M401 MIDI MANAGEMENT SYSTEM
When a well-respected signal processor manufacturer like Drawmer moves beyond the realms of noise gates and compressors into MIDI control, it's yet another indication that the recording world is recognising the importance of MIDI. Paul Gilby dropped his copy of the Financial Times to take an exclusive look at the brand new Drawmer MIDI Management System.
When a well-known and respected signal processor manufacturer like Drawmer moves beyond the realm of noise gates and compressors into MIDI control, it's yet another indication that the professional studio world is recognising the importance of MIDI in the modern recording environment. Paul Gilby dropped his copy of the Financial Times to take a closer look at the Drawmer MIDI Management System.
With barely a few months of the year passed, the deluge of MIDI products has commenced. Both Akai and Yamaha have unveiled their latest MIDI control boxes, as have Sycologic in the shape of the M16 reviewed last month. But now Drawmer of all people join the MIDI march with their 1U black box that offers some very different ideas and applications for the control (management) of MIDI data.
In its simplest form the Drawmer MIDMAN can be divided into three distinct sections: MIDI routing, Input/Output trigger options and Rhythm sequencing. Each section is accessed via its own controls on the front panel, through which the setting of these various parameters enable the different sections to be interlinked.
This provides a flexible system that can be applied to a variety of MIDI routing and triggering procedures, all of which may be stored in any one of the 32 memory locations.
Before entering into a description of the control options and their applications, it's worth explaining just how you go about selecting the parameter you want to edit.
After powering up the MIDMAN you hear a series of rhythmic bleeps which herald your welcome to the machine. This is followed by some of the LEDs lighting, which - if all's well -w ill read the same as their last position immediately prior to the machine being switched off. Yes, that means it's got onboard non-volatile memory.
The front panel is graphically laid out as a series of ten boxes, each with it's own pushbutton and LED. Contained within each box are four function options, any one of which may be selected by pressing the master left-hand Option button until it increments to the chosen row. By pressing Scan, the bottom row of yellow LEDs flash in a fast sequence from left to right until you press the desired button at the bottom of the box you want to select - simple really! Once you've made your selection you can then move through any of the four options associated with that box and change the parameters as required, with each option displaying the status or value of the parameter in the large red LED window at the left-hand end of the unit. At the side of each box's button there's a word or symbol which indicates a secondary use of that particular button eg. up/down increment, stop/start, write etc. More about these later.
Perhaps the most important aspect of any multi-keyboard set-up is the ability to route the various MIDI signals around the system without too much unplugging and re-patching of cables. This is really a fundamental desire of any box that offers MIDI control and the Drawmer MIDMAN includes such a routing section.
Located on the back panel are, one MIDI In socket, two MIDI Thru sockets and four MIDI Outs. The first four boxes on the front panel are concerned with the routing and use of these rear-mounted MIDI sockets.
So what can you do with them? By pressing the Scan button and then selecting the first box you are ready to edit the parameters of MIDI Out socket number 1.
Option one at the top of the column allows you to set the MIDI Channel Number (1-16) for the data output on that socket. Pressing the Option button again moves you down to the MIDI Channel In select and again this can be set to any of MIDI's 16 channels with the added choice of switching the socket off.
The function of these two options are obvious in that they allow you to set up which MIDI Channel the data is received and transmitted on. This means that instruments which only receive on MIDI Channel 1, like a DX7, can be controlled by a sequencer that's transmitting on Channel 6, but the data is intercepted by the MIDMAN and reassigned to Channel 1.
The next option down is Split Point, and as you would expect, this is used to set a split point on a keyboard. The up/down arrows change the note displayed in semi-tone steps through the musical range of CO to C7, and the left/right arrows located in boxes three and four shift the decimal point to one side of the note or octave number. This, in fact, selects whether or not data is transmitted for keys above or below the displayed split point.
