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CME Bitstream 3X

MIDI Control Surface
By Paul Sellars

CME Bitstream 3X

This powerful MIDI control surface boasts a lot more flexibility than the budget offerings on the market, yet it's still affordable.

Most equipment on the market these days is pretty well-made, and as a reviewer one gets used to bandying around words like 'solid' and 'sturdy'. The Bitstream 3X requires some stronger form of hyperbole, then. Bomb-proof? Armour-plated? Something like that. It's housed in a hefty black metal case (weighing in at 4.7kg) and somehow gives the impression of having been stolen from the bridge of a nuclear submarine. Although a determined vandal probably could damage the faders, joystick and other controls, it would require a special effort. Additionally, each one of the first 999 units sold will be supplied in a briefcase-style aluminium flightcase with foam cut-outs for padding. The whole package has clearly been designed with durability in mind for the gigging musician.

The 3X is a fairly compact device (measuring 420 x 180 x 46 mm) with no wasted space: its surface is positively festooned with assignable controls of almost every description. There are 35 knobs, eight faders, 16 buttons (including five that serve as sequencer 'transport' controls), a joystick (with independent parameters assignable to the 'X' and 'Y' axes), a ribbon controller and a horizontal crossfader. The eight main faders have a 45mm travel, and feel smooth and positive. A small, blue, backlit LCD is crammed with digits and miniature icons, and updates itself whenever a control is moved, to show you the current value. Most of the 3X's functions are accessible via the front-panel buttons and the LCD, although a few are only editable via the supplied software (see the 'Configuration Software' box for more).

On the back panel are a power switch, a USB port and a socket for connecting an AC adaptor. (The last is supplied, although it may not be required if you opt to power the device via USB.) There's also a quarter-inch jack socket for attaching an optional footswitch, and four MIDI ports (In, Thru, and two Outs).

In addition to its two physical MIDI outs, the 3X also provides two virtual MIDI outs via its USB connection. Another 5-pin DIN socket labelled 'Sync 24' allows the device to generate synchronisation signals for older, pre-MIDI devices (see the 'Sync 24' box). An unfamiliar-looking 15-pin socket labelled 'Expansion Port' apparently allows additional control surfaces of some kind to be attached. The manual is sketchy about how this is implemented, and what you can actually do with it, but UK distributors Arbiter have told us that it's for possible use with future products.

À La Modes

The unit I was sent to review arrived without a manual or any accompanying CD-ROM, but we're told by Arbiter that units for retail sale ship with a printed manual and a CD containing software. Fortunately, I was able to download the relevant manual and software files (from www.waveidea.com) without any trouble. As far as drivers go, the manual states that none are necessary and that any operating system 'compatible with the MIDI over USB specification' should work with the device. Windows XP and Mac OS X are therefore supported, and so, apparently, are recent GNU/Linux operating systems.

This is a fairly complex device and you need to spend some time learning it. You may find that you have to sit down and read the manual carefully, as I did with a printout of the PDF manual that I downloaded. Even then (as I did) you may struggle to begin with. Unfortunately, the English translation (from French) is not all that good, and in places the manual can be quite confusing.

The 3X operates in one of four modes:

  • Standard mode is the most straightforward, and will probably be the most useful for the majority of users. In this mode, a reasonable set of default MIDI Continuous Controllers (CCs) is assigned to the unit's various knobs, faders and buttons. These can be edited up to a point (for example, CC numbers can be changed) but the unit's more in-depth programming options are not available. Standard mode really comes into its own if you're working with software that implements a 'MIDI learn' function for controller assignments (Live and Reason are two examples cited), since this makes it possible to get the 3X working right away, and without giving too much thought to the technicalities.

Rear-panel furniture comprises a PSU input for the supplied AC power adaptor, in case you don't want to USB-power the Bitstream; the USB socket; a footswitch connector; MIDI In, two Outs and a Thru; the unusual feature of a Sync 24 socket for use with certain older analogue equipment; and a 15-pin 'Expansion' port that may be used in the future...Rear-panel furniture comprises a PSU input for the supplied AC power adaptor, in case you don't want to USB-power the Bitstream; the USB socket; a footswitch connector; MIDI In, two Outs and a Thru; the unusual feature of a Sync 24 socket for use with certain older analogue equipment; and a 15-pin 'Expansion' port that may be used in the future...Photo: Mike Cameron

