Imagine that your Alesis synthesizer could suddenly exhibit some of the power of a 16 MB sampler and a 100-song sequencer. As long as your imagination is running wild, let's add up to 256 extra Program slots and 200 multitimbral setups. You don't need to fantasize-it's all there waiting for you, thanks to Alesis's in-house software program, Sound Bridge. This "Master Class" will walk you through the basic steps needed to make these dreams a reality. Let the burning begin!
Card-Carrying MembersPeople will often choose one product over another based on features that they may never use. Sometimes it's just nice to know that if you ever need a particular feature, it's available to you. Most Alesis synthesizers and the latest Alesis drum module offer you such rarely tapped capabilities. For example, on the backs of these units are slots for cards that provide space for many additional samples and programs. You can even store MIDI sequences that are instantly available for playback.
Even though many Alesis owners have taken advantage of the wide variety of ready-made sound cards (known as QCards), few have dared to explore the many exciting possibilities of rolling your own. Wouldn't it be amazing to have your background vocal hits ready to beef up your live performances? How about having all of your best groove loops ready to go with zero loading time? Wouldn't it be convenient if you could have up to 100 of your own sequences ready to play without a computer or hardware sequencer? In this "Master Class" I will cover the tools, soundware, and software that you'll need to create your own sound cards.
Bridging the GapWhen the QuadraSynth line came on the market back in the early '90s, it offered a lot of high-powered features. Included in these features was a card slot for additional samples and programs. To keep the price attractive, Alesis left off certain features such as onboard sample RAM, user sampling, and an onboard sequencer.
Every synthesizer manufacturer has its own software and hardware development tools: the engineers at Alesis had a handy little tool called Sound Bridge. That software let them gather their samples and programs and burn them to a card. Why doesn't the public have access to these proprietary tools? Development software tools are often very quirky and nowhere near user-friendly. These tools are often cobbled together as each engineering need pops up, which hardly makes for a consistent and streamlined user interface. If you add the manual that would have to be written and technical support issues to this user- hostile mix, you would probably agree that such software is best left to the engineers. Despite these very daunting considerations Alesis released Sound Bridge software as a freeware tool for QuadraSynth owners. Version 3.0 is the most recently available version as of this writing.
To The Bridge!As it is when you explore any new computer-based tools, there is a learning curve and an initial frustration hump that you have to get past before you can reap the benefits of your labor. As a programmer, I've made frequent contributions to Alesis's factory sounds. As a QS owner, I decided that it was crazy not to use all the power that Sound Bridge gave me. I decided to dig in, learn Sound Bridge, and share my findings. Along the way I've discovered a few helpful hints that should provide you with snag-free satisfaction. Although this "Master Class" will help you move along quickly and painlessly, it is not meant to be a substitute for reading the well-written Sound Bridge manual that comes with the software. Let's get started.
Let's ConnectCheck the Sound Bridge manual for your specific computer platform and interface (MIDI or serial connector), and follow the instructions regarding necessary drivers and MIDI Setups. Note that Sound Bridge expects to see responses from a single QS or DMPro device. Temporarily remove or power down any other Alesis synths in your MIDI system to prevent problems.
Creating a ProjectA Project is any collection of instruments, samples, programs, and sequences that you choose to send to your sound card using Sound Bridge. Once this data is in place, you can use Sound Bridge to compile it onto a PC Card or store the Project on your computer's hard disk for later use. Place your PC Card securely into the top card slot (if you have two slots) found in the back of your QS or the front of your DMPro.
Open the installed version of Sound Bridge on your computer. This will automatically begin a new Project and open the main window. Go to the Project menu and select Card Info. In this window (see Fig. 1) you can input your own card name, your personal version code, and the memory size of your PC Card. Once you've indicated the memory size you'll be able keep track of the remaining sample memory in the bottom of the main window. You will also need to indicate the type of instrument this card is intended for (QS synth or DMPro).
