A synth editor program for your computer can expand your synthesis horizons and encourage you to discard those presets in favour of original creations. But what if you have more than one synth — surely it's going to cost a fortune to buy an editor for each? Not necessarily, as Paul Nagle finds out.
As synths grow more complex, paradoxically they seem to grow smaller and less accessible. With a whole rack of single‑unit modules, each with a tiny LCD and, perhaps, a dozen or less buttons, you can find yourself spending a lot of time learning the programming styles of a number of manufacturers and scrolling through zillions of subtly different pages by prodding a button the size of a gnat's kneecap. Imagine if there were a way to access all your instruments via a common, friendly interface, one which remained constant even as synths came and went in your setup. Don't you think you might be tempted to create a few sounds of your own if you could only grab hold of some knobs and sliders? MIDIQuest version 4 from Sound Quest Inc. is just such a 'front end', and is available for DOS, Windows, Atari, Amiga and Mac formats, providing a universal editor, database and librarian for 160 instruments, effects units and other MIDI doobries. (See box for full list.) It is the Windows 3.1 version that we're looking at here, but most of the features apply to all platforms (the program will work on any PC capable of running Windows 3.1 but, of course, runs better on bigger machines with oodles of RAM. You need a MIDI interface too, naturally).
MIDIQuest and its instrument drivers are supplied on two 3.5‑inch 1.4Mb disks with a 60‑page manual, which is adequate, if not exactly brimming with detail. After a few days' use, I found myself referring to the on‑line help instead which, although not context‑sensitive, was nevertheless welcome. Both manual and on‑line texts lacked an index, which made some things hard to trace — for example, it took me some time to find the setting for MIDI Patchbay delay (it's under Utilities, option 'Default Parms Windows', if you're interested). Installation was quite painless, as was the addition of instrument drivers, and I was very quickly in and mousing around.
First impressions are important, and I have to say that I was disappointed by the general look of the program. The editor screens were untidy, and some of the sliders very small and fiddly, whilst the larger ones reminded me of certain tired old DOS programs. Strangely, the use of colour made things worse rather than better, giving a rather tacky appearance overall, and I found it irritating that I couldn't override any of the defaults. Alas, this function appears to be restricted to the Amiga version.
Fortunately, there is far more to MIDIQuest than mere looks. After adding drivers for my collection of synths, I proceeded to grab hold of some data so that I could give it a good tweaking. The program uses the right mouse button to audition notes, with the convention of left/right movement to vary pitch and up/down to alter velocity. Additionally, there are options to play sequences, chords, and so on, all of which are handy when you want to hear your edits in some kind of musical context. Usefully, the program supports multiple MIDI ports, so you might want to hard‑wire the connections needed to get SysEx to and from your synths. Alternatively, there is MIDI patchbay support which, if you have a MIDI patchbay, saves all that messing about with cables. Sadly, the patchbay doesn't revert to a 'play mode' program change after receiving SysEx from a synth, meaning that if you wish to audition sounds via your keyboard, you need to switch the patchbay manually afterwards.
MIDIQuest knows about instruments via their drivers — many of which are split into several parts according to function. As an example, there are seven separate options for the Korg 03R/W, ranging from individual patches, to drums, combis, global, All Data, and so on. This prevents any one driver from becoming too large and complex and allows you to home in on exactly what you wish to edit. Once installed, you have to give each driver some information about the synth — such as its channel, MIDI In/Out ports, and patchbay program change. A handy feature allows propagation of these settings to all associated drivers; once they are set up, they can then be pretty much ignored.
The edit screens are built from a series of virtual sliders, knobs, tick boxes, numerical fields and graphical envelopes. Because MIDIQuest gives a common interface to all its devices, some specific objects, such as the Wavestation's vector envelope, have to be represented by the closest equivalent — in this case, a series of sliders. Others, such as the Korg 03R/W, offer trimmed‑down access to some settings — effects settings, for example. If you need to change reverb time, you have to go back to the gnat's kneecap approach... In general, though, this works OK, and maybe future versions will include new objects and improved drivers for all instruments; it's a pretty tall order to cater for so many instruments and Sound Quest have packed in an awful lot here.
If you wish, you can create new librarian drivers for unsupported instruments, and for the really adventurous, a separate program, Tech Quest, is available that allows creation of synth drivers from scratch — but you really need to know your SysEx and your checksums before tackling that baby!
Before starting any edit session, it is wise to save the entire setup of your synth. Many of the instrument drivers feature an 'ALL BANKS' or 'ALL DATA' option, which you should use in case your synth's memory is magically wiped as you poke around the multitude of menus. The useful 'FAST TIPS' option gives device‑specific advice and hints and is available for each driver — it will often contain details on how to switch on SysEx 'receive & transmit', or how to set the device ID for those instruments that need one. Once you're sure that everything is safely backed up, you can get inside your synth and see just how all these wonderful noises are generated. Virtual knobs might not be as intuitive as the real thing but they're a good second best and it shouldn't take long to get to grips with your particular instrument. If you're still nervous about dragging those sliders and squashing those graphical envelopes, there's always...
