Using The Fostex 4050 Autolocator
Fostex’s SMPTE reading/writing, MIDI syncing, auto-locating, remote transport control unit recently underwent a serious internal re-examination. Ed Jones assesses the newly implemented features and describes their practical application.
Are you the type of musician who prefers to think (and talk) in terms of good, old-fashioned bars and beats rather than SMPTE times and tape counter times? Well, if you are and you own a Fostex multitrack tape recorder and a MIDI sequencer, then read on and you will be amazed...
"Why are you reviewing a product that is at least two years old?" I hear you ask. To say that the Fostex 4050 is a completely new product would be untrue, but to say that its new software revision (version 4.0) transforms it beyond recognition would be an understatement. Fostex admit that the SMPTE-to-MIDI side of the 4050 software was not up to scratch until recently, but nevertheless urged me to take a fresh look at it now that they had actually updated it.
I must declare ulterior motives behind my interest in the 4050, because I have been using it as a straightforward autolocator for my B16 16-track tape recorder for some time. However, when I originally purchased it I was running a BBC micro-based UMI-2B MIDI sequencing system which selfishly refused to accept an external MIDI clock for synchronisation (it synced to tape with its own sync code, thereby not using any form of FSK-to-MIDI tape sync convertor); thus the SMPTE-to-MIDI syncing feature of the 4050 has been of no use to me for the best part of its life so far. Although UMI has now been updated (version 5) to allow it to receive an external MIDI clock, I decided to move my sequencing allegiance (and dependence) to an altogether more widely-supported computer that appeared to have world-wide support. Enter the trusty Apple Macintosh, Argent's MIDI Communicator interface, and Mark Of The Unicorn's Performer software...
I now have a synchronised MTR (multitrack tape recorder) and MIDI sequencer set-up (see Figure 1) that is both compact and reliable, which allows me to work in terms of bars and beats or SMPTE time displays; most importantly, I can now control all the transport (FF, Rewind, Start/Stop, Pause) controls of both the MTR and the MIDI sequencer from one autolocator, which gives me a readout in either display format at the touch of a button. Of course, if you are also synchronised to a VTR (video tape recorder) then the use of SMPTE times is invaluable if not essential - in that instance you would probably be using Fostex's 4035/4030 synchroniser system to lock your MTR and VTR together. An independent SMPTE/MIDI unit such as Roland's SBX-80 or Steinberg's SMP24 would probably be more appropriate in such a set-up. (See Figure 2.)
Here one must differentiate between the process of hard-locking the actual tape control mechanisms of different types of recorders (both music multitrack and video) and the simple synchronisation of timecodes for working in-sync. You can, of course, always watch a video tape (with SMPTE timecode burned into the picture), write down the 'hit' points where you require specific music cues, and then just write the music into your sequencer making sure that those 'hits' occur at the correct times. However, you'll soon discover that not everything can be sequenced and that you need to use your MTR and effects units as creative tools as well, thus requiring the 'locking' (synchronising) of MTR to MIDI sequencer. When you want to see it all fitting nicely to picture, it is best to hard-sync the tape mechanism of your video machine to the above set-up (enter Fostex 4030/4035 and a Lo-band U-Matic or professional VHS video recorder).
The version 4.0 software for the 4050 is supplied by Harman UK (the Fostex importers who used to be the Tascam importers - confusing isn't it?) as an upgrade direct from them or through your local Fostex dealer. They will install a complete new board, with software fitted, inside your 4050 for under £20! You may or may not consider this a bargain, depending on whether you feel that the 4050 should have done what Fostex claimed it would do in their advertising when the unit was first introduced! I was delighted that, albeit two years on, I was able to upgrade a piece of expensive hardware for minimal expense and not have to sell it off at an enormous loss (remember the Linn 9000?), waiting for a replacement all the while (have you seen the Akai MPC60?).
