Quasimidi Style Drive Realtime Arranger
Auto-accompaniment isn't everyone's cup of tea, but Quasimidi's Style Drive takes a sophisticated approach to it — as well as doubling as a GM note mapper and SysEx storage device. Joe Ortiz is probably the last person on the planet to need an auto accompaniment unit, but even he finds himself charmed.
I should say from the start that auto-accompaniment has never been one of my favourite ways of playing or making music. Although some of the accompaniments found on the best home keyboards can initially get me going a bit, the excitement soon wears off, and there are only so many styles out of those offered that would be of any creative use. Things are even worse if the styles are ROM-based only, making editing or replacing them difficult, if not impossible. Enter Quasimidi's Style Drive, a MIDI File player, SysEx storage device, GM/GS note mapper and real-time arranger, all in one.
Quasimidi are well known in Germany for producing very high quality hard and software over the last few years, including the Vulcan D, a hardware universal editor for a number of popular synths, and a range of ROM style cards for the Roland E-series keyboards. They were also one of the few companies to dissect and improve an MT32, via their own MT upgrade kit! Their latest offering is presented in a black metal 1U rackmount, with dove-grey front panel hosting power switch, data entry knob (or Alpha Dial), a backlit LCD, a 3.5-inch DS/DD floppy drive, and nine icon-printed membrane buttons labelled Left, Right, OK, Arranger, Sequencer, MIDI Dump, Exit, Help And Demo/Special. These buttons control the unit, though it can also be controlled by the optional Style Drive Commander (more on this later). One big plus for Style Drive is the ability to read Standard MIDI files in formats 0 and 1, and the ability to read and play Yamaha's Disk Orchestra format disks.
Looked at in its simplest form, the Style Drive offers the 'instant band', auto-accompaniment type functions found on many home keyboards. There are 32 on board 'Styles', with room for 16 user-defined Styles, each Style featuring an intro, a main pattern, a variation, two fills and an ending. A wide range of musical styles is covered in the ROM presets (including the usual Pop, Disco, Cha Cha, Bossa Nova, Funk, Ballad, Jazz and so on, as well as the obligatory March, Fox Trot and Quickstep), the majority of which are actually quite good in context, and amongst the sets of example user Styles provided on disk is a rather neat take-off of Kraftwerk's 'Home Computer' (called, straightforwardly enough, Kraft). But the Style Drive does go much further than the average home keyboard, in that the user can actually define his or her own Styles. Given that each Style features six different patterns, and each pattern can be up to eight bars long, it is possible to stretch what is meant by 'auto-accompaniment' quite a bit.
In addition, the Style Drive functions as a MIDI data filer — any data that can be transmitted as a SysEx bulk dump can be grabbed and saved to disk by the device — and as a Standard MIDI File player and recorder. All in all, quite a fair selection of features.
Hardware MIDI file players have been around for a while now, so the fact that Style Drive can read IBM compatible disks containing format 0 or 1 MIDI files is not really news. The fact that Style Drive allows you to connect almost any popular non-GM/GS keyboard to it and play GM/GS song data with all the right drum notes and program changes where they should be is news. A utility disk is included with the unit, which contains, amongst other things, tables of setup information for various instruments, including the following:
• GM to Technics KN1000
• GM to Roland MT32, RA50 and Pro-E
• GM to Roland D10, D20, D5 and D110
• GM to Korg M1 and T-series
• GS to Ensoniq SQ1 and SQ2
• GS to Korg 01W
• GM to Emu MPS
No doubt by the time you read this, there should be even more keyboards and modules catered for, although for those who wish to program their own Drum and Program Tables, the procedure shouldn't present too much of a problem. It simply involves telling Style Drive what MIDI note numbers to redirect for your drums and percussion and which program change number should be routed to another for your particular device. Table information also includes Remote Control settings, so that you can use your mother keyboard to control Style Drive during a performance. For those who do not own a fully featured mother keyboard, you can also program splits, layers, Sync on/off, and transmit channels for upper and lower zones on your keyboard. Table settings can then be saved for future use or even made to auto load on power up. There is also a HELP button that displays context-related help messages.
So far so good — the thing can play MIDI files, but if that was all it could do you'd be paying way over the top for it and this review could end here. The very thick icing on the cake has to be Style Drive's Realtime Arranger Mode. It is here that you can access not only the built-in styles for effortless auto-accompaniment, but hundreds of other styles available on floppy disk as well. Each Style, consisting of drums, bass and three other instrument parts, contains a main pattern, a variation, two fills, an intro and an ending in three different harmonic modes (minor, major, 7th, although Style Drive can generate 9ths, diminished and augmented chords). Once in Arranger mode, you can select a style to play from the Style Drive's built-in ROM memory (there are 32) or load a style (or bank of 16 styles) from floppy, into the User RAM area. The on-board Styles, and those provided on disk, serve as a guide to what the machine actually does — but not what it is capable of, which, as you will see, is what really makes the Realtime Arranger mode a bit special.
