As studios became more and more virtual, musicians begin to miss having real knobs and faders to play with — hence the success of Peavey's original PC1600 MIDI hardware fader box. Six years on, it has just been replaced with a new version.
It can be hard to persuade yourself to part with cash for an item of MIDI gear that doesn't make a sound, even if it does a valuable job that could make your musical life easier. For not much more than the price of a hardware MIDI controller unit, you could be holding a squillion‑note polyphonic sound module stuffed with sexy new sounds, rather than a silent box of sliders and buttons that could bring new life to all your old synths, be the real‑world manifestation of your sequencer's mixer page, control your PC sound card, make groovy tweaks to the new generation of software synths, drumboxes and samplers, and even make hard disk recording less hard by removing the need to tweak onscreen faders with a mouse. Hold on a sec... That's sounding pretty good, actually!
Clearly, there are lots of MIDI musicians out there who've already been won over by this kind of talk. In recent months, Keyfax's £150 Phat Boy (reviewed July 1998), aimed right at those with controller‑light GM synths and soundcards, has been something of a success story. For those with rather more sophisticated requirements, Kenton's new Control Freak (reviewed November 1998) addscomprehensive customisation possibilities and an extra £100 over the Phat Boy's price tag. And that's not forgetting Doepfer's Regelwerk hybrid MIDI controller/analogue‑style sequencer, reviewed last month. But before these machines were even twinkles in the corporate eyes of their manufacturers, there was Peavey's PC1600.
This American company's hardware MIDI controller was reviewed by SOS way back in June 1993, and met with the full approval of the magazine's then editor. Six years later, Peavey have seen fit to add an 'x' onto the name and some extra features onto the spec, to produce the £349 PC1600x MIDI Command Station.
Before we get down to the nitty‑gritty of what the PC1600x offers, there's the mandatory examination of its metalwork to get out of the way. As it has to fit 16 faders onto its panel, the 1600x is one of the largest of the MIDI controllers mentioned here, though it's still not exactly huge. Directly beneath the 16 faders are 16 square buttons, and directly under these are 16 'scribble squares'. A giant data wheel sits beneath the fairly generous, brightly lit 2‑line x 20‑character LCD, and the button complement is completed by six labelled editing buttons (Edit, Copy, Enter, Utility, Scene and Exit), and four cursor buttons arranged in a cross shape. Back‑panel activity is confined to MIDI In and Out, a PSU socket for a whacking great power supply, and two CV (control voltage) sockets, one of which can be configured to use two footswitches. Both can also be used with variable volume‑type pedals.
All the faders and the 16 main buttons are programmable to transmit any MIDI data, as are the two footswitch sockets. A slightly stingy total of 50 'preset' memories is provided for MIDI device profiles and generic MIDI setups, most of which are already filled with factory setups for a host of popular equipment (and not just synths — there are profiles for effects processors such as the Ensoniq DP2 and DP4 and various Lexicon models, Digitech's Vocalist Workstation, and even TC Electronics' Finalizer mastering processor). Pro gear features quite heavily in the factory presets; they can be overwritten with user profiles if you don't own all this fab kit, and then restored by initialisation later if you happen to win the lottery! Of course, the preset memories can also be dumped over MIDI to an external device for safekeeping.
An additional 100 'scene' memories store snapshots of the currently selected preset with the addition of fader positions and settings of the footswitch inputs — ideal for storing synth voice settings, or the fader settings for different points in a song when using a MIDI + Audio sequencing system. Either could be recalled later, and scene changes can be recorded into a MIDI sequencer for simple automation. One particularly neat feature of scene memories is that they're independent of whichever preset profile is currently in use — if you're using the PC1600x to tweak a synth's parameters while a MIDI + Audio sequencer is running, you can still transmit fader position snapshots to the sequencer at the same time.
