MOTU MIDI Timepiece
Mac MIDI Interface/Sync/Patchbay
Welcome to the new age of integration with this Macintosh MIDI interface, synchroniser and patchbay. Vic Lennard gets a timely piece of the action.
Whether you're getting into computer sequencing for the first time or upgrading to a Mac, you'll need a MIDI interface, sync unit, patchbay... You might even need MIDI Time Piece.
WHILE THE ATARI ST computer has built up a reputation for being the music computer for the UK and Europe (mainly by virtue of its onboard MIDI sockets), many of those who can afford the move are swapping their STs for Apple Macs. The main incentives of such a move are improved reliability and better-quality software; one of the main drawbacks is that the Mac requires an external MIDI interface. While these are available from around £60 (for a single MIDI In) this invariably leaves you needing a MIDI patchbay to work with your other MIDI devices. Synths, drum pads, keyboards and so on, all require patching via their MIDI Ins or Outs, or both. If you want to input MIDI Clock or MIDI Time Code while continuing to use a keyboard with your sequencer, or if two MIDI controllers are to be used at the same time, then you'll need a MIDI merge box of some sort too.
If you're working with a multitrack tape recorder, then you'll also need a SMPTE-to-MIDI clock or SMPTE-to-MTC converter to synchronise the software you're running with the recorder. It's yet another piece of hardware you have to buy.
Mark of the Unicorn are well known for their Performer/Composer software for the Mac. Their MIDI Time Piece interface fits all the above requirements by being a MIDI interface, an eight-input/eight-output MIDI patchbay, SMPTE generator and SMPTE-to-MTC converter - in one box.
IN KEEPING WITH most professional rackmount units, MIDI Time Piece (or MTP) is black and takes up 1U of rack space. Panel lettering is in the distinctive orange of Mark of the Unicorn.
The front panel contains LEDs to show you what is currently going on within the unit. There are eight LEDs for each of the MIDI Ins and MIDI Outs, and two more for SMPTE lock and MTC Full Frame message. The latter also doubles as the power-on LED.
In the centre of the front panel is a mode switch. With this you can select standard 1MHz async, which all Mac sequencer software accepts, or Fast 1X which is specifically for MOTU's Performer. This setting transmits MIDI data to and from the Mac at the fastest speed the Mac in use can handle - typically this can be four times the standard MIDI rate. As eight independent MIDI Ins and Outs are supported, with up to 128 independent MIDI channels of data on output, this faster rate will cure the problems of MIDI choking (where data is audibly slowed down). Hopefully other sequencer software manufacturers will support this facility in time. The mode switch also has a third position for straight-through connection to either a printer or modem, depending on which port on the Mac has been used.
Two MTPs can be linked together to provide a 16 x 16 MIDI system. Consequently, the LEDs on the front panel have dual numbering; 1/9, 2/10 and so on. A further switch lets you select between on/off, 1-8 and 9-16 settings for this reason. Finally, MIDI In and Out 8 are on the front panel. The MIDI Out duplicates the rear-panel socket, while the MIDI In appears on the front panel only. It's a convenient provision - the last thing you want to do is to have to hunt around the rear of a racking unit for a MIDI In and Out when someone provides you with an extra MIDI controller or module during a session.
MTP's rear panel is completely filled with sockets: eight MIDI Outs and seven MIDI Ins, quarter-inch jack socket Audio In and Out for SMPTE and a 9V external PSU socket. There are also three Mac DIN-8 sockets; the first of these connects to either the modem or printer port on the rear of the Mac, the second provides a direct-through connection to the device which is supposed to be connected to the Mac serial port in use (modem or printer), and the third is the Network Out for connection to a second MTP or another MIDI interface.
Included in the package is the PSU and a couple of eight-foot DIN-8 cables; one for connection to the Mac and the other to either your printer or modem on the through port.
INCLUDED WITH MIDI Time Piece is a disk containing a Mac desk accessory. This allows you to configure the MTP to harmonise with your particular setup, and to then save the settings. Consequently, you only need to configure the unit once.
The desk accessory appears on the menu bar and checks the modem and printer ports for MTPs, warning you if it can't find one (this usually means that you haven't turned the unit on). The MTP menu heading then pops up, under which there are seven headings.
"If you're sequencing with Performer, you have to consider buying MIDI Time Piece - the facilities are little short of excellent for the price."
