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AlphaTrack Takes PC Recording Beyond The Mouse

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When home recording made the jump from tape recorders to the PC, there were a great many benefits to be had. These include the ability to "see" the audio, so that parts could be easily edited, slid around, tightened up, tuned, etc. The ability to easily paste in pre-recorded loops, and effortlessly treat audio with various plug-ins, rather than rely on hardware-based effects. Computerized mixdown, with all pans and fades pre-programmed in. And on and on.

But for many, there was something lost: specifically, the manual, hands-on control that a tape recorder and (especially) its mixing board provided. That's where Frontier Design's new AlphaTrack control surface for Digital Audio Workstations (DAW)  comes into play. But first, some background. (Feel free to skip to the next subhead if this starts to become old hat to you.)

Since around the mid-1950s, in professional studios, songs are mixed down from a multitrack recorder to a two-track master tape (where they would be physically edited together to form an album) via a producer or his engineer riding the faders on a mixing board. Back when recording studios were four or eight tracks (and EMI's prestigious Abbey Road Studios didn't make the jump to eight tracks until around the time of the Beatles' "White Album"), this wasn't much of a problem as it simply meant one finger per fader.

The race from eight to 16 to 24 tracks happened quickly in the early 1970s. During the next few years, many professional recording studios were in a transition phase between the arrival of 24-track recorders, and, eventually computerized mixing boards. During that period, when the number of tracks outgrew the number of fingers the producer had to control them, often the whole band was brought in for mixdowns, typically with a musician given the volume fader to one of the tracks he didn't play on. And the golden rule was never let the drummer ride the faders to his own drum tracks.

As the number of tracks that could fit onto a roll of two-inch magnetic tape grew, computerized mixdowns became the norm, allowing the engineer to pre-program each track's volume level and position in the stereo spread, as well as manipulating when effects are turned on and off, or their intensity adjusted. And today's digital audio recording programs such as Cubase, Nuendo, and Sonar import this concept into the PC, thus giving the home musician surprising technological power.

But as always, there's a tradeoff. As Craig Anderton noted in his exceptional Sonar 3: Mixing & Mastering book a few years back, one of the reasons why mixes recorded 30 years ago often sound more natural than today's computerized affairs was the presence of that producer or engineer physically manning the mixer's faders, and playing them to control their dynamics, much like a skilled musician intuitively manipulates the dynamics of his singing or instrument. For the most part, it's an imperceptible thing, but its presence in the best mixes can often be noticed: the subtle feel of a hands-on mix, versus simply cueing up the tracks and doing little more with them other than fade-ins and fade-outs.

Give Me A Little Of That Human Touch

While those results are still very much possible to achieve on a computer and a mixing board connected to it via a FireWire or USB interface, a full-blown mixing board is often overkill for the musician working alone in a personal studio, when most parts are recorded a track at a time. Particularly since, historically, the biggest multitrack instrument was the drum kit, which in most project studios is supplied via a hardware or software drum machine and/or loops, and there are so many mono or stereo recording interfaces that take up much less physical space.

Frontier Design Group's new AlphaTrack DAW control surface is designed to bridge this gap. At 8.5" by 6" by 3" and weighing one pound, two ounces, it fits comfortably on most desks (and its styling makes the AlphaTrack look like it could also be pressed into service if Dr. McCoy's tricorder was ever in the shop for repairs). AlphaTrack combines a motorized fader, several tape-recorder style pushbuttons and three rotary knobs.

Frontier Design's Website lists the following drivers as being currently available for AlphaTrack:

AlphaTrack works on Windows XP and Mac OS X (including Intel Macs) with applications such as Pro Tools, SONAR (4+), Reason (3.01+), Cubase (3.02+), Nuendo (3.02+), Digital Performer (5+), Final Cut Pro, Soundtrack Pro, and REAPER. Support for more applications will be added regularly.

(If you're reading this guys, I'm hoping you'll add Adobe's Premiere Pro and After Effects video editing programs to your list.)

The goal is here to supplement the mouse, not replace it, and AlphaTrack's main buttons are exactly what you'd expect to find on your tape recorder: remind, fast-forward, play, stop, and record. These buttons in particular restore much of the tactile experience to recording that was lost when the process became driven via GUIs instead of buttons. The larger fader knob works great with mixing individual tracks, or the volume of a bus full of tracks: in either case, just arm their panning or volume automation, and ride the fader.

Wired Or Wireless?

AlphaTrack builds on Frontier Design's previous TranzPort product, which covered somewhat similar territory; the big difference is that Tranzport is wireless and battery-powered, whereas AlphaTrack is powered by its USB tether, which gives it a maximum range of about 15 feet. However, Tranzport lacks AlphaTrack's motorized fader. It's more a matter of horses for courses: Tranzport is an ideal product if wireless remote control of up to 30 feet from your DAW's PC appeals to you. (Say, inside of a vocal booth, or if the idea of turning big swatches of your home into a recording studio is your thing, ala Led Zeppelin and Headley Grange.) But AlphaTrack may be more flexible for those who normally do everything in front of their DAW, which, presumably, would be the majority of home studio users.

AlphaTrack also has a jack built into the front of the unit for a footswitch, very useful for punch-ins and punch outs. Which illustrates yet another advantage of PC-based recording: because it's possible to slide audio around and easily insert microscopic fade-ins and fade-outs, it's infinitely easy to get an imperceptible punch than with traditional audio tape, especially on a cassette four-track, if my experience in the 1980s was any guide.

Frontier Design's AlphaTrack is a well thought-out, well-engineered product that takes personal recording out of the realm of the mouse, and restores a great deal of tactile interaction to the process. It's highly recommended to those with personal studios who don't want/don't need a full-blown mixing desk, and especially to laptop recording aficionados.

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About Ed Driscoll