Anatek Studio Merge
From the humble origins of their Pocket Merge, Anatek have refined a powerful eight-way MIDI merging system that could become essential to the serious MIDI studio. Vic Lennard merges with the elite.
The MIDI merger comes of age: from being a simple two-into-one device for combining data streams, Anatek's Studio Merge has made it a powerful eight-way merging system.
THE VIRTUES OF using a MIDI merge box should be fairly familiar to anyone more than passingly acquainted with MIDI. Whether you're playing a single multitimbral module from two different keyboards, or editing the parameters on an expander or sampler from a computer and auditioning sounds with a MIDI keyboard, a merger will save you the frustration of endless lead swapping.
The main restriction of most MIDI mergers is that they only have two inputs. If you need more inputs than this, you have to stop looking at relatively cheap merge boxes and start looking at MIDI patchbays with MIDI processing facilities - and these tend to be expensive. Fortunately, Anatek - those clever "pocket effect" people from Canada - have come up with another innovative idea: how about a MIDI merger with eight MIDI Ins and Thrus and a single MIDI Out? That's the Studio Merge.
ENCASED IN A 1U-high black rackmount, the front panel of the Studio Merge simply has two LEDs. The red LED shows that the unit is powered up and the green indicates the absence of a MIDI signal - it stays on unless MIDI information is being received in which case it darkens.
The rear panel has eight sets of MIDI Ins and Thrus, along with one MIDI Out. The power input will accept any PSU from 9-18 volts AC or DC. This is a great idea, since you no longer have to worry about matching the PSU to the unit - and it only takes an extra couple of components. However, Studio Merge has no on/off power switch which means that should the unit need resetting, you have to either pull the mains plug or the PSU plug on the rear of the unit. The latter is not a good idea. Many PSUs have an internal fuse which cannot be changed - blow it and throw it. There really should be a reset button somewhere on the unit itself.
Internally, the unit is impressive. All inputs are opto-isolated using Sharp 6N139s, and the latest surface-mount technology has been used for nearly all components. In fact, Anatek appear to have had custom micro-processors designed and built for them.
THE FIRST USE of the Studio Merge is likely to be as a standard merger. A couple of keyboards, drum pads and a guitar synth or two could all be playing the same multitimbral synth (especially the latest ones which have 30 notes and more for polyphony - Roland's U220, for instance, will let you play six parts and a rhythm section) through this unit. The setup is as straightforward as for less sophisticated merge boxes: the MIDI Outs from each controller plug into the MIDI Ins on the Studio Merge whose MIDI Out goes to the MIDI In of the module. You could link in a sequencer by routing the MIDI Out from the Studio Merge into the MIDI In of the sequencer and the MIDI Out from this into the MIDI In of the module. And this could well be one direction for the future - MIDI modules with high polyphony and advanced MIDI merging technology.
However, there are other uses for the Studio Merge, especially in the recording studio. Let's say that you have a master keyboard, two modules and a computer with sequencing software. There are two jobs required here: being able to play the modules from the keyboard whether the sequencer is being used or not, and dumping and loading banks of sounds from each module to a librarian on the computer. The latter requires a handshaking MIDI connection, which involves using two MIDI cables.
Using an additional Thru box (see diagram) you can set up the system to cater for both of the above situations. Keyboard and module MIDI Outs go to the Studio Merge, while the computer MIDI Out makes its way back to the MIDI In on both modules. The Thru box is optional because you could use the MIDI Thru on one module to feed the MIDI In on the next. (This arrangement is commonly known as a "daisy chain" and is adequate when only one MIDI Thru is being used. With more modules, data corruption can occur. When you consider that a ten-way MIDI Thru box costs around £35 (Philip Rees V10), it makes sense to use one).
By expanding the system in the diagram, you could include up to seven modules, some of which could be samplers or drum machines. As long as any "soft" MIDI Thrus on the modules (which merge the data on MIDI In with any being generated internally) are turned off, there shouldn't be a problem with MIDI loops.
ONE WORRY WHEN using an eight way merger is that of timing accuracy (ask any good British comedian). If you use large buffers, these have to fill up before MIDI data can be passed on which incurs delays. On the other hand, small buffers are likely to overflow and lose data, especially when doing a SysEx bulk dump to a computer. The best idea is to use small buffers and very fast processors to get the MIDI information out of the unit as quickly as possible. This was a problem which Anatek's own Pocket Merge suffered from - it couldn't handle a SysEx dump of any real size.
