SMPTE Sync/MIDI + Audio Patchbay/Mac Interface
Combining MIDI and audio patchbay functions and putting them under software control could be an important studio breakthrough. Ian Waugh looks at the SMP16 and studio sophistication.
As the keyboard workstation's star wanes, that of the highly evolved patchbay waxes. Currently leading the field is Anatek's SMP16.
INTEGRATION: THAT'S WHAT we need. It'S all very well decentralising government but it's far easier dealing with one bureaucrat than half a dozen, don't you think? The SMP16 is a bit like that - a centralised office, not a bureaucrat. Inside its 2U-high rack-mount exterior lies a multi-function machine. Let's see how quickly we can run through a description of parts.
Operation is based on the tried and tested system of menus and sub-menus. There are 13 main menus and most have only three sub-menus so it's difficult to get lost. An extra large 16 x 2-character LCD tells you what the current menu/sub-menu is and indicates the parameters which you can alter. If you can't see this from the other end of the studio you need glasses.
To the right of the display are four cursor buttons arranged in a diamond. Use these to increase and decrease the value of parameters and to move the LCD cursor from one parameter to another. To the right of the diamond are six function buttons used to move forwards and backwards through the menus, enter a sub-menu, execute the current command, reset the data to its lowest possible value and to exit from a menu.
On the back of the unit are six MIDI In sockets, eight MIDI Outs, 16 pairs of unbalanced audio in and out jacks, in and out SMRTE sockets, a Mac interface and a female DB9 connector for use with Anatek's 6 Slider Remote (not supplied) which provides inputs for variable MIDI controllers. There's also a fuse and a power socket - the lead is not fixed to the unit.
On the front panel are two extra pairs of audio ins and outs which are mapped onto sockets 15 and 16 on the back. A second MIDI Out 8 socket is mapped onto MIDI Out 8 on the back and a MIDI In F (for Front) is the equivalent of MIDI In 7.
LET'S LOOK AT the MIDI patchbay first. The menu you need is Edit MIDI Patch Routing & Merge. Hit Enter and you get a list of the eight MIDI Out sockets waiting to be assigned In sockets. You can switch off routing to a socket altogether, assign it one of the six In sockets on the back or to one of the processors labelled A and B (more about these in a moment).
Socket F appears on the right of the display where it can be assigned to Processor A or B. In fact socket F can only be assigned to a Processor which, in turn, can be assigned to a MIDI Out on the left of the display. This may appear a bit convoluted but there's a reason for it, which we'll get to in a moment. To help you remember what gear is connected to which socket, you can name the Ins and Outs. You can name everything except the A and B processors and the F socket which are designated, naturally, A and B Processor Out and socket F.
Merging any of the MIDI Ins is possible, and is accomplished by merging the output of Processor B with that of A. An arrow in the main display shows if Merge is on or off and the references to Processor A in the In line in the display turn to M for Merge. You may have to run through the procedure a few times before it begins to gel.
It's a good idea to work out what equipment you're going to plug where and name the sockets accordingly. It will make future use much easier.
Processors A and B can be programmed to filter out unwanted MIDI messages. These include Note On and Off (treated as one message), Aftertouch, Control Change, Program Change, Pitch Bend, System Common, System Real Time, System Exclusive and All Notes Off.
Running Status may be enabled/disabled for each Processor, too. It would have been useful to be able to filter out Active Sensing as I know this screws up quite a few pieces of gear.
in use, you'd set up a filter to remove Program Changes in Processor A, say, and then use the Edit MIDI Patch Routing & Merge menu to assign one of the Ins to A and then assign A to one of the Outs. It may appear rather involved and you do have to get your head firmly around the routing concept in order to make best use of it.
With Anatek's optional 6 Slider Remote connected to the MIDI Controllers socket, up to six MIDI controller messages can be sent to connected devices. Any MIDI Controller may be assigned to any of the six Controller Numbers. The MIDI Controllers are named where names are given in the MIDI spec and their numbers are shown in both decimal and hex. You assign them to a MIDI channel and transmit the data using the external control.
The data is routed through Processor A again, merging it with any other data. The manual suggests you disconnect unused Controllers to avoid transmission of erroneous information. In other words it suggests you don't try to transmit two different sets of controller data at the same time.