The fundamental difference between version 4.0 and previous software attempts is that the SMPTE-to-MIDI side of the 4050 is now solid, giving you full synchronisation of SMPTE timecode to MIDI Song Pointers and accurate real-time to bar/beats relationships (even with tempo changes). MIDI merging is also supported: the MIDI clock generated within the 4050 is merged with any external MIDI note or controller source - thus you are now able to record into your sequencer whilst accurately syncing from tape. I know of no other self-contained unit that will autolocate a multitrack tape recorder whilst displaying the bars and beats of a fully synchronised MIDI sequencer. Certainly there are other stand-alone lock-up units like the Roland SBX-80, Yamaha MSS1, Nomad/Syncrolab SMC 1.0, and J.L Cooper PPS1 - however, I would make a clear distinction between these units and Fostex's 4050. For the past two months I have barely touched my B16 or sequencer after the initial set-up procedure has been completed, as I use the 4050 to autolocate not only the B16 MTR but also the MIDI sequencer via the invisible MIDI Song Pointers.
STOP PRESS: Recognising this gap in hardware, Steinberg have just announced a Tape Locator hardware add-on for Atari/Pro-24/SMP24 users that will allow you to autolocate a range of tape recorders whilst keeping in full sync with your sequencer. Details from Evenlode Soundworks.
Consider Figure 3 - this is a standard screen dump of a 'markers window' from Mark Of The Unicorn's Performer sequencer. In it you will see a 3:04 minute tune with a slow introduction (tempo = 77 BPM) and faster theme (tempo = 88 BPM); there are 12 cue points within the tune. Having written the music into the sequencer we are now going to record it onto the MTR (multitrack tape recorder), add a live top line and then maybe change a couple of intricate sequencer parts at the end ready for the final master mix. All this is pretty standard procedure in the world of MIDI and recording studios nowadays.
- First, we stripe a track of the MTR with SMPTE timecode generated by the Fostex 4050 (all four standards of 24, 25, drop-frame and 30 frames per second can be written and read). It's best to stripe the whole tape at one pass - you never know when you might need those extra few seconds of code. The generated timecode should pass directly into and out of the MTR, bypassing any mixer or patchbay that might normally be used in the audio path.
- Taking the direct track audio output from the rear of the MTR and feeding it into the 4050's timecode input will allow us to 'chase' the SMPTE code and display it on the 4050 as the MTR is wound forwards and backwards.
- Next, we have to set the measure changes - this is where the time signature (or meter) will change so that we will have the correct amount of beats and metronome clicks in each bar of music. As you will see from Figure 3, there is a 6/4 bar at measure 4 and two 5/4 bars at measures 17 and 31. Once programmed in, this data is stored in a non-volatile memory (ie. the 4050 remembers it even when switched off) or it can be dumped on to cassette or even on to the beginning of the multitrack tape along with tuning references. The 4050's numeric keypad and Copy button makes this task easier than it might sound.
- Tempo changes then have to be entered into the 4050. The start tempo of our example piece of music is 77 BPM, but this changes to 88 at bar 10, beat 2. The 4050 can handle multiple tempo changes and each one can happen at any 24th of a beat interval (MIDI Clock resolution). Should you try to enter any data that is inconsistent or incomprehensible then a beep is heard and ERROR # is displayed. The Fostex owner's manual lists and explains over 70 error messages so that you are not left totally in the dark as to what you may have done wrong. Since a great deal of information is stored in the 4050, it may not only take you some time to come to grips with the programming of the 4050 but it might also take you a while to actually load that information in without incurring the wrath of the dreaded bleeping error demon that lies inside, waiting for your every indiscretion.
- MIDI start time must be set next. You may wish to have some ethereal audio effects on tape before the sequencer intro begins, who knows? Anyhow, let's say we've striped a SMPTE code time starting at 1 hour, 00 mins, 00 secs, 00 frames; we'll allow, say, 75 seconds or more for tuning references, synth (or 4050) data dumps etc, and so we'll set a MIDI start time at 1 hr, 1 min, 15 secs, 00 frames.
