MOTU MIDI Express XT
|Features Usability Documentation & Product Support Price Other Comments
Contact Info Overall Rating—Product Summary
A brief history lesson, told in an announcer’s voice: “Back in the days of bell-bottomed pants and flower power, early keyboard man had two (or more) keyboards, but while busy playing one of them, the other keyboard sat idly by with limited purpose. Eventually, man created Spandex, leg warmers, and MIDI, a serial communications protocol that enabled the interconnection and remote operation of multiple keyboards. Now, keyboard man could play multiple keyboards from a single set of keys, and new keyboards could be purchased without any keys at all! Man called those sound modules, and life was good.”
From there, things just got better and better, and now 32 years later, the MIDI specification (still technically at version 1.0) is the longest surviving, serial communications protocol ever created for devices to communicate with each other electronically, and its use is far greater than simply connecting two keyboards together as it was when it was first conceived.
But even in this era of soft-synths running on a computer, real keyboard players are still playing multiple keyboards, only now those keyboards have to communicate with each other and with a computer running any number of music-related applications or virtual instruments. As such, there’s just as much need today for a good MIDI patchbay as there ever was even before the computer became a central hub in modern keyboard rigs.
With virtually no other companies manufacturing MIDI patch bays today, we’re happy to report that the quality and ease of use behind the latest generation of MOTU’s MIDI patch bays is just what you need to build a reliable, pro-level keyboard rig. We put the MOTO MIDI Express XT through the review cycle and can’t seem to figure out exactly how to unscrew it from our rack, so obviously, it’s going to have to stay there forever.
The MOTO MIDI Express XT patch bay is an 8x8 MIDI patch bay that features eight MIDI inputs, eight MIDI outputs, and a USB MIDI computer interface.
The MIDI Express XT has a SMTPE time code synchronizer, useful for composers scoring music to video, and it can server as either a SMPTE clock or slave. It supports all popular specs for frame rates used in North America and Europe, in both LTC and VITC formats.
The included (optional to use) Clockworks software provides access to a range of capabilities found in both the MIDI Express XT and the MOTU Micro Express. If you only require basic connectivity for lots of MIDI/keyboard devices to a sequencer running on your computer, you won’t need to utilize the Clockworks software—and you can alternately build your keyboard rig around the less costly MOTU MIDI Express 128 or micro lite MIDI patchbays. But with the Clockworks application, you get precise control over which MIDI inputs send signals to specific MIDI outputs, and you gain the ability to set precise filters on the MIDI data stream.
The MIDI Express XT has sixteen memory locations, the first eight of which are factory preconfigured with specific signal routing paths, while an additional eight user preset memory locations can be used to store your personal customizations. Front panel buttons toggle between the factory and user presets, and let you scroll sequentially through the presets in a given bank.
Some of the presets are configured with different frame rates for video synchronization, and others modify data flow as needed with MIDI Machine Control, but the typical preset most players will use is the one aptly titled “Live Keyboards.” This one routes all inputs to all outputs, so any device can control any other device assuming you’ve configured your MIDI channels in each device appropriately. Other presets split the eight Ins and Outs into two isolated groups that don’t share MIDI data across all ports (like having two independent, four-port patchbays), useful if you want to assign some of your MIDI controllers specifically to certain MIDI devices but never to your entire setup.
Once you’ve selected a preset, either via the front panel or via the Clockworks software interface, you don’t need to access the software again, as all settings are stored inside the MIDI Express XT. After you’ve saved whatever custom routings you need, you don’t even need to connect to a computer if you’re using a live keyboard rig without a computer.
The aforementioned pedal input jack enables you to connect a momentary footswitch. While the most typical use is so that you can scroll through the routing presets hands-free, the pedal input can also be set to generate MIDI data (notes, continuous controller messages, patch changes, etc.) that can be routed to any specific MIDI output you’d like.
MMC inputs and outputs provide routing of MIDI Machine Control transport commands (to use transport controls on your keyboard/controller to operate your DAW). Sophisticated MIDI data filtering enables precise control over what data comes in or out over specific MIDI channels (or you can apply filters globally). For example, if one of your synths were outputting MIDI Time Code from its step sequencer, you could purposely choose to block the time code from being received by your other devices without having to change all of their global settings for various time synchronization options. Or, you could set the filter to block one of your keyboards from receiving MIDI PC messages.
The MOTU micro express has the same general feature set on a smaller scale.
Operation of the MOTO MIDI Express XT is straightforward, and it begins with installing some drivers for the interface on your computer (Mac or Windows). After running the included product installer on our MacBook Pro and connecting the MIDI Express XT via an included USB cable, Apple’s Audio MIDI Setup application automatically recognized our MIDI interface. We then added our various keyboards and rack modules within Audio MIDI Setup, named them, and were off and running.
By default, the computer USB MIDI interface was configured to communicate with all eight MIDI ports, so nothing special was required to provide basic connectivity between MIDI controller keyboards, soft-synths, and our Avid Pro Tools 11 installation (for sequencing and running native virtual instrument plug-ins).
Performance is one of the main reasons you invest in a MIDI patchbay. Stringing a few MIDI devices together in series from their MIDI Thru to MIDI In to Thru to In and so on will easily demonstrate the dark side of what latency is all about (not that there’s ever a good side)… the beauty of patchbays like the MOTU MIDI Express XT is the lack of latency: signals from one input hit all of the outputs at the same time.
The Clockworks software was very easy to use. From the Routings tab, all of our devices show up in two columns, and we were able to simply drag-and-drop from the source column to the destination column in order to connect the MIDI Out from specific devices to the MIDI In of others. To have one controller direct its MIDI messages to multiple devices, we simply drew multiple lines, and the display updated to show the multiple signal paths as illustrated below:
We appreciated the front panel Panic button, which proved useful when we experienced an occasional stuck MIDI note with some of our older sound modules.
We were able to easily step through the presets via a footswitch (not included), but surprisingly, we couldn’t assign a MIDI channel to the MIDI Express XT itself and select presets via program change (PC) messages—despite this being listed as a product feature! While not necessarily a showstopper, this is a critical missing feature for many players in an otherwise exemplary product… that used to actually have this feature! It seems that older, pre-USB versions of the interface had this capability, but the current revision under review can’t do this.
Documentation and Product Support
MOTU’s documentation is very good, and covers use of the entire range of MIDI patchbays. Newbies will find the content related to synchronizing MIDI and video especially helpful, but we would have liked to see some examples of various MIDI setups and perhaps read some suggestions related to best practices.
The MOTO MIDI Express XT (MSRP $395) sells for approximately $350 street, a fair price. If you don’t need a dedicated computer interface or the custom routing flexibility provided by the Clockworx software, other MOTU interfaces have similar performance at a lower price.
Overall Rating - Product Summary
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