(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...
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.
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...)
Rule 2: Get an MMT-8. It won't.
|Songs||100 (but in reality, room for three or four)|
|Memory storage||Cassette or SysEx|
|Inputs||MIDI In, tape sync in, start/stop footswitch|
|Outputs||MIDI 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.
© Future Music
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.
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!