PC Solutions For MIDI Musicians

Tips & Tricks

Published in SOS May 2000
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Technique : PC Musician

Martin Walker looks at hardware and software solutions available for those who just want to use their PC for MIDI sequencing.

There are lots of musicians who still rely primarily on MIDI sound sources for their music, and many of them don't have or need the latest computer equipment. It's perfectly possible to run some MIDI-only sequencers with a 486 processor, and with a slightly more powerful PC, fitted with a Pentium 166MHz or 200MHz processor, you should be able to run a MIDI sequencer with all the graphic frills of the latest releases. Even those musicians with a more powerful PC may not necessarily want a sequencer with audio facilities as well as MIDI ones if, for instance, they have stand-alone audio recording hardware.

The problem, however, is that most modern sequencers have built-in audio features. These require a powerful PC to support properly, and many musicians worry that MIDI timing might be compromised in packages primarily designed for audio. Those who only want to do MIDI sequencing on their PC, therefore, can end up having to pay for audio features they won't or can't use, and which may decrease performance for their needs.

Mixing PCs and MIDI Interfaces of different vintages can also cause problems. I regularly get emails from readers who have elderly PCs which they want to incorporate into their existing MIDI setup. However, they are unsure about which of the wide range of MIDI interfaces may be unsuitable. Many other queries come from those who have been happily using an older PC and MIDI interface, and now want to update the computer side of things. The question here is whether their once expensive multi-port MIDI interface will still work with a modern PC.

  Windows 95: The 11 Device Limitation  
  Most musicians who have used MIDI extensively for several years on a PC will be aware of the dreaded Windows 95 11-device problem, but I will restate it for the benefit of those with older machines who are entering the MIDI arena. When developing Windows 95, Microsoft decided in their infinite wisdom that 11 MIDI outputs was more than anyone would ever need. If you install a new MIDI interface or soft synth that adds a MIDI device to your list to make the total number of MIDI entries 11 or more, you will get a variety of problems when running music applications.

The most obvious will be the error message "Msgsrv caused a general protection fault in module MMSYSTEM.DLL", but you may simply get random crashes when running MIDI applications. The only cure is to disable one or more entries in the list to reduce the total below 11. You can do this by opening the Devices page of Multimedia in Control Panel, selecting the device in question (prime candidates for removal include the FM synth on elderly soundcards), and then clicking on the Properties button. You can then click in the box marked 'Do not use MIDI features on this device'.

This limitation has been overcome in Windows 98, but to run this successfully a musician will need a minimum of a Pentium 200MHz processor and 32Mb of RAM. I personally find Windows 98 more stable than Windows 95, and generally more polished, but most music applications, soundcard drivers and MIDI interfaces will still run happily with Windows 95.

The other Windows-related issue for MIDI is that of USB support. If you want to consider one of the new USB MIDI interfaces you will not only need USB ports on your PC but operating system support for them. Windows 95 versions 4.00.950 and 4.00.950a don't support USB at all, and version 4.00.95.0b needs a file named USBSUPP.EXE to provide basic support, while versions 4.00.95.0B and 4.00.95.0C, as well as both versions of Windows 98, do have USB support.

 

So, this month I thought I'd cover the many different types of MIDI hardware and software for those mixing ancient with modern. This should help if you are attempting to fit an old MIDI interface into a modern PC, if you want to buy a modern MIDI interface to fit an older PC, or if you are trying to source a MIDI-only sequencer for any PC.

MIDI Interfaces

The market has changed considerably since I last looked at MIDI interfaces in SOS August '97. It's no longer dominated by ISA-based expansion cards that provided a single MIDI In and Out: ISA cards themselves have been largely superseded by PCI ones, and in any case the vast majority of modern soundcards include at least one MIDI In and Out as standard. However, the biggest change is the arrival of USB. This has made life much easier for manufacturers, because they can produce devices that can be plugged into both PCs and Macs without having to open up the case, and this tends to reduce tech-support problems.

The selection of MIDI interfaces available ranges from basic one- and two-port devices to rack units offering eight or more MIDI In and Out ports plus additional facilities such as MIDI patchbays, SMPTE sync, and even word and super clock. Obviously, the features you need are entirely dependent on what combination of MIDI and other gear you want to connect to the interface. However, even once you know what features you need, there is a more fundamental choice to make — how the interface connects to the PC. MIDI interfaces are now available that plug into PC parallel ports, serial ports, USB ports, ISA expansion slots, and of course those that are incorporated into PCI soundcards.