Time to start inputting MIDI data and seeing what the Studio Merge does with it. To start with, it filters out Active Sensing from all inputs but reimposes it on the MIDI Out - thank God it doesn't merge it. The unit certainly doesn't appear to filter or thin any data, even pitchbend or aftertouch, but does have one quirk: MIDI data entering under Running Status is output without it. Bearing in mind that Running Status is a means of MIDI data compression, this is rather surprising and the opposite would have been expected. Its use with the likes of pitchbend can save one or two hundred milliseconds with a full pitch wheel bend, and if you have two or three keyboards each using pitchbend and aftertouch, MIDI notes would certainly be delayed as a result. The lack of Running Status probably won't affect the timing in normal use but its absence is surprising.
"If you need a heavy-duty MIDI merger for live or studio use, then there is currently no competition - the Anatek Studio Merge is out on its own."
The Studio Merge has no trouble coping with SysEx MIDI data dumps. I checked a 35Kbyte Roland D50 dump and it was fine in one-way or handshaking mode. Any note data played while transmission of SysEx data is taking place is held back until an end of exclusive message is received. This is fine for manufacturers who use a single stream of MIDI data, such as Yamaha, but causes problems when the data is sent in packets. Roland use this method, with each packet containing 256 data bytes. Many computer librarians expect to receive a start of SysEx message after the previous end of SysEx to show that the next packet of data is being sent. If any other data is received, the dump is aborted.
A similar problem occurs with sample dumps. Studio Merge is perfectly happy with the speed of the dump but should you hit a key as sample data is being sent from the computer to the sampler, it will interfere with the acknowledgements from the sampler. This is because a sample dump is also sent in packets. At the end of each of these, a "thank you" message is returned which means that the previous packet was received OK. Without this message, the dump is aborted.
Another situation is that of interspersing SysEx with System Real-time data such as MIDI clock and start/stop/continue commands. This is permitted within the MIDI Spec but causes problems if the device receiving the SysEx dump is counting the number of bytes being received. The byte count will be wrong and an error message will ensue.
None of these situations is a failing of the Studio Merge, but are worth bearing in mind. When data dumping, tie your hands behind your back and make certain that any device sending out MIDI clock is prevented from doing so. There again, it is most unlikely that you would want to be using the system as a whole when sending sample data or a SysEx bulk dump. The most important point is that Studio Merge does its job of preventing any MIDI data except for System Real-time from interrupting SysEx. Consequently, you can happily send out patch data and parameter changes via SysEx in the course of a performance or recording.
Regarding MIDI clock, there does appear to be a poor piece of planning within Studio Merge. If MIDI clock is being received at two of the inputs, it is merged. This would have the effect of combining the tempos. There should be a lock-out technique so that once MIDI clock is received at one input, it is ignored at any other.
Most of the above situations are unlikely but it is possible they will arise. If anything, they show up the inherent difficulties of using System Exclusive at the same time as MIDI note and controller data.
A SMALL TO moderate sized MIDI studio could do a lot worse than to consider Studio Merge. It will let you run a complex setup with a minimum of fuss including the use of a computer as a bulk dump librarian. Live bands could use it to let them drive a single multitimbral MIDI module from four or five controllers.
Anatek units are not cheap and the Studio Merge is no exception. At a little over £350, the cost of the Studio Merge is likely to make many of us consider the alternatives carefully. If you're simply going to use it as a merger, do you need eight MIDI Ins? If not, Philip Rees' 2M merger (at £79.95) will happily merge two data streams. Or are you simply going to use the Studio Merge instead of a MIDI patchbay? In which case, XRI's excellent XR400 automatic MIDI patchbay (at £219.95) has to be considered. Similarly, Function Junction and MIDITemp's PMM88 will give you the merge facilities along with MIDI processing for around £60-£80 more.
The bottom line is that if you want to rationalise your current MIDI network, or need a heavy-duty MIDI merger for live or studio use, then there is currently no competition - the Anatek Studio Merge is out on its own.
Price £369 including VAT.
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Review by Vic Lennard
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