Slap 'n' Tickle
High quality sampled bass sounds that you can play from any MIDI keyboard, sequencer or drum machine are offered by the 360 Systems MIDI BASS. Tony Hastings assesses its performance.
High quality sampled bass sounds that you can play from any MIDI keyboard, sequencer or drum machine are offered by this latest hi-tech import. Tony Hastings assesses its performance.
Back in the mists of time (about two years ago) when Fairlights ruled the earth and, to the average musician, sampling was a means of checking out the latest Danish lager, an American company called 360 Systems introduced a keyboard with preset sampled sounds at a price that seemed almost cheap by comparison to the £20,000 that you would have had to spend to own a Fairlight. But for some reason the machine never really 'happened' and was left to bravely point the way to where the Mirage would eventually follow (and consequently surpass). Now the name 360 is back in business, albeit in a smaller fashion, and attempting to corner a new market with their MIDI BASS expander.
The MIDI BASS is a small rectangular box, finished in dark blue and containing four preset, monophonic bass samples. On first inspection, it appears solid and well constructed and has a certain professional air about it. It is playable from any MIDI keyboard or sequencer and will respond to program change, pitch bend and velocity information.
One of the first things you notice about the MIDI BASS is the slightly old-fashioned style of controls. You won't find a nice back-lit LCD saying "Welcome to the 360", nor an alpha-dial, nor lots of membrane switches. In fact, you won't find many controls at all!
Starting on the top panel at the left-hand side, there is a pot which governs the sample playback volume, below which are four square, white pushbuttons each with its own red status LED. These are used to choose the preset sound stored in memory - for you cannot sample yourself with this unit, it's for playback only. In fact, the act of pressing down any button that is displaying an illuminated LED will result in the current sound playing either the last note that you sent it from your MIDI keyboard or a one-shot note at the pitch of A (440Hz).
In order to play the sampled bass sounds, you need to set the MIDI receive channel for the unit unless you use it in Omni mode. This is done with a horizontal sliding switch which has eight notches. Each notch has two values, one written above and one below, corresponding to a MIDI channel. For some quirky reason, the MIDI BASS only operates on 14 (not 16) channels which may appear a limitation in print but doesn't prove so in practice. The first notch, upper and lower, says 'all' and places the unit into the aforementioned Omni mode, meaning it will respond to MIDI pitch information received on any channel (up to 14). The next notch reads '1' above and '8' below and so on up to '7/14'. Pressing a shift control together with the Preset 1 button alternates between the upper and lower channel value.
In the top right-hand corner is another horizontal sliding switch, this time with only three notches. This again has a dual function and, using its upper settings, you can select the 'Key Priority'. For being monophonic, the MIDI BASS needs to know which note it should play if you depress more than one key simultaneously on your keyboard. In the left-hand position it plays the 'lowest' note you send, the centre position will play the 'newest' note, regardless of whether you keep the old keys depressed (pressing shift plus Preset 4 alternates 'last' note with 'first' key priority - 'first key' will only play a note when no old notes are being held down), while the right-hand position sounds the 'highest' current note you play.
These modes are good in that they allow the MIDI BASS to match a particular playing style.
The bottom functions of this switch are used to determine the upper and lower pitch range limits over which the sample will replay. Beneath this is another volume-style pot that changes the fine tuning of the samples, and that's it for the controls (apart from the obligatory on/off switch on the front).
As we all know, the fact that synthetic and sampled sound generators have become less and less expensive doesn't always mean that they are capable of producing the best sounds. You still need a DX7, a Mirage or equivalent synth to give those big, fat, classy bass sounds, and that still means spending around £1000 or more, which seems an awful waste of an expensive synth to get a good bass sound. But here's where 360 have spotted their market and moved in. How about a unit that can give a choice of the best bass sounds around, leaves the big synths to do their own thing and costs less than £400? Brave words, but can it really deliver? I connected the MIDI BASS into part of my own sequencer system and started putting it through its paces.
On power up you get four sampled bass sounds each stored on its own ROM chip. Multi-samples have been used so that the instrumental sounds remain authentic even at extreme pitch ranges. The first sample on this particular model is a Fender Jazz bass played with a plectrum. The sound is very bright and free of sampling noise and it fitted very well in a pseudo rock sequence (in fact, it's in conjunction with a sequencer that you realise just how useful this little box of tricks really is). The next sound is a Fender Jazz bass with the strings being 'snapped' in that popular funk fashion. I was a little disappointed in this one because it sounded a bit thin and just too 'snappy' for continual use, and even though I wrote it into an appropriate sort of funky sequence it still didn't seem quite natural.
The next sound was my favourite: a plucked, upright double bass. The sound is truly excellent, a real sleazy late-night jazzy kind of sound. I spent hours with this, playing everything from the 'Pink Panther' theme to 'Air on a G string'. The final sample is a mixture of that good old favourite, the Mini-Moog, plus an Oberheim Xpander module. This offers a very powerful synth bass sound, both tight and punchy but, for my money, just a little lacking in bottom end. Of course, with a good mixing desk you can boost it with the EQ, but I had no real complaint because as with all the samples, it was free of any noticeable noise and responded extremely well to my JX8P's velocity keyboard.
If you want to add to these basic sounds, you can buy four ZIF adaptors (zero insertion force) which make chip installation/removal so much easier, and purchase new sound chips from a growing library of bass sounds that include: slap, thumb, popped, DX7, Steinberger, hammered, Gibson, Fender and many others (over 30 in fact).
The MIDI BASS has a sample storage capacity of 256K (same as the original Prophet 2000) which accounts for the excellent playback quality and an audio bandwidth specification of 16-16kHz. The rear panel sports an Audio Out jack for connection to an amp or mixer, MIDI In and MIDI Thru sockets and a connected mains lead.
The unit with two chips installed should be selling for £299 (unit plus four chips £360) and alternate sound chips should cost around £35. I also received a cassette with the review model demonstrating some of the other sounds available and many of them are extremely impressive (provided you ignore the over-the-top Max Headroom style American commentary).
As I said at the start, 360 Systems have seen their market and covered it well. This is the ideal expander for producing great bass sounds at a low cost. For someone with a small sequencer set-up who can't afford to dedicate a DX7 to handle just the bass bits, or someone who wants to get nice, fat bass sounds in a live situation - doubling the left-hand part of a synth playing 'lighter' sounds - the MIDI BASS seems tailor-made.
The preset sounds themselves are impressive in their quality of reproduction even if you don't particularly like the basic sound itself. And being able to change sample chips means you can build up a library of your own favourite sounds. It is easy to use, and refreshing to operate 'physical' switches and buttons once again that proudly proclaim what's what at a glance. Definitely something you should check out.
Review by Tony Hastings
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