He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother
Brother MDI40 Sequencer
Brother are taking their first steps into the music market with the release of the MDI40 and MDI30 sequencers. Richard Lamont reports.
That's right, you did read it correctly — this sequencer is made by Brother, a firm more generally known for their expertise in the field of computer peripherals, printers and fax machines than musical paraphernalia. However, it seems that like many other Japanese firms, Brother have decided to test the waters of the music business, and the MDI30 and 40 represent their first moves in this direction. Given that the music market is a new departure for the company, a sequencer is a logical first product to try, being a less expensive and risky venture than launching a synth, for example.
So, down to business — shred the packaging, and find out what we've got for our money... a Brother brochure, an instruction manual, a 3.5" disk of demonstration songs, two MIDI leads, a power supply and a largish wedge of black plastic measuring about 10"x8"x2". The latter, of course, is what we are interested in. As it happens, it was just the right size to sit on the right hand side of my K5, in the large blank front panel area between the edge of the synth and the programming keys nearer the middle. The top of the sequencer slopes down to the front edge at an angle of about 20 degrees and the disk drive juts out almost horizontally.
To the right of the disk drive are six buttons: a row of four black keys, and to the right of them, red and green function keys. The red and green buttons double as shift keys for the other four, so that each of the black keys actually has three functions. Three rows of text tell you what those functions are: Backward Search, Forward Search, Play/Pause, Stop (no shift); Backward Skip, Forward Skip, Tempo Down, Tempo Up (green shift key); Save, Clear, Record, Merge (red shift key).
Above the keys is a 6-character LCD display — hardly over-generous. It's not back lit and fairly strong light is needed to make the symbols stand out. I can't be the only person that finds unlit LCDs hard to read under most conditions, so this is certainly an area in which the MDI40 is somewhat lacking. The back of the unit has an On/Off switch, a power socket, and MIDI In & Out sockets (no Thru).
The MDI40 and MDI30 differ only memory capacity, respectively 14,000 and 7,000 notes, and price — a £50 difference. Obviously, the amount of time that 14,000 notes equates to will depend entirely on the complexity of your music, but you can certainly doodle for a good half-hour — unless you're big on Lisztian cascades of allegro chords. If you have a good idea while recording you can just replay it, cut out the dead wood, and save it. You can filter out some types of MIDI data, such as aftertouch or pitch bend, in order to save memory. Song files (which could be as short as a riff, or as long as the memory will allow) can be saved to disk, and disks can hold around 30 song files.
The manual advises you to use the demo disk to illustrate the full potential of the MDI. The disk contains eight songs: 1) Maple Leaf Rag; 2) Funeral March of a Marionette; 3) Bach's Minuet in G; 4) Sailor's Hornpipe; 5) William Tell Overture 6); Don't Worry Be Happy; 7) Got My Mind Set On You; 8) Man In The Mirror. Songs 1 to 3 are recorded entirely on MIDI channel 1. The rest have only a melody on channel 1, with accompaniment either on channel 2 (songs 4 and 5) or on channels 2 and 3 (songs 6, 7 and 8).
The manual gives some guidance as to what kind of sounds are best suited to each channel. There are no drum patterns on the demo songs, ostensibly because there is no standardisation of note value to drum type, but it doesn't take too long to work up your own rhythm track. The song arrangements are hardly inspired, but they do fulfill their main purpose, which is to illustrate what can be done with the MDI — if you put in enough time.
The MDI40's operation is totally straightforward, and the unit is best thought of as a 2-track digital tape recorder. Through the facility to merge data on the two tracks — the Record and Merge Tracks — you can build up compositions using all 16 MIDI channels, but you can't keep the channels apart on separate sequencer tracks. You can record more than one channel of MIDI data at a time, and the MDI40 is also capable of rechannelising data; that is, if you own an old MIDI synth like a DX7 Mk I, which only transmits on MIDI channel 1, it will rechannelise the data to another MIDI channel during recording.
Recording is a simple matter of pressing Record (with the appropriate shift key) whereupon the display alternates between displaying 'Record' and showing how much memory remains (as a percentage of the total). You can then start playing or, if you wish to leave blank space at the beginning, press the green shift key (which doubles as an Execute key) — the display will now show how much memory is left, and the beat number.
A metronome can be turned on to provide a click track. Rather than using an internal speaker, the click transmits MIDI notes, so the metronome sound will be whatever patch is selected on a slaved synth. Obviously, a sharp sound with a very short decay is best, and it's a fairly serious limitation of the sequencer that you have to select such a sound when recording if you want to use the metronome.
To record more data, you must first transfer the data on the Record Track to the Merge Track, leaving the Record Track empty. Be sure that you're happy with the performance, however, because once it's on the Merge Track you can't get it back; all you can do is erase it. You can't even transfer the merge track back to the record track —just like on a tape recorder, in fact. You can carry on in this manner, building up a piece through successive overdubs, recording either on the same MIDI channel, to tidy up or add to an existing part, or on different channels to create new parts.
One problem to watch out for is that if you duplicate a note (same channel, same note number, and starting at the same time), the result will be some rather sloppy retriggering. Can you edit one of the notes out? No. Editing facilities are strictly limited to punch in/out. So, to labour the comparison, you build up your finished track through carefully planned merges, like bouncing on a tape machine. If you don't get it right you'll have to start again, because all you can do is erase it (whole bars only).
The MDI40 will record System Exclusive data, which suggests a gigging role for the unit. You could create your music on a computer-based sequencer, and then dump the lot into the MDI40 for on-the-road use. That's all very well, but if you do need to carry out any editing on the spot, you've got problems. Still on the complaints front, I found that for some reason the MDI40 didn't seem to trigger my K5 very well. My DX7 and MKS30 sounded fine, but some of the K5 sounds had a 'bitten off' quality.
I had a most peculiar feeling about the MDI40, which took quite a while to pin down. I eventually realised what it was: I was subconsciously waiting for something to go amiss. The unit is so simple to operate that I couldn't quite believe it, to some extent because its price made me expect something more complex — the same money could buy you an Atari 520ST, a Lexicon LXP5 or a Kawai K1R. For many people, however, it will be just too simple, and the lack of editing facilities will rule it out of consideration for their use.
MDI40 £299 inc VAT, MDI30 £249 inc VAT.
Bluebridge Music Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Richard Lamont
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