Tantek Master Matrix
Tantek enters the professional market with a patchbay par excellence.
One of the biggest chores in the studio is patching in effects and processors. This unit, a computer-controlled patching system, helps alleviate the task.
Many readers will be familiar with the Tantek name through their popular Tanrak rack system, which is priced to accommodate the needs of 4- and 8-track owners. This new system is a different proposition altogether and is aimed at the professional and possibly semi-professional market. A system of this sophistication is not cheap, but when you consider the price of a professional patchbay where a single Bantam lead can cost £40 or more, it starts to make sense, especially as even the best patchbays suffer from contact corrosion and faulty leads.
The basic module is called the M4100 Controller which contains the computing power and display for the system and a modest amount of patching in the form of a 16 by 12 matrix comprising 12 unbalanced inputs and 16 unbalanced outputs. Of course this will be insufficient for most applications, so the 4200 expander unit is available which brings the system up to 24 inputs and 32 outputs. Great attention has been lavished on the switching circuits themselves to ensure that they introduce the bare minimum of noise and distortion, resulting in a system which is compatible with the needs of digital recording.
The heart of the system, as far as the user is concerned, is the display and keypad section located on the front panel of the Master Matrix. An LCD type of display is used to show the patching points on the matrix, but this also shows other information, such as the patch number, MIDI information and the user-definable names of the inputs and outputs. In fact the system is in many ways reminiscent of a concept incorporated on Roland drum machines, where a grid is displayed on which you position black blobs, in this case to represent patch points. This is easily achieved by entering Patch mode and using a simple set of cursor controls to position a pair of cross wires over the desired intersection. Pressing Enter makes the connection, which leaves the tell-tale blob on the screen to show you what you've done. The system also acts a guardian tape-op by allowing you to split an output to feed several inputs, but by refusing to allow you to connect outputs together. Furthermore, you can normalise patch points within the matrix, just like on a mechanical patchbay, and these points are indicated by the letter N at the appropriate points on the display. Once you have set up a complete patch it can be stored as one of 99 patch memories which are retained even when the system is powered down. The Master Matrix can be plumbed into your system via an existing conventional patchbay, or you can do away with the conventional patchbay altogether and wire everything directly to the Master Matrix.
The display shows a single 12 x 16 matrix at any one time and this is termed a page. An expanded system comprises four pages arranged in the from of a square, and this is depicted in miniature in the top left hand corner of the display. Whichever page is currently on display is shown as a solid block while the others are empty, so you can't get lost. If cross points are programmed for a page other than the one currently displayed, a blob appears in the appropriate miniature page to let you know. There is also an option where you can concentrate the display to show only the points that have been patched and to disregard any unused sources or destinations, and this compacted version will as often as not all fit onto one screen of information. So now that you get the general idea, let's look at the system in a little more detail.
The main connections are to be found on the rear panel, the signal connections in the form of unbalanced jacks, and there is a wide ribbon connector joining the master unit to the expander. Levels are optimised for the professional +4dB standard but in recognition of the fact that a lot of supposedly semi-pro gear finds its way into professional studios, the first four inputs and outputs may be selected to work at +4dB or -10dB by means of miniature DIL switches accessible from the rear panel. The outputs from any audio processors or console sends are routed to the sockets labelled Source and the inputs to the desk or other processors should be connected to the Destination jacks. On the front panel is a jack which will accept a simple, normally open, footswitch for changing patches and there are MIDI In and MIDI Thru sockets available so that patches can be stepped through from a sequencer or instrument that outputs MIDI program patch information.
As intimated earlier, all the work is done using the LCD display and the keypad, the latter comprising several multi-function keys which are addressed by pressing a coloured shift key. The alternative actions of each key are screened onto the panel in different colours, so operation is easy. This turns out to be a very sensible system, and it doesn't require any great feat of memory to remember each button's function, unless you happen to be severely colourblind. The screen itself is mounted on a sloping front panel and is optimised for viewing at eye level or above. Alternatively the system may be mounted in a sloping floor rack such as the one used to carry the recorder's remote control unit. A contrast preset allows the user to adjust the optimum viewing angle within limits, but sensible positioning is essential. A good place might be at the end of the console in place of the traditional patchbay.
The screen itself is sensibly split into distinct areas, the majority of the space being given over to the switching matrix itself. There is Patch Plan, Mode, MIDI, Patch Number and Patch Name. This last is at the bottom of the screen and when in the Run mode, normally shows the user's patch name. However, there are occasions when the system uses this area to display prompts to help the user know what information is expected next. Prompts are in reverse video so you know when the unit expects you do do something and the user's answer is also displayed once entered. The Mode indicator is instrumental in reminding you what function button has been pressed, but most of the time this will display the word Run, meaning that the patch being displayed is the patch currently connected. If Help or Annexe are selected, the display format changes completely until that mode is excited.
"The beauty of the concept is that you don't have to suffer faulty patch leads or noisy contacts and you can patch in everything you need without ever leaving your chair."
The keypad itself comprises of 15 keys and allows direct access to all the important functions of the system. The basic function of each key is indicated in white but the coloured shift functions are screened onto the panel in blue, orange or green. The previously mentioned Annexe function allows the user to set up parameters that are not likely to be changed frequently such as the labelling of inputs and outputs and a full menu of Annexe functions is displayed as soon as the key is pressed. Only six characters are available for each label due to the restricted display space but with a little imagination, an abbreviation can be found for just about anything. The letter keys on the panel are used to type in the appropriate legend and, while I wouldn't like to have to write a whole article using the Master Matrix as a word processor, it's fine for job in hand. There is of course an edit mode so that wrongly entered labels can be redone without having to go back to square one. If at any time you get stuck or lost, a quick prod on the Help key brings messages of sympathy and wisdom flashing to the screen.
