Passport MIDI/4 Plus and MIDI/8 Plus
Software for Apple II and Commodore 64
Sequencing software aimed at the Apple II and CBM64. Four- and eight-track versions receive expert scrutiny from David Ellis.
One of computer music's pioneer companies has further refined its professionally-oriented packages. They've got a UK distributor now, too.
Since E&MM last visited the products of Passport Designs back in September '84, a good deal of MIDI bytes have passed under the hi-tech bridge. Passport have secured a cozy little niche for themselves in the music entertainment market courtesy of their emetically-named MIDI Hitware - encoded versions of pop classics for anyone with either an Apple II or Commodore 64 and a polyphonic synth of some description to tag onto the end of the ubiquitous five-pin DIN lead.
But Passport haven't given up on the semi-pro and pro end of the software game. Far from it. In fact, as their newly-released MIDI/4 Plus and MIDI/8 Plus software packages show, they're keeping well and truly abreast of what musicians want out of the MIDI.
However, although the software side of things is encouraging, all is not sweetness and light in the hardware department. As Passport are pleased to tell you, their MIDI cards for the Apple II and Commodore 64 are now the 'industry standard' for those micros. This means that the Apple MIDI card is compatible with just about any bit of MIDI software being produced for the Apple II, and a good deal of that coming out for the Commodore 64 shares a similar compatibility. Which is good news, undeniably. But where the thorn enters the flesh is with pricing policies: Passport's MFI01 card (MIDI In/Out and drum sync) retails for $150, while the MH02 card (MIDI In/Out, drum and tape sync) sells for $200.
Because those cards are industry standards, everyone is busy copying and flogging them for half the price. As I mentioned in Rumblings last month, such cards include virtually identical offerings from Decillionix ($99) and Mimetics ($95), and now there's an even cheaper one available from Syntech (see this month's Rumblings). All of which must make Passport sick as a parrot, and should persuade them to drop their MIDI card prices by 50%. After all, what's the point of being an industry standard if everyone's lapping up your cream?
But on to the software. The version of MIDI/4 without the 'Plus' was what appeared in these pages last year. As I recall, my main criticisms centred around the very simplistic editing facilities (punch-in but no punch-out) and the lack of any flavour of step-time sequencing. Yet as a basic, four-track, overdubbable polyphonic sequencer, it worked well. It also sold well, with 'thousands of users', according to Passport's hyper-efficient promotional department.
Seeing as I've already reviewed MIDI/4, I don't intend to go through the ins and outs of the old side of the new software (if you see what I mean), but I guess a few brief reminders of operational basics are in order in advance of looking at the 'Plus' features. In brief, MIDI/4 Plus provides a 5000-note capacity, four-track sequencer, with those notes being dynamically assignable to the four tracks. Thus, it doesn't matter if you record 10 notes on three of the tracks and 4990 on the fourth - the software won't grind to a halt.
The main screen display is clear and to the point, showing that each of the four tracks can have individual modes (Rec, Play, or Off), MIDI channels, presets, and instrument names. Just what you'd expect from any MIDI sequencer, in fact. Then there are the global factors down below, like tempo, transposition (shame it's not separately assignable to each track) and beats per measure. Finally, at the bottom of the screen, there's a region where commands, amounts of memory used/left, and the clock appear. The latter feature is greatly improved over the straight MIDI/4, as you now get a realtime readout of your location in the sequence, with three elements representing measure number, beat, and beat subdivisions.
As before, setting the status of a track to Rec and pressing the space bar starts the recording process. But it's when you're playing back a sequence that the 'Plus' differences really show up. Pressing Escape during replay puts the sequencer into Pause mode, and this, in turn, opens the door to six further commands: fast forward, fast rewind, single-step forward, single-step rewind, punch-in record, and punch-out record. In contrast, the old MIDI/4 only had punch-in and required the user to re-record everything after the punch-in up till the end of the track. Aren't software updates wonderful!
