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Emagic Unitor 8

Cross-platform MIDI Interface By Paul White
Published April 1998

Emagic Unitor 8

As well as providing eight independent sets of MIDI connections, the Unitor8 features comprehensive synchronisation facilities and even supports video timecode. Paul White explores the Ins and Outs of it.

The Unitor8 is a multi‑port MIDI interface designed for use with either Macintosh or PC computers and combining an 8‑In, 8‑Out format with MIDI merging and patching capabilities, plus SMPTE reading and generation (both the usual LTC Linear Time Code and VITC Vertical Interval Time Code). There's also a Click input that allows the user to input tempo information or send MIDI messages using a footswitch. Multiple Unitor8s may be connected to a single port when more Ins and Outs are needed, and Mac users can connect up to eight units via the modem socket at any one time, and eight more via the printer socket if required. PC users are currently less fortunate, as Windows 95 can only address up to 11 MIDI ports, but a fix is promised for this bug in Windows 98. Windows NT support is also expected later in the year.


Emagic Unitor 8

Housed in a 1U rack case powered by an external adaptor, the Unitor8 has seven of its MIDI In and MIDI Out sockets on its back panel, with In and Out number 8 located on the front panel. This is a practical arrangement meaning that there's always an In and Out you can get to easily whenever you want to patch something in on a temporary basis. All other connections, apart from the above‑mentioned Click input, are also on the rear panel.

Eight LEDs show MIDI In activity, with a further eight registering MIDI Out activity, and both the Panic/Patch button and the Mac Thru button have associated LEDs, as does the Power switch. Pressing the Panic/Patch button kills stuck notes, whereas pressing and holding it puts the unit into patch mode, where up to 32 different patch setups can be accessed via MIDI Program Change messages, even when no computer is connected. Mac Thru allows a Mac peripheral, such as a modem, to be chained in via a rear‑panel connector, so that it can be used without the need to repatch when the Unitor8 is not in use. There are fewer physical controls and buttons than you might expect to find, but that's because most of the clever stuff is handled by the unit's support software. Interestingly, the operating software of the Unitor8 itself can be updated via MIDI, so future upgrades will be possible without having to send the unit away.

If you're a Mac owner, you can use the Unitor8 in its most basic way without any additional software — all that's necessary is to connect it to the modem or printer port via the supplied RS422 cable. PC users will need to install the MME driver that comes on disk with the Unitor8 package. A 9‑way RS232 cable is provided to connect the Unitor8 to the PC's COM port, though a 9‑pin to 25‑pin adaptor may be needed for some computers.


Emagic Unitor 8

To use the more sophisticated features of the Unitor8, including the routing options, you have to install the Unitor8 Control software that's provided (in both Mac and PC formats) on the enclosed disk. Installation is straightforward and is clearly explained for both platforms. Unitor8 emulates a MOTU MIDI Time Piece as far as most music software is concerned, but there's the option to use Opcode's OMS (Open Music System) if that's what you'd prefer. The Windows driver supplied is multi‑client compatible, so it's possible to run Unitor8 Control at the same time as another MIDI application, such as a sequencer or editor.

With the supplied software the Unitor8 can be used as an 8 x 8 MIDI patchbay, where selecting the appropriate point on an 8 x 8 matrix establishes a MIDI connection. If several Unitor8s are being used at once, similarly numbered input ports are merged, so there are never more than eight independently addressable inputs, though all outputs remain independent.


Emagic Unitor 8

A Unitor8 patch contains not only routing information, but also the sync status of each device, and in the software's SMPTE menu it's possible to select the type of timecode format to be recognised. There's a choice of LTC SMPTE (30 frames per second, or fps), LTC AES/EBU (25fps), VITC or Off. The frame rate can be selected via a flip menu, and various options are available for burning the VITC reference into picture. For audio‑only projects it doesn't really matter what frame rate you choose, as long as you stick with it. VITC can only be used with a video recorder, as this particular timecode format is an integral part of the picture data, whereas conventional LTC SMPTE can also be used to stripe audio tapes. A Refresh option is also available to generate a new timecode from the timecode input, so that weak or marginal signals can be restored to their former glory.

A potential problem with timecode is the occasional unreadable section caused by tape dropout or some similar gremlin. If this goes on for long enough, the sync'ed‑up sequencer may stop. Unitor8 allows you to set a 'freewheel' period that will cause the system to carry on regardless at the present rate for a preset period of time, in the event of a code‑read error. The hope is that you'll soon pick up good code again. Freewheel time can be set to any value, but if it's too long it will become annoying — for example, a five‑second freewheel time means that the sequencer will carry on running for five seconds after you've stopped the timecode source.

Those not needing to work to picture can often get by with MIDI Time Code (MTC) or even MIDI Clock, and the Unitor8 lets you specify which output ports should carry the MTC signal. If systems such as Digidesign's ProTools are to work properly with MTC, they need a 'Full Frame' message from time to time, due to the fact that MTC is transmitted only with quarter‑frame messages, and several consecutive chunks of MTC data are required before the full timecode location can be deduced. If this seems over‑technical, don't let it bother you — just look in your software manual, and if Full Frame messages are required, it will tell you the information you need to enter in this section. In order to avoid MIDI congestion, it's also possible to selectively filter MTC, SysEx, Active Sensing, Tune Request, Real‑time, System Reset and Song Select messages from any MIDI In or Out port. Finally, you can select on which MIDI In port and channel Program Change messages will be recognised, for switching the Unitor8's patches.

