Sync or Swim?
MPC Sync Track
Many home recordings these days make good use of drum machines and sequencers. Linking such devices together in synchronism is an easy way of reducing the number of tracks needed during recording, whilst syncing them to tape provides the option of changing drum parts (if required) at a later date.
The Sync Track from MPC Electronics is a low-cost tape sync unit that lets you do just that. We gave musician Shirley Gray the opportunity to evaluate the unit fully over several months in a studio. Here's her report...
Listen to any record in the Top Twenty and the chances are that it will be utilising some form of programmable, electronically triggered device such as a drum machine or sequencer, the current trend being to use expensive systems like the Linn Drum Computer, Emulator, and Fairlight. However, for those of us with more modest incomes there are a number of reasonably priced programmable drum machines and sequencers available like the Roland TR606, TR808 drum machines, and CSQ600 sequencer, all of which can be synced (synchronised) together or used to run arpeggiators on the more modestly priced polysynths now available.
But there has always been a problem when recording songs using this sort of set-up in that you have to put them down on to tape first, and if you decide half-way through the session that the drum part doesn't quite fit after all, or you want a bit of bass sequencer on the choruses, no amount of fiddling, gnashing of teeth, or tearing out of hair will get it in sync again. The only option is to start recording again.
To avoid this timewasting (and painful) situation the professionals nowadays record an SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) code onto tape which on playback will trigger any unit or system capable of reading the code (like the Emulator II or Fairlight) to run perfectly in time with the track. This enables you to change anything at any stage of the recording process - right up to mixdown (except, of course, the speed of the track). As its title suggests, the SMPTE code was originally used for syncing a soundtrack to a film and I'm afraid such things are far from cheap. Even the new Roland SBX-80 which reads and generates SMPTE, and will also respond to Roland sync codes, retails at a price beyond the means of most humble musos.
My introduction to the use of sequencers in the studio began just over a year ago when we started using the Korg Polysix arpeggiator to add extra interest to our demos. We would record a pre-programmed trigger pulse from a Roland TR808 or 606 onto tape and simultaneously record a rim-shot (or in the case of the TR606 - a snare drum) counting four beats to the bar for the drummer to keep time to. This system had its advantages in that we could add as many arpeggios as we liked at any stage of the recording, mess about with different sounds and notes, and even on drop-ins, the arpeggiator would pick up the pulse.
Disadvantages, however, were numerous. It was quite difficult to record and play back the trigger pulse at the correct levels to get it to work because the trigger pulse from a unit such as the TR808 or 606 is not actually an audio signal but a burst of DC. This wasted a fair bit of time - and looking back, I'm surprised it worked as often as it did.
Yet another problem, as all owners of both Korg and Roland products will know, is that the Polysix clock won't run in time with the Roland trigger pulse - there is always a short delay due to Korg choosing to use a negative going pulse as their switch instead of a positive one. Initially we solved this problem by using a DDL to delay the click-track for the drummer until he was playing in time with the Polysix arpeggiator, then finally a friend took pity on us and designed a little box of tricks to reverse the polarity of the pulse. After all this we were then restricted to the rhythm of the pulse recorded.
Enter the MPC Sync Track, which has solved many, though not all of our problems. This is a small battery-powered device which will turn the sync output of a drum machine or sequencer into an audio signal to be recorded onto tape, and on playback can be used to run your sequencer or drum machine (and in turn, your arpeggiator).
I found the Sync Track very easy to use, the labelling on the box being very clear and logical. To record the code onto tape you connect a five-pin DIN connector between the 'sync out' of your drum machine, and the 'sync in' on the Sync Track, and a lead to your tape machine or mixer from the jacket socket marked 'to tape'.
The battery is automatically switched on when a jack plug is inserted into either the 'from' or 'to tape' sockets and although it has no facility for mains powering its power consumption is not excessive and a PP3 9 volt battery will give approximately seventy hours continuous use.
