When the technological changes of the '80s made digital access, LCDs and alpha dials the norm for editing synthesizers, it seemed that the ability to be truly creative was becoming submerged under dozens of pages of software and a multitude of multi-function buttons. For many seasoned synth programmers, the prospect of creating or tailoring sounds by altering a single parameter at once was a painful process when compared to the control offered by a handful of knobs, sliders and switches. And with the ever-improving quality of factory sounds and the blossoming industry of third-party patches, so the perceived need to be original diminished. These days it's almost amusing that so many modern synths try desperately to recapture the magic of the instruments they were supposed to consign to the scrap heap. Perhaps the old ways had something to offer after all?
Of the few companies still providing 'hands on knobs' facilities, Roland found probably the most successful compromise: hardware programmers. Bought separately to the instrument itself, these were small boxes laden with physical controls for the synth. They were an optional extra which allowed the musician to have the best of both worlds -- a practice all too rare. Now a German company, Access MIDI Tools, have spotted this gap in the market and have produced hardware controllers for a couple of modern classic instruments: the Waldorf Microwave and the Oberheim Matrix 1000.
The Microwave programmer is small (355 x 185 x 666mm), weighs 1500g, and requires an external 9V power supply (not provided). Its construction is solid, and the feel of the pots reassuringly smooth and positive. It may be incorporated into any system, slotting into the MIDI chain after the main keyboard but before any computer/sequencer, thus allowing all synth edits to be recorded. Alternatively, it could be connected directly between keyboard and Microwave, or patched in via a MIDI patchbay when required. All incoming MIDI information is merged with the System Exclusive data generated by the pots and switches. On power-up, it defaults to 'lock' mode, which effectively disables all functionality, its output becoming a simple MIDI Thru. This prevents accidental production of SysEx, whilst also improving MIDI throughput.
As the programmer features only 26 rotary pots and nine on/off switches, Access have had to make some tough choices about which programming options to include. Three of the switches render some of the the controls multi-functional, but considering that a typical software editor for the Microwave could have more than 140 separate objects just to perform voice edits (more when wavetable creation, multi mode, user tuning and velocity tables are included), some compromises have inevitably been made for the purposes of this unit. The most obvious of these are in the modulation and envelope departments. No routings or amounts can be set for the two LFOs without turning to the Microwave itself: you can alter their rate and shape but that's all. This is probably due to the synth's extensive modulation matrix, but I would have liked some of the more obvious routings, such as VCF modulation and vibrato, hard-wired. The filter and volume envelopes fare slightly better but share the same knobs as the 8-stage wave envelope. Having taken time to create a complex wavetable sweep, it is annoying to lose the settings when you switch to tweak the filter or amplifier ADSR. Any subsequent return to your wave envelope is a laborious process, and the only real solution to the problem would be the provision of dedicated controls, with whatever price increase this would entail.
The control panel is laid out like a conventional analogue synth, with oscillators (complete with wave and noise source mixer, detune and transpose), filter and output settings, complemented by the more esoteric wavetable selection, wave envelope amount and wavetable start position. A useful pointer to the Access design philosophy is the inclusion of three buttons: TRI, SQU and SAW, which select these waveforms from the current table but also turn off any wavetable modulation. This is useful partly as a preliminary to experimentation with the wave envelope, but also because it effectively transforms the Microwave into a straightforward analogue-style synth. It is then a simple matter to produce all kinds of traditional analogue sounds very quickly, using filter cutoff, resonance, envelope amount and ADSR. I created many worthwhile patches during the review period using just this method. The downside of this simplification is that it becomes easy to overlook the Microwave's many other options, which you have to edit using the synth's front panel, as before. Actually, this is the biggest danger of using this programmer: you might discover that the majority of your new sounds could easily have been produced by a lesser instrument, with many of the Microwave's unique properties remaining hidden.
All is not lost, though. Wavetable Selection, when combined with the Startwave parameter, is perhaps the programmer's most creative and powerful function -- the ease of access to both the start position within the table and the table itself provides unparalleled control over the Microwave's unique synthesis method. Unfortunately, the LCD is not updated as you select new tables, so if you want to see the new values you must scroll to the appropriate page, then hit Enter for each change you make. Yuck! Using the three function buttons, wavetables are selected from three sets: internal factory; user and card; and the Microwave's new version 2.0 tables. I was unable to test this latter option, as the Microwave supplied for the review was pre-2.0.
