's controls are spread across four pages: Mixer, Equalizer, Insert, and Surround. A fifth page, Channel Edit, gives you more-compact access to all parameters for a single channel. All pages share a navigation bar across the top containing transport, bank-select, and group buttons. Names for the eight tracks in the current bank appear below the navigation bar and are used on most pages to change the track targeted by the page. The unit picks up the track names automatically from your sequencer.
The Mixer page is selected by default when you power up the unit, and it is the page that gets the most use. Channel strips for eight tracks are arranged side by side in standard mixer fashion with an outsized fader at the right that is always linked to the master output. Next to each channel fader, you'll find color-coded mute, solo, and record-arming buttons. Automation read and write buttons are below those. A simplified view that suppresses the button display is convenient when you're concentrating on mixing. All buttons are toggles, and a channel's mute, solo, or armed status is indicated by the channel's background color, which is the only indicator of the channel's status in the simplified view. If any channels are soloed, the mute buttons of all unsoloed channels flash; that is especially helpful if the soloed channels are in other banks.
FIG. 2: You adjust the positions of eight channels at a time on the Surround page.
You can assign each channel strip to one or more of eight display groups. When group display is active, only the channel strips in the group are visible, but the controls for each channel remain independent. Group display is almost essential for projects with a large number of tracks, and the one downside of this implementation is that group setups don't persist between sessions.
In addition to manual grouping, mute, solo, and arm buttons in the navigation bar toggle the display to show only the corresponding channels. In the simplified view, those buttons appear in the master channel strip, and they toggle the status of all displayed channels.
Although the channel faders are nearly four inches long and have fairly precise resolution, JazzMutant goes a step further. Zoom buttons and a Zoom slider on the master strip change the resolution of all channel faders, allowing extremely precise adjustment. Buttons that at first glance look like pan knobs toggle the channel faders between level and pan adjustment, allowing the same precision in setting pan position.
It does take a few minutes to adapt to using the onscreen faders. You need to apply a slight bit of pressure and use as small a contact point as possible — fingertips or fingernails are recommended, and JazzMutant claims that fingernails won't scratch the surface. The unit's multitouch sensitivity lets you move several faders simultaneously, but doing a 10-finger mix is an exercise worthy of BartÓk. However, you can easily manage two or three sliders at a time.
Insert, Equalize, and Surround
Buttons at the top of each Mixer channel bring up Dexter's other pages. The Equalizer page displays an equalizer graphic with numbered circles that you move to set a band's frequency, bandwidth (Q), and level. The EQ configuration (the number of bands and their format) matches the sequencer's EQ options and current settings. You can scroll the display vertically and horizontally to bring hidden bands into view, and as with the faders, the resolution is zoomable. You use handy x- and y-lock buttons to keep band frequencies or levels from being changed. A Q button toggles vertical adjustment between level and bandwidth.
The Insert page is a tabbed display with a tab for each plug-in effect inserted in the selected track. As on the Mixer page, faders for the effects parameters are arranged in banks of eight, and you use tabs and scroll buttons along the bottom to move between parameter banks. On the Insert page, the controls for the master channel are replaced by the mixing controls for the selected channel. Bus send buttons, which work in the same way as the pan button, appear there as well.
FIG. 3: The Channel Edit page puts compact versions of all channel controls at your fingertips.
Adjusting surround panorama has never been so easy. Tracks are adjusted in banks of eight, and they are represented as colored balls on a grid of concentric circles representing the surround field (see Fig. 2). You can drag the balls to any position or use handy mode buttons to move all balls simultaneously. In Rotate mode, you drag anywhere on the display to rotate all balls around the center. In Distance mode, you place two fingers on the display and then move them farther apart or closer together to move all balls away from or toward the center. Finally, each ball has Angle Lock, Distance Lock, and Solo buttons. Rotate and Distance modes honor a ball's locked status.
Everything at Your Fingertips
The Mixer and Surround pages give you access to eight tracks at a time. The Equalizer and Insert pages give you maximum resolution for a single track. But when you want the most information about a single track, the Channel Edit page is the place to turn (see Fig. 3). It gives you a compact, interactive view of a channel's EQ, surround, inserts, and mixer settings.
The Channel Edit page's Equalizer section is a shrunken version of the full Equalizer page. The Surround section lets you adjust the ball for that channel. The Insert section is a little different; it gives you access to two plug-in parameters at a time, which you adjust on an x-y grid. You use a small scroll button at the right to select which two parameters are affected, and you can freeze either the x- or y-dimension to adjust a single parameter. The channel strip at the far right gives you a giant fader for the channel level or pan position along with the eight bus send buttons described previously.
If what you've read so far has you thinking of the Apple iPhone or Microsoft Surface, the comparison is apt. JazzMutant has made a terrific effort to place flexible graphical control of all aspects of mixing at your fingertips. The obvious question is, How does it compare with a physical control surface such as the Mackie Control Universal? Graphically, it is a great advance — the controls you manipulate clearly reflect what you're changing. For surround mixing and equalization, it is particularly nice. For functions that incorporate onscreen faders — mixing, plug-in programming, and automation — the edge probably goes to having motorized faders with good-quality LCD labels. Still, if Dexter is in your budget and your sequencer supports it, the wow factor is undeniable.
Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. For an earful, visit his Web site atwww.swiftkick.com.
multitouch graphical control surface
FEATURES 5 EASE OF USE 4 DOCUMENTATION 3 VALUE 3
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Easy to set up. Instant access to all mixing parameters. Great eye candy.
CONS: Expensive. Multitouch control takes some practice.