Fade In Full
Each 1600x fader can be assigned to transmit any continuous controller or a freely‑definable MIDI string, or to act as a master fader. The last option links any or all of the other faders to one fader, offering sub‑grouping capabilities with computer‑based mixing systems. The task of assigning MIDI data to the PC1600x's faders and buttons is not as daunting as it might seem, since a variety of tricks make the job as easy as possible. The manual has a collection of excellent appendices that don't simply explain MIDI, SysEx and hex, but also present the information in such a way that all you need do is insert data parrot‑fashion to get a result. Needless to say, this is in itself a great learning experience, and it would have been nice to see more in the way of detailed examples.
To save the trouble of even looking at the appendices, the PC1600x offers a 'learn' mode, in which incoming MIDI data — from synth parameter changes, for example — is captured and assigned to a fader. Couldn't be easier. Unlike Kenton's Control Freak, though, the PC1600x doesn't capture MIDI controllers, which is a shame. Fortunately, this type of assignment is easy to do manually: simply tell the fader that it'll be transmitting a controller and then choose the controller itself. It's numbers only, I'm afraid, but all controllers are identified in one of the manual's appendices. Another anomaly is that the PC1600x's learn mode won't capture pitch‑bend or aftertouch either — and these Channel Messages aren't included amongst the standard MIDI controller list. However, it's possible to insert this data as a MIDI string, or even to copy the required assignment from one of the 1600x's factory presets and tweak it (by changing its MIDI transmit channel or range, for example). Also unlike the Control Freak, the faders can't be set to transmit more than one controller or type of data at once.
Strings of MIDI data, such as the SysEx that would be generated when setting up a fader assignment for a synth parameter, can be of any length, within the limits of the PC1600's memory. If you happened to use a lot of SysEx strings in your presets, because you have a lot of synths needing editing profiles or lots of faders in a Pro Tools system, for example, the fairly limited memory would be used up more quickly, and though faders and buttons can be individually named, which is very useful, this data eats further into the memory.
A wide range of data can also be transmitted by the 16 buttons. Note ons, note offs, program changes, MIDI sequencer transport controls, and complete MIDI strings are all definable. Buttons can be linked to their associated fader, in order to mute or solo its value or, if the fader is transmitting pitch‑bend, bring the attached sound source back to its normal, unbent pitch. MIDI strings can be sent on a single press, with options for transmitting two different strings per key: one on a press and one on a release, or two toggled on subsequent button presses. Interestingly, a MIDI string could be a MIDI note, or an entire chord — a simple note capture option makes light work of this. We had some fun using the PC1600x as a real‑time chord sequencer, and it can be used to trigger samples (from an attached sampler) in real time. In both cases you might need to use the press/release or toggle option, since any note ons need a subsequent note off. Incidentally, the faders can also be set up to transmit note ons, but there's no easy way of using them to generate the necessary note offs.
One other clever button trick is 'send fader': when a button is assigned to this option, moving the fader immediately above does nothing. You do, however, see a value changing in the display. When the desired fader value has been set — a precise parameter change, volume level, pitch bend or transposition, say — pressing the button transmits exactly that value.
Unlike Kenton's Control Freak, though, the PC1600x doesn't capture MIDI controllers, which is a shame. Fortunately, this type of assignment is easy to do manually: simply tell the fader that it'll be transmitting a controller and then choose the controller itself.
The PC1600x's functionality is further augmented by footpedal, footswitch and data‑wheel functions. When variable (volume) footpedals are plugged into the pedal inputs, exactly the same options are available as for faders — making a potential total of 18 continuous controllers per preset. Pedal input 2, as mentioned earlier, can also take a dual footswitch. Each switch can be set to scroll through the presets, or duplicate the function of the front‑panel Enter button or any of the 16 assignable buttons. The data wheel is a different thing entirely; it can be linked to a fader or variable pedal input (or the last such device touched), allowing more precise adjustments to be made to a given parameter. This comes in handy when the parameter being altered has a much wider range than the 0‑127 offered by MIDI Controllers — a good example is PC1600x preset 08, which is set up for pitch correction. The fader would allows you to find roughly the value required, with the data wheel being used to fine‑tune the result.
