Do you remember the days when you actually wanted all your hardware to be controllable from a computer screen? Be able to save patches to a hard drive, have all the settings visible at once, diagrams of the envelopes – you know, all the stuff that software plug ins have made pleasant and easy.
As you start hoarding antique boxes from last century, you’d probably like that utility again. But I have some bad news for you – the market for this kind of software has become hmmm, what’s the word from Spinal Tap – selective.
Oldies would remember a tool called Sound Diver from Emagic. That worked well, and you wonder if that’s still available? Well back in 2002 Apple wanted to get into the music making business probably just to fuck off the Beatles. They looked around for something off the shelf, apparently Steinberg had already sold to Pinnacle, but Emagic had Logic and Apple had the bucks and that’s how Logic Pro became a Mac exclusive. Unfortunately, Sound Diver was too friendly with other people’s hardware, so it got taken out the back and shot. No sell off, no public domain, just 6 feet under.
You cannot find a copy of Sound Diver that works with the current OSX. But you can find one that works with Windows 10, because Windows has a reptile brain deep inside that still thinks it’s 1998. More on that later.
Another company called Sound Quest had produced a hardware editor called MIDI Quest in 1989, a few years before Sound Diver. Still trucking in its 12th version it’s the last of the mega-editors left standing. If you have a big studio it’s the only legal option for your orchestra. So, we’re going to look at MIDI Quest mostly, but with a few asides to an ancient copy of Sound Diver I found on that great pirate software site archive.org
I know there are lots of little editors out there for the popular synthesisers. But we’ll leave that to another time.
The sales pitch for MQ12 is that you’re getting an all in one editor for your vast fortress of devices. A cut down version will handle three devices but there’s not really much point. MQ12 and SD both offer a standard GUI for every device they address, a lowest common denominator that is far less helpful than dedicated editors.
A ‘professional’ version allows you to roll your own editors and make your hardware appear as VST plug ins. That would need a good grasp of system exclusive codes, and more time than I have left in life. It’s also expensive. MQ12 is not a high demand item and so you have to pay a fair whack. Windows SD of course costs nothing, but you have zero support, and the code is so old that Windows help files don’t function anymore.
The editors work by noting your commands made to the GUI, sending system exclusive codes to the MIDI instruments, waiting a while, then interpreting the reply from the instrument as updates to the GUI. It’s an unreliable chain of command. MIDI is slow, some instruments are even slower, your MIDI interface is of variable reliability… much of what you’re doing is like Google Translate where Where is your bathroom? comes out as I desire your daughter’s pot roast. If the instrument doesn’t understand what you mean, it can do something unexpected or issue a complaint which again gets misunderstood by your GUI.
MIDI Quest gets a lot of bad press. It’s mostly because people aren’t set up properly, partly because the software hasn’t been tested in as many situations as required and yes, partly because the editors aren’t fully complete. I think Sound Quest are doing their best, but maybe a open community is needed to wrangle such a huge task.
A Cruel Test
The cruelest test I know for a software editor is the Ensoniq MR Rack. It is, to put it bluntly, a total shit storm of terrible design and O/S. Having to load patches in performances to hear them or to add effects is crap. It doesn’t even use standard sys-x. It was programmed and documented by somebody who probably had a whole week and used a bottle of whiskey to get through it.
Both Sound Diver and MIDI Quest suffer, but it must be said straight up – MIDI Quest is useless in the face of such a beast. Nothing works – the wrong sound is brought up, edits aren’t acknowledged, and often nothing at all happens. Sound Diver was actually supplied with the MR Rack (and the FIZMO), and I venture they got inside assistance from Ensoniq at the time. There is pain, terrible pain, but it works. My question is why MIDI Quest doesn’t reverse engineer this ability?
A Poor Interface
The SY77 is not a simple machine and this becomes clear when you use a polyglot like MIDI Quest to edit it, rather than a dedicated tool (like FM Alive). MQ12 has to pull together elements that aren’t really suited to the task. It works, but it’s a GUI only a mother could love.
I had been using MorphEdit to control my UltraProteus. It’s a nice title from the 16bit era, which serves to demonstrate how exceptional Windows legacy support can be. But here’s an example of where MQ12 is able to take over. All is happy and shiny!
My MS2000R rack shows complete disdain for both SD and MQ12. Given the command to list its patches it babbles out gibberish system exclusive and times out. It has knobs on the front so not too much harm done. But I’ll still keep figuring it out when I have utterly nothing else left better to do.
There’s a flowchart. Do you need to communicate with lots of equipment? Are you based on Mac OSX? Then you should check the MQ12 demo. Are you based on Windows? Then check both the demo and SQ, but understand that the magic reptile brain might not work forever. If you have less equipment or it comes with an editor already (Virus TI, RADIAS etc.) then think carefully about the diversity and coherence of how you wish to store your library.
And if you have time not money – why not CTRLR?