Yamaha MSS1 Synchroniser
For a company that is usually in the forefront of musical technology development to be so late in introducing their SMPTE/MIDI processor is quite remarkable. Is the Yamaha MSS1 worth the wait, or is it just a case of 'me too' marketing techniques? David Mellor champs at the timecode bit.
Who would have thought, when Roland introduced their SBX80 all those years ago, that SMPTE/MIDI processing would have become so popular? It seems that every manufacturer is jumping on the bandwagon, oblivious to the fact that there is only room for one of these devices in each studio. Never mind, if we are spoilt for choice then it is to our benefit and we can choose the machine that fits our purpose exactly.
In some ways, it's pointless to compare the facilities on different SMPTE/MIDI synchronisers. The range goes from almost none on the Nomad SMC 1.0 [reviewed SOS May 87] - the bare minimum to do the job - to just about everything you could imagine, and a few things you couldn't, on the Real Time Logic Event unit [reviewed SOS Jan 88].
I'm a great believer in the KISS formula, which stands for 'Keep It Simple, Stupid'. Despite my claims to boffindom in such articles as the 'How It Works' series, when I'm engaged in musical activity I only want to have to think about the technicalities that are going to improve my end product. If a piece of equipment has many facilities that I'm never going to use, then it would be better off in a more upmarket establishment which needs those facilities.
The Yamaha MSS1 can neither sing arias from La Traviata, nor dance the Pas de Deux from Sleeping Beauty. It is a logical, easy-to-use, SMPTE/MIDI synchroniser for the home studio. You can break off from playing your funky keyboard chops, edit a tempo sequence on the MSS1, and return to the music all without your brain having to abandon musician mode for 'human calculator' style thinking. In other words, if you are comfortable with the way Yamaha equipment operates, then you will find your way around this beastie in the proverbial two ticks - or should that be two frames?
The MSS1 doesn't come in a 19" rackmounting box, which is something of a novelty these days. It's a fairly hunky piece of equipment, around the same size as the QX5 drum machine. This is to its advantage because there is space for some nice big LED displays, computer keyboard style press-down buttons and a handy Job table, so you don't need to keep peering into the owner's manual for odd bits of operational information.
The 16-character LCD display contains all the information and prompts you might expect from this type of equipment, including I'm afraid the occasional 'SURE?'. Do they think we are children? Maybe I should try and nip in the bud the next step up from this paternalism, which I have come across on some pro equipment, which is to introduce a 'wait' state between the prompt and the equipment being ready to accept input from the keyboard. This is presumably to give you thinking time before doing anything rash. Silly or just silly?
Moving on from that minor irritant to the timecode display. Whoever thought of having these numerical displays so large must be either a genius or merely shortsighted - perhaps both. Whatever the reasons, a lot of musical work and engineering procedures are 'arm's length' operations - such as playing a keyboard, working the faders, etc. I would like to see more displays like this one - BIG. The timecode is presented in the conventional hours, minutes, seconds and frames format.
Beneath this is a MIDI data display, equally large, which has two functions: in the ordinary recording and playback modes it displays Bank, Measure, Beat and Tempo data. In the MIDI event mode - more on this later - it shows Command Type, Step Number, MIDI Channel Number, and Command Data.
To the left of the control surface are ten smallish pushbuttons. Centrally placed are the numerical keypad and Enter key, all of which are as large as pushbuttons should be in an ideal world. Even larger are the Start and Stop keys. I hope this is the start of a trend, because having decent operating controls make a machine a pleasure to use, rather than a painful necessity.
On the back panel are connections for Click In (with level control), SMPTE In, SMPTE Out, Metronome Out, Footswitch, MIDI In and two MIDI Outs. No MIDI Thru in this case. I couldn't think of a use for one here myself, but I'll bet there is someone somewhere...
As may be taken (almost) for granted these days, the Yamaha MSS1 can generate and read all four common timecode varieties. Once set, the battery backup remembers your favourite sort so you won't have to remember to set it again. The timecode generator only has one function under the Job List table, and that is to set the start time. So, if for some reason you want the timecode on your tape to run from 10:29:37:02, then you can have your wicked way.
Yamaha claim the MSS1 can read timecode coming back from tape at levels between -24dB and +4dB (they presumably mean dBu). I had no problem reading code, but in case of difficulty there is a SMPTE Read Test function to find out whether all is OK. Unfortunately, there is no indication of how good the timecode is. It would be nice to know, for instance, if the code was good - but only just good enough. As things are, you could sail into a session in this state and not find out until a problem arose. Some sort of indication of any timecode dropouts is what's needed here.
The tempo memory of the MSS1 is organised into ten banks, all of which have data retention courtesy of the internal battery. There is no difficulty here with storing data because you can have probably all the information you need for an entire album without resorting to memory cartridges. There is no way of storing data on cassette with this machine, by the way. Thank heavens for that!
