Alesis MMT-8 MIDI Recorder
In an age when most MIDI sequencers seem to come on floppy disk, Alesis hits the market with their new hardware sequencer, the MMT-8. It doesn't boast a video monitor or multi-mega tracks, so can it compete with the omnipresent beige box? David Mellor yearns to learn.
The last sequencer I bought cost two hundred and fifty hard-earned bills and consisted of one small floppy disk and a thick (but not thick enough) instruction manual. The perceived value-for-money rating came in at a rather low figure and when I eventually tired of its weird whims and ways, I discovered that its perceived value on the secondhand market was even lower - by a huge margin. Perhaps many people are not quite ready for computerisation yet and would prefer a nice, tangible, black box to spend their money on - especially when hardware and software versions of the same things are comparably priced.
The Alesis MMT-8 retails at £299 which is a steal, by any standards, for a MIDI sequencer. The question is, does it do its job and can it compete with its computer-based rivals? It doesn't have - on the face of it - 48 or 60 tracks, and its 32-character backlit LCD display has nothing on a high resolution mono video monitor. So what can its advantages be? I'll tell you now, they're not hard to find.
Getting straight to the heart of the argument, how can a sequencer consider itself anything like serious when it only has eight tracks? What happened to those 16 MIDI channels that we have been getting along nicely with these past years? The answer is that each track of the MMT-8 can hold 16 MIDI channels simultaneously, and keep them separable for later reworking. That means, in theory, that you could have 128 tracks (8 x 16) going on at the same time, if you wanted to play the indecisive producer. OK, so you might have a little difficulty getting them all recorded and they would still have to come out together through one little DIN socket on the back, but at least it can be seen that this machine is comparable with anything computers have to offer in this direction. More on this subject later.
As far as the display goes, which would you rather have - a large display and a keyboard with meaningless symbols on it (I mean letters of the alphabet) which you have to mentally translate into instructions for your computer-based sequencer, or a small display which tells you all you need to know plus a dedicated keypad where the buttons mean what they say and say what they mean? The equation is evened up just a little. Dedicated mouse-pushers will be heckling from the back of the room at this point, but I hope you can see that, although computers are enormously valuable tools in the field of musical endeavour, dedicated hardware items can still look forward to a healthy future.
At first sight, the MMT-8 looks a bit like the control panel of a multitrack tape recorder, because it has eight TRACK buttons with associated red LEDs, also PLAY, STOP, RECORD, FAST FORWARD and REWIND buttons. This aroused my interest because I have been thinking for some time that a sequencer that worked exactly like a multitrack would have a lot going for it in the way of operational convenience. Things didn't work out quite the way I wanted, so let me explain what the sequencing procedure is:
With the MMT-8, sequences - or songs - are built up from parts. Each part consists of up to 682 beats of 8-track recording (remember that you can have 16 simultaneous MIDI channels on each track). When you have as many different parts as you want (intro, verse, chorus, etc) they can be chained together to form a song. There can be up to 100 parts and 100 songs, made from these parts, held in memory at the same time. This is a similar situation to most computer sequencers these days so the procedure should be quite familiar.
On finding or creating an empty part, the user is presented with the display 'EMPTY PART', which is obvious in its meaning. This can be changed to whatever name you want - somewhat tediously, but at least the facility is there. To start recording, you press RECORD and the MMT-8 will automatically select the lowest numbered empty track to record on. The next time RECORD is pressed, the next empty track will be selected, so you don't have to worry about which track to record on, the sequencer handles this for you. If you like, or if you wish to re-record a track, then it is easy to select the required track manually. One point to remember is that if you are in automatic track select mode, then when you have filled all eight tracks you will not be able to record more - or record over tracks that you have already filled. In manual select, you're on your own!
It's worth pausing for a moment to look at the comparison with the Yamaha QX5, which is roughly similar in price (if you can find it discounted) and also boasts 8-track sequencing. The principle minus point of the Yamaha, although it has many pluses, is that all recording is done on track 1. You then have to bounce this onto another track to clear track 1 for further recording. All editing is done on track 1 too, and you soon find yourself in an awful muddle, to which a track sheet is no solution unless you update it every time you carry out a track exchange operation. The Alesis MMT-8 conquers this by letting you record on the track of your choice, and you will see that this is also the case when I come to explain the editing process. Score one, Alesis.
On the MMT-8, recording of the first track continues until you press STOP, which sets the length of the part, from 1 beat to 682 beats. There are no bars to worry about and no time signatures - are these now outmoded concepts? I found it convenient, for the purpose of testing the machine, to stick to a part length of 32 beats. It is possible to extend parts, either by doubling the length of the recorded material, or by adding empty beats. It is good to be able to do this in a straightforward manner, working on the whole of the part, rather than by extending on a track-by-track basis as you sometimes have to.
