Philip Rees are known for their distinctive red and black MIDI Thru and Merge boxes, which have found homes in many MIDI studios. Now they've turned their attention to tape sync, with the TS1. Derek Johnson checks it out.
If there's one thing you'll need to help you get the most of your MIDI sequencing setup and a multitracker with limited tracks, it's some form of MIDI to tape synchronisation. The prospect is attractive: sync'ing your sequencer to a tape track means that sequenced parts won't be committed to tape until you finally mix to stereo. As a result, a large part of your master will contain first‑generation recordings.
This is essentially the job undertaken by Philip Rees' TS1. Firstly, the TS1 generates and reads SMPTE — a professional timecode format — and converts it to and from MIDI Time Code. At present, very few hardware sequencers/drum machines recognise MTC, but most serious sequencing software does (for example, Steinberg's Cubase and Emagic's Logic). SMPTE's main advantage is that it's an absolute timing reference, independent of your sequence's tempo — so you can make later tempo changes to your sequence without having to redo the SMPTE code you already have on tape. Due to the vagaries of history, four types of SMPTE exist: 30 frames per second was the original US black and white TV standard (currently used in post‑production); 29.97 fps (also called drop frame — basically 30fps, but drops two frames in every minute that's not a multiple of 10) is the current US colour TV standard; 25fps is the EBU standard; and 24fps is used for film work. The TS1 is compatible with all four formats.
If you don't need SMPTE's flexibility, or your sequencer doesn't respond to MTC, then the TS1 can convert MIDI clock (not the same as MTC) to Smart FSK (Frequency Shift Keying). FSK simply turns the 0s and 1s of computer data (which is what MIDI basically is, after all) into an audio signal made up of two frequencies. Smart FSK adds MIDI Song Position Pointers, which are signposts to the individual bars in a sequence, embedded in the code. Using SPP, a compatible sequencer can start at any point in a sequence and remain perfectly synchronised to tape — it 'chases' the tape, so you don't have to play the tape from the beginning of a track every time. The one downside of FSK is that, unlike SMPTE, a sequence's tempo is set while the code is recorded. Smart FSK, while available on a wide range of synchronisers from other manufacturers, isn't standardised — FSK recorded by one machine will not necessarily be readable by another. According to the manual, the TS1 has been designed to be tolerant of as many FSK codes as possible. Lock up isn't promised in all cases, but it may be worth a try. For the record, code generated by my JL Cooper PPS2 wasn't compatible.
Physically, the TS1 is very much of the Philip Rees family: it's housed in the same box as the W5 Dual Input MIDI Thru and 5S MIDI Selector, for example, and features the company's familiar red, white and black livery. The TS1 has a built‑in power supply — if the company can do it with such compact products, why can't everybody else, I ask myself?
The TS1's layout is logical, and a signal flow chart should leave you in no doubt about what needs to be plugged in where. If you do get confused, a diagram in the manual helps further. Operating the device involves twiddling two chunky knobs: one selects the timecode format, and the other selects record or playback stripe mode. The only strange thing to bear in mind is that the 'stripe' knob needs to be in Standby mode when recording the FSK code. The Record Stripe position is used to record SMPTE, which, since it isn't dependent upon the master sequence's tempo for timing info, doesn't need to have the master sequencer running. The presence of code, going out or coming off tape, is indicated by an LED. During the course of the review, I had no problems or crashes using the TS1 — it worked perfectly at all times.
On the novel features front, the TS1 offers small input and output level trimmers (code that is recorded too low or too high can result in unreliable synchronisation), and a SMPTE Start Time push button allows you to record a SMPTE stripe with a non‑zero start time. The TS1 can also regenerate time code, and a 'jam sync' facility means that the TS1 won't lose sync if a small break in the code is encountered, both useful if not novel features.
While the TS1 doesn't offer anything totally new in the MIDI to tape sync stakes, it does its job in an elegant, user‑friendly manner with just enough extras to make it attractive — and it's good value for money.
- Logical, easy to follow layout.
- Input and output level controls.
- Internal PSU.
- Attractive price.
- Manual a bit confusing.
- Trim controls rather inaccessible.
A solid unit that simply delivers what it promises, for a nicely affordable price.