MIDI Performance Effect
The arpeggiator is still regarded by many as "the poor man's sequencer", but Oberheim may be about to change that with a small grey box called Cyclone. Simon Trask blows hot and cold.
Oberheim have produced some much-loved synthesisers in their time, but can a MIDI Performance Effect ever have the same enduring appeal as an OBX?
FOR MANY MUSICIANS the name Oberheim is synonymous with classy, indeed classic, analogue polysynths like the OBX, OB8 and the Matrix 12. What musician in their right mind hasn't lusted after that uniquely rich and warm Oberheim sound at some time or other? In this resolutely digital age, the continued popularity of the company's ever-expanding Matrix synth range is testimony to the staying power of their particular brand of analogue synthesis coupled with digital control.
It may seem surprising, then, that Oberheim are now producing a series of small, unassuming grey boxes which make not a sound between them. Collectively known as Perf/x MIDI Performance Effects, Cyclone, Systemizer and Navigator operate solely within the realm of MIDI data. The Systemizer Master MIDI Control Station aims to turn even the humblest of MIDI keyboards into a sophisticated MIDI controller, while Navigator (just introduced at Frankfurt) is a MIDI mapper along the lines of the Axxess MIDI Mapper and the Transform section of Creator/Notator. But it is Cyclone which makes the boldest move into the area of composition.
OBERHEIM WAS FOUNDED back in 1970 with the intention of providing instruments for performing musicians, and, as the label suggests, these Performance Effects are a continuation of that philosophy. Oberheim have previously explored aspects of both Cyclone and Systemizer in their instruments. The company implemented a chord hold feature (one of Cyclone's many options) as long ago as their OBX synth, while the OB8 included a well-appointed arpeggiator and, more recently, the company's Xk controller keyboard (reviewed E&MM, May '86) included both arpeggiator and chord-hold facilities.
The arpeggio (the notes of a chord played successively rather than simultaneously) has been used in music since the 17th century, beginning life as a form of chordal embellishment at a time when music was shifting from modal polyphony to tonal harmony, and subsequently becoming a more integral part of the melodic content and the texture of Classical and Romantic music. On a more mundane level, arpeggios now rank alongside scales as an established test of manual dexterity in instrument grade exams.
In contrast, the introduction of the electronic arpeggiator took arpeggios out of the physical and into the electronic realm. All you have to do is hold down the required notes on the keyboard and the arpeggiator cycles round them for you at a pre-determined tempo. Typically these notes are played in order of pitch (up, down, up and down or at random), but some arpeggiators can arpeggiate the notes in the order in which they are played. Couple this with the fact that any selection of notes can be arpeggiated and it's clear that the arpeggiator takes you beyond the traditional concept of arpeggios into a form of "performance sequencing" - an interesting example of how what starts out as an electronic emulation of a "natural" process can take on a life of its own.
OPERATING CYCLONE IS carried out from nine low-profile buttons on the front panel. Eight of these do double duty in Play and Edit modes, while the ninth acts as Play/Edit mode selector. In Play mode, you have buttons controlling Clone on/off, Cycle on/off, Manual Control and Record/Hold. A Clone (hence Cyclone) consists of the notes you've recorded and/or are playing "live" from the keyboard; the term refers to the fact that Cyclone makes a copy of these notes which it can then process according to all the parameter values you've set. In many cases this involves real-time processing of incoming notes - no mean feat.
For cost reasons, Oberheim have provided Cyclone with a meagre two-character LED window. Consequently, you have to get used to abbreviated names for each parameter, which is a real pain when you're learning to use the Performance Effect. What's more, this limitation has led Oberheim to employ a rather odd and confusing convention for displaying tempo values.
The matrix-style parameter access which Oberheim have employed on the Perf/x series is a definite success, helped by the fact that Cyclone remembers which parameter you last selected for each of the 15 edit function groups in the matrix display. Once you've thoroughly familiarised yourself with the layout of Cyclone's parameters, you can edit its Programs quite rapidly. However, for that extra edge of speed it would have been helpful to have Cyclone remember which function you last selected in each column.
CYCLONE HAS 16 preset Programs and 16 user Programs (the latter amount expandable to 84 with a memory upgrade). Oberheim have logically developed the arpeggio/sequence connection by allowing you to record and store a separate sequence for each of its user Programs (each with a maximum of 32 events within up to 64 beats). The sequence is stored in a Record Buffer (logically enough) which can be switched off or assigned to transmit on any one of MIDI channels 1-16.
