It’s been a while since the subject of MIDI has been re-visited here in the Lower West Side. Recently a renovation went on in the studio necessitating the breakdown of all gear. PA, drums, outboard gear, computers and…. synthesizers : (
The good part, however, was that in putting everything back I could move gear into interesting new positions I had been thinking about but more importantly I could experiment a bit with my synth setup. For the most part, once large synthesizer systems are set up and working they remain the same. At least that’s how it was here. If it ‘aint broke… don’t fix it.
The studio is home to two regular bands; the electronic duo Fizzbin and the classic rock band CoA. The bulk of the empty space is reserved for CoA. Because of CoA’s heavy performance schedule, though, rehearsals have become a non-event. Performance is a harder workout than rehearsal and we just come prepared with new songs whenever we want to increase our setlist.
But that left a lot of maneuvering room for the synthesizers. I decided to take the opportunity to move the keyboards out of the corner of the room where they had their humble beginnings and move them to to the centre of the back wall where they will not be as cramped. This position would also provide some more flexibility for expansion. You can only imagine the mountain of cables that was created when all this gear was unplugged.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking; “wasn’t this an article about MIDI?”. The answer is “YES”. Now that everything was disconnected I wanted a more efficient MIDI setup. MIDI data is important when recording. Here at Lower West Side Studio our motto is “More Human Than Human”. Wait a second… That’s Tyrell Corporation. Sorry….
“Capture All MIDI Data – Everywhere” is our motto.
With that in mind a design was made to incorporate all MIDI devices into a single chain that could be read from and written to with a single interface. There are in fact three potential MIDI interfaces in this setup;
- Roland A-300 Pro
- Moog Little Phatty Stage II
- Yamaha UX16
Any of these devices could send MIDI data back to the PC (Mac actually) but I chose the UX16 for the fact that it was a dedicated MIDI device and still very well supported by Yamaha. I wanted to keep the two keyboard USB/DIN options away from the overall setup as I wanted the system to be able to function independently without the computer.
So let’s look at the players;
- Modular Synthesizer
- Moog Phatt Bastard
- DSI Prophet 08
- Yamaha Motif XF6
- Arturia MiniBrute
- Yamaha RX11
- EMU ESI-2000
In the older setup the Yamaha DX7 II-D was used primarily as the keyboard controller for the modular synthesizer. Changing MIDI channels on the synth if very simple so I wanted it to play a larger roll in the overall system. In addition I wanted an expanded roll for the A-300. These two keyboards were going to provide control for the entire chain.
The MIDI output of the computer would also be required to pass through all of these devices. After recording a part it is not uncommon to edit a portion of the recorded MIDI and then play it back through the instrument and re-record the part. This had to be accounted for in the solution.
The challenge was to find a way to merge the multiple MIDI inputs and then to distribute them to the various machines.
The solution to my MIDI problem lay in a product by the aptly named company MIDI Solutions. They make a product called MIDI MERGE which takes four MIDI INs and merges them into two separate MIDI OUTs. The module is about the size of a stomp box and takes its power from the MIDI cable.
So now there’s a way to mix all the incoming MIDI signals together; A-300, DX7 and Mac MIDI OUT.
In addition I’ve got my bass player’s Roland PK-5A MIDI pedals that he left here plugged into the system. “Hi Rigs!” if you’re reading this. “I might have to buy this thing from you : )”.
So now we’ve got all our MIDI INput signals mixed together. They have to be sent to the various machines. MIDI SOLUTIONS to the rescue again with another box called MIDI THRU. This useful little gem takes a single MIDI IN and sends it to four MIDI THRUs. This makes MIDI distribution laughingly simple as you no longer have to figure out how to create a single MIDI chain but instead can create multiple chains all on the same MIDI path. Sound complicated? It isn’t. Check out this diagram;
The MIDI THRU distributes three individual chains to the synthesizers in the setup plus leaves one more MIDI THRU open for when other artists bring their own synthesizer setups to the studio. This THRU provides clock data for the external synths (not to mention the entire MIDI chain). The MIDI CLOCK for the system can be provided by either the Roland A-300 Pro or by the DAW (Reaper) running on the computer.
To capture MIDI data from the keyboards the MIDI OUT ports of the synthesizers are routed to a second MIDI MERGE box. Because MIDI data can be generated by multiple devices at any given time the system must be flexible enough to grab everything. For example I could be playing the Prophet 08 keyboard itself generating MIDI Channel 2 notes or I could be playing the Yamaha DX7 II-D set to MIDI Channel 2. MIDI Channel 2 data has to be captured no matter what its source and this setup allows each
In this configuration there are three Y Cables used. These splitter cables (1 male / 2 female) are very handy for MIDI OUT or THRU data. They should not be used to mix MIDI IN data. For example don’t use a Y cable to take the MIDI OUT of two devices and put them into a single MIDI IN. It will appear to work, however, you will find MIDI events being dropped causing strange things to occur. The MIDI MERGE is necessary to properly perform this function as it has specific circuitry to mix the MIDI signals without loss or corruption.
You might notice that there is not a direct path of the merged MIDI signal created by all the input devices (A-300, DX7, etc…) back to the second MIDI MERGE. They do, however, go into the MIDI IN of the Little Phatty (which controls the chain of Slim Phatty’s known as Phatt Bastard). The Little Phatty has a neat feature sometimes found on devices with only a MIDI IN and MIDI OUT port. This feature is the ability to merge MIDI IN data with MIDI OUT data turning the port into a MIDI OUT/THRU. I take advantage of this feature to have the MIDI OUT port of the Little Phatty send the Input Device Chain’s data back to the UX16’s MIDI IN via the second MIDI MERGE. Are you still with me?
With all the MIDI signals being merged together and sent to the UX16’s MIDI IN I can have the DAW listen to “ALL MIDI INPUTS” and filter out the channels I want for each individual instrument.
Finally, to capture any MIDI data from an external synthesizer setup I simply plug in a second USB / MIDI adapter and connect the MIDI IN to the OUT of the external device.
So there you have it. A new setup and a far more efficient MIDI solution with the help of MIDI SOLUTIONS and a more efficient Lower West Side Studio.