The old saying, "You got peanut butter on my chocolate!" expresses a deep truth about creativity: two things that differ in characteristics but share a common domain may yield fruitful results when combined.

The people at Frontier Design have taken that lesson to heart. They've taken the wireless network and the audio control surface, spread one all over the other, and thereby given us a whole new experience of using audio gear. They call it the TranzPort, a name that works on multiple levels: the TranzPort allows you to control the transports of your audio software, is designed to be transported from one place to another, works by providing a transport across wireless and USB protocols, and, when you add all that up, you'll likely be TranzPorted by the experience of using it, as I was.

A Mobile, Intelligent Unit

The TranzPort basically does three things, each of which is powerful; but when they're combined, they're dynamite:

TranzPort Front

The TranzPort is a wireless, bidirectional remote control that works through walls. It supports everything from iTunes to Pro Tools, measures 7 by 5.5 by 2 inches, and weighs 1 pound.

The getting up and walking around part: man, it's the little things that can really make a difference in your life, probably because they often turn out not to be so little after all. First of all, mobility allows you to get away from computers and other noisy components—which is critical whenever a mic is in use.

But there's more to it than that. Think about it: who's in charge when you're hunched over your PC, virtually bowing to it? Sometimes that posture may be appropriate, because some software does seem designed to crush your spirit. But you don't have to assume the position automatically. The TranzPort is one of those rare pieces of technology that can immediately let you feel better about life, and it does it simply by allowing you to stand up and go wherever you please.

Trust me—try it and see. Since unpacking the TranzPort, I've found myself standing up and walking around a lot, just because I could. And I've been loving it. Frontier claims a typical operating range of 30 feet; I've found the range depends on what's between the unit and its wireless interface. Walls, not surprisingly, cut the range dramatically.

You can't really reclaim your independence if you're forced to make frequent darts across the room to squint at your monitor. And that's the TranzPort's second big benefit: its display interacts with your software, updating to reflect what's going on back at the computer. (Note the important difference with the one-way communication on a typical remote control.) The TranzPort's wireless capability sets you free, and its interactive two-line LCD keeps you that way.

And then there are the buttons and knobs. Physical interfaces that establish a direct link between gesture and action (such as buttons, knobs, keys, strings, pipes, and skins) just plain work better for music. That's because art is a language of feeling (think of the root meanings of "aesthetic" and "anesthetic"), and feeling is experienced in the body. With the mouse, many gestures are redefined and scaled down to something...well, mousy. The TranzPort is not the first control surface to give you buttons and knobs. But the others usually don't let you pick them up and carry them around.

Controller and Receiver

The USB receiver lets you take the control unit up to 30 feet away from your noisy, flashing computer and concentrate on recording or listening.

Installation

I installed the TranzPort driver from the included CD onto my 1.5GHz G4 PowerBook running OS 10.4.6 (Tiger). Installation was fast and easy, but I don't know how much of a recommendation that is for the TranzPort, since installation of just about anything is fast and easy on Macs. To use the TranzPort with some applications, you may need to download a driver update from Frontier's website. After the driver installation (Frontier says the "after" is important), you connect the TranzPort's wireless interface to a USB port.

The TranzPort works with a growing list of apps, including:

  • Acid Pro
  • Adobe Audition
  • Cubase
  • Digital Performer
  • Fruity Loops
  • Guitar Tracks Pro
  • iTunes
  • Logic
  • Metro
  • Midi Translator
  • MidiStroke
  • Nuendo
  • Pro Tools
  • Reason
  • Samplitude
  • SAWStudio
  • Sonar
  • Tracktion

I tried it with Reason and iTunes, which seemed like a good sample, as it covers both the producer and the consumer sides of making music. (I dislike the idea of "consumption" in connection with music, but it's the industrial category we're stuck with.)

In both cases, the experience of using the software was transformed.

iTunes Layout

The default mappings in the iTunes layout (screen image simulated). The "Play One Track" label at far right corresponds to the footswitch input.

Tranzforming iTunes

With a TranzPort, iTunes finishes its journey to the living room: you can finally get comfy on the couch, and the computer can sit where it wants.

