Sysex in the musician’s world is short for System Exclusive. This is the finest part of the midi protocol. It allows you to save all your work (with any midi equipped synth, drum machine, sequencer, effect unit etc) both for backups and for sharing the work with collaborators or – as for me, delivering my sounds to your synth.
For a beginner in midi and music it might seem daunting at first but it is all very simple really – and I’ll try to explain it in the most simple way. Which is the way I personally prefer studying as well. It’s easy and quite common for any seasoned user to over-complicate things and that won’t take us anywhere, will it?
Sysex super basics
1. Make sure protect is set to off in the synth
2. Set the midi channel to 1
3. Activate sysex in any recieve & transmit settings
4. Activate bulk load / data transmit etc (not needed in most cases)
5. Send the message from your midi interface & sysex software
6. Start playing new sounds!
I started using sysex back in the late 1980’s, and this is when this was a new and uncommon practice. I first discovered sysex files bundled with early sequencer programs: I think one of the first ones were C-Lab Creator for the Atari ST, excitingly they had a file with sounds for my synth and I instantly wanted to try them out. But thankfully I realised I had to save my own sounds first and this is how I got started.
System exclusive is what it is if you look at those two words. This means that a sysex file for the Roland Alpha Juno 2 only works with that synth, but hold on a second. Because there are often different variants of the same models; in the case of the Juno 2 those sounds also work perfectly in the Alpha Juno 1 and the rack module called MKS-50.
Yamaha is very funny in that way because when they had started releasing FM synths they just couldn’t stop – and they recycled the internal design several times. To give you an example, my old favourite, the TX81Z rack module, is fully compatible with these synths, hold your breath;
|Yamaha DX11||Yamaha TQ-5||Yamaha DS-55||Yamaha YS-100|
|Yamaha YS-200||Yamaha V-50||Yamaha V2||Yamaha B-200|
And probably some more models. Not stopping there; those are the ones the TX81Z is compatible with going both ways so to speak, but as the 81Z was an improvement of the earlier 4-operator synth design, patches from (but not to) these should probably also work in the 81Z; at least with some minor hands on editing or by help from an editor software.
|Yamaha DX9||Yamaha DX21||Yamaha DX21S||Yamaha DX27|
|Yamaha DX27S||Yamaha DX100||Yamaha FB01||& more…?|
But that’s like exceptions of the basic rule, because the data is on a theoretical level only compatible with itself, but most synths were at least released in two versions; a rack and a keyboard model.
A funny story from my own adventures into synthesizers was that I once had a Roland D-550 and I made a few patches on it but I still wasn’t too engaged using it so it was traded for something else. But those patches were still in its memory.
Fast forward 25 years and a guy gives me his collection of D-50 compatible Atari floppy disks with sounds that he’d collected. Among those sounds I find these patches;
|Flute for Arpegios||Dual||ENV Blowo||ENV Floot|
|HiProfileLowImpact||Dual||P a d Z t||P a n F t|
|Obermatrix Oberst||Dual||LFOsActive||ENV on LSD|
This is when something happens in the back of my brain and when the brain instantly connects with my jaw – which drops completely. You see those names – above – are pretty specific, right? Even though if there had been 202 billion zillion D-50 users out there those patch names would still have been unique. And the incorrectly spelled “arpegios” would perhaps help there. Now, ENV is my own old company name and from ENV Ljud & musikproduktion (translated this becomes ENV Sound & music production) in Gnesta, I started out selling my sounds to the world in 1991 when I was still living at home with my parents, 19 years old.
The ENV products I designed back then are still basically active products, and some of them such as my Kawai K4 patches have now been updated as late as yesterday. You will find those here. Other ENV designs were the TX81Z banks SequenceMe A, SequenceMe B and RaveDeTekno – today back and active again inside the 8Z Pro refill for the Propellerhead PX7 – as well as the Casio VZ sound bank Into The Next Millennium, the Roland JX banks LFO Experiences and a large number of Ensoniq EPS & ASR floppy disks.
So, back to the story then – well, it was so common to save sounds back in the days before internet that someone actually saved my patches for me. Picture the journey I take by train to Södertälje from Gnesta, carrying my D-550, trading it at Tälje Musik & John Doe picks it up 9 months later, browses through the patches and finds my sounds. He thinks they have some value, so he saves them to a RAM card and forgets about them. Two years later, John Doe’s brother Allan Doe starts playing with sysex transfers and sends those sounds to the new music PC, an Intel 386-based machine with floppy drive. The PC floppies are compatible with Atari floppies so he saves all D-50 banks to a disk. His newly found friend Douglas McDoe – who is an avid patch collector – adds it to his plethora of D-50 sound disks and he also makes copies for his patch pals Sarah Doe and Jane Doe.
