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New Atari MIDI Boxes & Ports

Atari Notes By Vic Lennard
Published August 1995

Need to expand the MIDI side of your system? Vic Lennard looks at the current situation, including a couple of new boxes...

It's an unfortunate fact of life that the idea of multitimbrality hadn't been thought of back in the early '80s, when MIDI was first created. The serial nature of MIDI has been well documented, as have the delays that can occur through the stacking up of MIDI events at a MIDI Out. The limitation of 16 MIDI channels can be felt as soon as you have a couple of multitimbral sound modules; two such devices require 32 independent MIDI channels to function properly. The solution is to provide more MIDI Outs.

As soon as sequencer manufacturers began to be aware of this drawback, add‑on devices started to appear with extra MIDI Ins and Outs, as well as other features. The cartridge port tended to be used, as a device could then either incorporate or hold a copy protection dongle. C‑Lab offered Unitor, while Steinberg designed Midex+. Both units offer a number of extra MIDI ports (Ins and Outs), plus a SMPTE timecode generator and reader for sync (the standard Midex excludes the SMPTE feature).

C‑Lab also designed the rather flawed Xport device, which provided three extra MIDI Outs from the ST's serial port. This led to a number of very similar boxes that provide a single extra MIDI Out from this port, including Club Cubase UK's ModemMIDI and Hands On MIDI Software's 16+. Both of these are still available, and work with a number of sequencers, including Cubase, Creator, Notator, Breakthru Plus and Hollis Research's Trackman.


I could probably write a book on the advantages of adding to the ST's single MIDI Out, but the main reason is to have enhanced control over the path travelled by MIDI events. For instance, let's imagine that you're using an organ patch with heavy modulation, or a lead synth sound with lots of pitch bend. All MIDI data flows to every device in a standard, single‑MIDI Out system — and tests have shown that multitimbral sound modules are particularly bad at coping with lots of data at their MIDI In. A module has to process this data before it can realise that the contained information is of no use at all because it's on a different MIDI channel to those it has been set to receive.

A MIDI patchbay solves this kind of problem, but also puts a hefty dent in your bank balance. Even a single additional MIDI Out (which will set you back around 30 quid) can help, in that it provides you with 32 MIDI channels, and two independent MIDI signal paths.

Parallel Performance

But a single MIDI Out provides scant satisfaction for anyone with even a fairly modest MIDI setup, and none of the serial port devices work with the Falcon. The solution is to use the most standard socket on the ST, namely the parallel printer port. This has lots of advantages in terms of speed and reliability, and no drawbacks, aside from the inconvenience of continuously plugging and unplugging leads if the MIDI expansion unit lacks a printer thru port.

Two non‑sequencer manufacturer devices currently exist: SoundPool's MO4 and the Friend*chip MM1.

    SoundPool will be well known to many of you as the company behind Steinberg's Falcon add‑ons: the FA8 eight‑analogue output unit and the FDI Falcon Digital Interface (both mentioned in July 1994's Atari Notes). SoundPool actually sell their own versions of the Steinberg boxes — SoundPool's are green while Steinberg's are red in colour.

The MO4 is a neat little box, being smaller than a cigarette pack. Requiring an external 7.5‑volt power supply, it connects to either an ST or a Falcon through the printer port. Unfortunately, there's no printer thru port, so the above‑mentioned hassle of changing leads comes into play. A tenner or so will buy you a switch box, and this is probably essential, unless you want to run the risk of fracturing some of the parallel port's solder joints.

Currently Cubase‑specific, the MO4's included floppy has the necessary M*ROS driver, a small file that effectively 'tells' Cubase to send data to the printer port if requested. How? By making the relevant selection from Cubase's Output column. Using this along with the ST's MIDI Out gives you 80 MIDI channels at a cost of £149.

    You know what they say: owning multitimbral sound modules means never being able to say you've got enough MIDI Outs! Even with five outputs courtesy of the MO4, you may still find that you need additional MIDI hardware, such as Switch and Thru boxes.

This is where Friend*chip's MM1 comes in. This eight‑MIDI Out device also connects via the ST's printer port, and adds an extra 128 MIDI channels to your setup. It is fairly small (about eight inches by five), and requires a 9‑volt AC adaptor for power.

The MM1 has three modes. Bypass allows for normal use of a printer connected to the thru port at the rear, MIDI is the standard mode that gains the extra outputs, and Control allows you to switch between MIDI and printer via an included desk accessory. Neat.

ST and Falcon installations are provided on the disk, both of which are for Cubase. Again, the MM1 appears as extra outputs in the pop‑up menu of the Output column on the Arrange page.

At £299, the MM1 isn't cheap, but as the only alternative is a patchbay (with all the complexities and problems one of these adds), and the MM1 appears to behave impeccably, you now have a decent option.

Why Only Cubase?

Anyone reading this may feel that I am biased towards Cubase (after all, I do co‑run Club Cubase UK!) — but the only software driver supplied with both the MO4 and MM1 is solely for Cubase, and the units will not currently work with any other sequencer. That is not to say that these MIDI expansion boxes can't be used with any other program, simply that no‑one else supports them, apart from Geerdes who have a custom version of the MM1 called the StarPort. This is technically identical to the MM1, but has a software driver for the Geerdes sequencers.

Emagic has partially solved the problem by providing the Log 3 (a four‑MIDI output device) with the Notator Logic pack, but they don't support any parallel port devices at the moment. As all of the named companies are based in Germany, perhaps this will change in the future...


    Digital Awareness (0181 598 8081)
    System Solutions (0181 693 3355)
    Newtronic (0181 691 1087)
    Club Cubase UK (0181 368 2245)
  • 16+
    Hands On (01705 783100)