MIDI Disk Recorder
Paul Overaa looks at a unit about to make a big impact on the MIDI scene - The Elka Orla
Paul Overaa takes a look at a unit that's about to make a big impact on the MIDI scene - Elka Orla's CR-99 MIDI Disk Recorder
With all the talk about MIDI and high powered sequencing it's easy to forget that there's a fundamental difference between the type of sequencer you need in your studio and the facilities which are required when you're out gigging!
In the studio you'll be composing, editing, transposing etc., and the more help your sequencer can give you, the easier your job becomes. Playing live is a different kettle offish altogether - your priorities and needs will be totally different.
At the top of the list comes three things... reliability and simplicity, coupled with the ability to play your songs in any required order. Being able to rapidly select a song from a given set by just pushing a couple of buttons is a professional necessity which rules out any tape based MIDI playback machines - even ten seconds can seem like a lifetime if you're on stage waiting for a song to load. Reliability is another must - you can have the best MIDI gear in the world but if the unit which is supposed to be pumping out the MIDI data to drive the rest of your gear fails in some way... you might as well pack up and go home.
Considering the number of sequencers and sequencer programs which are available it's surprising how few MIDI playback machines are being offered. The release of Elka Orla's new CR-99 MIDI Disk Recorder looks set to change this situation... firstly because it's a useful unit in it's own right and secondly because it draws attention to the fact that there's a big gap in this potentially lucrative, yet untapped, area of the MIDI market.
I've held back the review of the CR-99 for several few weeks. Why? Because I wanted time to not only test it in the studio and at home, but to get it out on gigs to see how it performed under those situations. Firstly however let's have a look at the unit itself.
The CR-99 control layout is simplicity itself: The back panel has a power socket (delivered via a 7.7 volt AC power socket supplied with the unit), one MIDI IN, a MIDI THRU and two MIDI OUT sockets. The front panel is equally uncluttered... a power switch, two rows of selector buttons and an led display.
Standard 3½" disks are used (the sort used by most home computers) and the CR-99 does incidentally format it's disks in the same way as the Atari ST. If you've got an ST you'll actually be able to view the CR-99's song data files using the GEM DeskTop... files are named SONGnn.DAT where nn is the CR-99's song number!
With the CR-99 package you get the disk recorder itself (measuring 12" wide, 1½" high and 7" deep), the brackets for rack mounting the unit (1U space) and a 'manual'. The only word for the manual is TATTY but I'm not going to gripe too much because it does tell you how to use the CR-99, so it serves it's purpose.
Using the CR-99 is simple: As with all disk units the disks need to be formatted before use. It's just a matter of selecting the FOR (FORmat) option and pressing the ENTER button twice. Formatting takes about a minute and only needs to be done the first time a disk is used (if you're an ST user you can of course format your disks on the ST... but it's no quicker).
The CR-99 numbers songs from 1 to 99 (hence the name) but this doesn't mean that you'll be able to store 99 songs on every disk. Disks have a capacity of around 80,000 events and so the number of songs you'll be able to store on a single disk is going to depend on exactly what you're pumping into the CR-99 in the first place. Before gigging with the CR-99 I transferred about 40 arrangements consisting of bass, drums, two synth parts and an assortment of effects controller tracks. On average I was getting 12-15 songs on a disk and when I looked at the files on the ST my arrangements were ending up in the 40-70K filesize region. There'll always be a bit of disadvantage with a unit like the CR-99 because it records exactly what it receives, so if you play a verse 3 times it'll store the data 3 times over. Most sequencers would store the data once and just duplicate the playback 3 times. Basically it's a trade off situation.... the extra space requirements of the CR-99 save-as-you-read approach versus it's overall speed and ease of use.
Recording itself involves selecting the song number using the <- and -> buttons and pressing record. The display flashes and waits for you to either press record again or for the unit you're recording from to send a MIDI start message. If, for instance, you're recording from a sequencer unit you'll most likely just press the start control on the sequencer to activate the CR-99. When you've finished you hit the STOP button. All MIDI data that is received at the CR-99's MIDI IN terminal gets collected and stored - exactly as it is received.