  • User mode represents the other extreme. In this mode you have complete control over the MIDI data associated with every knob, fader or button, so that the 3X's behaviour can be precisely tailored to your needs. All kinds of MIDI messages can be assigned, including CCs, Notes, Program Changes, RPNs (Registered Parameter Numbers), NRPNs (Non-registered Parameter Numbers), SysEx (System Exclusive) and MMC (MIDI Machine Control) commands. Controller assignments can be edited from the front panel, but for in-depth editing you'll probably want to use the supplied Configuration Software. Editing in User mode can be a bit fiddly, but it does provide a great deal of flexibility.
  • Propellerhead Reason mode aims to provide even closer integration with the popular virtual studio software (versions 3.0 and later). A special Remote Installer is available to download from the Wave Idea web site, and once this has been run Reason's 'Auto-detect Surfaces' wizard can detect the 3X and automatically set it up.
  • Mackie Control mode apparently configures the 3X to mimic the behaviour of a Mackie Control surface. To make this mode work properly, a special Mackie Control library must be downloaded to the device via the Configuration Software. This seems straightforward enough — which is just as well, since the manual (at least, the most up-to-date version of the PDF I was able to find) makes no mention at all of Mackie Control mode!

Configuration Software

A Bitstream 3X Configuration Software application (essentially a patch editor and librarian) is available from the Wave Idea web site. Fairly obviously, this software allows the device to be programmed from the host computer. Downloads are provided for Windows XP, Mac OS X and Linux (the last marked as compatible with Fedora Core 5, although it might be possible to get them working with other distributions). The application is well laid-out and makes in-depth editing a lot easier than working from the front panel.

When you're editing in User Mode, the Configuration Software offers a large number of very useful preset parameter assignments for popular hardware and software. For example, to assign a knob to control the filter cut-off parameter of Camel Audio's CamelPhat plug-in, you can simply click the desired knob, click 'Use preset', select CamelPhat in one drop-down menu and 'FilterCutoff' in another, and the required MIDI string (in this case, B07300) is automatically assigned.

More than 150 devices and plug-ins have preset parameter assignments available, including the Access Virus, Emu Morpheus, Gmedia ImpOSCar, Line 6 Pod, various Novation and Native Instruments synths, the Roland D50, the Waldorf Wave, and Yamaha synths including the DX7, DX21 and TX802, amongst others.

Fine Tuning

The behaviour of the 3X's controls can be fine-tuned in a couple of ways. Knobs, faders and the ribbon controller can all be set to work in Jump mode or Hook mode. In Jump mode, MIDI data is sent immediately when a control is moved, regardless of whether the value of the target parameter matches the position of the control. If the parameter value and control position don't match, the former will jump to meet the latter when the control is moved.

The surface of the Bitstream 3x is positively crammed with assignable controls, in a variety of useful types.  The left side of the panel is dominated by 32 knobs and eight faders, while on the top right you can see a ribbon controller, and just below it an X-Y joystick controller. Towards the bottom centre of the panel is a crossfader, and conventional transport keys are found below the backlit LCD.The surface of the Bitstream 3x is positively crammed with assignable controls, in a variety of useful types. The left side of the panel is dominated by 32 knobs and eight faders, while on the top right you can see a ribbon controller, and just below it an X-Y joystick controller. Towards the bottom centre of the panel is a crossfader, and conventional transport keys are found below the backlit LCD.Photo: Mike CameronIn Hook mode (the default), MIDI data is not sent until the control position reaches and passes the current parameter value — to avoid what might otherwise be a jarring glitch. Jump mode and Hook mode are global settings, and cannot be set independently for individual controls.

Each of the 3X's 16 assignable buttons can be independently set to either Push or Toggle mode. In Push mode a button sends one value (for example, 127) when pressed and another (for example, 0) when released. In Toggle mode a value is set when the button is pressed and 'sticks' until it is pressed again (as with a channel mute button on a mixer).

Further fine-tuning is possible via what the 3X calls 'curve models'. These apply to the knobs, faders and ribbon controller. The default setting is Linear, in which the controls behave conventionally. Inverse Linear, as its name suggests, is an inversion of conventional behaviour: maximum becomes minimum, and vice versa. The Logarithmic setting replaces the 'straight line' of Linear mode with a curve (yielding smoother volume fades, for example). The Inverse Logarithmic setting inverts the curve.

The 3X allows up to 100 Scene 'snapshots' to be taken, stored and recalled, a Scene being a record of the current values of all the unit's buttons and sliders.

