The Missing Link
Fostex MTC1 Sync Box
Take Fostex's R8 tape deck, Steinberg's Cubase sequencer and an MTC1, and what have you got? Total creative freedom! Richard Aaron discovers the missing link in the recording chain.
As a communications link between electronic instruments and a means of recording and manipulating data in sequencing systems, MIDI originally occupied the centre ground in a process which began with an idea in the mind of a musician/recording engineer and ended with the rearrangement of oxide molecules on a length of recording tape. Since its inception (when it was berated for its inherent limitations), the influence of MIDI has been felt at progressively earlier stages in this chain, to a point where it has now begun to interact with the creative process itself. Witness the MIDI Effects Processor and Interactive Phrase Synthesizer on a program like Cubase, for example.
Until recently, however, its development in the opposite direction — towards the mixing desk and the tape machine — seems to have been at a virtual standstill. Though we are now beginning to see the inclusion of MIDI on mixers (carrying price tags which make them a viable proposition for the likes of you and me), these are still fairly thin on the ground and certainly do not boast anything like the kind of implementation we've come to expect on synths and most other MIDI equipment these days. Why this should be, I've never been quite sure. I cannot believe that bringing a mixer's EQ and level parameters under the control of MIDI represents more of a problem, technically, than parameters on the average synth — analogue circuitry notwithstanding.
Of course, MIDI sync — and more recently MIDI Time Code — have, to all intents and purposes, solved the problem of keeping tape and sequencer locked together, but opportunities for controlling any of the transport, recording, or autolocate functions on the tape deck itself simply haven't existed, despite the inclusion of logic-controlled switching on all new machines worth their salt. But the times, it seems, are a changin', and it is not surprising to see a company like Fostex — who have been at the forefront of multitrack technology for a number of years now — taking the bit between their teeth and designing a system which effectively completes the assimilation of MIDI across the entire recording chain.
It wouldn't have taken the insight of Russell Grant to predict the coming of the MTC1. Anyone who has invested in the latest of Fostex's 8-track machines, the R8, would have been aware of its imminent arrival from the multipin socket on its rear panel labelled 'Serial Port' and the single tantalising entry in the instruction manual: "In the near future, a MIDI Time Code controller will be available for MIDI control of the R8..." What nobody knew (except Fostex themselves) was how long the wait was going to be, how much this little box of tricks was likely to cost, and just what it would do for the money. Happily, the answers turned out to be not long, not much, and quite a lot!
In one slim, rather anonymous black box, the MTC1 combines the functions of a SMPTE timecode reader/writer, a MIDI Time Code reader/generator and, most excitingly, a control interface which effectively brings all the R8's principle functions under the command of MIDI. And all for considerably less than two hundred pounds. Too good to be true? Apparently not...
Having only been released within the last few months, the music software houses have, with one notable exception, yet to include specific facilities for the MTC1 in their upgrades. Indeed, MIDI Time Code itself (with the same notable exception), is yet to be recognised by most Atari ST sequencers currently on the market. However, the popularity of the R8 in home studio setups is likely to ensure this is but a temporary state of affairs: it can't be long before we start seeing sequencers incorporating provision for MTC1/R8 systems and the adoption of MIDI Time Code sync facilities as standard.
The exception I mentioned is, in fact, Cubase, and it seems Steinberg, in close consultation with Fostex, have developed some pretty sophisticated control facilities for the MTC1/R8 which have already been included on Version 2.0 disks. This has been made possible by a special Fostex driver module (found in Cubase's M.ROS folder alongside those already provided for Steinberg's own hardware systems, such as the SMP24 and Timelock) which allows direct access to the R8 (via the MTC1). Such forward thinking seems to reflect Steinberg's continued commitment to maintaining the position of its flagship sequencer at the top of the pile. Certainly owners (and potential owners) of the R8 and an Atari ST who are currently deciding which music software to opt for are likely to find this a mighty persuasive argument on the side of Cubase — a fact which will not escape the notice of other software manufacturers for long, I feel sure.
Like most utility gear, aesthetically, the MTC1 is not much to write home about. But given that it is designed to be bolted onto the back of the R8 (out of sight, if not out of mind) this is perhaps not surprising. A miniature DIN plug provides the principle means of connection to the tape machine (including power requirements), and besides the standard In, Out, and Thru ports and a pair of phono sockets for SMPTE connection, the only other external features are a set of eight miniature DIP switches and a couple of LEDs to indicate the operating status of the SMPTE write/reader and the presence of data arriving at the MIDI In port.