I was very impressed with MIDIQuest's 'instant gratification' mix and blend options, which can be used to forge new sounds quickly by combining elements of existing ones. I must confess to spending the longest part of my time with MIDIQuest mixing and mashing my sounds into new and wonderful shapes; many were surprisingly musical, while others were just plain silly... Note that the program doesn't 'know' which parameters affect level, so some of your new patches may be somewhat understated in the volume department. Individual patches can have selected (or all of) their parameters randomised, with the degree of randomisation variable between subtle and really wild. You can very quickly generate new patches, rejecting the no‑hopers at once and coaxing the possibles into something usable with the editor. Every now and again, you'll come across a pearler — as the names are mulched up too, it may be called something like ArgXwibble, but it's more interesting than 98 versions of 'Strings2'. I generated some wonderful starting points that have subsequently evolved into classy sounds. I'll be claiming them as totally original — only MIDIQuest knows different! Personally, I think all this random generation business is what computers do particularly well and (with the exception of Dr T's fab KCS sequencer) it's a real shame we don't see more MIDI programs with similar features.
Some synths have so many controls that they won't fit on a single screen, but most of the drivers are very manageable and easy to manoeuvre. Everything works pretty much as you'd expect, with sliders draggable, knobs twiddleable, numbers incrementable and tick boxes, er, tickable. There is no enforced limit to the number or type of windows that may be open at once, which is handy if you need to compare bits of two different patches. There are the usual cut and paste options for transferring parts of one voice to another. A slight annoyance involved the method of auditioning members of a newly created/loaded bank using the mouse. You are forced to enter the edit screen for each individual member before the right mouse audition function works. There's some feeble excuse about "Windows architecture" in the manual, but I know of other programs that manage this OK, so come on guys, get it sorted! A welcome four edit buffers are provided, to let you keep various stages of a new edit, which beats the more common 'compare' or single 'undo'. After some time fiddling with a sound, you can send it back to the synth, save it to disk, export it to a .MID file or add it to your library/database.
The database is a versatile means of storing any combination of MIDIQuest's sound data. It's an ideal way of saving a complete snapshot of your system to reconfigure at a later date, or to keep multiple related banks for the same or different instruments. One thing that I noticed at about this point was the completely open‑ended file naming structure. Before creating vast collections of saved files, it is important to decide what you're going to call them. The program does not impose its own names for databases, banks, individual patches and libraries, so you need to think this out early on to save confusion later. I'd have been happier to stick with imposed names, maybe overriding them if I wanted, but I soon decided on .DAT, .BNK, .PAT, .LIB, and so on for file extensions, and then things seemed to become clearer.
Unlike a database, a library can only store the same type of information together, such as collections of SY85 Patches, D110 drum maps, or M1 combis. But its usefulness is in bulk storage and retrieval — you can have a library of all your D50 sounds, gathered from the four corners of the earth and catalogued for ease of access. Actually, the library isn't quite so slick as others I have seen and lacks many of the keyword search features I have enjoyed previously (you know the kind of thing: "find me all resonant, bass, synth or natural, original sounds which aren't crap, please"). Instead you are allowed to add a line of description with a format of your own choice and from which searches can be made. It can work OK, but you need to organise yourself from the start, or it could mean lengthy re‑cataloguing exercises when you finally conceive a consistent way of describing sounds.
MIDIQuest is capable of saving individual sounds, banks and libraries in a variety of formats. Sound Quest get top marks for including the ability to save patches as Cakewalk's .SYX and .INI files, meaning that if you use Cakewalk you can refer to your sounds by name and, additionally, store full patch dumps as part of a Cakewalk song. You need never worry again about synchronising synth patches and their corresponding compositions. You can even export bank lists as plain text files for those other programs that can utilise them. Users of other sequencers will have to carry on incrementing numbers with the mouse as they squint over their shoulder at a distant 19‑inch rack, but MIDIQuest also provides the option to save the SysEx data as part of a .MID file, which even the most limited sequencer should be able to import. This attention to detail is very pleasing, and it's a shame that more software isn't written with the same open‑ended approach. The manual mentions the ability to convert from sound banks created by other programs — Dr T's excellent Caged Artist series for one — although I have yet to discover how to do this. During use, the program only crashed a couple of times — once whilst I was attempting to load a .SYX file. The program warned me it didn't recognise the file type, despite the fact that it was responsible for its creation, then promptly fell over. Alas, it took Windows and a version of this article down with it which, I suspect, shouldn't have happened (!)
