In recent years we've come to terms with sampling other people's sounds and bits of other people's records, and using them to create something new. Keyfax software, masterminded by Julian Colbeck, has decided that if you can't beat them, at least you can sell them something – in this case, Twiddly Bits, a collection of musical fills, riffs and embellishments played by leading session musicians and stored in MIDI file format.
The guitar and bass examples for the disk were created using MIDI instruments, while the drum parts, courtesy of Bill Bruford, were recorded using a Kat percussion controller. There are also licks, riffs, trills and slides for wind instruments -- input from a wind controller, naturally. Other areas covered are brass, strings, percussion and organ, and for Sound Canvas users, there's the bonus of a little chunk of setup data that enables that machine to respond to aftertouch.
The MIDI data is presented in sections, usually a bar or two long. Most of the examples are in the key of C, and recorded at 120bpm, which makes them easy to transpose. For the benefit of GM users, track 1 of each group of 'twiddles' includes a patch change to bring up the right sound, but non-GM users can simply pick their own patches in the usual way. A comprehensive but microscopically printed manual is included.
In order to make the disk usable to the greatest number of people, it's formatted for PC, which means it can be read directly by Atari and PC, and also by Macs via Apple File Exchange or AccessPC software. However, the review samples crashed my Mac every time I inserted the disk so I had to transfer them via my Atari. I've mentioned this to Julian and he assures me that he'll remedy it.
Having tried out the 'twiddles', I can see how useful they will be to a great many people, and I can think of other areas of music that would benefit from future volumes. The Bruford drum fills are excellent, and I would have loved to hear a disk full of his fills and rhythms. Though no special equipment is needed to play convincing piano parts, some of the flourishes on this disk require considerable skill to play and arrange, as do the strings, which makes them more attractive to the digitally challenged. On the other hand, the wind controller and guitar synth-generated parts just can't be emulated on a keyboard, and the fact that you can change notes in your sequencer means that you don't have to use everything exactly as it's supplied.
I feel this disk is well worth having; although you can buy any number of dance grooves, there's not much choice when it comes to more conventional styles. The next release will be a disk of guitar styles and I shall look forward with interest to future Twiddly Bits -- how about a disk of Stockhausen groove templates?
£ Twiddly Bits £19.95 plus £2 p&p.
A Keyfax Software, PO Box 4408, Henley On Thames, Oxon RG9 1FS.
Modern keyboards have many good points, but a properly conceived output stage isn't always one of them. Even upmarket models have unbalanced outputs, with at best nominal operating levels, while further down the scale are products designed to interface with home organs and hi-fi systems, which operate at levels as low as -20dBv. To compound the problem, none that I know have any form of ground lifting facility, while the output impedance on some devices may be too high even to work comfortably into a typical desk's line input, let alone the mic input. The result of this dubious compatibility is noise, hum (due to ground loops), and sometimes a deterioration in sound quality due to loading of the output stage.
Milli solves these problems, but because it's built to professional standards, it isn't cheap; channel for channel, it works out about the same as buying a bank of DI boxes, though it is more convenient. Milli provides 12 identical channels, each with an unbalanced jack input and output and a balanced XLR output. The jacks are on the front panel, while the XLRs and mains inlet are on the rear. Each channel has a three-position gain switch (0dB, 10dB or 20dB), a 20dB pad switch and a ground lift switch.
Internally, the circuit is simple but thoughtfully designed and involves an input op-amp with switchable gain followed by two output buffer circuits, one balanced for the XLR output and one unbalanced for the jack output. Both benefit from the ground lift switch, which interposes a resistance of around 1K between the input ground and the output ground when the switch is set to ground lift mode. The unbalanced output is a straightforward 5532 buffer stage, though internal links may be set to feed the output jack directly from the input jack if that is preferable. By contrast, the balanced output utilises a fully floating, transformerless circuit based on the two halves of a 5532 op-amp, the output being isolated by properly biased electrolytic capacitors with diode protection. This circuit topography ensures that no output level is sacrificed if either the hot or cold pin of the XLR is grounded to provide an unbalanced output; a further op-amp provides a clean signal ground reference for each channel of the audio circuitry.
I have no real criticisms of Milli, though I do have a couple of comments which will be particularly relevant in today's budget-conscious climate. Because so many keyboards are stereo, the inclusion of at least some dedicated stereo channels would simplify setting up, reduce the cost and do away with several switches. This aside, Milli is a functional device that works as transparently as any good DI box. Ground loops can be a studio nightmare, but Milli takes these in its stride, along with level matching.
£ Milli £822.50 inc VAT.
A Westwick Installation, Reddings, Kirkby on Bain, Woodhall Spa, Lincs LN10 6YY.
T 0526 352950.
F 0526 354420.