Nomad SMC 1.0 SMPTE/MIDI controller
Nomad's first product is a low cost SMPTE reader/generator that allows MIDI drum machines, synths and sequencers to sync to tape easily. David Mellor puts it to the test.
Saddle up your camels and join the timecode caravan - but this Nomad is British and hasn't seen an oasis in its life. Are you already synced up or still wandering in the desert? David Mellor puts on his sunglasses...
In the age of cheap plastic imitation musical instruments it is good to see a piece of equipment in a tough metal box. What is more, if you look inside and find a decent glass-fibre printed circuit board instead of those nasty paxolin (compressed paper) ones you usually get, you get the feeling that you are onto something good. The absence of 'cobbled-on' components on the back of the PCB, which you often find with so-called professional gear, is also very gratifying - and this is a prototype that I am talking about, production models ought to be better still.
I was so impressed by the construction of the Nomad SMC that I thought I might read the manual and find out what it does. Get your priorities right, I always say.
If you are into MIDI and multitrack recording then doubtless you will have considered the whys and wherefores of SMPTE-to-MIDI synchronisers, and what advantages they might bring to your studio.
Anyone with a MIDI sequencer and a multitrack will know what I am talking about when I mention the MIDI sync aggravation syndrome. Symptoms are hair loss due to an involuntary manual tearing out from the roots, and inflamed tonsils caused by screams of frustration when you have to go back to the top of the tape yet again.
In plain English, although most modern sequencers can be made to play back the MIDI data they contain, in sync with a multitrack tape, they can only go from the beginning of the track. No use trying to start halfway through - the sequencer will not know where it is supposed to be. If you are syncing MIDI and multitrack and you have to do a series of drop-ins, close to the end of the track, you have to go back to the beginning everytime. Tedious.
As you probably know, MIDI sync-to-tape works by recording a square wave pulse on one track of the tape which the sequencer can latch onto during subsequent playbacks. The problem is that apart from the start and finish of the song, this tone contains no information relating to whereabouts in the track you may be. The solution is to use timecode, which is a digital data stream recordable onto tape, which contains time information - as its name suggests. By striping a reel of tape with this code before any recording takes place, all sequenced events can later be linked to this code. You can start or stop anywhere in the track and the timecode reader - or SMPTE reading clock - will know precisely where it is. If you can generate MIDI song position pointers from this code then you are laughing, or at least your MIDI sequencer is.
The Friendchip SRC, Bokse SM9 and Roland SBX-80 are all machines for converting timecode into data which can control a sequencer, whether by MIDI or clock pulses. The only problem has been until now that it has cost, if not Megabucks, then at least Kilobucks to buy these devices. Better have a grand in your wallet if you want to see some change.
The Nomad SMC is, as far as I am aware, the first device to bring SMPTE-to-MIDI synchronisation down to truly affordable levels - by which I mean a price that compares with the cost of a halfway decent sequencer. At such a low price, you can therefore expect facilities to be fewer and performance poorer than the more expensive models. Or can you? Let's see...
I think the best way to forge ahead is to examine what a SMPTE-to-MIDI (strictly speaking, timecode-to-MIDI) convertor must do.
Let's suppose you had one, and it could do all that you might want it to. Its first task would be to generate timecode to stripe the tape with, so let's include a timecode generator. Having done this, it would need to be able to read the timecode too. It might also have to cope with timecode from another generator, on a tape imported into the studio, for example. It must therefore be able to cope with all the common timecode formats, which are - two types of SMPTE code (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers), EBU code (European Broadcasting Union, which is the sort we normally use in Britain) and film code. It will preferably be able to recognise each of these types and adjust to incoming code automatically.
Translating timecode to MIDI song pointers is a pretty obvious requirement as well as providing the MIDI sync pulse to make the sequencer run. You will probably have realised that since the incoming MIDI sync pulse supplies tempo data to the sequencer, then it has to be possible to programme our little device for tempo (beats per minute). In addition, if you would like to be able to vary tempo within a track, then this must also be programmable by bar number. There's more...
