The Main Event
RTL Event Sync Box
It's that man again! David Mellor enters the mysterious world of timecode and stalks one of its new inhabitants - the Event timecode/MIDI processor from Real Time Logic.
I would not have thought that there could be a lot of money in the business of making timecode/MIDI processors. After all, whereas a studio may have several synthesizers and rackfulls of effects units, there can be room only for one timecode box. Even so, at the rate of one unit per studio installation, there seem to be plenty of manufacturers who want to get in on the game, at many levels.
The Event unit from Real Time Logic, a new British company, is aimed pretty much at the top end of the market, in terms of what it will do for you, but at lower cost than previous ASAD (all-singing, all-dancing) pieces of equipment.
Snug inside its 1U, rack-mounting, dark grey case, the Event looks as though you could get used to operating it pretty quickly, and indeed you can. There are a lot of functions that could come under the timecode/MIDI banner and this unit does most of them. If the real manual is as useful as the provisional one I had, then it will not be too long before you are up and running. It's thick (the manual), and if you drop it on your foot, don't say I didn't warn you - but all the information you need is in there in a logical order.
Let's pretend it's a used car and look at the bodywork first. A 16-element fluorescent alphanumeric display (not 7-segment) is used for all timecode values and messages. The power-up message can be user set, so you can have a welcoming 'Hi There!' or a more prosaic studio name greeting. 19 pushbuttons do all the work and there is only one level of shift key operation so things do not get too complicated. There are a number of LEDs scattered about so that when you have set a function using the shift key, the appropriate LED illuminates to remind you.
Before I get on to the meat of the review, let's look at the basics of what the Event does.
The Event is essentially a timecode-to-MIDI convertor. Timecode from tape goes in at one end and MIDI song pointers and clock pulses come out at the other. In addition, there is a wide variety of clock pulse outputs available - probably enough to drive any machine you can think of. I know that clock pulses are going out of fashion, but if you run a commercial studio, people will bring in all kinds of old relics of sequencers and arpeggiators which they want synced up to their MIDI gear. With this machine, you will have a good chance of doing it! Let's get systematic and go through all the main features.
The Event can, of course, generate its own timecode. All four standard formats can be selected: SMPTE drop and non-drop, EBU and film. In the case of video work, where timecode must be slaved from video sync pulses, there will be an optional extra module available to allow you to do this. The extra video module also provides the luxury of jam sync, where the timecode generator can have its timecode value automatically locked up to incoming code. This is useful for repairing the 'broken' timecode which sometimes results from tape drop-outs.
USER BITS are a facility specified in the timecode standards, but not always implemented on available machinery. The Event allows you to set eight user bits from 0 to F (hexadecimal) for any secret (?) messages you want to have implanted in your code.
The start time, from which code will be generated, can be set anywhere within the 24 hour limit and there appears to be no problem either generating or reading code which crosses 'midnight'.
READ is the Event's power-up and default mode. When reading timecode, the fluorescent display shows the familiar hours, minutes, seconds and frames reading, together with the bar number. There is a 'no code' red LED to let you know if code is not coming in, and this flashes intermittently to warn of dropouts. A speed variation of +/- 30% is claimed to be tolerable. I couldn't get any of my machines to varispeed to this great an extent, but the Event handled everything I threw at it in the way of fast, slow and low-level code that you could reasonably expect it to.
SYSTEM OFFSET is a facility by which you can translate one timecode value to another, say 01.00.00.00 (01 hours, 00 minutes, 00 seconds, 00 frames) to 02.30.00.00. This facility is more useful with a synchroniser than a timecode/MIDI processor, but if I get the drift of the Event's message, the key word is versatility. If you want this facility, you've got it!
ERROR FRAME COUNT is a very instructive way of finding out the difference between good and bad code. Simply, the unit counts the mistakes it has had to correct - usually successfully and always the result of some sort of user wrongdoing. Recording code onto cassette and playing it back at about 10 decibels below the recommended level, for example, produced about 10 errors a minute, which were all inaudibly corrected by the Event. There is, as in the pro synchronisers of this world, a FLYWHEEL ability, where the Event can 'ride over' the effects of bad code until it comes upon something more to its taste. In this instance, you have the provision for setting the number of frames which will be ignored, if necessary, from 0 to 30. If you have to set this function to 30 frames (over a second), then it's time your heads had their annual clean-up!