Once I had my 32-beat pattern recorded, I was overdubbing merrily. I found, without looking at the manual, that it was possible to punch in and punch out of record just like I do on tape, by pressing the red RECORD button. It wasn't possible, however much manual reading I did, to start recording halfway through a part. This could be a problem if you want to record long patterns and have to go back to the beginning every time. I also found it a problem not to have any indication of where in the part the machine had stopped. When a part is running, then the display constantly updates the beat number. When stopped, it goes back to displaying the name of the part. Not too useful - I can remember the name, but not which beat I happen to be on each time I stop.
Quantisation is, of course, provided - after recording. There are several useful options which include: NOTE START, NOTE END, NOTE START & END, and KEEP DURATION.
NOTE START is the conventional form of quantisation, where the beginnings of notes are all shifted to their correct time values but the ends are left where your keyboard playing left them. This preserves a good measure of your playing style but makes it sound rhythmically spot on. NOTE END does the opposite - a slightly less useful, but interesting, effect. NOTE START & END makes things sound completely sequencer-like (is that what we want?), while KEEP DURATION is a variation of the same thing but a useful addition for the sloppier player. I could have wished for a 'Tidy Up' function which would bring extremely wayward notes into line, while leaving close-to-perfect ones alone. I'll keep wishing and perhaps my fairy godmother will wave her magic wand. It is the pantomime season after all! There is no provision for quantisation during recording. I'm not a fan of this personally, but many people are so I speak for them on this point.
LOOP is an interesting function, interesting because it has not been properly thought out. The LOOP button is an on/off switch with LED indicator. When on, any part or song will repeat indefinitely until STOP is pressed, which is good as far as it goes. But why didn't someone think of having a loop in record mode? You can loop in record, but when you come to the end of the part it drops out of record mode and begins playing from the beginning. It's nice to be able to loop a few bars to try out ideas without recording them, but if you could record then it would be like having a drum machine (where you usually loop one or more bars and record in 'continuous overdub' mode) and sequencer rolled into one. Perhaps I'm missing a subtle marketing point here...
MERGE is the beef of this machine, with apologies to vegetarians who may substitute their own favourite metaphor. Since eight tracks get filled up pretty quickly these days, there has to be a way of getting more music into the Alesis machine. There is.
When you have filled up all the tracks, it is possible to combine the MIDI data on tracks 1-7 onto track 8, say. Or you can use any combination of tracks that takes your fancy. As long as the data for each musical part is kept on a separate MIDI channel, then it is possible, as we shall see, to extract that data and re-record, edit or do whatever you want to it. Try unbouncing tracks on an analogue 8-track recorder and see how far you get! I can easily envisage a situation where data for basic tracks is recorded on, say, six MIDI channels and is all merged onto track 8. This leaves seven free tracks for overdubs, alternate takes or whatever. I can see no limitation to creativity imposed by the track structure of this sequencer - only by the limitations of MIDI itself.
"It wasn't possible... to start recording half way through a part."
This feline feature deserves its own heading because of its intelligence and flexibility. I say this because just about every copying facility that you would ever need is within easy reach, globally, track by track and MIDI channel by MIDI channel. The possibilities are as follows:
- Copy a whole part (eight tracks) to an empty part location.
- Copy any number of tracks of a part to an empty part location.
- Append a whole part to itself, thus doubling the length.
- Append a whole part to another part.
- Append any number of tracks to another part.
- Append any number of tracks to another part.
- Copy a single track to another track in the same part.
- Copy a single track to another track in a different part.
- Copy only selected data from one track to another (notes, pitch bend, aftertouch, controllers, program change, system exclusive, MIDI channel 1-16) - use this to extract one MIDI channel from a track containing several and copy it to another track!
"On the MMT-8 it is possible to re-channelise incoming MIDI data to whatever MIDI channel you need..."
If that's not comprehensive, then I don't know what is! A neat trick, by the way, is to copy selected data in a track to the same track. Using this technique you can easily erase all types of MIDI data, leaving just the one you want, probably the notes.
ERASE is pretty powerful too. Obviously, getting shot of a bum part or song is no trouble at all. More subtle is the ability to erase notes only, leaving all other MIDI data intact. Alternatively, you have the option of erasing pitch bend, aftertouch, controllers, program change, system exclusive and MIDI channel.
Another as yet unmentioned feature is TRANSPOSE. One use of this is to adjust a sequence to suit a singer without a similar pitch change facility. The range provided here - up or down 99 semitones - ought to be enough to cover most eventualities. Another use is to double a melody line at the octave, which is achieved by copying the melody onto another track, transposing the original up or down 12 semitones, and then merging the two together. It sounds like a lot of button pushes but it's an effective trick and the results are always better, doing it this way, than by playing it manually at the alternative pitch. I might mention here that a common feature of sequencers based on this 'part and song' method of construction is the ability to chain parts together, incorporating transpositions in the chaining process - useful for raising the tail-out choruses by a semitone or two. Well, you can do it on the MMT-8 too, but you would have to copy a part then transpose the copy. It's not the usual method but it's quite painless.
One of the most important features of a sequencer is the ability to edit the data you played in, without having to erase and start again, which is just about all you can do with your good old analogue multitrack. Some computer sequencers can give you extensive note lists which look like a score for a MIDI-fied London Symphony Orchestra. Frightening to the average muso - and me too! Since there isn't a large enough display area on the MMT-8 to give a note list, you have to scroll through note-by-note, but since the music plays note-by-note anyway, it sounds like an obvious procedure to me.
