Control surfaces are hot right now—everyone wants one, and several companies are making them. They can make you more efficient during both tracking and mixing, and often help create a more organic and interesting mix. However, standard control surfaces can take a lot of desk space, while many project studios are already terribly short of desk space.
Frontier Designs has created an alternative to the mixing-desk-style control surface: the AlphaTrack. While still a desktop unit, it saves an enormous amount of space by reducing the fader count to one (!) while still attempting to provide all of the functions you would find necessary in a smaller studio.
The Alphatrack is a smallish (8.5” x 6” x 3”) USB device that is seen by your software as a MIDI control surface. The unit is bus-powered, so no additional power connections are required; in fact, other than a foot-switch jack, the only connector on the whole device is the USB jack.
The control surface features thre e sections:
• A fader area has a single motorized slider, several channel strip support buttons (rec, solo, mute) and channel-based indicators (for automation and solo enabled).
• A rotary control area, which includes a two-line display, three endless controllers and five switches (pan, send, eq, plug-in and auto) for selecting the display/control mode.
• A transport area, which includes function keys, track selectors, standard transport controls, and a touch pad.
Each section is conveniently arrayed out so the entire system fits nicely under one hand. The display is a 2-line, 32-character LCD meant to provide information about the current control mode and corresponding values. All of the controls have firm-but-clean contact clicks, and the rotary controls have a subtle stepping that allows you to “feel” the control movement without impeding smooth movement. The AlphaTrack is peppered with LED indicators, helping keep the user aware of the current state of the controls.
Installation of the AlphaTrack hardware is straightforward enough: since it is USB bus-powered, you simply plug the unit into an available USB port, and the hardware is active. The AlphaTrack does, however, require that drivers are installed on your computer in order to operate correctly. Drivers are available for both Macintosh and Windows; the install includes hardware drivers for the OS as well as control plug-ins for some of the most popular software packages on each platform. Additional control plug-ins are also made available on the Frontier Design web site.
The hardware driver provides specific control modes for several specific software packages: on my Mac test platform, this included Digidesign Pro Tools, Ableton Live, and Apple Logic, Final Cut Pro, and SoundTrack. Logic mode communicates with a dedicated controller plug-in, while Pro Tools mode acts as an emulated HUI controller. For Ableton Live and the other “special” applications, the device’s driver simulates a Mackie Control Universal, and expects that the MCU protocol is selected within the software’s setup. Other software is expected to provide support for the AlphaTrack native mode, using controller plug-ins. For all cases, there is extra documentation available on the installation disk (and on the Frontier website) to help deal with application-specific issues.
For most software packages, the application-specific control plug-ins and printable shortcut sheets (in PDF format) give you immediate access to the full range of AlphaTrack functions. I tested the device on several different systems, and the unit, device drivers, and application plug-ins always worked correctly on first attempt.
My first serious use of the AlphaTrack was as a mixing “assistant” for several Logic Pro 8 projects on a quad-core Mac Pro. I was amazed at the level of integration with the Logic environment; once I had the current Logic control plug-in in place, I was able to perform a majority of functions directly from the control surface.
The availability of a single slider seemed limiting at first, but I quickly found a smooth flow to mixing: I would do a quick mix setup with the mouse, then perform track-by-track automation runs, recording the AlphaTrack movements. As expected, I ended up with a very “organic” mix—something that provided much more breath than I would normally get with strictly mouse-drawn automation.
The sessions I was mixing were all live recordings, and the AlphaTrack was super-useful for quickly altering the levels when microphones got bumped, dropped (!) or vocalists popped their P’s. The AlphaTrack-to-Logic connection was very responsive, and I found myself in a zone with this combination, slamming through the tracks quickly and easily.
Plug-in handling was a little weird, since the plug-ins that I use in Logic tend to have many more parameters than the AlphaTrack could quickly display, and they tend to be graphically intense. To be honest, I tend to have issues with the implementation of plug-in access in most control surfaces, and this was no exception. While I was able to use it for doing some detailed plug-in setting and automation, I tended to perform plug-in setup using the mouse and screen rather than the control surface. What was quite useful was the top-level support for plug-in bypass, which made it easy to A/B switch a track’s plug-ins with the straight sound.
