A modest MIDI interface with a reasonable price tag.
If you purchased a new computer - whether Mac or PC - in the past few years, chances are good it has a Universal Serial Bus (USB) port or two. Because you're reading this, chances are also good you have at least one MIDI device you'd like to connect to your computer. To make that connection, you need a MIDI interface.
The FastLane-USB is a 2-In/2-Out MIDI interface from Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU). It is the successor to the original FastLane, a 16-channel serial interface with one MIDI In and three MIDI Outs designed for the pre-USB Mac. The FastLane-USB has two distinct signal paths, so it's capable of handling 32 channels of MIDI data. It requires no external power other than what the USB cable supplies directly (a 2-meter USB cable is included). The unit's exterior is rigid plastic and comes in black, as well as a variety of colors to match the Apple iMac.
BASIC AND BEYONDThe FastLane-USB offers basic features with a minimum of bells and whistles. It has no SMPTE or MIDI Time Code synchronization capabilities, but it does support MOTU's new hardware-based MIDI Time Stamping (MTS). MOTU claims this provides timing accuracy of 1 ms or better when used with Digital Performer 2.7. With MOTU's more expensive rack-mountable interfaces, such as the MIDI Express-USB and MIDI Timepiece AV, MTS increases timing accuracy to 0.33 ms.
The interface features a Thru button to let MIDI data pass through the unit when there is no USB connection. The button allows you to play MIDI devices from your controller without rerouting MIDI cables, even when your computer is turned off. However, each input (labeled A and B) is matched to a specific output (A or B). And if you choose to use one instrument to play another without going through the computer, they must be connected to corresponding ports on the interface. There is no way to reroute data from input A to output B or vice versa. The Thru button is never mentioned in the QuickStart Guide, which is the only documentation that is included with the FastLane-USB.
Four LEDs on the FastLane-USB monitor MIDI activity. Two red LEDs flash when data passes through the MIDI In ports, and two green LEDs flash when data passes through the MIDI Out ports. A glance at those LEDs will tell you if you have an incorrect connection or a dead MIDI cable. When the Thru button is depressed, however, the LEDs stop working because the interface gets its power from the USB, and pressing the button disconnects the interface from the bus. The LEDs also go unmentioned in the documentation.
DRIVER, TAKE ME HOMEA CD-ROM includes the software required for the FastLane-USB. The disc I received had no Windows driver, but MOTU says the FastLane-USB now ships with a cross-platform CD-ROM that includes drivers for Windows 98 and Windows ME as well as Mac OS. You can also download drivers from MOTU's Web site (www.motu.com). For this review, I used the interface with a Power Mac G4 running OS 9.0.4.
I encountered some minor problems when I tried to install the FastLane-USB and its drivers according to the instructions, which indicate that first you should connect the interface to the computer and MIDI instruments to the interface, then install the software. The manual says to start the Mac with extensions off and then insert the CD-ROM. Right away I knew the Mac wouldn't recognize a CD-ROM without the Apple CD/DVD Driver turned on.
Nonetheless, I gave it a try to see if anything unexpected would happen, and it did. A few times I received an address error message, and the computer froze - but not on every try. I've been told this kind of freeze on start-up is possible with any USB device that is connected when its driver is disabled or missing. When I managed to restart without freezing, a dialog box appeared to inform me that my computer had no driver for the interface and offered to pull one off the Web.
At that point I disregarded the instructions and restarted the Mac with the CD/DVD extension turned on and the FastLane-USB disconnected. Then I ran the Installer and reconnected the interface. I didn't have any further problems. MOTU says it will revise the manual to instruct Mac users to keep the base set of extensions on and install the driver before connecting the interface.
I opened FreeMIDI Setup and let it find the newly installed interface (the installer will install or update FreeMIDI on your machine as necessary). With the installation complete, I restarted my computer. When I opened Digital Performer, everything worked perfectly.
If you install FreeMIDI on a computer that also has Open Music System (OMS), you can select either one; choosing OMS means the MOTU OMS Driver is installed. You can also toggle between FreeMIDI and OMS in the FreeMIDI Setup utility. To use both MIDI systems separately, tell FreeMIDI to allow other applications, and instruct OMS not to run MIDI in the background.
LIFE IN THE FASTLANEAssuming your computer has a USB port and that 32 channels are enough for your MIDI setup, a handful of MIDI interfaces are available; at $79, the FastLane-USB is the least expensive one you'll find. If your needs grow and you require more MIDI channels in the future, you can connect several FastLane-USBs to a USB hub. Even if you need 64 MIDI channels, two FastLane-USBs are cheaper than any 454 interface in stores now. A FastLane may also be the best solution if you already have a multiport MIDI interface and just need a couple more Ins and Outs.
MOTU has long been a leading maker of MIDI interfaces for the Mac, and recently it has been meeting the needs of PC users, as well. The FastLane-USB MIDI Interface is a solid product, built for years of dependable service (as long as you don't step on it). If you have a Mac G3, G4, iMac, or iBook - or a PC running Windows 98 or Windows ME - and you can get by with 32 MIDI channels and no synchronization, the FastLane-USB will get the job done with a minimum of trouble and expense.