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Steinberg Timelock

SMPTE Processor

For the Pro24 user who found Steinberg's SMP24 a little pricey - David Pickering Pick checks out a dedicated synchroniser that should keep everything in time without breaking the bank.

IN THE DIM and distant past (around 1984), the Tramiel family set out to design a computer to set new standards in power, performance, user-friendliness and price. Somebody suggested it might be nice to include a couple of MIDI ports on the back, "Who knows", they mused, "somebody out there might buy one because of the MIDI ports."

The computer was the Atari ST and one of the first people to notice the MIDI ports were Steinberg Research. Before long they had designed the Pro24.

Suddenly large numbers of people bought the ST/Pro24, and discovered a drawback - if you wanted to simultaneously sync to tape and record, you couldn't. At least, not without expensive extra boxes. And if you wanted intelligent tape syncing, it cost another £1000 or so. The euphoria began to fade. Rumours abounded that Steinberg would build a budget SMPTE interface. We waited; finally the SMP24 appeared - at £900. At last Steinberg have kept their promise, and produced an interface, fully integrated with the Pro24, for under £400. And very good it is, though it is worth emphasising that it can only be used with the Pro24/Atari.

The Timelock plugs into the printer port on the back of the ST (as does the SMP24) and is connected to the second, spare, joystick port - presumably to draw its power. There are three other connectors, SMPTE In and Out, on phono sockets, and a five-pin DIN socket which isn't MIDI, but a DIN (Roland) Sync output. This provides start, stop and timing information, though no bar/beat information or song position pointers.

With the Timelock comes an instruction booklet which tells you most of what you need to know. There is also a special version of the Pro24 (2.1), for the Timelock. On arriving at the main screen, the first thing to do is to go to the Mastertrack on the Track menu, and set tempo and time signature, whether a single one for the whole song or several with bar references where the tempo changes. Back on the main page, the Mastertrack is switched on. It is then necessary to select 'Sync:external', before going to the SMPTE option under the MIDI menu. This is where you instruct the Timelock to generate SMPTE, starting at any time specified in hours, minutes, seconds, frames and subframes (80/frame). Once this is done you can specify up to 16 cue points, either in relation to SMPTE time, or bar/beat/dock. The first of these cue points is the start of the song, and must be specified first. Timelock will then calculate the SMPTE timing for other cues from bar coordinates.

Also on the SMPTE page you can set the sync for the DIN output, and one or two other utilities. Back on the main page, you're ready to lock to tape.

I tried to upset the Timelock by recording a loud drum track on the tracks either side of the SMPTE code but this piece of malicious stupidity caused no problems whatsoever. I experienced no problems with drop-outs either, but these would have to be quite severe before you'd notice the sync slipping. Incidentally, the effects of momentary losses of sync are cumulative, as with any SMPTE/MIDI system, as it is the original cue time which starts the sequencer off, and it won't catch up if there are bits of code missing.

I understand that the Timelock works to a resolution of 1/384th beat, compared to 1/96th for MIDI sync. By recording a drum track on tape then running the same pattern alongside it, the Timelock managed at worst a phasing of cymbals and a smearing of drum transients, and at best no noticeable error at all.

Nothing in this life is perfect, and the Timelock isn't either. Initially I had difficulty getting it to write SMPTE code which it would be prepared to read back. A new unit was promptly despatched to me which was the same. After considerable fiddling about I discovered that if I tried to write SMPTE with the Timelock's input receiving the code at the same time, it was unreadable. I cured it by disconnecting the SMPTE In during the write operation. Steinberg ought to fix this, I reckon.

I also managed to get the machine into "panic" mode, where it would pick a bar at random each time I started the tape. I don't remember how I got into this amusing mode, but the only way out was to re-load the Pro24. Other criticisms are design ones and are probably a matter of taste; I would have liked some visual indication when the Timelock locks to tape - a small LED would have done.

With its fast and accurate lock-up, infinitely variable time signature and tempo changes within the song, convenience and disk storage of start and tempo parameters with the song, I would say that the Atari/Pro24/Timelock combination gives real value for money.

Price £399 including VAT

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