You can audition your tracks before committing them to record and, if a note is not quite in the right place, you can move it to where it needs to be. You can also insert instrument changes, MIDI event changes and tempo changes into your songs. Plus you can mark a locator point to conveniently jump back to where you started recording. In fact you can set two other locator points in a song or choose two points to repeat continually.
The PMA-5 has 28-voice polyphony, which means that at any one time up to twenty-eight different notes can be playing throughout all eight tracks, and it has three hundred high quality instruments--lots of pianos, electric pianos, organs, guitars, basses, synths, reeds and drums, plus ethnic instruments and sound effects. Granted, I wouldn't give up one of my sound effects libraries for a PMA-5, but it's great for a nice cymbal crash or accented guitar wah. Plus, when I'm really feeling down, I put my headphones on, call up the "applause patch" and give myself a well deserved round.
All of the instruments are high quality sounds. Great job at sampling. The drums are awesome. Sixteen different kits in there. I would have liked to have seen a snare and timpani roll in the list, though.
What really makes the instruments come alive are the built-in reverbs and choruses in the PMA-5. There are eight reverbs and eight choruses. You can assign one reverb and one chorus to each song. The PMA-5 also allows you to save mixer and pan settings for each track. Just tap the mix button and slide the faders with the pen. You can also mute any track.
A few taps on the utility menu shows you how much free memory you have. It also lets you set the Master Tune, plus screen calibration, system initialization, and it tells you whether or not you need new batteries. According to the specs, batteries last approximately five continuous hours. An AC adapter is available but does not come standard with the unit...a fact I wasn't too happy with.
MIDI, if you're unfamiliar with it, stands for the "Musical Instrument Digital Interface." Basically, it lets one instrument speak to another just by plugging in a cable and setting them to transmit and receive on the same channel. The PMA-5 has two MIDI modes: Normal, in which the device will play the tone of the selected track, regardless of what MIDI channel is coming into the unit, and GM/GS Mode, which allows it to become a full-fledged 16-track sound module.
Typically, if you are going to use the PMA-5 with computer software, you will interface with the computer using the MIDI In and Out jacks on the back of the unit. However, the PMA-5 also has an 8-pin serial port on the side which allows you (with special cabling) to connect it to the serial port on your computer. A switch on the side lets you choose between MIDI, PC or Macintosh.
Other connections include the AC adapter jack, a headphones/line out jack (mini plug), and a jack to connect an optional foot switch to start and stop the sequencer.
The number one advantage that the PMA-5 has over all other sequencers and sound modules is that you can take it with you anywhere. This little powerhouse is not quite five by seven inches. It's only an inch and three-eighths thick and it weighs a little over a pound with batteries. Now, if you have to customize music for a production, take this little baby to the mountains, down to the beach or out in the woods. Get the music the way you want, and then bring it back to your recording media, or other MIDI gear at your convenience. One thing...if you take it out in the woods, don't turn up the headphones loud enough that you can't hear an approaching bear.
So, really, how long does it take to create a useful music bed? Well, if you're an experienced musician with a keyboard available to input the notes, pretty darn quick, especially since you have an array of good drum and bass sequences already programmed in for you. This thing is awesome for taking a piece of sheet music and quickly producing song parodies for the morning show. But, if you're more like me (keyboardically challenged), you may find that you'll come up with a musical idea at the office, fiddle around with the PMA-5 at home for an hour or two, and end up with something useful.
Say you're also (like me) financially challenged, just an average musician who doesn't have the bucks or the room to invest in a music studio. For a list price of $600 for the PMA-5 and an inexpensive ($200 to $400) MIDI keyboard, I end up with the gear for about 90% of my custom music needs.
The only real drawback I found is the screen can be hard to read. Backlighting would help, but then you'd probably have a real short battery time, more weight and a higher cost. Besides the other minuses I mentioned with the optional AC Adapter and my personal drum selections, I'd say that the PMA-5 is near perfect. Bottom line: it's fun to play with. It sounds great, and it's inexpensive. This is a device that breaks the rule that says you have to be tied down to your keyboard or guitar or your studio to write music. Is it better than just using a piece of paper and a pencil? Yes, because it quickly lets you hear your music, wherever you are at whatever time...bath, bed, breakfast or Dad's new artificial leg party. Get one...and break a leg!