The first of these is Network Configuration, which shows you how your Mac and MTP system is currently connected. The rear of the Mac is shown, as is the rear of any MTPs that have been found, along with the connections, which also show precisely which ports are connected. If you change anything about the configuration, like changing the front panel switch from 1MHz to Fast, a click on the Status icon rechecks the system and then redraws the configuration. The diagram for a single MTP is quite simple, but as you can connect four MTPs in total (two each to the modem and printer ports) it's important to check that the system is configured as you intended.
Next menu option is Cable Routing. This displays a 16 x 16 grid to represent the 16 possible MIDI Ins and Outs of two MTPs. Unfortunately, the desk accessory doesn't "grey out" Ins and Outs 9 to 16 when you have only one MTP connected - it would make the setting up of the cabling grid easier. There are two additional rows and columns for the input and output to the Mac and the Network Out on the MTP. The latter is so that you can determine whether some of the MIDI connections are to go to another MIDI interface. You might want to use this in conjunction with your existing interface, especially if you're using a large number of handshaking connections. This may be the case if you're dealing with System Exclusive in the form of parameter changes within a sequence or bulk dumps to a patch librarian.
The third option is for Channel Mapping. Here you can channelise MIDI data on both input and output. Initially, this appears to be a daunting task; you're presented with a 16 x 16 grid from which you can set a destination MIDI channel dependent on the incoming MIDI channel for each MIDI In. There's a second 16 x 16 grid for re-channelising MIDI data from the MIDI Outs. There are various reasons why you might want to do this. Some MIDI devices, like the first DX7, operate on a fixed MIDI channel. Admittedly, you could rechannelise via the soft Thru of most sequencers, but remember that MTP is operating here as a MIDI patchbay.
Fourth is Event Muting, which brings more 16 x 16 grids. Two, to be precise; one for input and the other for output. You can select for each MIDI In and Out precisely which type of MIDI data is to be filtered (why not call it Event Filtering?). It's nice to see Active Sensing given a slot of its own - it's frequently grouped together with the other System Real Time messages like MIDI Clock, Start, Stop and Continue. The remainder of these are in a single group termed Realtime. It's a shame, though, that all MIDI Controllers are in a single group; there's a lot to be said for being able to mute certain of the Channel Mode messages which co-habit in this group. For example, All Notes Off cannot be filtered without filtering out all MIDI Controller data.
MIDI Sync lets you dictate the format to which incoming SMPTE is converted. MIDI Time Code (MTC) and Enhanced Direct Time Lock (DTLe) are the two options (DTLe is for use with Performer). There's no support for MIDI Clock, but apart from Trax, all Mac sequencers support MTC. You can also transmit MTC or DTLe from any combination of outputs; stripe MIDI starts the SMPTE generator in motion; select the frame rate, Start and Stop times along with the actual output level of the SMPTE tone - cheaper units certainly don't offer this. Finally there's a SMPTE Reader which shows the frame rate, format and incoming port.
Since you'll spend quite a few hours setting this lot up, MTP also offers a Save To Disk option so that you can reload your settings in the future. You can also save a default set to the MTP's own internal memory; this is battery backed-up, so it's advisable to also save to disk.
Before assessing MIDI Time Piece you have to consider what you're getting for your money: SMPTE read/write interface, Mac interface and 8 x 8 MIDI patchbay. You certainly couldn't buy those individual items for the asking price of MTP.
The unit isn't without its flaws, however. Firstly, the multiple 16 x 16 grids are rather user unfriendly. There's no naming of MIDI devices, which means that you either have to know your MIDI system well or keep everything written down on paper. Secondly, only Performer supports all of MTP's features. If you're using Cubase, for example, you can access the eight MIDI Outs but can't edit the interface via its menu options, as Cubase takes over the port connecting the Mac to the MTP. Consequently, the default settings have to suffice - this severely restricts use of the MIDI patchbay. This is probably also true with other non-MOTU software, although I was unable to check this. If you have other software, it's worth checking with the distributor as to how far that software is compatible with the MTP.
If you're using Performer, then you have to consider going for MIDI Time Piece - the facilities it offers are little short of excellent for the price. However, if you aren't using Performer or don't actually need 128 different MIDI channels (or already have a MIDI patchbay), then it's also worth considering something like JL Cooper's SyncLink, which costs less than a third of the price and still offers 32 distinct MIDI channels, SMPTE read/write and MTC conversion. The choice is yours, as they say.
Price £495 including VAT.
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Review by Vic Lennard
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