MPC Sync Track
Paul White (again) on the latest Cambridgeshire black box - this one syncs drum machines and sequencers to tape.
Paul White and the latest box tricks from those awfully nice MPC people...
In conjunction with any drum machine fitted with a clock output, the Sync Track enables a string of pulses to be recorded onto one track of a multitrack tape recorder, and then, used in Playback mode, enables these pulses to be used to control the starting and tempo of various rhythm machines, arpeggio clocks, and sequencers.
The unit is configured such that it will interface directly to a number of electronic musical instruments, including the Roland TR808 Rhythm Composer, Drumatix, Bass Line and CSQ600 sequencer, using a standard 180-degree DIN-to-DIN lead.
The Sync Track is powered by a single PP3 battery, and incorporates Tape and Sync in and out sockets, a start-stop switch, and a beat/bar selector switch which may be used to ensure that the correct rhythm pattern starts from the beginning in the event of a particular track being stopped and then restarted.
Housed in a small steel box about five inches square and a little over one inch deep, the Sync Track comprises a single printed circuit board containing three ICs and a handful of other components. All the sockets are situated at the back of the unit, whilst the front panel houses the run/stop and beat/bar switches and a power LED indicator.
The tape in and out sockets are quarter-inch jacks, and inserting a plug into either socket connects the battery to the circuit. Sync in and out sockets are five-pin DINs, and the latter is split into two connectors so that two machines can be synchronised to tape simultaneously.
The clock output of a drum machine (for example) is fed into the Sync Track, which shapes the pulses and provides an output level suitable for feeding directly into a tape recorder. The recommended recording level is around -5dB, though in practice it's possible to get away with somewhat lower levels. This latter practice can prove quite advantageous as it reduces the risk of crosstalk onto any adjacent tracks.
In play mode, the unit receives the pulse from tape and reshapes and amplifies it to a level where it will drive the trigger input of a drum machine, sequencer, or similar.
The system has the advantage that a drum machine can be synchronised to the trigger track on tape and used to replace the original rhythm track if it's subsequently felt that a different rhythm would suit the piece better. The trigger track will hold the drum machine in perfect sync and ensure that both the recorded track and the drum machine start simultaneously.
If it is necessary to halt the drum machine during a composition - to produce a pause, for example - you simply switch the start/stop selector to 'stop' (surprise, surprise...), and if 'beat' on the beat/bar switch is selected, the Sync Track will restart your drum machine on the beat following the one on which it was stopped. If, on the other hand, you select 'bar' (this logic is really going to floor you), the drum machine will restart at the beginning of the bar in which it was stopped.
The Sync Track can also be used to drive a rhythm machine (eg. TR606 Drumatix) from a tape sync track and use this to trigger the arpeggiator on a synthesiser. One advantage of this mode of operation is that the arpeggiator rhythm need not be decided until the last moment. In fact, it's not even necessary to record the drum machine or the triggered sequencer/arpeggio at all: they can be connected directly to a mixer and treated as extra tracks at mixdown. This is obviously advantageous if you're short of tracks (who isn't?), and furthermore, it means that a drum machine with separate outputs can be used in stereo with the provision for level balancing and EQ to be selected during the final mix.
The unit was tested with a Roland TR606 and a Tascam 38 eight-channel tape recorder. All functions worked as described in the owner's handbook and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could get away with recording a much lower level of sync pulse on tape than the recommended value.
Similarly, playback presented no problems - the Drumatix waited patiently for the sync pulse track to start and then dutifully played along in synchronisation.
Summing-up, if you're like me and prefer to leave most of your musical decisions until the last minute, then this little box could prove a godsend. Likewise, if you're well stocked with musical hardware (drum machine with separate outputs, polyphonic sequencer, arpeggiator with separate trigger input) but not so well-endowed with multitrack recording equipment, the Sync Track should enable you to produce a considerably more ambitious piece of work without all that tedious track bouncing.
The only thing less than perfect is the user's manual which, though generally easy to understand, has unfortunately been written in badly-spelled, almost pidgin English in places (just like most of E&MM, really): perhaps it's an attempt to gain credibility amongst readers of Far Eastern instruction books...
Seriously, at only £39 this tiny unit represents a very worthwhile investment, and what's more, it's British!
Recommended retail price for the Sync Track is £39.95 including VAT, and further information should be available from MPC Electronics, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul White
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