Brother PDC100 Pro Disk Composer
Conflict between hardware and software sequencing intensifies - can dedicated sequencers still compete with the flexibility of a computer? Simon Trask experiences Brotherly love.
Sequencing on 32 tracks, SysEx datafiling and a built-in disk drive for around £350 make Brother's PDC100 a must to check out.
Does the stand-alone sequencer have a future? While computer-based sequencing packages have been enjoying stellar success during the past few years, the once-ascendant star of the stand-alone sequencer has been steadily waning. Sequencing packages like Creator/Notator and Cubase have blossomed through a series of software updates and hardware add-ons while stand-alone sequencers have more or less, well, stood still - closed-system stagnation in an era of open-system dynamism. This very stagnation - or perhaps I should say lack of imagination on the part of the manufacturers - poses at least as much danger to the continued well-being of the stand-alone sequencer as computer sequencers do. And now that compact, lightweight "notebook" computers are starting to erode its traditional advantage of portability, manufacturers need to bring out the strengths and advantages which are unique to the stand-alone sequencer - strengths and advantages which have to do with it being a dedicated machine. The question is this: when the market for notebook and (even more compact and lightweight) pen-based notepad computers explodes, when the machines become affordable and MIDJ software developers adapt their software to run on them, what will the stand-alone MIDI sequencer be able to point to that will justify its existence? Answers on the back of a £20 note, please.
Maybe what's needed is a relative unknown in the field of stand-alone MIDI sequencers to bring fresh insight to the medium. Maybe what is needed is a spot of Brotherly love. Japanese company Brother, best known for producing printers and electronic typewriters, have already dipped a collective toe or two into the backwaters of the stand-alone MIDI sequencer market, though without causing any significant ripples. Will their new PDC100 Pro Disk Composer make more of a splash than its predecessors?
First of all, some key facts about the PDC100: it costs under £400, has a built-in 3.5" DSDD disk drive, its internal memory can hold one Song (maximum length 999 bars) and up to approximately 21,000 notes, and it can be used as both a 32-track MIDI sequencer and a MIDI SysEx datafiler. It's also compact and lightweight, measuring a modest 10"(W) x 8"(D) x 2"(H) and weighing just 2.42lbs - which in portable computer terms places it somewhere between a notebook and a palmtop.
With half of the PDC100's front panel taken up by its built-in disk drive, the user interface consists of just six buttons and a 2 x 16-character backlit LCD window located in the other half. With so few buttons, it's no surprise to find that each one has three functions. Fortunately, you're helped in familiarising yourself with the PDC100 by having the functions of each button and a list of the software pages printed on the front panel. The list is laid out matrix-style to give you a clear picture of the multi-level organisation of the pages and to let you see at a glance which pages are on which level. One particularly useful operational shortcut allows you to return to the main record/play page from any other page with either one or two dual button-presses depending on your location. Also useful are Shifted button-presses which jump you straight to the beginning or the end of a Song.
While we're being positive, the PDC100's backlit LCD is bright and clear, and can be read easily from a variety of angles - which is more than can be said for some LCDs. And on the subject of visibility, the MIDI output of your controller can be made visible by selecting a MIDI monitor page on the PDC100.
The rear panel houses one MIDI In and one MIDI Out socket, 7.5V DC power input (the PDC100 comes with an external AC adaptor) and the power on/off switch. Syncing the PDC100 to tape will require either an external sync box or a tape machine with built-in tape sync, such as one of Tascam's MIDIstudios.
Along with its 32 MIDI tracks, the PDC100 provides a Beat/Tempo track for time-signature and tempo changes during the course of a Song, and 64 Units (single-track sequences) for pattern-based recording. The PDC100 allows you to set up time-signature and tempo changes for a whole Song before you've recorded any tracks; you also have the option of switching off the tempo changes at any time.
The Beat/Tempo track allows you to program a different time signature for every bar if you want. The purpose of programming time signatures is to let you bring the PDC100's bar count and metronome downbeat into line with what you play. So some of you may be disappointed to learn that the time signature can only be set within the range 1/4 - 8/4. Wot, no 13/8?
Tempo can be set in the range 30-250bpm and, as with the time signature, you can program a different tempo at the beginning of each bar. Unfortunately, this allows for neither subtle fluctuations of tempo within, say, a 4/4 bar, nor smooth increases or decreases in tempo across two or more bars. Recording in 4/4 and then changing the time signature to 1/4 does no good because the PDC100 chops out beats two and three and merges whatever's on beat four with beat one of the next bar!
