Despite the convenience of their virtual counterparts, hardware drum machines, sequencers and samplers have remained ever-popular. This is mostly due to their sound, which can never fully be replicated, their groove and their playability as tangible musical instruments. Synchronizing them to a modern DAW according to its host tempo, however, can be problematic. MIDI beat clock, when sent through USB to a MIDI interface and then to various pieces of gear, can be jittery, removing the groove inherent in these machines. The more processor-intensive the session, the further off the clock accuracy can become. Enter the Sync-Gen Pro II system from Australia's Innerclock Systems, which utilizes both a hardware unit laden with DIN sync and MIDI outputs and a software plugin that sends precision clocking, to provide sample accurate timing to hardware sequencers.
Cynq-Lock is the hardware half of the system. It provides five DIN sync outputs to clock units such as the classic Roland x0x series and five MIDI outputs for any device that receives MIDI beat clock. On the back panel there is a TRS analog variable division arp trigger output for units like the Roland Jupiter 6 and 8, Roland SH-101, OSCAR and Sequential Circuits Pro 1, which utilize this connection for modulation and clock input. Certain drum machines from Linn, Oberheim and Roland use this for sync as well. The included Y cable and footswitch are used to set the quantize interval, from a full bar to a 1/16th note, that comes from this particular output. The Cynq-Lock has two 1/4" inputs that receive timing pulses from any DAW host via the Sync-Gen Pro II plugin, available as an RTAS or VST instrument.
Basically, all you need is any multi-channel audio interface that can dedicate two of its outputs to communicate with the Cynq-Lock. One of the outputs transmits start-stop messages while the other sends the sync pulses. The front panel has four LEDs that indicate that the Cynq-Lock is receiving the transport signal and sync pulses accurately, plus an LED that blinks on the quarter note to display the tempo.
The Sync-Gen II plugin opens up with two 16-step sequencers, each of them up to eight bars in length, that control both the transport and the sync messages. Here you can program the pattern length and rate of playback speed in real-time without ever going out of sync. This allows for musically creative time signatures, stutters and all sorts of things never before possible. Users into complicated time signatures will love this feature. Probably one of the more incredible functions of the Sync-Gen system is that it can transmit swing to units that have never had this ability, like the TR-808. Familiar to MPC users, swing is set from 50%-75%. It is possible to program each bar to have different clocking and swing settings as well. There is a feature known as Swing Blur, which has two levels of blur to introduce a more human feel. All parameters of the plugin are fully programmable via MIDI and can be "learned" and assigned in real time. User presets which contain patterns, swing percentages and all other parameters can be saved/recalled and copy/pasted in real time without having to even press stop in the host DAW.
I tested the unit on a Mac Pro running OS 10.6.8 and Pro Tools 9.0.5. It only took a few minutes to get set up and running. I sent clock to a variety of vintage and modern units: Roland TR-707, TR-808, TR-909, Akai MPC1000, Future Retro Revolution and Elektron Octatrack. Immediately I realized how much easier and convenient this was than daisy chaining various units via several MIDI thru and out ports. This is the first time I was able to incorporate all of these devices into one beat without overdubs because of the 808's limitation of having a single DIN sync connection. It is impossible to have a MIDI beat clock to DIN sync conversion without introducing some amount of latency. This was apparent when comparing the same beat that was clocked first with the Sync-Gen system and then the old-fashioned way.
Even in a basic session with ten audio tracks recording the drum machines' outputs, the one created with the Sync Gen sounds correct from the moment you press play in the DAW. Anyone who has ever used beat clock from their computer to record hardware sequencers knows that it usually requires a great deal of editing to match the host's grid. The Sync Gen Pro's accuracy across the duration of the song eliminates the workaround of making a short loop and copy/pasting it across the arrangement or the use of features like elastic audio in Pro Tools.
The Sync Gen is especially useful in situations where you want to add hardware sequences to sessions that already have audio tracks in them, like remixes that have vocals playing back from the DAW, for example. Computer MIDI beat clock is variable and its amount of jitter is based on how many other operations the system is handling. Projects that already have lots of active audio tracks and plugins open create an increasingly unstable clock, whereas the Sync Gen system removes the clocking from the serial bus, and is jitter free even in the most system-taxing sessions. Additionally, by removing MIDI clock from the outputs of a traditional MIDI interface, regular notes being sent to hardware synthesizers are also now more accurate.
In my testing, there were things that needed a little editing, like the TR-707 which was pretty jittery on its own. After lining up the first note, the rest were consistent for the duration of the recording. As it is explained on the Innerclock Systems website section labeled Litmus Test, even though these units are receiving sample accurate sync, they have their own internal clocks which can be jittery, especially some of the old Roland pieces. What the Sync-Gen does is avoid adding to these inconsistencies. The Sync-Gen performed consistent no matter how complicated the session got, which is something that cannot be said about the same session trying to send MIDI beat clock. If you would like to sync your DAW to hardware sequencers and have the best of both worlds, the Sync Gen II Pro system should be a serious consideration.
Ease of use: 4/5