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Making The Right Connection

MX8 MIDI Patchbay/Processor

With so many low-cost MIDI-equipped units around, the days when you could make do with a Thru box and a few cables are long gone. A MIDI patchbay is now an essential purchase, and one of the best is the MX8 MIDI Patchbay/Processor from Digital Music Corp. Tony Hastings checks it out.


With so many low-cost MIDI-equipped units around, the days when you could make do with a Thru box and a few cables are long gone. A MIDI patchbay is now an essential purchase, and one of the best is the MX8 MIDI Patchbay/Processor from Digital Music Corp. Tony Hastings checks it out.


I remember in 1984 that virtually the only keyboard with MIDI was the DX7, drum machines ran 'free' or from a clock pulse, and 'expanders' were the springy things you used to build chest muscles like Charles Atlas. The number of MIDI leads required was minimal and the provision of MIDI Thru was more than enough to cater for those lucky enough to own two DX7s or more.

Then came a 1-In/4-Thru box from Roland that's almost prehistoric when judged against today's needs but served well enough to cope with the growing tide of drum machines and keyboards that had MIDI In and Out but no MIDI Thru.

Unusually, in a world where technology's cutting edge was changing beyond recognition every six months or so, MIDI processing devices were remarkably slow to keep up. When the Akai ME30P MIDI patchbay was released, it came as part of a range of MIDI products that retailed for £99 and seemed to falter for a while as people tried to work out how they could be of real use. By and by, musicians caught on to the fact that a MIDI patchbay was becoming more and more indispensable. Hence the patchbay started to go up in price as many MIDI studios started to install them.

The Akai unit had only 15 memories, four inputs and eight outputs, but could recall patch memories remotely on receipt of a suitable MIDI program change number. Soon after this came the Yamaha MJC8 offering 50 memories, eight ins and outs but no remote changing (no wonder it died a death). Neither of these products had any onboard 'processing' power, they purely re-routed MIDI signals. Yamaha later released the MJC4, which was a MIDI processor as well as patchbay, but with only two inputs and four outputs it didn't easily cater for large equipment set-ups.

That brings us to the present. With the proliferation of cheap MIDI devices, what is needed is a powerful tool with which to control all aspects of a particular MIDI system. Highly desirable in a studio but also vital to the live keyboardist who is often at the centre of a dozen or so sound producing devices and with little time to control and change them all between and during songs in a live show.

A STAR IS BORN



Last year, while on tour in the States, I was talking to an American keyboard roadie about how I'd like a device where I could just press a button on my master keyboard and the device would then send out any necessary program changes to connected expanders, re-configure my MIDI matrix, and maybe automatically split my keyboard into defined zones. He told me about the MX8 from Digital Music Corp, but it was so popular in the States that I couldn't even find one in a shop! Now, nine months later, UK distribution of the unit has been picked up by Exile Music and I've managed to secure one for review. And I must say, I am very impressed with it.

The MX8 has six MIDI inputs, eight MIDI outputs, and 50 memory locations. In its most basic form you can route any input to any output just as with any MIDI matrix, but more than that, there are two separate and independent MIDI processors (A and B) which not only carry MIDI information but can change it or even add to it. These two processors can also be merged together, which is an important feature. It means you can have two keyboards controlling the same one (or more) expander, or you can combine a sequencer with a keyboard allowing you to sequence and also play along on the same destination device. These two processors can be routed to read any input (including the same one) and their functions are stored along with the MIDI matrix (ie. in/out patch configuration) for each memory location. In other words, each different patch can have the processors working in different ways on different inputs and outputs.

Figure 1.


THE FUNCTION PROCESS



Each function of the MX8 has its own screen (shown in the 32-character backlit LCD window) and, depending on the selection, you can move the cursor around the screen with the cursor keys and set values using the No/-1 and Yes/+1 buttons. The main screen displays the number of the current setup (1-50) and its 10-digit name, which you can define yourself. Figure 1 shows a map of the various function screens.

Pressing the Function button calls up the next screen, which shows how the Ins and Outs are configured. Here you can set the input from 1 to 6 or choose from A, B and M. If you select a number then all that is relayed to the connected output is the MIDI information coming in on that particular MIDI input. If you choose A or B you will get the information that is being routed through that MIDI processor plus any additional effects that you have set in the processor. M designates a 'merged' input. A typical screen is shown below:

IN 1222ABA2 2>A
OUT 12345678 1>B

In this example, two master controllers are connected to inputs 1 and 2. Each of the outputs is 'looking at' an input either from channel 1 or 2. At the end of each row are the letters A and B. These are the two processors, and changing the number in front of the arrow will change the input that is being sent to that processor. The screen shows that output 1 is being fed directly from input 1; outputs 2, 3, 4 and 8 are being fed from input 2; outputs 6 and 8 also receive input 2 but after it has passed through processor A; and that output 7 is being fed from input 1 after having passed through processor B.

The next two function screens cover the loading and saving of a patch into or from the current memory location. Using the cursor keys you step through the patches until you reach the desired one, then either Load it or Save it (Save allows you to specify a destination patch, good for copying commonly used patches).

MIDI PROCESSORS



On the fourth press of the Function button you call up the Edit Processor screen. Select A or B, press 'Yes', and you are then moved into a different set of screens for setting the processor values, as follows.

