Jellinghaus Music Systems
MIDI Computer Interface and Software
German company Jellinghaus have been producing some interesting-looking MIDI software for some while. Now Rosetti are bringing it into the UK, and David Ellis has managed to get his hands on a few review samples.
In the first of what we hope will be a good many such reviews, David Ellis takes an in-depth look at a new MIDI interface and accompanying software for the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64, now available in the UK through Rosetti.
The approach taken by Jellinghaus Music Systems to MIDI software is about as different to Sequential Circuits and their 64 Sequencer as chalk is to cheese. Rather than electing for the ROM cartridge approach taken by SCI, this German company make do with the convention of cassette loading and dumping of programs. That's good when it comes to updating software, or using alternative programs with the MIDI hardware, but tedious when you're faced with a recalcitrant cassette machine that's throwing a tantrum over mismatched signal levels.
JMS produce a wide variety of MIDI software and two different varieties of micro interfacing hardware, but finished versions are only just beginning to come into the UK, courtesy of Rosetti. This review reflects what we've been able to get hold of in the way of pre-production items from Germany and a quick glance over some of the finished UK versions.
JMS have designed this 'big' interface (their description, not ours) as a general purpose unit for getting virtually any sort of micro conversing with MIDI. By this, they mean any computer based on Z80, 6502, or 6510 processors (ie. Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64, Apple II, to name but a few). They also produce a cut-down ('mini') version of the interface (just MIDI In and MIDI Out) specifically for the Commodore 64 (DM99 or £29.95).
The asking price of DM330 (£89.95) for the more advanced member of the species is just about par for the course for this sort of hardware, and the current version of the interface reflects a licensing agreement between Siel and JMS, whereby the latter makes the former's interface and both sell them for use with their own software. The effect of this is that the interface is actually a good deal neater, more compact, and generally less problematic than the one I had a chance to play with after the Frankfurt Musik Messe.
One highly dubious side of the early version of the interface concerned the connector to the micro. Admittedly, the Spectrum isn't the easiest micro when it comes to finding ready-made edge connectors (there aren't any), but JMS' answer of a ribbon cable that went directly from the interface PCB to the Spectrum connector was a disaster and a half, because of the complete lack of any sort of cable restraint and the tendency for the ribbon cable wires to commit harikari with wild abandon.
Fortunately, this has been corrected on the English version of the interface, and the connector should now stand up to a reasonable amount of wear and tear. One sensible addition to the basic construction of the unit is a 'bivalent' connector that allows the interface to be used with either a Spectrum or a Commodore 64.
Constructional points aside, the interface provides three MIDI Outs to the one MIDI In, a single MIDI Thru, and also includes an external clock five-pin DIN socket on the back panel. In fact, this socket has a slight identity crisis on the pre-production interface, as the legend below it said 'ext. clock' and the legend above it 'foodswitch'. Serial transmission of liverwurst, perhaps? If music be the food of love, and all that...
Like every Spectrum program, the JMS Multitrack Composer (CMP1.1) comes on cassette (well copy-protected), and takes around a minute a load. Once that's done, you're greeted by the display shown in Figure 1. This informs you of the defaults adopted by the software, namely composing channel or track ('kanal'), actual MIDI channel ('ch'), MIDI mode ('pom'), and notes assigned to each channel ('notenbelegung'). At this point, you realise that it's time to dig out your German dictionary to help with elucidation of the display and the seven photocopied sheets that comprise the manual. Unfortunately, my dictionary had gone into hiding, so I was left to battle armed solely with my very rusty 'O' level German.
However, the software is so easy to get on with that it doesn't really matter whether or not you fully understand the lingo. To start entering notes, it helps if you get the 'notenbelegung' column in order, as this determines how many events can be assigned to each track (or kanal). So, on booting up, the default is 1000 notes or steps for each of the eight tracks. It's unlikely that you'd want to continue with this state of equivalence, so keying '3' allows you to change the track allocation. All this means that each track has its own set of pages of memory, and the number of events going onto one track can't be more than what has been allocated at the start.
