My first reaction to the UMI was the obvious one. £495 is an awful lot of money to pay for a piece of MIDI software. Yet the more you know about the UMI system - what it sets out to achieve and how it goes about achieving it - the more you realise why it costs so much.
The software - written by Lynton Naiff and marketed exclusively by The London Rock Shop - incorporates allowance for input in both real and step time, editing, chaining and copying facilities so extensive they ought to be advertised under the well-worn banner 'the answer is yes - now what's the question?', full MIDI channel assignment of tracks and storage of all conveyable MIDI data (velocity, aftertouch and so on), sensible external hardware connections, and even a DX7 voice dump program, should you be one of the 10 million or whatever it is that have now bought one.
The UMI's main menu is beautifully clear and straightforward (especially after the efforts of some software writers), though in fact, the themes of simplicity and attention to detail are carried through to all the relevant displays within the UMI system's repertoire. Anyhow, nine modes are available to the user at this point, and these are listed - together with the BBC function key needed to access each of them - to the left of the control section. A further range of options becomes available if you hold down the Beeb's CTRL key, and these are indicated to the right of the display, a resume of default values and a Memory Left value (expressed as a percentage, that one) occupying the screen's lower half.
Step-time composition (f9) really couldn't be simpler. After the tortuous data entry procedures that accompany similar systems, the UMI's way of doing things is blissfully refreshing.
The first screen in this mode shows the time signature (default value 4/4, but others are possible) and the legend 'write pattern' against which you simply type in the number of the pattern you want to record: a thoughtful 'written so far' section at the bottom gives you a spot-check on which patterns are and are not available. If you haven't used any patterns at all, the pattern number can be anything between 1 and 127, while the length of the pattern is also adjustable (default value 8 beats).
Once you've entered this information, the main step-time operating screen appears, and the main focus of attention here is a display of five columns that each represent a D-to-C octave range in semitone steps. Now, that obviously makes a total of five octaves in all, and this is one area where the synergistic relationship between the UMI and the DX7 really shows through: quite what happens if you hook up a somewhat lengthier MIDI keyboard - Roland's MKB1000, say - I'm not entirely sure.
A major contributor to that price tag is the fact that UMI's controlling software is contained within sideways ROM (which has the advantage that loading the program takes no longer than the bat of an eyelid - ideal for studio sessions when the pressure is on) and that the comprehensive facilities afforded by the package require the addition of an Aries B20 20K RAM expansion board (about £70 worth) to the BBC's overworked memory. All these chips fit quite neatly into the BBC's internals, and should the idea of fiddling around inside a micro with a soldering iron scare you to death, the Rock Shop will do the installing for you for nothing.
Of course, the software has got to be connected to the MIDI instruments it's being used to control, and this is where the UMI interface comes in. Now, in many respects this is similar to E&MM's own BeeBMIDI board or the interfaces being marketed by Siel and EMR, but where the UMI unit scores is in its range of external control options. From left to right, there's To and From Tape Sync (the sync-to-tape code is novel in that it consists of short bursts of audio and can therefore be used as a marker during tape editing), Clock In and Out (Out set at 24 pulses-per-beat; In software-controllable to be 24, 48, or 96), a MIDI In and two MIDI Outs, a Roland-standard Sync Out (gets around the problem of Roland clocks not turning themselves off by making the 5V start/stop signal controllable via one of the interface's pushbuttons - more on these later), and an expansion port that may, in the not-too-distant future, be used to connect several UMIs together in order to control more MIDI instruments than the mind can comfortably conceive (though the appropriate software doesn't exist as yet). Finally, a 34-way ribbon cable terminates in an IDC connector for plugging-in to the BBC's good ol' 1MHz bus.
This interface is also peculiar in having three pushbuttons and a rotary pot, where most similar units have nothing at all. The latter is used for tempo control (a digital readout of same is proffered on the main menu screen display), but the pushbuttons are unlabelled, presumably because future software developments will render them multi-functional. This is disconcerting at first, but seeing as the software's various screen displays continually shove graphic representations of all three of them (one is rectangular, the remaining two square) together with explanatory notes on what they're used for in the current mode, there are few problems in practice.