Expansion Cards

For some years, MIDI interfaces for PCs normally came as MPU401-compatible ISA expansion cards. Although the vast majority of modern expansion cards are of the PCI variety, the ISA card is still not dead, and I notice that Studiospares still have several in their latest catalogue for use in older PCs. They are now fairly cheap, and of course you can find plenty second-hand as well. They will work reliably in many modern PCs — I had one in my Pentium II 450MHz PC until very recently — but I wouldn't recommend them to anyone with a modern PC. For one thing, the ISA buss is likely to completely disappear in the next year or two, meaning that ISA-based interfaces will probably become useless next time you upgrade your PC.

The main problem with ISA cards is that they are rather more difficult to install than modern Plug-and-Play devices. This is because they rely on mechanical 'jumpers' to adjust their IRQ settings. The easiest way to install one into any PC, new or old, is first to launch the System applet from Control Panel, click on Device Manager, and then double-click on 'Computer'. This will show what interrupts are currently being used by your other hardware. Find an unused one that is supported by the interface, and then set its jumpers accordingly. Then power down your PC, install the interface, enter the BIOS during the Reboot, and find the page marked 'PNP/PCI Configuration'. Here you can reserve specific IRQs for legacy devices — just alter the setting for the desired IRQ from 'PCI/ISA PnP' to 'Legacy ISA'. This should ensure that no Plug-and-Play device tries to use the same setting and causes a conflict.

Many soundcards also have built-in MIDI ports, and nearly all modern PCI and ISA ones should perform well from a MIDI point of view. However, old Soundblaster cards and a few other ISA-based cards of similar vintage suffer known MIDI problems and limitations. The AWE64 and AWE64 Gold, for instance, are known to have 'hardware speed conflicts' when receiving data from Yamaha G10, Roland A30 and PC200 keyboard controllers. These can cause MIDI data corruption, giving rise to hanging notes, unwanted controller information, and sometimes even crashes.

In addition, most early soundcards weren't designed for strenuous MIDI workouts, and tend to throw up problems if asked to send or receive banks of SysEx data, particularly when the banks are large in size. If you have several MIDI ports on different soundcards, you can often work round such limitations by using the most recent one for SysEx duties, and the older ones for playback only.

A consumer soundcard in an older PC will probably have a 15-pin D-type socket on its backplate for combined game-port/MIDI use, and will need a special adaptor lead to connect to standard MIDI gear. If none is supplied with the soundcard, you need to ask for a 'Computer soundcard to MIDI cable'. This will have a 15-way plug at one end, a pair of MIDI plugs or sockets at the other, and cost between £10 and £15. More expensive soundcards with rackmount breakout boxes, such as the M Audio Delta 1010 or Echo Layla, will provide standard 5-pin DIN MIDI sockets somewhere on the rack unit.

Serial Interfaces

Dedicated serial-port MIDI interfaces seem to have largely died out, to be replaced first by those using the parallel port (see next section) and now USB. However, those of you who already have one should be able to use it even with a modern PC, although you may need to tweak some system settings.

There are normally two serial or COM ports available in most PCs, and these can be used to connect a variety of peripherals. In older models one was nearly always used to connect a serial mouse, but nearly all modern PCs have a 'PS/2-compatible' mouse that has its own dedicated socket, leaving at least one port available. Most modems use a serial port as well, whether they are internal or external models. If you are plugging in a serial-port MIDI interface you will need to make sure that the COM port you select isn't already being used by an internal modem. You can check this in the System applet of Control Panel by clicking on 'View devices by connection'. Look for the entries labelled 'Communications Port'; any devices already connected will be shown.

  Disabling Unused Ports To Maximise IRQs  
 
As I explained in 'Fit For Life?' in SOS March 2000, IRQ steering makes life simpler for musicians running Windows 98 by dynamically assigning interrupts to multiple devices. This avoids running out of interrupts when installing new hardware, but sadly doesn't work properly under Windows 95, and some soundcards still insist on having a non-shared interrupt to avoid audio glitches.