Even more levels of MIDI sophistication are available: a preset can actually be programmed to transmit a bank select command, program change and volume level on each MIDI channel, plus an 80‑byte SysEx string and any one of the 100 scenes whenever it is selected. This 'set‑up string' could be used to configure a MIDI synth or system at the start of a session.
As part of a larger MIDI system, there are various choices about how the PC1600x treats incoming MIDI data — for example, incoming controller data can be merged with, replace or update that produced by the PC1600x — and it's possible to filter certain (or all) MIDI messages as they pass through the unit.
Though the recent release of Doepfer's Regelwerk (with 24 faders) has introduced a little more in the way of competition to the hardware controller market, the PC1600x remains a sophisticated, compact and viable option, with a professional feel, at £100 less than the German machine. The 'x' enhancements (see 'Xtra!' box) are useful, and show that Peavey are committed to continued support of what is now a six‑year‑old and obviously popular design. Existing PC1600 users aren't left out in the cold, either, because the older machine can be upgraded to 'x' status.
The 1600x's complement of 16 faders is probably the most convenient number for a MIDI hardware controller, and this, combined with a tidy operating system and good range of features, must make the 1600x a front runner for anyone in the market for a serious MIDI controller.
Factory Fresh: Selected Presets
The PC1600x features profiles for all the following equipment, plus some generic presets that offer control over volume, program change, pitch correction, XG instruments and so on, including Mod Squad, a preset group of the most useful synth controllers.
- Akai DR8/DR16
- Akai S2000/3000
- Alesis ADAT BRC
- Digidesign Pro Tools setups
- Digidesign Session 8
- Digitech Vocalist Workstation
- Emu Planet Phatt
- Ensoniq DP4/DP2
- Lexicon PCM70/80/LXP15
- Peavey DPM/SX/Addverb/Spectrum Synth, Bass & Organ
- Roland GI‑10 Guitar‑to‑MIDI
- Roland JV1080
- Roland VS880
- TC Electronic Finalizer EQ/Expander/Compressor/Limiter
- Yamaha ProMix 01
Existing PC1600 owners can add all the extra functionality of the 'x', though obviously not its new paint job and enormous data knob, to their machines. Contact Peavey for details of the ROM upgrade. New features for the PC1600x are as follows:
- A byte can now be designated as a checksum, and Bank Select editing now includes LSB and MSB programming. Both are useful for better operation with certain synths.
- Buttons can be set to 'send fader' — see main text for more.
- The 16 buttons can be set to send scenes.
- Buttons, if they're not being used for anything else, can be set to show their associated fader's name.
- All 16 buttons can now be triggered via MIDI, such as from a MIDI foot controller, or via program changes.
- A note capture function makes it a doddle to assign notes or chords to a button.
- The left arrow button functions as a MIDI data mute switch.
- Presets and Scenes can be individually initialised.
- The scene display shows a scene's associated preset number.
- A scene can be assigned to a preset, to be sent whenever that preset is selected.
- There are 50 new factory presets (though only 42 appeared on the review unit!).
Unofficial PC1600 Internet Users
Dan Nigrin's unofficial PC1600 Internet user page is recommended as a source of downloadable profiles and hands‑on information. For example, Kenton's Control Freak has a section in its manual dedicated to turning it into a CV‑to‑MIDI convertor, so that an ancient analogue sequencer could be used to play a MIDI synth, for example. Well, it only takes a little lateral thinking to realise that the same could be possible using the PC1600x's footpedal inputs — and, as revealed on this web site, it is.
Full details are posted, and though the results are a bit hit‑and‑miss at first, with careful tweaking the trick can be made to work reasonably well. Point your browser at www.defectiverecords.com/pc1600/pc1600.html.
- 16 faders.
- Easy to program.
- Extra device profiles available on Internet.
- Feels professional.
- Scribble boxes for labelling faders.
- More memories would be good.
- External PSU large.
- Easy to run out of RAM if you use a lot of long SysEx strings.
Highly recommended. There really is very little missing from the PC1600x, which rapidly becomes indispensable in a highly MIDI‑based studio, especially one with knobless synth modules and computer hard disk recording or MIDI + Audio sequencing.