MIDI Connection Matrix
There are now more peripheral MIDI devices than there are MIDI-equipped musical instruments. Trish McGrath treads through the debris to report on an ingenious connection matrix from London's Syco Systems.
As the average MIDI system continues to expand, the range of available units to aid quick and easy connections follows suit. We take a look at one of the most ingenious.
It seems that Sycologic, the designing and manufacturing wing of prestigious London synth emporium Syco Systems, are about to confirm the old adage that the simplest ideas are usually the best. When MIDI became the new standard for interfacing common or garden synths, sequencers and drum machines, the practice of linking them in a chain brought to light a number of shortcomings. First, having to chain synths together necessitates at least some if not all of them having a MIDI Thru socket, as those without can only be used as either the master or the end-of-chain keyboard. To add to the logistic difficulties, linking a number of synths in this way can lead to slight time delays due to the serial nature of the MIDI standard, while the chain system can itself be too inflexible for comfort in many cases, as redefining the master and slaves can result in endless and inconvenient lead-swapping.
What keyboard players (or at least, those with three or four MIDI instruments) need is a convenient way of linking them all to a central musical 'switchboard', whereby any extension can call up any other extension for a MIDI chat at the flick of a switch, and in which the transmitter can copy the MIDI message to more than one receiver simultaneously. This is more or less what the Sycologic MI4 has been designed to do, managing as it does to link up to four MIDI units in a star network which allows master and slaves to be selected easily and redefinitions carried out painlessly - and even remotely.
Although the MI4 delivered to E&MM's doorstep was a prototype, it's clear that its grey metal casing is sturdy enough to handle all but the clumsiest of Guitarist readers. The built-in power supply receives the necessary juice via a standard europlug mains lead, and the range of rear panel sockets is completed by four MIDI In and four MIDI Out sockets, all on standard five-pin DIN connectors. It's on this panel that the newly-available colour-coded MIDI cables (complete with their foolproof 'In' and 'Out' labels) are worth their weight in gold, as they go no small way towards identifying the jungle of leads that can be connected to the unit at any one time.
The MI4's top panel is laid out simply and neatly, and features a four-by-four matrix of red LEDs, along with four of both Source and Destination selectors. Source, logically enough, signifies the data being received from the MIDI Outs of connected instruments and defines the master(s), while Destination denotes the routing to the MIDI Ins of connected units (ie. the slaves). White-painted squares are also included opposite each Source and Destination option, the idea behind these being that you can label each instrument connected on the top panel. The upper echelons of the modern music world will have no difficulty inserting the appropriate 'Fairlight', 'DX1' and 'Xpander' legends, but the less financially fortunate will have a job getting 'Pro One via new Boss MI10 MIDI-to-CV Interface' onto the entire row, let alone one square.
Residents of Surbiton and outlying regions would no doubt describe operating the MI4 as 'a segment of gateaux', as it entails merely connecting a combination of three or four MIDI synths, drum machines or sequencers (remembering to designate each one a number between 1 and 4) to the appropriate MIDI Ins and Outs on the rear panel.
The left-hand Source selectors allow the master keyboard to be selected, so let's say for argument's sake that it's synth #1 - simultaneously pressing Destinations 2, 3 and 4 effectively means that the other three units will come to life as soon as the master is activated, in which case the Source button's built-in LED will flash to indicate that MIDI data is issuing forth.
The MI4 also incorporates a feature known as 'switch lock-out', which prevents selections being made while MIDI data is flowing through the unit (the circuitry will wait for a gap in transmission). The intention is to prevent corruption of MIDI events (note-off commands not getting through, for example), but I still succeeded in confusing a Korg Poly 800 into a state of endless droning, poor thing. However, so long as you don't try messing with the matrix while the master is playing, you really shouldn't encounter any problems. One further point is that the Source LED pertaining to data being received by a synth that features Active Sensing (eg. DX7, JX8P) flickers to show that the MIDI connection is OK, while any Roland MIDI clock lights the LED continuously in a similar fashion.
Switching out any destination routing can be done by pressing the Destination button twice in quick (too quick for comfort) succession. I'm left wondering just why the required time interval is so short, because even with the benefit of practice, the switching-out process can be more than a little hit and miss.
To save brain fatigue, it makes sense to set each connected unit to MIDI Channel 1, unless the Source is a MIDI multitrack sequencer on which different MIDI channels have been assigned to different tracks. Of course, connecting a dedicated MIDI sequencer to a star network like this allows you to switch effortlessly from one synth to another when recording and playing backtracks, and a MIDI drum machine can contribute on playback as and when required. In fact, the only real problem I encountered was trying to tune all the synths to the same pitch. Sycologic can't solve that one yet, I'm afraid. If you're wondering how the MI4 can be applied to your particular set-up, simply keep in mind that whereas any one Source can be routed to up to three destinations, any destination can naturally have only one Source. In other words, you can't have a synth expecting MIDI data from more than one master.
For a moderate further outlay, Sycologic will supply a hand-held remote control unit that'll allow you to switch between any of the combinations made possible by the MI4. However, since the relevant infra-red detector is located at the front of the MI4, said unit was generally unco-operative whenever I attempted to trigger it from the rear or sides.
RRPs: MI4, £189, Remote £49, both prices exclusive of VAT.
Further details from Sycologic Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Trish McGrath
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