Bit MIDI Master Keyboard
Another MIDI controller, this time from the people who brought you the Bit One synth. Simon Trask uncovers one or two tricks up the Italian designers' sleeves.
For those who think all controller keyboards are essentially the same, here's one from Italy that features a built-in four-track sequencer and a host of MIDI-related features.
PAST CONTROLLER KEYBOARDS have concentrated on providing "professional" quality keyboards together with the kind of rugged casing construction that would make a Chieftain tank seem flimsy. And because such instruments are by definition devoted to the act of controlling, their facilities have provided various degrees of complexity and resourcefulness, over and above what you'd expect to find on a typical synth.
But no matter how comprehensively specified a controller keyboard is, there's only one way it will sell in any real quantity: if the price is right. After all, few musicians will decide to go for a "silent" machine when the same amount of money will buy them an instrument that actually makes a sound.
One of the more affordable controller keyboards heralds from Italy, and goes by the name of the Bit MIDI Master Keyboard. The machine's designers have taken the role of a master keyboard as a central controller very seriously, to the extent of including a very well-specified onboard sequencer, of which more later.
Keyboard quality and constructional strength of the Bit Master Keyboard conform more to synth expectations than to the bulky piano-like characteristics of some other, more pretentious (and more expensive) controllers. Now, what you lose in constructional rigidity you gain in portability. But one slightly alarming feature of the Bit's construction is that the keys slightly overhang the instrument's casing. Wonder how long they'd last when subjected to the rigours of the road...
The six-octave keyboard is sensitive - though it doesn't feel all that sensitive - to both attack velocity and channel aftertouch, and you can set response scales for both of these. Aftertouch information can be converted to either pitch-bend or modulation data, allowing instruments which don't recognise such information (such as the cheaper CZs and DXs of this world) to respond to it in a meaningful way.
Like Oberheim's Xk controller keyboard, the Bit allows you to specify three keyboard zones, each of which has its own MIDI channel, patch number (1-128) and - if required - transpose value. The latter setting can be useful as a quick way of adjusting the range of a slave instrument's sound.
The Right zone has a programmable lower limit and the Left zone a programmable upper limit, allowing you to set up straightforward split and dual textures as well as all manner of overlapping zones. These limits can be set from the keyboard by holding down the appropriate selector button and playing the required notes - a lot easier than having to bother with numbers.
The Center (Italian design, American spelling) zone can be turned off if required, and can occupy the central area of the keyboard for a three-way split, or else can be assigned to the range of the Left or Right zone - keeping its own settings, of course.
As well as being able to send a patch number for each zone, the Bit allows you to specify patch numbers for the remaining 13 MIDI channels -so every MIDI channel gets its own patch number. This ability could be useful, for instance, for changing patches on MIDI'd effect units or the Bit's own sequencer tracks.
In addition to the usual pitch-bend wheel, the Bit has three assignable controllers: one wheel, a footswitch and a footpedal. Not only can these be assigned to send any controller number within their own type (ie. continuous or switch), but you can individually assign each controller - along with pitch-bend and aftertouch - to a specific MIDI channel, or to one of the three keyboard zones. This means you can direct sustain or pitch-bend, for instance, to a specific instrument invaluable when using the onboard sequencer.
All the above-mentioned settings are stored in 64 onboard program locations, which can be called up from the front panel or stepped through using a footswitch.
THE BIT's designers have given their instrument a 4000-note sequencer, with four polyphonic tracks and both real-time and step-time recording capabilities. Step-time recording can be polyphonic for each step, and velocity data is recorded. You can record up to eight four-track sequences, each of which can last for up to 99 bars of either 3/4 or 4/4. These sequences can be chained together in up to 32 steps to make a single song. And for a greater number of steps, you can link pairs of sequences together to form a single step.
You can also mute different tracks of a sequence in different song steps, a feature which allows you to get maximum mileage out of the limited number of sequences available, and to economise on sequence memory.
Also useful is the ability to insert patch changes at any point - down to the smallest step value - on each of the four tracks. So you can, for instance, insert program changes at the beginning of each sequence so that the correct patches will automatically be called up.
Sequence editing features include the ability to copy one track to another delete any portion of a track, erase a sequence and copy one sequence to another. Not that comprehensive - you can't drop in, for example - but certainly usable.
One of the most useful features is Track Mix, which effectively allows you to record more than four parts. You mix two tracks onto one of the two, which means you don't have to keep a track spare all the time. This facility can also come in useful where you've recorded a track in step time and want to add controller data: while playing back the step-time track, record the relevant controller(s) on another track and then mix the two tracks together.
Each track is allocated to a single MIDI channel. First, this means that mixed-down tracks are still sent on one MIDI channel (not necessarily a problem, of course), and second, it means the sequencer doesn't conform to the three-zone layout of the Master Keyboard's patches. However, you can use any of those patches when playing along with the sequencer tracks, which means you can have up to seven different MIDI channels active from the Bit at any one time.
The Bit has a healthy complement of rear-panel connections, including MIDI In, Thru and two Outs. MIDI In on an instrument which makes no sound may at first seem rather unnecessary, but it actually allows you to route a remote keyboard through the Bit (for those front-of-stage excursions) or to take an input from an external sequencer. The latter option lets you record into an external sequencer over one of the MIDI Outs, while playing your slave instruments over the other MIDI Out and having those instruments played from existing sequencers' tracks (the MIDI In passes data on to the MIDI Outs, as well as the MIDI Thru). And the internal four-track sequencer can be active at the same time.
In this way, you can still take full advantage of the Bit's facilities with tracks which have been recorded into an external sequencer. Any problems concerning which MIDI channels are to be routed where are easily remedied by the fact that you can select which MIDI channels are sent on which of the two Outs - a feature which can also be useful in minimising the amount of data the MIDI buss has to convey. You can also route MIDI timing data selectively to either one of the Outs another way of cutting down on unnecessary data.
Ever thorough, the Bit's designers have also allowed you to filter out MIDI pitch-bend, mod wheel, sustain, patch-change and aftertouch data individually, on any selection of MIDI channels between the In and Out stage - particularly useful when working with an external sequencer.
But one possibly useful feature that's been omitted is the ability to call up the Bit's own patches from patch changes received on MIDI In - that would have allowed the Bit's keyboard textures (not to mention patch assignments for all 6 MIDI channels) to be controlled remotely from an external sequencer.
In addition to MIDI connections, the Bit has Sync In and Out sockets for connection to non-MIDI drum machines and sequencers, inputs for sequencer Run and Stop/Continue (so you don't need to take your hands away from the keyboard), a Patch Advance footswitch input, controller pedal and footswitch inputs, and dual-purpose sockets for tape sync in/out and tape save/load of patches and sequences. There's even a Metronome Out socket for sending a signal to an external amplifier or mixer.
Patch and sequence data can be saved to tape or over MIDI. The latter option allows for patch software from some enterprising software company (full System Exclusive details are given in the manual), but the ability to dump sequence data opens up interesting possibilities for anyone who can decipher how the Bit stores that data.
THE EXTENSIVE abilities of the Bit Master Keyboard mean that it isn't easy to grasp all its possibilities straight away. But the extremely informative front panel, straightforward operation and helpful (not to say amusing) manual all conspire to make the learning process fairly agreeable.
And while its keyboard won't appeal to those players who like that magical "pianistic" feel, there's no doubt that a tremendous amount of thought has been put into the Bit's design. The end result is a usable and useful controller which achieves an effective balance between the comprehensive and the comprehensible, and should form a fine centrepiece to many a MIDI setup.
Price £549 including VAT
Review by Simon Trask
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