How good can good get? That was my question when dealing with computer based MIDI over the years. When first starting out, I, like many others, skimped a bit on my keyboard controller. Being used to using a real piano with real hammer action, a synth feel controller always felt awkward. But, at the time, that was all that was available to me. When it came to a MIDI interface, I relied only on what was built in to whatever interface I happened to be using. For years I thought this was good enough and any timing issues that I had were chalked up to the lack of a decent keyboard.
Well, many years later I was finally able to upgrade to a full 88-key piano action with wooden keys and extreme accuracy. Once again, I connected this wonderful controller into my recording interface using the standard, built-in MIDI port. The problem was, even with the new controller timing was a major issue. Notes were still being cut off abruptly. Other issues continued happening. At this point, I knew something had to be done. So, after many months of research I kept seeing the Roland/Cakewalk UM-3G being mentioned as a rock-solid MIDI interface that would help with jitter issues. So, I ordered one immediately. And, what is the verdict?
Let me just say, my expectations were low and I expected that the jitter and timing issues would only slightly improve. I mean, I was runing a decent recording interface, so the MIDI should have been just as solid, right? Wrong. Within five minutes of plugging the UM-3G into my machine and reassigning all of the inputs, I was performing and recording MIDI tracks with no noticeable jitter whatsoever. Suddenly, it actually felt as if my hardware and software synths were responding properly for the very first time. The only thing that was ever better was plugging the controller keyboard directly into the hardware units, and I quickly grew tired of climbing in behind my desk and gear rack to do this. So, the Cakewalk UM-3G was the perfect solution for both a small patchbay and a MIDI controller.
The package itself is rather small with a decent quality plastic housing and a permanently affixed USB cable. It's a 1/3 single rack width and has three MIDI ins and three MIDI outs, along with two additional USB ports, a few switches to control how the unit works, and a few small red LEDs that show how the unit is configured when it is connected via USB. The nice thing is that this will work with or without a computer, so it can work as a direct patchbay routing MIDI signals through to other machines on a live gig without having to lug your laptop along (although the LEDs don't light up since the unit isn't powered without being connected).
As a passive MIDI patchbay, it does the job. With only three ports for in and three ports for out, there are some limitations. Nothing can be routed other than from the same in to the same out (as in channel 1 in to channel 1 out). Some manual cord swapping would still have to happen to make a live rig sing and dance. But, what it does, it does well on the cheap.
This is considered one of the best MIDI interfaces on the market, and for the price it is hard to beat. After using it for even a little while I could tell a major difference. My MIDI sequences were so much more exact. Now the only issues holding my music back are the ones related to the person behind the keys!
Three MIDI ins and outs may seem limited, but this unit will interface with up to two other UM-3G units (and can be rackmounted together with the sold separately kit), so a 9x9 MIDI interface could be yours for the taking. These are supposed to be connectable via the USB ports on the back of the master unit. I have yet to try this, since I only had one unit for review, so I can't give feedback on how well that worked with either timing/jitter issues or power issues with USB ports. On paper, it looks great and gives you a system that can grow along with you.
Rock solid! That's all I can say. This is the closest I have come to MIDI Heaven. Thank you Roland and Cakewalk for building such a solid interface. I can be a musician now instead of a MIDI editor.
Two ports are on the back and one is on the front. This makes rack mounting a bit tricky, since you'll have to plan on running your MIDI 1 in and out from the front. If you disay chain three units, that will be three times the cords in the front of your rack. Most single units that are limited to 8x8 have most or all of the MIDI routing in the back to prevent unsightly MIDI cable clutter. This may be effective for you, especially in the case that you have instruments such as MIDI guitars or wind controllers that can be plugged in from the front. If all of your gear is rackmounted, this may be an issue.
The USB cable is permanently affixed. This doesn't seem like a huge issue since the cable is well made the where it enters the case is some nice cable molding that should prevent shorts or weak spots in the wires for a long period of time. But, this becomes a nuisance when using the unit in standalone mode or in the case that it needs to be replaced.
The Roland/Cakewalk UM-3G is one of the best MIDI experiences I have ever had. With mostly jitter free timing I can focus on my music instead of technical issues. Its low price should be seen as a bit of a blessing since this unit shares some of the hardware that much higher end MIDI interfaces/patchbays use. In performance it definitely shows.