Audio Architecture Function Junction Plus
Programmable MIDI Patchbay
When your MIDI setup starts to look more like NASA's mission control than a music studio, a MIDI patchbay is essential. Vic Lennard tests one of the best.
In principle, MIDI is a powerful system of communication and interconnection of electronic instruments; in practice, MIDI is a mess of cables and endless repatching - until Function Junction.
A MIDI PATCHBAY is usually the last piece of MIDI equipment you'd consider buying. After all, it's not a necessity - it doesn't make any noise - and you could choose to spend half your studio time swapping MIDI leads around... But once you start to use different keyboards and wish to edit some of your synths using editing software, the MIDI patchbay quickly becomes something of a necessity.
When you come to choose a patchbay, there are two criteria you should be aware of: the number of MIDI inputs and outputs the unit has and the processing facilities offered. While the cost tends simply to be proportional to the number of connections the unit has, you should also be aware of any processing features absent from the patchbay - MIDI merging, for example - as a separate unit will add to the final price of your system.
Audio Architecture's Function Junction has been under development for over a year now, but was redesigned during this period to incorporate more facilities than were originally planned. The standard unit now has eight MIDI Ins and Outs, while the Plus version has 16 MIDI Ins and Outs. The unit under review here is the Function Junction Plus, but I'm sure you'll forgive me if I refer to it as FJ from time to time.
ENCLOSED IN A 2U-high rackmount case, the most immediate feature of the Function Junction is the large 2x24 character display, backlit in late-night red. The buttons on the front panel fall into four groups; two rows of Input and Output assign buttons with dual functions for the first eight of each; Two pairs of Process/System and Connect/Solo buttons with LEDs for each function; cursor right/left and Enter. There's also a Power on/off button (nice to see this on the front), remote control and footswitch sockets, and a red reset button on this panel.
The rear panel houses the 32 MIDI sockets for the In and Out connections - the reason for the unit's 2U height - and an RS232 socket for expansion purposes. The mains lead is removable and there's a fuse mounted in the socket - pay attention everyone else.
SETTING UP THE Ins and Outs of a MIDI patchbay should be easy - it certainly is with FJ. Press the Connect button to enter Connect mode and the display mirrors the front panel buttons with the outputs shown on the top line. Press any output button - one, for example - and the cursor instantly moves to that number and prompts "Input?". Press one of the input buttons, say 5, and the display changes to "In5" while the number five appears in the input row underneath output 1. Pressing input button 6 at this point changes the input character from 5 to "m" (to indicate a merge is taking place), and "In5'' becomes "In56". It's simple and concise.
Selecting further outputs and their relevant inputs completes a basic patch. You can immediately see what your current connections are by looking at the two rows on screen. Selecting any output lets you read off the inputs for that output. The only restriction here is that there's only space to see the first five merged inputs after "In". Perhaps the display should scroll to show all inputs, but it would be an unusual situation that required you to merge more than five MIDI inputs.
You are restricted to a maximum of 16 connections on the Function Junction Plus, after which you are prompted "No more Connections! (maximum is 12)" on the screen. The figure 12 appears to be the maximum allowable for the eight-input/eight-output version of the Function Junction - the next operating system update will probably correct this.
By using the above procedure, you don't need to worry about different methods for multiple assignment of inputs and outputs. Merging is accomplished automatically.
PRESSING THE PROCESS button takes us - unsurprisingly - into Process mode. If an input is connected to more than one output, you can first choose whether any processing on this input will affect all output connections. The cursor keys scroll through those inputs with multiple outs so that you can choose which to treat separately. Otherwise, each connection is treated as an independent entity. The 16 possible connections are labelled from A to P so our previous example would appear as "A:In5 > Out1".
Having selected the single or multiple connection for processing, you then have various options, accessed by pressing one of the first eight output buttons - the process name is written clearly above the buttons. Once you finish with an edit, a press of the Edit button takes you back to the Select Function screen.
HERE IS A summary of the Function Junction's functions:
Zone: each connection can have an independent zone. The screen shows the "Lo" and "Hi" notes for the zone. These can be set either by using the cursor buttons or by pressing the relevant notes on a connected MIDI keyboard. If you happen to decide while setting this that either the current input or output is wrong, you can change them from this page. Not only that, but by continued scrolling through the inputs and outputs you can also select a specific MIDI channel for the zoning to occur on.
