by Gordon Reid
BACK IN THE good ol’ days when men were real men and computers weighed a ton, the only serious communications standard between machines was a system called RS232 (or V24). This “standard” was usually based on a 25-way “D” connector with pins 2, 3, 6 & 20 connected to each other. Sometimes, however, other pins were used (and there were 21 “other” pins at each end) or lines could be crossed or even shorted together. To further complicate matters, the BBC micro used a 5-pin “Domino” DIN connector, IBM introduced the 9-way “D” connector, and some companies used even more absurd connectors and cables. All this, just for a “standard” communications link that needed just four connections.
It was a nightmare to try to make sense of all this, since for any combination of computers, or computer plus printer (or modem) there were an enormous number of possible combinations of connections, and it was almost impossible to work out which piece of cable was carrying which piece of information. Enter a neat little device called a “Break-out Box”. This device, which fitted in the palm of your hand, allowed you to ascertain what signals were coming in on each line, and also what signals were expected by the device at the other end of the cable. Clever.
Fortunately, the MIDI world isn’t nearly as complex as RS232. After all, a MIDI cable is a MIDI cable – plug it into the right hole and away you go. But there are still times when it would be useful to know what signals are passing up and down your cables. If you have a large or complex MIDI system, it can be quite tricky remembering what’s going where, and why. So Studiomaster have given us the MA36 MIDI Analyser – the musician’s answer to the Break-out Box.
The box itself measures 125mm x 71mm x 29mm so nobody will have any difficulty finding a home for it in their setup. It will run on batteries or a 9V adaptor. There are only two MIDI ports on the MA36 – In and Thru – and you connect the box by placing it in-line with your setup. Suitable configurations might be: Master keyboard – computer – MA36 – MIDI Thru box – expanders; or MIDI keyboard – MA36 – expander; and so on. The MA36 doesn’t have to be switched on to allow MIDI signals to pass through, which means you can leave it permanently in-line without flattening your batteries. You can, of course, just connect the MIDI Out of your keyboard to the In of the MA36 for direct analysis of the output of that one device.
There are no instructions with the MA36, which is a bit lazy on Studiomaster’s part, but quite honestly, you don’t need any. There are 36 LEDs on the top panel (plus a power-on LED) which give you (surprise surprise) 36 different pieces of MIDI information. These are; MIDI channel (1-16), Note On, Note Off, All Notes Off, Poly Pressure, Control Change, Program Change, Channel Pressure, Pitch Wheel, SysEx, Song Position, Song Select, Tune Request, End Exclusive, Timing Clock, Start, Continue, and Stop. The first eight of these are keyboard-orientated, the following nine are for use with other MIDI gear such as sequencers. Finally, to complete the 36 functions there are indicators for Active Sensing, System Reset, and MIDI Error.
Internal construction is very sturdy – simply because there’s only one chip in the whole thing. This is a proprietary 64-pin chip made for Studiomaster by Mitsubishi. Apart from the LEDs there are 17 other components, including the connectors. But it works, and it should continue to do so for as long as you’re likely to need it. Is it worth £50? Well, if you have a use for a MIDI analyser, then it’s worth it. If you don’t, it isn’t – an easy decision for a change.