Group HuddleOn the left side of the Project window you'll see 13 groups: 8 Keyboard, 3 Drum groups, a Sequences group, and a group for Programs. These are for the different types of data that you may wish to send to your sound card.
You can load Instrument and Sound files into either the Keyboard groups or the Drum groups. Standard MIDI files are loaded into the Sequences group, and SysEx files of Program and Setup banks are loaded into the Programs group. For more info on which specific types of files are supported for each Alesis device, see the sidebar "Sound Bridge Compatibility."
Loop and LoadFor our first experiment let's try something simple-a single sound effect or rhythmic loop will do. Click on the Add Files icon (the folder with the red arrow). On the left side you'll see a pull-down file menu that will allow you to navigate through your hard drive or CD-ROM until you find the desired samples. Compatible samples will be listed in the window on the left. By double-clicking on a sample, you will transfer it to the right window (see Fig. 2). You have now placed the sample into group 1. If you wish to place it in a different group, use the pull-down menu on the right side to select a different group.
For now, double-click on a single sound effect or rhythmic loop to make it part of group 1. Next, press the Done button. After a moment you'll be back to the main window. If you click on the group 1 icon you'll see your sample listed. Double-clicking on its icon will open the Voice Info window where you can rename the sample. Don't worry about the Lower Key and Upper Key parameters-they will be grayed out at this time. If you double-click the sample in the Voice Info window you can indicate the sample's Root Key. The default is Middle C (or C3). Checking the Smooth Attacks box will remove an unwanted click from the sample start if it begins at a nonzero value.
The next three choices-Use Left Channel Audio, Use 50/50 Mixed Audio, and Use Right Channel Audio-allow you to make use of stereo samples. By adding a stereo sample twice to the Group, you can then select Left Channel for one and Right Channel for the other. You can have one layer use the Left Sample and another layer use the Right Sample when you use the samples in a program. By panning these layers in opposite directions you will then hear the original stereo image. An easier way to deal with many stereo samples is to go to Preferences in the Edit menu and check Auto-split Stereo Files. This will automatically split stereo samples into separate mono Left and Right samples for you. When you're finished, press OK to return to the main Voice Info window, then press OK once more to return to the main Project window.
Wide ReceiverNow that you have a simple project with a single sample in group 1, it's time to send the sample to your QS or DMPro. Simply click on the rightmost icon that has a picture of a red arrow pointing from a computer to a synth. The display of your QS or DMPro should say Receiving MIDI. That's all there is to it! It might take a little while for the data to reach your synth (you'll definitely want to grab a cup of coffee for larger dumps). Now, let's set up your synth so that you can play your new sample.
Trick of the TradeThere's a neat little hidden trick to make an initialized Program. Simply power cycle the QS while pressing the 0 and 3 buttons-you'll then have a blank Mix and a blank Program. The unit will default to the Mix mode on power-up, so you'll have to press the Program button one time to see the blank Program. Save this program to a location that you don't mind overwriting.
Next, press Edit Select and then the Sound 1 button (on QS6 and later synths, press the 00 Piano button instead). Using the Page Right button (to the left of the screen), press until you see the Group parameter. Now use the Value Up button or the Value Slider to go all the way up to your new group. Now try any key on your synth. Voila! There's your sample, and it will play across the entire keyboard.
Cellular StructureNow that you've got the hang of sending a single sample to your sound card, it's time to experiment with the next level of complexity. The easiest way to get multisampled instruments into your sound card is to import them from a SampleCell CD-ROM. Go back to your Project (or start a new Project if you wish) and click on the leftmost icon with the picture of the keyboard and light bulb. (This feature is available only with Sound Bridge 3.0 and higher.) That will open the Create Instrument window. On the file pull-down menu you will be able to go to your SampleCell Instruments. When you see them in the left window you can double-click on them to put them into the right window. Once again, you can use the right pull-down menu to choose which group will contain each instrument.