The software initially opens in Memory Manager mode, where different patching setups created in Patch mode may be stored and later recalled via MIDI Program Change command. A front‑panel Panic button sends an All Notes Off message to kill stuck notes, and this is followed by discrete Note Off messages on all channels, just to make sure the job is done. In Computer Mode, the Unitor8 can also generate timecode for striping tapes, and the timecode can be set to start at any time reference. Other options are provided specifically for VITC sync striping.

No digital wordclock facilities are provided, but, rather cheekily, the manual uses this as an opportunity to push the Emagic AudioWerk8 PCI card, which can continuously resync audio to a fluctuating timecode without relying on wordclock. The digital output of the AudioWerk8 card may then be used to sync other pieces of digital equipment.

In Use

Unitor8 is easy to connect up, and the software installed without fuss on my Macintosh Centris 650. Once the software is installed, you have to decide what you want to do with the interface. Most of the time you'll probably be using one MIDI input from your master keyboard, and the MIDI Outs to feed your sound modules, and if this is all you want to do you needn't even bother with the software. However, the additional MIDI Ins will come into play when you want to edit your synths or use SysEx dumps for saving and restoring patches (the Unitor8 package is designed to integrate closely with Emagic's Sound Diver editor/librarian, but there's no reason it shouldn't work perfectly well with other systems). You may also want to have the option of switching between two or more MIDI controller devices.

For use with a separate audio recorder, LTC (SMPTE/EBU) will enable you to stripe an analogue or digital track so that your sequencer can be made to run in sync with the recorder, but if you have one of the more modern digital disk‑based recorders, or something like an Alesis ADAT with a BRC (Big Remote Control) which outputs MTC, you can use that for synchronisation without having to tie up a valuable track of tape (or disk). VITC is only going to be of use to those people working with video, and its main advantage over LTC is that it can be read at any speed, even when the video machine is in pause.

The supplied software provides a clear interface for the Unitor8, and even though a number of features that might appear as hardware switches on competing products are in software only, that usually isn't a problem, as you're going to be using the Unitor8 with a Mac or PC anyway, and it's often easier to pull down a window than to move over to a rack. Once I had set up the unit and the software, everything worked boringly well, with no stuck notes and no obvious MIDI delays.

I'm still intrigued as to why nobody has built a MIDI interface that takes in ADAT 9‑pin sync to generate an MTC lock without the need for a BRC or third‑party converter. One of the biggest gripes I hear from ADAT users is that they have to buy extra hardware to use MIDI sync, and while you can record SMPTE to a spare track using the Unitor8, you can't sync directly. With so many ADATs around, you'd think the first manufacturers to build an interface with this capability would be on to a winner.


Though it's not the cheapest multi‑port MIDI interface around, the Unitor8 has a very comprehensive feature set. The utility software is simple to install and use, and the front‑panel displays leave you in no doubt as to which input or output is active. The variable Freewheel function is useful if you're dealing with a dodgy timecode source, as is the ability to generate fresh timecode from the timecode input, and the ability to stack multiple units also adds to the Unitor8's flexibility for Mac users. Sadly, PC users don't yet get the same benefit, thanks to the 11‑device limit in Windows 95. Furthermore, if you have a soundcard, its MIDI ports (presumably both real and virtual?) are counted towards the maximum, so you could end up reaching the limit with just one Unitor8.

If you're an Emagic software owner, the Unitor8 makes a lot of sense, as it also integrates well with Sound Diver, but there's no reason not to use it with other sequencer packages if you want to, especially if you need the extra sync facilities the Unitor8 offers.

Clicking Into Place

To the left of the front panel is the Click In jack, which can be used with a footswitch or with an audio input such as a regular sound from a drum machine. Both normally open and normally closed switches may be used (plug them in before powering up and the Unitor8 will recognise them automatically). The Click In may be used to input tempo information — to create tempo maps in a sequencer, for example — though the footswitch option may also be programmed to send a choice of up to four MIDI commands on successive presses and releases. When audio signals such as drum sounds are being received, there's the facility to set an Analogue Hold Off Time, to allow beats occurring between the wanted beats to be ignored.

Further Reading

For more information on the Mac and PC MIDI interfaces on the market, see our recent roundup of interfaces for the Mac in SOS July 1997, and the PC interfaces roundup in the following month. In the meantime, here are a few of the other cross‑platform devices available with at least 8 MIDI Ins and Outs:

  • MOTU MIDI Express XT: £399.
  • MOTU MIDI Timepiece AV: £649.
  • Opcode Studio 4: £389.
  • Opcode Studio 5LX (15 independent Ins and Outs): £975.

Debbie Poyser


  • Good range of sync facilities.
  • Operates without fuss.
  • Support software generally clear and easy to use.
  • 8 MIDI Ins and Outs


  • Slightly more expensive than some other 8‑In, 8‑Out devices, though it does have a professional feature set.


A fully featured MIDI interface with the added benefit of variable flywheel sync and VITC support.