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Red Sound Systems Voyager 1 Beat Xtractor

DJ Accessory By Paul Farrer
Published February 1998

Red Sound Systems Voyager 1 Beat Xtractor

It's a small, curiously‑shaped shiny chrome box with just six buttons and no LCD screen, and it claims to be the future of DJ‑ing. Intrigued? Paul Farrer goes on a voyage of discovery...

As the lines between the DJ, the studio engineer, the remixer and the producer become increasingly blurred in today's modern studio, it seems only natural that Red Sound Systems (a new British‑based company) should have launched themselves on the world with a product which claims to be able to accurately analyse and calculate the tempo of any audio input from a turntable, CD or tape source (the staple diet of the DJ and some remixers) and turn it into real‑time MIDI bpm clock signals readable by any sequencer in the studio.

Chrome Sweet Chrome

Red Sound Systems Voyager 1 Beat Xtractor

Despite its relatively small size (180 x 132mm) the Voyager 1 is a visually striking piece of kit. The review model is part of the limited edition Cool Chrome range, and in a world of black lettering on a dark grey background, it's refreshing to see a device that, instead of lurking innocuously in a corner of the studio, looks great and has genuine feel appeal. The unit is powered by a familiar 9V DC external power supply (supplied) and its rear panel features an on/off switch, a single MIDI Out socket and two sets of input and output phono sockets for connecting up to two different stereo audio sources. These are switchable between CD/line and Phono inputs, and the output sockets allow your audio signals to go through the unit and onto your mixing desk.

Moving onto the front panel, there are two smallish LED displays on either side of the unit, and these provide (in a somewhat limited way) information that has been calculated about the tempo of the incoming signal on each of the input channels. I say "limited" because although the manual claims that the unit can track tempos to a resolution of 0.01 of a bpm, the 3‑character displays only show you the calculated tempo to the nearest beat per minute. In their own way, though, and despite their meagre size, the screens manage to squeeze a fair bit of data in. Three flashing decimal dots, for instance, mean that the Voyager 1 is having trouble picking out a discernible beat and has entered what it calls free‑wheeling mode. In this state it keeps spitting out MIDI clock messages at the most recent tempo while it searches for more up‑to‑date beat information — useful if there's a 2‑bar pause or instrumental break in a track.

Below the displays are the two channel‑select buttons. With two audio sources coming into the unit you have to decide which one you want your MIDI sequencer to follow. As the unit is constantly analysing the tempos of both audio inputs simultaneously, you can switch between channels at any time and the software does its best to speed up or slow down its outgoing MIDI clock information accordingly.

All the other control options are handled by the four large red buttons at the base of the unit. As with all but one of the other buttons, these have clear and fantastically bright LED indicators built into them, which, when active, pretty much illuminate the whole button. These LEDs are a great help in the studio, but behind the decks of a DJ's setup in a dark and smoke‑filled club they become absolutely essential.

Starting from the left of the front panel, the Run/Pause button, as you might imagine, sends start and pause MIDI clock information to your sequencer. Even when not active, the button's LED blinks in time with the calculated tempo. Next to that is the Cue button. This allows you to preset the tempo of the Voyager 1 prior to a performance. Once you've set the right tempo you can hold the unit in Cue Ready mode, where it waits and won't transmit any clock data until it detects the start of an audio track. Effectively, this kicks your sequencer off at the right bpm setting without you having to wait a few seconds for the unit to recalculate and lock back into the right tempo — very useful for cueing up the start of a MIDI sequence to the exact beginning of a specific track.

The next button along allows you to re‑align the start point of the MIDI bar or pattern with any beat of the audio input. This is done on the fly, and is usually needed during the brief periods when Voyager 1 is trying to recalculate a bpm and loses the first beat of the bar (after a tempo change, for instance). If you press and hold this button, your MIDI sequencer will stop and reset itself to beat 1 of bar 1 and will only re‑start once you take your finger off. I found this 'trigger‑on‑release' approach a little awkward to begin with — after all, there aren't many pieces of studio equipment from which you trigger the start of a drum loop or sequenced pattern with the release of a key, and sample users, in particular, might find this function a touch strange.

The Tempo/Tap button on the extreme right of the unit has two main functions. The first is to send MIDI stop signals to your sequencer, and the second is the manual entering of tempo information. You can do this in two ways — either by tapping the new tempo in time with the track (about which more later), or by entering a specific bpm setting using the Cue and Beat One Reset buttons as increment/decrement switches.

At the bottom of the front panel lies the MIDI clock indicator. This display has eight LEDs that blink in time with the individual quavers or semi‑quavers (depending on the chosen tempo) of each bar of the transmitted MIDI message. They're configured in a sort of circular planetary orbit that rotates around a central LED. This latter LED indicates the first beat of the bar by blinking slightly more brightly than the other seven. Despite the curious layout, this actually works very well — and it's not only surprisingly simple to follow, but looks great too!

The only other display on the front panel is made up of three LEDs that show how well the beat‑tracking software is coping with analysing the audio signal. The software continually updates the transmitted MIDI signal by making fine adjustments to the bpm as it goes along. This constant pushing or pulling of the tempo to fit is central to the unit's operation, and once the tempo is locked up and working correctly the central LED lights green, to show you that it is successfully tracking the incoming audio.