PROCESS CHANNEL: This screen allows you to specify which MIDI channel you wish to process. From 1-16 or Omni.

FILTER: Next up is a very comprehensive set of MIDI filters which lets you individually mask out Note-On/Off, Aftertouch, Control Change, Program Change, Pitch Bend, System Common/Exclusive, and System Real Time messages. The last filter is very important if you have more than one device connected that sends MIDI Clock information (drum machine, sequencer, etc), as you would confuse the destination device as to what clocks it should be reacting to if it received more than one.

VELOCITY LIMIT: This screen acts like a compressor enabling you to specify a minimum and a maximum Note-On velocity that will be passed through the processor (range 0 to 127), thus altering dynamic range.

MAP: A very clever function indeed. It gives you the facility to set up three split points to create four 'zones' or areas on your keyboard that are defined by their lowest and highest key. Each zone can transmit on a different MIDI channel, thus even the most humble keyboard can be graced with much of the power and flexibility of a purpose-built mother keyboard.

TRANSPOSE: Here you can transpose the pitch of all MIDI note data by a maximum of +63 or -64 semitones on any single MIDI channel, or globally on all channels.

VELOCITY XSWITCH: A fascinating feature that allows you to set a Note-On velocity threshold value which, when exceeded, outputs the note data on an alternate MIDI channel of your choice. For example, if you are transmitting on MIDI channel 1 and the Cross Switch is given a value of 100 Channel 2, as soon as you reach a velocity of 100 or more then the note you are playing will change to transmitting on MIDI channel 2 (and switch back again for values under 100). Very useful.

CHANNEL SHIFT: This function operates in two modes - Offset and Reassign. In the Offset mode you can 'bump up' all MIDI channel assignments by any specified amount, making this feature more flexible than the single increment possible on the 360 Systems MIDI Merge+. The Reassign mode allows even more freedom as it routes all messages from one specified channel to any other of your choice.

DELAY: This powerful function lets you delay all Note-On commands by a programmable amount - between 5 and 3000 milliseconds.

You can specify up to seven 'echo' repeats and even have the note velocity of each repeat automatically adjusted by a chosen offset (+/-63) to create crescendo or decay effects. Delays are also assignable to different MIDI channels for creating even more convoluted effects!


PROGRAM CHAINS



You can change patches directly from the MX8 itself or remotely from a MIDI keyboard, sequencer or controller. Using the Program Change function, it is even possible to set which MX8 processor will receive the program change and on which MIDI channel. This powerful facility means that every patch can be individually configured so that it is recalled by any device you want, not just the same unit every time.

To help you keep track of where you are at any point in time, the Edit Name screen lets you give each patch a 10-character name of your choice.

Lastly, there is the Patch Chain screen. Here the user can specify up to eight program change numbers to be sent on any MIDI channel from any of the eight outputs (eight per output!). Each program in the chain can be any patch number you require. It's easy to see how brilliant this feature is in a live situation - no need to run around pressing lots of different patch buttons on each keyboard. Also, it obviates the need to configure all your units so that all the patches for each song are set to the same number.

PROS & CONCLUSIONS



As you may have gathered from my introduction, to my mind this unit has been a long time coming. Now that it's here, though, I feel sure that it is going to grab a large part of the MIDI patchbay market.

There are other devices around like this, from Axxess and J.L Cooper, but the MX8 seems to be more comprehensive than the J.L Cooper units and less highly specialised than the Axxess MIDI Mapper, especially when you consider that it costs only £395 (almost half its price).

The manual is very readable and gets you around the system functions quickly and easily. It also promises software updates as and when new features are implemented.

The Map feature was great fun and opened up a whole new world of multitimbrality for me! It could well have had more zones but I found four to be quite sufficient. Any more and each keyboard zone would only have a minimal amount of keys on the average five-octave synth.

The MX8 is a very stylish unit and the LCD window is clear and informative, which is important when you are on a darkened stage trying to see whether all is ready for the next tune. I have had too many near heart attacks trying to remember which patch number was meant to go with which song! The MX8 rids you of all that worry. I tested it on a live gig and in operation it proved quick and easy to use. Where previously I had had to struggle with lots of button-pushing to get things ready for the next song, the MX8 set everything up with one press of a program select button on my master keyboard! Exactly what I had been looking for last year!

The MX8 may not have the large number of inputs and outputs that some highly MIDI-orientated studios might require (the 20x20 Sycologic MIDI Matrix or large J.L Cooper model should fit the bill here) but for the gigging musician it is invaluable. For the studio that doesn't require more than six inputs/eight outputs but wants a lot more than just routing of MIDI data, the MX8 is a must. I'm sure you know that hackneyed old closing line that reviewers save for products that they are especially keen on, but it's true! My cheque is in the post to Exile Music already!

Price £395 inc VAT.

Contact Exile Music Distribution. (Contact Details)


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

Merging: The Plus Factor

Next article in this issue

Tascam 238 Syncaset


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Aug 1988

Gear in this article:

MIDI Patchbay > Digital Music Corporation > MX8

Review by Tony Hastings

Previous article in this issue:

> Merging: The Plus Factor

Next article in this issue:

> Tascam 238 Syncaset


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