Quick Shot review 33:
Edirol UM-1EX MIDI interface
Review date: 27th November 2006. Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
For years, I resisted getting an eBay account. This is unusual, especially for a nerd like me, but I never much liked the idea of auctions. I was always more of a Trading Post or (way back when) newsgroups kinda guy.
But I finally went there because I needed to sell something. And therein started the descent of the slippery slope.
As a result, I suddenly have an electronic drum kit in my house. I've always wanted to learn how to play drums, mainly because it's hellishly fun. Electronic kits may sound poxy (unless you spend many many thousands of dollars), but they also have several advantages.
They take up less space, are lighter, and are more portable than real drums, but as far as I'm concerned their main advantage is that my girlfriend and neighbours will allow my drumming career to be longer lived than just a few minutes.
The other cool thing about my electronic drums is that they run through a synthesiser module, which allows you to select exactly which overproduced 80s boom or tish is appropriate for your needs. And, like all good synth modules, mine has MIDI connectors.
MIDI is a standard that has existed for years. In times gone by, sound cards often came with proprietary MIDI interfaces, but if you ever wanted to use MIDI properly you really needed an separate adaptor. Not much has changed.
Enter the Edirol UM-1EX MIDI interface. It costs $AU104.50 delivered from Aus PC Market here in Australia. You get a USB connector on one side, and two 5-pin DIN MIDI plugs on the other (one for input, one for output). In the middle is a little box that does the processing.
Edirol is a brand name of Roland, who aren't exactly small fry in the music world. The UM-1EX isn't new, either; it's been around for a few years. This is good, though; the drivers are mature (the supplied driver is actually the latest version!) and the design is tried and tested by many already.
According to the packaging, the USB cable is "1.2m (3 feet)". 1.2 metres is actually closer to four feet, but who's counting. The MIDI connector side has a cable quoted as being 0.7m in length, which they call two feet (it's 2.3). I grabbed a tape measure and checked the old fashioned way; all up, including the box in the middle, the UM-1EX is about two metres long (6 feet, 7 inches for you recalcitrants).
There's not all that much you can say about a MIDI adaptor. Its job is to take one type of digital signal and feed it to the computer, and vice-versa. How the computer itself deals with MIDI information is up to the music software you're running. Outputting MIDI can be as simple as configuring the UM-1EX as the default MIDI device and opening a .mid file in the media player of your choice.
A good MIDI adaptor must support simultaneous input and output (which the UM-1EX does), as well as have low latency (i.e., the delay in transmitting the information from point A to point B).
Specifically to provide low latency, the UM-1EX comes with a special driver. The marketroids have been at it, and the literature states that it uses "FPT" to realise low latency. FPT turns out to stand for "Fast Processing Technology" (and not Floating Point Technology, which would have only been slightly less silly).
The special driver can be configured to run in "light load" mode, which increases latency slightly but reduces the system load correspondingly.
If you don't want to use the special FPT driver (maybe you forgot to take the driver disc to your mate's place, or maybe you use Linux, although there's a Linux driver for the UM-1EX anyway), you can flick a little switch on top of the unit to make it a plug and play device that uses the USB-MIDI driver built into many current operating systems.
Both drivers worked just fine for me, but conducting a proper, replicable A-B latency test of the interface is a little difficult at best, as the performance of any I/O is strongly influenced by the software you use to do it, and nobody seems to make dedicated MIDI benchmarking software that doesn't need special hardware.
One thing the manual does point out is that you need to reconfigure Windows' multitasking to prioritise background tasks, and if you don't your latency mileage may vary.
[MIDI latency isn't likely to be much of a problem for a small setup like this anyway, particularly if you're using an even slightly recent PC. If you expand your MIDI setup then the special Roland driver might be more useful, and the UM-1EX makes that easy. Edirol also make the UM-3EX, a 3-in, 3-out interface with two USB ports on it, into which you can plug up to two other interfaces - UM-1EXes or more UM-3EXes. So if you get more gear and need more ports, you can upgrade elegantly and still use your original UM-1EX. Aus PC Market sell the 3EX for $AU217.80 including Australian delivery; Australian shoppers can click here to order one. -Dan]
Finishing up the feature set, there's a second switch on the top which lets you put the 1EX in passthrough mode (MIDI in goes to MIDI out and vice-versa, rather than them both interfacing with the computer).
There are also three LEDs which indicate connections on the three plugs (in, out, USB). The two MIDI indicators also flash when there is information flowing.
The UM-1EX is a specialty piece of equipment, so you'll know if you need it. If you're after a no-bells-and-whistles MIDI interface for the PC or Mac, I'd certainly have a good look at one.
All up, I got drums in, and drums out (my playing is still fairly crappy, but as Dan pointed out, there are other alternatives), with no noticeable latency issues, which was the aim of the game. Now, with just a little overdubbing, I can transform myself into a bedroom rock god.
Australian and New Zealand buyers can grab the UM-1EX from Aus PC Market, delivered, for $104.50. International buyers should have no trouble finding a local dealer with the assistance of the big G.
Aus PC Market's MIDI-gear lineup no longer includes the UM-1EX.
If you'd like to expand your MIDI setup, though, Aus PC Market have the UM-3EX for $AU217.80 including Australian delivery. Aussie shoppers can click here to order it.