THE MUSICAL ST
Consumer MIDI software tools and toys
BY JIM PIERSON-PERRY
Okay--so you know the difference between a sequencer and a patch editor, and your ST is ready and waiting. Now you're ready to become the new Vangelis. But before you plunk down your money, breeze through this article, and let Jim Pierson-Perry show you what what's hot and what's not in the world of consumer ST music software.
Welcome to the Atari ST MIDI software explosion! With its 16-bit architecture and built-in MIDI ports, and a price roughly equivalent to a similarly configured Commodore 128, it's no wonder industry experts view the ST as the new "musicians" computer." There are now MIDI programs available for a variety of uses ranging from a player-piano simulation (based on real piano rolls) to a professional 60-track sequencer system.
If you're new to the electronic music world, it can be a bewildering experience to fight through the jungle of new terminology just to find out what these new programs are supposed to do--let alone try to use them. In this article we will first look at the main classes of MIDI-based software and describe the functions and features you should look for. Then we'll examine commercial ST MIDI software products and see how they compare for features and performance.
Although we'll be looking at software for home and hobbyist use, many of the products are equally suited for the professional musician. (Editor's note: A separate article on professional MIDI software will appear in an upcoming issue of START.) To use most of these products, you need only your ST and a MIDI-compatible synthesizer such as the popular Casio CZ-101, Yamaha DX-7 or Ensoniq ESQ-1. Of course, the more MIDI equipment you have (like samplers, drum boxes, and expanders) the more involved your music can be--and the more you'll appreciate having the ST to hold it all together!
MIDI software comes in six types: music players, sequencers, scoring programs, patch editors, librarians, and utilities. Within each type are varying levels of features, and there is a fair degree of overlap between the types.
As I write this, there are no stand-alone consumer-level music scoring or utility programs for the ST (although by the time you receive this issue of START, some commercial packages should be in release). The programs covered here fit into the player, sequencer, and librarian, classes. An overview of the patch editors available for the ST will appear in an upcoming issue of START. In this article I have a mini-review of each program and then highlight some of their specific features in the summary charts.
The computer music/synthesizer field has its own arcane jargon, which may be daunting to the uninitiated. (For a good introduction to some of these terms, read "The Ins, Outs and Thrus of MIDI" by Tom Jeffries in START #4.) For the software in this review, it's important that you understand the terms real-time, step-timeand patches. Music software with real-time functions records and/or plays your music at its normal tempo. In this sense, it serves as a tape recorder. With steptime, on the other hand, you can enter or play one step (note, beat, etc.) at a time. Many musicians use step-time to enter notes from sheet music or to get through complicated passages that would be difficult to play in real time. A patch is the collection of settings or parameters needed to create a particular sound on a synthesizer.
MUSIC PLAYER PROGRAMS
At the simplest level, a player program takes a data file containing musical information in the MIDI format and uses it to reproduce the original music on a MIDI instrument (typically a synthesizer). This is the digital equivalent of a jukebox. At higher levels comes the ability to enter musical data in steptime format along with non-music control events, such as changing the synthesizer voice or adding portamento, sustain, and vibrato. Some of these programs offer song playback through the ST's internal monitor speaker as well as external MIDI instruments. For a player program, availability of prerecorded music on ST disks or as BBS files is important unless you only want to encode your own music.
MIDI Magic ($39.95, Micro-W Distributing, Inc.) is an example of a simple player program. It relies on pre-recorded music disks (6 songs per disk at $19.95) as the music source. It has no provision for you to create your own song files, but there are currently more than 100 music disks available. (Interestingly, the music files are digital encodings of piano rolls, in some cases originally cut by Scott Joplin, George Gershwin and Liberace.) Playback is restricted to one MIDI channel. Although MIDI Magic may sound up to 12 notes at once, even a Casio with eight-voice capability will give you good results. This was one of the first MIDI programs for the ST, and more, recent software has much better performance. Given its limited capabilities, the program is too costly to recommend unless you are specifically interested in its music library.
