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Curio Cabinet: Meico Electronics Patch Commander & MIDI Commander (c.1987)

Malcolm Doak

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In this Synth and Software series, Malcolm Doak takes a look back at interesting MIDI products from the past. Next up, Meico Electronics Patch and MIDI Commander.

One of the most enduring aspects of MIDI is that, by and large, it is a pretty simple code. This means that anyone so inclined can make some cool MIDI gadgets. And for decades, many have. One such company was Meico Electronics, out of Higganum, Connecticut. Already in business as a circuit board and electronics fabricator, around 1987 Meico introduced a unique pair of products to the music world. One was the Patch Commander; the other was the MIDI Commander. As I recall, the head of Meico was a musician himself. As a MIDI musician, he created these devices to enhance his own performance, and then brought them to market. He personally visited the music store where I was working to give us the full show.

Both the Meico Patch Commander and the Meico MIDI Commander are programmable MIDI foot pedal controllers.  

The sturdy metal construction is peppered with a number of industrial-grade metal footswitches. The internal power supply means that each unit has an attached cable that plugs directly into the wall. On the back are the MIDI jacks. An internal battery keeps the memory intact when the unit is unplugged or in transit. The Patch Commander offers a simple 2-digit LCD display; the MIDI Commander needs no display. Though nearly identical in size (17” x 5.5”), shape, and construction, each of these products satisfies a unique MIDI need.

This product appeared in the mid-to-late 1980s – the heyday of the giant MIDI hardware rig, and the pre-DAW era.

Let’s explore the Meico Patch Commander first. In performance or when tracking, one (or two) master keyboards can easily access a dozen or so MIDI rackmount synthesizers. Getting the right MIDI Program Change messages to each unit can often be a challenge. The Patch Commander easily solves this issue, and makes managing a multi-instrument rack effortless. A total of 360 Patches can be stored in the Patch Commander, arranged in 60 Banks, each with 6 Patches. In turn, each Patch can retain 10 MIDI Program Change commands, for a total of 3600 Program Change commands. Once programmed, moving through Banks and Patches is fairly easy, and the bright display provides positive feedback. Tapping a single footswitch sends a unique MIDI Program Change command on each of up to ten MIDI channels – no hands required! Then, as now, MIDI Program Change commands are for more than just synthesizers. These MIDI messages can control effect units, drum machines, lighting controllers, mixer presets, and more.

Once in the Program Mode, programming the Meico Patch Commander is straightforward, but tedious. As with the Yamaha MCS2 discussed in a previous column, a handy hexadecimal table for entering Program Change commands is included. Hexadecimal data was popular in the 1980s, as it generally only required a two-digit display to display values up to 128 (7F) and beyond. The MIDI channel number and MIDI Program Change number can be entered using the buttons on the Patch Commander. This same information can also be quickly entered via MIDI, using a connected MIDI instrument or controller keyboard.

For me, the far more interesting and appealing product is the Meico MIDI Commander.

Think of it is a sampler, but for MIDI data – not audio. Each of the footswitch buttons on the pedalboard can memorize a packet of incoming MIDI data, to be recalled and played back later. This can be a Program Change command, a single bass note drone, a chord, or even something like a MIDI Start command for a sequencer or drum machine. Unfortunately, it will not record the continuous change in value of a real-time knob movement. This makes sense because to do so, myriad values would have to be saved and recorded from the same MIDI controller. But you could fool it a bit, recording a new single value for a MIDI controller, thereby extending the release or upping the resonance value at a certain place in the song. The odd thing is, it is not intelligent controller. This means that if you program a footswitch for something like Portamento ON, you will often need to program another footswitch for Portamento OFF (depending on the instrument). The MIDI Commander has no banks of memory, just the available buttons on the front panel. But sending MIDI data to the unit can be done quickly; between sets, certainly – if not between songs.

I’ve been spending much of my quarantine “down-time” streamlining the live rig for one of my projects, an 80s dance hit cover band.

Consolidating everything into a single keyboard has set me musing over the features I rely on when performing this material. Although this band uses no sequencers or computers live, I still enjoy using a little “sleight-of-hand” as we play live, changing sounds and adding effects effortlessly and without any tell-tale visuals. So as I consider integrating the 12 Step from Keith McMillen Instruments, and explore the value – and novelty – of the Chord Trigger buttons of my Korg M3-73, I am transported to another time and place, and remembering the contributions of Meico Electronics.

In fact, the Chord Trigger buttons on my Korg M3-73 (which originated on the OASYS) are very similar in use to the footswitches of the Meico MIDI Commander. I use these buttons not because I can’t play chords. I use them to fire off internal samples (Peter Gabriel’s “Hi There”). These pads can trigger a pattern (the harp gliss on “Let’s Go Crazy” or the giggle-stick arpeggiator on “Hungry Like the Wolf). Add to that the more musical uses of droning a bass note (the middle eight of “Rebel Yell”) or playing lush layers of string and vocal pads as I play piano live over them from the keyboard (“Purple Rain”). And unlike the Chord Trigger buttons, the Meico MIDI Commander would let me do all that without taking my hands from the keyboard. Pretty cool. Looking to expand on what can be done from a foot pedal controller has me considering the impressive 12 Step from Keith McMillen Instruments. Although not limited to MIDI Program Change commands, the 12 Step does share an evolutionary branch with the Meico Patch Commander.

Shout out to my friend and former Meico Sales Rep Dave Spaulding for jogging my Meico memories.

A review of the Meico Patch Commander and MIDI Commander appeared in the October 1989 edition of Electronic Musician.

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