The audio patchbay works in a similar way to the MIDI patchbay. The 16 ins and outs are accessed through four displays each showing four pairs of sockets. Like the MIDI patchbay, the outs are fixed and you alter the inputs they are assigned. You can connect any in to any out or disconnect the outs from the routing. You can name the ins and outs, too.
Two sets of ins and outs for 15 and 16 allow these connections to appear on both the front and back of the unit. The ins are summed so, for example, assigning in 15 to an out routes anything connected to both the front and rear sockets. Same with the 16 ins. At its simplest, this could function as a 2:1 line mixer.
The manual suggests using the duplicate 15 and 16 outs for simultaneous recording on different tape decks, although a more common use may be for monitoring or patching to a signal processor.
"The program is absolutely useless without the hardware and it's free so why have Anatek chosen to frustrate us with unnecessary and restrictive copy protection?"
HAVING SET UP a MIDI or Audio patch, you can save it to memory. MIDI and Audio patches are saved separately and there are 50 slots each for MIDI and Audio storage, all of which may be named.
To change a setup you need to load the patch back into main memory. You can also select a patch via MIDI using Program Change messages. There is a Show Currently Loaded Patches option in the main menu which does just that.
It's all very helpful but I can't help but wonder why it's necessary to load and save patches to memory at all. This is where a more informative display would be useful. It could show the actual patch name and number above the routings. To make a new setup current you could simply scroll to it in the main display.
UNDER THE MIDI Utilities Setup & SysEx menu you can set the MIDI receive channels for MIDI Program Changes and Audio Program Changes.
You can also set the System Exclusive device ID number, should you have more than one SMP16, and instigate a SysEx Bulk Dump. You can turn SysEx reception off, too, to prevent the accidental overwriting of settings.
The SMP16's SMPTE facilities are quite comprehensive. It supports all six formats - 24, 25, 29.97, 30, 29.97 drop frame and 30 drop frame. You can set the start time before striping a tape. It defaults to 00:59:30:00 giving you a 30-second lead time and starting you on the hour.
On playback, the SMP16 can generate MIDI Time Code, Direct Time Lock or Enhanced Time Lock as well as MIDI Sync. These are merged with the input assigned to Processor A, again, which you can route to any of the MIDI Outs. When you're in the SMPTE To... display (when it's generating other time code), the SMPTE code being read is displayed in real time.
Using MIDI Sync requires a little more setting up as you have to give the SMP16 Song Start and Tempo information (Song Position Pointer info). You do this from another menu which lets you select any of ten Songs which can be stored in memory. You can select up to ten different tempo changes in the song.
You get a SMPTE readout while MIDI Sync is being generated, too, but, unlike the other time codes, you can't exit this display while Sync is being generated. There's also a useful Jam Sync SMPTE option which will re-write SMPTE code over a dropout.
YOU CAN CONNECT the SMP16's Mac interface to the modem or printer port on your Mac. It operates at 1MHz so you may need to change the speed in your sequencing software although most default to 1MHz.
Your Mac is now connected to the In 1 and Out 1 sockets. The manual warns not to plug anything else into the SMP16's In 1 socket in case a hardware merge occurs but you can connect equipment to the Out 1 in which case it will receive the same data as the Mac, the socket acting as a MIDI Thru unit.
A MANAGER/EDITOR PROGRAM for the Atari ST is bundled with the SMP16. It was written by EMC (of numerous Manager/Editors fame including the SY/TG55 Manager reviewed in MT, May '91) and forsakes GEM for its own interface.
You can make a backup of the program and install it on a hard disk but the original disk must be in the drive on booting. This is paranoia in the extreme. The program is absolutely useless without the hardware and it's free so why have Anatek chosen to frustrate us with unnecessary and restrictive copy protection?
For the hardware and software to talk to each other, the currently-active MIDI patch must have a routing from the selected MIDI Input to Processor A. Once you select a patch which doesn't have this connection you lose touch with the hardware (even via a program change) and you will have to make adjustments to bring it on line again by hand. To ensure constant contact, it would make sense to assign one of the MIDI Ins to Processor A in all patches.
The main screen shows the names of all 50 MIDI and Audio patches plus the ten Songs. You can Copy, Swap and Delete patches. Switch on the Auto Send flag and any changes are automatically sent to the SMP16.
"Tot up the cost of the parts which make up the whole and I think you'll find you're getting a fair deal - and there's the convenience of having all the bits in one box."
