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Jazzmutant Dexter

Touch-sensitive DAW Controller
Published February 2008
By Joe Silva

Realising that some potential users were daunted by the highly customisable nature of their innovative Lemur screen-based controller, Jazzmutant have added a second controller to their range - and this one specifically supports a range of popular DAWs.

Jazzmutant DexterEven if Jazzmutant's touch-controlled Lemur controller had slid into obscurity, like some other innovative pieces of musical equipment, it would probably have retained a cultish fanbase that would forever appreciate the creative flexibility it brought to audio production. Thankfully, however, it seems to have been embraced by many high-profile musicians and, just over two years after its release, a sibling is born. Say hello to Dexter.

Housed in the same sleek black shell, there's little mistaking the Dexter's lineage. It appears to be so much like the Lemur, in appearance and apparent functionality, in fact, that one might very quickly question the need for it's existence — or raison d'être, as its French creators might say.

"We found that the Lemur was not convenient for those producers and musicians who didn't want to build their own templates," says one of Jazzmutant's lead developers, Axel Balley, from the company's headquarters in Bordeaux. "We thought it would be better, therefore, to build a new controller based on the same technology."

The Lemur's ability to be whatever sort of controller its user needed it to be apparently put off potential customers who simply wanted to use the Lemur's ultra-flexible visual interface to manage their DAWs. The Dexter, therefore, came to life ostensibly as a kind of plug-and-play solution for several existing software production platforms. Why then, one might persist, could Jazzmutant simply not have updated the Lemur's firmware accordingly, and avoid the cost and hassle of a new product launch?

"There's a lot of complexity involved in the communication between the Dexter and the DAW," responds Balley continues. "It would have been difficult to come up with the same modularity for the Lemur."

The Dexter was finally unveiled back in March 2007 and in the middle of the year Jazzmutant began shipping the first units. But at a higher price than its predecessor, is the DAW-centric Dexter worth serious consideration?

What's Multi-touch Technology?

Jazzmutant DexterYou only have to watch someone piloting their Blackberry alongside a new iPhone user to appreciate the massive benefits of a flexible multi-touch surface. And since the Lemur and Dexter can support up to 20 simultaneous points of contact (activating multiple controls concurrently) you could conceivably co-navigate either device with the help of another user, or attempt daring Hendrix-like moves with your hands and feet.

Of the four red LED switches on the top of Dexter, the leftmost will deliver you to the unit's Configuration/Setup screen, where the filtering of the touch-screen can be adjusted to suit your taste. Touch-screen technology has been in existence since the '80s, albeit in a far cruder form. A quick scan of the YouTube universe will show you several devices (some fantastically large) that employ the technology to great effect.

Out Of The Box

The Dexter emerges from its packaging with not much more than a selection of power cords, a CD containing the unit's instruction manual and drivers, and a Quickstart Guide. Also included is a Cat 5 networking cable that the Dexter, like its forerunner, needs for communicating with your software. The controller works with Macs or PCs, and is currently for use with a selection of DAWs, namely Logic Pro, Cubase, Sonar and Nuendo (more on that later). Software drivers are installed from the included CD, and during the install you'll be prompted to select which DAW you plan to use your Dexter with. Logic Pro users also have to install a bit of 'go-between' software called JazzDaemon, which converts messages from the Dexter into standard MIDI data. This process literally takes seconds and you can then proceed to connecting up your Dexter and getting to work. On my Mac test platform, the JazzDaemon software was moved into the Applications folder and must be started prior to launching Logic Pro. If you have a similar setup you'll want to make sure that JazzDaemon is included in your machine's startup folder, to save time and mouse clicks.

The Dexter's Settings page allows you to set up communication between your computer, DAW and Dexter, as well as altering screen brightness and customising 'screen filtering' to suit your touch.The Dexter's Settings page allows you to set up communication between your computer, DAW and Dexter, as well as altering screen brightness and customising 'screen filtering' to suit your touch.The Ethernet cable included with the Dexter is of the crossover variety, meaning that you can connect it directly to your Ethernet interface to control your DAW or plug it into your local network router if you'd rather leave your machine Internet-accessible while using the Dexter. The Dexter can either be manually given an IP address to communicate with your computer or can pick up an address automatically (which is the default setting) upon startup.