If you find your PC is running out of interrupts, and you are not using one or both of the serial COM ports, or the parallel port, you can disable them individually to return the interrupt they were using to the pool. To do this you need to go into the BIOS menu screen named 'Integrated Peripherals'. Here you should find entries labelled 'Onboard Serial Port 1', 'Onboard Serial Port 2', and 'Onboard Parallel port'. Note down the current setting of the unused port in case you change your mind, change it to 'disabled' and you will get another free interrupt the next time you boot your PC. This may help you when installing any new piece of hardware, but particularly if you want to add a USB MIDI interface, since you will require a new interrupt for USB support.

Those not using the USB ports can also disable them both to regain a single interrupt. Select the entry labelled 'PCI to USB Universal Host Controller' in Device manager, click on the Properties button, and then tick the box marked 'Disable in this hardware profile'. When you next boot the interrupt will be available to other hardware devices. Sometimes you can attach more than one serial device to a single COM port to save resources — in my current PC I use an Emagic serial-port dongle with its through port connected to my external modem, and have experienced no problems.

 

Occasionally the serial COM port settings may need to be adjusted when used with a MIDI interface. If your MIDI output seems fine, but you are having intermittent problems with MIDI input, you can try reducing its Receive and Transmit buffer settings. These can be found by double-clicking on the port in question inside Control Panel\System, then clicking on Port Settings, and then on the Advanced button. Reduce both slider values by one notch, and then restart your PC to let the new settings take effect.

Some synth modules and keyboards have an 8-pin mini DIN socket on their back panels allowing them to be directly connected to a Mac or PC serial port without a separate interface. Examples include most of the Roland SoundCanvas series such as the SC7, SC50, the three SC55 models, the SC88 and SC88VL, the Yamaha CBX-T3, and various Korg models. However, while connecting them to a Mac is simply a matter of finding a suitable lead with another 8-pin mini DIN plug at the other end, PC connection not only needs a different lead with a 9-pin D-type plug, but also suitable software drivers. These should be supplied with the module and cable, or freely available from the manufacturer's web site.

Parallel Performance

Traditionally the parallel port on PCs was used to attach a printer, but nowadays it is also used to attach scanners, dongles, and various MIDI interfaces. When using a parallel-port MIDI interface, it's important to select the correct port mode: modern PCs have three or four options available from the BIOS. SPP (Standard Parallel Port) is generally the most compatible, but may prove too slow when used with many modern devices. These will benefit from one of the other two modes — EPP (Enhanced Parallel Port) gives much faster bidirectional data transfers, while ECP (Extended Capability port) adds DMA support. Many MIDI interface manufacturers recommend going into the BIOS and making sure that 'Parallel Port Mode' is set to EPP — follow the advice given for your make and model. Also, be aware that some scanners, and some printers such as the HP Laserjet and Canon Bubblejet, have driver utilities that check the parallel port every few seconds to see if their host device is still connected and powered up. These can cause bad MIDI timing glitches, and such utilities should be disabled.

Some musicians still have parallel-port MIDI interfaces that they used to use with their Atari ST computers. These may work with a modern PC if suitable drivers are available from the manufacturer, but a few early MIDI interfaces may have problems, because they were never designed to cope with the higher port speeds available in many PCs. These include the elderly blue/green Midiman Portman PC/P model. The newer cream-coloured Portman should work fine, as should more recent Portman models such as the PC/P with LEDs, 2x4, 4x4S, and the PC/S. To ensure that these are recognised properly when plugged into a fast parallel port, you may need to increase the driver settings labelled 'Pulse Delay' or 'Pulse Width'. In general you should be wary of using any parallel-port MIDI interface that is more than 10 years old with a PC, even if it still works fine with your Atari ST.

Dongle Problems

Parallel-port dongles such as those used by Cubase and Waves plug-ins have caused some musicians problems when connecting MIDI interfaces. In particular, a few older interfaces such as the old-style Portman PC/P and 2x4 won't co-exist with dongles. If you get any problems with the dongle not being recognised in a chain of parallel-port devices, make sure that it is closer to the PC than the MIDI interface. For those with several dongles, buying an extension cable will let you lay them out flat rather than bending precariously off the back of your PC. The shortest one I could find was a metre long, but this has caused no problems with my setup. Some modern parallel-port devices like scanners are supplied with a special high-speed cable, and these often prefer to be connected directly to the PC, but most have a through port, so that you can connect further peripherals at the far end. For instance, I currently have a scanner attached to my parallel port, followed by the extension lead, then a chain of seven dongles in series, and finally a printer, and have had no problems. If you have a MIDI interface in a long chain, the recommended order is PC, scanner, extension cable, dongles, MIDI interface, and then printer, although having this amount of gear hanging off a single parallel port is tempting providence.

