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FRONTIER DESIGN GROUP AlphaTrack: PRESONUS AUDIO ELECTRONICS FaderPort

October 1, 2007
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If the Mackie HUI and Control Universal (MCU) are the 800-pound gorillas of DAW control surfaces, the PreSonus Audio Electronics FaderPort and the Frontier Design Group AlphaTrack are the 8-pound chimps. That's a feature, not a drawback. These units fit nicely next to your mouse and sport one motorized fader, a knob or three, and a variety of buttons. The AlphaTrack throws in a multifunction ribbon controller and an LCD for good measure. Both units are USB powered, but the FaderPort requires a wall-wart power supply (included) for motorized-fader operation.

The AlphaTrack''s motorized fader

FIG. 1: The AlphaTrack''s motorized fader, three rotary encoders, and ribbon strip control a variety of mixing and plug-in parameters.

The FaderPort and the AlphaTrack are roughly the same size, weight, and price, and they have a similar control count, but there are significant differences. At the time of this writing they work with a limited number of DAWs, but the list is growing. Both have two modes of operation: native (using custom control-surface plug-ins) and HUI or MCU emulation. Native support is more complete and more reliable, and both work in native mode with Cakewalk Sonar 6 and MOTU Digital Performer 5. The AlphaTrack also offers native support for Steinberg Cubase 4 and Nuendo 3, Propellerhead Reason 3, Adobe Audition 2, and Cuckos Reaper 1.

Apple Logic Pro 7 and Digidesign Pro Tools 7 are supported in emulation mode by both products. The AlphaTrack also supports Apple Soundtrack Pro 2 and Final Cut Pro 2 in emulation mode. The FaderPort supports Cubase 4 and Nuendo 3 in emulation mode. Finally, you can use the AlphaTrack as a standard MIDI control surface, albeit a somewhat limited one. Neither unit is compatible with Ableton Live 6 at this time.

In Practice

The FaderPort is a class-compliant device, meaning that it is automatically recognized by your computer when attached. The AlphaTrack requires installation of a small driver and a background application for choosing its mode of operation. For DAWs with native support, you need to install special control-surface plug-ins, a process that is quick, painless, and well documented.

For this review, I tested the FaderPort and the AlphaTrack on my Power Mac running Mac OS X 10.4.8. I tested both units with Logic Pro 7.2 and Cubase 4.0. I also tested the AlphaTrack with Reason 3.0 and Soundtrack Pro 1.0, and as a standard MIDI controller. Performance in Logic Pro relies on HUI emulation, and there are some unimplemented controls and occasional loss of contact with Logic. Both units performed well with Cubase 4, but the AlphaTrack gets the edge because of its native support. PreSonus plans to release a custom plug-in for Cubase 4 in the near future. The AlphaTrack also worked seamlessly with Reason and Soundtrack Pro, although the latter's control surface support is limited.

One Size Fits All

The guiding principle behind a control surface with a single channel strip is compactness. Both units meet that goal admirably; the FaderPort is a bit more compact, whereas the AlphaTrack has a few more goodies. They are ideal for portable computing in tight spaces but are also very handy on the desktop. I preferred having the controller adjacent to the mouse so that I could easily switch between them. That quickly became second nature.

The biggest difference between the AlphaTrack and the FaderPort is one of design philosophy. The FaderPort is designed purely for mixing, automation, and transport control. Its slider is dedicated to volume, and its rotary encoder is dedicated to pan. That makes the FaderPort extremely simple to use — you're never distracted wondering what mode a knob, fader, or button is in.

The AlphaTrack, on the other hand, is designed as a compact multipurpose controller, which is the primary reason for its LCD and three rotary encoders. The LCD tells you what's doing what, and you always have access to four parameters. Despite its limited number of controls, mode switching makes the AlphaTrack useful in a pinch as a standalone MIDI controller.

AlphaTrack Specifics

For parameter control, the AlphaTrack has a 100 mm touch-sensitive, motorized fader; three touch-sensitive rotary encoders that also function as buttons; and a touch-sensitive ribbon controller (see Fig. 1). The targets of those controls are determined by mode buttons labeled Pan, Send, EQ, and Plug-in located just beneath the rotary encoders. A fifth button sets the DAW's automation mode for the selected track. A toggle-style Shift button calls up alternative functions for the fader, ribbon, encoders, and many of the other buttons. A handy Flip button swaps functions between an encoder and the fader for high-resolution control of the encoder's target parameter.