The ST Music Box ($49.95, XLEnt Software) is a step up the performance ladder, with many new features including user entry of music and MIDI control data in step-time, score printout, and playback via MIDI or the monitor speaker. You must buy the disk version specific to your monitor (color or monochrome). With this program, you can enter music with up to eight voices over four MIDI channels, and change tempo or MIDI instrument voicings with each measure! It also has a smart note entry editor to improve the accuracy of song entry. You can use most control features via the function keys, although with no on-screen guide you must refer to the manual constantly. I found that the program has problems with error trapping and an annoyingly long response time going from the function keys to the main entry screen. Score printout is provided via a separate program, but is not of much practical use. You can either have a normal score for only a single voice or print all voices but only one measure per line. On the bright side, the authors of ST Music Box also wrote the book Introduction To MIDI Programming ($19.95, Abacus), which includes much source code and background for you to study.
At the top of the player software ranks is The Music Studio ($59.95, Activision). This is a very well-designed program. With numerous features, including step-time song entry, four independent music tracks (each containing up to 15 different MIDI voicings), and complete score printout. Playback can be through MIDI and/or a programmable internal synthesizer that plays in three voices through the monitor speaker (you must have a color monitor to run the program). The MIDI voicing features are specifically designed for Casio synthesizers, but other brands work just as well. The pop-out menus use the mouse and are fairly self-explanatory. Over one hundred song data files are available through bulletin board systems. This program has been enthusiastically received by users and I can strongly recommend it.
The MIDIplay program ($49.95, Electronic Music Publishing House) straddles the player/sequencer boundary, and I've included it in the comparison charts for both. As a player program, it works with pre-recorded music disks (12 songs per disk at $19.95 each); 3 disks are now available, and 50 more should be released during 1987. MIDIplay can also record real-time MIDI input from 16 channels into one track. Unfortunately, it has no music editing functions. Playback can be through MIDI or a programmable internal synthesizer that plays through the monitor speaker. A nice addition is availability of instructions though the HELP button. While the program works well as specified, there are several public domain programs that are just as good for real-time recording. As a playback program alone, I find the price too high. It also needs some work on its mouse functions, which are occasionally unreliable.
Sequencer programs are the next step beyond player programs. The simplest sequencers record real-time input of MIDI music and controller data; more complex versions allow for sophisticated editing and manipulation of the music and can hold up to 60 independent tracks. A sequencer is like a multi-track tape recorder and, in fact, most such programs use a tape recorder metaphor in the user interface.
A good sequencer program lets you edit music data much the same as you would edit text with a word processor, inserting or deleting passages and cutting and pasting repeated sections. A MIDI thru feature is important too, especially if you are using a remote master keyboard controller. You also need external synching if the song tempo is to be controlled by a drum machine. Depending on the MIDI controllers used, some instruments may send too much information and clog the data stream. Data filtering can selectively remove unwanted data and eliminate this problem. Other useful features are time correction (to synch the real-time notes played with the desired time signature), monitor metronome to keep steady time while playing, and punch in/out to overdub and correct bad notes.