Play Mode completes the options, and this offers 13 different keyboard modes selected via the up/down buttons. I won't explain all the different modes as they differ in minor detail only. Suffice to say that Mode 1 offers normal playing over the whole of a connected MIDI keyboard, Mode 2 is the same but you can turn it on or off via a footswitch. The other modes carry on this theme with options on key splits on or off, triggered playing, and triggering only on split sections etc. These various modes offer almost every possible combination of split and trigger you could ever want. But as yet we haven't spoken of the trigger section, so the value of some of the keyboard modes will not be apparent.
To sum up, this section of the MIDMAN offers some basic MIDI Channel routing options where any channel input can be assigned to any one of the four MIDI Channel outputs with a new Channel Number, Key Split and Play Mode tacked on as the data passes through.
Now, that's very useful, but the MIDMAN also gives you 32 programmable memories where you can store your routing configurations (patches) for instant recall. What's more, these patches may be controlled via two footswitches for live use when fast up/down selection is required. And a final word here for MIDI data that isn't being processed, the MIDI In is also linked to a couple of MIDI Thru sockets for direct transfer.
With thoughts of 'triggers' going through your mind, other terms such as clock rate, tempo, metronome, beats per minute and gate time all come into the conversation, and rightly so in the case of the MIDMAN as, in one form or another, they're all related.
Within the MIDMAN you'll find a very comprehensive section which deals with the generation of different triggers in either traditional audio/voltage form or in a MIDI clock pulse format.
By scanning along to the ninth box on the front panel, you're in the area which deals with some of the trigger options. Once you've selected the Triggger In parameter you can either switch the facility on/off or select the normal mode (In-Out), for straight trigger in/out operation from an incoming audio/+5V source. The third parameter (SSt), utilises the Trigger In as a start/stop pulse. This offers some interesting applications such as using the audio from a snaredrum mic to set a drum machine running.
Directly related to this is the Trigger Out option which on receipt of a Trigger In pulse, will generate a +5V Trigger Out pulse and simultaneously a 1kHz tone burst at the audio output. And what do you do with that tone burst? Well, trigger (key) the side-chain of a Drawmer noise gate of course! But that pulse isn't necessarily the correct pulse type, so you have the option to alter the Gate Time to match the unit you're trying to trigger.
Well, if that wasn't enough let me also tell you that the Trigger Out option actually has eleven different trigger modes. Life isn't just a game of Chinese Whispers for the MIDMAN. The more usual mode would be as described above, ie. what goes in comes out, but when you relate the Trigger Out function to the internal clock which you can set in beats per minute, the other modes start to mean much more. For example,you can have two trigger pulses for every beat. Alternatively you may have one pulse every three beats or four, six or eight beats; this section is very flexible indeed. And finally, you also have control of the Trig Mode, where you can select whether the notes that you are playing only sound when a trigger is present (these trigger pulses may be from an external source or the Play Pattern), or you can choose to hear the notes when played manually (but only in the assigned trigger area previously set when choosing the Split Point, and one of the thirteen Play Mode options already discussed). Nobody said this was a simple unit did they!
I've already mentioned that tempo may be set in beats per minute (30 to 285), but haven't spoken about the Clock Out Rate which generates a number of pulses per beat for driving an external drum machine or sequencer. Here the twelve options are as expected and include some of the more usual pulse rates eg. 12, 24, 32, 48 and 96. And, on the subject of clocks, there are three clock options: Internal Clock, which is set by the tempo rate; External Clock, which looks for a +5V pulse input or, last of all, an External MIDI Clock.
Having dealt with the trigger options I can now move on to the more detailed side of the MIDI clock options found in the eighth box along. Option one, MIDI Clock Socket, allows you to route the MIDI real-time clock to any one of the four individual MIDI Out sockets or simultaneously to sockets 1 and 2 or none when set to 'off'. The next option down is the Programmable MIDI Clock Socket and enables you to send a non-standard MIDI clock rate to any of the four MIDI Out sockets, but with this option you may also route it to sockets 3 and 4 simultaneously. It's fairly obvious that you can't have the normal MIDI Clock and the Programmable one occupying the same output which is why the choice of sockets is different.
Option three in this stack allows you to actually programme the MIDI clock rate as 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 12 or 24 pulses per beat. And so to the last option, the EnableData mode. This allows you to filter the MIDI data and remove or retain information in the following categories: Pitch Bend, After-Touch and Modulation Wheel, Program Change (on/off only), Control Data (ie. vibrato and sustain) and System Exclusive Data (ie. ID codes).