Tempo changes are absolute, rather than relative to the initial tempo, so if you decide the overall tempo of a Song needs changing you'll have to edit every tempo change accordingly. Imagine you're rehearsing with a singer, you get asked to take the tempo down a bit for practice purposes, and there's you saying "OK, wait while I make these ten tempo changes". Not really on, is it?
Having the 64 Units allows you to build up a library of single-track musical parts, each of which can be up to 100 bars long. Units exist outside of the Song, and can only be recorded in isolation, but they can be either Copied or Placed into any of the 32 Song tracks at any time during recording, and to any location in the Song.
While Copying a Unit duplicates its data, Placing a Unit inserts a call to it into the destination track; when the PDC100 comes across a Placed call, it knows to play the data in the Unit along with whatever's in the other tracks (which could be calls to other Units).
"If a disk is in the drive when you switch on the PDC100, its Preset file will be loaded automatically. A nice touch."
Placing therefore saves you time and economises on memory. For instance, rather than record a repeating bassline "x" times, you can record it once into a Unit and then Place the Unit "x" times into a track.
To record a Unit within the context of the tracks, you record the part as a track first and then Copy it across to a Unit; then you can delete the relevant bars from the track and Place the Unit into the track in their place. Unfortunately, Units can only be Placed at the beginning of a bar, so you can't create echo or delay effects by Placing a Unit into two tracks and offsetting one against the other.
Each of the PDC100's 32 tracks and 64 Units can contain up to 16 MIDI channels of data. The sequencer records multiple channels at once, so you can record parts using split and layer textures which require notes to be transmitted on more than one MIDI channel. Multi-channel recording is also very handy if you want to transfer sequences across to the PDC100 from another sequencer via MIDI (sadly, the PDC isn't able to read Standard MIDI Files off disk).
Brother's sequencer has no function for extracting MIDI channels from a track, so if you do record a complete multi-channel sequence into one track, you can't separate the channels onto different tracks.
Nor are there functions for deleting a specific MIDI channel from a track or for merging tracks. However, there are ways to fudge all three functions, and without getting into a lot of detail it basically involves routing the PDC100's MIDI Out back to its MIDI In (making sure that its soft MIDI Thru function is disabled so that you can't get MIDI feedback), setting its MIDI channel output filter to discard the channel(s) you don't want to record, and then (re)Recording the relevant channel(s). To speed up the process, you can bump up the tempo as far as possible, then reset it once you've finished. Incidentally, unless you want to be switching MIDI cables whenever the urge to merge or extract takes you, a MIDI input selector box is a must.
Extracting, erasing and merging Units takes a little longer, as you first have to Place or Copy the relevant Unit(s) into one or more tracks, then go through the re-recording process just described, and then finally Copy the relevant track or section of a track into another Unit.
Track merging can be particularly useful where Units are concerned, as it allows you to build up a multi-part Unit from several different tracks and then Place it in a single track. In this way you can have one Unit which contains a rhythm pattern consisting of just kick, snare and hi-hat, another Unit which adds in some percussion, a third which adds in a bassline, and so on. Then you can have instrumental parts dropping in and out of a Song simply by Placing the relevant Units at the relevant locations in the Song.
The PDC100 implements three methods of recording for both tracks and Units: real-time, automatic (preset) punch in/out and step-time. Overdub loop recording hasn't been implemented, however, which is unfortunate unless you're happy recording rhythm patterns into your drum machine(s) rather than into a sequencer (see the Blow interview elsewhere in this issue for a view on this).
Real-time recording into a track on the PDC100 allows you to start recording from bar one and keep on playing until you've used up all the memory, if you want (unless you're Cecil Taylor, this would probably take a while). Unit recording is limited to 100 bars; it also differs from track recording in allowing you to preset the Unit length. For both track and Unit you get a count-in (user-programmable from 0-8 bars), and a metronome sound on every quarter note. This sound can be an internal beep or a MIDI event; for the latter, you can globally program the transmit channel, separate MIDI note numbers for the downbeat and subsequent beats in the bar, and a velocity amount. Maximum record resolution is 96ppqn, which is par for the course on stand-alone and workstation sequencers but a lot less than on many computer-based sequencers, and not enough to satisfy everyone - though enough to satisfy most, I'd venture.
Sectional recording in real time presents a bit of a problem. The reason is that whenever you start recording from partway through a track the PDC100 erases any data in the preceding bars of that track, while if you stop recording before the end of a track the sequencer deletes all the following bars in the track! Strange but true - and undocumented in the manual. It all seems too "clean" to be a software bug, though why on earth anyone would deliberately program this to happen I don't know. Fortunately there are ways to get round it (it seems you have to get round a lot of things on this sequencer). Perhaps the simplest is to record into one track and then Copy across to another, as Copying into a track doesn't get rid of anything before or after (but then it would be a pretty useless function if it did). Another way is to record a section directly into a Unit and then Copy or Place it into the relevant track, though in this case you lose the ability to record in the context of any other tracks.
