Le Sequenceur Polyphonique
The French answer to the MSQ100? A polyphonic sequencer with comprehensive interfacing facilities, and a few tricks up its sleeve gets the treatment from 'le docteur' Simon Trask.
From France, a country not noted for its contribution to the hi-tech music world, comes a dedicated MIDI sequencer with a difference.
Even if you've cast only a cursory eye over E&MM's Checklist buyer's guide since we instigated it four months ago, you'll be aware that the dedicated MIDI sequencer is something of a rare beast. That rarity is surprising when you consider that the MIDI revolution has brought with it a whole mass of home computer software intended to do the same sequencing job, and whereas the software boom has introduced a load of new designers and manufacturers to the music industry, the companies involved in building dedicated sequencers are the same ones, by and large, that were involved in making them before MIDI came along.
So, if you're unsure of taking the plunge into the computer end of the pool or find currently-available programs unacceptable, there isn't much of a choice in the way of dedicated machines. Come August, however, that choice will be widened by the addition of at least one machine. It's a surprise entry in every way, since not only does it come from a company with no hi-tech music pedigree whatsoever, it's also built in a country scarcely known in this area: France.
The company in question is Micro Performance, and their machine is the PolyMIDI I, a dedicated polyphonic MIDI sequencer (hence the name) that's being brought across La Manche by that distinctively British organisation, the Oxford Synthesiser Company.
PolyMIDI I has a 6500-note capacity (with velocity), and can record five sequences and two chains. Now, whilst that note capacity is on a par with what's already offered by the machines of established makers, the newcomer is definitely ahead on the number of sequences and chains it can store. Not quite enough to make it an all-purpose live tool, perhaps, but a step in the right direction nonetheless.
As well as being chained together individually, sequences can be played concurrently, and any such combination can be recorded as a link in the chain. Memory assignment is completely dynamic - there's no restriction on the length of either sequences or chains, other than that imposed by overall memory availability. There's a facility for you to 'mix down' any sequence onto any other sequence, with the proviso that you don't try to trigger any more than 16 notes simultaneously on playback (this applies to concurrent running of sequences, too). The PolyMIDI I isn't alone in this, as the same restriction applies to the Yamaha QX7, but it's a bit of a disappointment when you consider that a good few micro software packages of similar or lesser price aren't limited in this way.
One thing is readily apparent the moment you get the PolyMIDI I out of its box. Its front panel isn't exactly your usual hi-tech facia. Notably absent is the LED/LCD window display that we've all come to know and (sometimes) love, and overall, the machine's exterior looks as though it might have been designed about three years ago. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, as there are plenty of single-function controls on the PolyMIDI I, making day-to-day operation of the thing an easy and relatively trouble-free affair. Each vital selector button has its own red LED, so you can see at a glance which functions are active.
However, where extra functions are implemented 'implicitly' on top of the dedicated buttons (as is the case here with MIDI channel allocation, among other things) or by the adoption of complex sequences of button-pushing, things become less clear. It's also a pity that MIDI channel allocation from the front panel is limited to channels 1-5 (because they're chosen from the sequence buttons), though thankfully, you can record sequences and play them back on any of the usual 16 channels.
The lack of a window display doesn't seriously hamper your using the PolyMIDI, but it does reduce the amount of feedback you get as you go along. You've no way of knowing which MIDI channel is allocated to a particular sequence, what the current step in a chain is, or what the current tempo is. In the latter instance, all you get is a scale of 1-10 set around the rotary controller, which can hardly be classed as detailed.
In an attempt to compensate for the lack of visual feedback, Micro Performance have opted to make full use of the sound generator used for the internal metronome, together with the LEDs associated with each button. What this means in practice is that using the PolyMIDI I can be a bit like playing a video game; beeps and flashes galore.
Recording in real time is a straightforward affair - at least from the operational point of view. Press the Real Time button, choose your quantisation value (if you need one) and the sequence number, and then press Record (or Load, as our review model had it). It's good to see the PolyMIDI I doesn't begin recording until you play a note, so there's no frantic rush to start playing the moment you select Record. However, the system does give you the option to start recording before you play a note, so you can have your cake and eat it.
You bring recording to a close by pressing either Stop, Repeat Play or Play (or the stop/play footswitch if you have one), but if you've opted to do without quantisation, you'll need to be pretty sharpish if you're not to destroy your masterpiece with a clumsy ending. Finish off by going into Play and you should be OK, though. Micro Performance have thoughtfully included an autocorrect function that acts only on the first and last notes played, leaving the rest of your endeavour to the plain truth of real-time recording.