Sync 24

An unusual feature of the Bitstream 3X is its support for the pre-MIDI 'Sync 24' synchronisation protocol, as used by instruments including Roland's TB303 Bassline. Although, sadly, I wasn't able to test this feature with any equipment of a suitable vintage, it's still worth drawing attention to what might potentially be an extremely useful problem-solver for anyone lucky enough to own such a collector's item, who might be looking for a way to integrate it with their computer-based setup.

The '24' in 'Sync 24 refers' to the 24 pulses-per-quarter-note (ppqn) timing resolution adopted by Roland for sync-capable pre-MIDI devices. Some other pre-MIDI equipment (from manufacturers notably including Korg) featured a very similar sync protocol, also implemented with 5-pin DIN sockets, but operating instead at 48ppqn. This apparent incompatibility might not be an insurmountable problem; it might simply mean that the sync'ed device runs at half the specified tempo. (Some experimentation would be required.)

Automation

Three powerful automation functions can be used to generate complex streams of MIDI data with the 3X. The three automation types are LFO, Motion (a 'motion sampler') and ARPP (a MIDI arpeggiator). One of these types can be selected at a time.

'LFO' functions like a low-frequency oscillator, outputting periodic 'waveforms' of MIDI controller data. Sine, Square, Triangle and Random waveforms are available, each with adjustable amplitude, frequency and offset. The LFO can be sync'ed to its own internal clock, or to an external MIDI clock, and can have any MIDI CC assigned.

CME Bitstream 3XPhoto: Mike CameronARPP's arpeggiator takes MIDI note input (from a sequencer track, for example) and generates rhythmic and melodic variations, of varying degrees of complexity. A total of 128 preset 'rhythm models' are provided, upon which the arpeggiator's phrases are built. These are grouped by style into Master, House, Breaks and Latin banks. The rhythm models are quite varied — some being sparse, some more complex — and they could be useful in various musical contexts. A Swing parameter allows still more variation in phrasing.

Just as there are preset rhythm models, there are pre-set melodic motifs too. Potentially endless variations on these are possible via the use of the Range, Resolution and Direction controls. Range determines the portion of the preset motif that will actually be played, Resolution controls the number of notes per bar, and Direction allows the resulting patterns of notes to be played in ascending or descending order.

The Motion Sampler function, according to the manual, "allows the saving and restitution (sic) of the movements of the controls of the Bistream 3X in real time". In other words, control movements can be recorded to and played back from the unit's internal memory in a manner similar to recording and playing back automation on a software sequencer. Up to eight tracks of automation can be recorded in this way, one control per track, and all eight can be played back simultaneously. Each track can be of a different length, in increments up to four bars, and playback of these tracks can be looped. The data in a track can be viewed (as a simple graph) on the 3X's display, and tracks can be stored in internal memory, which is non-volatile, so that they aren't lost when the unit is powered down. It can seem a bit fiddly to begin with, but it has plenty of creative potential.

Conclusion

The Bitstream 3X is a formidably well-built piece of equipment, offering an intimidating spread of features to rival any comparable device on the market. Its most basic features are readily accessible, although its deeper functions are a little less easy to get to grips with.

Designing an effective user interface for a device of this kind is not a trivial problem, and it only becomes more difficult as features are added and options multiplied. The developers have certainly done a competent job here — and the Configuration Software helps too — but new users should nonetheless be prepared to spend some time poring over the manual and exploring the menus if they want to make use of the unit's more advanced features. It might feel a bit like hard work at first, but your persistence will be rewarded! 

Alternatives

There aren't too many alternatives in this price bracket. Novation's Remote Zero SL doesn't have quite the 3X's flexibility, but is perhaps more user-friendly. If you don't need quite the features and programmability of the Bitstream 3X, cheaper alternatives include the more basic M-Audio UC33E, at around £200, and various models from Behringer.

Pros

  • Very sturdy build.
  • Powerful and flexible control options.
  • Interesting 'Automation' functions.
  • Useful editor software.

Cons

  • Could be better documented

Summary

A well-built, powerful and versatile MIDI controller with a lot to offer. Learning your way around it can be daunting, but perseverance pays off.

CME Bitstream 3X £299

pros

  • Very sturdy build.
  • Powerful and flexible control options.
  • Interesting 'Automation' functions.
  • Useful editor software.

cons

  • Could be better documented

summary

A well-built, powerful and versatile MIDI controller with a lot to offer. Learning your way around it can be daunting, but perseverance pays off.

information

£299 including VAT.

Arbiter +44 (0)20 8207 7880.

+44 (0)20 8953 4716.

www.arbiter.co.uk

www.cme-pro.com

www.waveidea.com

Published November 2007