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(Retro, Future Music, issue 67, March 1998, p49)

On tour une fois

Crescendoing applause, sticky dancers, fawning groupies and an Alesis MMT-8: perfect ingredients for gigging live. Matt Thomas grabs one and heads for the stage...
Alesis MMT-8

Four or five years ago, live dance acts were the exception, but now they're fast becoming the rule. If you want your latest dance track to exceed the usual two-week shelf-life then you'd better hit the road. How to prepare yourself for such an ordeal? In a nutshell, here's all you need to know:

    Rule 1: Don't take your Atari ST out. It will crash.
    Rule 2: Get an MMT-8. It won't.
And if, for any reason, you're still not convinced then I'm afraid your brain must have died. A lucrative in happy hardcore awaits you. (Send hate-mail to 'Matt Thomas c/o Future Music', at the usual address...)

Technical specifications
Songs100 (but in reality, room for three or four)
Memory storageCassette or SysEx
InputsMIDI In, tape sync in, start/stop footswitch
OutputsMIDI Out and Thru, tape sync out, click out

All buttoned up

The MMT-8 isn't much of a looker, resembling a hunch-backed ZX Spectrum, complete with squidgy buttons. But it's this proliferation of rubber (45 buttons in all) that makes the MMT-8 so easy to use. There isn't much scrolling through menus: most functions are a button-press away. All the standard sequencer functions are here: transpose, cut, copy and a rather savage quantise, as well as a handy tape synchronisation section that can stripe and read its own FSK time code. A small but clear LCD, a numeric keypad and dedicated transport controls with LEDs make for a very friendly front panel.

The MMT-8 is a pattern-based sequencer that will present no challenge to anyone who's been weaned on workstation sequencers, or that old Atari favourite, Notator. Tunes are built up from short blocks called patterns, which can be any length up to 682 beats. For example, 'Pattern 01' can be the verse, 'Pattern 02' the breakdown and so on. These patterns are then arranged into a list to make a Song. For live use, it's better to switch out of song mode and switch patterns on the fly. The MMT-8 will always complete the current pattern before switching to the next section, so there's no need to sweat over your timing.

The stand-out attraction for live use is the MMT-8's eight large track buttons. (In case you're thinking that eight tracks seem rather limiting, it's worth knowing that each track can carry up to 16 channels of MIDI information, giving a potential limit of 128 channels.) During live playback of patterns, the track buttons work like mixing desk mutes, switching the MIDI data on and off. This is ideal for live mixes, letting you drop or build tracks in response to the crowd, in a way you could never achieve with a screen and a mouse. Coupled with live pattern switching, this allows for a different version of your track at every gig, which is the main reason people go out to hear music live.

Before heading out on tour, typical procedure is to sync the MMT-8 to the MIDI clock of your studio sequencer and copy songs across, track by track and pattern by pattern. This can be extremely tedious, but then so is watching Coronation Street, and that doesn't help you play a storming set, does it?

Back my gigs up

One of the main drawbacks of the MMT-8 is its lack of a disk drive. The tape back-up is a bit iffy at best, so you can't load in new songs during your set. You might cram three or four songs in the memory, more if they're simple, but that's your lot; so if you can spare the cash, buy a couple of MMT-8s, tape a torch to your head and pretend you're Orbital. Incidentally, the famous Hartnoll Bros' reworking of the miner's lamp may well owe something to the MMT-8's screen, which isn't very bright, making it tricky to read in dark venues.

Although the MMT-8 is perfect for playing live, I wouldn't really recommend using one (or any other hardware sequencer) in your studio. With the current low price of second-hand Atari STs, often bundled with sequencing software, you'd have to be a techno-masochist to make a hardware sequencer your machine of choice, even a little gem like the MMT-8. However, for live use, nothing offers the same amount of hands-on control of mutes and arrangement. And best of all, it won't crash. FM

Future Music

Alesis MMT-8

Price and availability

Released in 1988 and still being produced well into the 90s, the MMT-8 and its twin the HR16 drum machine are slowly becoming 'must-haves' for dance acts. Consequently, the MMT-8's price hasn't fallen much in the last three years, and might even be rising. It's a regular visitor to the FM reader ads, with a typical asking price of between 90 and 120.


Past masters

Orbital's stage show is run by three MMT-8s. Brum's Higher Intelligence Agency are big fans too. And Detroit's Carl Craig was once dubbed "the master of the MMT-8". So there!

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