Today I’m reminded of a Russian proverb, or what I’ve been told is a Russian proverb: Sometimes you chase the bear, sometimes the bear chases you. All afternoon and evening, I’ve been running around in circles trying to get various pieces of MIDI hardware and software to cooperate with one another.
For reasons that may become apparent at some point in the near future (or not), I decided it’s time to start using my Yamaha Motif XS not only as a master MIDI keyboard but as a hardware tone module in my new sequencing setup. At present the XS is connected to my PC only by means of a pair of MIDI cables, which are plugged into the MIDI I/O of a computer interface. The XS has an mLAN card installed, and I’m now downloading what purports to be a Windows 7 compatible Firewire driver for the XS, but apparently I’ll also need to update the XS firmware, so it’s a multi-step process. In the meantime, why not use MIDI?
The first thing I noticed was that when I ran the Motif’s MIDI out through an FL Studio MIDI Out Generator (the standard method for sequencing external hardware in FL), I was getting occasional stuck notes. More than just one stuck note — it would happen every minute or so. Suspicion centered on the M-Audio Fast Track Pro audio/MIDI interface. Being a high-tech kind of guy, I have other hardware options within arm’s reach, so I replaced the Fast Track Pro with a PreSonus FireStudio Mobile.
That solved the stuck notes problem. The FireStudio Mobile has a tendency to make whispery little noises in my speakers whenever something is going on in the computer — window scrolling, for instance, or even moving the mouse. But that’s actually kind of charming, in a creepy way. I can live with it.
So then I start trying to actually use the Motif in FL Studio. I call up a Performance, which is Motif-speak for a four-channel keyboard layout with some built-in arpeggiators to play surprisingly cool riffs. The arpeggiators sync to the MIDI clock signals being transmitted by FL … but they ignore MIDI Start commands. The arpeggio patterns won’t start on beat 1 when the song does.
Eventually I remember how I was doing this type of project 18 months ago. I recorded Performance patterns into the Motif’s internal Pattern Mode sequence tracks (which will sync reliably starting on beat 1), and then transferred the Pattern Mode data via the MIDI output to my computer sequencer for further editing. Roundabout, but manageable.
And here’s a fun glitch: Each time I tap a program memory button on the Motif, FL Studio will “helpfully” switch to a different tone generator. There doesn’t seem to be a switch in FL for turning off this behavior. I solved it by turning off program change transmission/reception in the Motif. Now it won’t respond to incoming program changes either, but that’s not something I have to worry about. Not quite yet.
When MIDI is being routed into FL Studio and back out, you have to take not one but two extra steps to get controller data (such as the mod wheel) to work properly. This is because FL Studio doesn’t actually want to know about MIDI data. It was not originally designed to be a MIDI sequencer. And don’t even think about transferring multiple channels of MIDI data from the Motif into FL Studio on one pass. The software strips out the channel data while recording it to a track. You can do it in Cubase, but not in FL Studio.
I actually like Cubase a lot, but I’m gritting my teeth and refusing to use it as my main creative platform. There’s a reason for this, but it requires a digression. Maybe I’m spoiled — well, no, I’m definitely spoiled. You see, I never pay for any of the music software I use: Most manufacturers provide me with free installs of their products. This practice makes a certain amount of sense, because I do quite often turn around and write tutorial features for magazines. So in the end, they’re quite likely to get some free publicity out of the deal. Steinberg, however, has now decreed that their licenses to journalists are all time-limited to 120 days. I have a permanent license for Cubase 4.5.2 — but alas, it won’t install on Windows 7. Cubase 5 runs fine in Windows 7, and it’s a very pretty update to an already impressive program. But if I don’t want it to die, I have to go back to Steinberg every four months and ask for a renewal. Which of course they would have no reason not to grant, because I’m Jim Aikin. But what if I wrote something that displeased them, or what if the whole company went out of business? As a matter of personal policy, I can’t use a piece of software for actual creative work if I run the risk of its being yanked out from under me at some point in the future.
So I’m becoming an FL Studio ninja, which is not a bad thing to be. But when it comes to making nice with external MIDI synthesizers, FL is still a little behind the curve. In the end, you can do what you need to do, but it’s not convenient.
Gotta go. Gotta find out if that Motif hard drive that’s been sitting in the cupboard for 18 months will still work, so I can copy the firmware updater onto it, follow the instructions carefully (I hate it when I have to call Athan Billias and ask for personal help!), and then install the mLAN driver into the PC and find out whether I have a compatible chipset.
Oh, did I mention the chipset? Yamaha explicitly tells you on their download page that the mLAN driver is compatible with this list of chipsets, but not that one. Well, good luck finding out what chipset is in your PC. That information is not displayed in Device Manager, as far as I can see.
God, I love technology.