Music On The Move
Hi-Tech You Can Take Anywhere
Forget towels, deodorant and trashy paperbacks, what you really want to pack in your suitcase come the Summer is a go-anywhere MIDI studio. Paul Ireson advises on suitable travelling companions.
Almost from the very day when I became interested in all things synthy and hi-tech musical, I've been looking for equipment that I can use anywhere. For years I've been trying to find gear that, basically, I can fit in a suitcase and take on holiday, where a change of environment and temperature invariably gets the creative juices flowing (or dims the critical faculties — I'm never too sure which).
My first portable composition tool was a Casio VL-Tone. Great machine, great fun, but not actually very creative. At home I could improvise VL-Tone melodies over live or sequenced bass from a Sequential Pro One, but the VL-Tone on its own wasn't quite so inspiring — I think I spent a whole Summer playing nothing but the hook from the Human League's 'Open Your Heart'. And of course it had that cheesey demo tune, the first of a long line of such pointless additions to decent equipment.
Another Casio mini-marvel, a CZ101 synth, was my next musical travelling companion. This was better — keys you could actually play, decent sounds (provided you ignored the presets and got stuck into PD synthesis yourself), and 8 or 4-note polyphony. Despite the fact that a tape recorder was required to keep track of any good ideas — there's no on-board sequencer — and that it's not all that portable, I found the CZ101 to be a very worthwhile investment.
It was only last year, however, that my ideal holiday partner (after Winona Ryder, that is) appeared on the market. As soon as I played with a Yamaha QY10 I was hooked — sampled PCM sounds, 7-part-plus-drums multi-timbrality, 28-note polyphony (and that means 28 notes period, not up to 28), plus a sequencer that allows both real and step time recording, all in a box the size of a VHS video cassette. Here was a true power tool for the hi-tech musician's pocket.
It isn't all good news though. The QY10's power is limited in practical terms by a monophonic 'keyboard' that consists only of miniature spongy rubber buttons, and sequencer software that requires a fair amount of leapfrogging up and down through menus and sub-menus, and forces you to work in a very particular manner. You record short 4-track patterns (Drums, Bass, Chord 1, Chord 2); you chain Patterns into Songs; you transpose the Patterns where appropriate; you record four more tracks on top of your backing tracks. The keyboard is a problem, because you can't simply noodle away until you come up with an idea, and the sequencer is a problem because it really requires you to have a better grasp of musical theory, and a better ability to plan out a song mentally rather than simply busk it, than most of its potential buyers. And of course if you want to record a polyphonic part, you have to make several passes and overdub, because of the keyboard's monophony. Still, it's a sexy little beast, so I bought one anyway.
Although I can and do carry the QY10 around with me a good deal, and manage to knock the odd tune together, I decided that a little extra hardware could go along way towards creating a much more powerful and usable portable MIDI studio — albeit one that would no longer fit in a jacket pocket — and so I began to poke around to see just what was available to use alongside the QY10. The aim was to put together a system that would allow me to compose and record ideas pretty much anywhere. The most basic requirement for any possible component of my portable studio was that it should be compact, and capable of being powered by batteries.
My first requirement was a MIDI controller keyboard, which would allow me to play pretty much as usual, and therefore stick to my regular first stage in composition of improvising until something good comes along. Roland's PC100 would have been ideal for this role, but it is unfortunately no longer available. The rather larger PC200 is, however, and although its size — with four octaves of 80%-size keys, it is several times as big as the QY10, and probably just too large to fit comfortably in most suitcases — counts against it, there's precious little else on the market. MIDI is not featured on all the mini home keyboards that are any smaller than the PC200, so you're stuck.
The next aspect of the system to improve was the sequencer, for adding an external sequencer would allow the QY10 to be used as a straight 8-part expander, and bring the benefits of decent editing and song structuring tools. Being a Mac user, one of the new PowerBooks seemed an ideal laptop platform for my music software. ST users can choose the old Atari Stacy or the new STBook. PC users are spoilt for choice in laptop computers, but a MIDI interface presents a problem. A regular card will not fit into a laptop, but Key Electronics' MIDIator interfaces connect to the serial port; problem solved. The Atari laptops feature built-in MIDI sockets — an obvious advantage — and I found a suitable MIDI interface for the PowerBook in the form of an Altech Systems 1-in/3-out. Like most basic Mac MIDI interfaces it requires no external power, and it has the extra advantage of being unusually light.
