MIDI Time Code Controller
With sequencing and tape recording becoming equally important to many musicians, any means of integrating the two is likely to be a welcome development. Vic Lennard looks at a unit that allows Fostex' R8 to be operated from within Steinberg's Cubase.
Until now, sequencing and tape recording have been regarded as complementary, if not alternative, systems. But Fostex' MTC1 promises a new age of integration.
WHEN FOSTEX RELEASED the R8 in 1988, it followed in their tradition of providing good quality eight-track recorders at an affordable price.
One of the major advantages the R8 has over its predecessor, the Model 80, is the removable front panel. This serves as a remote control for the unit without putting you to the expense of having to buy an extra box. However, Fostex obviously had other ideas regarding remote control which few of us suspected. When I reviewed the R8 (MT March 1989), I made a passing comment about the serial port being for "future use of a Model MTC1 MIDI Time Code controller." Read on, the future is here.
THE MTC1 HAS three main functions; a SMPTE timecode read/write generator; MIDI Time Code (MTC) for synchronising to/from sequencers which will send/receive MTC; and a function which allows all operations of the R8 to be controlled by MIDI event messages.
Physically, the MTC1 is a small black box which attaches to the rear of the R8 recorder by a couple of screws. Connection is by a short lead which plugs into the serial port and power is derived from the recorder, with a red LED to show that all is OK. An LTC (Longitudinal Time Code - generally SMPTE to you and me) Out connects to one of the track inputs (usually track eight) to allow SMPTE to be written to tape. The output from this track then plugs into the LTC In, with a green LED to show when a signal is being received. In addition, there are the usual MIDI In/Out/Thru sockets, with another green LED next to the MIDI In to show whether the received message has been recognised by the MTC1.
Finally, there are eight switches, termed Mode Set, arranged in a small block. These set the following: MIDI channel to receive on (switches 1-4), adherence to the set MIDI channel or acceptance of data on any channel (switch 5), acknowledgement of remote control commands from MIDI event messages (switch 6) and the SMPTE frame rate (switches 7 and 8).
Although MIDI Time Code was covered in the March 1990 issue of MT, a brief recap might be helpful here. In short, SMPTE code from tape is translated into hours, minutes, seconds and frames. This allows you to work in terms of time both on tape and sequencer instead of having to convert into bars and beats as with SMPTE.
ANY OF THE R8's functions can be controlled by MIDI note events using the MTC1 - for example, it's possible to hit a C2 (note 48) on your keyboard and see the R8 go into play mode.
As there are a large number of functions which can be carried out, the MTC1 uses a single note on for the most common operations and two notes on for those which are used less often. A C2 note sets the R8 into play, F2 rewinds, A2 puts the R8 into fast forward, and C3 stops the recorder in any mode. G2 puts the R8 into cue mode for monitoring from tape, and keeps it in this mode while the key is held down. On release when the note off is received, cue is turned off.
For other operations, a key denoted Shift must be held down while the key denoted Normal is pressed. So to select a track for recording on, B4 (note 83) has to be held down while either C1 is pressed for all tracks to be put into record mode, or a note between C#1 and G#1 (corresponding to tracks 1-8) is pressed for a single track. Interestingly enough, notes A1 through G#3 are reserved for tracks 9-32. A sign for the future?
For the purposes of this review, if accessing a function requires a Shift key followed by a Normal key, it will be written in the order Shift-Normal. For instance, to select all tracks for record, the sequence would be (Shift)B4-(Normal)C1.
The R8 has a good selection of loop modes. These facilitate playing, recording and the like each time the loop restarts. The MTC1 supports all of these. The sequence F#4-F3 turns loop mode on, A#4-C#3 selects the loop start, while A#4-D3 selects the loop end point - real-time control with a difference. Once you have set the loop points, you have two options: stay in playback mode (G#4-C2) or record on any selected tracks (G#4-C#2). The R8 also offers you the ability to loop and change the monitoring from tape to input at a preset record punch-in point, then change back to tape monitor after the record punch-out. This is called Rehearsal mode. To achieve this using the MTC1, set the loop points and the location where record will take place. Punch-out (B2) drops you out of record but keeps the tape running until the loop end and then rewinds to the loop start.
Certain MIDI commands are used in a way that is, strictly speaking, outside their true meaning. Local control On/Off usually divorces a keyboard from its internal sounds. However, the MTC1 uses Local On/Off to remove control of the R8 from the front panel. All Notes Off turns off any MIDI note events currently controlling the MTC1, while Omni On/Off effectively operates switch five on the Mode Set block. This then allows for MIDI commands on any channel to be recognised.