Once each patch is complete, it is given a number and stored so that it can be recalled later simply by calling up that number. Patches may also be given a name of up to 14 characters to aid identification. Patches may also be edited and resaved, but there's a protect system accessible from the Annexe menu to save you from unknowingly erasing or corrupting essential patches that you wish to retain for future use.
Once a mix is up and running, and you need to recall patches, these may be accessed by several means. The easiest is to type in the desired patch number and press Enter, but the user can also press the cursor Up/Down buttons to move the patch number to the desired value. This is convenient if the patches are stored in the order of execution, allowing you to step through them in sequence. The third method works in exactly the same way and involves a piece of equipment not as yet mentioned: the M4300 remote control unit which simply duplicates the action of the Up/Down and Enter buttons. Again, if you have stored the patches in the right order, you could use the footswitch socket to increment the patch number via a basic footswitch or something like the Bokse SM-9 SMPTE unit which has programmable switched outputs. Normally the footswitch will simply step through the patches in the order you have stored them but any of the MIDI cross-programming tables can be assigned to the footswitch if you need to use a different order.
Of course you can use simple MIDI program patch change information but there's far more to the MIDI facilities of the system than that as we'll see next.
"The keyboard player could wellfind the Master Matrix is just what he's been looking for to complete an otherwise imperfect MIDI system for true on-stage
Actually, the Master Matrix is a perfectly useful piece of equipment even if you don't wish to use the MIDI implementation. However, it does allow the more adventurous to do a few clever things. As I pointed out earlier, MIDI can be used to call up patches but a cross patching system allows any patch to be assigned to any MIDI program patch number so that you don't have to worry about getting all your programs in the right order first off. There are six tables of cross patching memory, not just one, and these are set up using the Cross-Program function located via the Annexe page.
You can also work with several different MIDI channels at the same time allowing a different cross-programming table to be assigned to each of up to six incoming MIDI channels. This way, program selects are responded to in a different way depending on which channel they are received. Each table allows the user to store 16 cross references and each table may be assigned to any of the 16 MIDI channels. If you need more than 16 cross-reference points, you can always assign two or more tables to the same MIDI channel. Multi-channel use would be of more use to the player using several MIDI-equipped instruments than it would be in the studio for regular day to day use.
An unusual feature is the MIDI transmit function which allows the Master Matrix to control the setting of other MIDI equipment as well as audio patching. This is accomplished by incorporating MIDI commands into the patch program so that when a patch is selected, the appropriate MIDI program or song select commands are sent. One song select and up to 16 program selects may be stored in each patch. The 16 program selects are assignable to each of the 16 MIDI channels. When used with a sequencer, this allows the user to sync instruments and effects without using up any additional sequencer tracks.
The system is basically very easy to use and doesn't degrade the signal quality significantly, even if several sets of patch points are wired in series. The beauty of the concept is that you don't have to suffer faulty patch leads or noisy contacts and you can patch in everything you need without ever leaving your chair. Of course a large studio may need an even larger patching system but it's possible to use more than one Master Matrix system in a studio or alternatively, use the Master Matrix to handle all the most commonly used patching requirements and use a conventional patchbay to cope with the less frequently used patching jobs.
Being able to change patch mid-mix is a big bonus if you regularly handle complex mixes but you do have to be careful. The switching itself is silent, but if you switch mid-programme, you might get a click just as would occur with a tape splice or a mechanical switch. It's therefore best to arrange a patch change to coincide with a pause in the signal being switched. Alternatively, do what all the best splicers do and cut on a drum beat to hide any clicks. And the system is not limited to studio use. The keyboard player could well find the Master Matrix is just what he's been looking for to complete an otherwise imperfect MIDI system for true on-stage automation.
"..most large studios willfind they need more patch points than even an expanded Master Matrix can provide so some patching will have to be done the old fashioned way or an additional system purchased."
Of course the system isn't perfect but then it can't be for the price which is much lower than any of its competitors. The display is an off the shelf model and so is rather small unless you can arrange to have the unit close at hand. It's also somewhat sensitive to viewing angle so positioning must be thought out carefully. Also, most large studios will find they need more patch points than even an expanded Master Matrix can provide so some patching will have to be done the old fashioned way or an additional system purchased.
The MIDI implementation is pretty flexible, but it won't get in the way if you're one of the many people who have little or no use for MIDI at the mixing stage.
It is obvious that a great deal of thought has gone into designing this system so that it not only performs impeccably, but also that it is logical and friendly in use. Now all we need is a pair of robot arms that can set up the effects in the rack, position mics and fetch new reels of tape and engineering really could become an armchair job.
At the time of writing, some changes and additions were being made to the MIDI software so if buying one, check with Tantek that the final operating system does what you need.
The Tantek Master Matrix costs £880.90 and the M4200 expander £440.45 (both unbalanced). The balanced unit (M4100B) costs £1071.80 and the expander (M4200B) £729.10. The M4300 remote handset retails at £34.50. All prices include VAT.
Review by Paul White
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