Oberheim Systemizer MIDI Performance Effect
If your master keyboard is not living up to its name, Oberheim's Systemizer may provide it with the MIDI performance features you need. Simon Trask gets into the system.
Interested in MIDI control but not in a MIDI controller keyboard? Oberheim Systemizer strikes a blow for MIDI democracy by bringing sophisticated performance control facilities to any MIDI setup.
SYSTEMIZER ALLOWS YOU to store up to 32 Setups in its battery-backed internal memory. For each Setup you can define a maximum of three keyboard zones plus a Special Patch (SP) zone. Each zone can be assigned up to four Instruments, each of which can transmit on its own MIDI channel (1-16), while each of the keyboard zones can either be assigned its own MIDI receive channel (1-16) or be defaulted to the global Basic Channel (1-16 or Omni). I should mention a bug in the software which occurs if you select a Setup in which the zone input channel(s) are different from the Basic Channel: quite simply, Systemizer won't respond on these channels. Subsequently altering the Basic Channel (to any channel number) clears up the problem, but it's not what you want to contend with. If you only need one input channel, and the same one all the time, then you won't experience any problem, as you simply align the input and Basic channel (you'll perhaps want to do this anyway, as patch changes on the Basic Channel select Systemizer's Setups). One way around the problem if you are using more than one input channel (Oberheim's own Matrix 6 transmits on two channels when in its split mode) is to set the Basic Channel to Omni, though this means Systemizer will treat all incoming patch changes as Setup changes.
OK, that's that out of the way. I should mention that Systemizer only gave me one other problem in the time I was using it, and that occurred under a more specialised circumstance. In fact, Systemizer proved to be very reliable. Now read on.
With MIDI Echo switched on, Systemizer passes through all data received at its MIDI input. However, a feature called Controller Enables allows you to selectively stop incoming pitchbend, channel pressure, poly pressure, continuous controllers (0-63) and discrete controllers (64-127) from being passed on to the Instruments. For instance, say you're layering strings and piano as Instruments one and two in zone two, and you want to sustain the strings but not the piano; all you have to do is disable discrete controllers for Instrument two and you've got what you want. Similarly, if you wanted to fade one sound in and out behind the other using a volume pedal, you would disable continuous controllers for the relevant Instrument. Incidentally, references to Instruments in this review mean Instruments within zones.
The keyboard zones are defined by setting an upper note limit per zone, with the lower limit being defined by the upper limit of the preceding zone (in the case of zone one, this defaults to MIDI note zero). It's a straightforward approach which has one significant advantage: you can alter the zones very easily. As on its companion Cyclone (reviewed MT, March '89), Systemizer allows you to select any predefined parameter value using one of its footswitch inputs. By setting a different split-point value for zone two, say, you could temporarily spread zone three across a wider range of the keyboard for a solo. A plus point here is that if you hold down or use sustain pedal on notes in a zone and then shift a new zone "over" them, they still play through their allotted envelopes.
Oberheim have also provided what is in some ways a more flexible option. If you select a floating as opposed to a fixed split-point for a zone, Systemizer attempts to figure out from your playing which zone you want to be in. In practice, it's only successful under certain limited circumstances - inevitably, really, because from a machine's necessarily limited point of view there are simply too many ambiguities for it to be able to make the correct choice all the time. Basically, the floating split-point is useful if you want to stray briefly from one zone into another, as long as you're not also playing notes near the split-point in the other zone, and as long as you don't leave too much of a time gap between notes; keep it simple and Systemizer will stay with you. On the other hand, by deliberately confusing Systemizer you can generate some interesting results with the right combination of sounds.
Overlapping of zones is possible: by setting the Split Release parameter to on, zone one can fully overlap zone two, and/or zone two can fully overlap zone three allowing you to layer a maximum of eight Instruments. Alternatively, you can create Instrument-specific "overlaps" by setting Instruments in different zones to the same MIDI channel(s).
