Drawing on their experience in home keyboard and MIDI data filer manufacture, Italian company Viscount have created the MF01, a combined data filer and GM module. Andy Davies gives it a spin...
Computer‑based sequencers offer unprecedented flexibility when it comes to recording and editing MIDI compositions, but when taken on the road for live performance, they have a reputation for being unreliable, as well as physically vulnerable and awkward to set up. Due to these limitations, it has become increasingly popular to write and record using a heavy‑duty, computer‑based sequencer, then transfer the results via MIDI to a MIDI data filer — a far more practical proposition when it comes to recreating sequences live. As an alternative, some performers buy their backing tracks ready made in the form of GM‑compatible song files, and it was with these 'live' applications in mind that Viscount devised the MF01 Song Worker.
Viscount bill their MF01 as an 'active data player/sound generator', which in layman's terms translates to a data filer with a GM synth and DSP effects chip built in. This means the MF01 can be used simply for its on‑board sounds as a way of playing sequences live along with a bigger keyboard setup, or as an all‑in‑one backing unit for musicians and singers requiring no other equipment besides a PA.
The MF01 is essentially a stand‑alone unit measuring 340mm x 270mm x 44mm, but it does come with a pair of rack ears, just in case you have a 1U rack space free.
The styling and construction of the MF01 are generally good, but I was taken aback when the clear plastic window in front of the three‑digit LED display came off seconds after I had taken the unit out of the box. (On inspection, I found a distinct lack of glue, but I'll assume that this is a one‑off abberation.) The fact that a numeric display has been chosen means that you can't view your song names, and it makes some of the more advanced editing facilities less than intuitive.
The front panel is divided into three main areas. On the left is a 3.5‑inch disk drive below which are mounted the transport controls — Stop, Play, FF, Rew, Pause and Record. To the right of these are buttons for Enter, Hold, Erase, Mute and Solo, plus two buttons for song and tempo selection. The Program and Utility function buttons are also in this section. The controls for the GM synth include Part Select, Instrument Select, Sound Variation, Transpose, and an overall volume control.
On the back panel we have the obligatory MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, a stereo output for the GM module, a socket for the wall wart power connector, and a quarter‑inch jack socket for starting and stopping the data filer from a foot switch — essential for live work.
A data filer may be used to record, store and play back either MIDI sequences or MIDI System Exclusive data, such as patch dumps from instruments and effects units. Information can be fed in either directly via the MIDI In socket or from disk. The MF01 accepts both double and high density disks in the MS‑DOS/Atari ST format, and is capable of reading and recording any data in Standard MIDI File Format Type 0, making it compatible with the majority of devices in use today. Data transfer on high density disks that have been formatted in double density Atari ST drives is notoriously unreliable, so Atari users should avoid high density disks where possible.
Songs on disk are accessed via the Song Up/Down buttons, with the number of your currently selected choice being shown in the LED display. Simply by operating the transport controls, the selected file can then be started, stopped, or fast wound to any position within the track. Songs on disk can be programmed to play back in any order (using the Chains facility) by using the program button, and a user‑selectable intro time (Programmable Pause) can be entered to make for a totally automated set list. Whole disks, songs, or parts of songs can be made to repeat, and various options are available for auto play and auto rewind. As the MF01 reads directly from disk, songs can be transposed in real time, or the tempo can be changed if required. Both of these parameters can then be written to disk permanently.
As with a sequencer, sounds can be changed or muted on any of the 16 MIDI channels, which, for example, allows the user to silence the melody line of a MIDI Song File, or maybe mute a solo, in order to sing or play their own. A solo button is also included which mutes all but the selected MIDI channels — handy for assigning parts to channels, or for listening to a musical line in isolation.
The sound module that makes up the other half of this package is 28‑note polyphonic and contains the usual 128 GM sounds, which can be played as a conventional synth expander by connecting a keyboard to the MIDI In. Also included are up to two variations on some, but not all, of these main sounds. In some cases these variants are similar to the originals, but others are quite different. In total, 281 sounds are available, including nine drum kits and the obligatory GM sound effects. The sounds are all decent examples of the GM set, and the majority are technically clean and quiet when monitored from the main outputs. However, the headphones, which are on a mini jack socket, pick up a noticeable amount of interference from the disk drive, which surely could have been avoided.
Sounds cannot be edited, but any parts, as Viscount call them, can be assigned to any MIDI channel by use of the Part Up/Down buttons. (The exception to this is channel 10, which is always reserved for drums.) The sound of the selected part can then be changed using the Instrument Up/Down and Sound Variation buttons, or via MIDI using programme change commands. All data read from disk is automatically sent to the MIDI Out port. This facilitates the use of other MIDI devices along with the MF01, and options are available to mute any outgoing or internal MIDI channels, making it possible to set up a combination of both on‑board and external sounds for playback.
There are many options and clever features hiding under the Utility button — disk‑to‑disk copying, MIDI filtering, and file management, to name but a few. Unfortunately, the operating system for these higher functions is far from straightforward, and the cryptic messages displayed by the LED window do little to help. In their defence, Viscount have put a quick reference guide in the back of the manual, but I feel this would have been far better screen printed on top of the unit, along with the sound groups.
The MF01 offers a very useful and attractive package to the musician who is looking for an all‑in‑one box solution to playing sequenced data live. It may also suit the studio user who might like to add 16 GM tracks to an existing sequencing system, or simply use it as a repositary for patch data.
Of course, you have to bear in mind that devices like this can only handle 16 MIDI channels — there's no MIDI data filer that I know of with multiple MIDI ports — but then most songs for live performance can be rationalised to 16 parts or less. My only real criticisms are of the rather uninformative LED display and the consequently cryptic nature of some of the more complex editing functions. For routine work, the operating system is very friendly.
Pricewise, the MF01 seems destined to trade punches with Roland's SD35, about the only other combination data filer/sound generator I know of, and in my opinion it offers a sensible combination of features and good quality sounds. On balance, a very practical and useful device.
- Good range of GM sounds.
- Easy to use general functions.
- Many in‑depth functions also available.
- Cryptic display.
- Difficult editing of in‑depth facilities.
- Noisy headphone output.
A good investment for the gigging musician using sequenced backing material, or the person requiring a general‑purpose MIDI data filer plus a decent set of GM sounds.