- Connect the MIDI Out of the Fostex 4050 to the master MIDI In of the sequencer and set the sequencer to 'receive external MIDI sync (clock)'. Then when the 4050 receives the exact start timecode from the SMPTE timecode recorded on tape, it will send a MIDI 'start' command to your sequencer and will continue at the tempo specified above. If you are in the middle of the tape and you wind the MTR back to, say, where the main theme starts (bar/beat/resolution tick = 11/1/000), your sequencer will wonder where it should be for a short while until the 4050 emits a beep, and the sequencer will then magically leap into life, perfectly synchronised. What is actually happening is that the sequencer needs to receive a MIDI Song Pointer, to know exactly where it is, so that it can proceed. The maximum delay between the thinking time (chase) and syncing time (lock) is normally no longer than a couple of bars, so you just get used to winding back the tape a bit further to allow yourself a little pre-roll before your sync point. The 4050 can do this by using 'Review' - a tape locate function button that winds back a short amount and automatically then goes into play mode.
It is important to mention at this time that not all sequencers can actually receive MIDI Song Pointers (MSP), and thus will only synchronise to the start of a tune and not to points mid-way through. Fostex politely tell you to avoid earlier MIDI spec units like the Roland MSQ700, Casio SZ1 and Yamaha QX1 (none of which are current models); but fear not - most serious sequencers do receive MSP nowadays, including models chronologically, but not necessarily numerically, post-dating the following: Roland MSQ100, TR707, TR909, Yamaha QX7 and RX21, and Korg SQD1. If you are in doubt as to whether your software/computer system receives MIDI Song Pointers, then ask your local dealer or the manufacturer/importer! I think it's fair to say that MSPs are considered standard nowadays.
Nevertheless, (there's always a 'but', isn't there?) at the rear of the 4050 is a mini dip switch for Song Position Pointer transmission timing that is marked 'slow sequencer' or 'fast sequencer'; apparently, a 'slow sequencer' requires time to start after receiving a Song Pointer and a 'fast sequencer' is one whose start time is almost instant. Thanks Mr Fostex! Answers on a postcard to 560-3, Miyazawa-cho, Akishima, Tokyo, Japan (postage pre-paid, please). Come to think of it, my Tensai 'after-recording system, rhythm machine and cassette recorder', circa 1980, plays fast and always has done... maybe that's why it was cheap, guv?
If you are making a comparison between other systems and the 4050 at this stage, you should bear in mind that there are several units on the market that will take you to this level of synchronisation - but without the all-important, integrated musical display of bars/beats. J.L Cooper's PPS1 (Poor Person's SMPTE), for instance, came highly recommended as a budget system when reviewed in this magazine (SOS Nov 1987). However, it does not use SMPTE and you would thus come across problems if you were asked to hard-sync some fancy sampled sound effects to 'scratched' or heavily-edited video tape as part of a TV or cinema advertisement. Other budget systems that do use SMPTE (the SMC 1.0, for example - see May 87 review) and have a display of the code would allow you to make sure that all the correct 'hits' (sound-to-visual sync points such as a bash, crash or smash) are met. Some sequencing software (such as Performer) will even allow you to display a list of the 'hits' and calculate the relevant bars and beats at various tempos for you. But that's another story... maybe you're more interested in the other type of 'hit' - the ones that can get the gear paid for many times over!
Where the Fostex 4050 really shines above the rest is in its constant, large format display of bars and beats (plus SMPTE time or relative time). If you're the kind of person who insists on working with a fly-sheet full of dots in front of you (my writing partner is), then this is where you come in. Once hooked-up as described above, you can switch the 4050 display to instantly read out bars and beats and run everything from that - thus, you can now autolocate by saying "Let's go back to bar 38" (the middle section in the above example). Press the right buttons on the 4050, and both the MTR and sequencer will line themselves up ready to sync from bar 38 - no need to touch your B16 or the sequencer, mouse or anything else. Magic!
Contact Harman UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Ed Jones
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