The Numbers Game
Dynacord MCC1 Interface
The world has been waiting for an interface box that solves all its MIDI routing problems at a single stroke. Simon Trask reckons the wait is now over.
Dynacord's MCC1 looks like just another MIDI 'black box', but it performs more than a few useful sound-layering and composing tasks.
One of MIDI's most important, most effective uses is the layering of sounds from different instruments. However, a good many practical problems stand between musicians and accomplishing this seemingly straightforward task, and so far these problems have not been met with a concerted approach by the major instrument manufacturers.
The problems stem from the MIDI protocol requirement that any patches you might want to combine all have the same patch number. In practice, this is rarely easily achievable (it may not even be desirable), as different manufacturers count in different ways (some start at 1, others at 0) and arrange their instruments' memories in different configurations of groups, banks and sub-banks.
Given that the major MIDI instrument makers don't seem to be too interested in improving matters, it's up to the growing band of peripheral gear designers to rectify things. Dynacord's MCC1 MIDI computer is a case in point. It addresses the problematic area of patch changes over MIDI — and does it with such thoroughness and imagination that it could become a near essential acquisition for pro keyboard players and for many studios, for whom its not inconsiderable £480 asking price will be quite easily justifiable. As the manual so charmingly puts it, 'The MIDI finds its place in a new dimension'. Quite.
The MCC1 has one MIDI In, four MIDI Outs and a MIDI Thru nestling on its back panel. Thus, before you even get into the MCC1's real role in musical life, you've got yourself a MIDI splitter box, with all input being passed on through the MIDI Outs as well as the Thru. The Thru socket is useful for instruments which don't require the unit's patch-changing services (drum machines are prime candidates), leaving the Outs free for those that do.
You'll probably have figured out by now that the MCC1 sits fairly and squarely between master and slave instrument(s). Essentially, it works in the following way: an incoming patch-change sent from your master machine calls up a user-programmed memory in the MCC1, which assigns four patch numbers — one to each of its four MIDI Outs.
A practical example will probably make this clearer. You select patch 11 (say, electric piano) on your master DX7, then patch number 11 gets sent to the MCC1. This calls up the corresponding memory on the MCC1 (actually memory 10 — the MCC1 starts from zero while most synths start from 1), which in turn sends patch number 17 to a JX8P on MIDI Out 1 (to play strings, shall we say); patch number 77 to a Matrix 6 on MIDI Out 2 (brass), patch number 43 to a DW8000 on MIDI Out 3 (how about a flute?) and patch number 24 to a McGrath CAM 1 on MIDI Out 4 (bagpipes). And all this is selected instantaneously from one button-press on the DX7 — brilliant.
If you decide the bagpipes don't mix well with the other sounds, you can always change patch number 24 to patch number 15 (cosmic kalimba), and store the change in memory for future use.
The MCC1 has 200 of these memories (termed Master Programs) onboard. It arranges these in two banks, which is useful because it means you can call up an alternative set of 'slave' sounds, which can be used either with the current set of 'master' sounds or an alternative set, say from a cartridge.
Unhappily, the MCC1's inability to work with patch numbers greater than 99 or 100 can be a hassle, because any patches higher in number than this (I'm thinking of Roland synths especially, and also Yamaha's latest DX100) are excluded from the Dynacord's operations unless you're prepared to copy them down into accessible positions.
Another quibble is that if you're using an instrument such as the DX7 as your master, its ability to transmit only 32 patch numbers means that the MCC1's potential will be greatly underused. A little more thought might have suggested an option to divide the existing two banks into three more banks each — which would have been a more efficient use of the Dynacord's memory, and would also have allowed more sets of sonic configurations to be stored in the unit.
The only other limitation of the MCC1's way of doing things that occurs to me concerns multitimbral keyboards like Casio's CZ range and Sequential's recent polysynths. Because the Dynacord can only send a patch change on one MIDI channel for each of its Outs, you can't use it to send patch-changes to several voices (each of which are on a different MIDI channel) when your multitimbral synth is in mono mode. A pity, that.
In addition to patch-changes, though, the MCC1's program memories can also store a MIDI channel number for each Out socket, and one for the In. This allows the machine's memories to be selected by patch-changes on a specified channel, and the four chosen patch numbers to be transmitted on individually specifiable channels.
These facilities start coming into their own when you're using the MCC1 in conjunction with a sequencer (preferably one with a Mix facility like the Korg SQD1, Roland MSQ100 or Steinberg Pro 16), positioned between the sequencer and the slave instruments whose sounds are being controlled.
Ever keen to check the practicality of theoretical flights of fancy, I tried out the above procedure using a Steinberg Pro 16 sequencer, Roland Alpha Juno 2 and Casio CZ3000 polysynths, and a Yamaha RX11 drum machine (the Dynacord passes on all timing information). The results were very impressive (pity 'bout the music though), even when the patch-changes were whizzing past at a fair old speed. It soon became clear that you could also enter master patch changes from the front panel 'on the fly' without any untoward effects occurring, which is obviously useful for trying out changes before recording them.
A track on the sequencer can be dedicated to 'master' patch changes capable of selecting the MCC1's memories on an otherwise unallocated MIDI channel. The four patch numbers can then each be assigned to any MIDI channel, and thus to any musical part. In this instance, the Dynacord becomes less a device for layering sounds, more a sophisticated means of arranging a song. You can alter your sonic combinations in an instant by changing the relevant patch number(s)on the MCC1, and even rearrange which parts will change patches in the course of a sequence by altering the patch-to-channel assignments. The only problem is that one MCC1 may suddenly not be enough...
The machine also has a number of what Dynacord term 'special functions'. One of the most useful of these allows you to switch the master display default between showing master/slave patch numbers and MIDI channels, while another function switches between User A and User B memory banks, and a third allows you to choose between Omni mode (all channels) and Poly mode (channel specified individually for each memory) reception of master patch numbers.
You can also select between 'transparent' and 'filter' modes: the former allows all received data to be passed on through the MIDI Outs, whilst the latter blocks all data on the four Outs except for patch and mode changes.
Yet even that little lot still leaves quite a few more functions. For instance, you can set the same reception channel for all the MCC1's program memories (useful for the above sequencing procedure), send Omni On, Poly On or System Reset commands from the machine (between them, these three commands should vanquish the dreaded MIDI drone — though not all synths respond to them).
And Dynacord have managed to cram one more facility into the MCC1, in the form of a MIDI analyser. When you've entered the Analyser mode, the machine stores MIDI data played from a master instrument or sequencer. Using the Mode buttons, you can then step through this data at your leisure on the MCC1's smaller LED displays, with the current event number appearing in the master display. The usefulness of this facility will depend on whether or not you're into MIDI at the 'numbers' level (including hexadecimal displays), but if you are, then this is clearly a very useful bonus feature. If you aren't, you'll probably feel that the precious bytes of MCC1 memory used up could have been put to better use: more program memories, or perhaps the bank facility I mentioned earlier.
Incidentally, selection of the MCC1's memories can be achieved over MIDI from a connected instrument or from a Dynacord remote controller, as well as from the front panel's keypad — so there's no need to worry about the unit being stashed away in a distant effects rack. Also of great value to studios is the MCC1's ability to dump and load its two memory banks via MIDI — though suitable software will be required first.
Despite the small criticisms I've made, the MCC1 is a very professional unit that does a much-needed musical job, and does it well. Its price is high (though not appreciably higher than a lot of other MIDI black boxes), but if you're looking for a lasting solution to MIDI patch-change problems, or a quick and easy way to work on the arrangement of sequenced songs, there's simply nothing to touch the MCC1.
Price RRP £480 including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask
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