Tascam MTS1000 MIDIizer
As the prices of 8 and 16-track tape recorders have come within the reach of more users, synchronisers are becoming familiar, even essential, to an increasing number of people. David Mellor chases Tascam's new machine and midi synchroniser.
It has taken Tascam some time to catch up with Fostex and produce a machine synchroniser, and rather than clash head-on, they have chosen to take a slightly different approach with the MIDIizer. To recap on Fostex's product list, their 4030 synchroniser will control a basic master-slave system, where the slave machine follows the movements of the master, with or without a timecode offset, and that's about all that happens. But add to that a Fostex 4035 controller and you have a much more sophisticated system with autolocate facilities as well.
The 4030/4035 combination is now well-known and respected in the industry. By adding extra 4030s, one per additional machine to be synchronised, the system can be expanded up to one master and three slaves, which is as many as most sensible people normally aspire to. On the fringes of the 4000 series (there are also various timecode readers, generators etc.) is the Fostex 4050. The 4030/4035 can be supplied with interfaces to operate with most studio equipment, but the 4050 only works with Fostex gear. It acts as a full autolocator for the E16, and allows MIDI synchronisation too, but it's not a machine synchroniser so it can't lock the E16 to a video.
The Tascam MIDIizer, however, has the autolocation and MIDI facilities of the Fostex 4050, but it can also synchronise two machines — either video and multitrack, or perhaps two multitracks. It doesn't have the expansion capabilities of the Fostex system but it can do more than any one Fostex unit. As we shall see, it's quite a capable little gadget which, within its own terms of reference, delivers the goods.
Like the Fostex 4050, but unlike the 4030/4035 combination, the Tascam MIDIizer comes all in one box. It's quite a large box in fact, large enough for a decent user interface (that's jargon for sensible control layout), but unfortunately Tascam's interface department were having an off day when they did this one, as we shall see. One thing the top panel is not short of is LEDs — there are over 80 of them. The unit is initially quite complex to get the hang of (as are the near equivalent Fostex units), but this doesn't get in the way of its usefulness — although you will have to get used to pressing a lot of buttons.
When it's fully hooked up to a battery of equipment, the MIDIizer becomes quite a control centre. You could, for example, be syncing two Tascam MSR16 multitracks to create a 30-track system, and use them as masters to drive a MIDI sequencer, a drum machine, and that antique pre-MIDI sequencer you picked up at a jumble sale, and even send program changes to MIDI effects units. The MIDIizer sports no less than three MIDI Out sockets on the back, plus another 5-pin DIN socket carrying old-style clock pulses. There is a MIDI In socket too, which is necessary for transferring tempo changes from a sequencer to the MIDIizer, but unaccountably there is no dedicated MIDI Thru, nor is there any merging of MIDI data from the In to any of the Outs.
I would have said that since no manufacturer can predict just how individual users may want to configure their MIDI systems, they ought to provide the full set of MIDI connections. Also, on any tape-to-MIDI synchroniser, there really should be a merge function from In to Out so that notes from a keyboard can be overdubbed into a sequencer while it's running in sync with the tape (of course, if your sequencer has two MIDI Ins, the merging can be done there).
On the machine control side of things, the MIDIizer has two serial interface connectors for a master and slave machine. So, to run two Tascam machines together all you need are two interface cables. However if you want to use the MIDIizer to lock an audio machine to a video recorder in anything but the most basic way, then you'll need another box — the IF1000 Parallel Interface Unit — which is not reviewed here. The IF1000 will also be needed if you want to synchronise audio recorders which have parallel interfaces, such as the Tascam MS16.
This may seem to complicate matters, but actually what Tascam have done is to make the MIDIizer a piece of kit that you can simply buy and plug in if you are working with recent Tascam equipment, or at the most basic level of video. If you're dealing with anything more complicated than this, then you'll have to consult your Tascam dealer — as you would have to consult a specialist no matter which synchroniser system you bought. MIDI may be pretty well standardised by now, but machine control still has a long way to go.
I have mentioned the MIDI sockets and machine control connections, but there is plenty more on the rear panel of the MIDIizer that's worth knowing about. There are phono connectors for timecode input from both slave and master machines, and loop-through connectors so that you can send your code on to another destination if necessary. The timecode generator also uses a phono output socket, but other connections are via jacks. There is an input for an Audio Click, which as we shall see later can be used for tempo programming, and a Metronome output. There are two footswitch jacks, for Start/Stop and Foot Tap which does for your toes what the Tap/Mark button on the front does for your fingers.
I don't know whether anyone has actually suffered from a terminal case of techno-fear yet, but when the first report appears in The Lancet it will probably describe a case in which the victim was overcome by a brutal posse of DIP switches. (The initials DIP, as you probably know, stand for 'Difficult and Intricate to Program'.) When they appear on equipment, there are always too many of them, and not only are they very fiddly to operate, but it's usually a major undertaking just to find out from the manual what positions they are meant to be in. Well, the MIDIizer has 16 of the little devils, but fortunately the panel makes setting them extremely simple. You'll still need to check with the manual which position some of them should be in, but other manufacturers would do well to follow this example of clarity (or better still, find a way to do away with them entirely).