Songwriters in search of a good title probably have a lot in common with equipment designers looking for a name for the function they have just invented. What does 'Auto-sync' mean to you? A way of using the Event as part of your in-car entertainment system perhaps? Auto-sync is, in fact, Eventspeak for 'MIDI song pointer on'.
Smarter than your average sync box, the Event allows two levels of song pointer resolution: every beat or every bar. When MIDI is reincarnated into a higher form of existence, presumably all manufacturers will be able to agree on how those little bits and digits are to be implemented. Until then, we must rely on people like Real Time Logic to make their machines versatile enough to handle all-comers. And while I'm on the subject, did you know that some sequencers need longer to 'get their bearings' after receiving a MIDI song pointer message than others? Yes, the Event can cope. You can select a lag of up to nine beats (which surely must be enough for the most scatterbrained of sequencers) and solve the problem. (If you have to wait more than two bars for your sequencer to catch up with your timecode, then I respectfully suggest that you are in need of a serious technology update!)
As you will know if you have explored timecode/MIDI processors to any extent, although sequencers usually have perfectly good tempo-setting features of their own, when it comes to syncing to tape you have to go through the whole process again on the sync box. If you are into uneven bar lengths and changing tempi, then you could have a lot to do!
Thankfully, although the task is made no less necessary, at least with the Event you can replicate every beat-per-bar or beat-per-minute alteration your sequencer can achieve.
If you want to keep things simple, then all you have to do is set the system tempo and that's that. 20 to 250 BPM (beats per minute) is the range on offer. Can anyone beat that? If BPM is a little too street-orientated for your taste, then there is the alternative of setting tempo in frames per beat. I can imagine film composers throwing away their calculators all over the country! Unlike many simpler machines, the Event allows you to adjust tempo very accurately in 0.01 BPM steps, which could be a real life-saver in certain circumstances. If you have ever tried swopping sync boxes in mid-recording, then you will know that different methods of converting timecode to MIDI clocks do not always agree in detail on what the exact tempo should be. Although the Event should be able to cope with this situation by means of very small precise adjustments, I wouldn't fancy having to do it myself - at least, if I was asked to I would quote an hourly rate!
Time signature setting is fairly painless, ranging from 1/4 to 15/8. I find it rather odd in such a versatile machine that you should be limited to quarter note (crotchet) or eighth note (quaver) signatures. There is quite a body of classical music written in time signatures which involve half notes (minims) and even whole notes (semi-breves), so I think the rest of the world ought to be able to go one better and have a nice wide range here. Something for the next software revision perhaps? Another nicety would be if you could change the number of metronome beeps to the bar, as an added guide when recording those awkward polyrhythms, perhaps.
So far, tempo matters have been simple. But what if I want to be able to change the tempo within a piece of music? Here goes...
The section of the manual which describes this function needs to be rewritten by someone with a musical, rather than a technical brain. Fortunately, I was able to get beyond the first confusing page to unearth the real info. How it works is like this:
Do your compositions last for less than 4000 beats? Yes? Then the Event's tempo sequencer can cope. Even if you want to change the tempo on each beat it can cope. The normal method of specifying tempo changes would be to enter them in step-time, as you might enter notes on a sequencer. There are a few functions to help you, however.
These are the INSERT BEAT and DELETE BEAT functions for making bars of different time signatures, although you will not be able to convert a 4/4 bar into a 9/8 bar because you can only add whole beats. An alternative to this is to move the barline, so that the beat pattern stays the same but you have stolen beats from one bar to put into another.
Although you could do most of the things you might want to with this function, it's not a process that dribbles off the ends of the fingers exactly. An easier way to set tempo is to use the facility to record from an external audio tempo source - such as a bass drum - complete with tempo changes. After a bit of practice, this system works well. I only wish you could programme tempo in this way direct from a MIDI clock input, it would save the bother of having to record an extra track of one-per-beat drums. Bright idea - if your sequencer has an audio click output, use that to programme the Event!
