Sequential Circuits MAX
Sequential Circuits, or SCI, rose to fame with their innovative and distinctive Prophet-5 poly synthesiser. Beleaguered by tuning problems and numerous breakdowns of the instrument, it was still heralded and played by many keyboardists throughout the world, and could almost be regarded as the DX-7 of yesteryear.
Some time on and several instruments later, the release of the MAX synthesiser is a strange advance from a very creative manufacturer.
MAX - better known to his friends as a MIDI Voice Expander/Computer Peripheral - seems to spring from an incestuous relationship with the Six-Trak - itself a very misunderstood synth. SCI are among the few makers who believe firmly in MONO MIDI mode or the multi-timbral application, and this is where both the Six-Trak and the MAX score.
The MAX has a four-octave keyboard, and although the keyboard isn't touch sensitive, the sound creation is. This means that the velocity dynamics can only be controlled from an external MIDI touch response keyboard, or if linking to a computer for full MIDI control.
Using an external power supply makes the MAX very portable. The design is simple and straightforward, and the instrument looks unlike any other SCI product Basically, the MAX is a preset synthesiser with 80 permanent sounds. These are called up from the 'Sound Select' numeric pad, marked on the fascia panel in banks of ten. 00-09 Organ, 10-19 Brass, 20-29 Strings/Woodwind, 30-39 Keyboards, 40-49 Bass/Percussion, 50-59 Synthesiser I, 60-69 Synthesiser II, 70-79 Special Effects. There are a further 20 sound locations that may be filled with your own creations, but this has to be done via a Six-Trak and MIDI dumping back to the MAX, or by using a computer to control the parameters via MIDI. This type of programming is becoming much more popular these days, and SCI have software available for the Commodore 64 to control these functions.
On the right of the control panel are the main MIDI functions for allocation of MIDI channels, modes and various external dumping and disabling mechanisms. The rear panel includes MIDI out-in, stereo phono outputs, and a main or headphone 1/4" jack socket, as well as the power switch and input for the mains adaptor. On the whole, the sounds are fair; the Organs are strong but not thick in content, sounds 10/11 were nice, fat Brass tones, though I felt the strings were too 'stringy'. I liked some of the Bass effects, and the Synthesiser presets were quite muscular, as were the Space Chimes and Special Effects. Woodwinds were O.K., but the Pianos didn't work that well. The Synth-Clavs, though, were strong and punchy.
I must admit I didn't like the button switches on the MAX at all. They are of a white, spongy material, with a small contact underneath - I learned this when some of them fell out! The contact was erratic, and for the price of this instrument I feel a more solid switch system should have been used. So, as a straight keyboard, there is a large variety of sounds, but difficulty in editing those sounds unless you have a computer or Six-Trak - which all adds to the cost of the package. There are no pitch or modulation wheels, making the 'live' aspect all but non-existent apart from adding to the top of an organ or electric piano where both hands are fully utilised. However, if you make use of the expander function, then the wheels aren't necessary.
The MAX incorporates portamento/glide on some of the presets, as well as various modulations performed by the Low Frequency Oscillator. This has triangular and rectangular waveforms, and may be allocated to the oscillator and filter frequencies or to control the Pulse Width Modulation. The effects work well because there are separate ADSRs for both filter and amplifier.
On power-up, you'll hear some strange buzzings while the MAX tunes up - a process which takes around 20 seconds. Although the manual states that you may have to re-tune periodically until the instrument settles after 15-20 minutes, I didn't find this to be the case. SCI are using analogue oscillators, which can vary dramatically according to temperature and humidity - an oddity which has given rise to more than a few conversions to stability of Digitally Controlled Oscillators! Transposition is available by pressing the Transpose switch and the note required, plus hidden functions for Master Tuning of pitch.
To the left of the control panel is the Multi-Track Recorder section, and this is where the MAX may be utilised to the full. It's basically a six-track recording device, if playing monophonically on each track. Its operation is simple, and as a composing tool it has many uses. On board are two songs which demonstrate the potential of the recorder. Should you wish to record your own composition, these may be erased to make room - but not permanently, as the memory of the recorder and sound RAM are volatile; i.e., previous storage is lost when the instrument is switched off.
You have to decide how you're going to record, as you have a choice of the number of voices required for each track. So, for example, you may use track 1 for the bass line, tracks 2, 3 and 4 for a synth chop, track 5 for the solo line and track 6 for sound effects. It was wise of SCI to include some percussive presets, such as Snare/Log/Bass Drum, Syn-Tom and some other percussive sounds, in the Special Effects bank. This allows you to record a percussive pattern on the first few tracks if required.
Each time you enter in real time, you may increase or decrease the rate of replay. You can also turn individual tracks on or off for monitoring of playback, and you can mix-down each track volume - again, an easy process of holding the required track button whilst using the Track Volume controls. The recorder may be synced to a MIDI drum machine (such as the Drum-Traks), and if you want to store your performances then you must MIDI dump them to an external MIDI recorder/computer. Maximum storage of 500 notes is available, and when the memory capacity is reached the record mode will switch off automatically.
The MIDI functions are excellent - however, an anomaly arises when you consider that SCI think of this also as an expansion device, but have provided no MIDI Thru port.
I tested the MAX with several software programs and interfaces, including the SCI Model 64, the Siel MIDI Computer Interface and Composer/Arranger and 16-Track Live Sequencer software. It performed well, and there's no doubt that multi-timbral instruments have a part to play in the MIDI world despite the fact that they are, to an extent, musically limiting. Although many orchestral instruments are monophonically based, the musical application is in building up harmonies and blocks of sound. This can be achieved in some ways by the MAX, but true polyphony is still needed.
Manuals are, of course, vitally important with any complex instrument, and the MAX'S manuals are a very strong plus. The synthesiser comes complete with two handbooks; an Operation guide and a MIDI guide. The 56-page MIDI guide is one of the most comprehensive rundowns of MIDI possibilities that I've seen, and full marks to SCI for providing it. It's a great shame that many other manufacturers (the Japanese in particular!) don't do this, as it allows the musician or computer user to gain full access to the inner workings of the synthesiser and to develop their own custom software.
And final conclusions? Well, all in all, I feel that the MAX is something of an interim product. The limitations in programming and memory dumping make it a prime candidate for the computer musician as a tool within a MIDI computer set-up, but certainly not the only tool. As a keyboard, though, it has some shortcomings - including the price.
If you already own a Six-Trak, however, the MAX could be just right for you. The interaction between the two instruments is enormous, both in terms of programming and the MIDI functions of layering sound together, combined with the ability to control modulations by wheel from the Six-Trak. Although I've had some criticisms of its overall performance, the MAX certainly does have a use - it's just a shame that SCI maybe haven't decided precisely what it is!
RRP £725 Inc. VAT
More details from Sequential Circuits Ltd., (Contact Details).
Review by Tom Morgan
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