When I first saw the Tascam MIDIizer my eyes were drawn to the large rotary control in the lower left corner. "Could this be some kind of shuttle/jog wheel?", I thought, "now that could be very useful". Unfortunately it isn't, and the wheel does surprisingly little apart from scrolling through the memory contents, tempo, and offset setting — for which it is actually very good. After that minor disappointment, I peered for some time at the 5 x 8 LED matrix panel, wondering how I was ever going to make sense of it. Fortunately, help was at hand — Tascam have mastered the art of writing good manuals. They are never the easiest to find your way around, but the information is all there, and understandable. The five rows have the following functions: the top two rows indicate the 'record ready' settings for up to 16 tracks each on master and slave; the third row is for locate functions (including automatic punch in); the fourth row is used to set up a tempo map for driving a sequencer; the bottom row handles assorted other functions.
The other controls are scattered somewhat arbitrarily over the front panel, which makes it difficult to describe them in a logical order. So, applying as much logic as I can in the circumstances, I'll start with the LCD display at the top and work my way round anticlockwise. The display is a little on the small side, but it is more clear than many LCDs. During normal tape transport operations, you can select display of three main types of information with the push of a button (just to the left of the LCD). When reading timecode, the display shows the timecode from either the master or the slave machine, as selected by the Remote Select button. There is also a display of the Song Number and the current bar, beat and tempo (provided you have programmed a tempo map). The alternative Bar/Beat display is slightly more informative on the musical side of things (it's nice to be able to forget timecodes for a while), giving the time signature of the current bar as well as the bar number, beat and tempo. The third display mode is Diff which shows the difference in timecode between the master and slave machines.
Apart from providing these three run time displays, the LCD is also used for programming. A menu-driven system is used, whereby several options are displayed, which you use the numeric keys to select.
Down the left-hand side of the unit are five buttons with completely unrelated but essential functions. The top button selects whether master, slave or internal timecode is displayed. With the MIDI Chase button you can choose whether or not you want a sequencer to play along with (chase) the tape. Manual Play is for running the sequence without the tape (more on this later), and T/C Gen initiates timecode generation in the DIP switch-selected format (30fps, drop frame, 25fps or 24fps) with a start time of your choice. Offset is used for setting either a time difference between the master and slave machines and/or for setting the timecode start time of the MIDI sequence.
Beneath this set of controls is a row of LEDs which shows the current beat within a bar, thereby also giving a visual indication of tempo. The remaining controls on the left of the unit are the Tap/Mark button, used for tempo programming and cue point entering, and also the Stop/Continue and Start/Run buttons, for stopping and starting the MIDI sequencer when it is being driven by the MIDIizer's internal clock, and stopping and starting the timecode generator.
"When its fully hooked up to a battery of equipment, the MIDIizer becomes quite a control centre. You could sync two MSR16 multitracks to create a 30-track system, and use them as masters to drive a MIDI sequencer, a drum machine, and an antique pre-MIDI sequencer, and even send program changes to MIDI effects units."
Continuing anticlockwise we come to the numerical keypad and the transport controls, which need no explanation except to say that they can be switched to operate either the master or slave machines, and that they are nice and big (although I wish the record button had been red). Moving up the right hand side there are three buttons that are concerned with automatic punch in, and three more which enable slave chasing and set the sync and chase modes. Completing the round trip there are indicators for incoming code type, another that tells you when there is a good lock-up, and two LEDs which show whether the slave is ahead or behind the master when lock is close to being achieved.
The first and most basic function of the MIDIizer is as a remote control and autolocator, and you might want one for this purpose alone if you have a Tascam multitrack. The essential function of an autolocator is to be able to remember cue points, and to be able quickly to return the tape to any desired point. The MIDIizer can memorise up to 20 cues, which is more than enough for most pieces of music, if maybe not quite enough for an hour-long program (which the MSR16 can handle at 7.5ips tape speed). Cues can be entered manually, by specifying a timecode value or bar number, or they can be captured while the tape is running.
The timecode reader in the MIDIizer is clever enough to read code (or at least tach) while you turn the spools by hand in Edit mode, so it's possible to get really accurate cue points in this way. It does take a few button pushes to enter cues, but you do get there. Unfortunately, it also takes a few button pushes to recall cue points and locate to them. This is more of a problem, because what you really need is to be able to push one button to get to cues zero to nine, and two buttons to get to cues 10 to 99. I could make this comment about other systems, but surely this is what autolocation is all about: to get to the place you want with the least bother in the shortest possible time.
