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Synchronising sequencers with MIDI... not worth the hassle?
MUFF WIGGLER Forum Index -> Production Techniques  
Author Synchronising sequencers with MIDI... not worth the hassle?
I recently realised I have spent way too much time getting bogged down by trying to get various MIDI gear containing their own sequencer to sync with each other and/or Ableton. In theory this is a fun way to work, syncing it all together and making patterns on the gear, each with its own sequencer offering different ways of coming up with musical ideas. Then triggering those patterns from the master sequencer which is also driving synths, mixer and fx automation, etc.

In the end it seems like a rather fruitless way of working. I wish I'd have spent all that time just sampling the gear and working with the samples instead. Pattern variations, filter sweeps etc can be recorded in longer loops.

Trying to get the gear to change patterns at the same time just never works quite right. (e.g. changing scenes in Ableton and sending a program change to the Rytm- the Rytm has a delay in changing patterns using program changes Dead Banana ) . Even if I spent 500 bucks on an ERM mutliclock, this issue cannot be worked around. No matter how solid your clock, you are at the mercy of how well each box actually follows that clock. If more than one box is involved, they will likely have differences on that front.

Seems to me it is much better to sequence everything from one sequencer, whether it's DAW or a piece of hardware. Sample the drum machine patterns and then use the sampled loops instead of trying to trigger the patterns in sync with everything else.
This is less fun to set up but in the end the results are going to be a lot tighter and easier to work with.

Any thoughts?
Panason wrote:

Any thoughts?

Play more, sequence less smile
Panason wrote:

Any thoughts?

My take is that syncing a single midi sequencer to another one, so long as your master sends out solid clock (ie most decent hardware sequencers, or a computer with an ERM, SBX-1, expert sleepers etc) is nice and productive. You might get a little shift in timing between the two, but this isn't so much of a negative unless you're trying to do things you shouldn't like align percussive transients on different machines...

However, when you start adding more than one auxiliary midi sequencer, rather than a cool push pull feel from two sequencers running slightly of, you start running into the issues that you described, that it's too much work for the payoff. I should note however, that while I wrote push/pull, it's really just push, because a slaved midi sequencer will only fall behind the master. If you are multi tracking and use ableton and go in and set your warp points, that's not an issue, nor is it really typically an issue for track length syncs, but when you're jamming for 3 hours on the same start, your slave will drift over time...

OTOH, I do really like the workflow of having separate devices with their own sequencers, drum machines, mc202, volca fm etc...
The trick is if you're going to use a bunch of them is to stick with DIN / clock / trigger sync. This syncs much tighter and is self correcting, so even if somehow one hit is delayed by some busy microprocessor on the slave, you are clocking it with a clock signal that advances the sequencer, not a reference clock which the slave tries to match.

If you're not doing baselines and percussion and tight sequence parts on your slaves, the considerations above have a lot less importance, but I'm guessing most people who are using devices with built in sequencers are.
Thanks, I think you're spot-on. Yep, it has to be tight! I'm working on dance material. You are right that using more than two sequencer boxes is asking for trouble. I think I can find a right balance between using more samples of my own patterns and one or two machines doing their thing. It makes sense to keep a live setup as small as possible too.

The Mutliclock does have offset control for each output but there is also the issue of synchronising pattern changes. I have looked into most suitable sounding MIDI drum machines out there and they all have some degree of fail in this department ( Machinedrum is the only one that does it just about good enough). But ... using sampled drum patterns instead of the drum machines themselves is generally much tighter when syncing to other stuff.. Because you can re-trigger the loops at the start of a bar (or whenever) you aren't relying so much on a MIDI clock or drum machine pattern switching behaviour anymore.

I have always been more drawn to doing stuff live and not recording, and the idea of a computer-less live rig with a few boxes doing their thing is very appealing. For making tracks it was also appealing to be able to jam with synths and drum machines with synced pattern changes and to arrange tracks with MIDI rather than sampled loops so that anything can be changed at any time, but in practice this isn't proving very productive for me. It's genre specific for sure... Some styles of music (like experimental / glitch electronica such as a lot of folks here are doing) probably require a lot of sequencing/programming and thrive on machine interaction.... and it's down to personal ways of working, as creativity is a finicky lady..

