MIDI Disk Recorder
Meanwhile, Elka have called their CR99 a MIDI Disk Recorder rather than a MIDI sequencer. Vic Lennard goes on record with a MIDI sequencer with a few surprises up its sleeve.
Concerned about the roadworthiness of your Atari? Looking for a flexible dedicated hardware sequencer? Elka 's CR99 MIDI Disk Recorder has a few tricks up its sleeve.
Another situation confronting performers is that of having to take their computer, monitor and sequencing software or hardware to gigs, and run the risk of damaging or losing it. Then there are the time delays involved in loading from disk (let's forget cassette, shall we?) and the ever-present danger of the machinery crashing mid-song.
Recently a new item of equipment has appeared which may well go a long way towards resolving some of the above problems - the Elka CR99 MIDI disk recorder.
BREAKING DOWN THE 19 horizontal inches of a rack space to accommodate not one, but three units is not a new idea - the Alesis Micro series processors, to name but one, already adopt this format. As a slight variation on this, the CR99 is two-thirds of a rack wide, 1U-high and comes complete with a pair of extended ears to allow fixing to a full-width rack if your GCSE in metalwork doesn't extend to welding it to your Microverb.
The CR99's front panel incorporates all the necessary operational buttons, a three-digit display reminiscent of that on a Matrix 1000 and a double-sided, double-density 3.5" disk drive. The rear has a MIDI In, Thru and two parallel MIDI Outs. Power is provided via a 7.7 volt adaptor.
All in all, this looks like yet another anonymous black box, so what does it do to earn the title of MIDI Disk Recorder as opposed to sequencer? Well, instead of recording MIDI data into RAM memory and then permitting transfer to a floppy disk by a save routine, this writes data straight to the disk and plays back in a similar fashion, with an absolute minimum of delay due to buffering of the read/write interface. Consequently, recording capacity is down to disk space and not to internal memory - which is usually the case with small hardware sequencers.
The CR99 is quite simple to operate - format a disk, select a song number to record to and press Record followed by Start. Input the necessary MIDI data (by whatever means) and then press Stop to end the recording. Play and Start will play back the data with Tempo adjustable between 50% and 200%. The recorder has a very forgiving nature by virtue of a key marked "Escape", which allows you to get out of any incorrect situation and back to the point that you started from.
Attempting to overwrite an existing song, indicated by an F in front of the song number to indicate that the song is Full, will automatically bring up the option to clear the song memory and any concern over the space left on a disk can be dispelled by using the Free function, which will flash up the percentage of unused space on the disk in the drive. Consequently, inserting a different disk will cause the CR99 to firstly read the disk directory to see which song memories have been recorded in and then to calculate the amount of free disk space.
Whilst this unit is in no way comparable to a full-blown software sequencer, it does have a rather neat facility for overdubbing tracks. Let's say that a real-time piano track has been recorded onto Song 1 and that the bassline is to be recorded next. Put Song 1 into Play mode and then press Record; the next free song memory is now automatically selected for the overdub. Start will begin playback of Song 1, while merging this with whatever data is currently being input and saving the mix onto the new Song location. To allow existing data to be monitored, a Merge facility exists which combines incoming information with that currently playing back. This means that up to 99 Songs - equivalent to 99 parallel tracks in this case - can be recorded with each overdub. Previous recordings can be erased once the overdub is satisfactorily completed, so leaving more space on the disk.
FOR THOSE OF you who, like me, are naturally inquisitive as to how devices work, (I enjoyed a long childhood career with clocks) the following is a short, somewhat simplified explanation of the CR99.
The unit has an internal clock which causes the MIDI In port to be checked every five milliseconds and writes the incoming data, along with timing information, onto a record buffer of 1Kbyte. Once this buffer is full, the data is written onto the disk into a file named SONGn.DAT where "n" is the number of the Song, and the process continues until the incoming data ceases. Pressing Stop then writes an "End of Song" command to the disk which updates the disk directory, allowing you to see which Song numbers have been used. Replay is the reverse of the above with a small playback buffer filling up before sending MIDI data into the outside world via the MIDI Out port.