For those with confirmed autocorrect inclinations, the PolyMIDI I provides crotchet, quaver, semiquaver and demisemiquaver resolutions, together with triplet versions of the first three - a healthy range, all in all. Make sure you choose right first time, though, as you can't muck about with autocorrection values retrospectively.
Autocorrection is, of course, accomplished in relation to the current tempo value, so you'll need to make use of either the PolyMIDI's internal metronome or a connected drum machine. And believe me, the latter is by far the more sensible option, as the metronome is a piercing, high-pitched bleep that doesn't allow itself to be controlled by the user in any way, shape or form.
The PolyMIDI I happily records the usual array of velocity, aftertouch, patch change, pitchbend and modulation data, communicated to it over the good ol' MIDI bus. There's not much scope for MIDI filtering, however, as the only information you can choose to ignore at the sequencer end of things is velocity.
The five available sequences don't have to be used for recording separate pieces of music. Instead, they can be run concurrently to form one, extensive magnum opus, in which case it's more appropriate to consider them as tracks. Not surprisingly, you're limited to recording only one sequence at a time, but it is possible to record on one sequence and play back all the remaining sequences simultaneously, should you wish.
"Layout: The exterior looks as though it could have been designed three years ago... but that isn't necessarily a bad thing."
The Repeat Play function (which is what Micro Performance call looping) affects all the sequences currently stored within the PolyMIDI, though the good news is that when sequences are playing concurrently, each sequence loops according to its own length, rather than the length of the longest sequence. Thus you can record a bass riff or chord pattern on one sequence, and then a solo line over it on another while the first plays back in Loop mode. And if you're into pattern phasing a la Steve Reich, now's your chance to have multiple sequences looping merrily away according to their own duration.
The items of MIDI data listed above are all independent for each sequence, but remember that if you transmit more than one sequence over the same MIDI channel (so that they're all picked up by the same instrument), pitchbends and patch changes on one sequence will affect the notes of all the other sequences, too. Chaos just isn't the word.
Anyway, when you're happy with the parts you've recorded, you can mix down any sequence onto any other sequence (providing that they share either a complement or a dearth of velocity data), and continue this process to any number of generations. What you can't do is copy one sequence onto the end of another. By comparison, the QX7 allows you to do just that, while Roland's MSQ100 adopts what's in some ways a more flexible measure-based system. But then, neither of those offer you independently-definable chains.
The mixdown process operates by altering pointers in memory rather than literally merging MIDI data. Each part thus retains all its own features (MIDI channel allocation, pitchbend and so on), though if you continue editing a sequence that contains more than one part, your edits affect that sequence as a whole. Another consequence of mixing down sequences is that the shorter of any two pieces you combine automatically assumes the length of the longer one - so, for instance, your repeating riff suddenly won't be.
One shortcoming of the current PolyMIDI software is that it doesn't allow editing of individual notes in real time. Step-time mode allows you to step forward and backward through the notes during Record - with backward movement automatically erasing notes along the way. This sorry situation is currently being rectified by Micro Performance, and I'm assured that any software updates in this direction will not invalidate data recorded using the current software. We shall see.
But the current version of PolyMIDI is far from being a lost cause in the editing department. For a start, it's possible to truncate a sequence that has been recorded in step-time mode or with autocorrection on. You can also alter a sequence's MIDI channel, subject to the front-panel limitations I touched on at the start. And you can add or alter pitchbend, modulation and patch-change data on a sequence, simply by recording these settings on an empty track while playing back the one you want to change, and then mixing down the new sequence onto the original. All very neat and logical.
In common with the Roland and Yamaha offerings, but unlike so much Stateside produce, the PolyMIDI I has a step-time recording facility built in. Mind you, it's here that the lack of a display window really makes itself felt. That isn't surprising. Step-time input is all about throwing musical continuity out the window with the object of recording without performance limitations, so you're going to need all the visual help you can get if you aren't going to get lost by the lack of, er, music. This is where dedicated sequencers tend to be at a disadvantage by comparison with their computer-based brethren, and the PolyMIDI I is no exception.
One silly omission: you can't record velocity information in step time. I fail to see why this has to be the case. After all, if a £100 program for the humble Spectrum can manage it (complete with music score notation, no less), why can't a fully-fledged, considerably more expensive dedicated machine like the PolyMIDI I ? You can record legato and staccato notes, but it's shame they all have to have the same dynamics.
Step-time recording is pretty much as straightforward as it is in real time. A quantisation value must be selected as the minimum duration; this is referenced to the crotchet tempo value. Once you've selected a sequence and the appropriate mode, you can enter notes either singly or as chords from the attached synth, pressing the '>' button once for each step required. No prizes for guessing that you enter rests by pressing the same button whilst no notes are playing.
