Paul Overaa discovers a handy if costly way of manipulating MIDI data in real time courtesy of J.L.Cooper
Paul Overaa investigates the claims to fame of the FaderMaster MIDI Controller by J.L. Cooper Electronics
Just recently J.L. Cooper introduced a rather clever little box called the FaderMaster. Essentially it is a MIDI command controller which can be user-programmed to both edit and add to a MIDI data stream passed through the unit.
FaderMaster's main claim to fame, however, is not that it can modify MIDI data, but that it does so by using programmable slider controls, i.e. faders.
Figure 1. gives you a schematic picture of the internal layout of the FaderMaster unit. There are eight programmable faders and three memory banks.
Although the Factory Bank contains some settings which require the user to enter a channel number, the fader/message transmission parameters are essentially fixed, i.e. pre-set, and cannot be altered by the user.
Twenty six of these Factory Bank settings offer real-time control of a range of popular instruments, so they basically save you the job of creating equivalent facilities yourself. The other four factory settings are general purpose and provide MIDI volume and panning control. Factory setting F1, for instance, sets up the FaderMaster to provide MIDI volume controller data on MIDI channels 1-8. Whenever the sliders are moved, the new positions are sensed and the appropriate MIDI controller messages are transmitted (controller #7), the end result giving you remote control of the volume settings of all instruments on MIDI channels 1-8.
The data sent by each fader is shown in figure 2. If, as an example, you pull slider 7 down to zero a 'channel 7 controller volume = 0' message will be inserted into the data stream, i.e.the bytes B6, 07, 00 (hex). Push it up to the top and bytes B6,07,7F (hex) are sent.
All of the Factory pre-sets are well documented in the manual with specific control programs offered for... Oberheim Matrix 6and Matrix 1000, Kawai K-1, Yamaha DX-7 series, TX-7,TX-816, Roland D-10/D-20/D-50/D-550 Korg M-1 Emu Proteus, and Ensoniq VFX synthesizers.
Although these settings are primarily for the instruments mentioned above you can use them for other purposes if you wish - the idea is to look at the pre-set details, see what types of messages are programmed, and then work out how these will affect your own equipment.
To get personalized control over FaderMaster's facilities you move away from the pre-set bank and program individual faders yourself using the 'User Bank'.
Nine separate programs can be stored and each program allows individual faders to be programmed, to send continuous controller data (including non-registered controllers), program change, channel after-touch, pitch-bend and Note-On/Note-Off messages.
Faders can be adjusted for sensitivity by changing the frequency with which FaderMaster's software examines for fader movement. As you increase the scan rate a fader becomes more responsive. You can also adjust minimum and maximum values of the data that gets transmitted so that it is possible, for example,to set up fader 2 to control modulation in a way that allows full slider travel to produce a limited range, e.g. 40-60, of modulation data.
Being able to vary the scan speed is a nice touch and it helps restrict the number of messages inserted into the MIDI data stream as a fader is moved. Because the links between faders and final effects are software driven, all sorts of clever extras have been provided. You can group faders together so that one fader can control another e.g. when using FaderMaster as a MIDI volume controller it's possible to group all faders to fader 8, which then acts as a master volume for all channels. It is also possible to group faders for sending special effects, e.g. the simultaneous transmission of volume, pitch-bend and after-touch.
Range reversal is another useful trick. By reverse grouping one fader to another you can provide links where raising one fader, in addition to carrying out it's own function, causes decreasing values associated with another fader to be sent. A single fader can therefore be set up to control panning effects, or could bring up modulation whilst aftertouch was being reduced. In most cases messages are only sent when faders are moved, but there is a special 'snapshot' mode which allows the FaderMaster to transmit a burst of messages corresponding to the current fader positions - useful if you want to save initial settings for placing into song-start/control sequences.
As well as individual control over the effect that each fader produces there's individual control over how each fader operates as far as the MIDI input data stream is concerned. Normally MIDI data received by FaderMaster is unconditionally merged with the FaderMaster generated commands, i.e. the data which comes into FaderMaster goes out merged with the data that has been pushed into the MIDI data stream by the FaderMaster unit. This unconditional merging can be turned off so that incoming data gets tested and if the message has the right characteristics it is removed, new data being added only when the fader is moved - handy for doing replacement jobs on controller tracks etc.
There's also a conditional merge facility. Incoming MIDI messages still get tested, but whilst the fader is stationary the data is transmitted unchanged. The moment a fader is moved replacement occurs, i.e. the original data is removed and the FaderMaster generated data inserted in it's place.
The SYSTEX bank is used for gaining remote control over parameters which are only accessible via system exclusive messages and again each fader can be set up to provide a separate effect. The only limitation here is that the messages are limited to 14 bytes.
FaderMaster SYSTEX bank does incidentally come set up for the ART MultiVerb unit - this bank can definitely be re-programmed for other units but the details in the manual are skimpy.
A completely different use of the FaderMaster is as a MIDI delay unit. You can set faders 1-7 up so that they delay MIDI notes and controller data. Fader 8 will do the same thing for timing data, i.e. MIDI clock data. An obvious use for this is to add feel to drum parts... by assigning faders 1-7 to the notes corresponding to the main drums of a MIDI drum unit you've got access to real-time 'humanizing' effects. Admittedly you can do this type of thing by playing around with start times of individual sequencer tracks etc., but this always involves play-adjust-play type edit cycles, which all take time. With FaderMaster you can do it in real-time just by moving the slide controls as the drum machine plays.
So that then, is J. L. Cooper's FaderMaster unit. During the time it was available for review only two problems occurred, both during the first two days of using it - it lost it's memory once and did some other strange things a couple of times. I'm almost certain that these problems were due to silly mistakes on my part because, after that, the unit behaved perfectly well.
The general programming and bank/program selection is quite straight forward although to use the FaderMaster to best effect you really do need a bit of technical MIDI knowledge. Thirty presets, nine user programs and one SYSTEX program gives you a grand total of forty programs each controlling the individual characteristics of eight faders.
FaderMaster is certainly a powerful unit - changing FaderMaster programs allows you to totally change the personality of the unit instantaneously, e.g. you might have a general volume program loaded for adjusting the overall mix and then swap to a program giving sophisticated SYSTEX control over one specific piece of equipment.
Because I had a Fadermaster unit for quite a few weeks I was able to show it to a (hopefully) representative collection of MIDI musicians. The general concensus of opinion was that there is very little that you can do with FaderMaster which you could not find some way of doing without it, so it's not an essential item for anyone just starting out on the MIDI road. It does however make life a lot easier and for serious MIDI users, i.e. those with MIDI based studio facilities or those who are heavily into sequencing, this unit has an enormous number of potential applications.
One thing that's worth mentioning is that, providing you are a Mac or an Atari user, there's software support already available for FaderMaster. This offers mouse orientated upload/download and FaderMaster program editing facilities - on the face of it this also looks like the easiest way to gain control of the FaderMaster's SYSTEX memory bank!
J. L. Cooper products are usually good and FaderMaster is no exception. It's a well built, innovative and professional little unit but unfortunately it has a price tag to match - it costs £299 (inclusive of VAT).
Is it good value for money? That's an impossible question to answer because there's nothing else on the market that is similar enough to FaderMaster to make a comparison. I do know that, if it wasn't so expensive. I'd buy one myself!
Price: £299 inc VAT
Supplier: Sound Technology PLC, (Contact Details)
Review by Paul Overaa
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