Handshaking between DAW and Dexter is quick and essentially hassle-free. You need only turn on the Dexter (once JazzDaemon is running on your computer, if you're using Logic Pro), and press the leftmost of the unmarked red LED buttons on the top of the panel, to bring up the settings page. You can also select which DAW to talk to (provided your software is already up and running) and which of JazzDaemon's virtual MIDI ports to communicate through. Logic Pro users will have to use the Preferences menu to ensure that the Dexter has been seen by Logic and select the same virtual MIDI port as that being used by the unit. These procedures are all handily covered by the Quickstart Guide, and the entire operation from driver install to having the Dexter ready for use takes less than 10 minutes.

Below The Surface

The Mixer View. The three channels on the left are soloed, as shown by their yellow background colour.  Across the top of  the screen are (from left): the Bank Browser button; the three view filter buttons that allow you to filter tracks by their current state (muted, soloed or armed); the Track Grouping buttons used to help set up Groups; the Transport controls; and the Surround View button. The Dexter can control up to 64 channels, displayed at their full size in banks of eight. The Bank Browser button gives access to a miniaturised Overview of all 64 channels, to aid in Bank navigation.The Mixer View. The three channels on the left are soloed, as shown by their yellow background colour. Across the top of the screen are (from left): the Bank Browser button; the three view filter buttons that allow you to filter tracks by their current state (muted, soloed or armed); the Track Grouping buttons used to help set up Groups; the Transport controls; and the Surround View button. The Dexter can control up to 64 channels, displayed at their full size in banks of eight. The Bank Browser button gives access to a miniaturised Overview of all 64 channels, to aid in Bank navigation.Pressing the Bank Browser button brings up this miniature overview of  faders for the Dexter's 64 channels, which will show level and relevant status colour-coding for each channel.Pressing the Bank Browser button brings up this miniature overview of faders for the Dexter's 64 channels, which will show level and relevant status colour-coding for each channel.With the Dexter connected and talking nicely to your DAW, you are initially presented with a gang of eight channel strips and one master output fader, collectively known as the Mixer View. Across the top of the display is a representation of your transport, with all the standard switches included. Immediately to the left of the rewind toggle are the group controls: the Dexter allows you to put together a maximum of eight Dexter-based groups to help facilitate mixing. Further to the left are the mute, solo, and arm filters that allow you to sort tracks by their current state. Want to see all the channel strips for your soloed tracks? The solo filter will present them as a group on the screen.

The individual channel strips in the Mixer View provide access to a track's channel EQ (EQ View) and effects plug-ins (Insert View). There's also an overall look at the state of an entire track's parameters, called Channel Edit, which turns the Dexter into a dedicated display for the selected channel strip, illustrating pan position, EQ, inserts and fader control all at once. Channel Edit is summoned by touching the letter 'E' at the top of the strip. Automation read/write switches are also included on each strip, to the right of the fader itself. A small but nice touch is that the colour of the channel strip will change to reflect the state of the track (soloed, muted, armed).

The Master Fader section contains a very cool zoom control feature that allows you to make precision gain adjustments by changing the scale to increments as low as 0.1dB. Switches also exist that will simplify the other channel strips to just a collection of volume or panning faders, with no other controls visible. The sends implementation here is also rather well done, with each send appearing as a labelled switch alongside the Master Fader in either the Channel Edit View or the Surround View. Activating any one of the send switches while in this view results in control of the level for that send being given to the Master Fader.

What About The Lemur?

Lead Jazzmutant developer Axel Balley insists that the company have not shifted all their focus over to Dexter and as a result forgotten the other half of their product line: "We are hard at work on the next software revisions for Lemur."

At the time of writing, Lemur version 1.6.3 is the current iteration of the controller's software, and in September 2007 the company posted v1.5.2 of the JazzEditor interface-builder on their website. Mutant Talk, the Jazzmutant forum, is looking healthy, and new templates are being made available by users eager to put the Lemur into action in new and creative ways.

Lay Your Hands On Me

As with the Lemur, the touch sensitivity of the TFT (thin-film transistor) screen, which can be tweaked to the user's liking on the Dexter's Settings page, is outstanding. Moving between views is extremely intuitive, and the layouts for all the views are well implemented. So once you've loaded up a track with audio, you can essentially manage most of your DAW operation hands-on from the Dexter.

