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Elka CR99 MIDI Disk Recorder

Article from Sound On Sound, April 1989

Paul Ireson takes a look at a new kind of direct-to-disk recorder, which stores MIDI rather than audio data. Could it be the ideal live sequencer, he wonders?

Paul Ireson takes a look at a new kind of direct-to-disk recorder, which stores MIDI rather than audio data. Could it be the ideal live sequencer, he wonders?

A direct-to-disk recorder? Hell, yes, of course I'll do it. Who could turn down the offer of getting their hands on a piece of state-of-the-art digital audio hardware? So it was that I accepted the job of reviewing the Elka CR99 MIDI Disk Recorder: only later did I look at the small print and discover that the thing is actually a MIDI data, not audio, recorder. But a deal's a deal, so here I am with Elka's latest black box for company, trying to work out what it does, and why and when I might want it to do it.

As it turned out, the CR99 is very simple in both concept and operation. This is probably just as well, given that parts of the semi-handwritten/photocopied manual supplied with the review sample had been translated from Italian into English by someone whose first language was clearly Tibetan [that's the price you pay for getting your hands on new gear before everyone else - Ed.]. The unit will record and play back any MIDI data you care to throw at it, and here's the interesting bit, direct to and from 3.5" floppy disks. Its most obvious applications are as a MIDI data filer, for storing System Exclusive information, or as a compact and relatively rugged performance sequencer. Particularly in this latter role, the CR99 has a good deal to recommend it, as I'll explain.

The unit is two-thirds the standard rack width, and 1U high. A good number of recent products have appeared in sizes smaller than full rack width, to the extent that one-third width could probably be regarded as at least a semi-standard size now. Therefore, there should be some way of racking the CR99 up alongside a one-third rack width unit (like one of Alesis' Micro Effects). In the absence of any suitable hardware, I made do with just leaving it free standing. At the left of the front panel is the all-important 3.5" disk drive, and next to it are several buttons for accessing the unit's various functions, and a three-digit LED display. Round the back are four MIDI sockets: In, for the reception of data to be recorded, Thru, and two Outs.


The CR99 is nothing without a disk: the first thing it does on powering up is to check the disk drive. If there's no disk inserted it tells you to insert one and start again, and if there is it checks on what has been stored on that disk by carrying out its Directory operation. The CR99 can format its own disks, a process which takes around one minute. Each disk can store up to 80,000 notes/MIDI events, split between 99 Songs. Though they're called Songs, these blocks of data might more accurately be called 'files', as they can contain any MIDI data, not just sequence data. Recording MIDI data is as simple as plugging a lead into the CR99's MIDI In socket, selecting an empty Song, and initiating record. If the data being recorded is from the output of a sequencer or master keyboard, it may be desirable to monitor it as it records, so a Merge function is available to do just this, retransmitting the incoming data from both of the CR99's MIDI Out ports.

Stored data is replayed by simply selecting the correct Song, entering Play mode and hitting Start. Data is recalled and transmitted from the two MIDI Outs exactly as it was recorded in the first place - it's rather like having a tape machine recording everything. This is unusual for a device that deals in data, in that such machines tend to be concerned only with the raw data they're handling - whether a few seconds break occurred between the reception of two data blocks is not recorded, and therefore the break is not reproduced on playback. However, with the Elka CR99, data received in the period between pressing Start and Stop can be replayed later, exactly as it was received during that period. This tape recorder analogy might make the CR99 seem a little primitive, but on the contrary, it's the ability to record in this manner that makes it so useful - any combination of MIDI data you can put together can be recorded and recalled. And the traditional disk advantage of near-instant access to any part of the disk is retained. Although the unit's default replay rate is exactly as it was received, it is possible to vary this rate between half and double the original.


An obvious application for the CR99 would be as a simple data filer, storing a different System Exclusive data dump in each of its Songs. However, because the CR99 won't stop recording until you tell it to, it is also possible to record several System Exclusive dumps into a single Song. One Song could therefore contain dumps from all of your equipment, one after the other - replaying that song would then automatically configure all of your equipment with the patches, setups, etc that they were using at the time of the save, in a single operation.

This is a great boon if you tend to create new sounds on several pieces of equipment for each new piece of music you write - provided you store all the dumps for all of your gear for each piece of music, there's no need to remember which patches or dumps you have to load up for each piece of music, the CR99 does it for you!


