adventures in DIY music

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Southworth Music Systems Jambox 4+

Having slowly acquired a bunch of studio equipment over the years, one of my motivations is to ensure that the old stuff maintains some usefulness in the current system. This probably isn't practical for a commercial studio, but for an amateur (in the old sense of the word as well) it contributes to the space having a unique work flow, and therefore hopefully having a unique sound.
So I was delighted recently to discover something incredibly useful that had been lying in storage for the last maybe 20 years or so. I pulled this thing out because I was looking for a way to expand the routing from my midi control area, and it turned out to be just the ticket. It had been left there by someone I had worked with, and I believe they thought it was past its use-by date, because no mac computer had been able to talk to it since the days of System 6 OS.
The Jambox 4+ was a 4 way midi interface  made in 1986 or so. It connected to the Mac via a RS 422 port. It featured 4 midi ins and outs, SMPTE in and out, audio click in and out, and a DIN-sync output that had extra connections that gave you clock speeds other than 24 ppqn. Just straight out of the box, without any configuration, it merged all 4 ins and sent them thru to all 4 outputs, hence its usefulness in a midi master control setup.
However, it turned out that, even though I possessed no computer that could talk to this thing (and no application program for such a computer if I had one), the operators manual gave a bunch of midi sys-ex codes that allowed you to configure the sync options and the ports' midi plumbing. You could do the usual midi filtering, channelising and re-routing. You could set a tempo source: internal, midi clock or audio click, and then generate all those modalities along with 5 volt clocks at the DIN connector at speeds of 24, 48, 96, 192 and 386 ppqn!!  There were also SMPTE and tempo map functions, with which I have no experience, but everything was clearly explained in the excellent manual (a copy of which I will link to, along with the sys-ex codes). The click and 5 volt clock outs could also be handy in a modular set-up.

I opened 'er up on the bench to take a peek inside: very nicely put together as you can see. There are jumpers near the DIN connector to change the clock speeds on a couple of pins. There are also jumpers near the RS422 port whose purpose I don't know. There is a NEC battery (?capacitor) that the manual says will run down after about a week of inactivity, requiring a reset.

My curiosity was piqued. Some clever people had made this. What was the story? 
There wasn't much info about Southworth Music Systems on the web, but recently there had become available online a review by Martin Russ from 1986 of a software sequencing package called Total Music, where he gives it a glowing appraisal, and says 

"To sum up, Total Music is an outstanding sequencer program offering instantly usable and extremely musician-friendly recording, editing and printing facilities, without recourse to superfluous graphics or unwieldy controls. I had no problems in getting it running or in using it - almost everything worked exactly as I expected, and when it didn't, the manual quickly pointed me in the right direction.

In use, it behaved as an idealised 99-track tape recorder, only better. And in the limited time I used it, I feel sure that I only scratched the surface of the creative potential of Total Music's sequencing and editing facilities. Bill Southworth is to be congratulated on such a magnificent achievement. If only all MIDI software were this good!"

Link to the review here:

High praise indeed. What's more, I got the impression from that review, that the "piano roll" note graphics were quite a new thing at the time. These days, every DAW uses them somewhere. Was that also a Southworth innovation?
Via LinkedIn, I tracked down the founder, Bill Southworth, and he was gracious enough to allow me to quote a fascinating little story he told me:

(Quote) The “invention” of the piano role notation was the result of a brainstorm with Bobby Nathan and Unique Studios in New York.  We were in his studio on 43th street where I was showing off the prototype of Total Music on a 128K first generation Macintosh.  It did realtime standard music notation, which I was quite proud of.  It was written in the Forth language because that was the only native language on the Mac that didn’t require a cross compiler.  As a side benefit, although it was awfully obscure, it was very compact and fast.

So I went through the demo and Bobby and the lady in the room didn’t seem very impressed.  Bobby said after a few minutes, “We can’t use this.”  I was a bit surprised and hurt and asked why.  The lady in the room, Stevie Nicks, said, “Not too many people here read music.”  Bobby added, “and you need more precision like a piano roll.” I said so like a piano roll but with velocity information.  That became the first piano roll notation.

Bobby later used Total Music as a key part to the world’s first midi recording studio, Midi City.

Another key contributor to my ideas was Jan Hammer, who had a lot to do with the evolution of the Jambox.  He was one of the first composers to use all midi synths for a TV soundtrack.  He did all the music for the original Miami Vice TV series at his farm in upstate New York. I remember he called me in a panic one weekend because the producers had to squeeze in an extra commercial and he needed to re-time the entire score.  I asked if a graphic curve that could change the tempo gradually would help.  I put the change in.  The very first use of that feature was on the next Miami Vice episode.

So TM and the Jambox had a lot of parents.  Great artists had great imaginations and big needs.  My fondest memories of those days is the people I got to work with from Herbie Hancock to John Tesh (Tour de France 1988) to Pope John Paul II (for the Vatican midi studio). (End Quote)

Thanks Bill, great story, I wanna hear more!

If you're lucky enough to find a Jambox, you may not be so lucky to find a manual. I couldn't find one online. So I have scanned the operators manual (which also covers the Jambox 2) and separately scanned the midi sys-ex documentation. Even if you don't find one, the manual is worth a look for its very lucid and concise explanations  of timecode, midi clock, and DIN and TTL sync. 

Jambox manual © Southworth Music Systems

The Jambox at the centre of the studio's midi control, with a Midipal on the right.

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