Alesis MMT8 Sequencer
The hardware sequencer to beat them all? After an overlong wait, Simon Trask gets to grips with the latest development in the Alesis World Domination plan.
As computer-based sequencing packages become an increasingly common part of modern musicmaking, does the dedicated sequencer still have a valid place in the market?
HOW TIMES CHANGE. Where dedicated sequencers once reigned supreme the computer-based alternative has now taken firm hold, in many ways outstripping its rival. Will 1988 see the final vanquishing of the dedicated beast? Alesis obviously think not, for instead of joining the legion of software companies writing MIDI software for the Mac, IBM and ST computers they've opted to produce a dedicated sequencer. Characteristically it's aimed at the budget end of the market.
THE ALESIS MMT8 (MIDI Multi-Track Eight) is a compact, lightweight unit with a sloping front panel which is sensibly laid out operationally. Alesis have provided plenty of dedicated function buttons, many of which have to be held down while you use the function they reveal - strange at first, but it makes for speedy operation and greater confidence (you can release a button at any time and find yourself back at the Play/Record level). A few buttons (those for Part, Edit and Song modes, Loop and MIDI echo) can be switched on/off, and have red LEDs to display their status.
For buttons themselves Alesis have used the same squidgy rubber as almost everyone else does when they're trying to produce something as cheaply as possible. More encouragingly, on top of the front panel there's a lid which opens to reveal a ready reference guide - nice, even if you do need a magnifying glass to read it.
Beneath the centrally-situated 2X16-character backlit LCD is a numeric keypad and the usual +/- buttons, to the left of these are Page up/down buttons which take you to further displays for certain functions.
In the lower half of the front panel are eight dedicated track buttons, each one sporting its own red LED to indicate on/off status. Below these buttons are the "transport" controls: Play, Stop/Continue, Record, Fast Forward and Rewind.
The dedicated track buttons allow you to mute/demute tracks in real time with the sort of spontaneity that's hard to achieve using a mouse-based sequencing setup. Apart from its more immediate creative applications, this can be a great bonus if you're using multitimbral instruments with stereo outputs, or if your mixing desk simply doesn't have enough channels to handle individual outputs. In practice you can manually switch in/out a maximum of three tracks at a time with consistency.
Unusually the MMT8 "replays" any notes that should be sounding when you de-mute a track. Because MIDI can't start a note partway through its envelope, you get the attack of a note even if it should really be at the release stage. Still, it's a feature which can be put to good creative use.
The rear panel provides 9V DC power input, MIDI In, Out and Thru, tape in and out (for memory storage and tape sync), footswitch input (for sequence start/stop), and click out (for the metronome).
The MMT8 has a familiar organisation; 100 parts (patterns) each of which consists of eight tracks. A part can be from 1-682 beats long (that's a maximum uninterrupted recording time of five minutes 41 seconds at 120bpm). Parts can be chained together in up to 255 steps to form songs, of which there are 100.
PART LENGTH IS measured in beats, as the MMT8 doesn't deal in bars or time signatures. Some careful planning of beat and click values is needed if you want to incorporate time signature changes in a part (the MMT8 provides a choice of 10 metronome click values from 1/2 to 1/64 notes including triplets).
The length of a part can be predefined, or else determined by the length of the first track you record (up to 682 beats). However, you can alter the length of a part at any time. Reducing the length will wipe whatever data was in the "chopped off' section, while extending the length inserts blank beats up to the new end point. You can remove from or add to the beginning of a part as well as the end, an invaluable feature when it comes to extracting those few magical beats from an otherwise uninspired session.
Recording can be either from the beginning of a part (in which case you get a count-in of from 0-99 metronome clicks - the default is a sensible four) or else play through the part and hit Record (drop in) at the appropriate moment.
In both cases you can drop out of Record at any time. However, for some reason you can't drop in and out of Record more than once during a single playthrough, unless you Stop/Continue the part before attempting to drop in again. Unfortunately the footswitch can't be used to drop in and out of Record mode, so you've got problems if playing two-handed.
Selecting MIDI Echo allows incoming MIDI data to be echoed to MIDI Out. With the current record track set to "All", data is echoed on the same channel(s) it's received on; if set to a specific channel, data is echoed on that channel. However, if the MMT8 isn't set to Record Ready or isn't recording, the incoming channel remains unchanged.
The Loop function causes the current Part or Song to loop indefinitely. Alesis have missed out by not providing a loop-in-record mode for recording rhythm parts, however.
You can either select a specific MIDI channel or "Unchanged" for each track. If the former, then data on any incoming channels will be recorded on the assigned channel, while Unchanged means that incoming MIDI channels will be recorded unchanged (logical, really).
