Jez Ford grabs this expander from 360 Systems by the MIDI lead and puts it to the test
Jez Ford Bombs the Bass with a little help from 360 Systems
In computer sequencing, the bass line is all too often the most neglected area of music programming. How many mindless bass lines can you name that aimlessly plod from chord to chord with a dull synthbass style?
Bass licks are not easy things to play well but there is really no excuse for being so utterly boring. And one thing that encourages you to play like Chris Squire or Mark King is to sound like Chris Squire or Mark King.
The Professional MIDI Bass is a rack-mounted sample player dedicated solely to bass samples. It comes with eight factory sounds on EPROM chips and has room for more to be added, taking it up to about 20 sounds depending on the resolution of the extras chosen.
The Pro MIDI Bass is manufactured by 360 Systems, a US company based in sunny Tarzana, California. It follows an earlier MIDI Bass and is being distributed over here in Blighty by Argents. Argents (generous souls that they are) have not only dropped the recommended price by £100 to £399 but are offering to fill it up with 16 sounds of your choice from their extensive EPROM library.
Obviously any non-recording sampler is going to live or die on the quality of the samples that arrive in the box.
The sounds supplied to this humble reviewer were the factory selection: Fingerstein, mini square, standup (pizzicato), funk pop, funk thumb, Rickenbacker, picked FW Pbass and fingered FW Pbass. Now call me a philistine (you're a philistine - Ed) but I'm not absolutely sure what FW Pbass stands for - I'm hoping it's flatwound Precision bass because that's what it sounds like.
The funk thumb, picked FW Precision and the standup are brilliant, quite impossible to criticise and a joy to use. The fingered FW Precision, Fingerstein and Ricky are pretty good and the mini square comes close behind. The funk pop is fairly useless on its own but works well as an accent for the funk thumb - more on accenting later.
The Pro MIDI Bass uses two separate samples of each instrument switching from one to the other somewhere around the bottom of the D string. This helps avoid the loss of realism that would otherwise be apparent from frequency shifting a single sample too far. The two samples are very carefully matched (I didn't spot them for a couple of days) and in practice can be forgotten about - you can't get at them separately anyway since the triggering information is coded in the EPROM.
For MIDI sequencer owners, use of the Professional MIDI Bass is very straightforward. Provided that you send only monophonic data on the correct MIDI channel the unit happily plays immediately it is powered up, defaulting to the first sound on its first EPROM.
For live use, as with most monophonic equipment, performers face the constraint of keeping strictly to one note at a time, a problem usually overcome by practice and that dreadful time-consuming art of discipline. However, the Pro MIDI Bass will sound every new note even if it has not yet received the note off instruction for the previous one, and this makes the unit more forgiving of inaccurate playing.
Assuming you are using a separate keyboard (or defined part of a master keyboard) purely for the bass line, it also ties up a whole hand - an awful waste of all those other fingers. Knowing how keyboard players like to impress people by playing three things at once (preferably all very loudly), 360 Systems has included an option to automatically take the bass note as either the lowest or the highest note of a received chord.
This means you can play say string chords and the bass simultaneously with your left hand while you solo or play brass with your right. Very versatile and very handy. It does of course require even more precision and discipline than normal monophonic performance, but those of us with the necessary skills (if you've got it, flaunt it...) will appreciate the option. The Pro MIDI Bass also scores here over many other units in that if the current bass note is released it won't leap to another note in the chord - it will wait for a new note, bless it. This drastically reduces the chance of embarrassing plinks as you change chord.
Should you be so pernickety that the supplied samples are just that little bit too harsh, a trifle too short or just the wrong shade of pink, then you have the option of editing samples to your own requirements. This is nothing like as comprehensive as the facilities afforded by the top-whack samplers but it does let you alter some useful parameters.
The decay and release rates can be adjusted giving a basic control over the envelope. It's a pity that the sustain rate cannot be similarly controlled but at least this way you can stretch samples up to about eight seconds length. Which ain't bad.
There's also the option to play with the high frequency filter, a temptation that is best avoided as all it achieves is a treble cut that is far safer done on a desk or amplifier.
Once you've decided how you want your customised samples to sound, you can decide where you want to put them. Here the Pro MIDI Bass is a real winner - you can have up to four different bass sounds available from a single keyboard. Split point notes are defined for an upper and a lower sound. Then each sound has a bonus accent sound which is velocity selected ie if you hit the keys hard you'll get the accent bass sound, soft, and you'll get the normal sound. All this position allocating is performed using the zone selector key.
Wonderfully versatile I think you'll agree - so versatile in fact that it's rather easy to lose track of what voice is where. To save the poor forgetful ever-hassled live performer from the task of programming all the positions each night, 360 Systems has included 30 patch memories for storing edited voices and zoning information. While 30 is certainly enough as the unit stands, it might not be enough when you're loaded full to the sockets with EPROMs. Once at this stage your best bet would be to do a bulk MIDI data dump into a generic patch librarian of some sort.
The patches can be selected by the recall pad plus arrow keys or more simply as a program change instruction via MIDI. The only slip possible here is if you are taking the bass line as that bottom note of a chord - you're likely also to change the sound on whatever else is being triggered. For the same reason it may be necessary to prevent the MIDI bass reacting to program change instructions - three cheers and a sloppy kiss to 360 Systems for remembering to add this function.
Another valuable thing is the test note. If you wire up your Pro MIDI Bass and nothing happens, triggering the test note from the front panel will make it obvious whether it is the audio path or the MIDI setup that is faulty.
Two quick moans at this point. Firstly there is no modulation available - I know it gets tougher with samples rather than synthesis but it would be so useful on bass sounds (particularly the square and upright basses).
Secondly the pitch bend range is fixed at three semitones, a strange decision when you think that a slide of a fifth or even an octave is not unusual when those more extravagant bass players let rip.
While I mention playing styles, a quick note aside here to guide those who buy this unit or who already have bass samples to play with. Many people load up a bass sample thinking "yeah great, it sounds just like a Fender Precision" and then proceed to play it as if it was the same old synthbass sound they've been using for years.
For realism it is vital to remember how bass parts move and slide, and to pitchbend and space your bass lines in a similar way. It is quite a tricky thing to do well but the effort pays dividends. Borrowing your ex-bassist's "100 Golden Bass Licks" is a good method of picking up points of style. Remember that bass players are a hip and laidback bunch - play accordingly.
Summarising then, the unit is versatile and has some great bass samples. In the period I've had it, the Pro MIDI Bass has been my sole sound source for bass lines - I've even gone back to some old recordings and replaced old bass lines with new.
But its value as a dedicated bass unit has to be seen in relation to existing samplers. If you own a general purpose sampler, the chances are you'll already have (or can get) a selection of bass samples that are just as versatile as these.
And if you haven't yet got a sampler you may think the £300 would be better put in the piggy bank towards a Roland or an Akai.
However if the money is available and what you really need is a reliable set of bass sounds that you can set up and forget about (rather like the real thing), then this is as good as you'll find.
Product: 360 Systems MIDI Bass
Supplier: Argents (Contact Details)