Suddenly we are back in modern days again and my third or fourth D-50 gets a transmission successfully message from my fifth Atari ST – and lo & behold; the sounds I never saved are back from cyberspace and it’s all happening with technology we only used before the internet. My jaw still drops from time to time; and the patches I once made are actively living inside the D-50 here ever since I found them again.
As I have made a zillion patch banks for various machines and software instruments over the years, another fun discovery was at the music store JAM in Stockholm where I found a JX-8P a few years ago. Johan Antoni, my friend and the store owner, says from the back of the counter: That one comes from Stonebridge. You know of Stonebridge? Ever heard that Robin S hit record? 🙂 And I’m like “Cool!” so I start browsing its internal memory. What’s there? Well, that old jaw dropped there as well. My own JX patches were there; with patch names like:
|LOVE ALIVE||FLYTE TYME||AMBIENTPAD||THE ROBOTS|
|WURLITZERY||JD990||7TH RESO||LESLIE PAD|
PJ STRINGS Background story: I showed my old friend Peter Thiemke how to program a sound – and he had just changed his surname to Johansson. He was excited to write out a patch name in the display, so he entered PJ STRINGS and I saved it. Rest in peace to Peter, who sadly isn’t with us any longer.)
… and a number of other ones. These sounds were also sent to Swemix back in the early 1990s and Stonebridge’s JX8P got injected with my sounds; over 20 years later they were still in the internal memory of the synth.
So anyway, back to the system exclusive thing; these stories are just too good not to share so I couldn’t resist it!
Now, the fantastic thing about the sysex files is that they are the smallest files on this earth, but they are also the most important lines of computer code you can ever send from and to your synthesizers. In the case of the Kawai K4, a 14.8 kilobyte file can transfer the instrument entirely. If, for instance you would go from an internal Kawai factory bank to a Bitley™ sound bank, you would find yourself standing in front of a totally different instrument. Wave goodbye to weak D-50 approximations (that uses too many active parts – so they are laggy to play as well = utterly and completely useless in my book at least). Wave hello to sounds like these;
So 14.8 kilobytes of data will be sufficient to send out no less than 64 SINGLE patches, 64 MULTI patches, all EFFECT settings and all DRUM settings: the internal memory of the computer inside of the / or being the Kawai K4 has 16 kilobytes of battery backed-up RAM so 14.8 kb is a huge deal of data for the K4.
I personally mainly use Mac computers and I love and recommend the freeware software Sysex Librarian from snoize. It allows you to save your own sounds to your computer – and it allows you to send out sounds to it that you ideally purchase from guys like myself. If you are on PC, Linux, Atari or even Amiga, there are software out there for them as well that does this. MachineDrum legends Elektron has a great little app called C6 that you can use, for instance.
Recommended sound designers out there: Right now I think about SoundSource Unlimited who made some pretty cool K4 banks called M1 Impressions and D-50 Impressions. I saw the other day that they are still being active products, today sold by Greytsounds. I bought those on floppy disks back in the 18th century. Must have been in 1990. Modern day sound designers that I can recommend: Don Solaris, who made his JV-1080 Patches Soundset. I bought those and made this track with them:
The Midi Manufacturer’s Organisation is the joint venture of companies like Roland, Sequential, Oberheim, Yamaha – and the ones we lost; E-mu and Ensoniq for instance. These companies were basically the founders of the MIDI protocol standard back in 1982 – 1983 and the organisation maintains decisions like what sysex code should be what manufacturer. This is great, because if you study a sysex file it will contain the synth manufacturer in clear text. This is a part of the midi & sysex specifications since a very long time, probably since it was designed.
So let’s study a sysex file; here’s one of mine. If you’re a hex code hacker you might copy all of it and it would give you a few of my patches, but that’s your reward if you take the plunge then;
Here, you see the basic functions of a sysex software solution like the aforementioned SysEx Librarian. The functions are really very basic: you can select which MIDI port of your interface to use – I personally use a very old but still trusty Midiman USB Midisport 4 x 4 interface. This one has lived for over 20 years. Hooray! And you see a mysterious button named Play, as well as the buttons Record One and Record Many.
Now, you don’t always need a software like SysEx Librarian, MIDI-OX, Elektron C6 or such: some DAWs actually record system exclusive as well. Cubase has been able to do that since the Atari days for instance. Interestingly some machines also can record sysex. An example: the Ensoniq EPS & ASR samplers.
The sysex file contains a stream of numbers like the one you see to the left above, and MIDI is a smart protocol so it never sends everything in one go; it sends number by number. This goes in milliseconds so a complete “BULK” dump or sysex dump for a feature laden synth like the D-50 takes less than 30 seconds. For a simpler machine like the Kawai K4 it takes about 10 seconds, and for a very simple machine like the Casio CZ synths it takes about five seconds to fill the synth’s internal memory with interesting sounds. CZ users should be the first ones to jump on the sysex train by the way as those synths – except the more well-built CZ-1 perhaps – does not have a battery backed up memory, so everytime you unplug a CZ synth from the power outlet or remove its internal batteries (CZ-101 and CZ-1000 only) it loses the internal memory and you would have to start programming all over again. Horrible designs! 😉 But sysex can save your life there.