Filter: filtering can take place either on a specific input so that all data on a multiple connection is affected, or on each individual connection. You can filter out any of the following; MIDI clock, channel pressure, polyphonic pressure, pitchbend, modulation wheel, sustain, all-notes-off, all MIDI controllers, program changes, note data and system exclusive. If you have previously selected a zone and MIDI channel, then only data in this zone and on the relevant MIDI channel will be filtered. The screen gives you the option to Pass All or Filter. Once you select the latter, the options above are offered. One omission from the list is that of active sensing. This is a one byte message every 300 milliseconds sent out from many keyboards to inform connected modules that it is still there. This can cause problems when working with zones and with the modern-day reliability of MIDI, active sensing is rarely necessary.
Transpose: as with filter, either an input or a connection can be affected. The transpose range is between -128 semitones and +127 semitones. I can't imagine anyone not being satisfied with that.
Delay: you can delay the MIDI data by either a number of milliseconds (up to 2.5 seconds) or a number of beats. This latter option allows you to synchronise repeats with the tempo of your music. You can set the tempo between 40 and 240bpm, and the delay time in terms of fractions or multiples of a beat. Whether delay has been set by time or beats, you then choose a number of repeats between 0 and 15 and an amount by which the velocity changes from one repeat to the next. This could be used to make notes decay away like an echo or to swell up. Now comes the creative bit: each repeat can be transposed by a number of semitones and this can be incremental or not. For example, if you choose an incremental transpose of +1 semitone, the first repeat is one semitone higher than the input note, the second is two semitones higher and so on. You can then send the repeats to another output only or as well as the original. Another option is to increment the MIDI channel for each repeat. You could be using a multitimbral synth like the Roland D110 and have the repeats going through different sounds, one at a time.
Velocity: as with previous processes, this can occur on an input or a connection. You can fix the velocity at a specific value, compress it by 8:1, 4:1, 2:1 or 4:3, so restricting the dynamic range, or expand it by 4:5, 2:3, 1:2, 1:4 or 1:8. Experimenting as data is passing through soon helps you to select the best value for each situation. There is also the option of setting a central MIDI velocity at which no effect will happen. The further away from this value that a note velocity occurs, the greater the effect.
Velocity Switching/Crossfading: this is like the function you usually find on samplers. Velocity switch sends note data out of a different out once a threshold value (which you set) has been exceeded. Crossfade balances the note data between two outs depending on the velocity. The balance depends on a velocity offset value which, again, you can set.
Continuous Controller Remap: not all MIDI devices will respond to all MIDI controller data. For instance, Roland's D10 will not recognise MIDI controller #2 (breath control) but will recognise controller #11 (expression). Remap lets you translate one type of MIDI controller into another. Two remaps are available per connection. All continuous controllers from 0-31 and 64-120 are accessible and are named where names exist. Audio Architecture are going to have their work cut out keeping up with the MIDI Manufacturers Association who have just assigned some new functions and names. Also, it is a shame that aftertouch can't be remapped. Many synths do not recognise pressure data and it would have been useful to be able to convert aftertouch to, say, volume or mod wheel. Similarly, pitchbend could be remapped if the Most Significant Byte (MSB) were used. This would give 7-bit resolution and hence 128 positions for the wheel.
Clear: you can clear the processing links on any of the connections, one particular patch or the entire memory. As the manual warns "Careless use of these functions can severely damage your mental stability!". True.
"Even with 16 MIDI channels of data running, the system load meter rarely ventured above 40% and no MIDI timing problems were apparent."
A PRESS OF the System button lights up the LED next to that button and offers the following:
MIDI: you can dump internal data to a librarian and then reload it. The output from which data will emerge can be chosen and the options are for all data, individual patches (you choose the one) and miscellaneous data (for the system data).
External MIDI Control: as would be expected, patches can be selected via MIDI program change commands. More interesting is the ability to change internal parameters by MIDI controller. This idea of addressing the values of parameters via MIDI is not new (effects units such as ART's Multiverb and Alesis' Quadraverb use it), but it's quite a novel facility for a MIDI patchbay. Up to eight parameters chosen from velocity value, delay time, repeat velocity offset and on/off switches for velocity, velocity cross switch/fade, transpose, delay and filter may be enabled. You can dictate which MIDI controllers on which input and MIDI channel(s) will address the parameters.