Tempo Tracking

As you might have guessed from the funky design and snappy name, the Voyager 1 Beat Xtractor is aimed firmly at DJs and dance music producers, which is where its strength lies. Obviously, any device which is going to accurately work out the tempo of a track is going to get most of its information from the percussive elements of the audio, and fortunately this is what most dance music has in abundance. Having tried all sorts of music styles over the past few weeks, I've been able to build up a picture of the kind of tracks that work best. Bearing in mind the fact that the unit's internal software is looking out for clearly defined bass drums and snare drums to work from, music by bands such as The Prodigy and Underworld work extremely well, as do nearly all contemporary dancefloor mix styles such as house, techno and R&B, and I only ever had any real problems sync'ing up to some very fast hardcore jungle loops that had been mixed with lots of other ambient sounds.

The time Voyager 1 takes to lock up and the quality of its MIDI beat tracking throughout a song really depend on the kind of music you ask it to follow and, perhaps more importantly, how that track was recorded. With non‑dance tracks that were obviously recorded using live drum kits and no click‑tracks, the unit seemed to fare less well. I did even try to synchronise a simple click track in time with some of Haydn's string quartets and — perhaps not surprisingly — succeeded in baffling the unit completely. Clearly it's with dance music or, indeed, any music with strong and consistent rhythm tracks, that this unit scores: I found it could be as little as three or four seconds between the point when I initially started the audio and the point when Voyager 2 had worked out the tempo and transmitted the right bpm signals.

Despite a few minor niggles, Voyager 1 must be seen as a major breakthrough in bringing the worlds of the dancefloor and studio closer together.

You can see from the channel bpm display and the three Beat Tracking LEDs how well the unit is coping with extracting the correct tempo and occasionally, as I have said, it can get confused. If this happens, you can point it in the right direction by tapping the tempo in time with your audio, using the Tempo/Tap key. This effectively helps Voyager 1 to hunt in the right area, and very often after only three or four taps it has found the beat and has locked up steadily.

Voyager 1 can also cope with following tracks that have gradual tempo changes, or following subtle changes in the varispeed controls of a turntable. Problems, however, tend to arise when working with audio sources that have either numerous tempo changes (like 'Bohemian Rhapsody', for instance), or long periods where the rhythm section (more specifically the bass/snare) stop, or are very quiet.

Conclusion

There's a lot to be said for Voyager 1's hands‑on approach to what it does, and this is reflected in its incredibly fast learning curve. Within literally minutes of taking it out of its box, I had successfully used Voyager 1 to lock up some drum loops in my Emu Orbit module to Michael Jackson's HIStory album and was happily experimenting with some jungle beats over 'Billie Jean'. The user interface is as uncomplicated and un‑fussy as it needs to be, and the well written manual (or 'Mission Guide', as it calls itself) talks you through every step of the operational process in a relatively painless and straightforward way. The inclusion of two switchable audio inputs, and the fact that Voyager 1 calculates separate beat information for each of these channels, makes mixing between any two audio sources — which could be, for example, turntable, CD player, tape or MiniDisc — and a MIDI sequencer a piece of the proverbial cake.

Although it's aimed primarily at the DJ and dance market, there are numerous other uses for this powerful little unit (see 'Possible Applications' box left), and given its relatively low price Voyager 1 deserves to do well. With the standard (non‑chrome) version available for £249.50 and the Cool Chrome model selling for a mere £50 more, I can see DJs, remixers and many studio owners rushing to get their hands on the Voyager 1, and for the most part they won't be disappointed — especially with the reassurance of a 14‑day trial period, with money‑back guarantee, that Red Sound Systems are offering to their direct customers, as well as a three‑year parts and labour warranty. It looks as if this new British company has come up with an extremely useful and unique product that not only deserves to succeed but looks set to carve a significant niche for itself in the DJ/production world.

Possible Applications

Although similar bpm‑calculation facilities have been included as part of some higher‑end computer‑based MIDI + Audio sequencer packages for a while, Voyager 1 is the first device to take such a feature and market it in an easy‑to‑use, stand‑alone unit. The first and most obvious group to benefit from the ability to generate MIDI clock from an audio signal is club DJs and remixers. DJs looking to synchronise loops and phrases from units like the Roland MC303, QuasimidiRave‑O‑Lution 309 or Emu Planet Phatt/Orbit modules will find this box a real lifesaver at gigs, and it makes triggering pre‑programmed MIDI loops on the fly an absolute doddle.

Another application that sprung to mind while I was using the Voyager 1 would be as a form of simplified MIDI sync, to lock up to a multitrack tape in a studio in the absence of any other form of recorded timecode. If your SMPTE/FSK code track is damaged, or you're working with a pre‑1980s master recording, feeding an existing click‑track or selected parts of the rhythm section into the audio input should provide an accurate way of locking the master tape to your MIDI sequencer.

Programmers of MIDI files might also find this box a big help when trying to accurately re‑create parts of an existing recording. Not only will it give you a very good tempo template to work against, but checking your track in sync alongside the original could be invaluable.

Pros

  • A truly unique and well designed product.
  • Good MIDI tracking.
  • Has a very wide number of possible applications.
  • Stylish but uncomplicated and user‑friendly design.
  • Solid (gig‑proof) build quality.

Cons

  • Tempo‑tracking software limits its use almost exclusively to music with clearly defined rhythm tracks.
  • The Beat One Reset button triggers on release.
  • LED displays may not be to everyone's taste.

Summary

Despite a few minor niggles, and the fact that it only likes certain kinds of music — mainly those with consistent and repetitive beats — Voyager 1 must be seen as a major breakthrough in bringing the worlds of the dancefloor and the studio closer together. If you're a DJ and the word MIDI means anything to you, miss this box at your peril!