When Robert Clivilles and the late David Cole released their seminal hit ‘Things That Make You Go Hmmm’, they could never know that the title would become a catchphrase for all that is bizarre and unexpected. Well, “hmmm” is exactly what DJ Mag said when we first laid hands on Alphasphere, a unique take on the DJ/performance controller.
What is the Alphasphere? At its spherical core, it is a MIDI controller capable of acting as a musical note interface, MIDI performance controller or a combination of the two. It looks weird, feels weird and is... well... weird. But so was Roland's TB-303 when it first appeared. Let's look at the Alphasphere with an open mind. It's considerably larger than a full-sized football and, frankly, that makes it a bit big and slightly awkward for transporting to gigs. Saying that, you can get Alphasphere accessories direct from the Nu Desine website to aid in this pursuit.
Getting started with the installation stage is fairly easy. Alphasphere comes with its own bespoke software to allow users to assign controls and MIDI assignments to the pads that make up this ball-shaped controller. The software and library come on a supplied disk so there's no messing around with downloads, and the Alphasphere is USB-powered, so it can be ready to go in 10 minutes.
After getting it all up-and-running, things take a bit of a turn, as this is where DJ Mag had a slight problem with the Alphasphere — and that’s in using it. It's just too large and dare we say it, awkward to be easy to play, especially if you’re used to the conventional DJ or even Launchpad-style controllers on the market.
The Alphasphere is made up of 48 pressure-sensitive pads. Each pad consists of a quite kinky-feeling rubber skin, stretched over a plastic drum with a foam inner, allowing for incredible after-touch and modulation control across multiple pads (particularly with physical modelling instruments). Users can really achieve a level of expression far beyond that of conventional piano-style keyboards, pads or modulation wheels, and it can sound great for things like dubstep/EDM basslines with filter cut-off assigned to the aftertouch. However, it simply does not feel natural or comfortable.
Could DJs and performers adjust to the way the Alphasphere works? Of course, but is it something that would be actively pursued? That depends on whether DJs really want to use the Alphasphere as their controller of choice. Don’t get us wrong — there is a vast level of control available with the pads, and the ability to customise the pad assignments is very impressive.
It's unclear whether the designers deliberately chose different-sized pads to make navigation easier and offer differing levels of control, or whether they had to choose different sizes to make them fit into the spherical design, but as a result it is very hard to move quickly between the pads and the larger ones have so much give that users really have to push hard to depress them all the way. It feels like the wrong balance of control and ease of play.
In use DJ Mag must admit we looked like a fortune-telling hipster on a crystal ball (the pads generate multi-colour LEDs inside the structure, by the way). The Alphasphere has a deep level of customisation and control, but we just can't see too many people wanting to have that level of detail over every individual note as they play. To make the most of the Alphasphere requires an extreme level of devotion. Whilst we have our doubts on how useable the Alphasphere really is for most of the clubbing DJs and performers in the scene, there are positive points. The included mapping software makes a very painstaking and fiddly process as simple as it can be and there is true multi-channel MIDI assignment, so Alphasphere can control multiple VSTs and DAWs simultaneously — but it's just not easy and the results, for most of us, probably won’t be worth the effort.
It is obvious a huge amount of time and love has gone into the Alphasphere, and that's why we are convinced a small number of people will love it to bits. As DJ Mag said from the start, Alphasphere is weird. It’s not for everyone but like many esoteric products it will probably gain a loyal band of followers. We can't recommend it wholeheartedly as, for most of us, it is simply the wrong product at the wrong end of the price scale. The Elite version which has some extra knobs, MIDI connectivity and comes in sexy black is even more money! Still, if you are one of the few for whom it appeals, then you will enjoy the attention to detail, the passion and the fabulous customer support.
Copyright Thrust Publishing Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.djmag.com as the source.