The manual states that the capacity of a disk is approximately 80,000 events - which would equate to between 25,000 and 35,000 notes, allowing for the fact that two events are required per note (note on, note off) and that aftertouch, pitchbend and the like use up far more events than notes - but I have a distinct feeling that this is incorrect. As the format is compatible with that of an Atari ST, it is possible to check precisely what is being recorded by using a disk reader - it would appear that a disk can hold approximately 185,000 events, which equates to around 80,000 notes plus performance data.
One drawback of the CR99's ability to record all MIDI data is that there is no facility to filter unwanted information, especially active sensing and All Notes Off. The former is only a small problem, because the Recorder incorporates it with its timing data, so minimising extraneous bytes, while the latter wastes three bytes each time both hands are released from the keyboard. Obviously the data here builds up with overdubs as All Notes Off is MIDI-channel orientated. The net result of this is that the capacity for notes will be decreased unless this specific function can be switched out on the keyboard or filtered out prior to reaching the CR99.
MIDI input every five milliseconds roughly equates to 96ppqn at a tempo of 120bpm. However, an interesting aside to this is that this resolution increases if material is recorded at a slower tempo, which is not the case with a normal sequencer. Without more information, it is impossible to ascertain whether the resolution will then decrease again if the tempo is increased on playback.
One trick I tried was to format the disk in the Atari to ten sectors per track instead of the usual nine with the intention of squeezing an extra 11% capacity out of the disk. Unfortunately, this was ignored by the CR99.
AS ALREADY MENTIONED, the mobility factor of the average computer-based sequencing setup is rather low. With this in mind the CR99 could be useful in live applications Each song can be transferred from another sequencer, having filtered out any irrelevant data, and saved to one of the CR99's 99 Song locations. The time between accessing the directory, selecting the Song and starting to play it is less than ten seconds. By using the overdub feature, it's possible to create a complete live set of songs, including patch changes for each synth with any required gap between songs being allowed for.
Another use of the CR99 is as a System Exclusive librarian, using the MIDI dump facility that now exists many synths. Simply put the CR99 into Record and initiate the dump. The data will be recorded and can then be played back and transmitted into the synth. This could consist of patch, timbre or system data and, in this way, up to 99 different banks of sounds can be saved onto a single disk (subject to memory space). Single sounds can often be sent from synths by pressing the button for a patch which transmits the relevant bytes for that sound via its MIDI Out port. It is conceivable that the CR99 could hold all the songs for a set interspersed with the SysEx data for each synth, where changing sounds would otherwise entail hunting around for RAM cards and cartridges. Do remember, though, that SysEx data must not be mixed in with that for MIDI note and performance.
Drum machine patterns can also be recorded by the CR99 but in real time, because the average beat box lacks a dedicated MIDI dump. Alternatively, use it in the same manner as you would a multitrack tape recorder without the hassle of worrying about routing, group outputs and tape returns - an ideal ideas machine with only a minimum of equipment needed.
THE ADVANTAGES IN terms of ease of use, immediacy of playback from disk and portability are overshadowed by the price of the Elka CR99: £420. This is equivalent to the cost of an Atari 520ST and a choice of sequencing software incorporating visual editing - which will certainly be a more powerful option. Similarly there is an excellent System Exclusive librarian in Hybrid Arts' Genpatch, which will run on the same computer. In terms of hardware sequencers, the price is also rather close to that of a second-hand Roland MC500 and substantially more expensive than the Alesis MMT8 or Korg SQD8.
In its defence, the CR99 caters for specific needs extremely well - I, for one, would be very happy to use it for live performances. It could well be the answer for many non-technical but highly musical persons who want a digital multitrack arrangement for recording with a multitimbral synth like the Roland D110.
Price £419.95 including VAT
Review by Vic Lennard
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