Featured Image from: Scan Pro Audio
DJ’s know the feeling: as fun as spinning and remixing is, it can get a little repetitive with a flat interface. Sometimes, all we need to get inspired is a change of pace, of how we do things, and seeing things in a different perspective. Enter the AlphaSphere.
The brainchild of Bristol-based music company Nu Desine, the AlphaSphere is touted as the next step in music evolution. While visually the piece is stunning, it’s the native software that comes with it that has made it a success, but more on that later.
Let’s talk about the AlphaSphere itself: it’s a spherical device covered in 25cm touch pads all around. The pad frames are interlocked and is what creates the shape of the device. The inside is hollow, save for the internal wiring and base column that holds the sphere up. At first glance, it looks like a geodesic dome, but look closer and you’ll see that the pads increase in size as it gets to the center radius (i.e. the equator), while the pads get smaller towards the top and bottom. The pads are aligned through six latitudes, with each latitude containing eight touchpads. The pads surrounding the center of the sphere are roughly the size of a drink coaster, while the pads by the top of the sphere are about the size of a finger tip.
The AlphaSphere has 2 variants: Nexus and Elite. Aesthetically, the two are identical, except the Elite version has a small, 3-button panel and 2 infinite encoders on the base and a MIDI Out socket in the back. The Elite is also the only one of the two variants to be available in black. While that doesn’t necessarily add to the auditory experience, it does create a unique visual experience for people should you decide to use this in a performance, especially with the eerie blue glow coming from within the sphere, which can also be set and adjusted using the native software, AlphaLive.
The AlphaSphere at a Glance
To note, the AlphaSphere in itself is just a controller; the real magic happens because of AlphaLive, the AlphaSphere’s native software. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t use your own software: the AlphaSphere is a USB HID-class device, much like video game controllers. Some DJ’s have already started experimenting with the AlphaSphere’s capabilities, with users running programs like Cycling ’74 Max and reporting a positive experience. One drawback, however: despite being recognized by computers as a MIDI device, the AlphaSphere itself can only generate MIDI with the AlphaLive’s help, which is fine, considering that AlphaLive has an abundant amount of pre-packaged samples in its extensive library.
When you first fire up the AlphaLive, it presets the pads to play notes on a major scale, giving you a glimpse at the AlphaSphere’s playability. Note triggering was both instantaneous and dynamically responsive and can easily cycle through up to 16 preloaded samples. The pads themselves are pretty unique, with each pad being polyphonic touch-sensitive, meaning they can be adjusted to respond to various levels of pressure. This, too, is responsive and fast, which is essential when playing music live or when tuning a song to a particular tempo. In a world channel-pressure keyboards and instrumental plug-ins, the AlphaSphere is at the top of its class.
Navigating the AlphaLive
If the AlphaSphere was a body, the AlphaLive would be its neurological system, the one thing allowing it to perform higher-order thinking. In its most basic form, the AlphaLive is a native editor for mapping out and assigning functions to the touchpads, but it does much more: it’s also a sequencing engine, part instrument and part editor, a MIDI interface, and a machine that provides audio playback. While some musicians might find it strange to include both a sequencer and and an audio engine, but there’s a reason for this: most MIDI software handles multiple streams of pressure data poorly, with most DAW’s not even supporting polyphonic aftertouch. AlphaLive, however, can handle it thanks to its HID interface that allows for 9-bit data (compared to MIDI’s 7 bits).
Speaking of interfaces, the AlphaLive interface is both easy-to-navigate and really cool, with many of the ‘desktop’ icons mirroring the AlphaSphere’s shape. This pattern of circles can be seen throughout the program, with circular icons, circular interface elements, radial menus, and loop-based sequencing. The interface presents two spheres: the layout and the pad settings. The layout represents the touchpads of the sphere, while the pad settings are where you set each pads function or sound. There’s also an option to save and switch between multiple setups.
The Future of Music?
The AlphaSphere is supposed to represent an evolution of music, an attempt to go beyond the flatlay setup of many electronic keyboards and instruments. For musicians looking for a novel way to go about creating music, it’s an entirely different way of expressing yourself to your audience, both visually and auditory.
But it is the future? For some, it’s a gimmick, for others, the AlphaSphere’s versatility and uniqueness make it a prime example of how engineers and musicians can work together to create the sounds of the future.