360 Systems MIDI Bass
An idea whose time has come — a sample-based expander. Tony Reed slaps it around
It was inevitable really. As MIDI-expander mania takes over most of the known keyboard world, 360 Systems of California have brought out a unit dedicated solely to the production of chip-stored, monophonic sampled bass sounds. A pretty nifty idea in theory, relieving your synth from the chore of producing a monophonic bass sound when it could be doing something more polyphonic with its time, and giving you immediate access to a whole variety of powerful real bass sounds. Pretty nifty. In theory. But what about in practice?
Initial signs auger well. 360 Systems first made a splash a couple of years back with their eponymous sampled preset keyboard, a vastly praised (and vastly expensive) machine which was amongst the first to offer a really good Grand Piano sound. So there's plenty of pedigree in the sample department. The company's latest offering, the MIDI Bass (360 Systems clearly don't go in for wackiness in the names department) looks like a serious proposition too, coming at you in a sturdy if basic-looking small blue metal box, for a wonder completely devoid of keypads, LCD windows and the rest.
Controls are kept to a minimum – and this can only be a good thing. In brief then: around the back there's your tethered mains lead, a neat click in-click out fuse, a single audio jack out, MIDI IN, and MIDI THRU. On the top panel, you have pots for volume and pitch, four memory selector buttons, and a shift button (obscurely labelled Hold For) which gives access to some of the machine's 'hidden' functions. Output from the MIDI Bass is monophonic, so to make the best of it when controlled from a polyphonic synth, the Key Priority switch comes into play. Using it, the MIDI Bass can be sent to respond to the last note played (for doubling on lead lines), the lowest note (for bass backing of chords), the Highest note for playing melody lines over chords, or the first note (like last note, except that new notes are not allowed to steal control until the previous ones are released.)
In conjunction with the Shift Key and the relevant Memory Select Key (#4) this switch can also be used to set the upper and lower limits for the MIDI Bass on the controlling keyboard – the first two octaves, perhaps, or if you want to, using their ability to overlap, maybe just a single key! All in all, a comprehensive and sensible list of functions. The shift switch can also enable or disable MIDI patch change, and velocity sensitivity.
Dominating the top of the unit is possibly the most user-friendly MIDI Channel select you've ever seen: a simple click-stop sliding switch legended 1-7 along the top, and 8 to 14 along the bottom, with the All position (Omni mode) at the far left. To select a specific Receive channel for the MIDI Bass simply slide the switch along to the relevant position. On power up, the MIDI bass defaults to the currently selected channel in the range 1 to 7. To access channels 8-14, hold down the shift button, and press Memory Select button one. No problem. Don't ask me what 360 Systems have got against channels 15 and 16 though...
In normal use, connected to a MIDI synth, drum machine, sequencer or whatever, pressing a Memory Select button with its light off selects that sound, and pressing again (ie with its associated LED lit) plays the voice, either at the last pitch received from the controlling keyboard, or at A if no notes have been played. Handy.
The unit comes either as a two or four-voice unit, at £299 and £360 respectively. The four sounds selected for the latter unit demonstrate a sensible and useable range – a straightforward, picked Fender Jazz bass, a snapped Jazz Bass, for Funk sounds, a stand-up finger-picked bass, and a composite MiniMoog/Oberheim 'fat' bass synth. With an audio bandwidth stretching from 16 to 16,000 hertz, sound quality is superb. There are no residual background noise problems, and the voices all sounded and convincing throughout their range. Full MIDI implementation allows for velocity sensitive and pitch bend effects.
If you want to supplement these basic sounds, or upgrade your two-voice to a four-voice, there are no less than 27 further sound chips currently available at £35 each, grouped under generic headings like DX ('Clean', 'Metal', 'Pulse', – 'Nifty'-???), and Precision, which goes to quite ridiculous lengths in its search for aural authenticity – you can choose between a fingerpicked model with flatwound strings, a flat picked version with new round wound strings, or three other variations on the theme...
Of more practical application perhaps are the Funk group, featuring various hammered and slapped sounds, and some of the miscellaneous voices, such as eight-string, Chapman stick bass, and Rhodes piano. Stepping still further beyond the initial brief are a variety of effect sounds, including Bowed Stand Up bass and Tympani. All nine of the sounds I tried were excellent (especially 'Hammered' from the Funk group, and 'Metal' from the DX7).
But – and it is a big but – inserting new sounds into the device wasn't easy. The basic MIDI Bass is fitted with four standard chip sockets into which sound chips may be fitted more or less permanently. If you want, for a further £7 Zif sockets can be fitted in place of these, in theory at least allowing you to swap voices with ease. In practice, this proved to be quite a job – access to the chip sockets involves unscrewing the four rubber feet of the unit, and removing its entire top half, exposing all of its electronics to clumsy fingers and bad luck. The job was made tougher still by a Zif socket which required rather more than zero force to insert a chip. The broken – and thence useless – legs on two or three of the chips I was given bore testament to that. And at £35 a throw, it's not the kind of mistake you want to make even once. Of course, I might just have had a dodgy Zif – but if you think you'll be changing sounds around a lot – check yours carefully.
The neatness of the MIDI Bass, the powerful range of voices available for it, and the utter simplicity of its operation (plug in, and away you go) are all very strong points in its favour. Against this though must be set the unnecessarily fiddly and potentially hazardous business of swapping chips around – and its price. For even if you opt for the two-voice model, the outlay involved is not far short of that required for one of the cheaper sampling DDLs – devices with potentially a lot more scope, though obviously, not such good quality or convenience of use.
If price is not a consideration, then the MIDI Bass is a winner. But if your budget is limited... think about it.
For more info on the MIDI Bass, contact UK distributors Rod Argent Keyboards on: (Contact Details)
Review by Tony Reed
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