My use of the AlphaTrack with Ableton Live was in a completely different context than with Logic: I used it as a controller during a live performance. As suggested by the documentation, I changed the driver to the “Live (MCU)” protocol format, then selected the device as a Mackie Control Universal within Live. The controller immediately “lit up”, and I was using it at once. In this case, I found that the mode functions were constantly in use; I kept jumping between Pan, Send and Auto mode. One benefit with the AlphaTrack/Live configuration is that every mode implemented the left-most knob as a Track Select control, so I could switch among tracks quickly without having to drop down to the push buttons. The Auto mode implemented clip and scene selection and launching functions, and I ran an entire set without ever having to resort to the mouse (except when changing Live projects).
The only downside to using the AlphaTrack in this application was a noticeable lag in the motorized fader setting when I switching from track to track. I had to be careful to wait for the fader to adjust to the new track’s setting before I touched the fader—otherwise I would inadvertently alter the volume. During rehearsals I had several occasions where a low-level track would start booming because I’d rested a finger on the fader when I moved to a new track. With some practice I learned to have a little patience, and the system worked very well.
The visual nature of the AlphaTrack, with its well-lit display, plethora of status LEDs and great feeling controls, made this an excellent controller for the poorly-lit conditions typical during live performance. Combined with its small size and negligible weight, it proved to be a perfect choice for my live performance application.
Setting up the AlphaTrack for use with Pro Tools was similar to Live—I set the AlphaTrack driver to use the HUI protocol (done with the convenient menu-bar drop-down), then added a new HUI surface within Pro Tools itself. Since the HUI device is an 8-channel controller, the AlphaTrack “shows” eight channels of control, even though you are only controlling the first channel. It took a few minutes to get used to project traversal, but quickly became second nature.
The Pro Tools implementation is very complete, with practically every function supported by button, knob or multi-button combinations. The jog/shuttle strip was especially useful with Pro Tools; I found myself zipping around my mix project using the strip far more often than the mouse, since I never had to worry about messing up my loop, selection or location markers when using the AlphaTrack. More than with any other software, I found that the AlphaTrack aided my mix sessions in Pro Tools by eliminating otherwise frustrating (to me) UI quirks.
As with Logic, I found the AlphaTrack surface to be very responsive, with quick switching from track to track, and immediate value changes when tracking automation. My main test was done on a mixdown of a large multitrack recording. The fully-realized control implementation was very helpful, since I could use the device for almost every function that would normally require mouse actions. I was surprised to see the number of window-control functions, allowing me to (for example) hide and reveal the transport window with a STOP+FLIP button combo, or pop up a channel’s eq or plug-in window with the STOP+EQ button. Once I got these commands comfortably under my fingers, I found that my mousing habits changed dramatically.
Unlike with my experience with Logic, I found myself using the AlphaTrack extensively for plug-in control. There is something about the plug-ins I use with Pro Tools (perhaps a greater level of simplicity) that made them more useful with a mixing surface, but I found myself using the Pro Tools plug-in control functions of the AlphaTrack far more than I ever have with any other control surface.
I’ve been using the AlphaTrack for several months now, and have become completely sold on this unit. It is perfect for portable recording and live performance, but is equally comfortable with my bigger studio rig. While not a complete replacement for a large control surface, it has been a great “80%” solution for me, and doesn’t force me to allocate too much of my scarce desk space.
I was very impressed with the completeness of the implementation in all the software packages I tested, and found that the decisions made by Frontier were generally to my taste. Other than the fader lag I felt in Live, the system felt immediate and responsive, and quickly became my new “right arm” during mixes and performance. There is little doubt about the value of using controllers in conjunction with DAW software, and the Frontier Design AlphaTrack is a compact powerhouse in this application.
More from: Frontier Design Group, 31 Old Etna Rd., Lebanon, NH 03766. 603/448-6283, www.frontierdesign.com.