A third way is to use punch in/out recording. However, as you can only use this within the recorded length of a track, how can you use it to add to an existing track? The best answer I can think of is that you create a "template' Song consisting of nothing but blank recorded bars, save it to disk and then load it in whenever you want to start working on a Song from scratch. In this way you can punch in/out at any position on any track, because, although it won't seem like it, you'll be recording within a track.
"The sequencer not only automatically loads the next song in each time, it also automatically starts playing it."
There are one or two important points to bear in mind about punch in/out recording, however. First, you have to preset the length of the punch in/out section. Second, if you Stop recording before the end of the section is reached, the PDC100 takes that Stop point to be the new end of the track you're recording into, and deletes anything that comes after it. This is documented in the manual - but sadly the reasoning behind it isn't.
Another point: constant use of punch in/out recording can get a bit tedious, because instead of being able to select punch in/out recording in place of real-time recording on the Normal (play/record) page, you have to go through about eight button-presses to reach a separate punch in/out page, record your section and then return to the Normal page (two dual button-presses) to be able to hear what you've just recorded.
Quantisation on the PDC100 is post-record only, and has none of the sophisticated humanising features found on many computer-based sequencing packages. You just select one of six quantisation values (quarter note, 8th, 8th triplet, 16th, 16th triplet or 32nd) and Execute the quantisation function. There are no regional or channel-specific quantise options, but once again you can "get round it" with a little ingenuity. One thing you can't get round is the PDC100's inability to timeslip tracks against one another, let alone time-slip individual notes (a useful feature for rhythm parts). Which is a shame, because you lose out on the ability to fine-tune the feel of a piece of music or to compensate for an instrument with a slow MIDI response time.
Step-time recording, which you can start and stop at any point in a track or Unit, allows you to program MIDI channel, step size, note velocity and note duration for each step. Duration can be set from 10-200% of step size, so you can overlap notes in steptime mode if you want. Notes are the only kind of MIDI data you can program in step time. To enter them into a step, you hold down the relevant note(s) on the keyboard and press the Execute button to advance to the next step; to program a rest you just press the Execute button while no notes are held down. There's one problem with this method: if you want to program in a two-handed chord, you're in a catch 22 situation - you need to lift a hand off the keyboard to press the Execute button, but if you do that you won't be playing a two-handed chord when you press it. As this is a family magazine, we won't discuss the relative merits of using other appendages. The PDC100 should really let MIDI sustain pedal "take over" from the notes so you can lift your hands off the keyboard and press that Execute button.
The PDC100 implements editing at both Bar and Event levels. At Bar level you can Insert, Delete and Copy bars in both tracks and Units, and Place Units into tracks. Copy allows you to copy any number of bars from one track to another, and from a track to a Unit or vice versa. However, you can't copy a section which includes Placed Units.
Event-level editing lets you get at the MIDI data in interpreted form - you don't have to know the status byte in hex for each type of MIDI event. The PDC100 is able to record note, controller, pitchbend, channel and polyphonic aftertouch, patch change and SysEx data, and lets you get at it all at the Event level (not that you want to edit raw SysEx data, but it can be reassuring to see it there). You can Change existing events and Insert new ones. The process of getting new events into the sequencer is a bit long-winded, as events are Inserted with a default value and you then have to select Change to be able to program in the value you want. To change the location of an existing event, you have to Insert a new event at the required location, program in the same value(s) and then, of course, delete the original event. Don't you just hate it when that happens?
More positively, the PDC100 transmits the event data as you scroll in either direction through it, while you can select the data type for Inserting by playing it on your main keyboard (moving the pitchbend wheel selects pitchbend, for instance).
Another edit mode, Modify, allows you to modify the MIDI channel and/or all occurrences of a specific data type within a track or Unit (though not SysEx, obviously). For notes, you select an offset value for the note numbers and either a selected absolute value or else a ratio (8/1, 4/1, 2/1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8) for the velocity; for other data, the amount can be either Min, Max or a ratio. Note Modify provides a global transposition and/or change in velocity; however, if you select Drum you can transpose, and/or change the velocity of an individual note, which is ideal for rhythm parts.
To make regional Modify edits to a track, just Copy the required region into a Unit, Modify it and then Copy it back to the track.