At this point you can press Done and then press the Send to synthesizer icon. It will probably take longer than your previous sample dump to get all that data across. If you really want to speed up the transfer time, go to the Alesis Web site and download the most current serial driver for your computer. By using a serial cable directly to your computer instead of the MIDI interface, you can get up to a 45 increase in transfer speed. Be sure to follow the directions in the Sound Bridge manual.
Sax, Violins, and Hair LossThe most exciting aspect of Sound Bridge 3.0 is that you can now create your own sample keymaps; you no longer need to own a SampleCell editor. Simply click on the leftmost Create Instrument icon in the Project page and use the left pull-down menu to get to the source of your multiple samples.
Here are several tips that will save you days of exasperation and hair pulling-pay close attention! Make sure that the instrument samples you have are already in perfect tune: there are no provisions in a Sound Bridge Instrument to fine-tune each sample. Next, make sure that the name of each sample contains its root key-for example, use ViolinC2, ViolinFs4 (s often substitutes for #). Remember that in Alesis-speak, Middle C is C3. Some manufacturers designate Middle C as C4, so be certain to use Alesis's octave designation. When it's time to double-click the samples to put them into your new Instrument, be careful to add them in precise order from lowest root key to highest root key. (Don't forget that A3 and B3 come after G3, not before C3.)
When you've added all the samples for that Instrument, press the Done button. You'll be asked to name your new Instrument. You will then find yourself back on the main Project page. Double-click on the new instrument and you'll find yourself once again in the Voice Info window. This time the Lower Key and Upper Key parameters will be available to you. You can now create a keymap without having to use a SampleCell editor. Be forewarned: this area gets a little quirky. (I did warn you about in-house software, didn't I?)
Changing KeysIf you single-click on any of the samples you'll be able to set their Lower Key and Upper Key values. However, no sample key range can overlap another key range in that Instrument and each key range must be contiguous. You have to be very clever about the order in which you work or you'll quickly find yourself hopelessly boxed in. This was where I lost the majority of my hair. To add to the confusion, the Lower Key and Upper Key range each have a separate field for the Note name and the Octave number. If you move the Note name first, you'll find that you've violated the "no overlap" rule, even if you were about to enter the correct Octave number. Always assign the Upper Key and Lower Key parameters in the precise order that I'm about to detail.
First, click on the sample with the lowest root key. It should be the top sample in the list. You did add the samples to your new Instrument from lowest to highest root key as I suggested several paragraphs ago, yes? You did include their root keys in their title, yes? Just checking. Set the Lower Key parameters to C and -2. Now go to the Upper Key parameters and assign the Upper Key note to exactly one half-step below the next lowest sample's root key. That one was easy-there were no other samples to get in the way.
Click on the next lowest sample. This next move is important: Change the Upper Key's Octave number from 8 to 7. Now change the Upper Key's Note name to the letter that's one half-step below the third- lowest sample's root key. Only now can you safely set Upper Key's Octave number so that it's just below the next sample's root key.
Now click on the sample with the third-lowest root key. Again, go to the Upper Key's Octave number and change it from 8 to 7. Now change the Upper Key's Note name to the letter that's one half-step below the fourth-lowest sample's root key. Then finally set the Upper Key's Octave number to match the sample's own root key. Continue this exact procedure until you've reached your last and highest sample. On this last one simply let the Upper Key remain as G8.
There is one last step. You still have to double-click each sample so that you can indicate its actual Root note and Octave (see Fig. 3). Press the OK button when you are finished. Clicking the Send to synthesizer icon will send your new instrument on its way to the sound card. You can now use this instrument just as you would any other ROM-based instrument in your QS synth.
Sequential CircusYou can add up to 50 Standard MIDI Type 0 and 1 files per sound card. Click the Add Files icon on and use the file pull-down menu to navigate to your source of Standard MIDI Files. Simply double-click on each SMF in the order that you want. When sequences are selected, you can decide if you want the sequence data to be played on the QS or transmitted to external MIDI devices. With your sequence selected in the File window, open the Project menu and select Sequence Info. If you leave the button for Sequence Data via Out Port unchecked, the MIDI sequences will play internally (see Fig. 4). When you're through, press Done. The next time you press the Send to synthesizer icon you'll have all your samples, instruments, and Standard MIDI Files ready to go.
