Music Thing: Frontier Alphatrack

Each week Tom Whitwell of Music Thing highlights the best of the new music gear that's coming out, as well as noteworthy vintage equipment:

At first glance, there are few things outside a 747 flight deck that are more intimidating than a big old recording console. I remember seeing them in music videos when I was a child and wondering how any human being could ever remember what all those hundred of knobs and buttons and sliders were for. Then I grew up and realised that they're really just 40-odd identical channel strips, which do nothing more magical than the volume and tone controls on a home stereo.

Unfortunately for lovers of dust and beautifully over-engineered gear, the room-sized recording console is dying out fast, replaced by software and small, neat, racks of pre-amps and analog summing mixers. But the need for faders and knobs remains, and has inspired two slightly weird-looking gadgets. Intrigued? Read on, friends, read on...

The latest and prettiest is the Frontier Alphatrack (pictured), a $199 USB box containing all the essential bits of a recording console, but much, much smaller. There's a full-length motorised fader, a few knobs, proper play / stop / record transport controls, and a ribbon controller for scrubbing back and forth through tracks. It should work straight out of the box with Pro Tools, Sonar, Cubase and Reason. Similar in concept, but simpler in design and without the knobs or the handy LCD display, is the Presonus Faderport.

Mixing with a long motorised fader and real transport controls is certainly more fun than clicking at an icon with a mouse (or pushing the space bar, which starts and stops most software sequencers). But something has been lost along the way. In the late '70s, when 24-track recording was possible but there was no reliable way to automate mixing, mixing records was a live performance, with the producer, the engineer and half the band called in to push faders up and down as the track was bounced to the master tape. Somehow this little blue box isn't quite the same.