JazzMutant Dexter: The Revolution Has Begun

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in January 2008, contributed by then Editor-in-Chief Rip Rowan. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

The problem with control surfaces is that by the time there are enough controls on the surface to actually do the job, you’ve pretty much rebuilt a complete console.

Most control surfaces are simple. Too simple. You get eight motorized faders and a few knobs, a handful of paging switches, and a small, one-line LED display. With this skimpy set of widgets you are supposed to command the thousands of parameters and features embedded in your DAW. A few highly-powerful alternatives are available, most specifically for ProTools, but these devices have a significant physical – and financial – footprint.In the end, the DAW user must either settle for a small set of tactile controls or simply rely on mouse-mixing to get the job done.

At least, until now.

Enter Dexter. Dexter is the result of a highly ambitious effort by JazzMutant to produce a complete control surface from a simple touchscreen. No knobs, no faders, no LEDs, no switches. Just a touchscreen.

When I was asked to review this unit, I was interested, but dubious. Clearly, the advantages of this approach could be enormous. Without the limitations of physical hardware, the touchscreen interface could truly emulate all of the features of a complete console, in an inexpensive, small footprint device

But what are the odds that they’d actually get it right? This sort of whizbangery is usually the sort of thing that seems cool but doesn’t work in the real world. To be truthful, I was extremely skeptical and looked forward to delivering one of my infamous spankings to this thing.

Overview

The unit itself is an unremarkable black box, about a foot on each side and an inch or so deep. The metal construction gives it a solid, utilitarian feel. Once the unit is powered on and interacting with the DAW host, the screen presents a familiar looking mixer interface. Dexter is unadorned other than the screen and four illuminated buttons that do not play a part in the control surface interface.

I was surprised by the simplicity of the setup: simply hook up the unit via ethernet to the DAW host, install the Dexter control driver into the DAW host, and start using it. Shockingly, setup really was that simple. I tested the Dexter with Sonar 6, and had it up and running within five minutes of pulling it out of the box. Installation and setup could not be easier.

The 800×600 TFT display is bright and clean, and the surface coating prevents smearing or blurring as you touch the surface. Dexter includes its own CPU and GPU, so your DAW isn’t doing the work. Currently, Dexter supports Logic, Sonar, Cubase and Nuendo, with planned support for ProTools.

On the main screen, the user is presented with eight channel strips, a master fader, and a small set of transport and navigation controls. Each channel strip includes a volume fader with metering, Mute / Solo / Record / Automation Record buttons, and buttons to activate the EQ or Plug-ins screens for each channel. On these screens, Dexter offers the capability to control the DAW’s built-in channel EQ or to control the parameters of virtually any plugin through a simple “fader” interface (see images). Dexter also offers a condensed channel screen (which provides EQ, plugins, surround panning, and other channel strip controls on one single screen) as well as a dedicated surround-panning screen.

With these five screens, Dexter promises to control every feature of your DAW’s mixer. And, it turns out, Dexter keeps its promises surprisingly well.

In Use

I opened a current mixing project and immediately began using the device. I tried, as much as possible, to keep my hands entirely off of the computer mouse, to force myself to accomplish as many tasks as possible using Dexter.

Dexter uses an innovative multi-touch screen technology. With this capability, Dexter actually responds to all of your fingers simultaneously when you control the device. This makes it possible to, for example, ride multiple faders at once, or automate volume and EQ at the same time. The multi-touch technology works right, all of the time, just like you would expect a piece of hardware to behave.

The unit is shockingly responsive. There is no user interface delay at all. Controls move with your fingers as if they were physical faders and knobs. These factors make using Dexter much more like using a piece of hardware than it would be otherwise. I was immediately impressed with the accuracy and responsiveness of the touchscreen. It worked surprisingly well, and I’m a bit hard to impress with whizbang gadgetry like this.

As with other controllers, the channel strips can be customized and grouped into pages. So it is useful to group all of the drum channels together into one page, guitars into another, vocals into a separate page, and so forth. Having done this, it becomes possible to control a large number of tracks with relative ease, although on more than one occasion I found myself flipping around through the pages hunting for a particular track. Fortunately, the high resolution display provides excellent track labeling, so finding tracks is easier than when using a controller with the typical single line LED display.

Integration with the DAW host was seamless. Press a button or move a fader on Dexter and the appropriate control activates or moves simultaneously in real time on the computer screen. Tap all eight Record buttons at once and all eight tracks immediately arm. There’s no perceivable latency, no jerkiness, no gaps – just a fluid union of controller and DAW.

Recording automation is effortless. Tap the automation record button on the track(s) you wish to ride and hit play. Once your finger contacts the fader, you begin writing automation, and when you lift up, you stop – just like hardware. Dexter also features a realtime scaling capability that allows you to quickly make extra-fine adjustments. It’s immediately usable, and I was writing volume and pan automation right away.

But this capability is found in any hardware controller. To see Dexter shine, you need to go one more level deeper.