You start by selecting iTunes Controller mode in your new TranzPort menu (Mac) or SysTray item (Win), which appear after you install the driver. Pushing any button on the TranzPort or plugging in the receiver will then launch iTunes.

Basic operation is intuitive: press the TranzPort's Play button and iTunes plays a song; press Stop, it stops. Fast Forward and Rewind behave the way you'd expect. The TranzPort's big data wheel adjusts volume, which is what you'd guess a big wheel would do. And the Track Left and Right buttons skip to the previous and next track, respectively. Pause is not quite so obvious; you pause by pressing Play again while a song is playing. (That's also the way it works in iTunes' native interface.) You could stop here and be happy. You now have a super remote for iTunes, and you could use the system to replace your CD player.

TranzPort Menu

The TranzPort menu (or SysTray icon in Windows) lets you switch quickly between control setups.

But there's a lot more if you want it, including functions that iTunes doesn't have on its own. To go beyond the basics, you'll want to consult Frontier Design's iTunes guide, covering the remapping of the box's 20 buttons and data wheel for this app. (Frontier's Downloads page has guides to working with compatible apps, as well as technical information on creating your own maps for unsupported software.) Here are some of the iTunes button mappings, followed by an example scenario of how you might use them:

So far, that's just a list of features. Here's a step-by-step example of what you might do with them:

  1. Sit on the couch (see couch manual, not included).
  2. Press any button to wake up the TranzPort. (It has no On/Off switch; it just goes to sleep when ignored for awhile.) Then, press any button to launch iTunes.
  3. Press Play and then Shuffle to listen to a random selection of songs from your library. Up comes "Fallen" by k.d. lang, written by Ron Sexsmith.
  4. If you love this song, hold the Shift button and turn the Data Wheel to add stars to the song in iTunes' Rating column. (The stars also appear on the TranzPort's LCD.)
  5. Make a playlist called "Great Singers Cover Great Songs." Press Shift-Add to create the new playlist (you'll have to use your computer's keyboard to name it), then press Add to add the current song to that playlist.
  6. Think to yourself, "I like this song so much I want to learn how to play it." Set up a loop in order to start studying it: press Loop until the TranzPort display says you're in Repeat Song mode. With the song playing, press Shift-In to mark the loop's start point. Play or cue to the end point you want, and press Shift-Out. Press Stop and then Play, and the song will start looping between the start and end points.
iTunes Playlist

An iTunes listening session under TranzPort control. You can audition, rate, and even loop songs (or song sections) remotely.

More iTunes Tricks

There's much more you can do with the TranzPort to enhance your experience of iTunes as a music player, and I won't go into all of it here. But there are two other techniques I must mention: using the TranzPort to shop the iTunes Music Store, and using the TranzPort with iTunes in live performance.

With the TranzPort and the Music Store, you can browse, filter, and collect songs, artists, and albums. In some cases, the TranzPort makes existing operations easier and faster, and in others, it enables new operations. One of my favorites is pressing Shift-Play to preview all of my current selections. This is a great way to get a sense of a whole album without having to turn your attention back to iTunes, track by track. In other words, you can do something else while listening. (Of course, it would be even better to stop multitasking and just be in the moment. I'll get to that.)

For live performance, the TranzPort has a Cue mode, as in "cue up the next song." By using either the Rec button or a footswitch (for which the TranzPort has a one-quarter-inch jack), you can tell iTunes to be ready to play the next song in the current playlist, but not to start it until you press Rec or step on the footswitch again. So if you perform live with backing tracks, you can move gracefully from one song to the next just by discreetly tapping your foot. I love this kind of design in musical equipment—a feature that subordinates itself to the flow of the experience, causing the technology to recede into the background.

Mic Stand Comic

This illustration from Frontier Design's site (made with Comic Life, perhaps?) shows the optional mic-stand adapter and foot pedal (each $19.95) in use.

The Ramp of Complexity

The potential downside of all this functionality is complexity. But the complexity ramps up well. You can learn the basic functions almost instantly, and then take on more advanced functions as they become useful to you. In all cases, the TranzPort interface imposes little overhead—there's no paging through sub-menus here—so each new function is fairly easy to remember.

