Ms800 Modus Operandi

This is a message I wrote on the EVS yahoo group. The discussion was about "Other weird british synths":

> ...OK, but I was talking about the MS800, not the MS6 :)
> they're two totally different beasts...

Indeed they are :-) I own a MS800 and have tried playing with it, and...well...It does sound very peculiar. At the time I got it, I also had a wavestation, and it does have certain similarities (weirdly enough) - They both work with wave-streams, sort of, that develop in time and that you can have several of that fade in or out. Then again, the WS has thing like filters, effects, a user interface and a proper screen. The MS800 has two 7-segment leds and not even anti-aliasing filters. It is programmed in what may best be described as some sort of machine code language - When you are to program a Tone, as the basic element is called, you start off with a little init section:

So far the init. Note that the parameters are actually numbered starting from 0. Now comes the actual program starting at parameter number 5. There are four commands at hand:

This last also means that if you by mistake try to listen to a tone that is not yet programmed - You wanted to listen to tone number 6 but accidentially selected tone number 7 and pressed a key - Well, the machine hangs. All zeroes makes no 99. I have not experimented in trying to figure out what happens if 7 is empty, but 8 exists.

So, a fairly complex tone might be something like this (example taken from the manual:

89, 7, 34, 0, 15, 0, 0, 20, 0, 21, 7, 0, 22, 7, 0, 18, 7, 0, 22, 7, 0, 18, 7, 0, 17, 7, 0, 16, 7, 0, 22, 7, 1, 8, 2, 4, 1, 99

Which, as you can see, describes a tone which starts off fairly loud and then does not change its volume during the held note. Instead, it crossfades fairly quickly between a number of waveforms, until the note is released, whereupon the volume is smoothly but quickly faded down. Simple, no?

Anyways, that is the row of parameter values. Now we have to put them into the synth. Which has a user interface consisting of a pair of parameter inc/dec buttons, a pair of value inc/dec buttons, and a pair of 7-segment leds. Oh, with dots inbetween them. The dots are important, because one of the small dots light up to show the difference between "editing" and "playing" modes. That is: does the inc/dec buttons change parameters, or just patch numbers? Given that we are editing, another small dot shows whether the display currently shows a parameter number or its value - Is this parameter number 35 or is it the value 35? Look to the dot! So: step the parameter to 0 with the parameter dec button, use the value inc and dec to change the parameter to 89, inc the parameter, set it to 7, inc the parameter, set it to 34...

I think there is an enter button somewhere there, also, which you might use instead of the parameter inc when entering long strings. Which is kinda pointless, but still a nice touch. However, imagine that you listen to the new sound, and realise that the square and saw waves would be a lot more effective if they lasted a little bit longer in the sequence. So, you start stepping through the parameters, trying to find those 0 commands whose following number is 18 or 16, to try to increase the number following that a tiny bit. Or was it 17? And what am I looking at now, the command 1 or a step time 1? Or a waveform?

If programming is hell, editing is the seventh circle.

Whilst programming, you have to keep track of how long your program is, to consider where it would fit. There are 50 user tone memories, but they are not all equal: The first 10 may contain tones of up to 60 parameters, the following 10 up to 40, the following 10 only 30 parameters and the last 20 tones may contain no more than 20 parameters. That is not a lot.

ANYHOW! You have programmed a few tones and still have enough of your sanity left to actually want to try them out. Then you must program a patch. A patch can contain a number of tones that play simultaneously, and are likewise programmed by a string of numbers. However, these numbers are a little bit more sane - For each tone in a patch, you input, in that order, its output number (1 or 2. You want stereo? Use two tones), detune value, velocity curve, volume, transposition and tone number. 6 parameters per tone you have in the patch, and if you want more tones for a more complex sound (stereo effects, velocity crossfades using the velocity curve parameter, crossfading over time between two tones (as defined by the tones own volume changes, of course) and so on), you just add more tones.

Well, at least with regards to polyphony. The MS800 is 15-note polyphonic, but each tone in a patch chips away at that. So if you have 4 tones active in a patch, you better not try anything more complex than triads, 'coz it won't work.

And of course you have to consider patch memory limitations. Whilst the first ten patch locations have space for up to 85 patch parameters (that is one more than what is needed for 14 tones in one patch), the last 20 only have space for 13 parameters - 2 tones.

That extra parameter (13 for a 2*6 patch) is the parameter number 0, which tells how many tones there are to this patch.

Patch data is, naturally, entered the same way as tone data, but in patch editing mode, not tone editing mode. Which is distinguished by nothing at all, so you better remember whether you entered patch or tone editing. They are, however easily distinguished, since patch editing is function number 1 and tone editing is function number 2. So, to enter patch editing, you press the [function] button, use the inc/dec to display 1, and then press enter. Whilst for tone editing, you do the same, only selecting 2 instead. Easy-Peasy!

After some perusal of the manual, I see that I remembered wrong. There isn't separate inc/decs for parameters and values. There is one pair of inc/decs that move in steps of one, and one pair that moves in steps of ten. That is convenient for making big changes. It means, however, that for editing, you'd have to use the inc/decs to find the parameter number, then press the [parameter] button to se the value and change that, then press [parameter] again to go back to parameters, change parameter, press [parameter], change value...

It does, as I said, have a [next parameter] button, so that you can edit a value, press [next param] and instantly be editing the next value. You have no idea where you are, of course (unless you press [parameter]) but still, it comes in handy when entering long strings.

I do, indeed, believe that this is the worst ever synth interface. Ever. There is a very funny few paragraphs in the manual that shows that the designers, to, realised this:

We hope that many users will find all the sounds required are already stored in the memory of the MS800. In thatn instance, you need not concern yourself with most of the rest of this manual.

...right. With 50 rom patches.

If you wish to experiment and create some sounds of your own, first read the next two sections carefully, and try editing some sounds we've already made for you, before you attempt to create a patch from scratch.

Very carefully. Remember that, because otherwise the synth will...Yes. Crash. And the returns department will give us hell. :-)

How it sounds? That's for another day :-)