The MAX Factor
A multitracking keyboard for the computer musician.
Chris Jenkins meets MAX, a multi-timbral MIDI keyboard designed for computer owners.
Sequential Circuits can always be relied upon to provide high-quality products, and in MAX they've also come up with something different and exciting.
Like the Six-Trak, MAX is a multi-timbral MIDI keyboard. Unlike the Six-Trak, MAX is designed primarily to appeal to computer owners.
MAX is an unusual-looking device, very much unlike other Sequential products. Finished in black and silver, with two small sections of programming buttons, it could be mistaken for a computer if it weren't for the four-octave C-to-C keyboard. On the right is the numerical keypad which calls up the preset sounds, the master volume control, and the Tune and Transpose controls. On the left are the track assignment, tempo, track volume, record, erase, play and stop buttons — and that's all there is to it.
MAX has six single-oscillator voices with 80 preset sounds grouped as Organs, Brasses, Strings/Woodwind, Keyboards, Bass/Percussion, Synth 1, Synth 2, and Special Effects. All the sounds are distinctively Sequential — despite having only six oscillators, they're full and sharp. Many are recognisable as variants of Prophet 5/600 Presets, and the selection available is very good with the exception of drum sounds, which rapidly become tedious. MAX has a mono output from the rear panel, which unfortunately makes it impossible to separately equalise the different tracks, but the volume control of the six timbre-tracks makes it easier to mix the levels as desired.
One of the big omissions in MAX is a metronome against which to time your multitracking. Otherwise it's all straightforward; select a sound, erase one of the two demo tune memories (permanently based in Rom), select any number of the six tracks, hit Play and Perform. Hit Stop at the appropriate moment, select another sound and another track, and overdub. The results can be astounding; percussion, basslines, chords and leadlines all playing in sync from one innocuous-looking instrument.
All this can of course be synced by MIDI in or out. Compositions can also be transposed, by hitting the transpose button and pressing any note on the keyboard. Songs always loop until stopped, so when composing it's important to time your endings properly. Playback speed can be adjusted at any time, and track volume can be adjusted when the tune is playing. It's also possible to change the sound recorded on any track of a tune. MAX stores a maximum of 500 notes, which isn't much; the inbuilt memory isn't really designed for complex compositions. However, it's enough for working out multitrack ideas, and you can always set up some backing tracks and leave them to loop while you solo over the top with a remaining voice. (As we did on tape - Ed)
MAX really comes into its own used with a computer or a MIDI keyboard for sound programming, composition and program switching. For example, using MAX as a slave keyboard enables rich ensemble effects to be achieved by playing the master keyboard. The master can also be used to modulate, pitch bend and change programs on MAX. Modulation and pitch bend are unavailable otherwise, which makes MAX an unlikely choice as a performance polysynth; it's much better suited for use as an expander or a computer peripheral, and should be regarded as such.
The MIDI guide included with MAX gives some details on how to sync the keyboard to a Drumtraks, or other MIDI drum machines, and details some of the options obtainable through using a Prophet T8 as master keyboard. MAX is key-velocity responsive in this mode, though the feature can be switched out if required.
Memories 80-99 of MAX can be programmed by dumping information from a Six-Trak or T8. Omni and split modes are also dealt with in the MIDI guide, but although the use of computers to create more complex polyphonic compositions is mentioned, there isn't much detail. Using the Model 64 MIDI interface, a Commodore 64 could be used to put together pieces containing several thousand notes, with MAX'S six voices assigned to different MIDI channels for complete control.
MAX'S basic voice sounds are fairly conventional; four-stage ADSR for amplifier and filter, filter invert, cutoff, resonance, modulation, white noise, sawtooth, triangle, and square-wave modulation, LFO speed and depth, and so on. Unusually, there's some interesting pitch effects. This is similar to the spec of the Six-Trak, which explains how it's possible to dump programs from the Six-Trak onto MAX, or use the Six-Trak to modify MAX'S factory presets.
MAX doesn't, however, have the Six-Trak's Unison mode.
A couple of big criticisms - Why are only twenty of the hundred available sounds user-programmable? Why do you have to have a computer to access them? No tape dump for sequences or sounds - a shame. A volatile memory for the same - criminal. Arguably, though these problems can be overcome through the planned computer link.
So, overall, for an RRP of £725 — £170 less than that of the Six-Trak — MAX offers multi-timbral composition, MIDI, and excellent Sequential Circuits sounds. It's perhaps not the kind of machine you'd want to buy as a first polysynth, unless your ambitions were limited to having, say, MAX, a computer and a Portastudio. But for the electronic musician who needs versatility, reliability and expandability in one well-designed package, MAX is more than worthy of consideration. And if the price differential between it and the Six Trak were even greater - Well, then it'd be one hell of a proposition. With Sequential Circuits now assuming a higher profile in the UK, with the establishment of an administrative office at (Contact Details), we should be seeing a lot more of MAX and his friends over the next few months.
Review by Chris Jenkins