Having set the notenbelegung for whatever track you're about to record on, you're then obliged to choose a time signature out of 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, and 7/8 (or just stay with the 4/4 default) before actually getting down to some work. Pressing '1 ' primes the system for accepting a monophonic line of notes on the chosen track. When that's been done and 'space' pressed to indicate the end of the sequence, keying 'R' allows you to see the entered notes in a tabular format (Figure 2).
Going from left to right, there's a column for each event number, the octave and note name (note the German convention of H for B natural), then the duration for each note, followed by the gate time (defaulted to 50%) and velocity (all 5 in this instance). Gate times can be from 10-90%, giving a useful range from staccato to legato, and the velocity can go from 0 to 9. In fact, 'real time' is something of a misnomer in this case as all notes are entered initially as quavers.
Having entered one line, you could, in theory, go on to enter another line on another track, but since you can't actually hear the first track whilst putting in a second, it's not exactly the most meaningful operation since the Creation. This is where the editing facilities come in to construct new parts out of old. One curious thing is that there doesn't seem to be any provision for instantly erasing either an individual track or the whole lot. It's certainly feasible to opt for starting recording all over again from Bar 1, but the old notes don't always seem to know that they're not wanted. In fact, the only way of being 100% sure of clearing the deck is to switch off and start all over again. Tedious.
Fortunately, the editing facilities make up for most of the problems on the recording side of the program. Once a section of a track has been entered on the keyboard, this can be copied to somewhere else on the same track, replicated on a different track, and transposed over a wide range, while any parameter can be changed, deleted, or inserted. In this way, you can turn the original real-time sequence of Figure 2 into the rather more finished variety in Figure 3, complete with rests, rhythm, phrasing, and dynamics.
These facilities work extremely well, but a few problems showed up in practice. First, the fact that the software is looking for note events that fit within the limited rhythmic sphere of the four suggested time signatures means that a difference of opinion between you and the micro when entering a sequence is a fairly frequent occurrence. In this situation, the software basically just gives up trying to allocate bar numbers, with the result that you end up with a stream of numbered notes out of house, home and bar. Now, this wouldn't be a problem if the software was totally event-oriented, but because both the record and play functions work on the basis of going from a particular bar, life can get rather difficult if the software has given up on your feeble attempts at being metronomic.
Playback is accomplished by deciding which bar you want to go from, and whether this should be just one track on its own or the whole multitrack piece. An overall looping function is also selectable, but this is as far as you can go in the way of repeat options with the present software. For some curious reason (and this is where a better understanding of the manual might have helped), the 'pom' option seemed resolutely stuck in the Poly mode. Whilst this would have made sense if each track was polyphonic, it seems strange that a multi(monophonic)track sequencer doesn't have the option of sending all the software tracks in the Mono mode.
On the other hand, given that both of the MIDI synths (Roland JX3P and Yamaha DX7) that I successfully tried out with the software are of the sort that only operate in Poly or Omni modes, nothing would have been gained by going into Mono mode anyway. As far as I can work out, the point of the 'ch' column is to group together tracks into particular MIDI channels. So, for instance, you could group together tracks 1, 2 and 3, and send these off down MIDI channel 1 in Poly mode to one keyboard, send tracks 4 and 5 down channel 2 to a second keyboard, and the rest via channel 3 to a third. That, of course, is where those three MIDI Outs really come in useful.
The Commodore 64 equivalent to the Spectrum Multitrack Composer (the RMS20C in Rosetti terminology) offers 9000-note storage on six software tracks. This time, though, all the note input takes place in step time. The software is provided on disk rather than cassette, though given the slowness of the Commodore 1541 disk drive, that's something of a mixed blessing. On loading up the program, you can choose between internal or external sync (though only the 'big' interface allows you to use the latter facility), and then a main menu gives the options of note entry/playback, MIDI assignment, and disk operations. Like the Spectrum program, MIDI control allows you to choose between the three MIDI modes for the six channels, and then to send the channel data to individual keyboards with their own receiving channel IDs or to group them together in duos, trios, or whatever.