Six of the programmer's rotary pots have a notched '0' position at 12 o'clock. These pots are (sensibly) Wave 1&2 Env Amounts, Oscillator 1&2 detune, VCF Env amount and VCF Keyboard amount, which are all designed to have negative or positive values. Instrument Select Mode is a unique feature of the Access unit which could easily be overlooked, especially with its minimal coverage in the manual. It permits editing of individual patches in a Multi (up to eight patches, each with their own output routings, MIDI channels, and so on), but best of all, allows you to work on multiple instruments simultaneously, resulting in some gargantuan layered patches achievable by no other means. You need to remember to store the patches afterwards, but fear not -- the Microwave's eight edit buffers will always come to your rescue.
Whilst I applaud all efforts to make modern synthesizers more accessible, the Access Microwave Programmer is only a partial solution to the complexities of mastering this powerful instrument. Its main strengths are in 'quick and dirty' patch editing, bringing conventional synthesis easily within reach. Unfortunately, its handling of wavetable synthesis merely scratches the surface of what is possible, and its inability to tackle the complex modulation possibilities on offer is a lost opportunity. Nevertheless, it provides a tantalising glimpse of what's possible and could certainly help a new Microwave user create some devastating patches very quickly, or provide a fresh perspective for even a long-time user.
Although initially disappointed with the number of options on offer, I did come to appreciate them in combination with the synth itself. I think it's true to say that editing several instruments at once in multi mode produced some of the biggest sounds I have ever heard. If you are prepared to accept the limitations of using the programmer as your hammer and the synth itself to chisel out all the subtle nuances, then this unit could make you very happy. Personally, I think Access MIDI Tools have shown us what all electronic instruments really need -- control! Paul Nagle
Oberheim's Matrix 1000 is a hugely powerful, 6-voice analogue synth, but because it can't be edited from the front panel, most users rely on the wealth of presets included with the machine. As a Matrix 1000 owner myself, I can confirm that once you've called up a preset, you invariably get the urge to tweak it a little, but without some form of editor, you're stuck. If you have an editor/librarian computer package that includes a module for the Matrix 1000, you can go ahead and customise your patches, but for the non-computer user, the Matrix 1000 has been, until now, a closed book.
The Matrix MIDI Programmer is a dedicated Matrix 1000 hardware editor (though it can be switched to talk to Matrix 6s and 6Rs too), taking the form of a compact desktop control unit adorned with various knobs and buttons. It has a MIDI In to allow you to merge your keyboard data with the SysEx data generated by the editor, and a MIDI Out to send the combined data stream to the synth. As the Matrix 1000 is one of those synths that doesn't have a SysEx device ID, you can only connect one Matrix 1000 at a time when editing -- I have two of the things but found that simply switching one of them off did the trick.
Behind the deceptively simple 1U facade of the Matrix 1000 lies a powerful synth based on the far more expensive Matrix 6, but if you were hoping this editor would allow you to create monster Matrix 6-style patches from scratch, I'm afraid that disappointment lies only a short way ahead. The Matrix Editor provides direct access to all the key envelope, filter and waveform parameters but doesn't really touch upon the modulation matrix -- that multi-source, multi-destination modulation wonderland that makes the Matrix 6/1000 such a powerful instrument. You can load a 'vanilla' initialisation patch into the synth from the editor, but that essentially switches off the modulation matrix facilities. For a run down on which parameters you can get to, check out the 'Matrix 1000 Editable Parameters' box.
The Matrix Editor hardware is styled along the lines of vintage Oberheim gear, complete with wooden end cheeks and blue-on-black stripes -- which is a little ironic now that modern Matrix 1000s are computer grey. Power comes from an external 9V PSU but this isn't included -- you have to buy your own. Power supplies are not expensive for a manufacturer to provide, and on a piece of gear costing as much as this, it's quite unacceptable not to get one as part of the deal.
There's nothing complicated about this little box -- you simply twiddle the knobs and the appropriate SysEx data is fed to your Matrix 1000 to give you real-time parameter changes. In other words, you can hear what you do, as you do it. One of the claimed advantages of this kind of interface is that you can record the SysEx data into a sequencer to provide automated parameter control, but I found that some of the parameters took about half a second to change because of the amount of SysEx data being sent. Others change much faster, but zipper or step noise is evident on nearly all parameters, which means that instead of a nice smooth change, nearly everything happens as a series of little steps.
Perhaps the best thing about a hardware programmer like this, as opposed to its software equivalent, is that you can dive straight for any knob, or even two knobs at a time if you like, and get very immediate results. Most of the knobs and buttons have dedicated functions, but there is a hint of duality in that some of the controls have an alternative function (denoted by a printed box around the legend), which is accessed by first hitting the Env 3 button -- the Env 2 and Env 3 buttons toggle between the normal and 'boxed' parameter modes.
