Frontier Design AlphaTrack Control Surface

The company is well known for its TranzPort wireless control surface that lets you record tracks from anywhere in the studio.
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FAST FACTS
(click thumbnail)
Applications
Studio, project studio, audio-for-video edit suites

Key Features
One 100 mm touch-sensitive motorized fader with 10-bit resolution; three touch-sensitive continuous-turn encoders; a group of 22 buttons and 21 LEDs including transport controls, record-enable, solo, mute, automation indication, and more; a 32-character backlit display

Price
$249

Contact
Frontier Design Group | 800-928-3236 | www.frontierdesign.com

PRODUCT POINTS

Plus

  • Easy to set up and use; no problems with SONAR
  • Excellent correlation between software and controller
  • Jog/shuttle strip and LCD display, touch-sensitive encoders
  • Easy automation and programming
  • Great value

Minus

  • With some plug-ins, a mouse might be simpler to use than a controller (not a fault of AlphaTrack)

SCORE
If you don’t need a full control surface, AlphaTrack gives you tactile control without the big price tag and the big footprintMixing with a mouse isn’t for everybody. After a while, we long for the smooth glide of a real fader, or the tactile feedback of real knobs, buttons and control surfaces to do the job. But many folks work on one track at a time, so a multi-fader control surface might be overkill. Frontier Design came up with a smaller, lower-cost solution that makes a lot of sense: the AlphaTrack.

The company is well known for its TranzPort wireless control surface that lets you record tracks from anywhere in the studio. Their new $249 AlphaTrack is a paperback-size DAW control surface with knobs, buttons and a single high-resolution fader intended to speed the editing and mixing process.

Features

AlphaTrack features a 100 mm touch-sensitive motorized fader with 10-bit resolution; it feels smooth and precise. Three touch-sensitive continuous-turn encoders let the user adjust track and plug-in settings such as panning, aux send, EQ and looping. A group of 22 buttons and 21 LEDs include transport controls, record-enable, solo, mute, automation indication, function keys and encoder mode. Some DAW software lets you set up user-programmable functions on the AlphaTrack.

A 32-character backlit display above the encoder knobs shows the parameter name and value. When you put your finger on a knob, the display instantly shows detailed name and value information, such as a large bargraph.

You can use only one AlphaTrack with your computer; it can be placed anywhere that is convenient, such as to the left or right of your keyboard. Its size is 8.5 x 6 x 3 inches (22 x 15 x 7.5 cm).

A unique feature is the touch-sensitive jog and shuttle strip. When you slide two fingers across its surface your project’s timeline scrolls quickly. Lift one finger and slide for precise positioning. You can jump to markers by tapping on the left or right ends of the strip.

At the time of this writing, the only similar product is the PreSonus Faderport ($229), which lacks the shuttle-strip and display that the AlphaTrack includes.

Connection and powering is by USB 2.0 or 1.1, so the AlphaTrack is easy to use with laptops (and you can shut off the fader motor to save laptop power). A 6-foot USB cable is included but the device will work with a 16-foot cable. I was happy to see a footswitch jack for punch-in recording. I often record myself playing bass guitar into my DAW and appreciate having my hands free to play while punching in.

Compatible with Windows XP and Mac OS X (10.3.9+, including Intel Macs), AlphaTrack works with DAW software such as Pro Tools, SONAR, Reason, Cubase SX/SL, Digital Performer and Nuendo. I tested it only with SONAR Producer 6.2.1. Support for more applications will be added regularly. Note that some plug-ins might have parameters that do not respond to the AlphaTrack encoders; that’s a limitation of the plug-in creator or host program rather than AlphaTrack. Also, if you unplug and replug the AlphaTrack your DAW will no longer find it unless you have Windows Service Pack 2. (This bug is part of Windows, not AlphaTrack.) Or in SONAR you can go into Options > Control Surfaces and re-select AlphaTrack.

In Use

The clearly written instructions guided me through installation and operation. I installed the AlphaTrack drivers and Frontier Design’s SONAR plug-in. The system was up and running in 12 minutes without a glitch. SONAR recognized the device and everything worked smoothly.

The AlphaTrack and its LCD display correlated closely with SONAR’s display on my computer monitor. For example, the readouts on the display matched the numbers on screen. When I clicked on a track with a mouse, AlphaTrack snapped to the track’s settings and fader position. When I adjusted AlphaTrack’s fader or panning, SONAR’s on-screen controls followed right along. AlphaTrack recognized and controlled all the plug-ins packaged with SONAR Producer. It also controlled some, but not all, downloaded plugs.

I thought that the device felt reasonably solid, and I enjoyed using its long-throw fader. The large, bright LCD display was easy to read. Using one or two fingers on the touch strip, I could navigate through a project quickly — especially by tapping on the ends of the strip to go to various markers.

Tapping the Loop button was faster than finding the Loop icon in SONAR and clicking it; the same goes for the pan, EQ and send buttons. While using the AlphaTrack during an actual session, I developed a two-handed workflow where I clicked a track with the mouse and adjusted its level and panning with the AlphaTrack.

For one test, I enabled an equalizer. Frequency adjustment was coarse when I turned an encoder knob, fine when I pushed and turned the same knob, and very fine when I pushed the Flip button, which lets the fader adjust parameters.

Fader automation is well implemented. To record fader changes, for example, tap Send, touch the fader and press the Auto button, press Play and adjust the fader. SONAR draws a volume envelope on the track that shows the fader’s position. Go back and hit Play. AlphaTrack’s fader follows the envelope. If you need to update a fader move, start before the change, hit Play and re-write the new move. Aux sends, panning, EQ and so on can be automated, as well.

In SONAR’s Tools menu is the AlphaTrack tools panel. From here you can set preferences for AlphaTrack operation and store setups for later recall. To program a function key, just select one on-screen and choose its function from a drop-down menu.

AlphaTrack has an option to use SONAR’s ACT feature. With Active Controller Technology, SONAR can “learn” to map or associate controller operations with plug-in parameters. Basically you click on the ACT Learn button in SONAR, click on a parameter, rotate an encoder and click Act Learn again then the encoder controls that parameter. Very cool.

Not everything was rosy. For me, at least, adjusting plug-in parameters was easier with a mouse than with AlphaTrack’s encoder knobs. I found that using a mouse to adjust frequency, Q and gain was more intuitive than using the encoders. AlphaTrack’s implementation of encoders is excellent, but tweaking encoders can be cumbersome compared to point-and-click. Other users might have a different experience.

When I opened SONAR’s Vintage Channel compressor-gate-EQ, AlphaTrack recognized all of its parameters and displayed each one as an abbreviation on its LCD screen. Learning these abbreviations took some time. It was easier for me just to point the mouse to the particular function I wanted to tweak.

Still, the AlphaTrack enhanced my workflow in all other operations. With enough practice any user could zip through a project.

Summary

If you don’t need a full control surface, AlphaTrack gives you tactile control without the big price tag and the big footprint. It works very smoothly with SONAR. Great job, Frontier Design.

Some users might prefer to use a mouse when adjusting plug-in parameters. But, generally, AlphaTrack makes editing and mixing faster and easier than with a mouse — and it reduces repetitive stress syndrome.