For what was supposed to be a universal interface, MIDI has trouble enough staying in touch with itself, let alone the outside world. Tim Goodyer looks at four auxiliary units that set out to improve matters.
The advent of MIDI has spawned an entire industry dedicated to producing auxiliary hardware. We take the wraps off four of that industry's latest products.
German company Jellinghaus Music Systems were one of the pioneers of home computer-based MIDI software. They introduced their first sequencing package in early 1984 (under the auspices in the UK of well-known distributors Rosetti), and if recent advance product news is anything to go by, further software developments are proceeding apace at their Dortmund headquarters.
Intended as a time dictator, the Master Synchroniser comes in a 1U-high, 19" rackmounting format, something which, as you'll no doubt gather from the accompanying photographs, is proving rather popular among makers of MIDI accessories. Its only concession to the passage of time in the outside world is the appearance of a tape sync input (as well as output) on a front panel quarter-inch jack socket. In fact, all the relevant connections and controls are front-mounted, which is good to see, with the exception of the mains input.
Left to right across the front panel we find MIDI In, two MIDI Outs, two DIN sockets marked JMS and Sync, Tape Out, Tape In, Clock Outs for 96, 64, 48 and 24ppqn, four Program LEDs, a Program Select button, a Run/Stop button and a rotary Tempo control. Nothing remarkable about that.
Unhappily, the MIDI In of the review sample wasn't actually connected to anything, pending future development. But on the credit side, the MIDI Outs do provide outgoing MIDI clock information. The JMS DIN socket is provided for connection to the company's 12-track MIDI Recording Studio software package, whilst the Sync Out is committed to the Roland 24ppqn standard. The clock outputs all provide their designated pulse outputs simultaneously, but double in function to give footswitch Run/Stop control, 4ppqn and 1ppqn outputs by virtue of the ring on the stereo sockets.
The Master Synchroniser offers four alternative operational programs, covering such delights as master synchronisation (Program 1), syncing to pulses from tape (2), and delegation of run/stop responsibilities to the footswitch (3). The fourth program is not currently implemented, being reserved for future development in the same way as the MIDI In connector.
As for using the Master Synchroniser, there's really nothing to it. Why, there isn't even a mains switch to hunt around for (not Christmas present material, this one). Once all the required connections have been made to the front panel, the Run/Stop key starts the action at a rate determined by the Tempo pot, and stops it again when your creative imagination has had enough.
All in all, the Master Synchroniser performs to all the correctly-printed promises of its spec sheet. But whether that spec offers the sort of flexibility you're after obviously depends on both your equipment and your patience. Whichever way you look at it, a sync box that can act only as master and not as servant (it can only do the latter when synced to tape) isn't nearly as useful as one that can perform either task, like the Bokse machine we'll come to shortly.
As it stands, the JMS' major shortcoming is the dependance of its controlling tempo on a poorly-graduated rotary pot that receives no assistance from any kind of visual display. Any master machine deserves as precise a means of control over its activities as it can get hold of, after all.
The two British entries in this mini roundup both come from relative newcomers to the field. Quark are first and foremost a studio effects design company, but the MIDI revolution has seen many of their clients acquire complex synth systems, and it's in response to those studios' requirements that Quark have introduced the MIDI Link.
The Quark shares its rack-mounting dimensions with the JMS Master Synchroniser, but there the similarity ends. For whereas the latter's field of operations is timing and synchronisation between connected devices, the MIDI Link concerns itself with making the connections in the first place.
Briefly, it's a routing device capable of connecting nine input channels to nine output channels carrying MIDI information - note that these are not MIDI channels.
The front panel plays host to the first two of nine five-pin DIN inputs, nine thumb-wheels assigned to outputs 1-9, and the mains on/off switch. The rear panel picks up where the front panel left off, with the remaining seven input sockets - inputs 3-9 - and all nine output sockets. If you hadn't guessed it already, it's this input/output configuration that gives the Quark its '999' identifying tag - no emergencies here.