In addition, two keyboard zones and an additional Control zone are available per Program. Each keyboard zone can be assigned an independent range on the keyboard and, like the Record Buffer, can be turned off or assigned to transmit on any one MIDI channel. By turning off a keyboard zone and switching Cyclone's MIDI Thru function on, any notes played within that zone will be echoed "straight"; in this way you can, for instance, play a solo in zone two while arpeggiating a sequence of notes in zone one and having the Record Buffer repeatedly play a bassline.
"Don't limit yourself to keyboards, either, try hooking up a drum machine to Cyclone's MIDI Out - the results can be very interesting."
Like the other two zones, the Control zone can cover any area of the entire MIDI note-range (in fact it can overlap the other zones). The Control zone has an associated programmable Base note from which notes in Live Trigger mode will be played back at original pitch. Repeated playing of the Base note will step through the Record Buffer sequence at its original pitch, while playing other notes in the zone will transpose the sequence.
You can also trigger Record Buffer sequences in Gated and Continuous modes from the Control zone, with real-time transposition of the sequence according to the notes played; only one transposition at a time is possible from the keyboard, but by using Auto Double you can create parallel transpositions. There doesn't, however, appear to be any way of getting the pitch sequence to retrigger each time a key is played.
There are three methods of recording sequences into Cyclone: Recorded Rhythm, Pulse and Live Trigger. The first is familiar real-time sequence recording. Pressing the Clone and Record/Hold buttons places Cyclone in a record-ready state; you can now trigger recording either by starting to play on your keyboard or by pressing Record/Hold again. Your playing can be quantised on recording to any resolution from crotchets to 96ths (triplet 32nd notes, or MIDI clock resolution) including triplet values. Drum machine-style recording is possible with Add recording enabled and an appropriate End Beat specified.
Live Trigger recording is actually good old step-time. You can record a single note or a chord per step, advancing to the next step by pressing a silent note within the Control zone. The quantise value determines the step value; to program longer notes, you hold the relevant notes and press a Control-zone note the requisite number of times (so four times a 16th note equals a crotchet). The catch with Live Trigger recording is that you can't use rests. Once you've recorded a sequence in this way, however, you can add notes as for Recorded Rhythm by selecting Add.
Pulse recording is distinct from the other two methods in that notes are "added in" consecutively no matter when you play them, with the sequence of notes and rests cycling at the current pulse rate (which can be any value from a crotchet to a 96th note). Rests are selected by pressing a silent note in the Control zone, in this way you can create a rhythmic Pulse sequence (whereas a pulsed version of a Recorded Rhythm or Live Trigger sequence specifically removes all rests).
Using Pulse recording you can generate additive rhythms à la Philip Glass by dropping in a note or rest on each pass through the sequence. Once you've recorded a Pulse sequence you can adjust its playback rate by setting a different pulse timing, while Add mode allows you to carry on adding notes to the sequence consecutively. A special case of Pulse recording is tuplet quantisation: here all the notes you play will be fitted into one beat, each being given an equal duration within the beat (thus six notes would be a sextuplet).
A further method of recording is available in both Recorded Rhythm and Pulse modes. By setting the recording method to Replace Gated you can get Cyclone to temporarily store and play back the notes you play on the keyboard; as long as one note is held down, any sequence of notes can be "grouped". As soon as you play a new group of notes, they replace the previous group.
With Pulse mode set, the notes are played according to the programmed pulsing rate. In Recorded Rhythm mode, the notes are played according to how long you hold them down for; play them in a rhythm and they'll be played back to you in that rhythm (continuously looping if Cycle is set to on). In Pulse mode, rests are entered by recording a silent Control-zone note in the correct consecutive position. If you take a shine to one particular sequence, stop recording and it will be stored in the Record buffer. You can Add notes to it in Recorded-Rhythm and Pulse modes if you wish.
"You plug a MIDI cable in one end and another out the other end - in between there's so much going on it makes your brain hurt trying to figure it out."
Another sequence record feature is Chord Hold. If you select Record/Hold only, you can play any series of notes (up to 32 notes) and they will sustain until you turn off the facility. You now have a chord which you can trigger off the keyboard at any transposition and in any "live" rhythm using Live Single or Live Poly rhythm triggering from the keyboard Control zone. Incidentally, all these recording methods preserve the input note velocity, but no performance controls (pitch-bend, aftertouch, modulation and so on) are recorded.
Arpeggiation is only possible with Clone switched on. In Recorded Rhythm mode, any notes you hold down on your keyboard will be arpeggiated in the rhythm of the Record Buffer sequence (if there is one) at the current tempo. The Record Buffer needn't be on, which means that you can play arpeggios with or without an accompanying sequence.
In Pulse mode, the notes will be arpeggiated at the current pulse rate (which is itself referenced to the current tempo). By playing notes in both zones you can create two independent arpeggios, which need not have the same number of notes although they cannot pulse at different rates. However, these arpeggios can be set to pulse in or out of phase.
