Passport MIDI/4 Software
Software and Interface
David Ellis casts a critical eye over Passport Designs' first foray into the wonderful world of MIDI.
Passport Designs' first foray into the world of MIDI comes in the form of hardware/software packages for the Apple and Commodore 64.
The problem with the whole of the MIDI software industry is that too many well-established companies have their heads in the sand when it comes to taking the MIDI specifications by the neck and wringing some sense out of them. On top of that, so-called 'garage companies' are now springing up with wild abandon, offering several $100-worth of instant MIDI software but no guarantee that you'll ever actually see the product - R&D sponsored by the consumer, in other words.
Well, I certainly wouldn't put Passport Designs into either of those categories. They're a respected firm with good products (the Soundchaser system and its attendant software), and if my memory serves me correctly, Passport were also one of the 12 companies that attended the original MIDI meeting back in January 1982. So all in all, it's fair to say that they've had plenty of time to put their collective thoughts into practice, and their track record leads to certain expectations of quality and ingenuity.
As their first stab in the direction of MIDI, the modern music world's most fashionable acronym, Passport have gone for the two most popular personal micros in the States -the Apple II/IIe and Commodore 64 - providing the necessary interface cards ($195 each) for the aforesaid, plus some four-track real-time sequencing software ($99). For the purposes of this review I've been looking at the Apple version, but it can be taken for granted that what's critically true for the version on this micro applies equally to that on the Commodore 64.
Like every other Apple add-on under the sun, the Passport MIDI card plugs into one of the expansion slots on the motherboard. So, if you've just acquired your brand-spanking-new Apple IIe (which foregoes the pleasures of such expandability) for the purpose of running MIDI software, you're stuck - to put it mildly.
And like every other MIDI card in the land, the chips on the card are exactly what you'd expect to find - namely an opto-isolator, a 6850 ACIA, and a handful of gates. In addition, there's also a 6840 timer chip on board to make up for the lack of this chez Apple II. Finally, three solid wires wend their way from the card to end in three heavy-duty (makes a change) five-pin DIN sockets, ie. MIDI In, MIDI Out, and Drum Sync In/Out.
So, hardware-wise, no surprises from the Passport stable - except perhaps the cost: $195 does seem overly expensive for something as basic as this, especially considering that there's only one MIDI Out provided. As a point of interest, the manual also suggests that Yamaha's Apple MIDI card could be used in place of Passport's own. However, as Yamaha still don't seem to have made up their minds when (or whether) this'll be released, or indeed its price, this may not be such a viable alternative.
The excellent if ingratiating (typical Passport house style) manual guides you through the process of setting everything up, and includes a diagram of how you might connect up multiple MIDI keyboards. Therein lies the wishful thinking, of course: if only every keyboard actually had a MIDI Thru! And even if they had, if only they could be relied upon to work properly (the DX7 and JX3P being the principle miscreants in this respect). The manual then goes on to say: 'set all synthesisers to MIDI Channel 01. (For more details see your synthesizer manual.)' Shame if your synth is stuck on Channel 01 for all eternity (the JX3P, for instance)...
Booting-up the MIDI/4 disk rapidly puts you and the main 'format' screen in the picture. To all intents and purposes, this side of MIDI/4 looks rather like Passport's much earlier four-track sequencing software for the Soundchaser computer music system. However, there are some pretty big differences beneath the surface.
In contrast to Passport's previous software, the disk that MIDI/4 comes on is well copy-protected, so the days of making multiple copies of the software in case the cat does something unfortunate on what it thinks is plastic earth (it has happened) are over, alas. On the other hand, the disk does incorporate Passport's favourite speeded-up version of Apple's DOS 3.3 disk-operating system, the excellent Diversi-DOS, so all that waiting frantic minutes for programs and scores to be loaded up thankfully disappears into the mists of time. Also, a spare disk is provided just in case your precious plastic spirals off into the sunset in emulation of an errant UFO.