At its most basic, the idea of the MIDI Link is that any of its inputs can be routed to any of its outputs simply by setting the output thumbwheel to the required input channel number. And as far as that goes, it succeeds admirably. What it also facilitates is the connection of any number of its outputs to the same input, and the grouping of several outputs assigned to certain inputs. It is not, however possible to route more than one input to any output.
There's not really a great deal to say about the MIDI Link - it certainly works. The thumbwheels take a little getting used to but work well enough in allowing both incrementation and decrementation. You can wind them forwards as well as backwards, and that's good news if you've ever passed the seven o'clock mark for the third time when trying to set your alarm clock without verbally incurring the wrath of God.
The presence of the first two input sockets on the front panel is a nice touch as it gives a welcome alternative to leaning over the unit in order to patch something in a hurry, but why stop there? If you're aiming to eliminate all the tedious crawling about at the back of gear that switching MIDI cables entails, you might as well go the whole hog and eliminate crawling about at the back of the routing device as well.
One thoughtful front panel inclusion is an area for personal chinagraph hieroglyphics appropriate to each input and output channel. They should prove a real help when you're trying desperately to get your Synclavier working in sympathy with an electric chair but have forgotten who's plugged into what.
So, the 999 is a neat little routing box that does its job with about a 90% degree of excellence. For slightly less than that (and for correspondingly less outlay), Quark also offer the MIDI Link 448, which allows four MIDI controllers to address eight slaves on four busses. It costs £100 less than the 999.
Yes, another 1U-high, 19" rack-mounting MIDI accessory, but this time with a purpose of some novelty: to bridge the frustrating gap between the composing power of MIDI sequencers and those treasured synth sounds that previously remained out of its reach, locked inside a box with only CV and Gate access.
In fact, Jellinghaus' machine is the first MIDI-to-CV interface to become available, at least in the UK. We'd hoped to get Roland's version (the MPU101) in for review in time for inclusion in this feature, but it wasn't to be.
So, from left to right the front panel provides us with MIDI In and Thru (one of each), Pitch and Velocity outs on standard quarter-inch mono jack sockets, positive and negative Gate outs, two Program LEDs, two momentary switches (a red one for program selection and a black one for MIDI channel selection), a seven-segment LED display that shows the MIDI channel in use and, finally, two rotary pots - one each for glide (portamento) and velocity.
And what that layout effectively allows you to control is the facility to take a MIDI output from a suitable source, convert it into CV and Gate format, and offer it for use on the CGX's jack outputs.
The Control Voltage appears, unremarkably, at the Pitch jack, while the Gate has the dual honour of taking both positive and negative forms - V-trigger and S-trigger to those in the know. The MIDI input is restricted, for some reason, to Channels 1-8 (but crazily displayed as 1-0), yet gave quite satisfactory control over a MiniMoog from a DX7 and a Casio CZ1000.
So much for the basics. According to Rosetti's literature, the choice of programs simply avails you of either high-note priority (Program 1, red LED) or low-note priority (Program 2, green LED). But whilst the latter worked exactly as promised, Program 1 gave last-note priority - not, to my mind, such a useful facility. One other point on this. The interface ignores previous note information on depression of a subsequent key, and this means you can no longer play flashy trills by holding one key down and repeatedly pressing and releasing another, since the held key is ignored from the moment the second key is pressed. A shame.
The Glide function worked as anticipated, but would probably benefit from the inclusion of a Defeat switch, so that you could leave a preset glide speed to be switched in when required.
This is where things start to get interesting. The Velocity pot works (not surprisingly) in conjunction with the Velocity jack, and together, the two offer a form of velocity-sensitivity for yer all-but-discarded, monophonic, CV & Gate synth. The Velocity jack takes the velocity information from the MIDI source and allows you to route it to any parameter over which your CV & Gate synth allows you to control, with the Velocity pot limiting its effect as required.