Note entry with this software is much like any other step time sequencer, with columns for channel (1-6), step (1-1500), note (eg. C4), duration (1-240), and gate time. Velocity can then be programmed in after the (note) event by assigning values other than the default (64) to whichever steps and channels you're interested in. Editing facilities also allow sequences of steps to be copied or transferred from one channel to another, notes to be inserted, and any of the channels deleted.
All in all, a very flexible and usable piece of software.
Finally in this round-up of JMS' offerings, there's the DX7/9 Sound Editor program (RMS21C) for the Commodore 64 and Spectrum (DM185 or £49.95). The basic idea behind the Sound Editor is to enable the user to change and display all the DX's FM parameters in a way that's more manageable than with the small LCD display on the keyboard. This it certainly does, but it doesn't make understanding the nature of FM sound, or what changes are needed to elicit what effect, any easier to fathom out (Figure 4, for instance) than when using the keyboard alone. JMS also offer a DX Sound Library for both micros (again, £49.95) that enables 100 new sounds to be loaded into the keyboard from tape (Spectrum) or disk (Commodore 64).
The good thing about JMS' MIDI Computer Interface is that it has three MIDI Outs. Because most interface-producing companies seem to have a predilection for just a single MIDI Out, and because many keyboards, drum computers, and so on are being produced without MIDI Thrus, this is undoubtedly a major point in its favour.
The unit also goes a good way in the direction of becoming an 'ideal' MIDI computer interface by virtue of the bivalent connector for both the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64, though it could go further if JMS provided a socket on the back of the unit and a range of different cables for connecting the interface with different micros. Overall, then, I'd say that this interface is probably one of the better bets on the market if you have a Spectrum or Commodore 64 and want to use it in conjunction with MIDI-equipped musical hardware.
The Spectrum Multitrack Composer software also seems to work very well, despite the misunderstandings that occurred between me, the manual, some MIDI commands, and the occasional bug or two. The version on sale by Rosetti Music Systems (RMS12S, price £49.95) translates the displays into English (which helps), but provides only the bare bones of the story with a rather feeble attempt at a manual that's considerably inferior to the German original. Curiously (and infuriatingly), the German-to-English translation of the software leaves the H for B natural. Very silly...
I was quite impressed by the program's editing facilities, but they need to be pretty special if you're to stand any chance of ordering together eight monophonic lines into a meaningful whole. What I don't understand is why the program doesn't go the whole step time hog and allow you to key in note events without playing the keyboard. It's all very well if you're only recording a short riff-based sequence (where assembling the piece is mostly a question of copying notes from one track to another with the odd transposition here and there), but for anything more complex, with rather more in the way of individualistic parts, such an approach is going to be pretty limited, I feel.
At the moment, the Spectrum Multitrack Composer seems rather stuck in between the real time and step time camps, having neither the provisions of a live, overdubbable polyphonic sequencer or an MCL suitable for putting together long, complex pieces. Still, you have to remember that such limitations are only those of a £49.95 program, not of a hard-wired unit that you're stuck with for life. But given that the major point of attaching a micro like the Spectrum to MIDI is to provide a flexible programming medium, the program could do with a few revisions to bring it more in line with that intention.
The Commodore Composer program, on the other hand, comes a good bit closer to being the real McCoy, and I look forward to the time when there are MIDI keyboards around that are capable of doing its Mono mode potential justice. Against this, the DX Sound Editor program seems expensive and rather unimaginative - a golden opportunity missed, I'd say.
Availability: all the above items are distributed by Rosetti, under the banner of Rosetti Music Systems. For info on stockists, contact Rosetti at (Contact Details). Prices are given in the text.
Gear in this article:
Review by David Ellis
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