They call it a computer peripheral and MIDI expander, you'll probably think of it as a preset version of the SixTrak. Exclusive review of SCI's new baby by Dan Goldstein.
The MAX is Sequential Circuits' idea of what a MIDI expander should be, but unusually, this one can operate as a preset polysynth in its own right.
So, you've got yourself a MIDI polysynth, you've written a couple of potential Top Ten hits on it, and now you want to extend its sonic power as easily and as cost-effectively as possible. What you need is a MIDI expander module such as those marketed by Korg, Siel, Roland, and now, with the advent of the MAX, Sequential Circuits.
But hang on a minute. This expander is different. It has its own keyboard so you can use it without any other MIDI instrument, and its factory voices are preset - you can't do any programming of your own. Actually, things aren't quite that simple in reality, but there's no doubt that, concept-wise, the MAX is something of a novelty.
For once, a product that doesn't give the game away about its origins before you've even so much as switched it on. With its silver-and-black metal finish, understated black sides and mysterious 'MIDI Voice Expander/Computer Peripheral' front panel legend, the MAX looks nothing like any SCI instrument there's ever been. Obviously, the company are keen to eradicate the traditional, wood-endowed appearance that characterised their produce for so long.
And in fact, the only concrete clue to the MAX'S ancestry lies in the layout of its patch selection and multitrack sequencer switches, which bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the SCI SixTrak, a fully programmable model that first hit the UK about a year ago.
As on the SixTrak, MAX's switches don't inspire confidence (their feel is rubbery and their action imprecise), but they do at least incorporate status-indicating LEDs, and their positioning is logical enough to be remembered by the average user within a very short period after coming across the synth for the first time. And one happy result of the MAX being essentially a preset instrument is that the SixTrak's distinctly dodgy value incrementor is thankfully absent from these proceedings.
As if in acknowledgement of the fact that a lot of potential MAX synth buyers will be relatively unfamiliar with the workings of a MIDI polysynth (must be all those other magazines), Sequential have printed what almost amounts to a user guide on the front panel. Not only are all the voice groupings listed along with their respective names, but a full rundown of the numbers needed to access various aspects of the synth's MIDI operation is also given at the extreme right of the panel. So no more searching around for the manual when you want to refresh your memory about how to change MIDI modes, for instance.
Fifteen-love to Sequential on the user information front, then.
The MAX owes the majority of its internal design to the SixTrak, which isn't, all things considered, all that surprising. What that means in practice is that it's a six-voice polyphonic synthesiser with one VCO-per-voice and a four-pole filter for each of those voices. It also shares the SixTrak's multi-timbrality - that is, each of its six voices can be assigned to individual functions decided by the user, though in the case of the MAX's preset sounds, that decision is taken for you by the SCI programmers. In fact, the MAX's multi-timbrality extends only to the built-in multitrack sequencer and MIDI channel assignment - more on both of these subjects later.
The MAX features the same keyboard as the SixTrak, too, which is something of a disappointment in view of the fact that it's both spongy in its action and ungenerous in its length (four octaves C-to-C). And whereas the costlier poly possessed two (albeit ill-placed) control wheels for pitch and modulation, the MAX has none at all. Presumably, part of the reason for this is that the MAX also lacks the SixTrak's Stack mode (sorry about the involuntary tongue-twister), whereby all six voices (with different sounds, if you so wish) can be assigned to the same note and the keyboard played monophonically for soloing purposes. I don't know about you, but I regard these omissions as more than a mite unfortunate, as they diminish the instrument's versatility by no small degree: if all you want from the MAX is to be able to play it in real time as a conventional polysynth, then fine - but you won't be able to do realistic Keith Emerson solos on this one, that's for sure.
"You won't find FM clarity here, but the MAX makes a pretty good stab at the sort of percussive sounds digital synths seem to be so good at reproducing."
All these control omissions pale into insignificance when you remember the greatest limitation of all - the fact that MAX's voices are not user-programmable. Well, that's not quite the whole truth, because if you possess a Commodore 64 home micro and a diskdrive, Sequential's 920 software will let you edit MAX's sounds via the Commodore's QWERTY keys and some nifty parameter screen displays. In fact, if you're reasonably conversant with the synth's internal workings and MIDI protocol, you can edit sounds without the help of the software - all you need is for the Commodore to be linked to the MAX via MIDI, since it's over the communications bus we all know and love that the parameter data is transmitted and received. The MAX's MIDI manual is about three times the size of the normal operation one, and for good reason: it tells you exactly how the synth's patch information is digitally coded.
Alternatively, if you already own a SixTrak, you can edit MAX sounds remotely from its controls, again over MIDI.
Like the SixTrak, the MAX has 80 factory presets in all, but those who fear these are the same as the voices fitted to the programmable model when it first came out needn't worry: the MAX's programs are entirely new, and so pleased are Sequential with their programmers' endeavours, they've fitted the most recent generation of SixTraks with the same set of voices.