To set up a Style of your own, you enter Arranger mode, by pressing the Arranger icon button, which asks you whether you want to play a style or, by pressing the Right Arrow Button, edit a Style. If you press the Right button again, you're asked if you want to create a new style. There are two types of styles: easy and full. Once you've chosen the Style Type you want, you use the alpha dial to choose Intro, Original, Variation, Fill 1, Fill 2 or Ending. Each part can then be 'formatted' for length — this can be from one to eight bars. Note that the length of a Style sequence is determined when you create it and it's not easy to change your mind later. Next, you press the right arrow button to set the Major, Minor or Seventh mode of the part using the dial. One more press of the right arrow button takes you to Instrument Select. Here you can use the alpha dial to select Drums, Bass and the three Accompaniment parts. Another press of the right arrow button takes you to MIDI program number select.
Using the alpha dial, you can select from 128 program change numbers which are named in the display to correspond with the sounds on a GM/GS instrument — making the use of Style Drive with a Roland Sound Canvas or Yamaha TG100, for example, an absolute breeze. If you don't have access to a GM/GS device, chances are that you own a keyboard or module which is included in the Utility Disk Tables included with your Style Drive. Even if you don't have a device included in the Tables, as you will soon see, it's a snap to create your own Tables.
"...if you're already happy with your keyboard but wish it had an auto-accompaniment section, Style Drive is definitely worth a look..."
One more press of the right arrow button takes you to the record page. The alpha dial may be used to select record resolution (from quarter notes to 96ppqn) and pressing the OK button gives you a count-in (thoughtfully played by the rim shot of your drum kit) of one bar. If you need to change the tempo, it's only a matter of pressing the Demo/Special button whileln stop mode (Exit Button) and using the alpha dial to enter the new tempo value. Pressing the Demo button again takes you back to the Record page.
Once you have played your part, say a bassline, Style Drive 'drops out' of record and goes into play mode so you can instantly audition your efforts. Of course, your Style, when finished, should work just like the on-board factory styles, transposing automatically depending on what chords you play.
In case of mistakes, there is an Undo for almost all record functions, but it can only act on the last operation, including overdubs and quantises. The one thing you may have noticed from all this is that all I've done to access these parameters is press the right arrow button or left arrow button to get back to the previous functions at the same level. All pages and sub-pages work like this, making the Style Drive quick and intuitive to learn and use. Further functions include copying one chord mode to another (major to minor and seventh), so that in theory, all you have to do is play a Major version of a part and then just copy it across — drums and all. This is good for quickly testing how a style will perform, although you may have to re-record bits here and there as Style Drive can only intelligently convert your chords to a point, so it's probably not a good idea to get too fancy when you're just starting out. You can even copy, say, the Original pattern to the Variation and then edit the variation to save some time. If it hasn't occurred to you by now, this means that you can program styles within styles, in that each part and chord mode can be a different style — a Major in Funk, a Minor in Pop and yet another style for the seventh! The Arranger can also be used to trigger different rhythm loops in your sampler.
Another point worth a mention is that Style Drive can also import patterns created on a software computer sequencer, provided they are no longer than eight bars; all tracks must be named so that Style Drive can recognize them, and you must ensure that you only use certain controllers, as Style Drive will only accept Program Change, note on/off, pitch bend and modulation. It may console you to know that I learned how to program a style in five minutes of telephone tuition! This was necessary as, since I produce MIDI song files professionally, I had been asked to develop a few demo styles for the Frankfurt Musik Messe '93.
Style Drive can also directly record the output from another MIDI sequencer and save the results to a Style Drive Floppy as a MIDI file. The unit may also be used as a universal System Exclusive storage device which, in plain English, means that you can save device-specific data for every piece of MIDI equipment you own. This may include your mother keyboard's setup information, such as velocity settings, splits and layers, MIDI channel zoning and transpose settings, as well as your keyboard or module's Patch and Performance settings, your drum machine patterns, your outboard effects programs and much more.
As we mentioned earlier, there is also an optional external control device called the Style Drive Commander, which not only duplicates almost every front panel control bar the power switch, but also includes six alpha dials (five of those are to regulate the volume of each accompaniment part) and an additional 34 membrane switches with 37 status LEDs, as well as five foot switch sockets on the back. Of course, you can use Style Drive without the Commander, but using the Commander dramatically speeds up the process of whatever you are doing.
Despite what I said at the start of this review regarding auto accompaniment, I like Style Drive a lot and my niggles are few: the display is not sharp enough if the Style Drive is not anywhere near eye level, which may be acceptable in the studio but could present problems in a gigging situation — perhaps it would have been a good idea to duplicate the display on the Commander as well; it may be a good idea to have a longer connection lead made up for the Commander if you intend using Style Drive live, as the one supplied may not be long enough for all situations; lastly, it could be accused of being a little pricey. However, as far as I'm aware, there is nothing quite like this unit on the market, so if you're already happy with your keyboard but wish it had an auto-accompaniment section. Style Drive is definitely worth a look — especially when you consider that you're also getting a MIDI File player, a SysEx storage device, a GM/GS mapping emulator and last but not least, the realtime arranger itself.
Style Drive £799.99; Style Drive Commander £499.99. Prices include VAT.
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