Each time you play a note on the connected MIDI keyboard, the appropriate letter within the five-column matrix illuminates, indicating that it is about to be stored as part of that pattern. If you decide you don't like that note any more, you can erase it simply by pressing it again, and if you want a chord you simply play all the constituent notes in any sequence you care to, before moving the whole process forward one step from the QWERTY keyboard.
Should you require an especially short gate-on time (ie. one of less than a step), you can choose from Normal (75% of a step), Short (30%), and Very Short (10%). All utterly logical.
Provided your keyboard playing skill is up to it, real-time recording (f8) is if anything easier still.
The rectangular button on the interface acts as the run/stop controller, an internal metronome counts you in (you've guessed it - the number of beats in the intro is user-programmable), and you're away. As soon as you come to the end of your desired pattern length, your performance is replicated by the computer continuously - warts an' all - until you press the rectangular button again. You can record as many patterns (up to 127) as you like in this fashion, before going into Edit mode (f3) to make fine adjustments.
As I mentioned briefly at the start, one of the UMI system's many valuable assets is its ability to remember MIDI information relating to keyboard velocity, aftertouch, and pitch and mod wheel usage. However, what many people don't seem to realise is that this data - and the wheel data in particular - is extremely memory-sensitive, and can therefore prevent large chunks of RAM being used for note storage if applied in even moderate quantities. Fortunately, UMI's programmers have realised this, and have therefore provided a Pac (for compaction) facility which lets you filter out at the editing stage some of the data that doesn't have any audible effect on the proceedings. It's a simple process, a) because it soon becomes audibly apparent that your compaction technique has gone too far, and b) because you can see how many bytes of memory you're saving as you go along, simply by gazing up at the Edit sub-menu.
Compaction aside, the Edit page also allows auto-correction, re-recording, and overdubbing (15 tracks of it, if necessary, all 16-note polyphonic) of already-recorded patterns. And once again, the procedures involved are so straightforward and the displays so informative, even a member of Iron Maiden's road crew could probably manage something.
The remaining 'pattern' sub-menus - Erase (f4), Copy (f2), and Play (fl) - don't require much explaining, but like the Edit page, all of them are applicable to step-time as well as real-time patterns, and this sequencing egalitarianism is continued to the Write/Edit Chain mode (f5), where finished patterns are chained together to form songs.
The chaining process is really the only part of the current UMI software where the user has to do a lot of fiddling with the whole range of the BBC QWERTY keys (the rest of the time, tasks are undertaken by the Beeb's Function and cursor keys or the interface's pushbuttons), but even so, a simple display that shows a list of the various chain options to the right and a record of what you've put together so far to the left makes the process a lot less soul-destroying than it could have been.
And when your meisterwerk has reached its logical and successful conclusion, it can, of course, be saved to either disk or tape.
It would seem that unlike most other software designers - and a fair few hardware ones, too - the UMI's programmers have taken MIDI firmly by the horns and developed a package that really makes the most of the system, in addition to acknowledging its deficiencies.
It's a sad fact that there aren't nearly enough multi-channel MIDI instruments - let alone multi-timbral ones - available really to do the UMI track and channel assignment facilities justice, though there are signs that some manufacturers are beginning to wake up slowly to what can be done, given a little thought.
One thing the UMI won't do is to remember patch changes as part of a song, so this has to be done manually during playback. This wouldn't be any cause for concern if it weren't for the fact that far too many of today's synths experience a momentary loss of output while changing from one program to another. It can sound more than a little odd.
And yes, the UMI is expensive when compared with the rest of the software under review this month. But one or two reservations like the one just mentioned aside, its cost can be justified without too much difficulty. After all, if you're going to spend upwards of £2,000 on a MIDI synth system that conveys all the information over MIDI that the 1.0 specification requires of it, there seems little point in using controlling software that can't distinguish a pitch wheel variation from an eclipse of the sun, or assign all the tracks with the same MIDI channel. The price tag compares favourably with those of dedicated MIDI sequencers, and the fact that UMI is software-based could shield purchasers from the worst ravages of planned obsolescence: I shudder to think what Lynton Naiff is working on at the moment.
A well-designed, comprehensive and straightforward software package that was designed for, grows with, and never talks down to the impatient, ignorant and indecisive beast that is the modern musician.
Further information: The London Rock Shop, (Contact Details).
Review by Dan Goldstein
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