Yamaha MCS2 Control Station
Missing performance wheels on your MIDI instrument? Yamaha's MIDI Control Station could solve your expression problems, as Simon Trask reveals.
Yamaha, masters of the MIDI accessory, introduce the MCS2 to improve the range of performance controls available to keyboard players. Is it worth the price of a good digital drum machine?
When MIDI first appeared it was touted by some as the end to the keyboard player's incompatibility problems - keyboardists being a notoriously incompatible bunch. Others, perhaps wiser, perhaps just more cynical, foresaw a whole new set of problems. Both were right, in a way, because a lot of the old problems that used to plague keyboard players wanting to hook up gear have been removed, while at the same time, MIDI has opened up such a bewildering array of possibilities - of a scope now far wider than just the keyboard player's domain - that there are bound to be problems.
The real test of the MIDI standard is whether or not it's flexible enough to respond to all the demands made of it, and that's where units like Yamaha's new MCS2 MIDI Control Station come into the picture.
The MCS2 is a compact machine which should fit easily on many an instrument's front panel. It effectively allows all MIDI instruments to be given the same degree of MIDI performance control, by taking all such performance tasks upon itself.
The most immediate use of the MCS2 is as a generator of pitch-bend and modulation for instruments which don't have these facilities - two wheels on the unit's front panel are dedicated to these two functions. Among Yamaha's own instruments, the PF70, PF80 and CP70M pianos are all bereft of pitch-bend and mod wheels, while the PFs can respond to pitch-bend and mod data via MIDI. Thus the MCS2 can be used either to add such effects to these keyboards, or to allow them to be generated for slave instruments. And bearing in mind Yamaha's penchant for breath controllers, it's not surprising they've included a breath control input on the MCS2.
In addition to these dedicated controllers, the MCS2 includes a healthy variety of programmable ones: on the front panel are two sliders and three push-switches, while the back panel sports two footpedals and two footswitch inputs, all of them capable of performing different control functions as specified by the user (that means you).
As you may know, there are basically two types of MIDI controller: continuous (like wheels and pedals) and switch (like pushbuttons and footswitches). The MCS2's controllers can be assigned to any controller number within their own type, which means they can assume any controller function. Yamaha have also given the MCS2 the ability to send useful non-controller codes such as MIDI Start, Stop and Continue (for remote control of drum machines and sequencers) and System Reset, and you can send patch changes 1-64 in the bank/program format from dedicated front-panel buttons. It's also possible to send MIDI timing messages to a sequencer or drum machine at a rate determined by whichever continuous controller you've allocated to the function.
All of which adds up to a powerful and very useful device that's worth considering even if your master instrument already has plenty of controllers of its own.
All programming is achieved through a five-character backlit LCD, with the two continuous sliders responsible for selecting each MCS2 controller and setting its MIDI control value. It's a fiddly but workable system - a typical Japanese compromise in pursuance of that low, low price-tag.
Yamaha have included 25 'Presets' which consist of the most common controller codes, other MIDI messages and useful functions. A list of officially-specified controller codes is given in the back of the manual, though such is the pace of MIDI developments these days, this list is already slightly out of date.
So how does the MCS2 fit into a typical MIDI setup, and therefore into the average keyboard player's life? On the rear panel are two MIDI Ins and one MIDI Out. Two MIDI Ins? Well, almost incidentally you've got yourself a MIDI Merge facility, with all data on the two Ins being merged. MIDI data that's generated from the MCS2's own array of controllers is merged with any data received on the MIDI Ins before being sent over MIDI Out. You can assign the MCS2's controller data to any one of MIDI channels 1-16, which allows you to direct all your controller effects to a specific instrument. But this would have been more flexible if you'd been able to assign each controller to its own MIDI channel - so that with a split keyboard, for instance, you could assign different controllers to each half of the keyboard. An opportunity lost, there.
So the MCS2 can sit either between your master and slave instruments (in which case it won't have any effect on the former), or 'in front of' your master (which it will then affect).
The MIDI Merge shouldn't be overlooked. Apart from allowing you to switch easily between two master keyboards when playing (or even to use both at once), it's essential if you want to slave a sequencer to tape via MIDI while recording into the sequencer at the same time. I'll explain a bit more. If you're using SMPTE code as the master synchronisation source, you'll need a SMPTE-to-MIDI converter such as Roland's SBX80 to control a sequencer. This sends MIDI position and timing data over MIDI to your sequencer, which under normal circumstances uses up the MIDI bus - so you can't record into the sequencer and slave it to tape at the same time. This situation isn't limited to SMPTE synchronisation: if you have a sequencer without its own tape sync and are using something like a Yamaha YMC10 which generates tape sync pulses and then 'converts' them to MIDI timing data when read back off tape, you'll have the same problem. Cue the MIDI Merge. A MIDI feed from the tape source appears at one input and your new performance appears at the other input; the two are merged into a single datastream which is then sent on to the (invariably) single MIDI input on your sequencer. If all is well with your sequencer, you should be able to record into it at the same time as slaving it to tape.
The MCS2 sensibly filters any timing information received on its second MIDI In, so there's no danger of conflicting timing information being merged.
There's still one, crucially important point you should bear in mind when considering the potential usefulness of the MCS2 for your setup. It's all very well being able to transmit all the controller codes under the sun, but if the collective resources of your instruments will only respond to pitch-bend, then the MCS2 (despite its Merge facility) won't be of much use to you. Time to consult the 'control change' section of those dreaded MIDI implementation charts which should be lurking at the back of your instrument manuals.
Everyone has their own priorities - the price of the MCS2 could, for instance, buy you a decent digital drum machine. But the MCS2 has bags of potential, particularly with the inclusion of the Merge facility - though a couple of features, namely individual channel settings for each controller and the ability to store several complete setups, would have made it a good deal more flexible. It's a specialised machine for specialised tasks, and Yamaha deserve credit for producing it.
Price £245 including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask
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