Akai MIDI Effects
Digital Delay, Dynamic Control and Arpeggiation emerge from the MIDI jungle. Paul Gilby observes this rare species.
Having arrived on the synthesizer scene after the introduction of MIDI, it's interesting to see that Akai have come up with some offbeat ideas in the shape of three MIDI effects. Paul Gilby ponders their existence.
Firstly, it must be pointed out that this unit doesn't act upon audio signals so you shouldn't expect it to offer exactly the same facilities as regular digital delays. The MIDI Digital Delay does just that - it delays MIDI information or, more accurately, it allows you to create a delay effect on note information received from a keyboard or sequencer and this delay is continuously variable up to a maximum of one second.
A typical set-up to include the use of the ME10D would be to have a keyboard MIDI Out plugged into the MIDI In on the ME10D; then take the MIDI Out and plug it into another synth, expander or sampler. Once the system is connected up, a simple demonstration of what may be achieved would be to first select a different voice on the master keyboard (sending MIDI data) and slaved synth (receiving MIDI data).
By repeatedly striking a note on the keyboard and slowly increasing the delay time on the ME10D, you'll hear the two sounds generated by the synths begin to move apart in time until there's a distinct repeat of the pitch but with a different sound being heard. This is particularly impressive if you patch the keyboard sound output hard left and hard right over your speakers.
If you had selected the same sound on both synthesizers you could produce double tracking effects to give, for example, a synth bass line a fuller sound, though over-adventurous use of the delay time could cause strange tempo effects.
The two MIDI signal routing switches found on the front panel enable three possible output combinations: DELAY, which will route the input through the processor and output the resulting delayed signal; THRU which routes the signal uneffected straight to the output; and by selecting both DELAY and THRU the original input will be heard mixed together with the delayed signal at the output. When this last option is chosen you're tripling up the voices instead of doubling, so you can get some really beefy sounds out of your synthesizers, especially with the help of a further three switches labelled octave 'down', 'normal' and 'up'.
The result of selecting one of these will give you the facility to move the pitch of the repeat sound up or down an octave relative to the original MIDI pitch data. You could, for example, select the same sound on both synths, introduce a slight delay between the two with the delay control and also select octave down. This would result in an octave lower bass that fills out the sound and follows your playing, whether it be chords or single notes, but I'm afraid that pitch-bend fans won't feel the benefits of octave following as the ME10D doesn't transmit pitch-bend info to the MIDI Out.
The choice of two different voice sounds can be far more interesting as you can mix the textures of both sounds and create some marvellous results by adjusting the Dynamics control. This simply varies the original velocity of the note by allowing you to dampen the dynamics and produce some nice warming effects, particularly on lower octave string sounds.
One final point about the Dynamics control is that the Akai handbook's description of its use is wrong and talks instead about a Balance control to vary the original and delayed sound. This control doesn't exist.
You may be forgiven for thinking that compared to most audio digital delays the Akai ME10D doesn't offer much in the way of parameter controls. What you must remember is that we are dealing with the delaying of MIDI data here and so facilities such as feedback are not possible because you can't mix two MIDI data streams together. This means that the ME10D doesn't produce multiple repeat echo effects so you shouldn't think of it as a normal echo unit. It is more closely related to a harmoniser if comparisons must be drawn.
As we're dealing with MIDI information it's not surprising to find that Akai's designers have taken the opportunity to include an option on the MIDI Program Change parameter. This selects whether or not MIDI program change data is sent to the MIDI Out socket and is particularly useful when you want to change the sound (via the program number) on the master keyboard from, say, strings to brass but you don't want the slave synth sound to change. A thoughtful option that one.
To conclude, the ME10D MIDI Digital Delay is certainly a useful device which offers some interesting features that straightforward audio delays can't give you - full marks for originality.
The second original MIDI effect from Akai is the ME15F. It's essentially a splitter box with dynamic control, and can offer some very useful and creative MIDI routing options.
One MIDI input is provided and this feeds four MIDI outputs simultaneously. The way in which this is done depends on the setting of two switches. Channel Separate switches between either sending all data received at the input to each of the four outputs or only sending data received on MIDI channel 1 to the four outputs. However, even the four outputs are not fixed and these may operate in either Mode 1: MIDI channels 1-4 or Mode 2: MIDI channels 5-8, by the flick of a switch. Unfortunately, the switch is located on the rear of the 19" rack-mounting box which tends to defeat the usefulness of rack-mounting.
Anyway, to let you know which mode has been selected, there's a couple of LEDs on the front panel and next to those is an additional LED labelled EXT (presumably EXTRA) which illuminates when MIDI data on channels other than those selected is present. The MIDI data on the other channels passes through the EXT MIDI Out socket without being processed by the dynamics controller. In effect, it's a MIDI Thru socket, and always carries MIDI channels 9-16.
Once you've come to terms with the routing options you can start to tackle the dynamics controls. These operate independently on each of the four outputs with a velocity control range of -126 to +126. This enables you to control the dynamics of four other sound sources from one keyboard, assuming of course that they all respond to MIDI velocity data.
Of the three effects this would initially seem to be the most appealing, not least because it offers cheap sequencing and arpeggiator facilities. And if you're one of those who are now upgrading (?) to the current range of digital synths, most of which are lacking such luxuries, you'll probably be interested in what the Akai ME20A has on offer.
A quick rundown of its facilities reveals that you can have up to 957 monophonic steps or 128 chords in memory. You can play arpeggios either up or down but you can't continually cycle up and down as you could on many of the older analogue synths. Any chords that you record may be played back as a sequence of chords or as an arpeggio, again with the option of ascending or descending directions. Editing and overdubbing are not possible in the way they are on MIDI sequencers and just to spoil the whole thing, Akai haven't included any means of synchronising the playback tempo to a drum machine or other external clock.
So, with that major problem on your plate you can't really consider the ME20A as part of a system and with everybody developing systems at the moment, it leaves a big question mark hanging over this unit.
It's a pity really because the ME20A also features a very interesting selection of controls on the playback side which allow you to alter the dynamics of the notes or chords in memory and also adjust the Gate (Note On time). This is by far the most creative aspect of all the units featured here and can produce changes in note characteristics from a sharp staccato to long sustained notes. You can, for example, input a group of chords and then select the pattern up playback mode so that the chords are played back as the single notes which constitute them, reduce the gate time, dampen the dynamics and end up with a bass line riff that could form the basis of a piece to build over.
The concept of the ME20A is fundamentally very good, but the lack of any external control of the playback tempo is unfortunately a great oversight. Akai are, however, known for improving existing products already on the market (remember the changes to their sampler), so with that in mind I'm sure they'll bring out some new and updated versions of these effects and it would be nice to see this one in particular brought up to standard and become part of a system rather than being a solitary little box.
As they stand, the three MIDI effects from Akai are certainly usable but there's also room for improvement.
My personal favourite is the MIDI Digital Delay which offers very good, if not limited, facilities but would make a valuable contribution to any keyboard set-up. With the recent drop in price to £99 each, they're all worth a look, though if you're into sync to tape and drum machines the ME20A won't fulfil your needs in the external control department.
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Review by Paul Gilby