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August 11th, 2015

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The SCSI Memory Card Craze

August 11th, 2015 - Remember SCSI? If you don't, don't feel bad. However anyone who had a hardware sampler before 1996 (or sometimes after) has SCSI burned into brain - sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad.

Removable storage has always been important for samplers for a variety of reasons, starting with Syquests and ending with ZipDrives.

However, since about 10 years ago, people have tried to get the new solid-state technology of memory cards to work well with SCSI. The problem basically is that SCSI died shortly before memory cards were invented, and very sparse and few SCSI memory card readers were ever made. Various short-lived companies distributed them until they were all gone.

Now there's some new Sheriff's in town. But first, let's get some context.

Why a Card Reader?
First, a card reader is very desirable for three reasons: it is way less vulnerable to mechanical problems like hard drives or removable drives, it is silent (no noise it great for studio situations and general sanity), and large capacities such as 1GB, 2GB, 8GB, or even 18GB (Emu) are possible and readily available. Plus people were getting tired of ZipDrives, with their bulkiness and limited capacity (100 or 250 only). Since people were getting very familiar with memory cards, like in their cameras or other places, it only gave them inspiration to look for a solution for their samplers, regardless how old the samplers were.

As for us, it's only been up to now where we've advised ZipDrives as the only reliable solution for SCSI storage. Sure, there have been plenty of people that, with enough forbearance and patience, acquired a SCSI Card solution, but as for advice, we had nothing to tell anyone.

SCSI Card Reader History
There were some SCSI Card Readers manufactured in the early days of Compact Flash and when SCSI was being forgotten, notably the Microtech PCD 47B. Microtech made some others, such as the PCD-25, and 50, and 60. Since about 2005, people started getting wind of these and started buying them up. Not very long after there was none to be had, where forums would suddenly post "there's 5 available on eBay!!!" and then they'd be gone. A company called SCSI For Samplers would have some in stock, but again they found it difficult to have enough in stock to supply the demand.

Plus two other problems emerged. The first was the wide degree of compatibility between hardware sampler models. Akai's, Emu's, Roland's, Kurzweil's, Ensoniq's, Yamaha's, and others had different expectations and (for example) the PCD-50 would not work with Akai's or Ensoniq's but would with other samplers. The second problem was "hot-swap", which is the ability for a sampler to recognize that a card has been ejected and a new one has been inserted. SCSI Card Readers, not being design to antique samplers, were very hit-and-miss in this respect.

Another solution being attempted was the pairing of the much more common IDE-Read readers and a IDE-SCSI bridge module. This somewhat solved the supply problem, but it aggravated the compatibility problems.

Last note on this subject: several samplers have internal IDE connections, so the more common IDE Card Readers have been natural solutions. And in fact, Akai started putting card readers in the MPC's proper, starting with the MPC1000, and then backtracking to the MPC2000LK-MCD, which has a card reader instead of the floppy. However, this is of little consolation for the more widespread SCSI connection that most hardware samplers have.

Finally Available and Reliable Solutions Emerge
So up to about one year ago, it was very difficult for a person committed to hardware samplers to find a SCSI Memory Card solution. Fortunately, that's changing. There are two products, one designed by a single person in Japan, the other by open source development in Australia, that are finally presenting an adequate solution that addresses the supply problem as well as being compatible with all samplers. For the solutions listed below, they seem to be compatible with all SCSI samplers that we know of.

The first is SCSI2SD. This is a open-source project headed by a guy named Michael. It's a combination of PCB board design and firmware that programs the chip on the board. Obviously there is more to the market than just samplers - this includes old Mac Powerbooks and other legacy SCSI gear. The open-source nature of the projects comes out clear here in the WIKI: "For those of you upset over the [price] increase, please keep in mind that SCSI2SD is open source, and you have rights to build, modify, and sell the boards yourself. Everyone else has the right to build the boards and sell them for the original price." In other words, Michael makes his own boards and sells them just like anyone else can. But he's the only game in town as far as SCSI2SD goes, and typically it all boils down to one expert in niche things like this. Michael's boards are currently sold by iMall in Australia and shipped from China. The price is about $70 US dollars, not a bad price!

Currently the board works with MicroSD cards, which are a bit too small to handle but possible. As shipped, the board handles only up to 2GB. There is an option to update the firmware via your computer to handle more, but we tried it and it doesn't work. So for now it's limited to 2GB. There is a hotswap option but it (!) requires cutting a trace on the circuit board!!! Yipes.

The other option is the RaizinMonster and the FuzinMonster, sold by a Japanese fellow going under the company name ArtMix. The web site is 99% in Japanese (the English side is not completed/doesn't exist), which makes it hard to follow. The RaizinMonster is a Compact Flash solution, and FuzinMonster is a standard size SD card solution. Both have similar firmware. ArtMix seems to be more sampler-oriented and he has a lot of pictures showing install. Currently they are NOT hot-swappable, but the designer is currently looking into it. If there is an upgrade to hot-swap, it would necessitate a firmware upgrade which requires a new replaceable IC on the board. It is unclear if the author would send it out to you on his dime or on yours, as it doesn't seem to be software-updateable like SCS2SD is.

We have tested the ArtMix stuff extensively with the Ensoniq EPS 16-Plus, ASR-10, and ASR-X, and besides the hotswapping omission, they work great. We've tested up to 8GB, which is the maximum for the EPS/ASR. Plus we really like the design that it perfectly replaces the floppy on these machines. The FuzinMonster is nice that it uses the larger standard SD card; we find the microcards are hard to handle. We believe that using multiple cards, and the ability to shuttle them to a computer is critical, so removing the card is important. In that sense we personally like Compact-Flash better, they seem harder to ruin.

We also tested the SCSI2SD solution and liked it as well; although it doesn't replace the floppy size-wise, and we don't like the microcard size. It is nice that the firmware is updated via software, and it is half the cost of the ArtMix FuzinMonster. But the lack of floppy-replacement merely because of the form-factor is a deal-killer for us. Some people though like installing it internally and just leaving the card in, but no practical computer interfacing? C'mon. The alternative is using it externally, which is fine, but aren't we after an eternal PERFECT solution? For these issues and more, we recommend the ArtMix solutions, though we are waiting just a little longer to get the news that they can hotswap!

To clean up the discussion, we should note that Chicken Systems products strongly add value to these solutions, with the Internal ZipDrive kit being helpful for Ensoniq internal installations, on all 3 samplers - 16-Plus, ASR-10, and ASR-X. (With other samplers, they have internal 50-pin connectors, rather than the Ensoniq 26-pin ones, thus these are not needed.) Also, don't let the moniker "ZipDrive" fool you, the cable kit is simply to convert the cabling internally. It doesn't matter if's it a ZipDrive or a memory card solution.

Also, Translator can format any memory card, usually many times faster than the sampler can format it. We've put this in Translator Free also, for use for everyone.

If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask at [email protected] or call us at 320-235-9798 or 800-877-6377.

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