Each Instrument of each zone per Setup can be assigned its own patch number and volume level, which are transmitted when the Setup is selected (alternatively, you can disable patch transmit per Instrument if you don't want a new sound to be selected). The SP zone mentioned earlier is dedicated to sending patch changes; like the other zones, it can transmit on up to four MIDI channels, which means that each time you select a Setup you can send patch changes on all 16 MIDI channels. One obvious use for the SP zone would be to synchronise effect changes with changes in Setup (in the example given earlier, calling up a different digital delay patch for the flute solo).
Along with patch and volume, Systemizer allows you to send several other MIDI messages for each Instrument whenever a Setup is selected. These are bank select (0-127), fine tune (-50/+49 cents), bend range (0-127), local control on/off, Omni mode on/off and poly/mono (together with the base channel in the case of mono). The SP zone is a special case, in that in addition to patch changes it's only able to transmit bank select commands, which seems a bit of a shame.
A dedicated bank select MIDI controller (31) has been added to the MIDI spec by the MMA and JMSC specifically to cope with patch selection beyond 128 patches, but it's far from widely implemented yet; Oberheim are obviously bearing in mind their own Matrix 1000 here. Similarly, you shouldn't take it for granted that, just because Oberheim have made these initial messages available, they will all be implemented as a matter of course on your MIDI instruments.
Another Instrument-specific feature is transposition (0-99 semitones, with 50 as no transpose). This provides an easy means of adjusting the register of a sound, as well as allowing you to create, for instance, octave effects. Beyond this, Systemizer's ability to "layer" up to four notes means that you can use transposition to create a chord which can be played from single notes on the keyboard (effectively the "chord play" function you occasionally come across on synths).
THERE ARE BASICALLY three ways to play the instruments within each zone: layered, switched or crossfaded. Layered is the most straightforward: Systemizer takes the incoming notes for each zone and retransmits them on up to four MIDI channels. You can use any number and combination of Instruments per zone, selectively removing Instruments by not assigning them to a MIDI channel.
Switching between Instruments in a zone can be achieved with velocity or a globally-selected MIDI controller (0-95). Active Instruments can be selectively excluded from switching, so that, for instance, you could switch between two Instruments while a third is always present. Controller-based switching only switches between Instrument one and the highest-enabled Instrument, on the basis of whether or not the controller value is less than 64, while velocity-based switching moves through all the enabled Instruments. You can't define the velocity switch positions yourself, but the ability to choose a velocity curve (0-64) for each zone gives you some flexibility in tailoring the "touch responsiveness" of your MIDI setup.
Systemizer provides four options for crossfading between Instruments in a zone: position, velocity, channel aftertouch and controller; as with switching, active Instruments can be selectively removed from crossfading. Positional crossfading is between Instruments across the keyboard (the actual result depending on the range of the zone and how many Instruments are enabled). The other forms of crossfading are of course "into" the keyboard, with the crossfade "windows" being determined by Systemizer; as with switching, the only response control you have is via the velocity response curve you select for each zone. You can also set the degree of aftertouch responsiveness per zone (0-64 - zero equals no response), though Instrument-specific settings would have been preferable. As with switching, controllerbased crossfading is achieved using a globally-selected MIDI controller (0-95).
The manual states that an instrument must respond to MIDI volume control in order to be crossfaded, which might lead you to to suppose that Systemizer duplicates the notes on the relevant two MIDI channels in the crossfade zone and generates volume fade-ins and fadeouts to create a crossfade effect. Well, the first part is true, but in fact Systemizer uses velocity rather than volume. Depending on which type of crossfade you've selected, this is done on the basis of received note, velocity, aftertouch or controller values.
The problem with this otherwise clever approach (apart from the fact that it won't work with those early MIDI synths which don't respond to velocity) is that Systemizer controls the velocity values being sent to your slave instruments. As an example, let's say you're crossfading between Instruments one and two. When you play with minimum velocity, Systemizer actually sends maximum velocity to Instrument one, minimum to Instrument two; this situation is progressively reversed as you play with increasing velocity (the pair of transmitted velocity values always add up to 127, the maximum velocity value).
