Tranzport: The Final Frontier

People love gadgets. Just look at the success of the Apple iPod. And engineers, being the techno geeks that we are, are among the biggest gadget nuts on the planet. So when Frontier announced their new Tranzport wireless DAW remote control at last year’s AES convention in San Francisco, it created quite a buzz. I put my dibs in early and was rewarded with one of the very first review units. Let’s check it out.
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OK, the Tranzport is a wireless DAW remote control unit. Unlike the infrared remotes you’re probably already familiar with, the Tranzport uses 2.4GHz RF to transmit control signals, which means it doesn’t have “line of sight” limitations — you can control various DAW functions from the other room. And it works with a wide range of software — Mac or PC — right out of the box, including all of the “big five” DAW programs. I personally tested it in my own studio with Pro Tools LE, Sonar, and Cubase SX, and it worked great with all three. Setup was simple — connect the receiver’s USB cable to your host computer, install the drivers, stick the included alkaline batteries into the remote unit, and tell your DAW software that you have a controller attached.

And all the basics are there, and all functioned perfectly ��� transport control, record arming, track muting, solo, panning, levels, inserting markers, looping. I wouldn’t consider it as a substitute for a more fully featured control surface, but it does have one major advantage over any other controller that I’m aware of: You can use it just about anywhere, with no tether. Frontier claims a 10-meter “typical range”, and my tests bore that out. Actually, I was often able to go nearly twice that distance before it would drop out, and even when you‘re near the range limit, a small position adjustment of a few inches in any direction will usually get you back in sync. Even when going through multiple walls (including two concrete- and rebar-filled cinderblock walls) the unit worked without hassles. Interference from microwave ovens or wireless telephones was never a problem either — the Tranzport automatically finds an appropriate frequency, even in heavy RF environments, and I never noticed any audible noise in my signal paths when the Tranzport was running.

Wondering about battery life?

Frontier claims about 100 hours of use when running it without the backlight feature, and so I drove it for over a week, working 10-12 hours per day, before the batteries finally died. A battery strength indicator gives you plenty of advance notice, and you can use NiMH rechargeable batteries if you wish. (I’d highly recommend that.) The Tranzport has no power button, but instead goes into an ultra-low power consumption “sleep mode” when not used for 15 minutes. You can adjust the default time before the sleep mode kicks in, which can also help increase battery life when it is set to a lower value. The display is also a winner. You get visual feedback of levels, song position, panning and more, and the backlight feature, while lowering battery life, makes viewing the display much easier in low light situations. Another recommendation is to spring for the optional mic stand mount that uses two hooks and a magnet to hold the unit firmly in place on the stand, but still allows you to remove it quickly.

So what are some reasons you might want something like this? It opens up a whole new world to single-room recording setups, allowing you to easily track from another room. Do you have a piano in the living room? Run a headphone cable and a couple of mic lines out there from your bedroom studio and control your DAW from there. It allows you to experiment with playing in different acoustical environments, or to just get a little distance away from that noisy computer. Even people like me, with multiple room facilities, can benefit. Recording by myself has always been a hassle, and I‘ve had to either put up with it or track in the control room. I used to have to set a long pre-roll, start recording, run from the control room to the studio, get situated, and then play. If I made a mistake, I had to run back into the control room, reset things, run back to the studio and try again. Not much fun, and a real vibe killer.

Another use would be as a “more me” monitor controller for a performer. Set it up and allow them to control their own monitoring level in the cans. Control your DAW from the couch at the back of the room, or listen from the other room to get a different perspective on your mix. While it supports various controller protocols such as the HUI protocol, Frontier also includes a “native” mode, and if your DAW supports remapping of MIDI control data, you can program it to do just about whatever you’d like. Kudos to Frontier for publishing the MIDI data — I imagine a lot of people will hack their own layouts.

Beefs?

Not many. I wish it had a lanyard attachment point. I wish it could control plug-in parameters. Native mode and remapping of MIDI commands in your DAW may let you do so, but time constraints prevented me from experimenting with that. And while the shift key allows you to use all the keys for secondary function controls, indication of what those shifted functions are is not listed on the front panel. To be fair, the functions differ slightly from DAW to DAW, but a plastic “overlay” that listed the shift-key functions for each protocol would be nice to have. But seriously, these are very minor quibbles, and none of them detract from the unit’s rock solid functionality as a remote transport control.

Bottom line: This box is a must have.

If you use a DAW, this is one gadget that is going to make your life a whole lot easier. I predict it’s going to be as popular for studio owners as the iPod is for music listeners. Nothing else out there does what the Tranzport does, and it sells at a price anyone can justify. A lot of thought obviously went into designing it, and someone should have thought of this a long time ago. That makes it a no-brainer for the EQ Exceptional Quality Award.