Author Topic: midi interfaces for the pc (1997 article, sos) *updated,linked  (Read 1741 times)

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midi interfaces for the pc (1997 article, sos) *updated,linked
« on: December 19, 2015, 05:28:20 AM »
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/1997_articles/aug97/pcmidiinterfaces.html
http://web.archive.org/web/20111225035131/http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/1997_articles/aug97/pcmidiinterfaces.html

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Now that the MIDI outputs of many soundcards are already occupied by playing back high-quality internal synth sounds and multi-channel samples, many musicians are finding that they need to invest in a more comprehensive MIDI interface to service the rest of their synths. MARTIN WALKER provides a little background.

 

The history of PC MIDI interfaces is rich and varied, and not without its share of problems. Back in the 1980s, when the Windows operating system was still a twinkle in some designer's eye, the only music sequencers available ran in DOS, and each supported only a few specific models of MIDI interface. Thankfully, one model -- the Roland MPU401 -- attracted more support than any other, and this became the basic standard specification on which other later devices were based, making it far easier to ensure that your interface would work with all models of sequencer. When the early soundcards started to sprout onboard MIDI interfaces as well, they initially used a different (and rather cut-down) interface standard, which became known as SoundBlaster MIDI. Although perfectly adequate for simple sequencing use, these early soundcard interfaces were not really capable of more data-intensive jobs, such as sending and receiving large SysEx dumps.

 

"...more than anything else, don't scrimp on outputs -- decide how many you currently need, and then double it."
 

As more advanced soundcards evolved, one of the selling features to differentiate them from early devices became the phrase 'MPU401-compatible', and many soundcards and stand-alone interfaces are still based on this standard today. However, if you currently use an interface that's more than a few years old with a new Pentium machine, you may find that it struggles to keep up, as it was never designed for the much higher speeds of today's motherboards. If you occasionally suffer from glitches (missed or hanging notes, or unreliable SysEx dumps), it may not be the drivers at fault; it may be time to buy an interface that can cope with any speed of PC. Don't forget that if you only need a single MIDI In and Out, it may be more cost-effective to buy a complete soundcard which incorporates these (Time & Space market the Terratec SoundSystem Base 1, which retails at an amazing £34.99 including VAT!).

All modern PC MIDI interfaces will be provided with a set of Windows 95 (and probably also Windows 3.1) drivers. The standardised approach of Windows ensures that a new interface simply appears as one or more additional entries in the list of installed Windows 95 MIDI devices, and is therefore available to any Windows sequencer.

MULTIPLE OUTS & INS

As musicians demanded higher and higher performance from their PCs, the restrictions of only having one In and one Out with an MPU401-style interface became increasingly difficult to work round (see 'Shared Ports' box). A multi-output interface removes this restriction, by providing a separate 16 channels of MIDI on each output; sequencing is much easier when you have a different output socket to feed each synth. It also reduces the possibility of occasional glitches when carrying large amounts of controller data, by distributing the total work-load between several outputs. Incidentally, there are interfaces available that feature several output sockets fed from the same 16 channels -- these are not multi-port devices, but they do make connecting synths easier than using a daisy-chain of leads. To determine the actual number of separate outputs, look for the total number of available MIDI channels. For instance, a device having four outputs with a total of 32 MIDI channels is providing two separate MIDI outs, each featuring 16 channels, and each feeding a pair of identical sockets.

On the input side, normally a master keyboard will only be sending on a single channel, when transmitting MIDI data to the interface input. If you play MIDI guitar, this may send on six channels simultaneously (or four for MIDI bass guitar), to allow pitch-bend on individual strings. All this data can still be sent to a single MIDI In. However, if you need to record several musicians simultaneously, it's safer to send each performance to a separate MIDI input, since any performance is likely to generate a lot of controller information, as well as note data. As long as the sequencer allows it, recording as multiple streams on different tracks will minimise the possibility of lost performance data.

