Pros: Full MIDI feedback from most DAW applications, Small, Portable, USB powered
Cons: Limited with just 1 channel control, Can be fiddly to access device parameters, Expensive for a single fader
Manufacturer: Frontier Design
- Small single channel controller
- 100mm touch-sensitive, motorized fader
- Touch sensitive trackpad for scroll
- 32-character backlit display
- Three touch-sensitive encoders, with push-button function
- Dedicated transport buttons as well as track arm/mute/solo and function switching
- LED feedback of many functions
- USB powered (no power supply required)
- MCU and Logic operation mode for plug-n-play ability
- Custom MIDI buttons for learning into DAWs for extra functions
Decision to Buy
I have now owned the AT since 2010 and when I first purchased it for use with Live I wanted to have the option to take it on the road which is why I first chose the AT. At the time there were not too many options for a simple small controller that didn't cost a fortune. The 2 options I was looking at were the AlphaTrack and the Presonus Faderport. I chose the Alphatrack because of the LCD which was a good thing. At the time of the purchase Live did not have an ipad app and I did not even own an ipad or that would have changed the playing field.
The alphatrack has a bit of a weird style going on with its shape. I kind of like the layout but personally I like my gear to have nice straight sides because often you want things to fit together on a desk. It is shipped in a sturdy box with CD and USB cable.
That small gripe aside the layout of controls and the apperance are quite nice. The unit is not tiny and is easy to see the controls and access them and nice rubber feet help it stay on the desk. It is rather light so can be prone to move.
The buttons have a rather cheap clicky feel to them but the fader feels nice and has a metal slider knob.
Setup with Ableton Live
To use the Alphatrack you need to install the driver from the CD (or the latest from the website). This will install a utility in the taskbar which allows you to set the operation mode (Native MIDI or MCU mode). For Live and most other applications you set the mode to MCU so that it will act as a standard Mackie MCU control surface. They have guides for different DAWs on their website on how to setup and configure which is helpful and gets you going easily in just a few minutes.
After configuring the device as a control surface in live the fader shoots into position and will display the status of the currently selected track. As you switch to a different track all the buttons and fader will update to the tracks settings which is what you should expect. Changes on the AT are reflected in quick real-time on the screen and vise versa. Like most USB MIDI controllers these days the setup is pretty straight forward and they have a lot of DAW spcific information on their site to assist.
Using The Thing
Getting started is quite simple. You have all the controls of the channel on the controller and as you switch from 1 track to another the controller will update its control positions and settings to match the track. You have quick access to track volume, arm, solo, mute as well as transport controls, loop controls etc.
At the top of the controller are the function buttons which allow the macro knobs and volume slider to control different patameters for the track. You can access the Pan, Sends, Returns, Master volume and even plugin parameters. The LCD will show the info of the parameters being accessed and the value. The macro knobs will display the parameter info and then the current value when touched. You can select the tracks instrument or effect and tweak any parameter. You can also use the FLIP button to switch a macro knob control over to the fader for better tweaking.
All these options seem great and it is very well thought out but because you really have access to only 1 parameter at a time it does seem to take longer to drill into a device and to the right control than just using the mouse and doing it on-screen.
The actual function buttons will differe their purpose depending on the DAW used. The suppliment manuals for each DAW do cover the functionality well though.
Recording automation of track volume and accessing record otions was simple and straight forward. For simple 1 track at a time control it really works well and the display does make uing it away from the computer much easier. The LED displays were also helpful though because I am colourblind and don't see the colour Red well the REC led for the track arm was sometimes hard to see in a lit room.
I eventually aquired a full Mackie MCU but still keep the Alphatrack as a quick access controller where my MIDI keyboard sits which is away from the main work area. This then offers access to the channel I am playing from the keyboard which is great though now with iPad apps this can offer the same portable functionality and more.
The Bad Points
I do like the AT which is why I still have it. It looks nice, has the LCD readout and is a nice small and useful tool for the studio but I really don't use it much in my studio now. I never used it mobile as I haven't had a need to take a controller like that on the road like I thought I would so it kind of sits with little to do. This is somewhat of a fault of the design of it though.
While it is a neat idea and initially I thought I would get a lot of use the fact is that rarely do I want dedicated control of just a channel. While composing and mixing I personally like to constantly adjust many different track volumes while playing to find the ballance. Much of the time I want to adjust one track while playing on a different track which is difficult for the AT do. I found the 1 track just too limited and accessing plugin parameters a little fiddly.
There are some fundtional issues too. Such as in Live if you add a new track in the software the AT LCD display starts flickering and flashing all corrupt because it seems not to recogniuse the new track. You fix this by selecting another track with your mouse and selecting the new track again.
The fader is another slight;ly bad point. It is slow to respond in many cases. If I move a control on screen the AT waits until movement stops for 1 second then moves the fader so it seems to lag behind other surfaces quite a bit. This may be for power consumption reasons but it is not as nice and smooth/snappy as an MCU for example.
The little tray icon driver sometimes likes to have a bit of a spaz and switch its mode for no reason. This results in the controller not working until you figure that one out.
I had to use some mapped commands on some of the user configurable buttons to access things like Overdub, Metrenome, MidiMap because there are a lot of functions not accessible from the control.
There has been little to no developments for the AT in the last 3 years which may be a sign it is about to retire.
When I purchased the Alphatrack initially I was impressed with it and the quality for the price. I feel it has limited days left with devices like the iPad making quick work of small controllers for DAWS and the fact really is that unless you KNOW you need only a single channel controller you will always be wishing you had access to more controls at the same time. It has been reliable but at $200 it is a little costly for a single track controller. In todays world I doubt it would really be a consideration for hobby musicians but if you are really just after a small single track controller with motorised fader then this will not dissapoint.