MIDI Digital Keyboard Recorder
There are still more computer-shy musicians around than many would have you believe, so for them, this dedicated MIDI sequencer could be just the ticket. Trish McGrath investigates.
Roland's budget MIDI sequencer has been available for little while, but has managed to evade the eagle eye of E&MM - until now.
While sequencer software packages for home computers have been flooding the marketplace in recent months, dedicated MIDI sequencers are still quite scarce. E&MM reported on the Roland MSQ700 in April 84, and that machine has since proved extremely popular, so what has the MSQ100, in effect a scaled-down version of the earlier model, got to offer? Well, polyphonic recording is possible in both step and real time, there are overdubbing and editing facilities, and tape dumping and synchronisation to drum machines are also possible.
The front panel is economically laid out (ie. lots of shifts and multifunction switches) and sturdily constructed (it forms part of a dark grey metal casing), and separates into Mode, Tempo, Display, and Record function switches. Mode consists simply of Play Only (otherwise known as memory protect on), Load/Play and Data Transfer (where recorded data can be saved to cassette tape or to another MSQ100 via MIDI).
It makes sense, to me at any rate, to check out the back panel options first in order to clarify what you can and can't use to record from and sync to. Apart from the necessary power supply socket (9V DC), the MSQ100 provides MIDI In, Out and Out/Thru sockets and connections for Tape Load and Save, as well as Sync In and Out for synchronisation to drum machines and sequencers operating on the 24 pulses per quarter note standard (TR606, TB303, and so on). However, Korg DDM owners will need something like that company's KMS30 (see review elsewhere this issue) to convert the Korg 48 pulses per quarter note code. The DCB connections fitted to the MSQ700 are conspicuous by their absence - hard luck Juno 6 and 60 owners - so this is very much a MIDI only unit, at least when it comes to linkable synths.
Tucked away on the rear panel are eight Function switches that determine what MIDI information is to be recorded, among other things. These tiny buttons (have a matchstick at the ready for toggling) give you the option of recording key velocity, bender/control change and after-touch data, though using these will of course have its effect on the memory's note storage capacity (quoted at 6100 single notes without velocity, 4900 single notes with it). A further switch selects the type of information being sent from the MIDI Out jack - this can be either the recorded data or, with the switch set to Mix, data being received from a master keyboard, which is sent to a sound module or expander unit in addition to being processed by the MSQ.
Yet another function switch (!) determines whether the MIDI Out/Thru jack is, er, Out or Thru. Although its purpose may not be instantly obvious, this switch does let you play a slave module during recording (MIDI Thru), thereby 'getting into the groove of things' (whoever invented that phrase must be even older than our Publisher) in addition to functioning normally as MIDI Out during playback.
Finally, the Metronome can be set to sound on either a crotchet or quaver - so I guess that if you set it to a crotchet you could fool yourself into thinking it was a quaver and play along with your Korg drum machine. (I never said it was easy...)
Before you can begin to digitise your masterpiece, the clock source you want to use must be specified from a choice of Internal, MIDI or Sync. Basically, MIDI allows the MSQ to be started and stopped by a MIDI drum machine or sequencer, but seeing as this entails occupying the MIDI In socket, it's a facility that can really only be used in playback mode. If you need your MIDI drum machine to play along during recording, you'll have to connect to one of the MSQ's MIDI Outs and set it to receive start/stop and clock data only. Similarly, Sync is chosen when a drum machine operating at 24ppqn is to serve as the master synchroniser.
When the tempo is dictated by the MSQ's internal clock, a large rotary control is used to vary it from Slow to Fast. If this sounds vague and imprecise - don't despair. Pressing Tempo Check puts a reading of the current metronome speed up on the LCD, and the parameter itself is variable from 33 to 254 beats per minute, which is a big enough range for anybody, really.
And so to the real business of recording. In real-time mode, measures are counted automatically so either 3/4 or 4/4 time is best selected beforehand (later editing will be a shambles otherwise). Pressing the Load button commences the two-bar lead-in, whereupon recording commences regardless of whether or not you're actually playing anything, so you're free to leave blank beats (or even whole bars) to suit your own arrangement. When you've played the sequence, Stop completes the bar and playback is initiated by pressing Reset and then Play or alternatively, playback can commence from any chosen measure. If you want your sequence to loop endlessly, look no further than the Repeat Play button, and if your sequence length proves to short, simply move to the last measure and press Load once more.