Since the multitrack tape is striped with timecode representing hours, minutes and seconds, the timecode-to-MIDI box needs to know at what timecode value you want it to start spewing out MIDI data. One way you could do this is by programming in a timecode value. Another would be to play the striped tape and press a button which would say to the machine, "start here". This time value would also need to be memorised.
There are more things our imaginary timecode box could do, but I think that's enough for the moment. Time (British Summer Time - not SMPTE) to look at the Nomad.
The Nomad is small, but beautifully formed, and nestled nicely on top of my Yamaha FB01. I expected it to be rather more complex than it actually is, having only nine buttons to control all its functions. Its MIDI features comprise MIDI In, Thru and two Out sockets and it would normally be positioned in the chain between the master MIDI keyboard and sequencer.
Data from the keyboard is merged with internally generated song position and timing data before being output to the sequencer. Quarter-inch jack sockets are provided for linking it up to the multitrack tape recorder.
The main display, I thought at first, was rather modest in scope with just three numeric and seven indicator LEDs, buta perusal of the instruction manual and a couple of simple tracks persuaded me that I was being told all I wanted to know. I like it when a machine can just sit there and do its job without beeping, flashing or otherwise demanding your attention unnecessarily when all you want to do is compose a bit of music. Beethoven never had this problem so I don't see why I should!
The Nomad's display will flash at you if you get drop-outs on the tape corrupting the timecode, however. I got the odd wink, principally because I am such a cheapskate that I re-use my old multitrack tape and the reel I was using for the review is getting a bit on the thin side. Time to buy another I think. However, the Nomad was not upset by my penny-pinching and every time 'flywheeled' over the drop-out and never lost a millisecond in all the time I used it. Neither did it throw up any other nasties. It is so rare that you can say that about a piece of equipment that I shall say it again... Over the period I had it, the Nomad SMC performed perfectly at all times - even though I was warned that, being a prototype, it may have a couple of software 'bugs'.
First thing to do is plug it in! The Nomad doesn't have any troublesome mains switch so it is ready to go by the time you have fired up all the rest of your gear. The initial display reads '25', which means that it is set to generate EBU standard 25 frames per second timecode. This can be adjusted by way of the + and — buttons, but there is usually no need.
Take out a fresh reel of tape (sod the expense) and stripe the highest number track with timecode. This is done by connecting a lead from the 'To Tape' jack of the Nomad to the relevant input of your multitrack. Here comes my one and only quibble:
Have you heard the one about the engineer who put timecode through the mixer? Well it's not a joke, but I can tell you that he lost all credibility in my eyes (as a paying customer). Putting timecode anywhere near your delicate audio signals is a definite never-ever! It's full of nasty high frequencies and buzzes that you wouldn't want to subject your grandmother to. The nearest it should ever get is the next-but-one track on your reel of tape. (It is preferable to leave a blank 'guard' track to prevent audio signals from corrupting timecode and vice-versa.)
Although my multitrack is properly lined up, the Nomad's output was barely enough to tickle the VU meter, so I had to lock the doors and shut the windows and - don't tell anyone - bung it through the mixer, to bring it up to the recommended -7dB to -3dB level. I thought there maybe an internal level adjuster somewhere, but no. (Please fix this one Nomad, and join the 'Keep timecode and mixers separate' movement.)
Maybe I have been a bit strong on this point, so I should say that it is a minor quibble as far as the Nomad goes and a major one about keeping timecode away from audio. It is too easy to take short cuts but so many people (who do not bother to read Sound On Sound, of course!) do.
Now that I've got that off my chest I can get on with the review. Where was I?
Ah yes, set the tape machine to record (to stripe it) and press 'Gen' on the Nomad to reset the internal timecode generator to zero hours, minutes and seconds. You will have time for a coffee and a snack while the whole reel of tape is being striped, or you could look ahead to the next section of the manual...
We are now almost set to record our first track. Didn't take too long, did it? Selecting 'Read' on the Nomad readies it to accept incoming code.
Run the tape for a few seconds and press 'Start' on the Nomad. This tells it where on the tape you want the track to start. All MIDI timing is calculated from this chosen point. Tempo is selected using the + and -keys and can range from 30 to 255 beats per minute. Ready to record?