In Pan mode in Cubase, the fader controls volume, the rightmost encoder controls pan, and the leftmost encoder changes tracks. You twist the center encoder to move between markers, and press it to add markers on the fly. The other modes focus the fader and encoders on various channel-strip and plug-in parameters. Touching any of the touch-sensitive controls toggles the LCD from generic to control-specific information. For example, the LCD, which is located just above the rotary encoders, normally indicates their function, but once the fader, the ribbon controller, or an encoder is touched, the LCD changes to display its value and a fuller description of its function. Touch sensitivity is also used for touch-mode automation, in which current automation is read until the control is touched, after which it is overwritten.

You use four function buttons (which in combination with the Shift button actually invoke eight functions) to step through parameter pages as well as to invoke user-defined functions. In Cubase 4, F1 and F2 step through parameter pages when multiple pages are available. For instance, in EQ mode they step through EQ bands, and in Send mode they step through send buses. F3 through F8 are user assigned using drop-down menus in Cubase's Devices Setup dialog box. When you plug a footswitch into the ¼-inch TS jack on the back, its function is user assigned in the same way. Record, Solo, Mute, and dual-function transport buttons round out the AlphaTrack panel.

The ribbon controller is one of the AlphaTrack's more innovative features. In Cubase it is used for navigation and scrubbing, and its action depends on whether it is tapped (jump between markers), dragged over with one finger (scroll), or dragged with two fingers (jog/shuttle). Used with the Shift key, the ribbon effects audible scrubbing.

FaderPort Specifics

The FaderPort is dedicated to mixing, automation, and transport functions and is, therefore, a much simpler device (see Fig. 2). It currently lacks native support for most DAWs, but in many cases, HUI emulation is sufficient for its tasks. For example, you won't really miss native support for user-assignable buttons or stepping through parameter pages because the FaderPort doesn't have these features. On the other hand, you do need native support to have the FaderPort follow as you change channels with the mouse, as well as to set and move between markers, and you will miss those features.

The FaderPort''s motorized fader

FIG. 2: The FaderPort''s motorized fader and rotary encoder are dedicated to volume and pan mixing and automation.

Like the AlphaTrack, the Fader-Port has a 100 mm touch-sensitive, motorized fader — the same high-quality Alps fader used in the Digidesign D-Command. Here, touch sensitivity is used for touch-mode automation. A single rotary encoder is dedicated to pan. Mute, Solo, and Record buttons are next to the pan encoder, and Channel Select and Bank buttons are just below it. In Bank mode, the Channel Select buttons jump eight channels at a time, which is very handy. A separate Output button jumps immediately to the output channel strip, but that button also requires native support.

Read, Write, and Touch buttons select automation modes, and an Off button turns off the fader motor. That is nice in Read mode when you don't want to be distracted by the moving fader. Window View buttons show and hide the DAW's mixer, project, and transport windows. The Window View row also contains a dedicated Undo/Redo button. The standard transport buttons are augmented with Punch and Loop mode buttons and a user-assignable button, although that requires native support.

Back-to-Back

For native-supported DAWs — and there may be more of those by the time you read this — the choice between the AlphaTrack and the FaderPort is a choice between simplicity and flexibility. If your goal is mixing, automation, and transport control, the FaderPort has it covered with a minimum of fuss. My one quibble would be the separate power supply for the fader motor — that makes it less convenient for portable operation, but that is the price you pay for the high-quality Alps fader.

If you're after a compact but full-featured control surface, the AlphaTrack is for you. It is excellent for mixing, automation, and transport control, but if that's all you need, the extra stuff makes the unit a little larger, and perhaps more complicated than necessary.

For both units, native support for your DAW is key to functionality and hassle-free operation. So check the information and downloads on the Frontier and PreSonus Web sites and browse the companies' user forums before you buy.


Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. For an earful, visit his Web site at www.swiftkick.com.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

FRONTIER DESIGN GROUP
AlphaTrack

compact USB control surface
$249

FEATURES 4
EASE OF USE 3
DOCUMENTATION 3
VALUE 3

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: A full-featured control surface in a slick, compact package.

CONS: Currently offers native support for only a few DAWs.

MANUFACTURER

Frontier Design Group
www.frontierdesign.com

PRODUCT SUMMARY

PRESONUS
FaderPort

compact USB control surface
$229.95

FEATURES 3
EASE OF USE 4
DOCUMENTATION 2
VALUE 3

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Solid and compact. Covers mixing, automation, and transport control with a minimum of fuss.

CONS: Currently offers native support for only a few DAWs.

MANUFACTURER

PreSonus Audio Electronics
www.presonus.com

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