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The Universal Answer? By Ian Gilby
Published November 1985

Roland's SBX‑80: solving the problem of MIDI to tape synchronisation once and for all.Roland's SBX‑80: solving the problem of MIDI to tape synchronisation once and for all.

Rupert Hine: "There are certain very rare moments in the recording studio when you realise that a series of barriers you've been used to living with have just dropped."

May 1984, and those were the words used by record producer Rupert Hine to describe his initial studio link‑up of MIDI‑equipped instruments during the recording of the first highly successful Howard Jones album.

Having previously struggled in the studio with the incompatibility and rapid obsolescence of past musical equipment, Rupert Hine was struck by the awesome potential of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface and how its widespread acceptance could drastically alter the way we conceive and play music in the future. And all this from a highly provocative five‑pin DIN connector?

The Way We Were

Until the advent of MIDI in early 1983, the electronic musical instrument manufacturers of the world had been merrily producing their own wonderful synthesizer and drum machine systems all to the neglect of the user who not unnaturally wished to plug different makes of instruments together in the pursuit of musical composition. This one system mentality, so adamantly pursued by manufacturers in the naive hope that it would promote brand allegiance, resulted in the likes of Roland, Korg, Yamaha and Moog products being of little use to each other. It was primarily the American company Sequential Circuits who proposed that this madness stop and that all manufacturers' systems should talk to each other via common computer software on a level that would allow any electronic instrument to interface with any other, regardless of which company designed and built it.

The result was MIDI, a universal digital interface whose implementation has consequently accelerated the application of synthesizers and drum machines in today's music to a point where what were often considered to be the tools of the 'cosmic music' fraternity, such as Tangerine Dream, are now the de facto standard in modern recording studios.

What's In A Network?

As MIDI was born out of a need to interface keyboard instruments, the transmission of data relating to pitch, note duration, modulation and dynamics were of the highest priority. The inclusion of timing information, however, meant that tempo‑based devices like sequencers and drum machines were also drawn into the system and a new, far‑reaching, communications network was formulated.

Today, the importance of the interface has been acknowledged by the whole of the equipment manufacturing industry with the inclusion of MIDI on everything from a budget drum machine to the likes of the ever popular PPG Wave 2.3 sound synthesis keyboard. Even the well established Fairlight CMI now sports a MIDI retrofit due to the pressure of popular demand.

...the importance of the interface has been acknowledged by the whole of the equipment manufacturing industry with the inclusion of MIDI on everything from a budget drum machine to the likes of the ever popular PPG Wave 2.3 sound synthesis keyboard.

The production of software‑based multitrack hardware MIDI sequencers — the Yamaha QX1 and Roland MSQ700 are fine examples — have resulted in what is, to all intents and purposes, a new means of recording synthesizer‑based music that removes the need for tape yet still permits the techniques of multitracking, overdubbing and track bouncing to be used.

The inescapable truth of the matter is that MIDI has slipped in through the studio backdoor and quickly established itself as an integrated system with the potential means for total sound control that extends from sound source creation (synthesizers), through signal processing and routing (MIDI channel designation), to the final mastering stages.

However, it is beyond the bounds of the current MIDI specification to offer a truly effective means of synchronising sound generating devices to audio tape. SMPTE timecode, on the other hand, has long been accepted by studio personnel as the professional standard for tape synchronisation through its ability to identify and locate unique time events on tape.

Why not then combine the attributes of both SMPTE and MIDI? With the appearance of the Roland SBX‑80 Sync Box. the problem of MIDI to tape synchronisation has finally been solved. Capable of both reading and generating a SMPTE timecode and converting it to MIDI timing data, the SBX‑80, under direct SMPTE control, can act as the system master clock to drive slaved MIDI equipment in perfect synchronisation with all other sound sources recorded on the multitrack tape.

This example MIDI recording setup overcomes the need to commit audio to tape until the very last stage.This example MIDI recording setup overcomes the need to commit audio to tape until the very last stage.

Multiple Benefits

If synthesizer production work forms the core of your current studio output, then first generation sound quality, direct to master facilities and increased track capacity without the need to install a second multitrack machine and locking device, are some of the highly attractive benefits offered by a MIDI to tape link‑up.

For those of us who strive for audio excellence, MIDI has everything to offer. Granted, the all‑digital studio may well be visible on the horizon but there's no need to clear out the tape recorders quite yet...

The addition of an eight track MIDI sequencer extends the capacity of any multitrack tape recorder and relieves the burden upon the number of audio tracks available for vocals, guitars and further acoustic sound sources. Of course, future MIDI sequencers may well offer far more than eight tracks — Jellinghaus' 12‑track studio software and Umusic's 16‑track UMI‑2B system are already leading the field. Even so, if the reasoning behind your decision to uprate your track capacity is purely to record more synthesized/sampled sounds — then think again!

With a MIDI sequencer of some description and a high quality eight or sixteen track machine, the professional recording or audio‑visual studio can successfully reap the rewards of increased track capacity with no loss of quality, whilst still retaining some of that precious budget for extra effects and MIDI equipment.

All Under Control

The creative need for programmable devices and standardised hardware has long been recognised in the recording studio. After all, it was the high cost of studio time, ironically, that helped spawn the development of the time‑saving SSL Total Recall console designed to offer a more efficient, cost‑effective recording procedure with the reinstatement of emphasis firmly upon the creative as opposed to technical considerations of the recording session. MIDI technology has the potential to expand upon this concept through interlinked programmable noise gates, equalisers and digital delays to offer an enhanced degree of creative control to the studio engineer and producer, that is unrivalled by existing control systems.

The Yamaha D1500 digital delay is a case in point; when a particular voice patch is selected on a suitably connected MIDI instrument, the device remotely selects a delay effect stored in memory which has been preprogrammed by the performer, engineer or whoever, to suit the newly chosen instrument voice.

Again, using a MIDI sequencer and MIDI equipped digital reverb such as the Yamaha REV 7 or Roland SRV‑2000, it would be possible to programme changes of room ambience and generate basic gating effects by rapidly switching reverb memories in time with the music, or indeed with each new note or voice as required. All relevant program data can then be stored digitally in the sequencer and reverb memories, with recall and editing of every parameter of the whole performance instantly available at the push of a button, over and over again.

Ultimate Rewards

Several studios have already taken steps towards a fully integrated recording system operating along those lines described, for not only does the application of MIDI result in greater control of both instruments and effects but combined with the increased use of digital audio mastering, it also assures outstanding audio quality. And as technology marches on, the demand for middle ground, general music studios is fast disappearing. More than ever before, specialisation is the key to survival — and MIDI is one means of achieving it.