There is a total of 7178 beats of tempo memory available in all of the banks, or alternatively you can have one super-long composition of 7168 beats all in the one bank. This equates to very nearly an hour's worth of music at a danceable 120 BPM (beats per minute). Should be enough for most purposes. Banks can be given names, to make the synchronising process more human, which can be up to eight characters in length. The numerical keypad looks a bit like those old-style telephone dials I've seen in old films, which have letters as well as numbers. In this case, the '0' button also provides ABC, the '1' has DEF, and so on. This is actually a very quick way of naming things, much better than having one Enter button and having to wait while the display scrolls through upper case, lower case, Japanese characters and Roman numerals before coming to the symbol you want!
Time signatures can be selected for each bank and can be changed during the course of a piece of music. Thank you Yamaha. I was recently working on an old Matt Monro number which was mostly in 2/4 time, but had the odd bar of 3/4. My Atari-based sequencing software couldn't cope, so out came my trusty (if awkward to use) Yamaha QX5 sequencer. The MSS1 is equally versatile. Available time signatures range from 1 to 16 on the top line, and 2, 4, 8 or 16 on the bottom. Pretty comprehensive, but I have seen music written with more than 16 beats to the bar, and I've seen music written in terms of whole notes, and other pieces in terms of 1/32 notes. I can't believe that it's difficult for Yamaha to cope with these oddities, it's just that I would like to think that it should be possible to enter any piece of music that's written into a sequencer - or in this case a MIDI synchroniser. I don't know of anyone that does it better than Yamaha, but why not go the whole hog?
Three methods of tempo recording are available, which I shall explain:
Method 1. Timecode from tape plus click: This is probably the most straightforward method of recording a tempo sequence. Assuming you already have the bones of your composition in your sequencer, then presumably you already have any tempo changes you want recorded in it too. To transfer these tempo variations to the MSS1, you simply take the click or metronome output of the sequencer (if it has one) and plug this into the MSS1. By playing the multitrack tape, which has already been striped with timecode, and starting the sequencer, the start point and every tempo change will be accurately logged by the MSS1 against a unique position on the tape.
The only problem with this is if your sequencer doesn't have a click output. In this case, a drum machine could be programmed to put out drum beats to serve as a regular tempo click. There is a level control on the back of the MSS1 to tweak up the click input if necessary. When it is the right level, the Metronome LED flashes in sync. I thought it peculiar that the click output from my (Yamaha) QX5 wasn't loud enough to drive the (Yamaha) MSS1, but what would life be without these little problems? I patched it through the mixer to give it some gain and all was well.
Method 2. Timecode from tape, or internal timecode, plus manual tap: Basically you just set things rolling and tap away on the Start key in time with the music. This is intended for those cases of dire emergency when either the timecode track was accidentally erased and had to be redone, or perhaps there was no timecode in the first place. Either way, all is not lost. It's not the easiest thing in the world to do accurately, but it's possible.
Method 3. Step recording: If either of the above methods do not appeal, then this might. Tempi can be entered beat by beat throughout the length of the composition. No harm in this, it just takes a bit of time. There is no way of saying 'hold that tempo for the next 40 bars', you have to do it beat by beat. Still, that's not a real problem, and I'm all for things being straightforward.
In the case of method one, there is a function available which makes the MSS1 ignore any count-in before the music starts. This is set in terms of the number of beats.
Playback can either be synced to tape or free-running. Obviously, while you are setting, and perhaps editing, tempo data it would be a bit of a drag having to run the multitrack every time you wanted a bit of timecode. When setting tempi, it is useful to be able to get to any part of a song quickly, without having to wait for it to play through. On the MSS1, this is done by way of the Song Cue and Time Cue keys. The alternative system of holding down a key and waiting for the beats and bars to scroll through is tedium itself compared to this, and let's face it, this is how things should be.
To jump to any beat of any bar of the song, you press Song Cue. Enter the bar number on the keypad, then enter the beat and you're there. Now, wasn't that painless? Equally painless is getting to the right place in terms of timecode values - hours, minutes, seconds and frames. Press Time Cue, enter the location on the keypad and, once again, you're there.
Chase mode, as Yamaha call it when the MSS1 is responding to incoming timecode, is problem free and as quick to respond as you need. Chain mode is a method of arranging all ten banks to play continuously in any order you wish. I suppose this must be for people who use SMPTE on stage. Such bravery! Song Select can be used in conjunction with the chain mode so that a different song number can be sent, to equipment in the MIDI chain, for each bank.