Another liability is that the TranzPort's buttons are hard-labeled, and some labels don't reflect what the buttons do in the program you're controlling. It would help to have perforated overlay sheets with labels for various apps.

Reason to Believe

To set up the TranzPort to work with Reason (version 3.0.3 or above is required), you select Native mode in your computer's TranzPort menu, launch Reason, and select Preferences→Control Surfaces and Keyboards→Auto-detect Surface. You will now discover two cool things: the TranzPort's LCD display is showing a bar-graph-style VU meter and a position counter, and the data wheel acts as a fast, accurate shuttle control, like on a video editor. I was sold already, just as with iTunes.

Other basic functions (Play, Stop, Rewind, Fast Forward, Mute, Solo, Record, and Loop) work as you'd expect. Interacting with Reason feels fast and solid, more so than when using a mouse, since there's no hunting around the screen trying to hit a small graphical target in Reason's feature-packed interface. Brisk shuttling with the data wheel doesn't cause any hanging, only smooth scrolling with almost no discernible delay between the wheel movements and the onscreen display. (Holding the Shift button while turning the wheel "gears down" the shuttle for finer work, so that you now move by 16th-notes instead of quarter-notes.) If you shuttle while in play mode, play resumes instantaneously at the new position.

I assume this responsiveness is thanks to the fast wireless protocol that the TranzPort uses. According to Frontier Design:

Although TranzPort uses the same 2.4GHz radio band used by Bluetooth for true worldwide use, it uses a proprietary radio protocol that is different than Bluetooth. As a result, it is a lower cost solution, with lower latency, more immunity to interference, and lower power consumption.

Here are some of my favorite uses of that fast, cheap connection. In all cases, the experience is faster and easier than it would be with Reason alone:

  • Press the In or Out button: Reason's "playback head" goes to the Left or Right marker, or in Loop mode, the loop in- or out-point.
  • Track Left or Right: Selects the previous or next track.
  • Shift-Track Left or Right: Selects the previous or next patch on a device.
  • Shift-Prev and Shift-Next: Lowers or raises tempo one bpm at a time—great for dialing in a feel with minimal fuss.
  • Shift-Punch: Toggles the metronome click on and off.

There are some button mappings, or absences thereof, that may seem surprising. For example, the Prev and Next Marker buttons don't map to anything in their unshifted mode, and, unlike with iTunes, neither the Rec button nor a footswitch will do anything. But mappings can easily be changed. Let's say you decide to set up one-button access to the Preview button on Reason's Dr. Rex loop player. Mapping Preview to the Prev button is the interface-design version of a pun, I guess, but it makes it easy to remember. Here's how you do it:

  1. In Reason, select Options→Remote Override Edit Mode. Reason's window goes grey.
  2. Click on the device you want to work with—in this case, the Dr. Rex. A blue arrow appears on controls that can be mapped to the TranzPort.
  3. Double-click the Dr. Rex button you want to map—in this case, Preview. A gold, rotating lightning bolt will hover over it.
  4. Press the TranzPort button you want to map to this control—in this case, Prev.
  5. When you're done mapping buttons, deselect Remote Override Edit Mode in Reason.

As with iTunes, the whole experience was greatly enhanced by using the TranzPort—and I already liked Reason. I found that my operation rate picked up considerably, and yet the operation rhythm was smoother. Faster, but less frantic—that's what I call flow.

TranzPort Side View

Plugging a footswitch in to the TranzPort makes it easy to do tasks like punching in during recordings and advancing to the next backing track in iTunes.

Tranzcendence

In all my testing of the TranzPort with iTunes and Reason, I've had no trouble. Everything has worked well, nothing has crashed, and even the battery life is good. (There's no on/off switch, but the TranzPort is an efficient sleeper.) Basically, I love it. But given that I'm working with a free review unit here, let me pause to put myself in the imaginary position of having paid for it. The TranzPort would have cost me about $200.

Still love it.

Do I need it? No, but when you get down to it, the secret, awful truth is that all I really need is one good instrument and open ears. Now and then, though, extra stuff does find its way into my life. The TranzPort performs the valuable job of reducing the mental clutter generated by some of that other stuff. For that, it is my little blue and black friend.


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