Hands-On Review:Synhouse MIDIJACK





Part 1: Installation / Features

Synhouse's functional and affordable MIDIJACK can breathe new life into vintage analog synthesizers.


Ease of Use: 3
Value: 5 (MSRP: $99. Optional factory install: $69)
Functionality: 3


The retro/vintage craze has never been bigger. Techno and industrial music-makers keep finding ways to craft new sounds with old curios such as the ARP 2600 and Moog Source synthesizers. Vintage analog synths have an unmistakable sound that more than makes up for their lack of modern conveniences (such as reliability and full MIDI implementation).


But to interface one of these old workhorses with today's computer/MIDI systems, you'll need to convert MIDI data into accurate analog control voltages. And while there are several MIDI-to-CV converters on the market, they're a little pricey - especially when you consider that they usually control a single synth at a time and must be patched into the proper part of the synth's circuitry. While patching a MIDI/CV into an ARP 2600 or a Moog is simple enough because the patch jacks are right on the front panel, the hardwired connections found on many later models make adding MIDI difficult at best.


Enter the diminutive MIDIJACK, an internally mounted universal MIDI interface with a small price tag. You can install the unit in popular analog mono synths from the likes of ARP, Moog, Oberheim, Roland, and Sequential, as well as less common analog synthesizers - modular systems by Aries, E-mu, and Serge, and rare mono synths like the Crumar Spirit, Octave Cat and Kitten, and RSF Kobol.


This wide compatibility exemplifies MIDIJACK's inherently good design: Most old synths (if they were calibrated and remained that way) operate on one-volt (DC)-per-octave scale -- kinda. Unlike most MIDI-to-CV converters, the MIDIJACK's scaling trimmer lets you adjust this voltage value anywhere from .25v/octave to (control an EMS Synth or VCS-3 Putney), up to 1.2v/octave (for an EML synth such as the Electrocomp 101).


This flexibility comes in handy: The Micromoog ran at .9v/octave, but nobody ever knew that until they tried to connect a newer Roland MPU101 MIDI-to-CV/Gate converter -- and could never get it in tune. The MIDIJACK saves you the trouble of patching in a MIDI-to-CV box every time you want to go retro, plus -- because all settings are stored in its non-volatile memory -- it's already configured as soon as you power up.


The MIDIJACK has fairly robust MIDI implementation. You can assign it to respond to one of 16 MIDI channels. You get a MIDI panic button (to kill stuck MIDI notes), as well as MIDI Off mode, MIDIJACK defeat, and local keyboard on/off and (handy if you want to use the MIDIJACK-equipped synth as a controller). The MIDIJACK responds to full range MIDI Note On/Off messages (MIDI notes 0-127) and MIDI sustain pedal operation - but not pitch-bend. Other features include a four-note buffer for trills with automatic error correction, as well as single note triggering for legato playing, and multiple note triggering. You can also adjust MIDI transposition and fine-tune analog CV calibration.


The MIDIJACK's eight prepared, color-coded wire leads make for simple user installation. The average job takes about 30 minutes: After mounting the MIDI In jack, you install the board by drilling four small holes for the screws, MIDI function button, and adjustment trimmer. The detailed documentation describes the theory and general installation method, and more in-depth instructions - as well as diagrams and photographs for specific synthesizer models -- can be found at the company website. You can also opt to have a professional do your install: Most of the techs I polled quoted around $65 or the one-hour minimum bench time, and factory installation is available for most synths for an extra $69 (turnaround time is less than ten days).


Synhouse's crack technician graciously installed a MIDIJACK in my ARP Avatar, a guitar synth that's designed to be controlled by a hex guitar pickup rather than a keyboard. I was a little nervous about ruining my pristine "classic," but the factory installation was clean and fit right in with the look of the rest of the synth's jacks and switches.