Power and Flexibility

To control an EQ using a hardware control surface requires using an obscure menu of buttons and knobs (or, “knob”, singular). For me, its always easier to work the EQ on the computer with the mouse. Not so with Dexter. Hit the EQ button on any channel and a full-screen paragraphic EQ display is presented. Just slide the EQ points around with your finger – or all four fingers at once – and you immediately shape the EQ curve and hear the results in real-time as you drag the curve around. With one caveat (below), I think it’s safe to say that the EQ control is the best-implemented EQ interface on any device I’ve ever used. I’m not just talking about other control surfaces – I mean any EQ you’ve ever put your hands on. It’s certainly easier and more intuitive than, say, turning knobs on a hardware mixer, and at least as easy as (and more fun than) shaping a 10-band graphic EQ. The first time you EQ a channel with Dexter, you’re going to grin big. It’s a home run.

Likewise with plugins. Most control surfaces let you control and automate plug-ins, but doing so is unintuitively cumbersome and often forces all of the controls through a single knob. Dexter provides up to eight parameters to be controlled (and automated) simultaneously. So you can tweak the compressor’s ratio and threshold at the same time, adjust the reverb time and intensity at once, or simultaneously turn up the gain and turn down the output on your amp sim without increasing the output volume. No controller that I’ve seen makes working with plugins usable like Dexter. Another home run.

I didn’t spend much time with the surround panning screen, except to quickly realize that it’s simply the best surround panning interface available. If you’re doing serious surround work, especially for film or video, Dexter is a must-have. For example, you can simultaneously automate the panning of up to ten channels at once, something that is impossible to do with a mouse or joystick, and the control and feel is fluid and effortless. No hardware based control comes close. Home run number three.

You can also use the channel summary to view and control EQ, plugins, surround panning, and more – all at once. On this screen, instead of controlling up to eight plugin parameters at once, you can use an innovative X-Y grid to control any two parameters simultaneously with a single finger. It’s a cool user interface for creating, say, delay effects. Or, map the threshold and output gain of a compressor here and quickly dial in compressor settings with a single touch. It’s a cool innovation that really works. The summary screen also lets you control surround panning and effect sends, giving you complete control over the channel in one screen. I think it’s safe to say that Dexter integrates more channel controls more usably on a single screen than any other device out there. Yet another home run.

The device is also quite sturdy. Control surfaces are notoriously delicate. The motorized faders and many switches are easy to damage and get dirty and worn over time. It’s easy to see that nothing short of abuse is going to cause the Dexter to wear out soon. The unit is durably built, and touchscreens are quite reliable if they are not abused. This is a product that is likely to continue to deliver results long past the time that other units are worn out or obsolete. That’s reassuring in this age of seemingly disposable hardware. Home run number five.

Finally, let me praise Jazzmutant for their work on the user interface. While I was waiting for my Dexter unit to arrive, I perused the screen shots on the JazzMutant website to familiarize myself with the product. It seemed to me that the screen shots were really artist renderings of the UI, not the real thing. Nope, they’re the real thing. This is one of the best user interface designs I’ve stumbled across for any sort of product, approaching the kind of slick seamlessness of the iPhone. JazzMutant has wisely opted to keep the UI look and feel strictly utilitarian. Colors and lines are limited to providing context, indicating grouping or control similarity, and never for decoration.

In fact there isn’t any decoration in the user interface. Everything has a purpose. The result is a super-clean set of controls that eliminates busy-ness in favor of functionality. In an age of user interfaces so jazzed up you can’t find anything – with cool-looking yet unusable controls that leave you wondering if the designers ever user their own products – JazzMutant deserves high marks for getting the user interface so very right. Home run number six.

Minor Criticisms

Dexter is not without its shortcomings, one of which I bumped into pretty quickly. It turns out that while Dexter will control Sonar’s master output fader, it won’t control other bus faders. They just don’t show up in the user interface. According to JazzMutant, this is an accidental omission from the driver that apparently only affects Sonar. JazzMutant has promised a software update which will correct this error. And there’s one of Dexter’s strengths that I will elaborate on in a moment: serious upgradeability through software updates.

The touchscreen, while exceptional, is still imperfect. My unit didn’t respond as well to touch on the extreme left side of the unit as it should, making it occasionally unresponsive to fades on the leftmost fader. With a little practice I was able to control the fader properly, but the screen should have worked better. Also, people with large, soft fingers may struggle to get fine control of the surface. As you lift your finger from the surface, it’s easy for the contour of the finger to roll or shift, causing undesirable changes in the control you’re working with. With practice I was able to attain good control by using the tips of my fingers or, in cases, the edge of my fingernail. However, I have fairly average fingers with a bit of drummer callous on them. People with fleshy hands will not fare as well.

The unit features very responsive metering on every channel. However, the meters are not labeled, making them pretty useless except for basic “signal present” usage. I’d like it if the meters inherited the settings of the DAW’s meters (dB scale, peak hold, etc).

I struggled hard to control the Q parameter of the EQ. Some kind of glitch makes the Q parameter rather jumpy at certain settings. I feel sure that this is a software problem that will be quickly and easily addressed by JazzMutant, and – even with this problem – the EQ control is still a benchmark.