The Matrix Programmer is nothing if not easy to use, but it's not always obvious what to do with it, because when you call up a patch to edit, you have no way of knowing how the synth's modulation matrix is set up, so you don't necessarily know what's controlling what. The filters and envelopes generally work predictably, but the LFOs could be controlling just about anything! Other than that, as soon as you turn a knob, the new value is sent straight to the synth.
Unfortunately, the Matrix 1000 doesn't come with a full Matrix 6-style manual to inform you what's going on inside, and the Access Programmer's brief manual tells you just about everything you need to know about the unit itself, but nothing about the synth it relates to, other than how to store a patch once you've edited it. (The Matrix 1000 has a rather odd saving system: you have to hold down the Enter key and then dial in the number of the patch location you want to save to, before releasing the Enter key.)
I've recently seen Matrix 1000s advertised new for as little as £299, which makes the programmer more expensive than the synth, but there's no doubt that you can get a lot more out of a Matrix 1000 if you have an easy way to customise your patches. And I think that's what this product is really about -- it's not an editor for programming complex patches from scratch, but more a means of tweaking and fine-tuning what you already have. In this capacity, I have no complaints about the functionality or ease of use of the hardware, other than the lamentable lack of a PSU, and even though smooth real-time control is frustrated by the amount of time the SySex data takes to make the trip from editor to synth, you can't blame the designers for the speed restrictions of MIDI.
As to whether you should buy one of these boxes, a lot depends on your approach to music and on what equipment you already own. For example, if you have a computer-based sequencer, you might find the same money will buy you a universal editor/librarian that will work with all the synths in your collection. Having said that, it is rather nice to be able to turn real knobs on a real box, and even if you know very little about analogue synthesis, it's easy enough to change envelope settings or brighten up a filter sweep.
I can understand why a piece of hardware like this costs a lot to build, but when you add up the cost of the synth and the editor, it still comes to rather a lot for a partly editable 6-voice analogue synth, especially when you consider the kind of modern synth you can buy for the same money. If you have two or more Matrix 1000s, a hardware editor starts to look like better value, but I think I'm still going to put my own money into the universal editor/librarian software approach. Paul White
Though the Access MIDI Programmers are the only hardware units optimised for the Microwave and Matrix 1000, there are one or two alternative ways of making the programming of these, and other such modern synths, easier. If you want the immediacy of physical controls, a generic hardware programmer such as the Peavey PC1600 can be configured to send the SysEx data you need. Of course, you'd need to do some work yourself in this case, but a MIDI control box such as the PC1600 wouldn't be confined to use with just the Microwave or Matrix 1000. Alternatively, sequencer programs such as Steinberg's Cubase or Emagic's Logic provide facilities for creating objects on screen which perform the same function in combination with whatever you have handy -- mod wheels, data entry sliders, and so on, and in this case you can choose as many or as few as you need. Paul White also mentions the other software solution, the dedicated editor/librarian program, in his review of the Matrix 1000 programmer. Paul Nagle
LFO1 Amplitude/VCF FM Amount
LFO2 Amplitude/FM Env Amount
Envelope Amount/Envelope Amount by Velocity
Keyboard Track On/Off
Env 1 Attack
Env 1 Decay
Env 1 Sustain
Env 1 Release
Envelope Select Env 1/Env2
Env 2/3 Attack
Env 2/3 Decay
Env 2/3 Sustain
Env 2/3 Release
Panel Lock Mode
Init Patch 1/2
Easy to use.
Good for quick, basic patch customisation.
Doesn't provide full parameter access.
More expensive than a universal software editing system.
Real-time control can be 'steppy' or 'glitchy'.
You have to buy your own PSU!
A really neat hardware editor that's easy to use for patch tweaking,
but of limited use for building complex patches from scratch.
Knobs provide quick access to many basic functions.
SysEx data can be recorded into a sequencer.
LCD does not update as values change.
Still necessary to use on-board editing for all but the most simple functions.
Wave envelope shares knobs with conventional filter and amplifier ADSR.
PSU not provided as standard.
A worthy attempt but lacking in sufficient options to fully exploit
the full wattage of the Microwave. More knobs is the only answer.
£ Access MIDI Programmers £369 each inc VAT.
A Turnkey, 114-116 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DT.
T 0171 379 5148.
F 0171 379 0093.