For a strange mix of old and new technologies, this system works satisfyingly well when patched to filter cutoff frequency or VCA parameters. It's even possible to substitute it for the pitch (CV) control for more unorthodox sound effects, the key velocity subsequently determining the pitch of the note produced.
Well, with the exception of the discrepancy between promised and actual operation of its Program 1 function, the CG X Interface performed extremely well. The greatest value of a unit like this is the way it allows MIDI sequencer control - including routable velocity sensitivity - over CV & Gate synths.
Only question is, do you value your MiniMoog sounds so highly as to make them worth £200 worth of MIDI control options?
And so we go out pretty much as we came in, with another interface box designed to act as a synchroniser for just about any assortment of clocking gear you may have managed to accumulate - no matter how motley. Like the MIDI Link, the US8 is the product of a relatively unknown company. Bokse Audio are a relatively small operation not unlike Quark, but as I soon discovered, their first music-related product is as good if not better than almost all its immediate competition.
The US8 is capable of taking an incoming clock pulse of just about any description and using it, or its own internal clock, to derive an even more comprehensive selection of output alternatives. To dwell, momentarily, on the US8's internal clock, its tempo is set either by adjustment in conjunction with the beats-per-minute indication that's part of the illuminated display on the front panel, or by a tap facility that takes an average time over four beats tapped-in from the button provided (or rear panel footswitch jack), with the tempo being displayed accordingly.
Occupying the left-hand extreme of the front panel, the Bokse's input alternatives begin with a MIDI In socket (accompanied by a MIDI Thru) for MIDI syncing, followed by the inevitable five-pin DIN sync socket and Jack Hi and Jack Lo connections, for instrument sync and tape sync respectively.
Since the US8 only sets out to sync to one source at any one time, the input is determined by use of the Input button followed by the Select switch; the latter lets you step through MIDI, DIN 24, DIN 48, Jack 12, Jack 24, Jack 48, Jack 96ppqn and Auto (internal) options. For tape syncing, Bokse recommend that 96ppqn are fed to the Jack Lo input.
Moving from in to out, the other side of the central display houses jack outputs for Variable, Click, 384, 96, 48, 24, 12ppqn, Sync and MIDI; any or all of which may be used simultaneously. On the rear panel, jacks for +5V, +10V and Short to Ground are to be found, along with a rotary control giving a choice of Variable, 12, 24, 48, 64 and 96ppqn; these can also be used concurrently with the front panel options.
What all this offers is perfect synchronisation with everything from the Fairlight to the Korg DDM110 (you must own something in that category) using interfacing techniques that should be well-known to the majority of E&MM readers. Still, I guess the variable output might need a bit more in the way of explanation. It has a similar configuration to the one used to select the input source, in that a variety of outputs is available. These are ten different note divisions - from semibreve to demisemiquaver - and five 'customised outputs'. The note divisions allow, for instance, a sequencer to be stepped regularly at the selected pace through each bar of a song, while the customised outputs give irregular stepping in a number of useful patterns. Whilst these patterns are predetermined and not user-programmable, Bokse will alter them to your personal requirements on request.
It's difficult, trying to explain the operation of the US8 fully in such a short space. But the unit works well right down to the smallest detail (like providing for the Roland start/stop signal), and deserves to receive a lot of favour in recording studios. The only, fairly minor, criticism I have to offer is the dedication of the front panel sync output to 24 pulses per quarter note. In the context of such a well-considered piece of equipment, it's annoying to have to make a jack-to-DIN lead in order to slave a Korg DDM220 to a Roland TR606. But if that's the most of your problems...
JMS MIDI Synchroniser (£249) - Rosetti Music Systems, (Contact Details).
Quark MIDI Link 999 (£249 + VAT) - Quark Limited, (Contact Details).
JMS CGX Interface (£199) - Rosetti, see above.
Bokse Universal Synchroniser US8 (£350) - The Bokse Company Limited, (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
Review by Tim Goodyer
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