These days, I work with more than a few artists who use MIDI-based electro-rigs as part of their sound, including synths, sequencers, samplers, and drum machines. These rigs are fast becoming the norm on stages and in studios. In particular, two acts I work with - Elska and Graph Rabbit - have decided, for various reasons, not to have computers or iPads on stage with them. To find a device that would generate a solid MIDI beat clock as well as easily change tempo seemed simple enough, but it turned out that such a device actually didn't exist. Not even the boutique modular synth community had come up with it. I couldn't believe it wasn't out there.
As I started to look around, I learned a lot about how "electronic musicians" clock their rigs. Many use laptops running a DAW, yet many complain that the MIDI clocks coming out of a DAW interface are unreliable and, interestingly, have enough looseness to actually make the music feel saggy.
To solve these problems, many folks turned back to old MPCs and drum machines simply to generate MIDI clock and change tempo. As one might expect, the older units are well built with better clocks. Early model MPCs are especially coveted for this reason. And so, for a while, Elska started using a Casio RZ-1 drum machine. The Casio met the clock- stability and tempo-change requirements, but it was also huge, cumbersome, and ugly, and it required more setup time. But there the performers were on stage with a solid clock and no computer. Mission accomplished, if inelegantly. But using a massive drum machine from the early '90s for this task in 2013 just didn't seem right to me, and I was totally perplexed that a better solution didn't exist.
On one recording session that turned the studio into a computer-based, saggy-sounding, latency-ridden mess of wires and MIDI confusion, I asked my right-hand-man John Garcia to search again for "The Device." About five minutes later, he came back with a webpage that had a compact pedal with an LED screen that displayed tempo, and - get this - a MIDI out jack! "How the hell didn't I find this?" I asked. "It came out two days ago," John said - not without a slight smile of deserved self-satisfaction. We immediately ordered two.
On top of the Master Control, along with the aforementioned LED screen, are four buttons for starting/stopping the clock; incrementing up/down program or tempo changes; and tapping tempo. A knob replicates the up/down buttons but allows for superfast sweeps across the control range. To change tempo, you can either tap it in by hand or foot, or just press the tap button once and then use either the up/down buttons or the knob to select the tempo. You can also then store tempos in 128 program banks, if you prefer to work that way. It is a simple and intuitive interface that all of us started using effortlessly in about ten seconds of trial. Select your tempo or program number and press start. The Master Control runs on a 9V power source, so it can easily be powered with a Boss- compatible wall-wart, a 1 Spot, or other 9V power supply.
Our next hurdle was feeding the Master Control's single MIDI clock output to multiple devices. The excellent MFB analog drum machines we've started using don't have MIDI Thru or Out jacks for daisy-chaining. Even so, daisy-chaining MIDI clock through multiple devices can introduce latency. Moreover, cable lengths as reasonable as 15 ft can lead to MIDI signal degradation. So we started looking at MIDI splitting devices. The best of them are powered in order to buffer the outputs so that the signals all remain robust and clean. The company MIDI Solutions, for example, offers a number of excellent MIDI routing products, but they rely on MIDI phantom power sources to power their buffer circuits. MIDI phantom power has not been thoroughly standardized. Plus, with 30 years worth of MIDI-compatible devices out there in the world, the possibility of incompatibility, instability, looseness, or just the lack of phantom source altogether, seemed more than likely.
I asked PedalSync if the Master Control would provide phantom power to the MIDI Solutions splitter boxes, and the answer was no. Again, all things MIDI were proving perplexing and annoying.
Then PedalSync came to the rescue again with their MIDI Splitty, a simple, small box that provides a three-way split. Like the Master Control, it utilizes a standard 9V power source. PedalSync released the MIDI Splitty right on the heels of the Master Control, an obvious companion piece. Send MIDI out of the Master Control to the MIDI Splitty and you've got three well-buffered and ultra-solid MIDI beat clock outputs. Then daisy-chain more MIDI Splittys as needed.
Finally a free-standing, small, easy-to-operate, rock-solid, non-computer-based source of MIDI beat clock. I'm still astounded that it took until 2013 to get here!
The number of uses for such a thing are seemingly endless. Obviously for live electro-rigs this is a great thing, eliminating the problems, complexity, and expense of computers on stage. But in the studio, there are countless uses too, especially when working on tape and not wanting to have the computer on at all. Yet, even with the computer on, the Master Control-MIDI Splitty combo allows musicians to work independently of the DAW's defined tempo, something that will be very appealing when trying to use MIDI-based equipment in a more performative, and less programmed, manner. For example, when playing with a live drummer, one can easily tap the Master Control tempo, and say, arpeggiate a bank of synths in time with the live band. Or perhaps the band wants to improvise and incorporate small tempo changes into the performance. (One can emulate, for example, the slow ramping up of tempo of West African drumming ensembles into a polyrhythmic electronic performance.) And guitar players using effects that accept MIDI beat clock will dig the Master Control. There are more and more of these pedals every month, it seems, including most of the new Moogerfoogers, TC Electronic pedals, and more. In essence, anytime you want performers to have authority over MIDI beat clock as a creative tool, Master Control puts the clock source in the hands of the musicians and gets it out of the studio computer.
The build of both the Master Control and the MIDI Splitty is bulletproof. William of PedalSync explained to me that he uses riveted metal MIDI jacks mounted directly to the box because otherwise, he'd have to mount plastic ones on the circuit boards. Thank you, William; as we all know, devices such as these will end up underfoot - intentionally and unintentionally. As for the tightness of the clock signal - it's tight! The first rig we hooked up to the Master Control was rock solid, and the start/stop function was so fast that it felt as if we were pressing buttons on the units receiving the signal, not an upstream device. The Master Control instantly became an integral and intuitive part of the rig.
When you look at their price-to-function ratios, the Master Control seems inexpensive while the MIDI Splitty costly. William explained that to use the metal jacks requires hand-wiring of the whole MIDI Splitty, and when I picture these units on tour, I'm thinking this is effort - and money - well spent.