JL Cooper MidiMation
This hardware/software system attempts to bring the sophistication of automated mixing to your existing recording setup. Chris Many put his feet up and lets the machines do the work.
Now that interest in synchronisation is on the up and up, there's a growing demand for accessories that take conventional music recording systems into the world of SMPTE synchronisation and automated mixes.
MANY STUDIOS AND individual musicians have recently been hopping on the SMPTE bandwagon - and with good reason. SMPTE is an industry standard sync that has been working reliably for years in film and TV studios. Apart from its sophisticated location facilities, if you've found yourself trying to get your sequencer to lock up to a wide variety of sync pulses (24, 48 or 96ppqn), the promise of a trouble-free synchronisation is the stuff dreams are made of.
For studios in search of an automated mixing system but anxious to avoid the expense of a complete refit, a low-cost SMPTE-based console automation system has also been a fantasy. The former has been available for some time, using Roland's SBX80 in conjunction with a MIDI sequencer but it's only recently that we've seen more affordable automated mixing systems becoming available. Now JL Cooper have introduced the MidiMation Series, a cost-effective system to automate your mixer, be it as little as eight channels or a full 32-channel desk.
AT PRESENT THE MidiMation system comprises the MAGI (Mixer Automation Gain Interface), MIDI Mute, SAM (SMPTE Automation Manager) and SAM Disk (storage system for SAM). MAGI consists of a 3U-high, rack-mountable brain which connects via a ribbon cable to a set of VCA's housed in a 1U-high chassis. Completing the package is a fader assembly (available in eight-, 16-, 24-, or 32-channel configurations) which connects to the VCA unit via a ¼" jack. MAGI also includes a set of mutes and a computer interface that provides substantial automation control within a compact and friendly system.
MAGI hooks up fairly simply - just connect the cables from the VCAs to the insert points of your desk. Two types of remote units are available; either an eight-fader unit that is bank-switchable to control up to 56 tracks (including eight sub-group masters), or a 16-, 24- or 32-fader control unit which provides instant access to each channel individually (no bank switches necessary) plus four sub-group assignments. Each remote also has individual track mutes and sub-group mute masters. These faders and mutes will now take the place of your mixer panel controls.
Mixing is simple and doesn't require much learning on the part of the engineer. MAGI was designed to be as "invisible" as possible to the user and succeeds on this point. Mixing with MAGI is almost identical to the way you've always mixed; no need to boot computer programs or to learn new commands. Once it's installed in your system, you just move the faders, mute your tracks and so on. Each time you make a new pass through a mix, MAGI updates its memory, merging your latest moves with the previous mix, until you're satisfied. Without a SAM Disk, you'll have to be somewhat careful as editing some of your moves can be a bit tricky. But the SAM disk automatically backs up the last four mixes you've made; so if you don't like your last attempt, you can quickly recall the mix before. Otherwise, you'll have to run the tape again and unmute the track immediately following the previous mute move.
MAGI's computer interface allows you to display fader automation onscreen with a Macintosh or Atari ST, which adds a very useful visual dimension to your mixing. Because the physical faders do not necessarily correspond with the actual location of the VCA, fine tuning without a computer can be difficult. If you were about to remix a soft section of your music, for example, you could end up with jumps in volume as you access each track. There are LEDs above each fader on the remote unit that tell you when it matches the VCA level, and while this is helpful, being able to look at a screen and see each fader and mute move occur in real time makes life much easier.
You may find the remote faders a little hard to get used to as they are positioned much more closely together than those on a regular desk. And again, because the faders have no need to control analogue sound (they are only voltage controllers), inexpensive faders have been used in the manufacture of the remote, giving it a different feel altogether. These are small matters, though, when you have an automated console that virtually anyone can learn to use in minutes. MAGI employs dbx chips, and you can upgrade to an even higher quality VCA if you want.
A SIMPLER APPROACH to automated mixdown is offered by the MIDI Mute. As its name suggests, this is a MIDI-controlled muting device for mixers. It comes with two pieces of hardware: one being your standard rack-mount unit, containing the bulk of the electronics, with eight LEDs to monitor the mute status of separate audio channels on your mixer; the second being a remote unit controlling the muting functions.
On the rear of the main unit are eight inputs and eight outputs, to which you route the auxiliary "ins" and "outs" of your mixer - quite a simple operation. Internally, MIDI Mute contains reed relays that allow your audio signal to either pass or not, depending on instructions from its internal processor. MIDI In and Out ports (no Thru), remote and expansion unit jacks as well as MIDI channel selection round out the connections you'll need.
Once you've got the unit hooked up (less than five minutes' work), you can test out your mutes right away. Just run the tape, press a button on the remote, and the corresponding track is muted. Press it again and it's unmuted.
