Alesis Data Filer
ALESIS DATADISK MIDI Data Recorder
The latest MIDI data recorder to appear is the Alesis Datafiler SysEx recorder, which allows you to record system exclusive info direct to disk. Filing with Vic Lennard.
As the flexibility of the MIDI system continues to reveal itself, new pieces of equipment appear to take advantage of it. Alesis' new Datadisk cashes in on SysEx storage.
IN THE OLD (analogue) days, the creation of a new sound occupied all of a synthesiser's circuitry. If you like, a synth had just one memory - the front panel control settings. These days, most synths have 64, 128 or more sounds onboard. Once those are full, you can resort to RAM cards, cartridges and the like. But what if you find these costs prohibitive? How do you save your sounds?
Yamaha's MDF1 MIDI Data Filer is one alternative, but this stores data via the infamous quick disk and can't handle some of the larger dumps transmitted by today's synths. Alesis have never been slow in coming forward with a new product to fill a gap and so here is their answer to the problem - the Datadisk.
THE UNIT HAS the same look about it as Alesis' Quadraverb - a 1U-high, charcoal grey, rack mounting unit. The front panel hosts a dozen push buttons, a 3.5" disk drive (using double-sided double density disks) and a two-line, backlit screen with 16 characters per line. The rear panel hosts the requisite MIDI In and Out/Thru ports and the power arrives via a nine volt AC mains adapter.
The Datadisk bears the motto Direct MIDI to Disk/Universal Data Storage emblazoned on the front panel, but this is not strictly correct. It is a direct-to-disk system exclusive recorder, and as such will store data from practically any manufacturer's gear. However, it will not recognise MIDI note and controller information - more about this later.
NO HEAVYWEIGHT THEORY here, simply a quick explanation. System exclusive information is so named because each manufacturer has a MIDI identification code and, possibly, individual codes for each piece of equipment. This makes each MIDI unit unique and allows it to extract its parameter values from a stream of data without accidentally reading something else's. Consequently, the ID code will name the manufacturer while the Model code, if one exists, will pinpoint the precise piece of equipment.
Before any data can be stored, a disk has to be formatted, which takes a little over a minute.
Let's take a typical situation: you want to save a bank of sounds from Roland's popular D50. The synth has to be set to transmit One-Way and needs a MIDI lead connected from its MIDI Out to the MIDI In on Datadisk. Press the Receive button and "Recv One SysEx: Waiting For Data" flashes up on screen. Start the data transmission from the D50 and this changes, first to "Receiving Roland D50" and then to "Stored as Roland D50 File 01". The real power of this machine lies in the fact that it writes the data straight to disk. Other devices store it in a buffer which limits the size of the dump.
I know that this reads a little like a press-this-and-do-that routine, but it does show just how easy Datadisk is to use. It really is difficult to make a mistake. Having received the MIDI data, File 01 can be renamed with up to an eight-letter title. Total space available on each formatted disk is 796kBytes which, for instance, would store 22 banks of D50 sounds. The only other limitation on this is that a maximum of 53 fiIes are allowed.
Sending the data from the Datadisk to a MIDI device is equally straightforward. Send allows you to scroll through all entries on a disk, which are listed alphabetically, and select the required file. Selecting "Yes" then does the business.
"You could save three banks of sounds from different instruments as a single Datadisk file and name it according to the session."
You may well be asking why the D50 had to be set to One-Way mode. The alternative is Handshaking which requires a two-way connection. This is to allow the receiving device to send out a request for data and acknowledgements upon receiving it. Datadisk will not generally handle this type of data transfer because most devices give you the choice of the two methods. However, by using Request and the scroll buttons, data dumps from four devices can be requested through a two-way link, namely; JL Cooper Fadermaster and PPS100, Oberheim 088 and Roland TR707.
LET'S SAY THAT you have a D50, a Korg M1 and a Yamaha DX7 and you wish to send across a bank of sounds to each of these synths at the start of a session. There are two different ways to achieve this.
The first is to obtain the bank of sounds from each synth (as described above) and to save them as individual files onto a disk. A second press on the Send button brings up "Send All Files?" in the display. This will send across the files one at a time and because of the way in which SysEx works, each synth will get the bank of sounds intended for it.