OUT-OF-BOX EXPERIENCES

Once you've decided how many inputs and outputs you need (allowing for some expansion potential too), the other main choice is whether to go for an internal or external device. Most of the early PC interfaces came as plug-in cards, but MIDI interfaces which plug into the PC serial or parallel ports are increasingly being marketed. One of the big benefits of this approach to the designer is that the same hardware can be used with both Mac and PC devices, with the addition of two sets of driver software, but there are also a couple of advantages to the user. First, you don't need to open up your PC to install an expansion card, which is a real time-saver; second, external interfaces don't need additional IRQs (Interrupt Requests) to operate -- they simply use the one already allocated to the appropriate PC port. This makes setting up a lot easier, and if your PC is already quite full, finding a free IRQ can be difficult, even if you still have a spare card slot of the appropriate variety.

If you go for an external interface box, those which draw their power from the PC may be slightly cheaper than those with separate or built-in power supplies, and this does mean that there's one less wall wart to contend with. However, the self-powered type can be useful if you don't always want to boot up your computer before playing music -- most should allow you to at least pass MIDI data from input 1 to output 1, so that you can use your keyboard to play something else, and those with integral MIDI patchbay functions will allow many other options. When you do want your sequencer on-line, make sure that the self-powered interface is switched on before booting up your computer -- some Windows drivers search for connected hardware, and the interface or driver may not be initialised correctly if it is not found. In general, you should always boot up external devices first anyway, switching on the computer last of all, so that all devices are up and running for the computer to recognise.

A FINE OLD PORT

If you choose an external device, designs are available that plug into either the serial or parallel ports (and Et Cetera are shortly to launch a model that will work with either). Don't try to plug a serial-type interface into the COM port already running a mouse, since they will interfere with each other. It is better to use a COM port that is either currently unused, or the one with a modem attached, as you are less likely to run both of these at once.

In the case of both serial and parallel port devices, check that they provide a through-port if you need to reconnect another device to the same port (not all do, but you can still buy splitter or switch leads to achieve the same end). As always for musicians, there are potential conflicts with any dongles that may already be hanging off your external ports. For obvious reasons, no-one will say just what exactly is inside each of these 'piracy busters', and although I have never personally experienced any problems, that doesn't mean you won't. Also, watch out for parallel interfaces which claim 'concurrent printing' (simultaneous with MIDI usage). Sometimes these can degrade both MIDI and printer performance. The better alternative is to buy one with non-concurrent printing and MIDI. This allows both to be optimised when used alone, but may slow things down if you attempt both simultaneously. Still, how many people want to use the printer port and play music at the same time?

To provide both MIDI In and MIDI Out, a parallel port needs to be bi-directional. Nearly all modern PCs will have various modes that can be set from the BIOS, including SPP (Standard Parallel port), EPP (Enhanced Parallel Port, which is capable of transferring data at between 500Kb and 2Mb per second), and ECP (Extended Capability Port, which is similar to EPP, but uses DMA to move large blocks of data). You may need to adjust your port type to run a parallel-port MIDI interface, but this is normally fairly easy to do, and comprehensive instructions will be provided by the interface manufacturer.

SYNC OR SWIM

Once you get beyond multiple inputs and outputs, you enter the heady world of synchronisation. If you need to lock your MIDI sequences to SMPTE, ADAT, Word Clock, S/PDIF, Sony 9-pin video decks or MIDI Machine control, there's a unit available to assist you. At the higher end, devices like the new MOTU Digital Timepiece directly support ADAT sync, and this can save you having to spend a lot of money on additional sync units, as you can lock all of your boxes to sample accuracy. Many higher-priced models also feature MIDI patchbays, and this can save you wasting an awful lot of time in re-patching to send SysEx data to each attached device. At this sort of level it's wise to read some of the individual comprehensive reviews in SOS, as the applications of this kind of unit are practically endless. However, more than anything else, don't scrimp on outputs -- decide how many you currently need, and then double it. There's no point in centralising your MIDI system, only to find you need to buy a second unit in a year's time!

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EES

PC-MIDI 1/4

Cimple Solutions (whose repairs and servicing have helped many a muso), have now taken on the marketing of a PC MIDI interface from EES. It's an external unit that plugs into the parallel port, and provides four independent outputs and a single input. Unusually, it also has an on-board mains power supply, so that no power is taken from the PC port, and this also means that you can use the interface (MIDI In to MIDI Out 1) without powering up your PC. To help the printer and MIDI interface co-exist, the first byte sent to the printer disables the interface, and a small utility (EES reset) is provided to re-enable MIDI after printer use. Drivers are supplied, and updated multi-client versions are expected by the time you read this.

