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EMAGIC UNITOR8 MKII

4/1/2001

Last year Emagic introduced the Unitor8 MkII, its flagship USBMIDI interface for the Mac OS and Windows 95, 98, and ME. This8-In/8-Out, 128-channel, single-space rack-mount device offerssolid synchronization features that let you connect to and addressprofessional video decks. It also includes a MIDI timing innovationfor Logic Audio that users will be delighted to have.

Though some sequencer users have experienced problems with USBMIDI interfaces, Unitor8 operation is hassle-free, even under themost punishing circumstances.

HAVEN'T WE MET?

The Unitor8's spare appearance bears a striking resemblance tothe Opcode Studio 4 (see Fig. 1a). In the Mac OS, Emagic'sinterface emulates Mark of the Unicorn's MIDI Timepiece AV. As aresult, the Unitor8 offers the best of both worlds, mergingOpcode's clean design with MOTU's widespread support for FreeMIDI-and Open Music System (OMS) — compatible software. InWindows, it works with MME-compatible software. A wall wartsupplies power to the Unitor8.

The front panel has red LEDs for MIDI input and green LEDs forMIDI output. There are also LEDs for SMPTE synchronization statusand LEDs to indicate activity on the USB, RS-232, and RS-422 ports.The LEDs are bright enough to be seen easily from across a room,and their brightness is adjustable.

MIDI In and Out ports and a Click In jack are on the frontpanel's left side. A Panic/Patch button sends an All Notes Offcommand for stuck notes. Because the power switch is the onlyfront-panel control, a computer must program and store MIDI or syncfeatures.

On the back panel, there are ports for VITC SMPTE, LTC SMPTE,USB, RS-232, and RS-422, in addition to seven MIDI inputs andoutputs (see Fig. 1b). The serial port connections let you stack upto eight Unitor8s for a total of 64 MIDI ports and 1,024 MIDIchannels when you run Logic Audio in Windows 98 or ME. Stacking isnot an option for Windows 95 users, who are limited to 11 MIDIports. (That limitation is apparently caused by a bug in Windows 95that's also present in Windows 2000.) USB drivers are still beingdeveloped for Windows NT and Windows 2000, and a beta version of aCom port driver for NT is available on Emagic's Web site.

CONTROL ISSUES

Unitor8 Control is a specialized version of Emagic's SoundDiverthat has been customized for configuring the Unitor8. Investigatingits features provides a sense of what the Unitor8 can do.

The Unitor8 Control's main window is the Device window (see Fig.2). In this window, you can manage 32 MIDI port configurations, orpatches, that the Unitor8 stores. Double-clicking on a patch namedisplays a graphic-editing window with an 8-In by 8-Out MIDImatrix. Within the matrix, you can make or break connectionsbetween inputs and outputs.

When you've finished setting up a configuration, you can nameand save the patch. You can then call up patches with ProgramChange commands. Edits made in Unitor8 Control automaticallytransfer to the Unitor8 and store in memory. To maintain dataconsistency between the software and the interface, the Unitor8transfers its settings to Unitor8 Control, and Unitor8 Controlsettings are sent to the Unitor8.

The Device window's left side has a table that displays as manyas eight Unitor8s and their associated firmware versions. Unitor8Control addresses multiple Unitor8s as a single unit. The Patchwindow's right side has selections for Patch Mode Setup, ComputerMode Setup, Click Input Setup, and Global Setup. Patch mode mayappear more limited than Computer mode, but it lets you disconnectthe Unitor8 from your computer and use it as a standalone unit.

If you stack two Unitor8s, the matrix updates to 8-In by 16-Out.As you add more Unitor8s to your setup, MIDI data coming into oneinput is fed to multiple outputs (for example, 8 by 24, 8 by 32,and so forth). You might expect that you increase the number ofinputs as you stack interfaces, but in fact, there's a limit ofeight addressable MIDI inputs; all of the corresponding inputs ofeach Unitor8 will merge. So if you stack eight Unitor8s, data goingto MIDI In 1 on Unit A will correspond to MIDI In 1 on Units Bthrough H. Emagic assumes that nobody uses more than eight MIDIcontrollers simultaneously, which isn't necessarily true.