However, not all parallel-port MIDI interfaces have a parallel through port, and if you want to leave a printer permanently connected to your PC you may have to invest in a 'parallel port expander' card to add one or more additional ports to your PC. I've tried one of these in the past, and it gave me a total of three parallel ports for about £10. The problem is that each port uses a different interrupt, and these may already be in short supply. A more satisfactory and modern solution if you have USB support on your PC would be to buy a USB printer or scanner to leave your single parallel port free for dongles and interface, or of course to replace your parallel-port MIDI interface with a more modern USB model.

The Universal Solution?

I suspect that many musicians planning to buy a new MIDI interface will be swayed by the obvious advantages of USB. Installation is a breeze, with no need to open up the PC at all, no jumpers to set, and no IRQs or DMA channels to configure. You can still add a USB device if every expansion slot in your PC is already filled, and can even safely plug it in when your computer is switched on.

However, only PCs bought over the last couple of years are likely to have USB sockets fitted, and if you are still running Windows 95 you may need an update (see the Windows For MIDI box). Sadly, quite a few people are also experiencing USB problems at the moment, ranging from peripherals that are not recognised to random glitches.

  Contacts  
  Cakewalk
Et Cetera
+44 (0)1706 228039.
+44 (0)1706 222989.
www.etcetera.co.uk
www.cakewalk.com

Emagic
Sound Technology
+44 (0)1462 480000.
+44 (0)1462 480800.
www.soundtech.co.uk
www.emagic.de

Evolution
Evolution Electronics
+44 (0)1525 372621.
+44 (0)1525 383228.
Click here to email
www.evolution.co.uk

Midiman
Midiman UK
+44 (0)1423 886692.
+44 (0)1423 886693.
Click here to email
www.midiman.net

MOTU
Musictrack
+44 (0)1767 313447.
+44 (0)1767 313557.
www.musictrack.co.uk
www.motu.com

Opcode
SCV London
+44 (0)20 7923 1892.
+44 (0)20 7241 3644.
Click here to email
www.opcode.com

Steinberg
Arbiter Pro Audio
+44 (0)20 8970 1909.
+44 (0)20 8202 7076.
Click here to email www.steinberg.net

 

Many of these problems can be traced to USB support chips that were designed before there were many peripherals available and are not fully compatible. As I mentioned last month, if you are considering using your USB ports for MIDI or Audio, it's well worth checking that the 'PCI to USB Universal Host Controller' chip on your motherboard is one of those that have been pronounced compatible by most music peripheral manufacturers. The Intel 82371AB/EB/SB range of chips should all work well, as will those from Ali, whereas those from VIA Tech, Compaq, the SiS7001, and OPTi 82C861 may give you problems.

Another selling point for USB is that you can theoretically plug in up to 127 devices, and they will still only use a single interrupt. If you are already short on resources, USB can normally share an interrupt with other hardware using IRQ steering, but in some machines this may result in your USB device not being recognised. However, if adding USB leaves a serial or parallel port unused, you can reclaim its interrupt and transfer this.

In practice, several dozen devices is a more likely upper limit, but whether or not they work reliably together depends on how much of the USB bandwidth each consumes. Thankfully, MIDI has a much lower bandwidth than audio, and USB MIDI peripherals are therefore far less likely to give any problems than audio interfaces. However, you may still end up fighting for bandwidth if you attempt to run several USB devices simultaneously. If you are already running a USB MIDI interface, adding an audio USB peripheral might cause trouble. Even adding a humble USB mouse can cause problems, as some Mac musicians have already found — if you adjust it to be 'responsive' it generates lots of data, and this can affect the timing of a MIDI interface using the same buss. Most PC mice are currently of the PS/2 variety, and won't cause such problems, but you should bear this limitation in mind if you are considering a USB model.

