Akai MIDI Programmable Patchbay
Ian Gilby reckons that before long every studio will have a MIDI patchbay as well as an audio one and the low-cost ME30P Programmable MIDI Patchbay from Akai could well be it.
You have to hand it to Akai, when it comes to marketing their new ME30P patchbay, they have definitely got their heads screwed on the right way. 'What is he talking about?' I hear you ask. Well, read on and all will become transparent.
If you are a musician with perhaps one MIDI keyboard, an expander module and maybe a MIDI drum machine, then you don't necessarily require the facilities offered by a programmable patchbay - you can get away with connecting equipment up directly, right? And one thing's for sure, your next income is already going on that new sampler or sequencer, tape recorder or even a MIDI effects unit. You certainly haven't considered buying something that generates no sound of its own like a patchbay, you simply haven't got the cash.
Does this therefore mean that the potential market for Akai's new ME30P is limited somewhat to studios and better-off musicians? I think not. A MIDI matrix box/patchbay has artificially been seen as a non-essential item in the past primarily because of the relatively high selling price of existing units. At £99 (inc VAT) however, Akai's ME30P patchbay is well within the financial grasp of most musicians and the benefits it can bring to even the most sparse MIDI set-up are certainly worth having for that sort of money. After all, MIDI is all about 'control' and any MIDI patchbay can only expand the control you the user have over your system. Let me explain...
MIDI equipment is conventionally connected in a simple Master/Slave daisy-chain manner ie. the (Master) instrument's MIDI Thru socket connects to the second's (Slave) MIDI In, and the second instrument's MIDI Thru to the third's MIDI In and soon. This method, however, generally results in the dreaded 'MIDI transmission delay' whereby those instruments furthest down the chain are slightly out of sync with the others. It also prevents you from using any device in the chain not fitted with a Thru socket (unless it goes last of course). And when you wish to reconfigure your set-up to make another keyboard the Master instrument, you're faced with unplugging all of your MIDI cables.
Now you may be happy to put up with such things, but what's required at the end of the day is a MIDI patchbay that will allow permanent connection of each device and make it possible for you to route MIDI signals from one unit to any other as desired but without replugging anything.
And that folks is precisely what the Akai ME30P lets you do.
Configured as a 4-into-8 programmable device, the ME30P will let you connect a MIDI instrument (usually a 'controlling' unit like a keyboard or sequencer) to each of its four Input Channels, and let you assign them to any of its eight Output Channels (normally connected to 'passive' MIDI devices like expanders, digital delays, sampler modules etc).
This task can be accomplished easily on the ME30P. All you do is connect the required instruments to whatever Input/Output Channel sockets you like on the rear panel and then proceed to define which Input you'd like to go to which Output using the front panel buttons. The ME30P stores your programmed routing patch in a chosen Bank and up to 15 Banks (labelled 1-9 and A-F) can be held in non-volatile memory, so they're not lost when you power down.
Programming a patch is simplicity itself.
First you need to select a Bank by stepping the Bank button along until the number you want appears in the red LED display. Then you press the Output Channel button and advance to the Channel you want your Input sending to eg. Channel 7. All you have to do next is press the relevant Input Channel button (A, B, C or D) and a small red dot appears to the right of the Output Channel number in the display to confirm that a successful connection has been made.
Each time you advance the Output Channel button, a red indicator illuminates above an Input button to tell you that it is connected as part of that patch. If no button illuminates, it means that particular Output is not in use. On the ME30P it is not possible to have more than a single Input connected to any one Output Channel, though you can have one Input split between a maximum of eight Outputs (and therefore connected to eight different MIDI devices).
It would obviously be a good idea if the various ME30P patches (Banks) could be called up and changed automatically in remote-control fashion, wouldn't it? Well, apart from pressing the Bank button, this can be done in two ways: either by connecting a footswitch to the front panel Bank Up jack socket and stepping forward to the next patch memory each time the footswitch is depressed, or better still, switching the patch via MIDI upon receipt of a MIDI program change command sent from a keyboard or sequencer.
In this case, the instrument you wish to have control the patch selection must have its MIDI Out connected to the ME30P's Channel D Input socket in order to work. This is somewhat disappointing as it limits you to using the same instrument to generate all of the program change signals required to switch patches. Bearing this in mind, it's probably best to assign a MIDI sequencer or mother keyboard to perform this task, not a synthesizer, otherwise it will involve you in tedious copying of voice programs from one synth memory to another in order to overcome those odd occasions when you'll want to switch ME30P patches but not wish to change the 'sound' on your synth.
As an aid to troubleshooting for 'poor' cable connections etc within your MIDI set-up, the ME30P also has a useful built-in checking facility. By pressing the Bank button, followed by the Check button and each of the four Inputs in turn, the patchbay will transmit MIDI pitch number 69 to all equipment connected to the Input Channel sockets. When the next Bank is recalled, all instruments should stop playing note 69 (for the reason explained later).
As mentioned earlier, patches are retained in the memory when the power is off but it is advisable to keep a written record of them for longterm storage purposes (especially on studio sessions) as there is no cassette dump or cartridge facility on the unit. I suppose Akai expect you won't mind re-programming 15 Banks eight times - it's a very quick operation after all and cost 'savings' have to be made somewhere (if you'll pardon the pun!).
Programming a new patch is a doddle too. And on this score, you should disregard what the ME30P Owner's Manual says about "pressing the switch for which the Input Channel indicator is lit in order to clear the memory" - it's unnecessary, since the Akai unit is always in continuous update mode. All you have to do is press whichever new Input Channel it is you want to connect and it will up-date that part of the Bank memory accordingly.
One final point: Akai seem to have taken a leaf out of designer Ken McAlpine's book and implemented the little-used 'All Notes Off' MIDI command on the ME30P. Ken designed the Sycologic M1 6 MIDI Matrix, a very comprehensive 16-way expandable patchbay, which was the first such unit to incorporate this vital message. What it does, basically, is to prevent the continuous droning effect that can occur if you accidentally change routing patches whilst a keyboard is part-way through playing a note. You see, whenever a note is activated on a MIDI instrument a 'Note-on' command is transmitted over MIDI followed by a corresponding 'Note-off' to tell the synth's voice circuitry to stop sounding the note after the appropriate duration. If no 'Note-off' is received, the played note will sustain indefinitely, which is bad news. To safeguard against this, the ME30P automatically transmits the 'All Notes Off' signal to connected equipment every time a Bank is changed ie. when you want to change the patch configuration. Clever, isn't it?
To return to my original point about Akai's adopted marketing stance, I believe they have done the right thing in keeping the price of this unit as low as it is - £99. In doing so, it becomes affordable by the majority of musicians and budget studios, and might even encourage them to expand their existing set-up. And with it also being able to accommodate up to eight MIDI devices, most owners are unlikely to outgrow its facilities too quickly.
My only criticism concerns the ME30P mains lead. If Akai can't fit a standard Euro-connector then I would prefer a non-detachable cable, as the two-core Philishave-style lead that's supplied could easily get lost - and there aren't too many replacements kicking around the studios I know! Please have it changed Mr.Akai.
Gripes apart, I can still see a lot of small studios and individuals buying several ME30P units in preference to one of the competing models on the market and though it is very basic in its operation, the ME30P shows every sign that it will give years of sterling service to whoever buys one.
That, coupled with the remarkable price, makes it fantastic value for money in my book and a highly recommended purchase. I just wish other manufacturers would follow Akai's example and sell MIDI peripherals at similar prices - it's the best way I know of enticing more people to explore the full potential of MIDI and will undoubtedly lead to higher equipment sales for those brave enough to do so.