PLAYER COMPARISON CHART
|GENERAL FEATURES||MUSIC BOX||MUSIC STUDIO||MIDIPLAY||MIDI MAGIC|
|# simultaneous voices||8||15||16||16|
|Need TOS in ROM||yes||no||no||no|
|Assign MIDI voicings||yes||yes||no||no|
|Assign MIDI effects||some||no||no||no|
|Programmable int synth||no||yes||yes||no|
|Free memory indicator||yes||yes||no||NA|
|Real time data recorded||no||no||all||NA|
|Step time data recorded||N,PC,TM||N||no||NA|
|# time signitures||4||8||NA||NA|
|Smart measure entry||yes||no||NA||NA|
|MIDI note range||24-83||0-120||0-127||0-127|
|Note timing resolution||1/32||1/32||NA||NA|
|File edit options||no||F,D,R||no||no|
|Segment edit options||CP,I,D||CP,I,D||CP||NA|
|Add lyrics/song title||no/no||yes/yes||no||NA|
|Set cue point||yes||yes||yes||no|
|Play selected tracks||yes||yes||NA||NA|
|Music disk cost||NA||NA||$19.95||$19.95|
|BBS song files||few||many||NA||NA|
|Single voice score||yes||yes||no||no|
|Sheet music score||limited||yes||no||no|
|OVERALL IMPRESSIONS (0-5)|
|Ease of use||3||5||4||5|
SEQUENCER COMPARISON CHART
|GENERAL FEATURES||EZ-TRACK||MIDIPLAY||MIDI REC STUDIO||MIDISOFT STUDIO||SUPER CONDUCTOR|
|Need TOS in ROM||yes||no||yes||yes||yes|
|Set instrument modes||yes||no||no||yes||no|
|MIDI slow option||no||no||yes||yes||no|
|Sync to external
|Format data disk||yes||no||no||no||no|
|Set cue point||no||no||yes||yes||yes|
|Data recorded: RT||all||all||all||all||all|
|Data recorded: ST||all||no||all||N,V,PC||all|
|Track name length||16||8||8||24||NA|
|Segment locaters||FF,ME||marker||ev list||FF,RW,ME||block|
|Time correct locations||yes||no||yes||yes||yes|
|Time correct duration||no||no||yes||yes||yes|
|OVERALL IMPRESSIONS (0-5)|
|Ease of use||4||3||3||5||3|
EZ-Track ($65.00, Hybrid Arts) represents the entry level for usable sequencers. This is a very workable 20-track tape recorder emulator. EZ-Track provides MIDI thru along with a track merge option; however, each track can only play on a single MIDI channel. You can do transposing, but only for the entire song rather than for individual tracks (one track can be specified to be left unchanged, typically for drum machine data). This program makes no provision for editing segments within a track. One annoying point is that it won't automatically save your recordings; you must explicitly save each recording or it is lost.
An excellent home sequencer is the MIDIsoft Studio ($99.00, MIDIsoft Corporation; also distributed by Passport). This upgraded version of MIDIsoft's Metatracks program has substantially more features, including 32 recording/editing tracks with a variety of data editing options. (Editor's note: A review of MIDIsoft Studio appears in the July issue of Antic's ST Resource.) The program allows MIDI thru with filtering of aftertouch data. It's extremely easy to use and has well-written documentation. There's full support of GEM, including desk accessories, along with synch to external devices and various MIDI system commands. MIDIsoft Studio supports count-in (starting free measures with a metronome) to give you a feel for the music tempo before you start to play. You could use this program for professional work with no apologies. Be sure to get the most recent version (2.10), which includes the MIDI thru function and step-time editing.
The MIDI Recording Studio ($39.00, Dr. T) is an entry-level sequencer program (as opposed to the professional-level program from Dr. T, the Keyboard Controlled Sequencer, $195.00). MIDI Recording Studio supports Dr. T's well-deserved reputation for software that enhances the music creation process. Its many unique editing features make it the most powerful of those I looked at--and for the lowest cost! The program is built around a MIDI event table containing all notes and controller changes that occur during recording. You can edit this table event by event, or apply an operation (such as velocity change) to a selected range of events. MIDI Recording Studio is the only sequencer I tested that allows parameter scaling. One application of this is to automatically ramp up/down note velocity over a music passage to create fade in/out effects.
The whole setup is similar to a music data spreadsheet and it is enormously powerful. My only complaint is that it is not fully GEM-based; you'll have to spend some time before you'll be comfortable with the program, but anyone interested in home recording should try it.
Super Conductor ($79.95, MichTron) is the most recent addition to the ranks of economical sequencer programs. Its operation is more similar to that of professional level sequencers than to a tape recorder emulator. To use it, you record a section of music (simple fragment or entire song) which is saved as a block. You can then arrange these blocks in any desired order across the 16 MIDI channels, and edit music data within a block using the powerful event list approach. Super Conductor also allows for extensive filtering of note and/or controller data either during or post-recording.