Tuplet quantisation is a special case of pulse arpeggios: the playback rate of notes is determined by how many notes are in the arpeggio. It works like this: the notes you play will be fitted into the duration of a crotchet, so the more notes you play the faster they will have to be played by Cyclone. Try holding odd numbers of notes in each arpeggio for some irrational timing values.
There are two crucial parameter settings which determine how the notes you hold down on the keyboard will be played: Order and Mode. There are nine possible ways for Cyclone to order the notes it receives: forward, backward, forward-backward and backward-forward all preserve the received note collection, while up, down, up-down and down-up process the notes in MIDI note-number order. Finally, random order means just that; randomness is increased by repeats of the same note being allowed.
The Mode parameter, however, is a bit more unusual: it determines how many notes should be played at each Recorded Rhythm or Pulse position. Here the number of notes can be based on recorded note-groupings, set to a fixed number (1-8), specified as proportional to the total number of source notes divided by a number from 1-8, or chosen at random from a range between one to a specified number (1-8).
These parameters affect Record Buffer sequences and notes from the keyboard zones alike. So if you want a sequence to be played as recorded, any accompanying realtime arpeggios you trigger from the keyboard will have to be "as played" also. Incidentally, by selecting Live Single or Live Poly keyboard triggering you can step through a recorded note sequence with each successive keypress within the Control zone. For instance, you could record a series of eight-note chords, set playback Mode to eight notes at a time, and trigger the chords from successive keypresses. In the meantime you could be holding a five-note chord in keyboard zone two which Cyclone is arpeggiating through a five-stage transposition. Well, you get the general idea, no doubt.
"One of the key features in Cyclone's flexibility is the fact that you can edit any of its parameters while a Program sequence is playing."
Cyclone has several Auto functions, which are effects automatically generated by the unit when programmed. Auto Xpose allows you to create a series of up to eight transpositions of a sequence for each Program. Each transposition (known as a Stage) can be played up to 128 times, and you can set up a "recursion interval" for all Stages which allows you to add a fixed transposition amount for each repeat. For instance, if you specify a semitone up (relative to C3) then each repeat will be played a semitone higher than the previous one. Auto Xpose works for all sequences, regardless of how they were recorded.
With a sequence length of one beat (the minimum length) you can create a note sequence of up to eight notes through the transpositions you select. Alternatively, you could create a bassline sequence by, say, recording a one-bar bassline and transposing it eight times, repeating each transposition eight times.
Auto Double provides a means of adding in up to eight extra notes for each played note. You can define the pitch of each extra note relative to C3 (middle C), allowing you to build a chord around the played note(s). What's more, each of the extra notes can be assigned its own MIDI channel 1-16, thus expanding the sonic possibilities of your chord. At its simplest you can use Auto Double to create an octave effect, but the flexibility is such that a broad range of possibilities are placed at your disposal. As you've probably gathered by now, that's what Cyclone's all about.
Auto Mutate provides further ways of twisting the notes you put into Cyclone, allowing you to "warp" note-on velocity, tempo and pulse-duration in a spontaneous manner using channel aftertouch, pitch-bend or any MIDI controller (0-97). Some experimentation is needed to get the most useful results out of this feature, but it's an interesting addition to Cyclone's features.
ON THE REAR panel of Cyclone are MIDI In and Out sockets together with four 1/4" jack sockets which Oberheim refer to as "pedals" but which are in fact footswitch inputs. Usefully, Cyclone detects footswitch polarity on power-up, meaning you can use whatever pedals you have lying around.
In addition to these four physical inputs (referred to as local pedals), you can define up to four incoming MIDI controller numbers (00-95) to act as controllers. In this way you can use any assignable footswitches and front-panel switches on your main MIDI keyboard to control selected Cyclone features. Local and external pedals three and four can be programmed for each of Cyclone's user Programs, while local and external pedals one and two are applied to all Programs.
One of the key features in Cyclone's flexibility is the fact that you can edit any of its parameters while a Program sequence is playing and/or Cyclone is arpeggiating the notes that you're holding down on your master keyboard. Now, if your fingers are "tied up" on the keyboard, editing can prove a little tricky. Using Cyclone's pedal functions you can let your feet, not your fingers, do the walking by programming local and external pedals to select not only any parameter but also the required value of that parameter. These effects can be one-shot, latched or held. Also, you can program pedals to select a parameter and, with successive presses, increment or decrement its value. Alternatively, you can set a pedal to simply call up a parameter, allowing you to adjust its value when you please.
