JL Cooper Fadermaster
MIDI Control Device
Tired of digital parameter access synth editing, unimpressed by software editors? Vic Lennard looks at a system that allows you to use real sliders to edit your synths.
In these days of unfriendly synth panels and software editors, there has been an increasing need for a hardware unit that could be adapted for use in a variety of situations.
THE CRITICISM HAS been made in many reviews of visual synth editors that what modern-day synthesisers lack is buttons, sliders and knobs for individual functions. This has made computer editors almost a necessity for most users, and while they're fine for creating and heavily editing sounds, they're certainly less than satisfactory if all that a sound needs is a slight "tweak". Add to this the total lack of programming from the front panel of some synths (Yamaha TX7, Roland MT32, Oberheim Matrix 1000 and so on) and the problem is considerably compounded.
Of late, certain sequencers have started to include screen sliders to permit the changing of various parameters in real time while the sequencer records such changes. These too all suffer a common problem - only one parameter at a time can be changed due to their being mouse-driven.
Someone had to come out with an undedicated bank of hardware sliders - rather like those found on the JL Cooper FaderMaster.
FaderMaster looks just like a small lighting mixer, being a black box with eight faders. A two-digit display and six function buttons complete the top of the unit while the rear simply has MIDI In, Out and a socket for the external power supply.
Moving a slider sends out MIDI bytes pertaining to a particular parameter, for instance, MIDI controllers for volume, modulation and so on. Parameter type, MIDI channel and various other aspects of transmission can be altered to suit the situation in which FaderMaster is being used.
THE EASIEST WAY to take a guided tour of FaderMaster is to use it, so let's say that one of the sliders is to send out MIDI volume on MIDI channel five.
FaderMaster can send out note on/off, program changes, channel aftertouch, pitchbend and continuous controller information. MIDI volume is a member of the last category and this can be selected by pressing the "Parm" button and holding it down while moving the chosen slider through the various two-letter keys for the above categories - No, PG, AF, Pb and Co. Wherever you stop is what you select, as the unit has an internal battery which saves any changes once power is turned off.
Any continuous controller data consists of the controller number and the value of the parameter involved. MIDI volume is controller No. 7 and Parm# selects this by the same method as above. The MIDI channel is also needed otherwise all devices could be affected. This can be set by using the Chan button and again moving the slider until number five is selected.
Now any movement of this slider will send out MIDI volume control data on MIDI channel five. Let's take this example a couple of steps further. Many MIDI devices show little response to volume values of less than 30 or so while others can exhibit distortion if the highest possible value of 127 is sent. FaderMaster can have minimum and maximum limits set so that the entire travel of the slider can still be used. This increases the sensitivity, and setting up these limits uses the Min and Max buttons in exactly the same way as those seen previously.
ONE THING THAT wasn't mentioned in the last section is the number of presets. Each set of eight faders constitutes a Bank and there are 30 of these, pre-programmed with data varying from basic MIDI volume and pan on each of the 16 possible MIDI channels, to more specialised uses, such as three banks of edits each for the E-mu Proteus and Ensoniq VFX, along with banks for other established machines including the Korg M1, Roland D50 and Yamaha DX/TX series.
Then there are nine User Banks, where you can tailor the data sent out by the fader precisely to your own criteria. Finally there is one SysEx Bank. Bearing in mind that most of the presets transmit system exclusive, this bank is invaluable for conversation with new synths or those not part of the preset package. More about this later.
Unfortunately, there is no facility to copy from one bank to another - one area in which FaderMaster falls down. This means that banks have to be set up from scratch and, worse still, the SysEx bank can only be programmed via an extra piece of software (for Atari ST or Apple Mac) so precluding this bank's use for those without a computer.
FOLLOWING ON FROM the previous example, it is quite possible for a situation to arise where the volume of more than one device is to be controlled at the same time, for instance in a fade. This would require the setting up of the sliders for each MIDI channel and very steady hands or a long pencil to achieve an even fade. The grouping facility on FaderMaster gets around this problem. Any fader may be placed in a group and put under the control of another fader. Pressing the Group button and moving a slider shows the number of the fader which will control the currently mobile slider. So you can assign all eight faders to the movement of just one, with the value of all faders being in sync but still keeping their individual MIDI values.
As it is the position of the slider which commands the value sent out, the scanning rate of the slider's position is important. If it is too slow, then any subtle movement may be missed while too fast a rate will result in too much MIDI data being generated, which could lead to timing glitches when used with a sequencer especially if system exclusive is involved. The Speed function allows you to set a value between 1 and 16 subject to the formula;
Scanning rate per second = 100/v,
where v is the number selected.
So "1" gives a scan rate of 100 times per second while "16" gives 6.25 times per second. Allowing for the fact that MIDI is serial (sends data one byte at a time), the lowest scan rate for any particular situation should be set so that the amount of MIDI information generated is as low as possible (although this cannot be changed on the presets).
Probably the most important function is that of merging incoming data with that being generated by the faders. There are three different modes for this, selectable by the Group button. The first of these is "Unconditionally on" and would be used to merge all incoming data with that for the faders. An example for this would be where the master keyboard has no MIDI volume slider and volume changes are required. If data has already been recorded and you then decide that it needs to be replaced, the "unconditionally off" mode would be used. If the incoming data is of the same type as that assigned to the fader, then it is ignored and so may be replaced. However, the situation may arise where only a small portion of the volume data is to be replaced and a facility like punching in and out is needed. This is the "conditional" mode where information is passed through until the fader is moved, at which point it is replaced by the fader values. To make this method easier, there is also a Null feature which shows what the numerical difference is between the current fader position and the data coming in. While the Null button is being pressed, no data is actually transmitted.