Sequencers

These days, it can be quite hard to track down suitable MIDI-only sequencers. There are some extremely cheap ones suitable for beginners, but these are likely to have very limited facilities, and may soon prove frustrating to a serious musician.

I did manage to find one professional MIDI-only package. Opcode still have Vision 2.5 for PC in their range, and this provides comprehensive MIDI facilities for just £99. It has List, Piano Roll, and Score editing pages along with extensive quantise options, but only requires a 486 66MHz processor along with 16Mb of RAM, and will work with Windows 3.1, 95, and 98. Paul Nagle reviewed it in SOS September '96, and found it "one of the easiest programs of its kind to use, yet with enough power to accomplish any task with the minimum of fuss." Although there are currently problems getting hold of Opcode MIDI interfaces, UK distributors SCV London have stock of Vision 2.5 and will provide technical support.

Until recently Steinberg still included a MIDI-only version of Cubase, v3.05, in a separate folder on each Cubase VST CD-ROM. This allowed musicians with no need for audio sequencing to buy Cubase VST but install and run Cubase 3.05, while those buying Cubase Score VST could get the extra features of the Cubase Score editor (although version 3.05 may sound dated compared to the current version 3.7, the MIDI part of the program has scarcely changed). My Cubase VST 3.7 CD-ROM does contain these options, but sadly they have been removed from the very latest 3.71 release discs.

However, from version 3.55 you also have the option of installing Cubase VST and completely disabling its audio engine. Any PC with a Pentium 200MHz processor or better should be powerful enough to run the resulting MIDI-only version. A small tip here: you may get better results if, before disabling the audio engine, you first change the box in Audio System Setup marked 'MIDI Sync Reference' from Audio Clock to Time Code.

Steinberg's latest entry-level package, the £99 Cubasis VST, also has the 'Disable Audio' option, but it has limited quantise functions, doesn't display MIDI data in its Arrange page, and provides limited access to MIDI controller data, so I doubt that it will prove suitable for the MIDI-only musician.

All of Emagic's Logic range can be used with the audio engine disabled, and like most other sequencers can then be used quite happily with a Pentium 200MHz PC and 64Mb of RAM. Even MicroLogic AV at £99 supports an infinite number of MIDI tracks, and provides List, Matrix, Score, and HyperDraw editors. MIDI facilities are scaled up in the Silver version, and the Gold version has more comprehensive MIDI scoring options, but there are no MIDI advantages in moving to the Platinum version.

I've mentioned Evolution's Sound Studio Gold sequencer on several previous occasions, and it's currently available on-line for a special price of just £74.99 (half its normal price). It will support up to 16 audio tracks, but unlike many other designs can run happily on a PC with a 486 25MHz processor with 8Mb or more of RAM if you only use its 256 MIDI tracks. Evolution have a range of six software sequencers, so you may find another package more suitable: for those with extremely modest MIDI requirements, Evolution MIDI is just £9.99, but still supports up to 32 MIDI tracks, and has Arrange and Piano Roll editors, while Evolution Audio supports 256 MIDI tracks and has additional single-stave score editing.

There are no specific audio disable functions in the Cakewalk sequencer range, but if you ignore their audio features you should once again be able to use their MIDI facilities with a Pentium 200MHz processor and 64Mb of RAM, and at a push with a Pentium 166MHz processor and 32Mb of RAM. Like the Emagic and Steinberg sequencers, MIDI functions also scale up through the range, but even the Home Studio 9 package at £99 supports up to 256 MIDI tracks, has Piano Roll, Event List, Notation, and Lyric editors, as well as score printing, real-time MIDI effect plug-ins, and a cut-down version of the Ntonyx Style Enhancer MIDI plug-in that I reviewed in SOS November '99. Cakewalk's Express 8 has very similar MIDI facilities to Home Studio 9 apart from the Style Enhancer, but retails at just £34.95, and can run with a Pentium 120MHz processor with 32Mb RAM.

Finally, it's worth remembering that even if you don't intend to use lots of audio tracks in your music, it can still be extremely useful to be able to record at least a couple, so that you can master your entire song through the analogue inputs of your soundcard when it's finished. This avoids needing to use a DAT or Minidisc recorder, and leaves the stereo audio track ready for topping, tailing, and tweaking inside a WAV editor. If you have a CD-R drive you can even burn your CD from the same file.

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