Curiously, Fostex have decided to adopt the expression 'Longitudinal Time Code' (LTC) instead of the more customary SMPTE. And whilst this is, admittedly, more descriptive (knowing the system was developed by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers isn't particularly useful, is it?), I can't help thinking that it's likely to encourage people to believe that LTC is, in fact, another type of sync code in addition to those which already exist. Having said that, the manual does explain this point on the very first page, so there shouldn't be any confusion once you get the MTC1 home. I must point out, however, that this is one of the few areas where this particular example of the translator's art is deserving of any praise at all. Though quite comprehensive, it has the feel of a preliminary manual about it (with which, alas, reviewers of hi-tech equipment are all too familiar) and seems determined to make you believe the MTC1 is a very complex unit (it is not).
Setting up the Mode DIP switches is a case in point. The manual takes almost five pages to tell you that switches 1-4 are responsible for selecting the MTC1's MIDI receive channel, that switch 5 toggles Omni on or off, switch 6 accepts or rejects MIDI channel voice messages, and that switches 7 and 8 are used to set the SMPTE (LTC) frame rate. The main problem is the choice of terminology and the use of the most appalling and confusing pidgin English. In outlining the operation of switch 5, for example, we are introduced to a new expression, 'Address Free Mode', to describe a function which has been referred to as 'Omni' for as long as MIDI has existed. What meaning it would have for a newcomer to this sort of equipment I really don't know. Switching Omni mode off involves a trip through a linguistic disaster area: "When not in this mode, those whose address match this unit only, from among the messages received, will be processed..." Really, I thought we'd seen the last of this kind of manual, and I would certainly have expected better of a company like Fostex.
Though its control over the R8 is going to be of primary interest to most people, the MTC1's role as a multi-option sync unit also needs to be examined to obtain a true picture of its potential. Referred to by Fostex as its 'Time Reference Selection', the MTC1 offers a range of MIDI Time Code and SMPTE (LTC) options by which it can be time-locked to external equipment.
The first option is simple enough and provides straightforward reading of MIDI Time Code from an external source. The second makes provision for reading SMPTE and Tach and Direction data — in case you're not familiar with the expression, Tach and Direction is the information provided during fast forward or rewind operations (on video machines, for example), to keep the sync unit updated on tape travel and direction. The remaining two options permit SMPTE and Tach and Direction data to be read separately: the first of these, SMPTE Only, would be used with a conventional sequencer, for example; the second, Tach and Direction Only, could be pressed into service in situations where no actual SMPTE code is present. This would not lock the MTC1 to absolute time but to relative time provided by the Tach and Direction data.
A discussion of the relative virtues (and vices) of SMPTE and MIDI Time Code is beyond the scope of this article. However, if you're still unsure (or just need convincing) as to what they have to offer, I suggest you read Paul Lehrman's excellent article in the January 1990 issue of SOS. As far as the MTC1 is concerned — suffice it to say you have an extensive range of options at your disposal, which provide compatibility with a wide variety of external equipment. And, because the MTC1 is optimised for use with the Fostex R8, all the traditional problems associated with striping a track simply don't arise here. You have to set the SMPTE output level (using a small preset on the MTC1) so that the code is recorded around the 0dB mark on the tape machine, and the usual rule applies about using an outside track (1 or 8), but once the system is set up you can more or less forget about it.
Excluding its Cubase control aspects for the meanwhile, the MTC1 (and therefore the R8) can be controlled from any MIDI-equipped device capable of sending a few well aimed Note-On and Note-Off messages, and that makes it of potential interest to anyone with a keyboard, sequencer, or drum machine. In most instances, the MTC1 requires only a single Note-On event in order to instigate R8 control functions such as play, record, fast forward/rewind, locate, review, loop, and stop. Cue mode can also be entered by sending a single Note-On event, but this is cancelled as soon as a Note-Off message is received. So, if you were controlling the MTC1 from a keyboard, for example, pressing and holding down a key (G2) would put the R8 into cue mode, releasing the key would exit from it.
