nu desine AlphaSphere Nexus
We're always very excited when something unusual comes along in the area of MIDI control, and the AlphaSphere certainly qualifies as that. It's a USB-powered MIDI controller and instrument, coming in two models: AlphaSphere Nexus (reviewed here), and AlphaSphere Elite (£1000), which adds an external MIDI output, two rotary encoders and three buttons, and is also available in black.
Not only can any of the AlphaSphere's triggers be assigned to transmit a range of MIDI (and OSC) controller data (including program changes) and notes, set manually or loaded as presets, but they can do so on individually assigned MIDI channels, enabling control of multiple MIDI applications or plugins at once.
The AlphaSphere is, as the name suggests, spherical. It's got 48 pads grouped in lateral circles of eight - the largest are around its 'equator', and the rest get progressively smaller as they get closer to the two 'poles'. These MIDI triggers comprise a plastic shell with a rubber skin stretched over it.
Inside is a foam filling to add resistance, and when you press one of the pads, you get a colourful blue-to-green LED light display (or red when multiple pads are pressed at once) from within the body of the instrument, indicating how much pressure is being applied.
All but the smallest pads are velocity-sensitive, and all of them respond to continuous pressure. The idea is simple, then: the AlphaSphere challenges the keyboard-shaped norm and offers the kind of constant modulation, sensitivity and expression that software instruments are designed to respond to - a fine concept on paper.
'Sphere of influence
"The AlphaSphere includes an app, AlphaLive - a programmable software bridge between the hardware and your DAW"
To interact with your software, the AlphaSphere includes an app, AlphaLive, which performs two functions: on one level, it's an instrument, offering sampled instrument and loop playback (see The soft touch); on the other, it's a programmable software bridge between the hardware and your DAW, standalone instruments and/or plugins. Without AlphaLive running alongside it, the AlphaSphere is just a coffee-table ornament.
So how does it fare in use? Not too well, sadly. Whether triggering loops, controlling effects or playing drums and synths, its sheer size (about 25cm in diameter) makes it awkward to play. Additionally, the shape means that at least half the pads are always out of view from any perspective, and there are gaps between them (try to go for a pad 'round the back' and if you're unlucky, you could end up jabbing a finger into one of these).
You get the sense that the proportions were dictated by R&D restrictions rather than ergonomics. The pads aren't especially sensitive, either (you have to strike them fairly hard), and while they respond quickly enough to being hit, if you hold one fully engaged for a second or two, then let it go, the release signal is delayed, as if the foam inside is still triggering a MIDI 'on' signal.
On the upside, the software bridge is open- source, so has plenty of scope for development, and with the various existing modes, layout presets and scales, it's already pretty good.
AlphaSphere will surely appeal to performers looking for something visually impressive to take on stage, but for most, it'll be unsatisfying to use, not worth anywhere near the asking price, and generally disappointing.
Original concept. Nifty software. Eye-catching on stage.
Too large. Expensive for what it is. Not responsive enough. Uncomfortable to play.
The AlphaSphere is an interesting idea with good software support, but the hardware suffers from several flaws.
MIDI controller and instrument with AlphaLive software