The Vital Link
Syco's Analogue to Digital Interface is less than half the price of its nearest competitor. But does it match the quality? We investigate.
Chris Everard is led up the Syco path with an analogue to digital interface that sells for a half of the price of its nearest competitor.
If I was a hard-nosed villain wanting nothing more than to cover things superficially, then I could sum up the Sycologic analogue to MIDI interface in just one sentence; it's a third of the price of the Digi-atom unit and does three times as much!
To qualify my previous statement a little further, I was referring to the Digi-atom's quite amazing RRP of around a grand, but I'm informed from several dealers that they now are offering it for between seven and eight hundred quid. The Sycologic is retailing for £399 plus VAT which really does make it quite amazing value for money.
First of all, the Sycologic AMI is rack mountable. Secondly, all the patch locations appear on the front panel — except for the MIDI Out port. This means that once you've installed your DIN lead you can stick it in a rack and more or less forget about the back panel when it comes to interfacing.
Using the Sycologic AMI, anyone with equipment incorporating standard one volt per octave CV's (control voltages) and gates can control MIDI instruments. Making full use of the AMI's different control modes will also enable you to transmit from your analogue synth not only pitch and dynamic information but also program changes, modulation parameters and sync codes over any preassigned MIDI channel(s). However, it's essential to point out that your non-MIDI synth has to have these control and sensing functions itself in order for the information to be translated into MIDI. In other words, for there to be any dynamic information transmitted, dynamics have to be apparent in the first place.
A Roland SH101 only sends out pitch and gate, it has no dynamic sensing or accent facilities on it, however, the SH101's excellent little big brother the MC202 has dynamic control on sequencing, therefore, a sequence composed on the MC202 (or any other piece of 1 V/Oct. with accent or dynamic control) utilising this facility to the full will have (if wished) all this information transmitted to a MIDI keyboard. However, it all then depends on the MIDI keyboard itself, if you have a MIDI keyboard which has no dynamic sensing or accent allocation, then the information cannot be translated and then duly acted upon.
Ken McAlpine, who designed the unit had it rigged up to a Roland MC4 and Yamaha DX7 with a Juno 106 also being used. He made no secret of the fact that the unit had been designed with the MC4 and DX7 in mind. But after a while I realised that it would be of as much use to a person with the aforementioned set-up as it would to someone using just an SH101 and a JX3P. Its huge range of possibilities leaves its applications almost limitless. In short, a unit such as this enables your whole keyboard set-up to talk to itself, and that can never be a bad thing.
On power-up, the unit is in its normal mode which is the Poly mode, which means you have eight CV's, eight gates and eight dynamics going out on channel one of the MIDI. This means that you can have control of up to eight voices polyphonically from say a Juno 60 or any other non-MIDI poly. Again, if you only have a 4-note poly, you can only have four-note chords played on the MIDI slave and vice versa, when it comes to putting an eight-note poly into JX3P for instance, you'll lose two notes because the JX3P can't handle more than six notes at a time. More to the point though, you'd have to have each of the voice modules in your analogue synth modified so that you could have CV and gate outs fitted for each one. A headache in no uncertain terms! However, if the keyboard-to-keyboard facility is important to you, then it would probably be a sound investment, letting the Sycologic AMI do the rest once the sockets had been fitted. Although this will mean that you will still only have analogue to MIDI control and not the other way round. If your poly already is fitted with an MPU, such as a Z80 or 6502, then it would probably be a better idea to have the actual keyboard itself MIDIfied, which will enable full function crosstalk to ensue.
So, we learn our first lesson, and that is the AMI is undoubtedly designed for interfacing sequencing equipment to MIDI equipment rather than anything else.
The design concept behind the poly mode on the AMI, is to cater for polyphonic multibus sequencers such as the MC4 and MC8. It's interesting to note then, that major manufacturers have ultimately decided to kill off their old analogue (with digital memory) sequencers in favour of producing complete MIDI master control units such as the Yamaha QX1 and the Roland MSQ700 and 100 machines. Personally, I feel their decision to completely go over to a MIDI system as far as poly sequencing is concerned was founded due to the problems caused by manufacturing equipment designed a good few years ago. There's a lot less inside an MSQ then there is inside an MC4. New technology has really not only brought about a revolution in musical instruments themselves, but in the ways they are produced too.
Anyone who's thinking of buying an AMI for their MC4 had better start saving their pennies for lots and lots of mini-jack to normal ¼" jack (what the AMI takes) leads. I'm not that keen on mini jacks and was pleased to see that Syco had decided to go for the most common of all connectors.