"Grouping together two of FaderMaster's faders, one of which has been set to operate in reverse, results in a volume crossfade effect."
What this last facility allows you to do is to check the incoming values and to prepare the position of the slider for when the data is to be replaced. A useful feature, this. The only problem is that it can be used for note on/off data or controllers but not with aftertouch, program change or pitchbend, each of which can cause more than their fair share of headaches and whose replacement can often be awkward.
There is little doubt that the blame for the mechanistic feel of much of today's music has been laid fairly and squarely at the feet of the drum machine, whether it be a hardware drum box or the grid on a computer. Even using "humanise" functions on a sequencer doesn't seem to resolve the situation. With FaderMaster, a note and MIDI channel can be assigned to each slider and the position of the slider delays that note by up to 15 milliseconds. So if the sequencer is playing a drum module and you want to give the choruses more urgency, assign the key note for the snare drum to one of the sliders and advance it against the hi-hat. The effect will be of "pushing" the music, and the amount is completely in your hands - literally.
Alternatively, slider eight can be used to delay MIDI clocks, so allowing you to loosen up the timing of all instruments on a drum machine simultaneously. In fact, it would be possible to record an FSK tape sync code through FaderMaster and to put subtle tempo changes into a piece of music by moving the faders as the code is going down. The result would be a looser format but with all synchronised instruments following the timing.
I'VE HAD FADERMASTER on test for a couple of months now and during the course of this, one particular song required most of the instruments to change volume each time the chorus came along. Usually I'd have experimented with the volume for each MIDI device and then written it into the sequencer, but FaderMaster made the job that bit easier. Once the relevant faders had been placed into the correct positions,. hitting the Min, Group and Value buttons sends out a "snapshot" of the entire bank, which was then recorded. Using this and the other facilities got me out of the ludicrous situation of always relying on numerical values when my ears were what should have been important. If it sounds right, go for it.
Another common problem is one of fading up one function while fading another down. This happens with the volumes of two samples in particular. If the maximum and minimum values are set the wrong way round on FaderMaster the fader works in reverse so that grouping together two faders, one of which has been set in reverse, results in a volume crossfade effect.
As a long-time user of an Oberheim Matrix 1000, it has always been an annoyance to me that no real-time editing can be performed on it - in fact, very little editing at all can. Little things like setting a high resonance value and sweeping the VCF cutoff frequency to create a growling synth effect are impossible. However, FaderMaster changes all this, by having both of these edits assigned to faders in the Matrix 6/1000 bank. As previously mentioned, the speed of the scanning rate cannot be altered and is fixed at the maximum of 100 times per second. In the context of the song I was working on, this involved over 2000 bytes of SysEx data being handled by the sequencer and transmitted (along with note information) during the course of an eight-bar section which included 16th hi-hats and quite dense chords. All I can say is that if there were any timing glitches, I didn't hear them and neither did the guys for whom the track was intended.
Another point worth mentioning is that many of the current trend of effects units are using MIDI controllers to change parameter values such as reverb depth, pre-delay time and so on, like Yamaha's new FX500 and Alesis' Quadraverb. Others, like ART's Multiverb, have to be programmed using SysEx - indeed, the nominal SysEx bank has been set up for this unit - but I spent a lot of time controlling the Quadraverb using FaderMaster. Over 20 of the parameters can be altered in real time by assigning them to MIDI controllers, pitchbend, aftertouch, note number or note velocity. The system worked like a dream, although there were certain times when I wished that FaderMaster had footpedal extension sockets so that my feet could control a couple of the sliders.
WHILE FADERMASTER'S NINE user banks can be edited, the SysEx bank cannot. Add to this the fact that visually editing anything is bound to be easier than doing it "conceptually" and the additional software has instant appeal.
Extremely simple to use, it can exist as a desktop accessory to most programs on the Atari ST (I couldn't try the Apple Mac version). This means that it can be used with your sequencer without having to reboot. Single banks can be downloaded to or uploaded from FaderMaster and can also be saved to disk as single programs or as all ten editable banks in one file.
The SysEx bank, labelled P1, is rather more interesting, as it shows the intelligent nature of FaderMaster. The series of bytes in the example (see Figure 1) will edit the actual volume of a Roland D50 (you can see the value in the D50 window changing as the slider is moved). Let's have a closer look; the first five bytes are the header for the Roland D50 and "pn" is a fixed number for a particular slider, and is being used here for the MIDI channel, 7 corresponding to MIDI channel 8. The address for Overall Volume is 00 03 20, and "vv" is the value of the slider which has been set to go between 0 and 100. "rs rs" is for the checksum which FaderMaster will calculate for each slider position. All of this data has been found from the SysEx booklet with the synth itself.
ONE OF THE marvels of FaderMaster is being able to actively 'draw" your own controller curves, especiaIIy for volume. I stress curves because volume should not be linear and most computer sequencers offering a draw-your-own facility make it very difficult if not impossible to do this. For the volume faders alone, this is a good device.
When you then start to delve into the possibilities of humanising drum machines, altering the parameters in effects units, crossfading samples and other ideas which grow as you use FaderMaster, it begins to look like a unit which is invaluable. Yes, I've had a few gripes, especially regarding the necessity of the optional software for editing the SysEx bank, but quite honestly, I cannot think of a way that this would be possible otherwise. It just limits the available functions for someone with a small hardware sequencer.
I don't often buy the unit I get to review, but there is absolutely no way that FaderMaster is leaving my studio. If you want real-time control over your MIDI devices, get one of these units.
Price £299 including VAT.
Review by Vic Lennard
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