The second application for which the CR99 seems very suitable is live sequencing. If you use a computer to compose and create your music, and want to take that music into a live performance environment, you might be a little wary of taking something as fragile and bulky as a computer out on the road (or into a pub!). You could, however, simply transfer all of the music into the CR99: all it takes is a MIDI lead to be connected between your computer's MIDI Out and the CR99's MIDI In, and enough time to play the songs through once. It's here that the CR99's tape recorder-style data recording is important, because it makes it possible to record and replay music (in the form of MIDI data) exactly as the sequencer on which it was composed produced it. You could record and store each piece of music separately, or record all the music for an entire live set-complete with pauses for 'spontaneous' banter with the audience - into a single Song. The CR99 therefore offers a live substitute for computer sequencers, which is small, relatively rugged, and doesn't require any temperamental sequencing software. In terms of its playback operation, the tape recorder analogy holds still further in that if you halt playback of a CR99 Song, you can resume playback from the same point at which you stopped.

Because the replay of Songs is direct from disk - give or take a small memory buffer to cope with the time taken to write to and read from disk - there is no loading time required before playback of a Song can start, which is an important consideration for live use. Once a Song has finished (or been manually stopped), it only takes around eight seconds or so to locate another Song on the same disk, enter Play mode and begin playback. If the new Song is on another disk, it is necessary to enter Disk mode and catalogue the contents of the new disk before locating the Song and commencing playback. This whole disk swapping/cataloguing procedure still takes under 20 seconds, if you're sharp, so if you do use this unit live and really can't fit all your songs on a single disk, disk swapping shouldn't be too much of an interruption.


Being essentially a simple record and playback unit, the CR99 has nothing by way of editing facilities to change Song data once they've been recorded. You can, however, overdub new data on top of a previously recorded Song. This is achieved by bouncing the existing data to a second Song location, whilst merging it with the new, incoming data. It would therefore be possible to use the unit as a very basic sequencer in its own right, though for most people the total absence of editing facilities would rule it out of serious consideration. On the other hand, you only need to learn one operation to use it in this role, so if anybody needs a sequencer that is simplicity itself to use, and does nothing but replay exactly what you record, perhaps the CR99 is for them.

The length of the original Song does not restrict the length of the overdub: recording continues beyond the end of the original Song until you press Stop. This makes it possible to chain System Exclusive dumps or pieces of music together, with only a split second between them, having actually recorded them one by one, with all the delays necessary to re-patch leads, access the right dump functions and so on.

I first used this facility to add an overdubbed synth line to a piece as an afterthought, and also to chain together several pieces of music into a specified order, with a couple of seconds' 'wait time' between each. I've described recording System Exclusive and performance data independently, but particularly with the overdub facility you can mix up the two as much as you like.

For example, a System Exclusive dump containing TX81Z voices could be followed by the MIDI data for a music sequence, which in turn is followed by a second TX81Z voice dump, which is then followed by a second piece of music that uses the new sounds. So, if you were to use the CR99 as a live sequencer, it would be possible to create a single Song that would automatically transmit any System Exclusive dumps that might be necessary during a series of tracks (for example, to change the sounds on a synth module). Note that System Exclusive dumps cannot be overdubbed on top of music performance data - it's one or the other.


The fact that the Elka CR99 stores and recalls MIDI data is no big deal; almost any sequencer (hardware or software) will let you do that. Where the CR99 really scores is in three respects: First it is compact, requires no setting up and has virtually instant loading time for Songs, making it an ideal live playback sequencer. Secondly, it is very easy to use. This again is a bonus for live work, though it could equally make it a good tool for anyone who needs to be able to record MIDI performances, but whose technofear prevents them from using a more sophisticated and fully-featured machine/piece of software. Thirdly, it is totally undiscriminating about what types of MIDI data it deals with. This makes it ideal for two applications: assembling whatever sequence of MIDI data - both Note and System Exclusive - is necessary for a live performance, or putting together a single Song containing all the System Exclusive dumps that you need to configure all of your MIDI equipment at the start of a session. You could create such a Song for each piece of music you write, or even for different styles of music.

These are the specific applications that sprang to my mind, but because the CR99 is not dedicated to a particular function - rather it has the general function of recording and replaying any MIDI data - you may think of others, and it could easily find uses in all sorts of applications. However, at £399 it looks just a little overpriced, unless you really need it for something like live work. I can't help feeling that if only it were a little cheaper, people might just keep it in mind as a solution looking for a MIDI problem.


£399 inc VAT.

Elka UK, (Contact Details).

Also featuring gear in this article

Previous Article in this issue

Yamaha RX8 Drum Machine

Next article in this issue

How It Works - Hard Disk Recorders

Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

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Sound On Sound - Apr 1989

Gear in this article:

MIDI Disk Recorder > Elka > CR99

Review by Paul Ireson

Previous article in this issue:

> Yamaha RX8 Drum Machine

Next article in this issue:

> How It Works - Hard Disk Rec...

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