360 Systems Pro MIDI Bass
Why use an expensive sampler for playing bass sounds when you can take advantage of the Pro MIDI Bass and free your sampler for more worthwhile tasks? Mike Collins lets his fingers do the walking.
California-based 360 Systems were one of the first manufacturers to offer sampling technology, and as a result their sound samples are some of the finest around. The company have been producing a free-standing MIDI Bass unit for several years now, but their latest 'Professional' model follows the current trend and comes in a sleek 1U rack-mount case, offering a more convenient design.
According to 360 Systems, the design philosophy is to provide sampled sounds "so accurate and realistic that they put the actual bass instrument at your fingertips, while freeing up other synths and samplers to be used to their fullest potential." The Pro MIDI Bass is intended to be controlled by whatever MIDI device you find most convenient - the choice ranges from a variety of keyboards and pedalboards, to MIDI guitars and basses, drum pads (such as the Roland Octapad), or even a MIDI wind instrument such as the Yamaha WX7 or Akai EWI.
To quote the owner's manual, "this new rack-mount version provides one megabyte of internal EPROM sound memory capacity, an improved signal-to-noise ratio (in excess of 90dB), and two 12MHz computers to handle internal operations." I can certainly confirm that the unit is extremely quiet in operation, and is definitely worthy of a place in any synthesis rack for studio, touring, or home recording use.
The Pro MIDI Bass comes ready-installed with eight bass sounds which are stored on EPROM chips. Additional empty ZIF (zero insertion force) chip sockets are provided on the circuit board inside the unit to allow you to plug in extra EPROMs if required. The total number of sockets available is 16, although five of these are already taken up by the eight factory samples - apparently, some chips hold one bass sound whereas others may hold two or more.
Argent's (the UK distributors) carry a useful range of EPROMs which provide alternative sounds, both standard quality and studio quality. The studio quality chips have a better bandwidth and longer loop times than the standard chips, although this does not mean that the standard types are greatly inferior. Argent's supplied me with four additional studio quality chips to try out, and these were the Kawai (Grand Piano, I presume), a GS50 model playing the note G2, Steinbass, Pick Roundwound Jazz, and Finger Roundwound Jazz. The eight factory sounds are comprised of Finger Stein, Finger Flatwound PBass, Pick Flatwound PBass, Rickenbacker, Funk Thumb, Funk Pop, MiniMoog Square Wave, and Standup Pizz (known as 'double bass played with fingers' to the rest of the world!). The maximum number of sounds you can fit into the unit is 20, taking into account the fact that some chips can hold more than one sample.
At £499 inc VAT the Pro MIDI Bass is more expensive than a synth expander such as a Yamaha TX81Z, but I believe that the design philosophy pays off in a multi-synthesizer/sampler set-up by doing just what the designer set out to do - that is, to free up your other instruments to handle the more varied sounds that are required, while supplying a solid selection of bass sounds which will probably be used in conjunction with your favourite drum machine to provide the foundation for most sequenced music. Obviously, the wider and more interesting the range of alternate sound chips which the manufacturer can supply, the more viable and long-lived the unit will become. Also, I was pleased to discover that the standard EPROMs cost a mere £30, while the studio quality chips cost about £38 each. These prices compare well with similar products offered for sale for drum machines, which are probably the nearest comparison.
The first thing I did after taking the MIDI Bass out of its box was to open up the casing in order to gain access to the spare sockets and install the four extra EPROMs. This proved to be a very straightforward task involving the removal of just three screws to allow the lid to be slid off. The 'trick' with EPROMs, to install them into the so-called 'zero insertion force' (ZIF) sockets, is to line up the pins on one side of the EPROM with one set of holes in the socket, and then to bend the other row of pins slightly inwards with two or three fingers until they can be guided into the second set of holes. Then you apply a firm and even downward pressure to the top of the EPROM to 'seat' it into the socket. The pins are usually splayed out a little too far for them to drop neatly into the socket without using this manoeuvre and, of course, you must check that all the pins are neatly aligned before attempting to insert them. This done, it only remained for me to slide the unit into a spare slot in my rack and connect it up.