Even if it wasn't readily apparent at the time, it's now pretty clear that the range of preset sounds fitted to the SixTrak when it first appeared did scant justice to the capabilities of the synth's internal voicing and filtering circuitry.
The MAX voices will put an end to all that. Logically grouped in tens depending on which sonic family they happen to belong to (and with a set of consecutive voice numbers to match), the sounds are generally full, pleasing and effective. Only rarely are more than a couple of tones within one family strongly reminiscent of each other, and although you won't find FM clarity here, the MAX makes a pretty good stab at the sort of percussive sounds digital synths seem to be so good at reproducing.
As it happens, those percussion voices are more useful than they might at first appear. Using the MAX's bass and snare drum sounds and something appropriate from the pitched bass range, you can coax the six-channel sequencer into behaving pretty much like a programmable rhythm section - and still have three of MAX's timbres to experiment with on the keyboard. Note entry into the sequencer is still only in real time, of course, so you've got to have a reasonable sense of rhythm, but seeing as the MAX is intended to appeal primarily to first-time polysynth buyers, it makes sense to offer those buyers a rhythm programming facility they can use without having to gain access to dedicated percussion and sequencing devices.
One problem surrounding the sequencer is that, unlike the one in the SixTrak, it doesn't incorporate any battery-backed RAM to hold your sequences in memory when the synth has been powered down for the night. Instead, Sequential have seen fit to store two demo pieces in a non-erasable ROM, which means they're in there forever, regardless of whether or not they're to your musical taste. They may help shift synthesisers from dealers' shelves, but their inclusion won't please musicians of a reasonably creative bent who would rather have seen MAX's chip money spent in a less narrow-minded fashion.
"Unlike the sequencer in the SixTrak, this one doesn't incorporate any battery-powered RAM to hold your sequences when the synth is powered down for the night."
The back panel of a synth is rarely the scene of much surprise or technological debate these days, but in the case of the MAX, there's a lot that catches the attention, for both good and bad reasons.
First, the power. In what I can only term a bizarre move, SCI have blessed their new baby with a power requirement of 8V AC, which isn't exactly the most common operating voltage in the universe. Of course, if you buy a MAX in the UK you get a suitable 220V-to-8V transformer so that you can plug the machine in and play it as soon as you get it home, but what happens if it subsequently breaks down or goes astray? I hope Sequential are going to keep a good supply (pun intended) of spares.
You want some better news? Well, how about the fact that the main/headphone output is stereo and that two additional outputs (marked A and B - both phonos) enable you to connect MAX to, say, a domestic hi-fi system without so much as an interconnection hiccup?
The rest of the back panel news is concerned more with what isn't there than with what is. It seems SCI haven't paid much attention to the critics who pointed out the SixTrak's dearth of decent interfacing facilities, because what the earlier synth lacked, MAX lacks too. That means no separate outputs for each of the synth's six voices (it would have been a real boon for recording fans), no tape connectors for storing voices and sequences on cassette, no MIDI Thru socket (from the people who invented the system in the first place), and no sync socket other than that inherent within the MIDI connectors: the only drum machines that will sync to the MAX are those that recognise (and are friendly towards) the MIDI clock.
You'll probably have noticed that throughout this review, I've placed almost as much importance on what Sequential's designers haven't seen fit to endow the MAX with as what they have. In reality, if you take the trouble to listen carefully to its full range of preset sounds and compare its implementation of MIDI with that of similar designs, you can't help but admire the way the MAX's design people have gone about doing their job.
What makes things a little more difficult is MAX's recommended retail price - an unexpectedly high £725. I say 'unexpectedly' simply because that does seem like an awful lot of money to pay for a preset synthesiser these days: there are a great many programmables around for a good bit less.
Personally, I can't help thinking Sequential would have been better off omitting the MAX's keyboard (thereby cutting component and production costs) and fitting the patch change software onboard, in much the same way as the manufacturers mentioned at the start have gone about their MIDI expander business.
The MAX's synergistic relationship with the SixTrak is not in itself surprising, but what isn't immediately obvious is just how far that relationship goes: many of MAX's sounds are designed to be doubled up by the corresponding preset on the SixTrak, while the prospect of 12-channel, multi-timbral synchronised sequencing (SixTrak as master, MAX as slave) in this price range is mouth-watering. So why didn't SCI pitch the MAX more towards existing SixTrak (and other MIDI polysynth) owners instead of going for the synth newcomer who just wants a library of sounds and a multitrack sequencer to play them on?
Time and the sales figures may prove me wrong, but I don't feel the above category of musicians is a particularly large one - at least, not any more.
Further information: Sequential (Europe), (Contact Details).
Review by Dan Goldstein
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