In addition to straight record/playback facilities the CR-99 has a range of other functions: You can override the original tempo settings, can overdub, ie superimpose MIDI tracks on top of existing data, and there are MIDI merge facilities. Disk operations allow you to check disk space, clear (ie delete) individual songs, format disks and send SYSTEX dump requests. Re-reading a disk directory, which you need to do when you change disks, is relatively quick... place the new disk in the drive, select the DIR function and then press enter... it takes about five seconds before the new disk is logged and ready to use - which is not bad considering the time an average sequencer program takes to load a new bank of sequences from disk! As for song selection within a particular disk goes, the CR-99 is virtually instantaneous and because it plays by reading directly from disk songs are ready to play immediately you've selected the song number.
There's no doubt that the CR-99 has plenty of uses for storing things like SYSTEX dumps, general sequencing back-up etc., but it's quite obvious that it will be the pro and semi-pro MIDI orientated gigging musicians who are going to show the most interest. Because I know how irritating it is to read reviews of something, go out to see it, and only then find problems that the reviewers clearly missed I spent a lot of time with the CR-99 and used it on live gigs over a period of several weeks.
On the whole the CR-99 behaved very well indeed but one or two problems did show up. A couple of times part of the led segment displays faded for a minute or two - it didn't affect playback in any way and was probably just due to a poor/loose led display connection. On another occasion when I had prematurely stopped a song during playback two of my MIDI units (out of six being used) showed buffer-full error messages. Strangely enough they were both Yamaha units (an RX-8 drum unit and a TX-81Z expander) but I'm sure that was just coincidence. Had the premature stopping of a song caused a surge of some remaining MIDI data to be transmitted? I don't know - the problem couldn't be duplicated again, so I was never able to analyse the transmitted data to find out!
Towards the end of the time I had the CR-99 I took a chance and rack mounted it. An immediate physical problem came to light - disk swapping and song selection if it's being done by you, as opposed to someone at the mixing desk, is a pain if the unit is mounted on a low-level rack system. Normally I wouldn't criticise but under these conditions the CR-99 cries out for a remote control pad so that the front panel controls can be made more accessible when the unit is in the rack!
Although the CR-99 can do multitrack type overdubs it is neither meant nor built to compete with sequencer units. It's a disk based recorder NOT a sequencer and it has been designed primarily for easy recording and playback of MIDI data. It therefore makes an ideal companion to a sequencer, but does not replace it.
I've been very impressed with the CR-99. On the whole it has behaved very well indeed. During the time the unit was available I had absolutely no problems with read-write/drive errors. I've got to admit however that I'm a total pessimist when it comes to disks and disk drives. The CR-99 is provided with a drive protector card and whilst this no doubt helps protect the read/write head I've got to admit that I'm not happy that either the CR-99 unit, or any similar unit would be particularly suited to rack mounting. When someone rack mounts a CR-99, wheels it down a flight of stairs, and then shows me that the disk drive still works I might change my mind!
Harsh treatment! Maybe, but how many of you can guarantee that your flight cased gear never gets knocked over or roughly treated on the odd occasions. Disk drives, even with protector cards, are unlikely to tolerate such treatment as a matter of course.
Don't for one minute think I'm knocking the CR-99 because I'm not -I'd happily go out gigging with the CR-99 tomorrow in preference to my sequencers... it's just that I wouldn't rack mount it.
Elka Orla's CR-99 costs £299 (including VAT and P&P) and has little in the way of competition at the present time. It is portable, effective, and is possibly the single most attractive unit for the gigging MIDI musician available in the UK at the present time. At the end of the day owning a CR-99 means just one thing - you simply will never need to take your sequencer or computer out on a gig again!
Product: CR-99 MIDI Disk Recorder
Price: £299 (ind VAT and P&P)
Supplier: Elka Orla (UK) Ltd. (Contact Details)
Review by Paul Overaa
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