• 1 In, 4 Outs.
• Parallel port connection.
• Printer through-port.
• ABS casing.
• Built-in mains power supply.
• £99 including VAT.

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MIDI EDGE

The MIDI Edge range is marketed by Et Cetera, who have a long association with all PC music matters, as well as a good reputation for supplying reliable products. As mentioned earlier, they also plan to shortly introduce an interface with even more outputs, which can connect to either the serial or parallel port.

MIDI EDGE 1x1 http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=3342

This is an affordable 1-in, 1-out ISA card that fits inside the PC. It also features a WaveBlaster-compatible daughterboard connector, although this will use the same 16 output channels as the main out. It's compatible with the Roland MPU401 standard, and so will use standard Win 3.1 or Windows 95 drivers. This is the cheapest model to feature a WaveBlaster connector.

• 1 In, 1 Out.
• WaveBlaster connector.
• 1/3-length ISA card.
• Choice of four IRQ settings.
• £59 including VAT.

MIDILINK http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=3341

This unit is a marvel of miniaturisation, and connects to either of the PC serial ports, although you should not attach it to the one connected to your mouse. It also draws its power from the port, only taking about the same as a mouse.

• 1 In, 1 Out.
• Serial port connection.
• Powered by PC.
• £69 including VAT

MIDI EDGE 1x4 http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=3340

As its name suggests, this model is based on the 1x1, but with four outputs. As it's also equipped with a daughterboard connector, this could form the basis of a fairly comprehensive MIDI setup, as long as you don't need sync features. It comes complete with multi-client drivers (for both Windows 3.1 and Windows 95), which also allow the use of two MIDI Edge 1x4 cards in the same machine, giving a total of eight independent MIDI outputs, or 128 MIDI channels for playback, and 32 channels for recording!

• 1 In, 4 Outs.
multi-client drivers.
• WaveBlaster connector.
• Half-length ISA card.
• Choice of six IRQ settings.
• £129 including VAT.

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MIDIMAN

WINMAN 1x1 http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=522

This unit is claimed to be the world's least expensive interface, and can be assigned to any of ten interrupts (six more than the MPU401), which may make things easier if you already have plenty of other cards in your PC. However, this sort of claim is asking for competition, and the MusicQuest PC MIDI Card II (see below) now matches it for price.

• 1 In, 1 Out.
• 1/3 length ISA card.
• Choice of 10 IRQ settings.
• £49 including VAT.

 

MM401 http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=2471

If this sounds familiar, think of Roland. Yes, it's another MPU401 clone, and none the worse for it. It's a 1/3-size ISA card, and so should fit into any slot, whatever obstructions bar the use of longer ones. Once again, it can use the standard MPU401 Windows drivers.

• 1 In, 1 Out.
• 1/3-length ISA card.
• Choice of four IRQ settings.
• £59 including VAT.

 

PORTMAN PC/S http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=521

This is a basic 1-in/1-out interface that attaches to a serial port. All the Portman range features 'smart buffering', which should ensure that there's no overrun when performing large SysEx dumps, even on slower PCs. They are parasitically powered by the PC, and so need no power supply, and also feature strong steel construction. In addition, they have sockets for a 9V wall wart, just in case you have a rare portable PC that doesn't provide any power down its parallel port. Sounds bomb-proof to me!

• 1 In, 1 Out.
• Serial port connection.
• Steel casing.
• Normally powered by PC.
• £69 including VAT.

 

WINMAN 2x2 http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=523

Another step up from the Winman 1x1, this, as its name suggests, gives you two of everything.

• 2 Ins, 2 Outs.
• 1/2-length ISA card.
• Choice of 10 IRQ settings.
• £79 including VAT.

 

PORTMAN PC/P http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=2647

This is the parallel port version of the PC/S, and is otherwise identical.

• 1 In, 1 Out.
• Parallel port connection.
• Steel casing.
• Normally powered by PC.
• £89 including VAT.

 

PORTMAN 2x4 http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=2757

This is another parallel port device, but it features two ins and four outs, as well as its own separate power supply.