And now we move on to the third and final section of the MIDMAN, the rhythm section - no pun intended! Firstly, this is not a built-in drum machine and in fact doesn't generate a single sound. I tell a lie, there is a metronome bleep whose tempo is controlled by the beats per minute setting in box ten, but other than that there isn't a percussion instrument in sight.
With respect to the MIDMAN, the rhythm section is governed by the Record and Play Pattern options in boxes six and seven. The application of this feature would initially seem to be obscure until you actually get down to using it. You have at your disposal eight patterns (banks) anyone of which may be selected when in the Play Pattern mode. Once selected you switch into the Record Pattern mode and then choose which of the four MIDI Out sockets your programmed rhythm is destined for. This means that you can have 4 separate rhythms, multiplied by 8 pattern options giving 32 different rhythms, all of which may be stored in memory.
So, what are these rhythms for? Well, if I run through the procedure for recording such a rhythm pattern the idea should become clear. Option two in box six allows you to set the number of beats in the rhythm that you are about to programme, with a maximum capacity of 99 beats. Let's select four beats. Moving up to the Record Pattern option and pressing the Yes button displays 'Clr' (clear) in the LED window and clears out some recording space in memory. Pressing Start sets the metronome off at the pre-selected tempo and you are free to tap out your desired rhythm on a key of your connected MIDI keyboard. As soon as you have hit the fourth and last beat, the rhythm sequence you have tapped in will loop around and begin playing.
If you're satisfied with this, press Stop and then Write, and the result will be stored. By pressing Start again, the stored rhythm will play out at middle C on the keyboard (assuming that you have the MIDI cables hooked up). In this mode the rhythm may be altered by tapping a key yet again, and the timing of this will be added to what you are hearing - in effect, a live rhythm overdub facility.
Having recorded a rhythm you can move to the Play Pattern option where the rhythm may be used in a real musical context. You can, for example, hold down a series of chords and have the rhythm pattern superimposed. This results in a chopping effect, and by using the dynamics of the keyboard when you first programmed the rhythm, you can have the chopping rhythm of the chords getting louder as the pattern progresses. This feature can add expression to a keyboard player's basic chord work.
If you use the same rhythm but this time actually play a riff on the keyboard, the effect sounds like you have suddenly become a really tight and expressive player because the rhythm sequence adds the timing and dynamics to your 'slack' playing. This rhythm sequencing feature could be particularly good for live work as it leaves you in charge of playing the notes whilst taking the timing out of your hands and could, if required, place it under the more precise control of a drum machine or live drummer. Now that really is human engineering! One thing's for sure, it certainly allows a more flexible approach to live performance than using a sequencer on stage ever would. But if you yearn for that mechanical feeling to your music, then never fear - the MIDMAN has a Quantize option that automatically corrects the timing of the rhythm sequence, so you really can pretend you're using a step-time sequencer.
Let me say that the MIDMAN is not a straightforward unit. The designers have pushed the applications and control of MIDI data within this box to the limit and brought together three very separate areas, that of MIDI routing, triggering and rhythm sequencing. The result is one very flexible, though complex, device. But the complexity of the MIDMAN shouldn't put you off because the rewards it offers are immense.
It is without doubt one of those pieces of equipment which inspire creativity, and you'll hear yourself saying things like: 'If I connect this unit to that one and trigger the effects from a microphone...' and so on.
If you're a studio engineer, this unit could become your best friend when faced with the horrors of MIDI or, if you're a keyboard player, the performance options the MIDMAN offers will help reduce your MIDI routing nightmares and increase the flexibility of your live/studio keyboard set-up.
Drawmer have informed us that the lack of any MIDI Program Change option in the routing section has been amended on the software update to include this facility within the unit.
At £395 plus VAT you only have to add up the cost of all the individual units you'd have to buy in order to match this performance to discover the ultimate attraction of the Drawmer MIDMAN: value for money.
Review by Paul Gilby
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