Undoubtedly of value is the way step- and real-time sequences can be played together, and even mixed down together, so long as you remember the velocity/no velocity limitation.
But where the PolyMIDI I really scores over its competitors is in its adoption of chaining. You can chain any number of sequences together, just as long as you stay within the confines of the available memory. Each link is a collection of sequences read concurrently, so you can specify sequences up to the maximum of five. It's also possible to specify multiple occurrences of a sequence or sequences within a link, and to make link-specific transpositions of any sequence.
Meanwhile, huge fun awaits you in the form of Micro Performance's Memory Chord facility. This is definitely peripheral to the main functions of the sequencer, and isn't in itself a recordable feature, but it has its uses.
Essentially, it allows you to build up a chord of up to 16 notes without having to hold down all the notes simultaneously. When these notes are locked in the machine's memory, you can play any root note and the whole chord is not only generated automatically, but also transposed according to your choice of root note in relation to the original.
"Interfacing: Any new sequencer needs to be well-endowed with communication facilities, and the PolyMIDI has plenty of them."
So like the step-time facility, the PolyMIDI's Memory Chord feature is really intended for the non-player, and does its job well. The Americans would hate it, though.
It's not uncommon for the sequencer to end up playing a central role in a MIDI system, so any newcomer to the sequencing game needs to be well-endowed with communication facilities. Well, the PolyMIDI has plenty of them, selected from the front panel by twiddling the Clock selector knob.
MIDI is the prerequisite, of course, and is catered for by one each of MIDI In and Out sockets. The vexed question of just how many of these a sequencer should provide raises its ugly head once again. Ultimately, I'm inclined to think that the best solution is to go for one of the MIDI routing units that are starting to appear (the Sycologic MI4 or one of Quark's MIDI Link offerings, for instance), in which case, single MIDI In and Out sockets are all that are required on your sequencer. These routing units offer the greatest flexibility in 'multi-configuring' a MIDI setup, though I guess anyone with a more modest system and no MIDI Thru would probably rather see an extra couple of MIDI Outs on their chosen sequencer. One man's meat, and all that.
Selecting MIDI on the clock selector dial locks the PolyMIDI I onto an incoming MIDI signal, so that drum machine triggers sequencer. However, I failed to get a MIDI drum machine to trigger from the sequencer (and I tried every option). Maybe I missed something...
Cassette Out and In allow you to save and retrieve all of the PolyMIDI's storage memory in one go, and a Verify function has been included as a safeguard measure. It's also possible to use the PolyMIDI I as an intelligent buffer between synth and cassette recorder for saving and retrieving System Exclusive data - a helpful bonus feature.
More usefully still, the PolyMIDI's cassette ports also do the honours on the tape-sync on the I/O front. However, the manual does point out (with rare honesty) that the sync-to-tape facility is sensitive to the return level, and only functions at specific levels depending on the tempo. Not a healthy situation, and unfortunately, lack of time (our review model was rudely whisked off to the NAMM show) prevented any testing of this facility.
Also present are Clock In/Out, Sync In/Out and Trigger In/Out - a highly commendable set of options. Default internal clock rate is 96ppqn, but this can be altered to 24 or 48ppqn - if you're going to use the Roland sync, you'll obviously need to select 24.
Trigger In/Out requires you to select an autocorrect value to dictate the system's response to an incoming pulse, or to let it know when to generate a pulse on Trigger Out. Consequently, there are a number of synchronising options available for triggering. Given the appropriate signal from specific options, it's even possible for the Trigger Out to be transformed into a Clock Out, with the clock setting fixed at the sequencer's default value of 96ppqn. Thus, if you really need them, you can have two different clock rates functioning at once.
And so to the conclusion. The PolyMIDI I is a well-conceived, versatile sequencer that stands up well to opposition from the established sources. I found it for the most part very easy to use, though thanks to the lack of feedback from the system and the current paucity of editing facilities, the step-time side of things isn't currently as useful as it might be.
The number of sequences and chains available makes it an attractive proposition, not so much because they're plentiful (in relation to your typical drum machine sequencer, they aren't) but simply because they offer more than anything else does. There's also more in the way of non-MIDI interfacing facilities on the PolyMIDI than on any competing machine, and that's something that could tip the balance in its favour for a lot of people, I reckon.
So first impressions aren't always worth paying attention to. From the outside, the PolyMIDI I is an awkward, mis-shapen lump of a thing that looks as though it'd be better off in a Schreiber fitted kitchen brochure. But underneath, there's a bloody good sequencer waiting to get out.
Review by Simon Trask
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