After having used MIDI Quest for several weeks, I have become quite comfortable with it. Once I got over the cosmetics of the program, I started to appreciate its flexibility and the sheer number of possibilities on offer. I believe that it currently supports the widest range of devices for any program of this type, with new drivers available free from the distributor or from the Sound Quest Bulletin Board (in Canada). With software like this, there's no longer an excuse for sticking with the same old synth presets and sounding like everyone else. It really can take away much of the pain of programming, and the random/mix/blend features are extremely quick and fun, whilst still leaving you the final choice of which patches to keep and which to throw out. Anyhow, you can always generate a fresh batch later! The ability to save patches as SysEx, .MID files and Cakewalk's PATCHES.INI allows MIDIQuest to integrate with just about any existing setup. I found it ran well alongside Cakewalk, which loaded patch data in SysEx form, generated the patchname file and recorded SysEx changes from its sliders into a song, all without a hitch. It just goes to show that under Windows you should not be restricted to buying all your programs from one company — when things work as smoothly as this. If your synth is so good you don't need an editor, MIDIQuest's librarian and database features might still be of interest, but if you've always felt you wanted to start making some original noises but didn't know how, this could be a good place to start.
FULL EDITOR/LIBRARIAN SUPPORT
- Alesis: D4.
- Boss: DS330.
- Casio: CZ1; CZ1000; CZ101; CZ3000; CZ5000; VZ1; VZ10M; VZ8M.
- Digital Music Services: MX8.
- Emu: Proteus MPS; Proteus XR + Protologic; Proteus 1; Proteus 1 + Protologic; Proteus 1 Orchestral; Proteus 1XR; Proteus 2; Proteus 2XR; Proteus 3; Proteus 3XR; Vintage Keys.
- Ensoniq: ESQ1; ESQM; KS32; Mirage; SD1; SQ1; SQ2; SQ80; SQR; VFX; VFX SD.
- JL Cooper: FaderMaster; MSB Plus; MSB Rev2; MSB1620.
- Kawai: G‑Mega; K1; K1 Mk2; K11; K1m; K1r; K4; K4m; K4r; Spectra; XD5.
- Korg: DW6000; DW8000; EX8000; i2; i3; M1; M1ex; M1R; M1Rex; M3R; 01RW; O1W; 01W FD; 03R/W; 05R/W; T1; T2; T3; Wavestation; Wavestation AD; Wavestation EX; Wavestation SR; X3.
- Oberheim: Matrix 6; Matrix 6R; Matrix 1000.
- Peavey: DPM V3; DPM3.
- Roland: CM1000; CM300; CM32L; CM32P; CM64; D10; D110; D20; D5; D50; D550; D70; E10; E20; E35; E5; E660; E70; GR50; Juno 106; JV1000; JV30; JV80; JV880; JW50; JX8P; KR Series; MKS80; MT100; MT200; MT32; R5; R8; R8M; R8 Mk2; RA90; SC155; SC33; SC55; SC55 Mk 2; SCC1; SD35; U110; U20; U220.
- Sequential: Prophet 5.
- Turtle Beach: Multisound Classic.
- Waldorf: Microwave.
- Yamaha: DX1; DX100; DX11; DX21; DX27; DX27S; DX5; DX7; DX7IID; DX7IIFD; DX7S; DX9; FB01; RX7; SY22; SY35; SY55; SY77; SY85; TF01; TG100; TG300; TG500; TG33; TG55; TG77; TX7; TX802; TX816; TX81Z; V50; WT11.
LIBRARIAN SUPPORT ONLY
- Alesis: HR16; HR16B; SR16.
- ART: DR1.
- Boss: SE50.
- Digitech: DSP128; DSP256.
- Ensoniq: EPS.
- Eventide: Harmoniser.
- JL Cooper: PPS100.
- Kawai: K3; K3m; K5; K5m; R100; R50; 707; DDD5; DS8; DVP1; EX800.
- Korg: Poly 800; S3; SDD3300.
- Lexicon: LXP1; LXP15; LXP5.
- Rhodes: 660; 760.
- Roland: A50; A80; GP16; JD800; P330; Pro E; RA50.
- Sequential: Drumtraks; Multitrak; Prophet T8; Prophet 10; Prophet 600; SixTrak; Tom.
- Voce: DM164.
- Yamaha: DMP7; RX11; RX17; RX21L; SPX90.
- Wide range of instrument support.
- A common 'front end' to synth editing.
- Not obsolete when gear changes.
- Librarian and database functions for versatile data storage.
- Instantly create whole new banks of sounds using randomisation, mixing and blending of existing patches.
- Looks horrible!
- Manual is a little sketchy.
- Some drivers don't cater for instrument‑specific features.
- Drivers don't always edit every available parameter.
A well‑featured multi‑instrument editor/librarian which takes the headaches out of patch generation and storage. Especially suited to a complex MIDI setup.