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Sync Outside The Box

Keeping Synths & Grooveboxes In Time By Chris Korff
Published January 2023

Sync Outside The Box

Going DAWless presents many challenges — not least keeping all your gear in sync...

Desktop noise‑makers have never been cheaper: for almost literal pocket money, a music production novice can pick up a drum machine, a sampler or a groovebox and start making a racket. It rarely stops there though: that first bit of kit can end up being a gateway purchase, with the next week’s paper‑round money already spent on a new device before the first has been mastered.

Other than the ‘running before you can walk’ phenomenon, this can lead to another problem: how to get those two devices to play in time. Unlike with DAWs and USB peripherals, keeping separate hardware boxes in sync with each other without a computer is far from an automatic process. In this article, I’ll explain the various ways in which synths, sequencers and grooveboxes can be kept in step, using a few common machines as examples.

Keeping your gear in sync can occasionally be very straightforward, and occasionally less so, depending on what gear you’re using and what your requirements are.

Jacking Up

I’ll start simple, with the ‘sync’ socket that many affordable synths, drum machines and the like are now fitted with. There’s no magic to it: sync is a simple analogue pulse (around +5V) that plays in time with whatever device it’s coming from, to tell the next device in the chain when to play its next notes. Fundamentally, it’s a metronome, and its blips are passed using a jack cable (usually a mono mini‑jack).

Modern Korg gear is easy to synchronise: just connect the sync out jacks to the sync ins, and your devices will maintain the same tempo.Modern Korg gear is easy to synchronise: just connect the sync out jacks to the sync ins, and your devices will maintain the same tempo.Here’s a nice easy example. I’ve hooked up a Korg Volca Kick’s sync out jack to the sync input on a Korg Monologue. Now, if I hit Play on both devices at the same time, they will both play at whatever tempo I set the Volca to. Easy! Even better, their synchronisation is an ongoing process, so if I tweak the tempo on the Volca Kick, the Monologue will follow suit. And because both devices have both a sync input and output, I can swap them around so that the Monologue determines the tempo rather than the Volca, if that’s more convenient.

At this point, I should mention that one of the reasons this works so seamlessly is because they are both Korg devices, and as such they use the same sync ‘ppqn’ standard — for more info, see the ‘On The Pulse’ box.

Now, this is about as basic as synchronised setups get, and it has its limitations. For one, you have to press Play on both devices simultaneously, because the sync pulse on these Korg devices is pervasive; it begins the moment you turn them on, it doesn’t start and stop when the sequencer does, and there’s no additional signal telling downstream devices when to do so. Some devices, like Behriner’s RD‑series drum machines, and Arturia’s MicroFreak, MiniFreak and BeatStep Pro, can make use of a TRS cable to send start and stop messages to other kit alongsidse the sync pulse, but the usefulness of that depends on whether your other kit will heed those messages. And, in any case, if you accidentally hit Stop on your slave device, the master will continue playing — and to get them back in time again you’ll need to carefully time your next hit of the slave device’s Play button, otherwise the two will be offset.

This kind of transport‑control jockeying will be familiar to anyone who’s ever DJ’ed, and the skill of it (and occasional happy accidents when you get it wrong) can be a fun part...

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