Holding down the MIDI Filter button and using the page up and down buttons allows you to choose notes, pitch-bend, aftertouch, controllers (globally), patch changes, SysEx, and MIDI channels (all or individual) for selective filtering at the input stage. You needn't bother filtering polyphonic aftertouch or release velocity, however - these are automatically filtered by the MMT8, presumably because Alesis felt they were too memory-intensive.
If you select "all MIDI channels" then the MMT8 will record all MIDI data that it receives (subject to the other filter options). However, if you select a single MIDI channel then the MMT8 ignores all channels except that one (unfortunately it doesn't echo the other channels to MIDI Out either, which isn't very helpful if you're using a master keyboard).
Recording and storing data on multiple MIDI channels per track is one of the MMT8's great strengths. MIDI guitarists can record in mono mode, keyboard players can record using a multisplit master keyboard, and anyone can play sequences across from another sequencer into the MMT8 (and in some cases vice versa - I was able to transfer sequences in both directions between the MMT8 and C-Lab's Creator sequencer, which also features multichannel record). With the addition of a MIDI merge box on the front, it should also be possible to indulge in duet recording, though this wasn't something I was able to try out solo.
For many musicians, multi-channel tracks mean that in effect you've got many more than eight tracks at your disposal. If you really want to be extreme about this, 8 tracks X 16 channels = 128 tracks. Just remember you've only got one set of 16 MIDI channels to send them out on.
The MMT8 records to a resolution of 96ppqn. Once you've recorded a track you can quantise it to any value from 1/2 notes to 1/64 notes including triplets. You can also quantise any combination of the eight tracks (press the relevant track buttons and their LEDs will light). As there's no recovery option in case the results aren't quite what you'd hoped for, it's safest to copy the relevant track(s) first.
You get a choice of four quantise types: note start, note start and end, note end, and keep duration. The latter type moves note offs in step with their note ons, so that note durations are preserved.
Copying on the MMT8 turns out to be an extensive feature. Whole parts and individual tracks can be copied. You can copy a part to an empty part or to an existing part, even to itself. In the latter two instances, Copy becomes append as the source part is appended to the destination part. It's a quick way of lengthening a single part, or of drawing together several short parts. Alesis' approach to copying also has the virtue of making it impossible to accidentally overwrite a part.
Individual tracks can be copied to the same or another part, and to the same or another track. Copying a track to itself might seem like a rather pointless exercise, except that the MMT8 allows you to copy selected data. Using the Page up and down buttons in Copy mode you can select one of 22 options: notes, pitch-bend, aftertouch, controllers, patch changes, SysEx data or individual MIDI channels 1-16. So now you can copy notes to the same track and get rid of pitch-bend and aftertouch data, or copy MIDI channel one only and get rid of channels two and three. Copying a particular channel to another track (in the same or another part) allows you to isolate a specific musical part from a multi-channel track so that you can quantise it, shift it to a different MIDI channel, transpose it, or simply use it as the starting point for another magnum opus.
Merge allows you to combine two tracks within the same part, with either of the pair being chosen as the destination track. In this way you free a track for further recording. Merged tracks of course keep their own MIDI channel assignments, so you can mix down any number of tracks onto a single track without finding that, for instance, your percussion parts and double-bass line are suddenly being played on a bass trombone.
"If by some misfortune you should fill up the MMT8's memory, the unlikely message 'Bummer, dude! Memory is Full' appears in the display."
However, if you merge a couple of tracks that are assigned to the same MIDI channel, there is no way that you can subsequently change the channel assignment of one because you now want it played on a different instrument. This unfortunate state of affairs could have been avoided by providing a function to define note range when you copy a particular channel to another track.
Erase offers the same range of options as Copy: you can erase any combination of tracks, and select what data you want to erase - particularly useful for erasing a specific channel from a multi-channel track.
The MMT8 allows you to transpose any combination of tracks up or down in semitone steps (0-99). Notes that would be transposed out of the MIDI range are automatically readjusted in octave steps. It's a pity that you can't define a note range for transposition, as this can come in useful where you have several rhythm parts playing on a drum machine within one track and you decide that the conga part should be played on the bongos after all.
If by some misfortune you should fill up the memory (not something you're likely to do in a hurry, I should add), the unlikely message "Bummer, dude! Memory is Full" appears in the display for a few seconds. Awful Californian slang, but you do get the feeling that someone somewhere is sympathising with you (I think).
STEP EDITING ON the MMT8 is where you really have to get to grips with numbers. To be fair, there's not much else you can do with a limited display, and Alesis' approach is much the same as that used in dedicated sequencers.
Essentially you get one MIDI event per screen display, with the information displayed depending on the type of event. In the case of a note on you get the start position expressed as beat and sub-beat, the note name, velocity value, duration (as beat and sub-beat) and MIDI channel assignment. These can all be edited using the numeric keypad and Page up/down buttons, while the Fast Forward and Rewind buttons step through the individual MIDI events. Fortunately you don't have to know your MIDI commands numerically: the MMT8 will tell you in plain English whether you're looking at a note on or a patch change.