So, technically, what happens is that your synth sends out or transmits so-called bulk dumps – in most cases. Older and dumber technology as present in non updated Roland JX-8P and Roland JX-10 machines can not issue bulk dumps internally, but the JX-8P and the Juno 106 interestingly sends out each patch via sysex by default, if you commit a program change and record this to midi while you’re doing it. That’s how you can back up the memory of the 8P. Patch by patch. Going back to the Stonebridge story above, he actually saved each one of my patches manually to the synth because the sounds were stored as a Cubase arrangement and playing it would transmit a patch every five or ten seconds to the 8P. This turned up in the 8P display, which started to flash, like “what do you want me to do with this”, and you’d have to store it manually to one of its whopping 32 user memory locations.
So using a program like SysEx Librarian or the aforementioned others (PC users often recommend MIDI OX but I find its interface very messy) you press Record first on the software end of things, and nothing will be recorded until you issue a DATA TRANSFER (in the case of the D-50) or BULK DUMP (in the case of the Kawai K4). If you are unsure about whether to select Record one or Record many, always use Record many. The software instantly senses when the “endof” message comes, and a dialogue box will then pop up asking you if and where you would like to save the sysex file.
About file formats Sysex files are not actual files in the sense of Word documents (.doc, docx etc) or PDF files (.pdf); by this I mean that the file itself doesn’t have any extension specific data inside of it. You know, the kind of zillion lines with gibberish data you can see if you open up a Word document in Notepad type programs. Therefore, sysex files can have extensions like .snd (sound), .mid (midi file), and you could come up with your own extension as well. The sysex software would still open the file and be able to send it out to a synth, but the common practice after all these years have been to use the extension .syx, however this is completely random really and it’s just some extension that people began using – so it became some sort of a standard. Thanks to the fact that midi is an old and trusted standard, the raw data files are very beautiful from a computational view: code is art, didn’t Matt Mullenweg say that? It’s true – html code and sysex “code” is very tidy and logical.
So if you have any midi equipment that saves patches or patterns, you should begin backing that up today. And if you have old synths with pretty uninteresting sounds you should dive into the world of sysex yesterday, as they say.
A fun discovery I made when I had a Kurzweil PC3 was that it could actually understand quite a lot from the old K-2000. I wanted to have some of the classic K-2000 sounds so I tried sending that data to my PC3 and although many patches turned up as completely “random” and not working, the ones I wanted actually worked. That was so lovely.
As sysex and midi is pretty old technology these days some of the best sysex compatible synth editors and librarians are still not available on today’s Mac and PC systems. As for Linux that’s a complete no go zone unless you would like to emulate Atari ST. The Atari was where everything “happened” really and this is where the best editor software still persists. I have old digital synthesizers that were made during the Atari days so I have already been looking a lot on Ebay to find stuff like Steinberg’s SY77 editor, Geerdes’ K4 Softworkstation. More specific editors for odd machines like Prophet VS and Kawai K5 can actually convert audio samples into formats these can read. In the case of the VS it has a sample memory smaller than the tiny toe nail on a new born baby but it’s still 100% awesome to sample something at 8 kHz and be able to play that back on a VS. In the case of the Kawai K5 it can actually convert an audio sample into additive “code” for the K5 engine (which doesn’t play back samples per se). I am still interested to try that out but no luck finding a Kawai K5 in 2019; much harder would be to even find any information on that magical conversion software but we’ll see. Internet is still young, lol.
So what have we learned today? Well, this is basically it folks. Some additional steps to take: well yes, sysex has to be activated in your synth’s system menus, and memory protection has to be turned off. The midi channel has to be set at channel 1 (in most cases, thankfully) and after that you can send sounds to your machine. But begin by sending all sounds from your instrument to your computer and email that file to yourself to back it up in an easy way. Now your work is backed up – and now you can explore what the internet has to offer. I’m right here, patiently waiting for you to get my sounds, and this is because I want you to get the hundreds of hours of sonic artwork that I create. I have been painting in sounds for such a long time, so I can say that my art is basically good. And it’s basically always better than any preset art. Or at least very different. 🙂
Now, to round things off, go to Youtube and search for Scritti Politti, Erasure, Yazoo and all sorts of electronic music because that’s where you can hear serious synthesizer programming in action: the sounds are such an important part of that music, it’s simply another way of performing on a synthesizer. Producers Jam & Lewis (The Tyme, Janet Jackson, SOS Band, Human League, Alexander O’Neal etc) always said they only use preset sounds though so if you want to explore that route… fine and dandy! 😉