When you press EDIT and select any one of the eight tracks in PART mode, individual MIDI events - of all varieties - are displayed. For instance, you might see this:
001/00: C#-2 064
002/00 CHAN 01
What does it mean? Simple, the first three digits are the beat number (001), followed by the sub-beat (1/96th of a beat). This tells you when the note starts. Next is the note name (C#-2), thankfully not the MIDI note number, followed by the velocity (064). The second line shows the duration in beats (002) and sub-beats and the MIDI channel. Now isn't that all you need to know?
Actually, not quite. Yamaha's edit display (on the QX5) takes up two screens and is more difficult to use, but as you step through the track, note-by-note, you hear each note as you go. Alesis have missed out here. They also miss out on the possibility of hearing the changes you are making to any particular note before you make an alteration. On the QX5, you can play around with the velocity as much as you like, then only when it's right do you commit the change to memory. Neither Yamaha nor Alesis do the obvious thing, however, and let you make changes from your MIDI keyboard. Imagine how simple that would be...
Other MIDI information can be altered: pitch bend, aftertouch, you name it. How about being able to mess around with system exclusive data? Not my favourite sport, but I'm sure someone can find a use for this feature.
As well as changing data that is already in the memory, extra data can be inserted at this point - it's sometimes easier than playing in the odd semiquaver that you missed. Once again, you can insert aftertouch and continuous controller messages at will.
Song Edit is a slightly different kettle of fish because it is here that parts are chained into complete compositions. It's a bit like working a drum machine. The display looks a bit like this:
EDIT SONG 01
STEP 001 PART 27
This means that you are about to operate on song 1 out of the possible 100. Step 1 is going to be part 27. It's simple to build up songs, inserting and deleting parts at will.
Congratulations to Alesis for putting the correct number of MIDI sockets on the back (3), pity it is not the case with a certain other piece of Alesis equipment in a similar grey plastic case.
The MIDI Echo function, when on, sends whatever MIDI information is present at the MIDI In socket over to the MIDI Out. This is necessary so that MIDI equipment further down the chain can listen to what is going on and play appropriate notes. On the MMT-8 it is possible to re-channelise incoming MIDI data to whatever MIDI channel you need, so there would be no problem using any keyboard which can only transmit on one channel (such as a DX7 Mark I). It is also possible to assign a MIDI channel either to one of the eight tracks or to the data that the track contains. It sounds like a small difference, but when you start moving data from track to track it could be important. You might, for instance, want to assign one of your instruments to each track. You could then swap musical parts from track to track and hear what they sound like on each instrument in turn. Alternatively, you could regard anything you play as specifically designed for a particular instrument and want it to play on that instrument however much you bounce it around inside the sequencer. I imagine that people tend to work in one way or the other. The good news is that you'll all be OK!
The other aspect of MIDI that is important is the MIDI FILTER. Usually, you don't want all the data coming from your keyboard to be recorded. Aftertouch is only necessary when you are dealing in subtlety, and very often velocity information is undesirable. The MMT-8's MIDI FILTER can be set to accept or reject the following data types: notes, pitch bend, aftertouch, controllers, program change and system exclusive. Song pointers, by the way, are recognised.
Disposing briefly with clicks, clocks and tape data storage which are as versatile as those on the companion drum machine, the Alesis HR-16, let's get down to some operational details.
Here is what you cannot do with the MMT-8: You can't programme tempo changes! I find it hard to believe how neglected this essential feature is becoming lately. You will find other sequencers that are lacking in this respect too, but the MMT-8 is no less worthy of criticism because it runs with the pack. You can programme a tempo for each song, which is at least something.
Another matter which is of slightly lesser importance is that it isn't as easy as it could be to keep track of what channel, or what instrument, is on which track. Neither can you tell whether a track is active - has data recorded on it - or not. The TRACK LEDs, useful though they are, do not indicate which track you are recording on. Why not? One solution to these problems might be to have an extra green LED for each track - green for 'track containing data' and red for 'recording on this track'. The Alesis HR-16 drum machine (see review p18) has a handy 'scribble strip' for user notes. If this feature were to be echoed here it would be helpful.
The problem with sequencers is that no manufacturer comes close to being a 'best of breed' winner. There are so many functions a sequencer could have and, to be honest, the public haven't really decided what they want from a sequencer yet. We are still low down on the learning curve. Alesis have made a good attempt here at a competitive price. Comparing the MMT-8 with Yamaha's QX5, the QX can cope with pretty well anything you might want to achieve musically - but at the expense of time and careful operating procedures to avoid data loss. The Alesis machine can't quite do it all - especially tempi and time signatures - but what it does, it does a lot more easily.
Although not being as trendy as software-based sequencer packages, this small grey box has just as much to offer - and I would lay bets that it will keep its secondhand value longer. It's not perfect but it's good. Definitely good.
Price £299 inc VAT.
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Review by David Mellor
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