But MIDI Mute offers more than external muting. By connecting the unit to your MIDI sequencer, you can record every mute move you make, and in so doing, automate your muting.
Whenever a change of status is made by pressing a button, MIDI Mute sends a Note On command out to your sequencer. Press the button again and another Note On command is sent (on and off mutes are recognised by the different velocity values that are sent out, not as Note On and Off commands). Your sequencer will record these as MIDI events, and when played back, these will control the mute mechanisms in the rack unit. Providing your sequencer is synced to the tape, your sequencer will now control eight tracks of muting, and with expansion units you can get up to 24 tracks automated this way.
It's pretty eerie, watching the mute LEDs light up and turn off, hearing your tracks mute and unmute all by themselves; but it's really no stranger than listening to a sequencer play back music you just played into it.
This is a comparatively new MIDI application, and it works smoothly. Unfortunately, since MIDI data is only sent when a move is made, MIDI Mute has no way of knowing what the status of all of its mutes are until a Note command for each audio channel has been received. This would mean having to set or reset mute status every time you rewound the tape and/or sequencer - a tedious chore at best - if the smart folks at JL Cooper hadn't included a "marking" command. Essentially, this takes a snapshot of the current mute setup. You can have this done automatically for you so that every few seconds, a mark operation occurs, which is very helpful when mixing and overdubbing parts as you're never very far away from a complete update of your mute mix.
And it's easy to update your mute mix: just record it on a different sequencer track, edit to taste, and voila. If you didn't get that mute on the downbeat you wanted, just quantise the track you recorded it on. The beauty of this unit is its simplicity, and that it works in a medium with which musicians and studios are already familiar: MIDI.
The relays are pretty quiet for the most part, but I found there were some audible clicks on tracks that were being muted via the unit. When a number of different tracks were muted in rapid succession, only one or two of the tracks developed "mute clicks", leading me to believe it was simply a bad relay that was the problem. Obviously though, a device whose sole feature is to mute tracks must work as quietly and invisibly as possible.
But does anyone really need automated muting with MAGI around? MIDI Mute works as promised and is cleverly, if simply, implemented. The fact of the matter is that muting tracks is but a small part of the mixing process. It can come in handy, and for those systems without noise reduction of some kind, it could give a dramatic drop in tape noise simply by removing those tracks not currently useful to the mix from it.
COME IN SAM. This unit is a RAM-based, "transparent" controller which takes the place of your sequencer and adds SMPTE timecode for your synchronising needs.
SAM reads all the various types of SMPTE (24, 25 or 30 frames per second, or Drop frame), and so is compatible with all the current equipment. It also generates SMPTE in all these formats.
Be warned, however, if you're going to stripe your tape with SMPTE from SAM, be sure you break the audio path that might allow SAM's output signal to come back to its input. You'll get erratic results if this occurs, and for some reason JL Cooper leave it to the user to deal with this idiosyncrasy. It's a simple matter of disconnecting cables or turning down a volume switch, but for a truly transparent interface, I think this problem should have been solved at the design stage, instead of being mentioned as a "Very Important" point in the documentation.
On the positive side, SAM is very easy to use - almost too easy, if such a thing is possible. Stripe one track with SMPTE, then use it as your synchronising track. As SAM is meant to be the brain of the MidiMation Series, connection to MIDI Mute is a given example. Now, SAM records and stores all of your mute moves directly. If you need to edit a track, just "drop in" where necessary (there is a button on the front panel for this). If you're overdubbing moves, mutes to tracks that haven't been accessed are added to the mute mix without erasing any previous moves.
As the MIDI information is stored in RAM, you need to have some sort of storage device available. You can save data via MIDI using System Exclusive, to tape, or to SAM disk.
I had problems making the tape dump work for me. Considering it's a simple operation, I chalked it up to tape gremlins, but it was annoying to have hassle with such a routine operation. But with the price of disk drives being what they are today, it's an oversight not to have one built into the unit itself, especially since this will be the centrepiece of further JL Cooper mixing automation.
SAM does just what it promises to. It reads and writes SMPTE and it records MIDI data and plays it back too. But it doesn't have multiple tracks, it won't quantise your data and it contains less than rudimentary editing facilities - all functions covered by a number of currently available computer software packages.
The question remains, will anyone interested in bringing automation to their mixing - be it live, a live submix or a full studio mix - spend time on a muting system when there's the more capable MAGI waiting in the wings. Obviously, MidiMation works best as a complete system; there may not be a lot of frills, but when you can find any music enhancement system that requires very little learning time, remains problem free and works as it's supposed to, it's worth checking out.
Price 16-channel MAGI (controller/8 channel remote/CV board/VCAs) £1936; Eight-channel MIDI Mute with remote £479; Expander £259; SAM £749; SAM Disk £849; all excluding VAT
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Review by Chris Many
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