Unfortunately, not quite. As I hinted earlier, the low price of the Nomad results in a slight reduction in facilities compared to more expensive devices. The only way of setting the 'start time' of a track is as I have explained above. Suppose you have a mains failure? The Nomad does not retain data when not powered up, therefore the start time you set is lost. This means that if you had any tracks recorded on tape already, you would have a devil of a job syncing up to them again. I can think of ways to do it but none which I would want to try - especially if I had a paying customer in my studio.
The way around this limitation is always to save the Nomad's data onto tape or cassette before you do any track laying. In other words, set the start time, set the tempo, then SAVE them. I didn't like having to do this but, as I said, the alternatives were not enticing.
The 'Save/Verify/Load' function works in much the same way as any other magic box with this facility.
One other manifestation of the Nomad's comparatively low price is the lack of a tempo change facility. This may not be important to you as most modern music starts in one tempo, continues in the same tempo, and ends in that tempo. Mine doesn't - at least it sometimes doesn't. It would be possible to get round this to some extent using the 'beats per bar' function on many sequencers, but this would not apply to all situations. If you are in the market for this kind of device then this is a point you will have to consider carefully. Let's look on the brighter side...
In use, the Nomad was terrific - speaking as a MIDI sync syndrome sufferer. Anywhere I went on the reel, my QX5 sequencer would follow. The Nomad needs only a second or so to figure out where it is and send out MIDI song position pointers accordingly. When I am mixing, especially, I tend to have lots of MIDI things going on because I can never cram enough onto tape. I also tend to have sections in my pieces which require different balances and equalisation. Usually, this means going back to the top, time after time after time, to get a part right about two bars before the end - grrrrr! But the Nomad made this a doddle. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, then you should think seriously about investing in one of these units.
Track laying in my case was not quite so straightforward and this is another point you will have to bear in mind. My Yamaha QX5 sequencer is fairly comprehensive in facilities but it has one drawback. Although you can set it to punch-in to record at any particular bar during the track when running on internal sync, it will only do this when run from the beginning of the track, when running on external sync.
In other words, if you want to do a drop-in (into the sequencer) while listening to the multitrack, you have to run the tape from the start! All the Nomad's skill in finding where it is in the track and sending out MIDI song pointers is thus wasted. In fact, in my case, I was back to square one! Which meant I was not able to do anything I couldn't already do with grotty old MIDI-to-tape sync. Naturally, it was a big disappointment when I discovered this as I had previously been thinking of doing a runner and leaving the country with the Nomad under my arm!
I must make two things clear here. Firstly, that the fault was with my Yamaha sequencer, not the Nomad. Secondly, that you must check before you buy that you will not have the same problem with your set-up. Either that or be content to use the Nomad for 'live' drop-ins to tape, and mixing, only.
If you are into MIDI and multitrack and have not yet invested in some sort of timecode reader/synchroniser, I would think seriously about this unit. No-one would call it 'feature packed' compared to the more upmarket devices I have mentioned, but it does all the necessary things and does them well. What's more, at £299 (plus VAT) it's comparatively inexpensive, which is a major selling point.
My feeling is that MIDI hasn't quite grown up yet. When it has, you will be able to buy a sequencer which has its own timecode generator and reader inside and not have to mess about with two separate boxes - one which does the sequencing and one which handles the sync and tempo stuff. It is inelegant, to say the least, to have to transfer tempo data from sequencer to SMPTE box and then have the two pieces of equipment to work with.
Unless you want to stick with the gear you have (and who does?), there are three options available to you:
1) Wait until MIDI grows up as I have suggested (but for how long?);
2) Buy a full spec timecode-to-MIDI convertor at some expense and see it superceded in a year or two.
3) Buy a Nomad SMC at reasonable cost, benefit from its advantages now, and not take too much of a loss when MIDI timecode (MTC) comes along.
What do you think? I think that Nomad are definitely on to a winner in the short term. And if they can make a machine as good as this at such a low cost, whatever will they get up to next? Let's wait and see.
Price: £299 ex VAT (£343.85 inc VAT).