• 2 Ins, 4 Outs.
• Parallel port connection.
• Steel casing.
• Powered by supplied PSU.
• £129 including VAT.

 

WINMAN 4x4/S http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=344

The 4x4/S is a comprehensive beast. Not only does it have four independent Ins and Outs, but it also features SMPTE sync, and an internal PC MIDI patchbay. It reads, writes and regenerates SMPTE from "even the worst SMPTE timecode", and features all the normal frame formats including 25, 29.97 and 30 drop or non-drop LTC. The supplied multi-client 32-bit software works with both Windows 3.1 and Windows 95.

• 4 Ins, 4 Outs.
• Supports all SMPTE timecodes.
• MIDI patchbay.
multi-client drivers.
• 2/3-length ISA card.
• Choice of 10 IRQ settings.
• £219 including VAT.

 

PORTMAN 4x4/S http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=345

The final model from MIDIMan is the external parallel port version of the Winman 4x4/S. This will also function when disconnected from the PC, operating as a stand-alone MIDI patchbay, using MIDI program changes to select patches.

• 4 Ins, 4 Outs.
• Supports all SMPTE timecodes.
• MIDI patchbay.
multi-client drivers.
• Parallel port connection.
• Steel casing.
• Powered by supplied PSU.
• £249 including VAT.

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MARK OF THE UNICORN

MOTU, as reported in the Mac MIDI interface round-up last month, have revamped their range of interfaces. Since they are all external devices, many models can be used by both Mac and PC, and so have already been covered in more detail in our July issue.

PC-MIDI FLYER http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=994

This is the only uniquely PC interface in the MOTU range, and I reviewed it in the December 1996 issue of SOS. Useful LEDs that show activity on each input and output are provided, and a computer bypass switch allows you to use the interface as a Thru box when the PC is not powered up. The main downside is that no through-port is provided, so you'll need a a switching box if you want your printer connected as well.

• 2 Ins, 2 Outs.
• Parallel port connection.
• Steel casing.
• Normally powered by PC.
• £99 including VAT.

 

POCKET EXPRESS http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=2557.msg2712#msg2712

(See Mac roundup, last month.)

• 2 Ins, 4 Outs.
• Supports all SMPTE timecodes.
• Parallel port connection.
• Steel casing.
• Powered by supplied PSU.
• £165 including VAT.

 

MICRO EXPRESS http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=546.0

(See Mac roundup, last month.)

• 4 Ins, 6 Outs.
• Supports all SMPTE timecodes.
• Parallel port connection.
• Half rack-width steel casing.
• Powered by internal PSU.
• £299 including VAT.

 

MIDI EXPRESS XT http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=2555.msg2710#msg2710

(See Mac roundup, last month.)

• 8 Ins, 9 Outs.
• Supports all SMPTE timecodes.
• Parallel port connection (PC).
• Serial port connection (Mac).
• 1U rackmounting case.
• Powered by internal PSU.
• £399 including VAT.

 

MIDI TIMEPIECE AV http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=2032.0

(See Mac round-up, last month.)

For professional use, this not only has a large complement of MIDI Ins and Outs, but also features a MIDI patchbay, SMPTE-to-MIDI converter, and a digital audio/video synchroniser. For PC use, two units can be connected to a single machine, which would give a total of 16 Ins and 16 Outs, but this would give problems with the infamous Windows 95 device limit (see this month's PC Notes). This model received a more extensive review in the January '97 issue, and with such a comprehensive spec, it would be wise to study it thoroughly to appreciate just what is possible.

• 8 Ins, 8 Outs.
• Supports all SMPTE timecodes.
• MIDI patchbay.
• Parallel port connection (PC).
• Serial port connection (Mac).
• 1U rackmounting case.
• Powered by internal PSU.
• £649 including VAT.

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OPCODE

Distribution of the Opcode range has been taken over by SCV since our Mac round-up last issue, so the contact details have changed. As well as having their own range, Opcode took over MusicQuest about a year ago, so this PC range has been added to the Opcode stable. MusicQuest have been making PC interfaces since 1987, so their product range draws on a lot of experience.