There's this feeling that I think others have too that working with samples is a bit soul-less compared to making the tunes with the live boxes... but if the samples are created by myself this shouldn't be a issue!
The alternatives to working with samples is
1) stick to drum machines and synt/sequencers with analog clock / DIN sync, not midi.
2) use ableton and tediously fix shifts by hand with warp markers.

If you just want to put a track down live that won't need edits
option 1 works really well, but it limits your gear choices.
I agree Panason. Syncing gear is just the fucking worst. Maybe I'm just stupid, maybe it's my computer, who knows? Other people seem to be successful, but I just can't get it.

Years ago I fruitlessly spent countless hours trying to get my Machindrum (and later Monomachine) to sync to Ableton. Nope. Bought a ES USAMO to help. Nope. Tried setting MD and master and slaving Ableton. Nope. Same with Mono. Nope. I've burned so much time trying to get all this stupid shit to talk to each other.

I'm sick of it all TBQH. At this point my computer is just a glorified tape machine.

Edit - I don't even want to get into trying to record my modular. I have an ES-1, and while timing is rock solid, audio buffer latency ruins everything for me. I just hate everything about recording.
Oldstench wrote:
I agree Panason.
Years ago I fruitlessly spent countless hours trying to get my Machindrum (and later Monomachine) to sync to Ableton.

Anecdotally (ie in my experience), neither elektron boxes nor ableton sync well to to others.
I don't have much of a problem syncing machines to Ableton as master. It's synchronising pattern changes on the machines and generally trying to arrange complete tracks with MIDI that is proving more hassle than it's worth.

I think people having trouble with Ableton's MIDI clock jitter are probably using Windows and/or combined USB Audio&MIDI interfaces.... Or haven't optimised their Mac for music ( which means disabling anything not needed for music including web browsers, Wifi and bluetooth, stuff in Login Items, software update checkers etc)
When I used to work with grooveboxes/drum machines I found this to be invaluable metronome-module/
enabled tight syncing of up to 6 boxes to a single master clock - not sure it will fix the Ableton side of things but may help as you'd only have to set up PC with the hub and the hub firmware would handle the syncing between grooveboxes
For locking sync from Logic to my rig I use audio - yes, audio:

Forget about expensive midi-CV- or sync boxes. Since the clock ins on almost every analogue sequencers and pattern modules are analogue, make use of that and send it audio analogue clocks from the DAW. To do this (and It did take some time to make ) - I made a single cycle of a square wave as an audio region (tiny as you'd imagine) - I spent time cropping and processing this till I got it to work as I want it to.

Now I have a template in Logic which as a track set up just for sending out these little triggers (either as 16s to a bar or more or less depending on the track ) - this enables me to create an offset for any lag as the sequencer track can be delayed + or - to a minute degree - This output is then fed around the room to the modules that need it.

The same audio pulse can be used as reset for the sequencers on a separate output.

This is my default for syncing my rig to Logic and it works across the board from SERGE, 5u, Wiard and Euro - they all play happy families now

umma gumma
this is a great thread, as I am roaring down the tracks ( pun? ) into the same problems

until now I have been using a motu midi splitter, feeding everything MIDI sync from my DAW

but I'm considering using audio sync, as above.... or possibly midi from my DAW into a single device, which then sends analog/hardware sync to everything else in the chain

thanks for all the ideas!
umma gumma
hmm. although that would not address individual arrangements of different instruments, and their changing patterns etc

I suppose using the square wav could take care of timing, on individual tracks/parts

but you would still need MIDI to feed notes/pitch to the devices?
umma gumma
is is possible to send a master MIDI sync beat to everything, per bar?

that would address drifting over time, on different devices
Sample the audio of all the patterns and jam/arrange using the samples in the DAW or your favourite hardware sampler sequenced by your favourite hardware sequencer...
Panason wrote:

think people having trouble with Ableton's MIDI clock jitter are probably using Windows and/or combined USB Audio&MIDI interfaces....

I wasn't referring to syncing things to ableton, but syncing ableton to something else. If you have two pieces of gear which only work well as a master (ie machine drum and ableton) your run into issues.

