Yet more of Jez comment as he gets his vocal chords round Digigram/Farfisa's latest MIDI gadget
Jez Ford gets his vocal chords round a rather unusual MIDI input device from Farfisa.
"Take the weekend off and review this" they said, passing me a small cardboard box with a Lancashire postmark and 'Property of Farfisa' stamped in one corner.
Farfisa. Mmm. Not really a name to make a reviewer's eyes light up in anticipation. Not a job to send me scuttling home in delight, eyes wide with enthusiasm. For me the world of Farfisa is filled with the sounds of Peter Fenn on Sale of the Century, and with images of a naked Terry Jones delighting Python audiences with his resonant organ. The company is not exactly renowned for pushing back the frontiers of innovation and style.
So my eyebrows are somewhat quizzically raised at the appearance of this MidiMic, a competitively priced pitch-to-MIDI converter that can be triggered from any sound source including the human voice. What has prompted such a departure for the Farfisa design team?
The clues are on the case that sat inside my cardboard parcel - a stylish grey plastic briefcase with moulded foam inners and the name Digigram boldly emblazoned throughout.
Digigram is a French company with little or no profile in the UK. A deal has been struck for the microphone to be released over here under the Farfisa name, giving it a more positive launch and higher profile than Digigram could have hoped to achieve on their own.
So with the pedigree established, let's get our hands on the plastic.
It's a chunky little number - a stem thick enough for even Roger Daltrey to handle, with a flat parallelogram for a head housing the membrane control switches and the microphone itself. Tastefully legended in blue, green and white, the head displays settings with four LED indicators.
Two sockets are recessed into the base of the mike stem, one 5 pin DIN socket for MIDI OUT and a phono socket to take an external line level input. The MidiMic produces no synthesised tones of its own - its job is to identify what notes the mike hears and to accurately trigger an external synth accordingly.
The phono socket also provides an audio out for the MidiMic to operate as a normal microphone, although the quality leaves a bit to be desired. You might get away with it as a standby mike for live work (albeit rather an expensive one) but otherwise its main use is to check that the MIDI output is a true representation of your vocal prowess.
Vocalists and singers everywhere are going to have extremely mixed feelings about this MidiMic. They will be delighted that at last they can get involved in the technical and MIDI revolutions, that they can create a searing synthesiser solo without going through that tedious 'learning-to-play' business that has dogged so many careers. The problems come when you plug up and start singing. Farfisa (or Digigram) are the first to admit this.
"As you may have noticed" says the manual, "it is not easy to sing in tune".
A little unfair on the unsung Pavarottis out there perhaps, but unfortunately embarrassingly true for us bath-time crooners. Believe me, when an inoffensive vocal slur is translated into an out-of-tune synth line, the results are horrendous. I can already hear vocalists around the country saying "Ah yes well of course it doesn't track very well you see..."
The truth is that it tracks perfectly, as can be easily proven by slaving it to a non-MIDI keyboard.
It is very tolerant of non-sinusoid waveforms (often a common problem in pitch detection equipment, especially guitar tuners). If released from the tonal scale it can even track modulation and glissando perfectly.
Here however we come to a major criticism, and to understand it we'll have to quickly explain the two different ways that the MIDI system can define the pitch of a note.
The first is to say "this is a new note" and to identify its value, which must be a precise semitone (ie a note from the piano keyboard) and nothing inbetween.
The second method is to say "this is the same note as before but bent a little". This can be used to identify notes between those of the usual classical scale, and is most commonly used to transmit signals from the pitchbend wheel of a synthesiser.
The MidiMic can use either method but for proper tracking (modulation, vibrato or glide) the second has to be used. This is where the problem starts. If you stray from an exact note (and believe me you will) the MidiMic sends a message to bend the note. If you then stop singing, the note STAYS BENT. And if you then trigger your synthesiser from its keyboard it will be completely out of tune.
This is a major handicap for anyone intending to play a keyboard with two hands and sing a solo line at the same time. It effectively means that either MIDI channel 1 or 2 (the only ones on which the MidiMic can operate) must be permanently reserved for this and this alone. This ties up an entire synthesiser if multi-timbral operation is not available. A few arguments between keyboardists and singers are in the offing I think.
What about this problem of inaccurate vocalists then - is there a way around it? Well yes there is, as long as you don't mind losing a slice of expression as a forfeit.
It is possible to round up notes to the nearest semitone to keep you in tune - the first method mentioned above. This is fine for a simple bass line say, but anything with speed or complexity leads to spurious triggering and general havoc (unless you are gifted with the vocal dexterity of Cleo Laine). A second fudging method available is to slow the attach of the pitch detector so that as you reach for that perfect note the MidiMic doesn't embarrass you by playing all the notes you pass on the way. Again this causes speed problems but can be a useful function for us mere mortals.
Okay, so the vocalists are satisfied. What about the rest of the band? Can they too enter the wonderful world of MIDI with this plastic pal that's fun to play with?
Stand up keyboard players. Remembers that favourite old analogue synth of yours from the pre-MIDI days, with the rich lead sound and the silky-smooth keyboard response? Well, now you can use it as a MIDI source simply by splitting the output and sending one to your mixer and one to the MidiMic to produce MIDI signals to drive all this new-fangled FM and LA stuff. None of that terribly messy gate-to-CV conversion - although you are of course limited to monophonic operation.
Stand up saxophonists and flute players. The MidiMic an be driven from an internal pickup or a standard microphone. It is especially effective for flute since it prefers detecting mid to high range frequencies (tuba players beware!) Stand up guitarists. After an hour's experimentation with a Strat (a vintage 1959 Strat I may add) it becomes obvious that a fair degree of precision and discipline is required to trigger accurately. Ponderous lines on the lower E string sound great when transported down for a synth bass line. Ponderous lead lines up top sound great with a string synth. But depart from the ponderous and you have to remember to keep tight control over your fingers - any undamped strings will send the MidiMic berserk and the audience into hysterics. Sustain can be a real problem too. The MidiMic is fun but check out the more guitar-specific MIDI equipment that's on the market.
Stand up drummers. Nah, sit down again. Percussionists and drummers are about the only musicians who won't get a kick out of the MidiMic. But then they're an odd bunch and probably best avoided anyway.
Overall I'm impressed. From Farfisa it's downright overwhelming. To make the most of the MidiMic you need to put in a fair bit of practice and to admit your weaknesses (this will exclude a good few vocalists!). With discipline and rehearsal the MidiMic pays dividends and can give you access to a whole new world of expression.
Review by Jez Ford
Previous article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!