Access to other R8 functions and also options in the Time Reference section require dual Note-On messages, the first of which is referred to as the Shift key and the second as the Normal key. Amongst these are record permit/prohibit, rehearsal mode on/off, run/stop selection of the SMPTE generator, MIDI Time Code output on/off — as well as selection of the timecode you wish the MTC1 to read. Other dual Note-On messages are intended to work in conjunction with single Note-On functions to provide the information required to instigate a particular action. If, for example, you wished to enter locate mode on the R8, you would need to send the appropriate Note-On message (D#2, as it happens), but you would also need to tell the R8 where to locate to, and this is where Shift/Normal Note-On events are required.
Similarly, when recording, it is not enough simply to tell the R8 to go into record mode — you also need to provide information as to which of the eight tracks you wish to record on. This too requires the use of Shift/Normal Note-On events — a pair for each track you wish to record on, and (because of some idiosyncracy of the MTC1) a pair for each track you don't. Thankfully, recording across all tracks does not require 16 individual Shift/Normal Note-Ons — a single pair, (Shift) B4 and (Normal) B1, does the trick.
We come now to that aspect of the MTC1's operation which, in terms of creative potential, represents a quantum leap from the kind of facilities offered by conventional tape/sequencer setups. The combination of Cubase, the Fostex R8, and the MTC1 offers a level of integration beyond anything previously encountered in MIDI/recording applications. I have seen the system described as one in which Cubase provides remote control facilities for the R8, but really, that doesn't even begin to do it justice. With Cubase to guide it, the R8 becomes a complete MIDI instrument within a recording system which can be controlled totally from the mouse or keyboard of your computer. In fact, you could say that with the MTC1 between them, the dividing line between tape machine and sequencer is lost altogether. Once the tape has been striped and MIDI Time Code has locked the sequencer's position to that of the tape, the two are virtually indivisible. It's best thought of as a single recording machine offering both audio and MIDI tracks.
Not only that, but thanks to a few pages of explanatory notes written by the people at Evenlode (available free on request, and due to be included with every MTC1 sold), setting up the hardware side of things becomes the kind of straightforward task it would have been had the MTC1 manual been written by someone at least on nodding terms with the English language. Connect a pair of MIDI cables between the Atari ST and the MTC1, install the Fostex driver from Cubase's M.ROS file (a once-only operation) — and that's it. You don't even have to set up the DIP switches; just leave them in the 'off' position and Cubase does the rest.
Of course, it is not unreasonable to assume that you'll want to input data to the sequencer using a keyboard or some such MIDI instrument, and this being the case you have no option but to invest in a MIDI Thru box. But this would be a problem in any system where your sequencer is locked into permanent MIDI synchronisation with external equipment. If you're feeling particularly flushed, you could, as an alternative, think about splashing out on Steinberg's excellent MIDEX expander (which would also provide you with further output ports), and there's also the SMP24 for those who great Aunt Maud has remembered in her will. Either way, increasing the number of MIDI Ins has to be regarded as essential in this kind of system.
On-screen setting up consists of nothing more demanding than selecting 'Fostex R8' in the SMPTE Sync box of Cubase's synchronisation page, making sure Tempo Sync is set to 'Internal', and pressing Sync and Master in the main transport bar. Striping track 8 on the R8 with SMPTE code is also carried out from Cubase (although in this initial setting up phase, the R8 has to be manually switched to record) and so is the establishing of a pre-roll period to separate the start of the SMPTE timecode on tape from the actual song start position of the sequencer. Steinberg recommend a minimum of 10 seconds.
At this point you can virtually forget you're operating two pieces of equipment linked by cable and the flow of digital information — you now have but one integrated recording system with access to both audio and MIDI tracks. Cubase transport buttons (which visually replicate those of a conventional tape deck) provide parallel and simultaneous control over both the sequencer and the tape machine, so that a single mouse click is all that is required to switch the system into play, record, fast forward/rewind, etc.
As it stands, tracks 8-15 on Cubase are linked to tracks 1-8 on the R8, and selecting any of these as the current record track on screen will result in the corresponding Record Ready LED flashing on the Fostex recorder. You can, of course, link the R8's tracks to any of Cubase's tracks (8-15 is merely the default setting) and you can also record MIDI data on the same tracks if you wish. As Steinberg point out, however, this is not usually a good idea as it's all too easy to inadvertently erase audio tracks whilst editing MIDI data. And it's not as though you're actually going to find yourself running short of tracks on Cubase.