OSX is nice in that it has time stamping as part of core midi and that Ableton will make use of it, but you still need to have particular hardware interfaces to make use of timestamped midi. Windows is the same really, you just also need to use those particular interfaces drivers. (ie roland sbx-1 um880 etc).
AFAIK Mac offers no advantages regarding generic midi interfaces. You can setup either systems to perform better or worse regarding usb.

The main issue is no matter what the method of sending midi out -- midi the nature of sycing by clock will cause enough drift to annoy the people who are really particular about sync and are trying to avoid flamming transients. My general take on this, is if that's a problem for you, you shouldn't be trying to sync gear that way. Same story with program changes. If you gear isn't responding to program changes and keeping sync, you shouldn't be sending them, but control your changes in a different manner -- or simply go back and do the edits to clean things up afterwards.

There are always some trade offs between work flows. A convenient workflow for jamming may require inconvenient editing after the fact if you are particularly particular. There is no way around that.

The tightest way is to sync without midi. Drive everything of gear that will take an analog clock of some time and divide it for it's internal sequencer steps. And trigger percussion with trigs, not midi notes.
ear ear
wrt beermaster's post: WavTones.
Thanks all for the comments, some great food for thought.

umma gumma wrote:
is is possible to send a master MIDI sync beat to everything, per bar?

that would address drifting over time, on different devices

If you mean can you reset the MIDI clock at the start of a bar, I don't think so.

This is why sampling is good... You can re-trigger the loops whenever you want so it doesn't matter if they are very slightly out of sync, and in fact that can add character to the groove.

Anyway, MIDI clock jitter is only part of the greater problem, which is the general clunkiness of MIDI and inadequacies of MIDI grooveboxes/ drum machines/ most MIDI sequencers.

The synth market is too inert. MIDI has to be discarded and replaced with a network protocol using widely available ethernet connectors and cables... Most non-Apple computers still have an ethernet port built in...

The thought that in 2018 we don't have a solid digital communication system for music gear when computers and even phones are so powerful... it's absurd. The whole master and slave business has to go and be replaced with networking.. Ableton Link could be the solution but hardware manufacturers are stuck in their ways.
I'm curios how much loss of sync people are seeing generally. I assume it's on the order of milliseconds? Do you hear it only in flams of overlapping hits or is severe enough to hear in other places as well?
There are 2 problems here:

Firstly a program change event always comes after note on events in the midi stream. Its how midi protocol prioritizes event data. So if you have lots of midi notes programmed on the 1st beat of the sequence, your little program change command will get pushed to the back of the line and will not get processed until the note-on events have all passed through.

Midi CC data also comes before program change data, so if you have a tonne of cc events to process on the first beat along with your note data your little program change command will have to wait a long time before it gets looked at, hence the delay.

The second issue concerns USB midi/audio interfaces and sound cards. They are shit for keeping tight a clock. DAW's running heavy plugins and piping audio and midi data down USB produces jiterry clocks. Combine all that with what I said above about midi event priority and you will have shit running all over the place.

I have had better midi timing over USB using a free program called SEQ24 which is a pure midi sequencer, no audio to deal with. Of course there is Atari but they are old and cumbersome nowadays
I use a firewire audio interface and the MIDI is separate on 2 usb ports. One of them has a dedicated MIDI Interface for the drum machine. No clock jitter issues.

Firstly a program change event always comes after note on events in the midi stream.

This is why Elektron should have implemented the Multimap mode from the Machinedrum and A4 on the Rytm too, so we ca use actual MIDI notes to trigger patterns....

I have mostly solved the issue by using the Rytm to send program change messages when changing patterns, which are intercepted by BOME MIDI Translator, converted into MIDI notes and then used to trigger scenes in Ableton. It takes some fiddling and setting up but works OK.
Panason wrote:

This is why Elektron should have implemented the Multimap mode from the Machinedrum and A4 on the Rytm too, so we ca use actual MIDI notes to trigger patterns....

Yeah Elektron are famous for leaving out certain features in some boxes and not others. Each box is crippled in some way. They end up making half completed instruments thinking they will get you to buy the others
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