This is where MIDI volume comes in. By adjusting the overall volume level of each Instrument you can get some semblance of a dynamic response. However, it's a fiddly process, and the end result is still a compromise; all in all, velocity-switching is a more successful feature.
If you decide that you want to try something more adventurous than switching or crossfading between Instruments, you can turn to the Group Type function. There are three options: Rotate, Rotate/Reassign and Alternate (the manual mistakenly lists four, as it seems that these three cover all bases). In order for them to work, you must first assign the Instruments to one of two Groups.
Rotate, as its name suggests, rotates its voice assignment around the Instruments within each Group. Not only this, but it uses a voice-limit, which you can program globally for each MIDI channel under MIDI Channel Limits, to determine how many voices it should play before moving on to the next Instrument. The most straightforward results are achieved by setting a voice limit of one for each Instrument's MIDI channel, but you can create interesting melodic/rhythmic effects by assigning different voice limits to each Instrument's MIDI channel.
Alternate is the same as Rotate except that it operates as if the voice limit for each MIDI channel was set to one. Rotate/Reassign is essentially Rotate with repeated notes being assigned to the same Instrument, though if you return to a note it will be played on whatever Instrument is next in the rotation; again, you can experiment with different voice-limits for each Instrument. Bear in mind, though, that the voice-limit settings apply in all Setups and it's all too likely that, say, the two-note polyphony you want on MIDI channel two in Setup 17 won't be enough for Setup 11, where you want eight-note polyphony for a chordal piano part.
THOUGH YOUR MAIN keyboard may only transmit polyphonically, Systemizer has four zoneassignable options which essentially 'mimic" various types of voice allocation. These are: Unison, Monophonic, Normal Polyphonic and Polyphonic+Rob.
Using Normal Polyphonic you can play notes up to the voice limit set in Channel Limits, but further notes won't be played until you free some voices by releasing existing notes. In contrast, Poly+Rob automatically robs the oldest voice when you exceed the assigned voicelimit.
As its name suggests. Unison is an attempt to create the effect of stacked oscillators that you find on older synths, though without the possibility of detuning the "oscillators", It does this by sending multiple "copies" of a note over MIDI for each note that you play on the keyboard, up to the assigned voice-limit. Oberheim have even made their Unison monophonic last-note priority, although strictly speaking there's no need to do so.
In practice, Systemizer's version of Unison can't be exactly the same as an onboard Unison effect, and its effectiveness depends on how your synths respond to playing multiple notes of the same pitch with attacks being generated in rapid succession. You may find that attempting to play rapid runs results in some notes being "choked".
The Monophonic option "mimics" last-note-priority multi triggering. Unfortunately, because of the way MIDI works it's not possible for Systemizer to create a single triggering effect; consequently you can't mimic a legato playing style as used by, say, a sax player. Still, Monophonic is effective for rapid trills if you're playing a sax solo from a keyboard instrument, ensuring that you avoid note overlaps.
The problem with Monophonic is that if you try to play a third note with two already held down, Systemizer won't trigger it - so if you're playing a rapid run you'll need to pick your fingers up pretty sharpish.
Alternatively you can use Poly+Rob with a voice limit of one. In this case Systemizer always follows your playing, but you lose the retriggering effect and, unfortunately, if you even fractionally slur three notes in fast playing you regularly get a note left hanging until you play it again (though if you're perverse, you'll no doubt want to play with this as a feature). It's also worth pointing out that you can run into the same voice-limit problems as you can with the Group Types. The Assign Types offer mixed blessings, then, but they're worth having, all the same.
SYSTEMIZER HAS FOUR footswitch inputs on its rear panel and is also able to respond to four selectable MIDI controllers (0-127). You can assign each of these to call up any Systemizer parameter complete with pre-programmed value. Such possibilities as altering the splitpoint of a zone, transposing an Instrument up an octave, bringing in a layered Instrument, changing the channel assignment of an Instrument or temporarily switching to another patch greatly enhance Systemizer's flexibility. In fact, there's so much potential locked into this aspect of Systemizer that it's a crying shame the pedal assignments are global rather than Setup-specific.