Two crucially important sections are accessed by pressing 'E' (for Edit) and 'U' (for Utilities). Taking the Edit section first, two features (track erasing and track mixing) are the same as they were on the MIDI/4, but again, it's the 'Plus' additions that are particularly welcome, as they allow track-specific linking and autocorrection. The linking feature allows an entire source track to be appended to the end of a destination track (at the point where the space bar was pressed to stop recording). It's useful, but it's a shame the software doesn't dig deeper and allow a user-defined range of measures to be linked. In fact, linking is more useful than you might think at first, because you can also link one full track to an empty one, thereby producing a copy, and then link that back to the first as many times as you want for instant, never-ending loops.
"What might tip the balance in favour of MIDI/8 Plus is if you're using a multitimbral keyboard such as one of the new Casios."
Of course, linking does depend on accurate timing at the point of making the link, but the valuable auto-correction facility holds the answer to that as well. The nice thing about this form of autocorrection is that each track can be subjected to different degrees (from quarter notes to 32nd triplets) of correction. And it all works just as the book says it should, too.
On the Utilities side, MIDI/4 Plus provides a comprehensive range of interfacing options. First off is the means of setting 'MIDI standard time' to either 24 or 48 clock pulses per beat. Next there's the option of selecting internal or external start/stop and clock. The reception of aftertouch info is taken care of by the fifth option (important if you've only got a limited amount of memory for storing sequence data), and last but far from least, there's the tape sync option. The easiest (and cheapest) way of achieving the latter is to buy the MH02 MIDI card which includes the necessary conditioning circuitry for generating and receiving the tape sync signal. But if, like me, you've already got the MH01 card which doesn't come so-equipped, your only solution to successful tape syncing will be to purchase an external sync box like Korg's KMS30 at around £150. Well, that's what Passport recommend, anyway.
Actually, there's a further tape sync method possible with the MIDI/4 Plus software. Well, it's really a sort of pseudo-sync. Passport call it the 'jump start' technique, the idea being that you start the sequencer playback in sync with a pre-existing audio track by feeding the latter into the Cassette In jack on the Apple. Not a particularly accurate way of syncing tracks, but it's surprising how well in-step tracks remain once they've been jump-started in this fashion.
Worth thinking about when you're sunk without a sync, I guess.
As you'd expect from the name, MIDI/8 Plus is neither more nor less than double MIDI/4 Plus. Or at least, it is as far as numbers of sequencer tracks are concerned. There's still only one MIDI Out, so you'll need multiple keyboards with correctly functioning MIDI Thrus or a MIDI In-to-multiple MIDI Outs box to make maximum use of all those tracks. In fact, aside from the difference in the number of tracks, the operation and features of MIDI/4 Plus and MIDI/8 Plus are identical, and that even includes 99% of the manuals. So here endeth the MIDI/8 Plus lesson.
Both MIDI/4 Plus and MIDI/8 Plus are good examples of well thought-out sequencing software. Whether you go for the four- or eight-track version is pretty unimportant, as their basic facilities are identical. What might tip the balance in favour of MIDI/8 Plus is if you're using a multitimbral keyboard like the Oberheim Matrix 12 or one of the new Casio Phase Distortion models. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I haven't had a chance to try out the Mono mode side of MIDI reception with Passport's products. I can't see any obvious reason why it shouldn't work, though.
Pricewise, MIDI/4 Plus retails for $100, and MIDI/8 Plus for $150. That's fair enough, but not that competitive alongside what's being produced for more downmarket micros like the Spectrum. What's more, neither package provides anything like what you or I would call step-time sequencing. True, the combination of Passport's other software products, Polywriter ($300) and Polywriter Utilities ($80), provides the wherewithal for microscopic dissection of music entered in real time with MIDI/4 Plus and MIDI/8 Plus, but the pairing is hardly the bargain of the century. More than that, having two extra bits of software just to examine and alter realtime sequences makes for a rather time-consuming editing process - with an awful lot of disk pushing and shoving.
When many software companies are seeing the logic of providing more for less (XRI's Micon package, Island Logic's MIDI Music System, and so on), Passport's approach of splitting off notational displays and note-by-note editing from the sequencing software seems old-fashioned and, frankly, more than a little greedy. In the final analysis, Passport Designs' MIDI products reflect excellent (and musical) software and hardware design, but they're really just too expensive to stand up against the competition that's already so well established in the UK market. And that's a shame, because they really do deserve to do well.
Availability: at long last, Passport Designs have a UK distributor in the shape of Rittor Music Europe, (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
Review by David Ellis
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