This is where most of the interesting stuff occurs. Obviously, not everybody gets everything right first time and changes have to be made to tempo data. In the editing mode, tempo data can be replaced, copied, inserted or deleted - and it's all fairly simple. Location of the part of the song you want to work on is done using the Song Cue function. At all times the LED display tells you which bank you are working on, the bar number, the beat number and the tempo set at that particular position. To change the tempo at any position in the song, for instance, you just press Edit-Replace, the previously indicated tempo is blanked and you enter a new one. Copying is scarcely more complex and insertion and deletion are no problem.
Bank Copy is also available. One use for this might be to make an alteration you are not quite sure about and still keep the original bank intact, just in case it doesn't work out.
SMPTE Offset is an interesting facility. In the normal run of SMPTE units, (both machine synchronisers and SMPTE/MIDI convertors), offset is taken to mean an amount of time which is added to, or subtracted from, the preset start time to bring different machines into line, or to compensate for a slow synth attack. This threw me for a little while, because in Yamaha-land SMPTE Offset seems to mean exactly the same as Start Time! Confusing? Well this is what I did:
I recorded some tempo data using method one, outlined above. The start time was 00:00:10:00 or thereabouts - in other words, the music started ten seconds after the timecode (recorded on the tape from 00:00:00:00) began. I entered an offset value of 00:00:01:00, which I thought would make the music start one second later, ie. at 11 seconds after the start of the timecode. It actually started at 00:00:01:00, ie. one second after the timecode. I had in fact entered a new start time, the original one was lost.
Let's get this straight. 'Offset' on the MSS1 is not SMPTE offset as most of us know it and should not be labelled as such. Whether or not you need to have a true offset function on a machine such as this is debatable. Nevertheless, in this case, if you wanted to try out an offset without losing the original start time you had set, you would have to either make a written note of the original start time, or copy to another bank to make the experiment.
All the above adds up to a pretty useful piece of equipment. Could there be yet more? Yes, there is, but be warned that what follows is a completely separate function of the MSS1 and can in no way be combined with the normal tempo sequencing functions.
MIDI Event mode on the MSS1 is a method of transmitting MIDI program change and control change data in sync with timecode. In a synthesizer set-up, you might consider your sequencer adequate enough to handle this task, but Yamaha's idea is that you might want to use the MSS1 without a sequencer to control a piece of equipment such as the Yamaha DMP7 automated digital mixer. With this system, any level or EQ changes could be conveniently stored in the MSS1's memory, either as program changes - which change the 'snapshot' settings on the DMP7 - or as continuous controller data. I am sure there must be other possible uses too.
From the Utility mode of the MSS1, ME Play, ME Record and ME Edit can be accessed. 'ME' stands for MIDI Event of course, and isn't the MSS1 telling you that it wants to take charge. In MIDI Event mode, up to 1793 events can be stored in memory at any one time. There are two basic methods of entering MIDI events, which are similar to the methods used for tempo sequencing. The most straightforward is Step Time, where events are marked against timecode and their data input made one by one.
More interesting is the Real Time recording mode where events are entered 'on the fly' as you listen to the recording on the tape. Each time you want an event - of any kind - to occur, the Start button is pressed. This reserves an event slot at the timecode value corresponding to when the key was pressed. I say 'reserves' because to enter data on the fly would mean that about a dozen key presses would have to be made in the space of half a second. This is not possible for the vast majority of would-be users!
Once the event is reserved, it is simply a matter of activating the ME Edit mode and filling in the blanks. First, you specify a Program Change or a Control Change, then the MSS1 asks you for data. I had a little bit of a fright at first here, because the manual says things like 'Enter the value of the first data byte'. I had horrible visions, for a moment, of having to look in a table at the back of the manual and make an entry in hexadecimal. Thankfully, this is not the case and MIDI values of the normal 0 to 127 sort are entered directly.
Having described the main features of the MSS1, and if I didn't mention that it performed faultlessly at all times then I'm mentioning it now, it remains for me to try and place the machine in perspective with its competitors in the market place.
If you need more facilities than the most basic synchronisers offer, then the Yamaha could be a contender. For use in a home studio, or a commercial studio which will always generate its own timecode/MIDI data, then I can't think of any reason why the MSS1 would not be ideally suited.
If, however, there might be the possibility that a tape might be brought in with timecode related to MIDI sequences produced using another timecode/MIDI processor, then the Yamaha MSS1 might not be able to cope. This is because different machines use slightly different methods of calculating tempo from timecode, and it only takes a small discrepancy to foul things up completely. To be sure of coping with this situation, a more sophisticated - and perhaps more operationally complex - unit would be required.
No slight on the MSS1 is intended from the above paragraph because if the aim was to produce a straightforward timecode/MIDI processor that will slot into the average multitrack/MIDI set-up with ease, then Yamaha have succeeded. Certainly, anyone buying this unit for use in a home studio should be more than satisfied. We had to wait a while for this one, but it was worth it.
Price £799 inc VAT.
Contact Yamaha-Kemble UK, (Contact Details).
Review by David Mellor
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