Different switch operations are suited to different functions, which is why Oberheim have allowed you to select single switch, double switch, increment, decrement, one-shot edit, latched edit or hold edit operation for each switch. Using the example of altering the splitpoint of a zone, you might want to use hold edit (the split-point reverts to its original value when you release the footswitch) or latched edit (you have to press the footswitch again to revert the value).
As on Cyclone, each Setup can be given a Chain number which defines the Setup to be played next. By assigning one of the footswitches or MIDI controllers to Chain, you can step through the Setups, beginning with any Setup you want. Alternatively you can select Setups from the front panel or via MIDI patch changes.
STORING AND COPYING Setups in the internal memory is such a straightforward and accessible process that you up hardly thinking twice about it. Systemizer copies the current Setup, Zone or Instrument depending on what level you're at when you initiate the copying process: you need to take care that you're copying what you intend to copy, but it's a very useful feature. You also have the option to Clear a Setup to one of three default states, namely layer, split or three-way split.
For external storage you have two options, namely RAM card and MIDI SysEx. The card option allows you to save and load Systemizer's internal memory as a single block; however, this doesn't double the Setup capacity, as the card contents have to be loaded into internal memory before they can be used. The manual makes reference to a "receptacle" which has to be fitted internally before you can use any cards, but at the time of writing I couldn't find out what this might or might not entail financially.
While card storage is obviously useful for live work, in the studio it is SysEx transfer which turns out to be your flexible friend. Individual Setups, all global data, all Setups plus global data, or individual edits can all be transferred via the SysEx route. As well as providing a quick means of transferring data from one Systemizer to another, SysEx transfer allows for storage of your Setups to a generic SysEx librarian such as Hybrid Arts' GenPatch, and opens up the possibility of dedicated Systemizer editor/librarian software becoming available (whether anyone will feel it's worth making such software commercially available is another matter).
SYSTEMIZER'S SOMEWHAT UNEXCITING appearance may lead you to suppose it's a modest and rather boring MIDI device. In truth it's neither of these things. If you're looking to introduce sophisticated control facilities into your MIDI setup, but your main keyboard only transmits on one MIDI channel and you'd rather not fork out for a dedicated MIDI controller keyboard, you must check out Systemizer.
In fact, Systemizer's facilities are the equal of many a controller keyboard - even superior to some. But I've already discussed these in the review, so what about what Systemizer can't do? Well, of course it can't add velocity and aftertouch to a non-dynamic keyboard, or turn a four-octave keyboard into a seven-octave keyboard (though by transposing Instruments up or down an octave or more you can effectively extend the pitch limits of your keyboard). Nor does it have any facilities for remote sequencer control, or provide you with an array of assignable MIDI switch and pedal controllers, as some dedicated controller keyboards do.
Although in layout and operation Systemizer is very similar to Cyclone, it's an altogether friendlier device, and consequently more enjoyable to use. Oberheim have managed to find a healthy balance of flexibility, spontaneity, understandability and ease of use which has eluded them on Cyclone. What's more, the learning process is greatly aided by a readyreference card which you can pull out from the belly of the beast.
Systemizer is above all a practical device, and is well suited to live performance. For sequencing, you'll need a sequencer which can record on multiple MIDI channels, and you should bear in mind that layering and crossfading can introduce a fair amount of data "overhead" (layering four Instruments means that you'll be recording the source MIDI data four times over, which can be quite an overhead if that data includes continuous controller data such as volume and modulation). It's also worth mentioning that, as Systemizer's approach to creating keyboard textures is channel-intensive, a sequencer which allows you to address more than 16 MIDI channels via independent MIDI Outs is a definite advantage.
I can foresee Systemizer becoming a valued addition to many a MIDI setup, with or without a sequencer, not only for its practical benefits but also for its creative possibilities. And, in the end, creativity is what matters.
Prices Systemizer, £225 including VAT; RAM card £TBA.
Review by Simon Trask
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