Obviously even with up to eight pedals you'll have to be selective, but nonetheless "pedal control" allows real spontaneity in performance. For instance, you can switch the auto-doubling and auto-transpose effects in/out, switch to a different note-order or playback mode, or switch a zone in/out (in the latter case, allowing you to, say, switch from arpeggiating notes in zone two to playing a Cyclone-free solo in the same zone). And using two pedals to increment and decrement a parameter value, you could for instance change the duration of notes in Pulse Play mode, change the number of notes in Auto-Double mode, or change the number of beats in a recorded sequence.
"You can play a solo in zone two while arpeggiating a sequence of notes in zone one and having the Record Buffer repeatedly play a bassline."
Another pedal function allows you to control tempo by tapping a footswitch (tempo is averaged over three taps), while for recording purposes you can assign local pedal one to transmit an audio metronome click on every quarter-note. Also, by assigning Chain to a global footswitch you can step through Cyclone's Programs in Chain order. Each Program is assigned a Chain number which indicates the Program you want to step to - not the most flexible arrangement.
CYCLONE ACKNOWLEDGES THE outside MIDI world through being able to generate and receive MIDI clocks and Start/Stop data. Alternatively, Cyclone can be set to respond to a non-MIDI sync signal (24, 48 or 96ppqn clock) via its pedal two input. This signal must be a positive pulse greater than one volt and longer than 100uSecs; Oberheim warn that the input is not recommended for audio signal inputs.
When Cyclone is set to read an external clock signal, its sequences and arpeggio-rate are referenced to the incoming tempo. If Cyclone is generating MIDI clock, the tempo of an external MIDI sequencer or drum machine will be referenced to Cyclone's internal tempo. Straightforward enough, and it works extremely well - except for one problem. When MIDI clock send is enabled, Cyclone transmits a MIDI Start command every time a new Program is selected on the unit (whether from the Cyclone itself or via MIDI). The consequences are fairly obvious: each time you select a new Program, the slaved sequencer is sent flying back to bar one. If you want to record Cyclone's output into a sequencer (so that you can effectively use more than one Program at the same time) you'll need to use a sequencer which allows you to record multitrack patterns which can then be chained into songs. This means the length of each pattern will have to coincide with the duration of the Cyclone Program, and concurrent Programs will have to change at the same time. Unfortunate, unfortunate.
Finally, you can transfer all your Program data via SysEx, which means that it's easy to make back-up copies and extend the standard 16-Program capacity.
OBERHEIM BEGAN LIFE with two effects of a different, analogue kind: a ring modulator and a phase shifter. In those days, effects were produced using relatively straightforward electronic circuitry, and were applied to actual sounds. You plugged one audio cable in one end and another out the other end, and in between came at most a few knobs for you to twiddle. The results were predictable and readily understandable.
Today, less than 20 years later, Oberheim's two digital MIDI effects are software-based and are applied to logical representations of notes rather than to the actual sounds themselves. You plug one MIDI cable in one end and another out the other end, and in between there's so much going on that it makes your brain hurt just trying to figure it all out. Is this progress?
My own attitude towards Cyclone is ambivalent. On one hand I found getting to grips with it a very time-consuming and frustrating process, yet paradoxically there's something very endearing about it - particularly when it allows you to do stupid things like pulse 96th-notes at extreme tempos (particularly effective in conjunction with Replace Gated recording), or play back a Hold chord at the same time as you're recording it. If you can imagine Sun Ra on acid, you might have some idea of what you can achieve by going where MIDI was never meant to, er, lead. Don't limit yourself to keyboards, either; try hooking up a drum machine to Cyclone's MIDI Out - the results can be very interesting. In other words, if you want to be manic with your MIDI, Cyclone will travel along with you.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Cyclone is the way it allows you to edit every possible parameter while it's chucking out MIDI data faster than a speeding bullet. And if you should ever have problems with stuck notes (something I never encountered) there's a kill-all Hold-to-mute button which sends out note offs for every possible note on every channel.
However, although you can push Cyclone to extremes in terms of its real-time processing with no problem whatsoever, it did very occasionally crash as a result of certain "real-time" edits made during performance (such as changing zone limits or switching out the Cycle facility - not things you'll necessarily want to do often). None of these crashes happened with any consistency, which perhaps doesn't bode well for live use.
Cyclone will handle everything from straightforward arpeggios to "systems" rhythms to New Age-ish synth loops to dislocated dance rhythms to out-and-out free improvisation. Perhaps its one weakness is its inability to handle different rhythms (as opposed to different pitch sequences) concurrently - you'll need to use it in conjunction with a sequencer if you want to do such things.
Cyclone is an intriguing device but not particularly intuitive to use, and I wonder how many people will be prepared to spend the necessary amount of time becoming familiar with it. On the other hand, if you're prepared to put in the time, Cyclone might just end up becoming a friend for life.
Price £225 including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask
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