The PDC100 allows you to selectively filter out the various types of recordable MIDI data at the receive and/or transmit stages, to enable or disable reception and/or transmission of each individual MIDI channel, to force all incoming data and/or outgoing data onto a specific MIDI channel (programmable per selected tracks in the case of outgoing), and to transpose note data on all outgoing MIDI channels (your singer wants to sing the song in a different key? No problem).
This last function allows you to set a single Pass channel which bypasses the transposition. Unless you're feeling adventurous, you would set this to your drums channel (if you've got more than one drums channel, you're in trouble).
"Even if you use a computer-based sequencer you could find the PDC100 a useful alternative at times."
All in all, these functions are a welcome inclusion on the PDC100, as they do add an extra degree of flexibility (such as making possible the "fudges" described earlier).
File saving to disk is much slower than loading. For example, it takes a little under two-and-a-half minutes to save the full PDC100 memory, but just under 50 seconds to load it back in again.
The PDC100 allows you to save a single Preset file to each disk which contains global information such as count-in length, MIDI metronome settings, initial tempo, tempo changes on/off, soft Thru on/off and the various MIDI filter settings described above. The idea is that this is a setup file; if a disk is in the drive when you switch on the PDC100, its Preset file will be loaded automatically. A nice touch.
The only other file type is the Song file, which contains all the track and Unit data in memory at the time of Saving. The PDC100's memory isn't battery-backed, so if you don't Save before switching the sequencer off, you lose whatever you've been working on. Disk space permitting, you can save up to 32 Songs per floppy (a DSDD disk holds in the region of 39,400 notes). Each Song can be given a 12-character name, so you shouldn't have any trouble being able to identify each one.
As only one Song at a time can be in onboard memory, and there's no way of loading track data independently of Unit data or of loading individual tracks or Units, you can only bring together music from different Songs if you load in one Song, transfer the relevant track(s) and/or Unit(s) to another sequencer, load in another Song and then transfer the external data back in again. Not exactly ideal (especially if you don't have another sequencer).
The PDC100 allows you to automate Song loading and playing off disk using its Chain Play function, the idea being that you can play a live set without having to stop to load Songs individually. Unfortunately, with Chain Play you can't stop at all - the sequencer not only automatically loads the next song in each time, it also automatically starts playing it. So there you are, lapping up the ecstatic audience reception when all of a sudden the PDC100 launches into your next song for you. What's more, assuming you survive till the end of your set, unless you're quick on the Stop button the sequencer will launch into the first number of the set again. "OK folks, I just thought I'd do this song as an encore."
The history of stand-alone sequencers and System Exclusive file storage has not always been a happy one. Typically, the sequencers simply haven't had big enough MIDI input buffers to be able to cope with bulk SysEx dumps. There's no such problem on the PDC100, however: if you had a 128K SysEx dump (the size of the sequencer's memory) it would take it. Alternatively, you can transmit several smaller dumps in succession into it. As an example of the PDC100's SysEx capacity, it recorded a bulk dump of a full pattern memory and all associated parameters on a Yamaha RY30 drum machine (more than 40K) and still had 61% memory remaining. Useful or what?
The PDC100 doesn't have a separate SysEx mode. You just select a track to record into, start the sequencer recording, initiate a SysEx dump from your instrument, Stop the sequencer once the dump has finished, then Save the data to disk as a Song file. All you have to do subsequently is Load the file, hit Play and out your SysEx data goes to find its maker.
The only serious problem with the PDC100 is the situation with real-time recording - although you can get round it with some ingenuity and patience. As for Chain Play, you just have to accept that it's of no practical use. If Brother were to improve anything on the PDC100, it should be the real-time recording situation and Chain Play; unfortunately, they seem to be more inclined to bring out a new sequencer than upgrade an existing one.
The limited number of buttons and the 2 x 16-character LCD window do have a restricting effect - some functions could literally have been better implemented if there'd been more buttons, and room for more parameters in the LCD. And of course you have to accept the fact that the PDC100 doesn't exactly make the most of having a dedicated front panel (in particular, no dedicated track buttons for live mutes).
But while some features could have been better implemented - in the sense of being streamlined rather than rethought - there are a lot of well-implemented features, too, and the track/Unit architecture is particularly effective. Overall, there's a great deal of flexibility in the sequencer - even if a certain amount of it has to be arrived at by working around a number of limitations. And the fact that it's so compact and lightweight is appealing in itself. In fact, even if you use a computer-based sequencer you could find the PDC100 a useful alternative at times.
All in all, a 32-track sequencer with the PDC100's recording and editing features, a SysEx datafiler and a built-in disk drive, for around £350, has got to make Brother's latest sequencer current best buy in the budget stakes.
Price £351.32 including VAT
More from Bluebridge Music Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Simon Trask
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