Dexter is limited to displaying only the first 64 tracks of your project. In this age of infinite track count, that’s not enough. We need at least 128 tracks worth of control, or, better, JazzMutant needs to remove the limit altogether.

Dexter also suffers from the same shortcomings as other control surfaces. For one thing, on any largish mix, eight is not enough. I always feel constrained by only seeing eight channels at once, when my DAW shows me 20 or 30 at once. As a result, I keep wanting to take my eyes off of Dexter and look at the DAW, which then makes me more likely to grab the mouse and tweak the DAW rather than use Dexter. One day in the not-too-distant future, we’ll see a 24″ (or larger) version of this device, and it will mean the end of the hardware mixer. Really. More on that later.

Also, there’s still a million things that I can’t do with Dexter. Arm the metronome? Grab the mouse. Insert an effect? Grab the mouse. Insert a track or bus? Grab the mouse. All of these events force attention away from Dexter and onto the DAW. And anything that takes attention away from the control surface mitigates the usefulness of the control surface. These, of course, are problems that all control surfaces face. And, ultimately, where a control surface really shines is as a mixdown device. Given a song that has been fully tracked and rough-mixed (with all of the needed effects present) it is perfectly possible to turn off the computer screen and produce your final mix with Dexter and no other user interface. And this is a task at which Dexter excels.

Expandability and Flexibility

OK, so Dexter has many of the same shortcomings as other control surfaces. However, as a software-based control surface, perhaps future generations of Dexter’s drivers might provide some of these capabilities. And this brings me back to the topic of upgradeability. JazzMutant has already unveiled a powerful upgrade path for Dexter. For example, you can now operate your Dexter as a Lemur – JazzMutant’s customizable control surface which can be used to control anything from softsynths to lighting. This makes Dexter a tremendous creativity tool for electronic musicians and producers who depend on softsynths. You can use Dexter to build customized synth controllers – or, really, controllers for anything that responds to MIDI. This is a free upgrade. Moore’s Law wins again.

Jazzmutant’s willingness to keep expanding Dexter with software updates makes me very optimistic about this product. Try upgrading your hardware control surface and get back to me with the results. In the next 18 months we could easily see Dexter expanding into even greater areas of control over your DAW and other devices. It’s very promising.

Conclusions

Let’s face it: this device could really, seriously suck. There are so many ways that JazzMutant could have gotten it wrong. But they scored big with this thing, and deserve the highest praise from our industry.

Dexter is a remarkably innovative and exciting product that, in this reviewer’s opinion, irrevocably changes the playing field for all future generations of control surface devices. Only in its first generation, Dexter already proves that a touchscreen-only device can stand toe-to-toe with hardware devices – and improve on them in many material ways.

Folks, this is only going to get better. The screens will only get bigger, resolution will only increase, touch sensitivity will only improve, the software will always become more powerful. Hardware devices are pretty much already logically constrained. We’re not going to see order-of-magnitude improvements in them. But we will with future generations of Dexter. It’s got Moore’s Law on its side, and I’m betting on Moore’s Law.

So I’m going to make a bold prediction. Based on my work with Dexter, I predict that in a generation or two, and with a larger format, touchscreen control devices will become the high-end state of the art, replacing big-name hardware-based devices in top studios. Why? Because, done right, the damn thing just works better. It’s more expandable, more flexible, more visual, and more reliable than hardware. To be sure, there’s work to be done to improve this product, but Dexter proves that this is a controller format that really works. And that makes Dexter the most important product to hit our industry in a decade. I’m sure that many people will think me a fool for saying so, but in a few years, this technology will redefine the way we interact with our DAWs.

Some have claimed that, with the advent of multitouch screens in laptops and desktop screens, we will soon all be using these screens to control our DAWs, and so the life span of Dexter is ultimately short. I disagree. Perhaps, eventually, desktop operating systems and DAW software will all elegantly support a multitouch screen. However, merely slapping a screen on today’s DAW software won’t work at all, because the user interface has to be methodically redesigned to support the touchscreen. There will be a long transition time before DAWs natively support a touchscreen with anything like the usability of a Dexter.

Instead, I see a fusion between Dexter and its future generations and DAW software. JazzMutant clearly has the user interface issues mastered and is in a great position to advance the state of the art. Therefore, the most important thing to happen next is for DAW software manufacturers to get behind this technology in a big way. The more we can bring the DAW into the touchscreen – the more that the two become one – the better and better this is going to become. Avid? Steinberg? Cakewalk? Apple? Are you listening? Because this is revolutionary stuff.

At a street price just under $3500, Dexter is not cheap. In fact it is over twice as expensive as its typical competitors. However, Dexter’s immediate usability, its upgradeability, the slick implementation, sturdy construction, and strong support from JazzMutant make it a reasonable high-end contender in a world of control surfaces that mostly miss the boat. JazzMutant is clearly onto something with this product. If you’re in the market for a control surface, Dexter is definitely a device that’s worth your attention.

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