The back panel houses the usual MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, a standard ¼" mono Audio Out jack socket, and a recessed control for adjusting the viewing angle of the front panel LCD, which is about the size of the TX81Z display and similar to those found on E-mu Systems products.
When you turn the machine on, it displays the current software revision number (I was supplied with version 1.3) and states how many bass sounds are installed in the EPROMs - 12 in my case with the four extra chips installed. It quickly became obvious that you must first set up 'patches' in the internal memory locations to consist of one sound allocated to the Lower part of your MIDI keyboard and another (possibly the same) sound allocated to the Upper part.
All 30 of these patches were empty when I first switched the device on, so I filled 12 memories with a different bass sound in each, using the same sound on the Upper and Lower parts of the keyboard. I then input a few with different combinations of sounds on the Upper and Lower parts. These patches are analogous to the performance memories in a Yamaha synth such as the DX7II, the difference being that you apparently cannot call up the individual bass sounds by MIDI Program Change commands, only the 'patches'. This is a sensible enough arrangement and it worked well in practice.
Having set up several patches, the next move was to hook up my DX7II keyboard and play the different sounds, selecting each one using the program change/voice selector buttons on the DX7II. Sure enough, the Pro MIDI Bass would only respond to program change numbers 1 to 30, leaving no room for confusion via wrap-around. I should mention that it is quite easy to recall these patches directly, using the front panel buttons on the Pro MIDI Bass itself, and even to trigger a sound. But more about the set-up features later - let's move on to the sampled sounds themselves...
'Pick Roundwound Jazz' was a great sound, bright and punchy, with plenty of 'wiriness' in the sound. 'Fingered Roundwound Jazz' was OK, although a little too muffled for my liking; I would have preferred to hear a little more of the type of attack that you would hear from fingernail contact with the string. 'Steinbass' was a more 'middly' sound, with a distinctive and attractive character of its own. 'Fingerstein' was a particularly nice 'round' sounding bass which I felt would be an extremely usable sound for many applications. 'Pick Flatwound PBass' was very good, very solid and authentic sounding, and 'Fingered Flatwound PBass' had even more 'bottom' than the picked version, as you might expect, and was an extremely smooth sounding bass also.
I must confess that, to my ears, the 'Rickenbacker' bass sounded more like a grand piano than a bass guitar, although I'm not sure whether that is a compliment to Rickenbacker or an insult to the grand piano! Whatever else, this was certainly a very 'big' sound. In contrast, the 'Kawai' grand piano sample was not quite so impressive, and appeared to have a usable playing range of about one octave around the original sample pitch, although it functioned well enough when restricted to this area.
'Funk Thumb' was just great! It really worked well and sounded extremely realistic - what more can I say? 'Funk Pop' sounded great in the upper regions, and just the job for adding those finishing touches to a funk tune to sound like overdubbed 'pops' from a live bass player. This also had a usable sound in the lower parts of its range, which sounded artificial, but with an unusually intriguing timbre.
'Mini Square' was the workhorse of the set, a very full and smooth sample of a MiniMoog synthesized bass sound which would work very well in a variety of musical situations. And, finally, we have 'Standup Pizz', a finger-plucked double bass sound. This was sensational, the stand-out sound in the set for me, and almost worth buying the box for this sound alone. What a joy to hear those loping 'walking' bass lines coming from my fingers, with a sound like Ray Brown, but with the ability to record them into a MIDI sequencer!
By way of comparison, I took the Pro MIDI Bass to Gary Moberley (a Fairlight Series III owner/programmer who has worked with Trevor Horn and ABC, amongst others). Gary liked the unit and generally agreed with my comments about the sounds. After playing the Standup Pizz, he loaded one of his double bass samples into the Series III and played some similar bass lines. The main difference we noticed was that you could hear the characteristic 'buzzing' noises on the Fairlight sample, which you often hear when a double bass is played 'live'. In contrast, the Pro MIDI Bass samples were incredibly clean. The Fairlight sample was more realistic sounding, but for £70,000 you'd expect it to be!