Automatic punch in and out is a straightforward business, as it is in any case on the later Tascam multitracks, including cassette machines. On the MIDIizer it works like this: first you have to set the in and out points. To do this you first have to enter Auto Rec mode, which takes two button pushes on the matrix. The display then offers you the choice of setting the points or executing the punch in. If you choose the former option, the next display asks whether you want to set the points by timecode value or bar number, or mark them on the fly. Let's be adventurous — running the tape up to the punch in point, you can mark the position by hitting the Tap/Mark button and then Enter. Hitting the Mark button a second time sets the punch out point.
When you actually come to perform your punch in, you can 'execute' it in three modes: Rehearsal; Record; Review. In each of these modes, the tape will spool back to a point just before the punch in (it's possible to adjust the pre and post-roll times), the tape plays, and the electronics perform the appropriate actions, and then the tape spools back ready for the next part of the sequence. It's very easy and the display prompts you what to do the whole time.
The simplest way to sync a multitrack to picture is to use the video as a 'code-only master'. This means that the only connection between the video and the synchroniser is a cable carrying timecode from the audio track. It's not the fastest way of working because the synchroniser only knows the current videotape location when the video recorder is actually playing. During fast forward or rewind, the synchroniser doesn't have a clue what's going on, so it can't issue any instructions to the multitrack. The big advantage of the code-only master way of working is that it's cheap, because you can use an ordinary domestic VHS machine. As Tascam point out in the MIDIizer manual, use of a more sophisticated video machine which could be controlled from the MIDIizer would require an extra interface.
I used my bottom-of-the-range Panasonic VHS as a code only master. The MIDIizer read timecode from the video's audio track — which is no mean feat in itself — and had no problem in syncing an MSR16 to picture. If you have a stop watch, you may notice that the MIDIizer takes a little bit longer to send the tape recorder to its destination than other synchronisers might, but in practice it should make hardly any difference. It gets there without any fuss. If you need to specify any offset between the timecode on the video and audio tapes, you can easily enter a rough value and then trim it while the tapes are running, using the scroll wheel. It actually feels rather better to do this using a wheel than with the nudge buttons that some machines provide.
If your sequencer doesn't have a timecode capability, then obviously it's useful to have it in your autolocator/machine synchroniser. The MIDIizer performs much the same functions as any unit of this type, and does the job well. That job, as you probably know, is to build up a map of tempo and time signature changes, so that when the timecode on tape reaches a set value, MIDI clock pulses (and position pointers) are sent to the sequencer so it knows how fast to go (and where it is in the song). The MIDIizer's tempo map can be created in four different ways: step entry; tap; manual; MIDI.
Step entry is the tedious 'punch in one beat at a time' method that you probably will not want to use unless you have to. Tap entry is where you tap along on the Tap/Mark key at the tempo you want. This is very handy when you want to add sequenced tracks to an existing recording. 'Tapping' can also be performed via the Audio Click input. Manual entry uses the scroll wheel to vary the tempo as the song plays. Saving the best till last, MIDI entry is the way to go if you have created a sequence (with tempo changes) and now want to start dumping tracks to tape. All you have to do is play the sequence, with the sequencer's MIDI Out connected to the MIDIizer's MIDI In, and the MIDIizer will 'learn' the tempo and any tempo changes. Very simple and effective.
Even if your sequencer already has a timecode capability, the MIDIizer's MIDI facilities can help you out by offering alternative locate modes — would you rather find your way around a song by timecode values or bar numbers? There's always going to be one person who says timecode values, but it must be easier to locate to the bar numbers of the song, surely. The MIDIizer will let you do so, even if your sequencer is syncing directly to the timecode on the tape. The trick is to use the MIDI tempo entry method to create the MIDIizer's map, so that the MIDIizer holds the same tempo information as your sequencer. You can then use its facility to locate by bar number. Things get slightly more complicated if you have changed time signatures during the piece, but it still gets away from those long strings of timecode digits.
The other major MIDI feature is for users who don't want to run a sequencer, but would still like to automate program changes on their MIDI effects units. Without going into all the details, I'll just say that it can be done. It's a useful feature to include. Another significant MIDI feature is support for MIDI Time Code.
There isn't a piece of equipment made that doesn't have drawbacks as well as benefits. The Tascam MIDIizer's strong point is that it provides a good set of functions at its own level. If you have a Tascam multitrack (or two Tascam multitracks) and want a basic two-machine synchroniser, then you can't go wrong with the MIDIizer, and it has all the related facilities you are likely to need. The downside is that overall it isn't as logical and simple to operate as it might have been (echoing my comments about the Fostex G16 last month). I have a feeling that, with equipment in general, ease of operation will become increasingly important as manufacturers begin to run out of scope in the 'feature count' of their products. Nevertheless, the Tascam MIDIizer is a good little worker and buyers should be well satisfied.
£1495 inc VAT.
Teac UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by David Mellor
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