IT'S A SETUP

Patch Mode Setup and Computer Mode Setup offer variouscustomization options for the Unitor8's synchronization activities.In both Mode Setup windows, you can select whether the Unitor8generates and receives LTC SMPTE, LTC EBU, or VITC SMPTE time code.Unlike Patch mode, Computer mode can stripe SMPTE, letting yourecord time code onto a tape so it can sync to your sequencer.Post-production pros should appreciate the Unitor8's ability toburn time code into video pictures.

A choice of frame rates (24, 25, 29.97, 29.97 drop, 30, and 30drop) provides the ability to sync with a variety of formats. TheRefresh option assists in handling poor-quality time code. In theMode Setup Windows you can also enable Video Thru, read lines toproperly sync to VITC (in which the Unitor8 scans the video signaland adjusts to the right line), and adjust the freewheel time,which is the time the Unitor8 takes to sync to an internalreference.

You can manually switch the video format from NTSC to PAL, butan Auto setting lets the Unitor8 automatically recognize thecurrent format. Pro Tools users can adjust the Full Frame Messageto select the number of frames they want to transmit. Other optionsinclude enabling MIDI Time Code out and selecting the MIDItransmission channel or channels. You can also adjust LTC outputgain with an onscreen fader.

Patch Mode and Computer Mode have input and output filters forcertain MIDI commands, including MTC, SysEx, Active Sensing, TuneRequest, System Real Time, System Reset, and Song Select. Mostpro-level sequencers offer the same filtering options, but havingadditional data filters doesn't hurt.

The Unitor8's Click Input is a simple feature that offers lotsof functionality. In the Click Input Mode window, you can configurethe input to accept a repetitive audio signal, such as a click or akick drum, or a trigger from a footswitch. If your footswitchterminates with a TRS plug, you can reconfigure the tip and thering independently to connect a double footswitch for a greaterrange of functions. Applications include synching Logic to tapedmaterial through the sequencer's Tempo Interpreter and using afootswitch to start and stop your sequencer. For live performance,you can also configure a footswitch to skip through programsettings or to serve as a panic button.

GRACE UNDER PRESSURE

My first test of the Unitor8 MkII was to brutalize it withenormous amounts of MIDI data. I connected it to the USB port of asingle-processor Power Mac G4/450 MHz. The Mac was running LogicAudio Platinum 4.5.1 under its proprietary driver and controllingan Akai S6000 sampler, an array of tone generators, and some analogsynths connected to an Encore Expressionist MIDI-to-CVconverter.

Recording and playback were seamless, even with lots of wildPitch Bend and Aftertouch information. Without hesitation, theUnitor8 handled all the real-time control data I threw at it. Next,I quit Logic, stacked an Emagic AMT8 (see the sidebar “All inthe Family”) with the Unitor8 by connecting their RS-422ports, and launched Logic again. I spent an hour pummeling bothinterfaces, which performed without even a whimper.

Running Logic Audio without OMS provides a higher degree oftiming accuracy. Using Logic Audio's built-in driver bestows theadvantages of Active MIDI Transmission (AMT), which is implementedin the Unitor8's design. AMT actually puts part of the MIDI timingengine into the interface. MIDI commands are received in“packets” during the pauses between note events andheld in a buffer in the Unitor8. The commands are then unpacked andreleased to the individual outputs at the precise moment they arerequired. Emagic claims this feature dramatically reduces potentialdelay problems. No other sequencer or music software companysupports AMT.

All synchronization features worked perfectly for me. StripingSMPTE was a breeze; I locked machines with no hassle whatsoever.With an Alesis BRC's aid, I tried synching ADATs using theUnitor8's LTC SMPTE output. That task required some minimaladjusting within Logic and Unitor8 Control, but once it was set up,it worked well. Slaving Logic Audio to the BRC was also a simpleoperation.