To select a sequence on the QS6.1, QS7.1, or QS8.1, just press the SEQ Select button and use the 00 through 40 buttons with a 0-9 button to select any of 50 sequences. If you have two sound cards with SMFs you can use the 50-120 button and a 0-9 button to select those sequences.
For Alesis keyboards other than QS6.1, QS7.1, or QS8.1, see your owner's manual for sequence selection.
Saving ProgramsYou can save Programs to the sound card via a SysEx file. First, create a bank on your synth that contains the Programs and Mixes you want. You can use internal ROM instruments or the samples and instruments on the sound cards, or any combination that you choose. When your bank is completed, send a MIDI SysEx dump of that bank to the FreeLoader program and save as a binary SysEx file.
Using the Add Files icon you can once again go to the leftmost file pull-down menu to get to your SysEx file. Make sure that you select SysEx Files in the lower left Show field of the pop-up window. Double-click on your SysEx file and press Done. Once again you're ready to send everything to your synth with the Send to Synthesizer icon. Remember that each time you send, you're rewriting everything from scratch on the card, so you don't have to erase the card. You will now find that you have an extra bank available when searching with the Bank buttons (to the right of the QS screen).
Playing My Final CardI hope I've piqued your interest enough to experiment with creating your own sound cards. I promise that it will add tremendous possibilities to your already powerful QS synthesizer and DMPro.
Daniel Fisher is the product evangelist for Parker Guitars as well as a programmer for Alesis, E-mu, Korg, Kurzweil, TC Electronic, and Yamaha. He blames his success on Sweetwater Sound and his Berklee College education.
Alesis instrument:Any Alesis QS synth from QuadraSynth+Piano to current QS series or DMPro drum module.
PC Card:Any Type I SRAM PC Card, all AMD "C" series and "D" series 5V-only Type I Flash cards, and AMP Flash 5-C series 5V-only Type I Flash cards. These PC Cards may be of any memory size, but user sample storage will be limited to a maximum of 8 MB.
Macintosh computer:Macintosh 68030; 8 MB RAM; Mac OS 7.1; and any standard Mac MIDI interface or direct QS/DMPro serial connection.
PC computer:Any PC running Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, 98, or NT; 8 MB RAM; and any standard PC MIDI interface or direct QS/DMPro serial connection.
Cables:2 MIDI cables (between MIDI interface and QS) or a single serial cable (between computer and QS).
Software:Sound Bridge for burning samples, programs, and sequences to the PC Card; and FreeLoader (or any SysEx compatible software sequencer) for receiving and sending program data.
Optional equipment and software:A CD-ROM drive for loading SampleCell files, sample files, audio CD samples, and other data.
Digidesign's SampleCell to audition and create SampleCell instrument files.
(Note that Sound Bridge does not require that you own SampleCell hardware in order to use SampleCell instrument and sample files. These may be loaded directly into Sound Bridge from CD-ROM, floppy disk, or hard disk and then transferred directly to the PC Card.)
Samples/Instrument files:Sound Bridge instrument files; SampleCell I, II, and SampleCellPC instrument files; AIFF sample files; Sound Designer 1 and 2 sample files; Mac OS system sounds; and Windows WAV sample files. (Other file types are possible, provided that you input their correct parameters in the Voice Info menu.)
Sequences:Any Standard MIDI File, Type 0 or Type 1.
Program banks:Any QuadraSynth/QS and DMPro raw SysEx bulk dumps.
To find out the software version currently running in your QS-series synthesizer or DMPro, follow the instructions below. The software version and date will appear in the unit's display.
QuadraSynth, S4, QuadraSynth+Piano, S4 Plus: Hold down Global and press Program.
QS6 1.00: Hold down Program and press 00 Piano.
QS6 2.00 and higher, QS6.1, QS7, QS8: Hold down Program and press 0.
DMPro: Hold down both cursor buttons.