Saturday, 30 May 2020

MIDI Interfaces I Have Known and Lost...

MIDI Interfaces have been a big part of my life for more years that I care to think about. Nowadays people buy audio interfaces for computers, and these often come with MIDI In and Out ports, almost as an after-thought. But it hasn't always been like this. When microprocessors were less powerful, processing audio 'live' in the way that we expect nowadays was at the limit of possibility, and so simpler and less processing power hungry alternatives were used: Rectangular waveform 'bleeps' and tracker software were the order of the day, plus MIDI of course.


So I have used quite a few MIDI interfaces over the years, and quite a few computers as well. One thing has become very apparent to me over this time:

MIDI Interfaces have a limited lifetime...

This is for various reasons, and almost never anything to do with the MIDI interface itself: sometimes the interface technology becomes superseded (parallel ports on computers like the BBC B, for instance), or sometimes the computer itself becomes obsolescent or obscure and non-mainstream (the Atari ST, for example). Sometimes manufacturers just stop supporting devices, of which more later. So I have, or had, quite a lot of MIDI Interfaces that still work, but that can't actually be used because they aren't supported, there's no interface to a computer, etc. Today's hi-tech is tomorrow's land-fill, although I'm a bit of a hoarder for some things, but not everything!

History

Before MIDI, my first 'home' computer was a Sinclair Spectrum, which was right at the start of an explosion of home computers (and the CD came in at about the same time), and I also got a Mattel Aquarius, the less said about the better (although it was a bargain at the end of the boom!). 8-bit micros used for playing games aren't noted for their audio fidelity, and modern 'chip tunes' sound much better than I remember...

I then got a BBC B Micro, and built a DIY BeebMIDI interface, which was designed by Jay Chapman. You can read about it in the amazing mu:zines archive, and it accompanied an in-depth series on building a MIDI interface that was featured in Electronics & Music Maker, a precursor to Sound On Sound magazine. Later, I reviewed the UM-4M add-on for the 'BBC B', which was, at the time, at the 'Pro' end of the market, and it prodded me to get more serious about music and MIDI...

On the BBC B, I wrote various MIDI programs, an FM emulator, and more... I also got a phone call from Acorn computers, the manufacturers of the BBC B, who told me that my assembler code for the 6502 in one of my DX7 MIDI programs was faulty. It turns out that I had got a pointer wrong, and so was dumping the entire memory contents (32 Megabytes!) through the MIDI Out port, instead of just the Sysex memory block that I meant to transmit... Oops!

I then got a Toshiba MSX computer, but I always wanted a Yamaha CX5M... I eventually sold it to a guy who wanted it just like I had, because it was going to be the next big thing... It wasn't and didn't.

My next computer was the Atari ST, which had MIDI sockets built in! (More than 30 years later, this probably sounds unbelievable... but it is true!) Curiously, it wasn't easy to find a photo of the back of an ST, but I found one from a retro computer museum that has a pretty amazing collection. Visit and have a look, and if you have any old computers...


For anyone who thinks that the 5-pin DIN socket used for MIDI is strange, then look at that power socket: a 7-pin DIN male connector to a large 'brick' power supply! The 1980s were also the days when computers had 'Reset' buttons...

I did a dual boot-ROM mod to my Atari 520, and expanded the RAM to the full 1 Meg (as in the 1040 model) and did various other tweaks. Eventually it died, and I was given a replacement by the London Synthesizer Service Centre, but that died as well, and the days looked numbered for the Atari as a music platform. So I parted company with one Silicon Valley startup, and jumped over to another.

My first Apple Mac was a Macintosh Plus - you can see it in this photo... But whilst I lived through the astonishing 'HyperCard' launch (I stayed up all night, programming, and all the following day...), eventually I knew I needed more screen real estate. My first 'big screen' Apple Macintosh was a Mac IIsi, and it was a combination of many compromises to get the price down, but it served me well, and set me on the path to bigger and better things.

The MIDI Interface I used for quite a while was the original Opcode MIDI Translator - a small (beige) cream-coloured box with three MIDI Outs on one side, and, on the other side, a MIDI In socket plus a small circular connector that connected to the Mac's serial port - which had two icons revealing what serial ports were used for when the Mac was first designed: a Printer and a Modem. I had a home-brew MIDI switch unit that I used to enable the use of a master keyboard or sequencer and so solve the 'Local Control On/Off' problem, plus I used a Philip Rees V10 ten output Thru box (Philip Rees stopped selling MIDI accessories in 2005). But as my MIDI gear grew in numbers, and particularly with lots of Sysex patch dumping and patch editing, I realised that I needed something where I had better control over the interconnections, and a MIDI interface with more ports was required - a MIDI 'patchbay'.



Eventually I went for one of the 'high end' solutions: Studio Vision Pro and a Studio 5LX 15 In, 15 Out MIDI Interface which allowed all sorts of amazing functionality including the creation of virtual MIDI instruments... Unfortunately, after only a few years, the demise of Opcode meant that I had to retire this MIDI interface, and move on...

Once again, I did the research into the available devices, did SWOT analysis on the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities (Upgrades, Support) and Threats (Longevity of the company...), and made a difficult decision...



I chose the M-Audio MIDIsport 8x8/s, a pair of which provided similar functionality to the basics of the Studio 5LX. However, M-Audio stopped supporting this MIDi interface many years ago, and the driver and control software no longer runs on current Macs. I also had been using an M-Audio FireWire 410 audio interface, and again, support for this was dropped by M-Audio some years ago. So if anyone wants a fully working pair of MIDIsport 8x8/s MIDI Interfaces and a FireWire 410 Audio Interface, then just make me an offer!

I have another piece of M-Audio gear, as well, which also had support removed, so that's three out of three for me.

And Now...

For my most recent move, I selected iConnectivity, and bought an iConnectMIDI4+, which has a lot of features and which has worked well for me, albeit with some minor problems (today's complexity seems to bring equally complex niggles with it), but it is very rugged! But whilst the new 'MioX' devices are definitely the focus of iConnectivity's marketing now, the iConnectMIDI4+ did get a firmware update on the 4th of April 2020, and the iConnectMIDI4+ is listed as being supported by the new 64-bit Auracle-X control software (with some caveats...).



So things are looking good at the moment, although the mioXL's 8 In 12 Out does look very nice, but I might go for a 4 In 5 Out mioXM so that I have a current product in my portfolio without breaking the bank.


And as 'backup', I have the MIDI Interface in my Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 (2nd Gen) if there are any problems, and based on the amazing upgrade and support that Novation have provided for the Circuit (8 firmware releases with some major additions over the past 5 years since it was launched) then I'm pretty confident I will be okay for most unexpected eventualities. Plus, Focusrite do make some very nice audio and MIDI interfaces with lots more I/O ports if I need them...

If I was to sum up my current attitude, based on my experiences, then it would be something like:

Avoid being totally dependent on a solution, because it will eventually 'evaporate' for one reason or another, often quite quickly, and be prepared to keep moving to current, supported equipment. 

Which actually applies to all hi-tech music equipment, and computers! 

Conclusions

In 37 years, I have had six different MIDI Interfaces, so six years per interface isn't bad (and to be fair, way more computers have come and gone in my studio!). I dislike throwing perfectly functional equipment away because it is no longer supported by communications interfaces, drivers, software or operating systems, but that's the nature of rapid technological development. However, I am very aware that, over time, audio has changed from something which was stretching the processing power of even top-end machines, to something where real-time processing of multiple tracks with multiple plug-ins is widely available on even modest computers.

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