Highlight the Edit button on the bottom of the screen and click on a patch to edit it; this takes you to the edit page where connections are made with a Jack Plug (for Audio) or MIDI Plug (for MIDI) tools and broken with a pair of scissors - very neat. The complexities of the MIDI patches in particular are shown in the Edit page which includes the Processors and Controllers. The Audio routings are fairly straightforward. You can edit the names here, too - far easier than using the SMP16's buttons.
Unfortunately, you can't perform all operations from the computer. For example, there's no Bulk Dump request. This must be instigated manually from the SMP16 and if you're not quick the option will time out before it receives it. You can't set the receive channels for MIDI and Audio Program Changes from the software, either.
It would be nice if the SMP16 reflected the edit functions in its display. Some synths do this. Apart from being very reassuring, it can help strengthen the user's understanding of the device. The SMP16 doesn't even let you know when it's receiving MIDI data.
The software manual is so short it was deemed unnecessary to include page numbers (there are ten small pages of instructions) and suffers a little from EMC's less-than-perfect English. However, as with other EMC Managers, if you're familiar with the hardware, the software is relatively easy to follow. This means that you need to familiarise yourself with the SMP16 first - editing software helps you understand the hardware.
A little more thought could have made this a superb hardware/software team. As it is, it merely does the job. Lack of certain facilities suggests that the software was written after the hardware was designed. Oh for integration. Apart from which, I would have thought it essential for a program such as this to be able to run as a Desk Accessory. As it is you could be constantly switching between this prog and your sequencer to change settings - not very practical, especially as you have to insert the program disk each time. A veritable missed opportunity for friendliness.
Although the ST software comes bundled with the SMP16, a Mac Manager is currently under development. Let's hope they at least give it System 7 savvy.
THE SMP16'S BIG LCD is nice but finer resolution offering more information would be nicer. Although you can assign routings by name you can only do so while viewing one output at a time. The global view only shows numbers and letters and there's no way of telling what's connected to what without selecting the naming page and running through the assignments.
However, the object of using a patchbay like this is to set up regularly-used configurations where you know what's connected to what. I've been using a mechanical routing device (Philip Rees 5x5) which is now too small for my setup, but the advantage is I can see at a glance on the front panel what's connected to what. Even so, I sometimes have to double check connections and routings when something doesn't do what it's supposed to do. Although, perhaps, as bits of gear are commonly being added to (for review) and removed from (when the manufacturers want them back) my setup, my situation may not be typical. However, studios must be in the same situation, even more so, with clients bringing their own equipment in every day.
So, remove the instant visual one-to-one information by putting the routing in a box with a numeric display and you're never completely sure that you've made the right connections. This is one reason why I've resisted the temptation of a programmable MIDI patchbay. Is a module not working because some spurious data burst reset its device ID number or have you, indeed, simply not patched it into your setup correctly? The visual feedback of the software is an immense help here.
And is it only my setup which requires more ins that outs? Most MIDI patchbays have more outs than ins. I tend to connect all the sound-producing devices to a MIDI Thru box (thereby freeing lots of Out sockets) but I need separate Ins for two-way communication with voice editor and librarian programs. This is more a comment on MIDI routing devices and the way I suspect many people use them rather than on the SMP16.
Having got (some of) my personal problems off my chest, back to the SMP16. It has a lot of features and as an all-in-one MIDI and audio patchbay it must be a tempting proposition, especially if you need SMPTE. If you have a Mac that's a bonus. However, I don't think I'd like to set it up without the front-end software. Not that it's particularly difficult to set up but it can tie your logic centres in knots. The object of the exercise, after all, is to make life easier.
Overall, however, I can't help feeling that somehow the whole thing could have been made rather easier and more intuitive to operate. A higher resolution LCD would have been worth its weight in gold and a better tie-in with the software could have resulted in an immaculate front end. The opportunity was there.
That said, the SMP16 does cram a lot of functions into its case. Tot up the cost of the parts which make up the whole and I think you'll find you're getting a fair deal if not a spectacular one - and there's the convenience of having all the bits in one box.
Having taken the time to get to know the SMP16, I can appreciate its benefits. While I may not have jumped over the fence towards programmable patchbays, I'm tottering...
Price £899 including VAT.
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Review by Ian Waugh
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