Recording in step time follows the now almost standard method of selecting the shortest timing value and using multiples of this base value interspersed with rests, tied notes, and measure ends to complete your piece. Worth noting is the fact that the base value on the MSQ can be changed freely during the input stage (which is good news) the options available being quavers, triplet quavers, semiquavers, 1/16th quints (five steps to a crotchet), 1/16th sixths (six steps to a crotchet), and 1/32 notes. This should be sufficient for most applications, and the Roland's resolution in real time was good enough for the machine to record any fraction of a bar I cared to chuck at it. And since measure ends are inserted manually, the MSQ can accommodate time signature changes at any point during recording in step time, should you feel so inclined.
The MSQ100 provides a fair quota of editing facilities, such as Copy, Erase, Insert and Delete, all of which are simple to operate and eminently useful. However, since editing is carried out to particular measures, it's important to insert measure ends correctly if you've recorded your sequence in step time, for obvious reasons. Using the Back and Forward Measure buttons lets you home in on the bar in question, and Copy allows you to copy a measure to the end of the existing data (but not to any other point in the sequence). Erase deletes the sequence from a chosen point to the end of the data (this can also be used to start from scratch again), while Insert, not surprisingly, provides a means of inserting additional music at any point during the sequence, and Delete will remove a bar as and when required.
"Since measure ends are inserted manually, the MSQ can accommodate time signature changes at any point during step-time recording."
The display flashes an assortment of useful messages during the editing stage, and these include current measure number, how much more data can be recorded (available note storage), current tempo, and the MIDI channel being recorded.
This last function is actually called MIDI Channel Shift and contrary to what I implied in the last sentence, doesn't in fact tell you which channel is being recorded. Confused? Well, stay tuned DX7 and Korg Poly 800 owners. In their infinite wisdom, Roland have endowed the MSQ100 with the ability to receive information on a particular MIDI channel, but record it as if it had been data received on a different one (this is where the 'shift' element comes into it). So, owners of a polysynth capable of transmitting only on MIDI Channel 1 and an expander module with assignable channels can record their first part on Channel 1, alter the MIDI Channel Shift value to +1 (ie. Channel 2), and then record the overdub. Provided both modules operate in Omni Off, Poly mode, both sequences will be played simultaneously but on separate MIDI channels - 1 and 2. You didn't know the MSQ could do that, did you? Frankly, neither did I till I got to page 26 of the manual.
Further parts can be added by moving to Overdub mode, resetting to the required measure and pressing Load as normal. If you're only using one keyboard, you can overdub as many times as you see fit, up to the maximum number of voices your synth can handle. It also goes without saying that if pitch-bend, vibrato or aftertouch are used on one channel, any overdubs on that same channel will also be affected. Incidentally, the MSQ is capable of remembering program change data, but to make sure you're going to start in the right voice, you've got to enter the bank and patch number for the first sound during the lead-in.
Of course, if you're lucky enough to possess more than one MIDI synth, you can overdub using all sorts of different channel numbers, and the MSQ100 will then do a reasonable imitation of a multitrack tape machine. If two MIDI Outs are not enough, you can use the MIDI Thru sockets on your modules (if they have any) or pick up one of Roland's handy little MIDI Thru Boxes. Do bear in mind though that once sequences are overdubbed, all the data is automatically merged and editing must be carried out to complete measures.
Alternatively, a particular channel number (assigned by the MIDI Channel Shift button) can be erased using the Channel Erase function. I'd still recommend saving patterns to cassette quite frequently though, so as not to risk losing valuable data.
The MSQ100 can also give the gift of dynamics to any MIDI drum machine that accepts Key Velocity information, simply by recording a sequence on a touch-sensitive MIDI keyboard, using the appropriate notes (ie. 'C' for bass drum, 'D' for snare and so on). This refreshes the drum machine software most hardware cannot reach. Or something.
I must admit to being pleasantly surprised by the MSQ100. I did find the multifunction switches a little bewildering: the Back Measure button, for instance, performs no less than six functions, depending on what mode you're in. Still, like anything else, you get used to it.
Data remains in the unit's memory as long as the AC adaptor is connected, but is completely erased a day or so after disconnection. Since the contents of the memory can be saved to cassette, this in itself shouldn't present a problem, though you'll need to bring a cassette player with you to a gig for good measure, I imagine.
So if you're on the lookout for a compact and versatile dedicated MIDI sequencer, and suffer from techno-fear where computers are concerned, why not have a bash at the MSQ100? It has a trick or two up its sleeve...
RRP of the MSQ100 is £525 including VAT.
Review by Trish McGrath
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