IT TAKES A LICKING

There's a lot to like about the Unitor8 MkII. Its flexiblerouting is a welcome complement to its abundance of I/O options,though I wish it had ADAT sync and a word-clock port. With a directconnection to an ADAT, there would be no need to use a BRC or aJLCooper DataSync. Unfortunately, the back panel has no room foradditional ports. On the plus side, you can update the Unitor8'sfirmware through MIDI, so future improvements are possible.

Combined with Unitor8 Control's excellent layout and LogicAudio's wealth of features, using Unitor8 MkII is a breeze. Itworks smoothly under OMS and performs beautifully under duress. Theprice may seem steep, but when you need a powerful interface thatgets the job done, the Unitor8 MkII won't let you down.


Alex Artaud operates a recording studio in the San Francisco BayArea. He has worked with music technology for more than 15years.

Minimum System Requirements

Unitor8 MkII
MAC: Macintosh 68000; 12 MB RAM;
Mac OS 7.0; free modem or printer port,
or USB port
PC: 486 DX2/66; 12 MB RAM; Windows 95/98/ME; free COM port(1-4)
or USB port

ALL IN THE FAMILY

If you don't need sync capabilities, the Emagic AMT8 ($499)offers most of the Unitor8's features and performs just as well.The AMT8 is a relative bargain for musicians who need a goodpatching system for multiple MIDI devices.

The AMT8's front panel is virtually identical to the Unitor8's,and the chassis is the same. The Click Input and LED readouts forVITC and LTC are absent, and you can't update the AMT8's firmwarewith MIDI. The AMT8 retains AMT's benefits and the ability to stackmultiple units and to address and configure them with Unitor8Control software.

I hope Emagic will consider adding a Click Input to the AMT8.Although the AMT8 is superb for live applications, you can'treceive timing data from external audio sources or triggersequences with a footswitch.

Beyond those minor concerns, the AMT8 is a good value. Isubjected the AMT8 to the same abuse as the Unitor8, and it neverflinched. If you already own a Unitor8, buying an AMT8 is a lessexpensive route to adding MIDI channels.

If you have rudimentary MIDI requirements and you are also on atight budget, look into the Emagic MT4 ($199). Roughly the size ofa thick chalkboard eraser, the MT4 is the smallest of Emagic's MIDIinterfaces. The unit shares several traits with its largerrelatives.

The 2-In/4-Out unit provides 64 MIDI channels and receives itspower from the USB port. Six LEDs on the front panel correspond tothe six MIDI ports, and two additional LEDs indicate the Patch Modeand USB power status.

Like the Unitor8 and AMT8, Unitor8 Control lets you configureand store up to 32 patches. You can play any MIDI instrument inyour studio without running sequencer software. Because it relieson USB for power, the MT4 offers standalone operation as long asit's connected to a powered USB hub. If you use a laptop in liveperformance, you'll appreciate the MT4's portability.

While I was waiting for the delivery of the other twointerfaces, I spent some time with the MT4. Its ease of integrationwith Logic Audio was a good sign; all I had to do was connect theMT4 and get to work. I had no problems using the MT4 with LogicAudio running under its proprietary driver or OMS. Even when I putthe MT4 through the same rigorous testing as the Unitor8, thetiming was excellent.

Unitor8 MkII Specifications

MIDI I/O (8) MIDI In; (8) MIDI Out
MIDI Channels 128
SMPTE In (1) ¼” VITC; (1) S-video LTC
SMPTE Out (1) ¼” VITC; (1) S-video LTC
Computer I/O USB; RS-232; RS-422
Other Ports external footswitch/click input
User-Programmable Setups 32
Dimensions 1U × 4.5” (D)
Weight 3.56 lbs.

PRODUCTION SUMMARY

Emagic
Unitor8 MkII
MIDI interface/SMPTE synchronizer
$799

FEATURES 4.0
EASE OF USE 4.0
DOCUMENTATION 4.0
VALUE 3.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Seamless operation when paired with Logic Audio. Simple toconfigure using Unitor8 Control software. Performs well underpressure.

CONS: No front-panel configuration or control. No word clock orADAT sync out. Expensive.

Manufacturer
Emagic USA
tel. (530) 477-1051
e-mail emagic@emagicusa.com
Web www.emagic.de

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