Footswitch: a push-to-make footswitch plugged into the front panel can be used as a reset button or to increase the patch number or start/stop the internal clock.
Clock: MIDI clock can be set on or off for each individual patch. The clock source can either be taken from the internal clock (where the tempo can be set between 40 and 240 bpm), or a MIDI clock from any of the first eight MIDI Ins. But why only the first eight? Perhaps this is a further hangover from the smaller unit. You can also dictate from which of the 16 Outs MIDI clock is sent.
Cue: there are 16 cues per patch, sent out when that patch is selected. Each cue transmits a MIDI program change and a MIDI volume setting from a specific output and on a specific MIDI channel if required. So you can tailor your system to set up the patches and volume levels of each synth by simply selecting an FJ patch. This is one of the unit's best features.
The other features are Copy, for duplicating patches, Write Protect and Name.
THERE ARE OFTEN moments when you'd like to be able to hear precisely what an instrument is doing. Solo lets you do just that. By selecting an input or output, you can hear a specific module or connection.
The Enter button has two other modes. Pressing it once takes you to the monitor page where the 16 Outs and Ins are displayed onscreen. The numbers block out as MIDI data is received or transmitted. This tells you immediately where any problems are occurring. Pressing Enter a second time brings up the System Loading page. This gives a percentage figure of the weight of data currently being processed.
Finally there is a red reset button. A short press of this sends out reset commands for those functions most likely to cause hanging notes. This takes just over a tenth of a second and may well not produce an audible glitch. Prolonged holding of the button sends out individual notes off on each MIDI channel from each output. This takes nearly 32 seconds as a total of 98,304 bytes are transmitted. Expect a glitch.
HAVING HAD FUNCTION Junction Plus running the MIDI side of my studio for the past six weeks or so, the results have been uniformly excellent. Even with 16 MIDI channels of data running, the system load meter rarely ventured above 40% and no MIDI timing problems have been apparent. The convenience of being able to use different MIDI instruments and remapping MIDI controllers as necessary is difficult to describe. For instance, using the Yamaha WX11 wind controller with a synth which doesn't recognise MIDI breath control - which most outside of Yamaha don't - is normally problematic. Here, you simply remap the MIDI controller #2 (breath control) to controller #7 (volume).
It's true to say that a lot of FJ's facilities duplicate those of a sequencer - filtering, transposing, delaying and the like - but have you ever tried to emulate these features in real time as you need to when playing live? Having velocity crossfading move from one sound to another according to your touch on the keyboard is a fabulous option, as are many of the tricks that can be set up with the delays. The Function Junction can add to the creative process in ways you normally associate with a musical instrument - it really is that good.
There are, however, one or two points which still need to be ironed out: the software is inaccurate in places because of its origination on the eight-by-eight version. Also, when you attempt to make a 17th connection on the Plus model, it often doesn't even go to the warning screen. The contrast on the display dims as if a change is about to take place, but only occasionally does it do so. There was originally also a problem with MIDI dumping data - but this was fixed within one day of my mentioning it to AA. These were the only problems I could find in many studio hours of use.
BACK IN JUNE I waxed lyrical about Miditemp's PMM88 MIDI patchbay and still believe it to be an excellent unit. But Function Junction takes the principle a stage further. The unit has many excellent features, but the most important is the user interface.
While you won't need to look at the Function Junction manual very often, when you do you'll find it to be superbly written. Many of the major manufacturers would benefit from being made to sit in a room and read it to see how a manual should be written.
There have been criticisms raised in the course of this review, but as the manufacturer is close to hand (being British) I feel certain that changes will be made as a result.
At a cost of £699, Function Junction Plus has few, if any, rivals, especially bearing in mind the strength of its processing. The eight-by-eight model weighs in at £429 which is, perhaps, a little expensive for a unit handling just eight routes. Either way, the Function Junction offers you considerable power over your MIDI system with a level of convenience never before attained.
Price £699 including VAT
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Review by Vic Lennard
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