SOME FEATURES OF the MTC1 are unique to it and do not exist within the R8.
"In my 'umble opinion, if you're using Cubase and an R8, you cannot afford to do without the MTC1 - it will revolutionise your working methods."
Probably the most important of these is the Time Reference selection. This decides the method by which the MTC1 will be time-locked. The standard method is to lock the MTC1 to the SMPTE code on tape while the tape is running, and to tach/direction information when in rewind or fast forward (this is especially useful when running in sync with a low-band U-matic video machine). The Tach option allows you to remain locked in sync while in frame-hold mode as LTC is only used when the U-matic is playing. There are three other options: SMPTE only, which would be used with a sequencer but non audio-visual (A/V) system; tach/direction only, for locking to a non-SMPTE-based A/V system, in which case whatever is on the R8 is not truly locked to the system; MIDI Time Code only, for locking to an external MTC generator other than the MTC1. MTC1 also outputs Direct Time Lock for those of you fortunate enough to have an Apple Mac running Mark of the Unicorn's Performer.
All R8 punch In/Out and cue points can be saved to an event list - the only problem being that these figures have to be requested from the MTC1 by a SysEx command. However, the manual carefully lists all messages, and many sequencers will allow you to set up SysEx messages byte by byte. Once saved to a computer, you can reinstate these for future use.
HAVING READ THIS far, you might be thinking that using the MTC1 is more bother than it's worth - and if you had to control all MTC1 functions solely by MIDI note events, I would probably agree with you. R8 owners working without a sequencer will probably find that life is easier without an MTC1.
However, once used in conjunction with a sequencer, the MTC1 really comes into its own. You can set up the functions that you need on certain tracks of your sequencer, and move them to specific places within a song when you need them - no more having to worry about whether that punch-in is going to work. You can then set up the sequencer in rehearsal mode, test it as many times as you like, and go for the take. The sequencer does all the awkward button-pushing for you. Even without using MIDI Time Code - there's every chance that your sequencer will not respond to it - the MTC1 is indispensable for anyone with an R8 and a sequencer.
Of the current range of sequencers for the Atari ST, only Cubase can currently utilise MIDI Time Code. Consequently, Fostex and Steinberg have worked together on the development of the MTC1 unit.
With SMPTE on tape, and MIDI Time Code being output by the MTC1 and received by Cubase, the result is a synchronised system which is difficult to beat. Steinberg have written a MIDI Manager page for the MTC1 to let you select functions on screen, including the more awkward facilities like cue and punch points. Consequently you can operate the R8 by using the mouse or from the computer keyboard while the system is locked.
Not only that, but Steinberg have created a software driver for the R8. For instance, if you move to bar 25 and click on the Play icon, the R8 shuttles to that point and the system starts up in sync. With this and Cubase's MIDI Manager page, which can coexist on screen, you never need to touch the R8's transport controls. Admittedly, if you want to play in MIDI data from a keyboard, you'll need a MIDI merge box, but this is a small price to pay for this level of sophistication.
However, without the ability to turn on the SMPTE generator from the front panel of the R8, you need to set up a time offset based on the display reading on the R8. It's no big deal but worth a mention.
CONSIDER THE PRICE of a stand-alone MIDI Time Code generator/SMPTE read/write unit and then add in the remote control facilities. How much would you expect to pay - £300-400? The pleasant surprise held by this system is that the RRP of the MTC1 is £189 including VAT.
In my 'umble opinion, if you're using Cubase and an R8, you cannot afford to do without the MTC1 - it will revolutionise your working methods. Even if you're using another sequencer, the MTC1 is still a good buy if you're prepared to spend some time setting up the various MIDI messages for remote control.
The MTC1 can also be used with the new Fostex four-track recorder, the 280. This will provide all of the R8 features including full remote control of operation and MIDI Time Code synchronisation. The latest machine to be launched from the Fostex stable is the G16 (the replacement for the E16) debuted at this year's APRS. This has an optional MTC1-style unit/synchroniser board available, with MIDI sockets on the rear panel. This will make it a 16-track tape complement to Cubase. And are Fostex hiding a 24-track MTC compatible machine up their corporate sleeve? What of the other Software houses - how long will it be before another sequencing package incorporates MTC, and becomes a possible partner for the R8/MTC1? Only time will tell, but the Cubase/R8/MTC1 system is with us now and offers a new level of sequencing and tape integration.
Price: £189 including VAT.
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Review by Vic Lennard
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