The second method is to save the data in a different manner. Pressing the Receive button a second time brings up the message "Recv Mult SysEx: Waiting For Data." After the first dump has been received, you have the option of closing the file or appending another dump to it. So, you could save these three banks as a single file and name it according to the session. This is a better option in that disk space is better utilised and there is less hunting around needed for the correct file. There is a rather interesting alternative to either of the above. Quite often, only a single sound is required for each synth in the context of a song. Pressing the patch change buttons on most synths actually sends out the SysEx data for the particular patch which has been selected. These could then be saved as a Multi file and sent back accordingly. The advantages of this are that the single sound is placed in the synth's edit buffer and so does not affect whatever is currently in memory, and also the total dump takes up a lot less space on disk and is much quicker to send. Datadisk will store the SysEx for a single sound just as happily as for an entire bank.
MOST DEVICES ASSIGN a MIDI channel to the outgoing SysEx dump and will not recognise data unless it is on this specific channel. Datadisk does not allow you to re-channel data, and so you'll have to keep a note of which channel a dump was taken from. This can be a real bind, especially with a multitimbral instrument like the Roland D110. The D110 sets the SysEx channel to either one less than the lowest MIDI channel in use or differentiates between units by setting different unit numbers as part of the code at the start of the SysEx dump. It would certainly be useful to be able to see the MIDI channel for a dump even if it couldn't be altered.
Some MIDI devices send a bulk dump in the form of lots of smaller components. For instance, the Oberheim Matrix 1000 sends a bank of 100 sounds as 100 banks of one sound. If there's more than a half-second gap between these dumps, Datadisk will assume that the dump has been completed and close the file. If this is the case, a Data Overflow message appears on screen and the Multi-dump should be used instead.
Another problem arises with synths that require time to digest incoming data before receiving more. For instance, Yamaha's VZ1 is unhappy to receive the four single sounds necessary for a combination layer one after another. A bit of experimenting was needed before I got this to work. And not being able to insert pauses into certain dumps could cause trouble when attempting to send the data back.
"As a SysEx filing system, Datadisk performs admirably - the fact that it identifies dumps by ID codes means that it will never become outdated."
The one major failing of Datadisk is that only SysEx can be recognised. You cannot transfer MIDI note and controller data from a sequencer unless the latter can put it into a SysEx package (like the Alesis MMT8 surprise, surprise). This makes Datadisk totally different from Elka's CR99, which will store all MIDI data directly to disk and so allow you to use it for live work instead of a computer-based sequencer.
LET'S TAKE A look at what else Datadisk has to offer. Delete removes files from disk, either individually or en masse. Backup lets you save files individually to another disk and can also be used to backup an entire disk. In the latter case, you are told how many times the disks will need to be swapped over as only a small portion of a disk can be loaded into memory at any time. The data can also be sent via MIDI to another Datadisk or to an external librarian.
Info shows you how many files are on disk and how much memory has been used, as well as the data size of each file. MIDI lets you set up a channel for patch changing Datadisk so that dumps can be called up in the middle of a song.
DATADISK WORKS, AND it works well - every device that I could lay my hands on was tested and there were only a few anomalies. Some devices get the manufacturer's name on screen but not the device name (because Datadisk doesn't have them programmed in), but mistakes like classifying a Yamaha FB01 as a "DX7" dump instead of a "4-Oper" really shouldn't happen. Attempting to save a dump from an old Chase Bit 99 brought up the ID of Twister. This can only be because SysEx IDs are sometimes granted temporarily and then re-assigned to another manufacturer. The same problem occurred with a LinnDrum dump which had JL Cooper's ID. Other inaccuracies include classifying Roland's MT32, D110 and D10/20 all as D10/20 - certain areas of these dumps are not compatible.
Datadisk happily saved Akai S612/700 dumps as well as Roland's S10 which is rather nice as all of these machines otherwise rely on quick disks. However, it won't touch dumps from an Akai S900/950, Roland S50 or Prophet 2000 because they don't conform to the MIDI Sample Dump Standard.
AS A SYSEX filing system, Datadisk performs admirably. The fact that it identifies dumps by ID codes means that by and large it will never be outdated.
However, an RRP of £299 may be too high to attract as many users as the unit deserves. An Atari 520ST and librarian software (such as Hollis' MIDIman or Hybrid Arts Genpatch) is not going to cost you a great deal more and will offer a higher degree of flexibility. It all depends on how much you'd prefer to have the system tucked away in 1U of rack space.
But Datadisk performs its chosen job well perhaps it's better to be a master of one trade than jack of all.
Price £299 including VAT.
Review by Vic Lennard
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