The Channel Edit View. This can be selected for any channel and brings together the channel's EQ, effect and surround parameters, plus level and send information.The Channel Edit View. This can be selected for any channel and brings together the channel's EQ, effect and surround parameters, plus level and send information.The EQ View allows complex EQ curves to be manipulated at the touch of a finger, via numbered 'handles' that the user can slide around the screen. Handle positions can be locked to prevent accidental shifting.The EQ View allows complex EQ curves to be manipulated at the touch of a finger, via numbered 'handles' that the user can slide around the screen. Handle positions can be locked to prevent accidental shifting.The Surround View, where sources are placed visually around the surround spectrum.The Surround View, where sources are placed visually around the surround spectrum.The Insert View offers sliders for controlling the parameters of effect and processing plug-ins.The Insert View offers sliders for controlling the parameters of effect and processing plug-ins.Where this may be most easily appreciated is in the use of Dexter's EQ View, which is accessed by either the uppermost toggle on the channel strip or by tapping on the similarly styled switch in the Channel Edit view. Up to eight EQ bands can be adjusted simultaneously with the touch of a finger. As each curve is selected (via the EQ Band Activator buttons), a corresponding numbered dot (referred to as a 'handle') appears on the Dexter, and can be slid around the onscreen grid. Locking toggles for both vertical and horizontal positions can be put into effect, so that fine-tuning can be achieved without running the risk of any of the individual bands being accidentally shifted from their desired position. Zooming controls are also included in the EQ View, along with a Q Mode switch which allows you to set a higher or lower Q.

In the Surround View, an image much like a radar scope appears. This allows for the positioning of track outputs around the surround panorama. Controls that govern rotation around or away from the stereo centre make experimentation within the surround or stereo spectrum easy and exciting. Again, locks are also included for each of the individual handles, to stop them from making unwanted movements. This is sure to be a boon to 5.1 enthusiasts.

For controlling effects associated with each channel strip, the FX toggle moves you to a bright, Kryptonite-green display: the Insert View. Individual inserts are represented by a tab, with each of the assigned effect parameters labelled beneath it and controlled by sliders. This configuration works nicely in most instances (including with the third-party effect and processing plug-ins I tested while running the Dexter and Logic Studio), but there are some inserts that you may still prefer to manage via your mouse — especially those that are particularly complex. For instance, the multiple taps used in the new Delay Designer in Logic Pro 8 might be better visually manipulated with your mouse, as opposed to the sliders in the Insert View. It might also be a nice future implementation to be able to select certain insert parameters individually and have them visually ganged up on the Dexter's display, much as you can do with tracks that are soloed, muted or armed for record. This would have opened up some live performance possibilities for the Dexter.

What Dexter almost crucially lacks is functional control of your virtual instruments — to include selecting them (along with effects inserts) directly from Dexter itself, rather than from within your DAW. If nothing else, it would have been nice to see one of the virtual MIDI keyboard templates that exist for Lemur on-board the initial release of the new control surface. Jazzmutant are already addressing this for future Dexter updates, while simultaneously looking at expanding the range of DAWs that Dexter will work with. One obvious hole in the initial roll-out is the absence of support for Ableton Live.

"We are in contact with Ableton," says Balley, "but we have to come up with a different set of controls to work with Live Sessions. And there are obviously lots of other little things we want to do, based on our initial feedback. There is no schedule, however, for when."

Conclusion

If Jazzmutant move quickly to remedy some of the current gaps in the Dexter's design, this product could be more than enough controller for musicians and producers at many levels. The Dexter, like the Lemur, combines visual and tactile interfaces into one unit, it looks amazing, and there are no faders, pots or other controls to wear out, unlike conventional hardware controllers. However, it's not cheap, and at its current price, of almost £1800, what version 1.0.0 currently lacks might be enough to make early adopters pause for thought. Having said that, the new dual-boot software will give Dexter owners Lemur functionality for no extra cost, and with the steadily growing buzz about Jazzmutant's achievements with both the Dexter and the Lemur, I'm pretty sure that many of the items on the Dexter wish list will appear before too long. 

Lemur Vs Dexter

Jazzmutant's rationale for coming up with a more operationally focused control surface essentially makes sense, but you may not be able to decide which of the two models, the Lemur or the Dexter, is best for you, particularly since it's very early days for the Dexter and only 250 Euros separate the two models. If you're more inclined towards experimentation, however, developer Axel Balley says that you might want to pick up the Lemur and opt for the forthcoming dual-boot feature. "This will allow Lemur customers to update their firmware and choose which platform they would like to use at startup." Lemur owners will have to shell out some additional cash to move up to Dexter's feature set, but Dexter users can opt to add the dual-boot crossgrade for free. At the time of writing, the announcement of the imminent dual-boot software had just appeared on the Jazzmutant web site and the company expected the update to be available by the end of December.

Published February 2008