I also asked Keith O'Connell (TV session producer for WEA Records, currently working with the Bee Gees, Ray Parker Jr, and Donna Summer) to try out the MIDI Bass in my programming room, and Keith was particularly impressed with the clean sounds and easy programmability. He said he would seriously consider buying a Pro MIDI Bass for his own synth rack because it would be perfectly adequate for many TV sessions, which have to be recorded at a lightning-fast pace, and it would be a cost-effective addition to his rig.
The 'master' section of the Pro MIDI Bass front panel consists of three white pushbuttons - Master Tune (+/— half a semitone, ie. one semitone pitch range), Master Transpose (affecting each Zone simultaneously), and Setup. The latter includes nine 'utility' functions, as follows: Keyboard Transpose Interval (a global transpose feature covering a +/— 63 semitones pitch range); MIDI Channel Set (Omni, or any channel from 1 to 16); Pitch Bend Enable (allowing a fixed three semitone range when active); Patch Change Enable; MIDI Volume Enable; Note Priority Select (featuring Last, Low, or High note priority); Voice Cascade Mode (which allows you to 'slave' together more 360 Systems units to increase polyphony - each MIDI Bass unit is monophonic); a Test Note facility (whereby you may audition a sound by using the Increment button to trigger the note that is the mid-point of the sample's playback range for the currently selected Upper sound, and the Decrement button to trigger the Lower sound); and, finally, Memory Protect on/off. In addition, there are dedicated Store and Recall pushbuttons.
As previously mentioned, Lower and Upper sounds may be selected to fill the two keyboard 'zones' that are available. The actual Lower and Upper key limits which define the ranges of these zones may be modified from the default settings using the Zone button on the front panel. There is also a velocity switch feature which 360 Systems term 'Accent', which can be independently set for both Lower and Upper sounds. This allows you to obtain an alternative sound on any note by striking the key faster (ie. by 'accenting' the note) until you exceed a preset velocity 'threshold' value. When you have selected an Accent sound, you can also modify that sound using the options available in the Modify section, as well as choose a velocity switch threshold.
This velocity switch feature is a very useful one to include on a bass machine such as this, because you may well wish to accent certain notes of your bass line with a different sound, and MIDI sequencers allow you to programme sophisticated accent patterns relatively easily to take advantage of this feature. I found in practice that I usually played the bass line into my sequencer manually from my DX7II keyboard, playing accents where I felt they ought to occur, and then I step edited the sequence to achieve the precise effect that I was after.
The Modify facilities of the Pro MIDI Bass may be used to edit the Lower, Upper or Accent sounds in several useful ways. The first option, 'Volume', allows you to balance relative levels between the three types of sound, which is a simple but essential feature. 'Decay' determines the level of the sound while a key is being held down, and 'Release' affects the level of sound after the key has been released. 'Filter Adjust' allows you to change the apparent timbre or tone of a sound, and 'Velocity' allows you to enable/disable response to velocity information sent by whatever MIDI controller device you are using to play the MIDI Bass. However, when you are modifying Accent sounds, this velocity option lets you set a velocity threshold above which the played sound switches over to the chosen Accent sound. The default 'crossover' level is MIDI velocity 120, which proved too high for my DX7II, which only gives out a maximum velocity of around 118 (instead of the full 127) so I had to reset this threshold value to about 85 to achieve a workable setting in practice.
The Pro MIDI Bass is very simple to use, the accompanying manual is clear and explicit (if a little brief in describing applications - although these are fairly obvious), and the sampled sounds are all clean, quiet, and practically useful. As previously noted, some of the sounds stood out more than others for me, but this, as always, is a matter of personal taste, and I can thoroughly recommend the Pro MIDI Bass as an asset to any MIDI musician's rig, especially at the extremely reasonable asking price.
Price £499 inc VAT.
Contact Argent's, (Contact Details).
Review by Mike Collins
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