Although some manufacturers are trying to tell us that clock pulses are a thing of the past, as I said earlier, there is still a demand for them - no matter the popularity of MIDI. The Event is extraordinarily comprehensive in its clock outputs - and there is an optional module to make it better still!
In all, there are three clock outputs. Clock 3 is MIDI, but let's look at the capabilities of Clocks 1 and 2 first. Clock Output 1 can produce either pulse or FSK (frequency shift keying) information. Sample clock-set displays are shown in a separate panel. Clock Output 2 can handle the pulses, but not the FSK.
MIDI is MIDI, or so one might say, but here there is a choice of clock rates from 1 to 384 ppqn (pulses per quarter note), which of course includes the default setting of 24 ppqn. Incoming MIDI can be merged with timing data so that you can overdub to the sequencer while monitoring the multitrack tape. There is also the option to output the new MIDI Timecode (MTC) standard instead of the conventional clock/pointer format.
If you are really adventurous, you could use the Event to sync from one clock system to another, or even from the audio input and sync to a real bass drum on tape. This isn't one of my favourite sports, but if this is what you want, then I am sure that the multiplication and division options on offer will prove adequate. A tempo sampling and tracking facility is provided to make sure timing is accurate from the first beat.
CLOCK DELAY, if your sequencer does not have a similar function, will help get those tardy drum beats back into proper order. Clock pulses, of all kinds, can be accurately delayed up to nearly 40 milliseconds. If you use this function in tandem with the OFFSET function, then you can advance or delay your drum sounds by as much as 13 hours. Is this a record? Serious users of this type of facility will be pleased to know that a separate module is available to allow the delays for each of the three clocks to be set independently.
The cueing system on the Event is versatile, offering up to 62 user-programmable points spaced anywhere from timecode values 00.00.00.01 to 18.104.22.168. The idea is that any time a cue point is passed, you are able to send a MIDI program change message on any channel, should you not wish to do this on your sequencer.
Cue 1 is not available for user setting in this function as it corresponds to the PLAY START TIME and is set elsewhere. You can either do it manually and set the time to any timecode value between 00.00.00.01 and 22.214.171.124 or use a method of automatic setting described in the owner's manual. Using this technique, you can synchronise the start time of the Event to the first sound of your song recorded on the multitrack. This is a useful facility to have available for those 'emergency' situations which seem to crop up all too often. If you need to, you can trim the start time you found automatically to get it right on the nose.
The other cue points can be set either in step-time or in real-time. To record in real-time, you just set the tape running and press ENTER each time you want a cue to be recorded. These points are memorised and can be edited manually later. Cues can even be overdubbed if necessary.
When a cue sequence is being played back, you can monitor the cues as they occur, on the Event's display. It gives a 10-second countdown to each cue, and when there are none left it simply says 'No More Qs'.
Similar to cues are events. An 'event' is an on/off voltage controlled by timecode. There usually isn't a lot of call for this type of thing in a music studio, but if you're into radio advertising or any sort of film or video soundtrack work then you will be eager for this feature.
To explain a little further, if you listen to commercials then you will notice that they have a lot of sound effects and musical 'stings' in them. Traditionally, these have been flown-in from instant-start tape cartridge machines. Guess what? These machines can be operated by events controllers which supply on/off voltages, eg. the Event. In fact, with a couple of relays, you could control anything from the teasmaid to your electric blanket from timecode, if you wanted to.
The Event has seven completely independent event channels, each with up to 62 programmable event points. These can be recorded in a similar manner to cue points and can be edited in step-time for complete accuracy. Don't forget that you can also have a useful countdown to each event displayed on the Event's front panel when you play back.
Yes, I can well see this as a machine which will be a studio life-saver, as far as syncing up odd bits of equipment goes. For the simple MIDI studio, it has a lot of functions that might not find an immediate use, and functions which your sequencer should be able to perform more easily, but it is still competitive in price with other timecode/MIDI processors that don't have its advantages - its high degree of resolution, for example.
My advice, as always, is to check with the distributor or dealer that it will work with your equipment, give it a good hands-on going over, and then decide. If you need a sophisticated timecode/MIDI processor, the Event is well worth considering.
Price £850 plus VAT.
Contact Audio Digital Technology Ltd, (Contact Details)
Feature by David Mellor
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