All the functions associated with the Left and Right Locator points are duplicated on the R8 — an automated recording, for example, drops the tape deck into record mode when it reaches the Left Locator position and out again when it reaches the Right Locator position. Similarly, Cubase's cycle mode also continues to operate in the normal way, but you do have to allow time for the R8 to rewind itself before replaying a particular section of tape, so it's not the kind of continuous process it would be with Cubase running on its own.
More elaborate control over the R8 may be achieved from within a special 'Fostex' page created for Cubase's MIDI Manager utility and included on Version 2.0 disks. Here you have access to record buttons, which allow you to select any or all of the R8's tracks for simultaneous recording (only one track at a time may be selected when recording in Cubase's main Arrange page), as well as a record on/off button to allow you to switch into record mode with the MIDI Manager page still on screen — which ordinarily would not be possible on Cubase. Additional icons let you set the required pre-roll period, as well as punch in/out and rehearsal buttons.
These latter controls are used in combination with slider icons to establish offsets for the punch in/out and rehearsal in/out positions, to overcome the mechanical and electronic delays that occur when switching in or out of either of these two modes. Obviously, the amount of offset required will be determined by a variety of factors (such as tempo), and adjusting these parameters is very much a matter of trial and error. However, a setting of around 65 milliseconds seems to make a good starting point and would probably be sufficient in most situations.
Of the other MIDI Manager facilities: clicking on the Monitor button switches selected tracks to input monitor status; the Cubase Tracks button determines whether control over the R8 is effected from the MIDI Manager page or the main Arrange page; and the TRK1 = Cubase button is used to determine which of the Cubase tracks correspond to the eight Fostex tracks. As with all screens in the MIDI Manager, you can take 'snapshots' and store them on disk for instant recall of a particular 'scene' and, thanks to Cubase's excellent windowing system, the MIDI Manager can be left on screen during other sequencer operations should this be necessary.
You may have noticed that I have repeatedly tried to stress the idea of there being no real distinction between audio and MIDI tracks in this system (apart from when recording vocals and non-MIDI instruments), and this is something which becomes easier to assimilate once you start to use it. But assimilate it you should, as this is the key to maximising its potential. I found that once everything was up and running, I wasn't even bothering to look at what the R8 was doing. In fact, if it wasn't for the mechanical noise, it would have been easy to forget it was there altogether! Even when you are recording vocals and non-MIDI instruments, control over the recording system is still best left in the hands of Cubase — apart from setting up the record levels for each track (and keeping an eye on them), you need never look away from the computer screen.
What about using it with other sequencers? As a sync box, it's fair to say that the MTC1 falls somewhat short of the title 'user-friendly' — particularly when it comes to setting up. But as I said earlier, it can only be a matter of time before other software (and perhaps hardware) manufacturers start to recognise its existence and write it into their plans. Even as things stand, the MTC1's potential within an integrated MIDI system is formidable. To have all your synchronisation and tape recorder functions brought together in a single unit and put under software control is not to be sniffed at — particularly at a price substantially less than that of the average sync box.
Whilst there can be no doubt as to the financial sense of investing in the MTC1, it's also worth taking into account the dividend you could expect to receive in terms of time saved. Obviously, this would be in direct proportion to the amount of time you spend recording in the first place, but for the average user the benefits are likely to be considerable — particularly as time spent moving back and forth between sequencer and tape machine is not generally considered particularly rewarding. For the person using Cubase alongside an R8, there's even more to be gained in this respect. The kind of mental calculations usually demanded by the combined use of a tape recorder and sequencer become quite redundant here; once set up, the system is designed to keep at bay all the more tedious aspects of using this sort of equipment, leaving you to concentrate on the music. And anything which can do that has to be considered special indeed.
Like all genuinely important advances in technology, the significance of the MTC1 completely overshadows its rather humble status as a small black box filled with electronics. In combination with the equipment it was designed to work alongside, it puts as many demands on your imagination as it does on your knowledge of MIDI software and hardware systems — and how often has anyone been able to say that recently? If you're the owner of a MIDI sequencer and a Fostex R8, the MTC1 is a flexible and very powerful tool. If you're the owner of Cubase and an R8, the MTC1 is the key that unlocks the door.
£189 inc VAT.
Fostex UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Richard Aaron
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