Dual mode gives you control of four voices polyphonically on each of two MIDI channels. This means that you could have multi-timbral sequencing using an MC4 and two MIDI keyboards. Or alternatively, utilising all the channels on an MC8 you could have two 4-note polyphonic sequences each playing a different MIDI keyboard.
The Mono mode on the AMI enables you to control one voice monophonically on each of eight MIDI channels. This means that using one voice of a poly keyboard, you could run a sequence and use the remaining voices to play over it polyphonically. Or, more to the point, it enables you to have eight monophonic sequences going, each controlling a different keyboard via its user defined MIDI channel. For me, this is the true meaning of MIDI, having eight completely different sounds going at the same time, playing independently of each other has got to be heard to be believed. Of course, to do this you'd have to have up to eight MIDI keyboards, or four with split keyboard facility and independent channel assign for each sound — but it's worth it!
In Dynamic mode eight CV's allow dynamic information to be added to note events in accordance with the operating mode. If no voltage is present a default value is transmitted. Put into English, this means the eight channels free for dynamic allocation may or may not have dynamics going through them at any one time, unlike some systems, if a dynamic connection is made and the event is not accented then no information will be relayed, the Sycologic however has an 'intelligence factor' built-in which works out for itself whether dynamics are being transmitted or not when the appropriate connections have been made. All the factors previously discussed in this review apply when it comes to transmitting dynamics, and it's important that you have dynamics location points and sockets on your analogue sequencer.
Control Mode enables you, when using the AMI in Poly or MONO operating modes, to transmit the following via MIDI on any definable MIDI channel from one to eight:
1. Common Dynamics
2. Patch Change
3. Pitch Bend
5. After Touch
6. Yamaha DX Volume
7. Yamaha DX Portamento
8. Yamaha DX Breath Control
This means that you can adjust the parameters of any of the above by simply adjusting the same controls on the master analogue synth. Remember, the synth or sequencer you use must have some sort of facility for storing information such as patch changes, the number you input will correspond to the patch you end up with on the MIDI synth.
If your sequencer has facilities for it you can control on separate events the amount of modulation and/or after touch (when inputting sequencer information from the keyboard), Portamento and Amplitude if you have a DX7.
When working in the Control Mode and you're operating the system in Dual mode, the following controls may be transmitted via MIDI:
1. Common Dynamics, 2. Patch Change, 3. Pitch Bend, 4. Modulation.
Again, the same rules apply depending on the memory facilities of whatever analogue sequencer you're using.
The normal sync pulse output of the AMI is set at 24b.p.q.n. (beats per quarter note) which is roughly the standard of most drum machines. However, it's been seen fit to let the user define the b.p.q.n. himself and alternative settings are available which are 48 and 96. This means that you can sync the AMI to just about any well-known brand of drum machine, which is good news indeed. The AMI is also intelligent when it comes to knowing when things have stopped. It's been built with a sensor circuit which if receiving no incoming signal for 500ms it tells itself that the song is over and shuts down transmissions accordingly. This can have drawbacks on stage, but as we all know interfaces are the sort of thing that are used to their greatest potential in the studio.
So basically, as far as syncing is concerned the AMI is extremely easy to use and the two jack inputs on the back are simple to understand. The start/stop one is calibrated and designed for operation with the Roland sync system and sends out all the necessary information in a gate that will tell the slave equipment exactly what's happening when it comes to starting and stopping. However, when you're using Oberheim, Linn and E-Mu machines only the clock input is required as they can tell what's going on without the additional information.
Finally, when it comes to setting the whole system up with your sequencer, drum machine and keyboards there are two trimmer pots on the front panel for adjusting the complete offset and the exact volt per octave setting.
So, not to put a too fine a point on it, the AMI is just about the only serious choice when it comes to analogue to MIDI interfacing and its enormous capacity and flexibility is unrivalled.
Another enormous advantage of the system is that it's software dependent, which means with a bit of chopping and changing with the EPROMS contained, it can be made to perform all sorts of different tasks.
The greatest pull about the AMI is, that it's extremely easy to use and I promise that after spending an afternoon using it you'll wonder how you ever managed without one. It's tricky to get to grasps with the ins and outs of MIDI at first, but anyone who's bothered will tell you that it's the future and all the hard work reading up on the subject is well worth it.
More details from: Syco Systems, (Contact Details).
NB: The model shown here may differ cosmetically from those that will appear in the shops.
Review by Chris Everard