The Event mode can also be used for entering music from scratch in step time. The MIDI event type at each step is selected using the Page up/down buttons. Events can be positioned anywhere within a track to 1/384th-note resolution. It's not the most straightforward of processes, and quite why you have to start by entering an event on the last click of the last beat of a track I don't know.
Unfortunately you can't input MIDI data such as notes and patch-changes from a MIDI instrument, nor is data sent back out over MIDI as you step through it. Both are features which would have lessened the reliance on numbers in favour of the actual sounds.
But it's a definite advantage being able to get to grips with your music at such a detailed and precise level. If nothing else, it can be educational to analyse your timing at "click" level.
THE MMT8 PROVIDES 100 Songs, though you're more likely to run out of memory (or inspiration) before you use them all. Each Song can have up to 255 steps (a step contains a single part), and the MMT8 includes the usual step insert and delete editing features.
The good news is that each Song can be given its own tempo, and that track mute settings can be memorised for each step in a Song. The latter feature isn't as flexible as being able to record mute/demute settings at any point in a Song (as C-Lab's Creator, for instance, allows you to do), but you can mute or demute tracks at any time manually while a song is running.
The bad news is that you can't have tempo changes within a Song, nor can you tranpose parts. The latter omission is more of an inconvenience (you'll have to copy and then transpose parts in Part mode, thus using up more memory), but there's no way around the former - unless the slight but noticeable pause caused by manually switching from one Song to another isn't a problem for you. Also absent is the ability to program gradual tempo changes, though at least you can alter the tempo of recorded tracks manually in real time.
In Song mode the quantisation button takes on a new function: track shifting. This has nothing whatsoever to do with British Rail, though it does have a lot to do with delays. Individual tracks can be shifted by a maximum of 48 384th notes (that's a quaver to you) in either direction. What this represents in actual time depends on the tempo of the music. For instance, at a tempo of 125bpm one 384th note (a 96th of a beat) has a duration of five milliseconds. Values set for each track apply to all 100 Songs.
The MMT8 can sync up to the outside world, with MIDI & Internal, Internal Only, and Tape Sync options. With "MIDI & Internal" selected the MMT8 responds to whichever "trigger" it receives first (MIDI start code or MMT8 Play button). You can also decide whether or not to send out MIDI sync.
THE MMT8 PROVIDES two means of storing your music: tape and MIDI. Tape storage allows you to save and load all Parts and Songs or individual parts, and to verify a tape for any save errors. Dumping the MMT8's entire memory to tape takes six minutes, after which time it's advisable to verify the tape. All in all, not my idea of fun.
The sane alternative is to transmit the MMT8's contents over MIDI to an external storage device such as Yamaha's MDF1 MIDI Data Filer. Full memory transfer takes a modest 30 seconds, the data being sent as a single SysEx block whose length is determined by the amount of data in memory.
Alesis point out that the MDF1 (the most obvious choice for MMT8 companionship) can only save 85% of the MMT8's memory. Unless you need to use the whole memory for one piece of music, it's probably worth sacrificing that extra 15% of memory for the benefits of disk storage.
DX7IIFD owners are worse off: no more than 25% of the MMT8's memory can be saved to the synth's disk drive. If you're fortunate enough to own Oberheim's DPX1 sample replay unit you'll be glad to know that it will soon be usable as a SysEx storage device too, courtesy of new software from Oberheim. There should be no memory shortage problems there.
With its ability to accept sequences played over MIDI in real time from another sequencer the MMT8 would seem to be a good candidate for live sequencing, allowing your computer-based sequencer to stay safely at home. Alesis' sequencer is certainly portable, if not exactly what you'd call rugged. I'd say a flightcase and a disk-based storage device will be essential accoutrements for the intrepid MMT8 user.
I MUST CONFESS to being more impressed with the MMT8 than I anticipated - not that I mean to cast aspersions on Alesis' competence, but the advantages offered by a setup based around a computer system are so overwhelming. Yet the MMT8 has reminded me that dedicated sequencers can have a charm all their own. There's no denying that the immediacy of the MMT8 is a big point in its favour. Physically punching buttons can be much more satisfying than dragging a mouse around - even when those buttons are of the tacky rubber variety.
Alesis' sequencer certainly scores in operational accessibility, despite one or two annoying quirks; clearly accessibility was a prime objective of the company's design team. If ever there was a sequencer which didn't get in the way of making music, this is it.
Although the MMT8 is an entry-level sequencer it has enough power and flexibility to grow with you as your confidence and aspirations grow.
If you'll forgive a journalistic cliche, Alesis are on to another winner here.
Price £299 including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask
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