Looking at the similarities first of all, there are four software tracks which can be switched individually between three modes. These aren't MIDI modes - we're talking about record, play, or off here, which is all a little confusing if you expect the tag 'mode' to signify something to do with MIDI etiquette. Next along in the columns is the channel, and this time, this does refer to the MIDI Channel. This defaults to Channel 01 (surprise, surprise), but obviously any of the 16 available from the MIDI protocol can be plugged in place for all four tracks. Last but not least, there are columns for the preset number and a note pad area for reminding yourself of the keyboard destination of the tracks.
"The only way the four tracks can be played with different sounds is to have four MIDI keyboards, which you don't need me to tell you is an expensive business."
Underneath all that lot, a handful or so of parameters keep the old brain informed about the tempo (wide-ranging), the drum sync status, any odd transpositions that have got left behind, the loop and click-track options (simply on or off), and whether or not you want to use aftertouch. The drum sync works in such a way that switching the sequencer on or off makes a drum machine perform (or not) on cue. Like all good and obedient servants, this caters for all manner of masters of the beat, including 96 pulses per quarter-note (Oberheim), 48 (Korg and Linn), or 24. The option for adding aftertouch when recording makes a good deal of sense. It's all very well doing truly wonderful things with your DX7 in the way of modulation index bendings, but try and record that as aftertouch and you'll get a touch of that 'I wonder where my memory went?' feeling.
Best to leave that for when the Sinclair QL is fully debugged and kitted out with a MIDI interface and 0.5Mbyte RAM pack. Well, we can but live in hope...
Soldiering on with the Apple's 48K of memory gives a fairly respectable 5500-note storage: OK, but not 'enormous', as the manual seems to think. Recording on a track is simply a question of making sure your keyboard's MIDI Out is connected to the Apple's MIDI In (worth pointing out as it has been known for the less technical amongst us to connect MIDI In to MIDI In and Out to Out - well, you can see the logic of it, can't you?) and then pressing a few keys to set one of the tracks to record. Pressing the space bar stops and starts the sequencer - again, just as easy as the Soundchaser four-track sequencer.
Now, where all this starts to depart from Passport's earlier software is in what can be done to a track once it's been recorded. Before, if you'd forgotten to add that essential hook or twiddle, your only option was to re-record the whole track. Not now. The MIDI/4 software allows you to overdub more notes or control changes (like pitch-bend and vibrato) on the other three tracks and then bounce all four tracks together onto just one. This merge feature is an important addition to Passport's real-time sequencer, but it does carry one major penalty, and that's the fact that all those merged notes can only be piped down one MIDI channel: monotimbral polyphony, in other words.
Of course, having freed three of the four tracks by the merge operation, you're then in a position to put down new lines, merge these, and then pipe them off down a different MIDI channel to a different keyboard. But as with any bouncing-down operation, it's vital to sort out your parts into those that share the same keyboard and preset and those that don't. And remember that merged tracks can't be separated once the dirty deed is done!
Life isn't all sweetness and roses this time round, though. For instance, the MIDI/4 sequencer operates solely in Poly mode, so the only way the four tracks can be played with different sounds is to have four MIDI keyboards, which you don't need me to tell you is an expensive business. Next, the 'punch-in' editing feature incorporated in the sequencer doesn't allow you to punch-out, so correcting a solitary goof entails re-recording everything that comes after it as well. Talk about infuriating!
Well, that just about sums up the state of play with MIDI/4.
It has plenty of good points and a few that are bad, including sticking with the curious American tradition of making few concessions towards the less keyboard-literate musician. One of these days, someone will come up with a sequencer that enables the user to forget the distinction between realtime and non-real-time, but until then, we're stuck with software that's either drearily reminiscent of a VisiCalc display (the steptime brigade) or little more than a re-working of the conventional analogue tape machine, though lacking even the autolocation features that the rock industry has come to expect.
No, in all honesty, I wouldn't use Passport Designs' description of MIDI/4 as a 'studio grade' sequencer. True, it's very serviceable and fair value for money (especially if purchased in the States), but there's still a long way to go. Mind you, I'm sure they're capable of it. So come on, Passport, what about digging that old head out of the sand and coming up with the goods that us computer musicians are longing to see?
UK prices and information from Syco Systems, (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
Review by David Ellis
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