John Renwick gets synchronised with this nifty little device from Radius
John Renwick investigates the possibilities of the MIDIMAN
What do you do if you want to use a sequencer "live", but you're reluctant to take your computer, monitor and disk drives onstage? Hi-tech solutions to music technology problems are all very well, but they often end up costing more than many of us can afford. Fortunately, low-tech alternatives usually appear if the demand is great enough, the Musicsoft MIDIMAN is a case in point.
Storing MIDI data on cassette tape seems like a backward step when there are MIDI data recorders such as the Elka CR- 99 and Yamaha MDF-1, operating on fast, reliable 3.5in floppy disks. Of course, they do cost twice as much as the MIDIMAN, which explains the whole idea.
MIDIMAN isn't primarily designed to store MIDI patch data, it has a small data buffer of 2000 bytes, and this isn't enough for most system exclusive dumps. It could be enough to store a set of patch changes, though, so you could use it to set your synths to the correct sound before each performance.
The MIDIMAN's main function is to allow you to put the MIDI data representing actual performances on cassette, then replay it into your synths. In that way, a combination of MIDIMAN and any reasonable cassette recorder could replace a bulky, fragile computer-sequencer set-upon stage, or allow you to store and replay live performances when you don't have a sequencer available.
If you know the way in which MIDI data is transmitted, you'll realise that the technical difficulties are formidable, MIDI data is digital, not analogue, and the bandwidth necessary to record it is greater than that which cassette tape supports. So the MIDIMAN actually performs two functions, digital-to-analogue-to-digital conversion, and Frequency Shift Keying (FSK), the process which is used in tape-to-MIDI synchronisation systems.
MIDIMAN is an unassuming off-white box with an external power supply and a minimum of controls, quarter-inch jack Tape IN and OUT sockets, and MIDI IN and OUT sockets on top and on the front a row of miniature DIP switches, activity indicator LEDs for Tape and MIDI, and a button marked Write. As you'd expect from this, the basic principle is very simple. You just connect the MIDI OUT of your sequencer or keyboard to the MIDIMAN's MIDI IN, connect the Tape OUT to your cassette deck, hit the Write button, start the tape in Record Mode and activate your sequencer, or play the keyboard. When you see the MIDI activity LED lights, you know that MIDIdata is streaming onto the cassette, in fact, if you turn up your hi-fi, you can hear it squawking away. To replay the data, and recreate your performance, you plug the tape recorder into the MIDIMAN's Tape IN, the MIDI OUT into your synths, rewind your cassette and play. The Tape activity LED lights (if it starts flickering, there's a problem with the recording) and if you're lucky, you'll hear a perfect reproduction of your performance, all run from the cassette. You can fast forward and rewind to any point you like, though of course there's no way to edit or alter the data once it's committed to tape.
Of course it's not quite that simple in practice, since there are lots of adjustments to be made if you hope to get a perfect performance. As you probably realise, there's no such thing as a chord in MIDI, events are transmitted serially, so there's bound to be a delay between one note and the next, even if it's so short as to be undetectable to the human ear. But when the MIDI data is coming off tape, although you won't actually lose any notes, the delays tend to be magnified, and the more MIDI data you have to deal with, the more obvious the delays become.
MIDIMAN has a small data buffer which can smooth out this MIDI "arpeggiation", but it's very easy to overload it if you try to use big chords, lots of performance effects such as pitchbend and aftertouch, or several simultaneous MIDI channels. To improve the timing accuracy of performances, MIDIMAN has two priority MIDI channels, 10, which has become the standard channel for drums, and 1, which can be used for whatever other track needs the most precision, normally the bassline. Data on all the other channels is processed afterwards, each track receiving equal priority.
Of course, MIDIMAN is happier if you give it fewer channels to deal with, and to that end you can set the DIP switches so that all data is routed to channel 1, you can work as a sync-to-tape box, use it to transfer MIDI clock signals to one track of a multitrack tape machine and so long as you don't mind starting from the beginning of the piece for every subsequent track, your sequencer can be locked to the original to synchronise further "takes". Setting the DIP switch which filters out Aftertouch is another big help, especially if your controller keyboard generates polyphonic aftertouch data, which takes up a huge amount of space on the tape.
You can use MIDIMAN with almost any tape recorder, even a Walkman-type, but if you have a better quality deck, preferably with chrome or metal tape setting, you can try High Band Width mode. This puts data onto tape at a higher rate, reducing arpeggiation on playback, but you must remember not to use any noise reduction system. Of course, data must be replayed at the band width at which it was recorded.
So how could MIDIMAN actually be used? One option is to place your MIDI data on one track of a multitrack recorder, and record acoustic sounds such as guitar and vocals on the other tracks. Then, when you playback the multi-track tape, your synths will play along with the acoustic tracks. If you have your master keyboard plugged into MIDIMAN's MIDI IN, and the MERGE DIP switch set to ON, you can also play your synths at the same time. Another possible application is as a simple data recorder, just plug in and play, and if you come up with any brilliant improvisations, you can always dump them into your sequencer at a later date, or duplicate the cassettes and send them to other MIDIMAN users. There's a COPY function on the MIDIMAN which allows you to run off digital copies using a second tape deck, without the loss of quality inherent in audio copying. So long as you don't try to push MIDIMAN beyond its limitations, it performs well, obviously it's not a complete substitute for a disk data recorder, but at the price it's an attractive alternative.
Product: Musicsoft MIDIMAN
Supplier: Radius International, (Contact Details)