When you run the drum machine or sequencer after making the appropriate connections, the Sync Track emits its code, and the handbook recommends you set the recording level between -3 and -7dB on your tape recorder's VU meters. To play back the code you connect a lead from your tape machine to the jack socket marked 'from tape' and connect your five-pin DIN lead from the 'sync out' socket on the Sync Track, to the 'sync in' on your drum machine (remembering to change the switch on the drum machine to 'input'). I found that it was necessary to turn down the output from the tape machine before the Sync Track would run properly, and, in fact, ended up recording the code at -10dB.
Apart from the main advantage of being able to change a drum pattern or sequence later in the session, another handy feature of the Sync Track is the 'run/stop' switch which lets you pause or drop in at any point in the track. This is something you are unable to do with a unit like the Roland MC202 which has a pilot tone at the beginning of the code that has to be picked up before the machine will run correctly. This can make things very frustrating if you are using the MC202 to run say, an arpeggiator via the TR808, the part you want to put on is on the last verse, and you want to practise it a few times before the 'take'. The Sync Track is extremely useful for this sort of application, but you have to flick the switch to 'run' at precisely the right time which is quite tricky, and I can't help feeling that a button would have been easier to operate than a toggle switch here.
Also they provide a 'beat/bar' switch which can be operated in conjunction with the 'run/stop' switch exclusively with Roland devices. When set to 'bar', upon flicking the 'run/stop' switch to 'run' the drum machine will restart at the beginning of the bar you stopped in; and when set to 'beat', the drum machine will start on the next beat after the one you stopped on. This could be useful if, say, you wanted to stop a sequence or drum pattern half-way through a bar and restart it half-way through one of the following bars. Personally I find it easier to programme such gaps into the memory of a drum machine but this lacks the spontaneity and freedom to experiment which is possible with the Sync Track facility.
Although this unit was designed primarily for use with Roland products, it is possible to use it with other units possessing only clock input/output sockets. To do this you need to know the wiring connections on the five-pin DIN, which are listed in the handbook as follows:
Pin 1 - start-stop signal
Pin 2 - ground
Pin 3 - clock signal (5 volts pulse)
Pin 1 - start/stop signal
Pin 2 - ground
Pin 3 - clock signal (5 volts TTL level)
To obtain a signal to record onto tape, connect pins 1 and 3 of the 'sync in' DIN socket together and feed your clock output into these, using pin 2 as ground. On playback a clock pulse can be obtained from pin 3 of the 'sync out' socket again with pin 2 being the ground connection.
It must, of course, be remembered that the Sync Track does not actually produce the code that goes onto tape, but merely processes the timing clock from your drum machine or whatever. This means that the timing will only be correct if the Sync Track is used to trigger the same type of machine as was used to record the track in the first place.
For example, if a track is recorded using a Drumatix which produces 24 clock pulses per beat and then this track is used to synchronise another machine that requires a different number of pulses per beat, then this new machine will obviously not play back at the correct speed. This is not generally a problem as most people will use the same machine to record and replay the sync track.
Well, as you might expect, the code crosstalks slightly onto adjacent tracks, but to be fair this has been the case with all the sync codes I've ever tried. Also, it is not a good idea to record excessively transient material (drums, for instance) on an adjacent tape track, as this may interfere with the smooth operation of the sync code, indeed I often found it impossible to record a drum machine or sequencer which was being run from the Sync Track on an adjacent track to the code.
The shortcomings of this unit are minimal and at this price (£39.95) - retailing at less than most budget effects pedals, you cannot expect it to compete with a pro sync system in terms of facilities - but those it does have represent excellent value for money.
One aspect of the system that I have found particularly useful is the ability to save tracks by not actually recording the finalised drum machine and sequencer parts onto tape at all! Instead, a guide drum track could be used and later discarded to make room for another instrument. Then, using the Sync Track at mixdown, it is possible to run drums and sequencers in glorious stereo - a luxury for those of us who own four and eight track machines!
This also means that you have saved tracks for other instruments by not committing sequencers and drums to tape; furthermore you are not committed to the EQ that they would have had if they had already been recorded. You are therefore able to have greater control of the overall sound picture and, of course, have the happy side effect of the drums and sequences being recorded first generation onto the finished master.
The MPC Sync Track retails at £39.95 including VAT from all good music shops.
If you have difficulty locating one contact MPC directly: MPC Electronics Ltd., (Contact Details).
Review by Shirley Gray
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