Could this be the most diminutive General MIDI module on the market? Derek Johnson finds out whether small is beautiful...
Small is something that Midiman do well: small mixers, small MIDI interfaces, and now a small GM module. At about 5.5 inches square, the MIDI GMan could be the most compact sound module on the market today. It's also the cheapest, at under £200, and features creditable 32‑note polyphony, and a Mac MIDI interface.
As befits its size, the GMan features a pretty stripped‑down user interface. The front panel, such as it is, provides mic and stereo mix inputs (the latter is on a mini jack, and is ideal for mixing in the output of a PC soundcard), and a PC/Mac switch. The Mac position turns the GMan into a 1‑in/1‑out Mac MIDI interface, and the PC position is for the rest of us, who access the GMan via its MIDI sockets. A power LED indicates that the GMan is working, although there is no power switch.
At the rear is the aforementioned Mac interface port (plus a through connection, so a printer or modem can remain connected to your Mac), MIDI In and Out (no Thru), 9V power input, and audio outs — the main quarter‑inch L/R jacks are joined by a stereo mini‑jack, for headphones, or for adding multimedia speakers. Level‑control pots, for L/R outputs and mic input, stick out of the top of the unit, rather unusually.
All that's left to mention about the package is the manual: for such a simple unit, a basic manual would have been fine, yet Midiman have shown real thoughtfulness by explaining everything you'd realistically need to know. All they've left out is detailed MIDI SysEx information, though enough MIDI spec is provided to let you know which functions are controllable. The obligatory MIDI implementation chart reveals that Control Changes can be used to manipulate reverb and chorus, mono/poly mode (per channel), volume, pan, modulation, pitch bend and sustain (but any changes are reset on power‑down). For more in‑depth information, you'll need the detailed MIDI spec, which you can buy from Midiman for around £10.
Being General MIDI, the GMan comes equipped with 128 GM patches, plus seven drum kits. Midiman have generously gone one step further, however, by providing 62 'variations' — accessible via Bank Select commands — that make the GMan compatible with MIDI Files using Roland's GS enhanced General MIDI standard.
From a quality point of view, the GMan sounds are a mixed bag. This is a super‑budget machine, after all, aimed at the desktop music market. In this context it performs well — it's several cuts above most PC soundcards. Many PC users would opt for an internal GM daughter board, but the audio output of this type of device is only as good as the outputs of the soundcard it's piggybacked to. The MIDI GMan has its own audio circuitry, which is much better than the average budget soundcard. When cranked, I found it a little noisy, but this was at painful monitoring levels.
Many GMan sounds are quite pleasing, particularly synth pads and textures. Acoustic pianos, while a little artificial, are perfectly playable, and mix well in a track. Electric pianos, acoustic guitars, and some basses and drum kits are also good. The only drawback with the drum kits is a lack of variety in the basic samples, with many sounds doing double duty across all kits. There is evidence of doubling up of wave sets on the main patches too, with not quite enough multisamples in many cases. But few sounds are totally unusable, and a professional MIDI File plays back perfectly well with the GMan. Broadly speaking, pop music (and possibly games soundtracks!) are best served by the GMan, since the strings and wind patches are too limited for realistic orchestral simulations.
I have one or two reservations about the GMan: firstly, considering the large percentage of PCs being used for music, the lack of a dedicated PC — or switchable Mac/PC — interface, is rather strange. Secondly, the level controls sticking out of the top of the unit will restrict where you'll be able to put the GMan, since anything above the module will reduce access to these. Finally, there's no display, though many owners will, of course, use MIDI controllers to alter volume remotely, and to access other MIDI‑only functions.
But these are relatively minor criticisms of a sub‑£200 sound module that offers GM/GS compatibility, 32‑note polyphony, stereo and mic inputs, and a Mac MIDI interface. The GMan provides easy access to General MIDI/GS compatibility in a compact, low‑priced package, and if that's what you want, it's well worth a look.
- 32‑note polyphony.
- Easy to use.
- No display.
- No MIDI Thru.
- No dedicated PC interface.
If you're strapped for cash, the MIDI GMan is as cheap as it gets when it comes to stand‑alone GM modules. And remember: all Midiman products have a lifetime guarantee.