I wanted to start using the midi tips section of our blog to talk about some of the most common questions that we receive. It’s seems that hardly a day goes by when someone does not call or e-mail us asking about how they can purchase our sounds on ROM, RAM or PCM data cards. We let them know that we no longer carry the cards and all our sounds are available in “system exclusive” (sysex) format for Mac or PC computers.

At that point about half of them go….What is sysex? Maybe your one of them. It’s like I’m speaking some mysterious foreign language. These are usually musicians that just never really got into using the computer with their synthesizer. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. There are lot’s of talented musicians out there who just are not into that. They basically use their computer to surf the net or send e-mail and they are not interested in digital recording, midi and all that other stuff. Some feel it’s just too complicated and don’t want to bother with it.

Well I can understand that point of view, but judging from personal experience I’m glad I got into it. It’s not as hard as it seems. There are lots of cool things you can do once you connect your computer to your keyboards, but let me just focus on the sysex issue for today.

What is this sysex stuff and why should I care about it?

Let me answer the “why should I care” part first…

Well first of all, those RAM, ROM and PCM data cards that I mentioned earlier have not been made in many years. Even if you can mange to find some on ebay or at a music store that sells used equipment there is a good chance that the internal battery on the card is dead and it’s not always possible to replace it. Yeah, all those old cards have lithium battery’s inside them. All the synthesizers being made now have better way’s of expanding the sounds by using expansion boards or smart media cards so the RAM, ROM and PCM card format died during the mid 90’s.

Let me talk about RAM cards first. RAM stands for “Random Access Memory”. RAM cards usually did not come with preset sounds on them. They were used to “store” your sounds or sequences. With some cards, like the old Korg or Roland 256K RAM cards that were used with the Korg M1, Wavestation Series or Roland D50 it’s still possible to get a lithium battery at a place like radio shack. However, there are many old RAM cards like those old Yamaha DX7 RAMs or Rolands M64C cards that were used with the Roland MKS70, JX10, JX8P or Super Jupiter that you can’t replace the battery. Once the battery dies then that’s it. I advise not to purchase any of those cards because if the battery is not already dead, then it’s going to be very soon.

Other reason why you should care is money. When you can find them, RAM cards are usually pretty expensive for the amount of data that they hold. Usually you can only save one bank of sounds on the card and you usually can’t customize the card with your favorite sounds. ROM (Read only memory) cards and PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) cards you can “not” save any data on. They usually come with preset sounds on them. Also remember that they also have an internal battery and once that goes the sounds are gone….and your not getting them back. The card is worthless at that point.

You should also remember that your synthesizer has an internal lithium battery that usually needs to be replaced about every 5-10 years. Once the battery dies then you lose all your sounds. If you don’t have them backed up somewhere then your in trouble.

Once you start getting into this whole sysex thing, then all these problems just fade away.

Now let me answer the first part of that question…..What is SYSEX?

The technical stuff……

Each instrument manufacturer wants their MIDI device to do something special that no other MIDI device can do exactly the same way. Rather than clutter the MIDI standard with thousands of messages that are exclusive to a single device, the MIDI standard defined a message type called System Exclusive.

A System Exclusive message has a standard beginning, saying “This is a SysEx message from manufacturer So-and-so”. After that comes whatever manufacturer So-and-so wants. The message ends with a standard ending.

So how will sysex let me load in new sounds into my synthesizer?

First you need a Midi Interface. The interface will connect your computer to your instruments. It plugs in to the USB port on your computer. If you have a pre USB computer you will have to find a old style midi interface that will connect to your computers “serial port”. Those are not made new anymore. You connect two “midi cables” to the midi interface on one end and your keyboard on the other end.

You can get a USB midi interface at your local Music Store or just about anywhere online. Sometimes we even carry them at our Hardware Section. They are not expensive and start at about $60. US dollars. You can also do things like recording or printing music with your computer once you get a midi interface so it’s a great investment if your interested in making music with your computer.

If your just interested in loaded new sounds via sysex then a simple interface with one or two inputs/outputs will do. For those of you with many instruments and want to get into recording midi with a sequencer program then you will require a larger interface with more inputs and outputs.

Once you get the midi interface and have everything connected. You use your computer to perform what is called a “System Exclusive” or SYSEX Dump. You can load the sounds through the “Midi Port” on your synthesizer. You can also store all your sounds for all your Midi instruments on your hard drive. It’s much cheaper than buying RAM, ROM or PCM cards and everything can be easily backed up on a CD or DVD. No more worries about losing your important data.

What software do I need to start working with SYSEX data transfers?

There are tons of free programs online which will let you dump sysex in and out of your computer. We have a few applications at our website which will get you started. The programs can be downloaded at our our demo page. There are also many other sysex programs available at sites like; www.hitsquad.com.

We also provide detailed instructions on how to make everything work. Your owners manuel for your synthesizer or sampler will have instructions on how to set up your instruments to transfer data via midi. It varies slightly from one instrument to another. It’s usually just a matter of turning the memory protect “off” and the sysex turned “on” on your instrument. Also make sure that your instruments “midi channel” matches the channel that your software is on. Most software usually defaults to channel “one”.

There are also some commercial programs that will not only dump data to and from the computer to synth, but will edit and store custom banks of sounds for you. These are called “Editor/Librarians”. One of our favorites is Mark Of The Unicorn’s “Unisyn”. We use it often to create many our synthesizer sounds with our computers. Unisyn comes in Mac or PC formats and will work with over 150 Midi instruments. Check out the MOTU Web Site for details on all their products. They have lot’s of cool stuff. If you have a lot of synths in your rig or your interested in creating custom made soundbanks with all of your favorite sounds then you might want to go this route.

Can I load Roland D50 sounds into my Korg M1 with sysex? I love the sound of the D50 and would like to get those sounds in my M1.

No. In most cases two instruments from two different companies are “NOT COMPATIBLE”. There are few exceptions. In most cases synthesizers have their own special sysex parameters and can only accept data made specifically for it.

Well I guess that about covers it. It hope I’ve shed some light on some of your questions about sysex. Now go out and pick yourself up a midi interface, download the free software that we have at our web site and get going. Once you have it all set up and working it’s a breeze to work with and you will never look at another RAM, ROM or PCM card again!

Good Luck.