MUSICQUEST PC MIDI CARD II http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=509.0

This is another MPU401 clone, this time with a multi-client driver (this beats the standard Windows 95 one!). With seven IRQ settings, including 10, 11, and 12, this one also beats many other clones that only have access to interrupts up to IRQ7, and may be just what you need to fit in an already packed PC.

• 1 In, 1 Out.
multi-client drivers.
• 1/2-length ISA card.
• Choice of seven IRQ settings.
• £49 including VAT.

 

OPCODE MIDI TRANSLATOR PC http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=538.0

This is a small cigarette pack-sized box, which features two Ins and two Outs. It connects to the parallel port, and, at £99, seems to be a direct competitor for the PC-MIDI Flyer from MOTU. However, it also has a novel docking feature -- you can attach further units, up to a maximum of four, creating a monster 8-In/8-Out system! Although a power adaptor is not required for a single unit, one is provided for the through-port and docking features. LED readouts are also provided for MIDI In, Out and power (although I doubt that many people will be able to see these, as the Translator should slip neatly behind your PC).

• 2 Ins, 2 Outs.
multi-client drivers.
• Parallel port connection.
• Printer through-port provided.
• Plastic casing.
• Normally powered by PC.
• £99 including VAT.

 

MUSICQUEST MQX32M http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=2385

This is effectively a double MPU401 clone with additional SMPTE and chase lock support.

• 2 Ins, 2 Outs.
multi-client drivers.
• Supports all SMPTE timecodes.
• 1/2-length ISA card.
• £199 including VAT.

 

MUSICQUEST MIDI ENGINE 2 PORT/SE http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=537.msg560#msg560

This is another well-specified unit, from the rugged steel casing, to the "deep FIFO buffering" on all inputs and outputs (for ultra-reliable SysEx use). It will sync to and generate all forms of SMPTE, as well as regenerating dodgy sync tracks.

• 2 Ins, 2 Outs.
multi-client drivers.
• Supports all SMPTE timecodes.
• Parallel port connection.
• Printer through-port provided.
• Steel casing.
• Powered by supplied PSU.
• £159 including VAT.

 

OPCODE STUDIO 64x http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=3339

(See Mac round-up, last month.)

The Studio 64X auto-detects the presence of a Mac or PC (and can connect to both at the same time!), and provides a more than comprehensive selection of features.

• 4 Ins, 6 Outs.
• Supports all SMPTE timecodes.
• MIDI patchbay.
• Parallel port connection (PC).
• Serial port connection (Mac).
• Printer through-port provided.
• 1U rackmounting case.
• £259 including VAT.

 

MUSICQUEST MIDI ENGINE 8PORT/SE http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=351

If you thought the 2Port/SE was your cup of tea, the 8-port version should have you drooling. Four times as many buffered Ins and Outs are featured, as well as the SMPTE features, but this time a MIDI patchbay is also provided, which can operate independently of the PC, giving eight user programs, in non-volatile memory, chosen via a front-panel switch. With the PC powered up, you can take advantage of the Windows patchbay program, loading and saving user programs. MIDI message and channel filtering are provided -- so you can finally get rid of those active sensing messages that emerge from some keyboards! Front-panel LEDs monitor MIDI activity, which can be a great help in tracking down problem MIDI devices.

• 8 Ins, 8 Outs.
multi-client drivers.
• Supports all SMPTE timecodes.
• MIDI patchbay.
• Parallel port connection.
• 1U rackmounting case.
• £399 including VAT.

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ROLAND

(only one model is detailed by this article, there are number of other models made by roland, some that precede almost all of the others on this list, visit here to browse)
MPU401 AT http://www.oldschooldaw.com/forums/index.php?topic=709

This is the granddaddy of them all, albeit in a new guise, complete with daughterboard connector. I still have an earlier model of this card inside my own PC, but this one is extremely compact -- it should fit in any card slot. At £69, it costs £10 more than the MIDI Edge 1x1 with the same spec, but it does have a good pedigree. The only non-standard feature is that mini-DIN sockets are used, although the appropriate cables are included.

• 1 In, 1 Out.
• WaveBlaster connector.
• 1/3-length ISA card.
• Choice of 6 IRQ settings.
• £69 including VAT.

« Last Edit: November 15, 2016, 10:33:02 AM by chrisNova777 »