After an early hiccough on my first encounter with the PowerBook (neglecting to install Apple's MIDI Manager), I had Dr. T's Beyond up and running, completing a modestly powerful MIDI studio. The PC200 is a velocity sensitive and quite playable keyboard, though some may find the 80%-size keys a little awkward. Although it has both pitch bend and modulation wheels, only the former is any use with the QY10, which does not respond to modulation. Sound-wise, the QY10 is surprisingly well equipped. 8-part multi-timbrality is quite sufficient for roughing out songs, and 28-note polyphony ensures that you shouldn't run out of voices. The 31 instruments include a reasonable 26-sound drum kit, and standards such as piano, electric piano, strings, choirs, guitar (clean and distorted) and basses. The PCM sounds are not very high fidelity, and there are some fairly obvious loops, particularly on the acoustic piano. This is probably an inevitable consequence of memory restrictions, but ail sounds are quite adequate for composing.
I quickly discovered one problem with using a PowerBook for music. In order to save battery power and extend screen life, the computer puts itself to sleep after a period of inactivity whose length you can vary. Unfortunately, incoming MIDI data doesn't count as activity, so if you set the sequencer playing and then start jamming away on top, you'll find that as the computer goes to sleep your backing suddenly disappears. Solution: waggle the mouse every few minutes, or switch the Sleep function off.
Although what we have so far is fine for purely MIDI work, we have no way of recording acoustic material. The next logical addition is a battery-powered cassette 4-track, and at present the only machine that fits our size and power source criteria is the Fostex X18. This is a very compact and well-designed machine, although 10 AA cells certainly boost its weight. Besides recording acoustic material (with the addition of a suitable mic, probably an electret condensor), we can use a 4-track to boost the effective number of keyboard tracks — record sequenced music down to two tracks, in stereo, then add live overdubs on the two remaining tracks.
"As soon as I played with a Yamaha QY10 I was hooked. Here was a true power tool for the hi-tech musician's pocket."
If we're going to start getting into actually recording to tape, what about some effects? Or even mastering? Reverb and delay are obviously the two most useful effects to have available, particularly the latter as it can often form an important part of synth patches, and affect the way you will play. Plenty of guitar effects pedals could be pressed into service to help out, but either the Zoom 9002 or the more recent Zoom 9000 really are too good to pass over. Both offer compression, distortion, delay and reverb in a very compact unit, and any guitarist looking for go-anywhere tools would be insane to consider anything else. Even if you're just recording the QY10, the treatments that you can apply via either Zoom, applied when recording or mixing, will liven things up no end.
So what of mastering? A simple recording Walkman (or similar) could be used, but a DAT player would be better still. The smallest of current portable players are really very compact indeed, notably the Sony TCD-D3 DATman, Casio DA-R100, and Aiwa HDS1 (and its pro-spec derivative from HHB, the HHB 1 Pro). As it was I had access to a Casio DA7, not quite so portable as the DA-R100, but hardly a heavyweight.
A DAT player can offer more than just a mastering facility: if you've filled your four tracks you could mix them down to DAT, record the DAT mix back onto tracks 1 and 2 of the 4-track, and add two more tracks of overdubs. Of course you'll get a slight drop in quality, equivalent to a single bounce on the 4-track itself. A decent mic also opens up the possibility of recording samples in the field; a handy bonus.
If we try and think in terms of a 'power to weight' ratio for equipment, and use this to decide what constitutes a fairly practical portable setup, the QY10 alone is hard to beat. There's little point in adding only a keyboard like the PC200, as you pay a high price in terms of bulk for the extra functionality (but see 'Or Better Still...' for a keyboard that is small enough to match the QY10). The PC200 plus a laptop with sequencing software is another matter, for this suddenly enables you to work almost exactly as you would in your home MIDI studio. For guitarists and anyone who wants to record vocals or other acoustic material, a 4-track is pretty much essential, although the really hip alternative would be to run Passport's Audio Trax on a PowerBook to provide two tracks of hard disk recording along with MIDI (but do carry an alternative to the built-in mic). A Zoom 9002 or 9000 are at the very least useful to our setup — and a major bonus for guitarists — and a DAT recorder is the icing on the cake. By this point we've come a long way from the size of the QY10, but then we've also built up a demo studio that you really can use anywhere, to produce music to quite a decent standard.
Apple UK (Contact Details).
Atari UK (Contact Details).
Casio (Contact Details).
Fostex UK (Contact Details).
MCMXCIX (Zoom) (Contact Details).
Roland UK (Contact Details).
Yamaha-Kemble (Contact Details).
Zone Distribution (Altech MIDI interface) (Contact Details).
Feature by Paul Ireson
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