This block structure formatting is particularly useful if your song makes use of looping or repeat segments. You can copy a block multiple times, edit it to include variations in tone and dynamics, and play it back simultaneously across multiple MIDI channels . The three internal (monitor) voices are provided as if you have three additional MIDI channels; you can use these to test-play blocks or as supplemental voices. It also has a provision to send and receive system exclusive data files, although this feature is not set up for novice MIDI users.
In adopting the block music structure, a potential drawback is that you may find Super Conductor requires too much effort for casual use. During recording, all channel identification is stripped from incoming data to facilitate block editing and relocation. This prevents simple record and playback; especially simultaneous input from multiple channels, such as synths and a drum machine. For those who are willing to spend some time and want something beyond a MIDI tape recorder, Super Conductor is recommended as an alternative type of sequencer, which is especially good for realizing complex musical ideas.
A library management program is a repository for MIDI data; it can be either free standing or integrated within patch editor software. In this section, I'll only look at free-standing programs. A librarian stores the control parameter data to initialize synthesizer voicings, set drum machine patterns, and assign controller effects. Librarians can build composite files that contain system-exclusive data for each instrument to give the desired setup for a particular song. All you need to do is call up the appropriate file; with the press of a button you're ready to play. This makes a good librarian program indispensable for a MIDI-based system in live performance.
Equipment that adheres to the MIDI 1.0 specification usually can be accessed by a generic librarian, rather than requiring a separate program for each instrument. Two notable exceptions are the Casio synthesizer line and Roland drum machines, both of which use nonstandard handshaking specifications for system exclusive data transfer and need specialized software.
LIBRARIAN COMPARISON CHART
|GENERAL FEATURES||SYS/EX||DATA DUMPSTOR||TR707 DUMPSTOT||PRO-CREATOR|
|Need TOS in ROM||no||no||no||yes|
|Allow desk accessories||no||yes||yes||yes|
|Desk accessory version||no||yes||yes||no|
|Instruments supported||MIDI 1.0||MIDI 1.0||TR707/727||DX-7/TX|
|Hard drive supported||yes||yes||no||no|
|Free memory indicator||yes||yes||NA||NA|
|MIDI slow option||built-in||yes||no||NA|
|# MIDI data files
|REQUEST/MIDI FILE FUNCTIONS|
|Request files on disk||no||yes||NA||yes|
|MIDI data buffer size||350K||310K||NA||NA|
|Smart "buffer full"
|Request looping option||yes||yes||NA||NA|
|File edit options||C,D||D,F||D,F||D|
|Name individual tracks||NA||NA||yes||NA|
|OVERALL IMPRESSION (0-5)|
|Ease of use||4||5||5||4|
|Suitable for professional||yes||yes||yes||no|
SYS/EX ($150.00, Key Clique) is a generic librarian program that has been out for other computers for some time and has now been ported to the ST. It's designed especially for use by performing musicians; since it's hard to find enough room for a mouse with an on-stage setup, the program uses keyboard menus rather than mouse-based input. You must create a short command file to request the parameter data for each instrument; once it's made, you can save the command file to disk for subsequent use. After calling the desired command programs, one after another, it dumps each instrument's data into a composite MIDI file. By calling up the MIDI file at a later time, it can reset all instruments to their previous states. SYS/EX includes a manual supplement that gives the necessary command sequences for many instruments. However, this program will not work with Casio synthesizers due to Casio's nonstandard protocol. (Editors note: Those of you who own a Casio synthesizer should take a look at Tom Bajoras's "MIDISAVE" in this issue of START. MIDISAVE is a simple patch librarian which works with many synthesizers, including the Casio.) Despite the lack of frills and a somewhat expensive price, this is a dependable program; I've given it a lot of field testing and can readily recommend it.
The Data Dumpstor ST ($89.95, Music Service Software) is a similar program but with a full GEM implementation. It can hold up to 20 independent MIDI data files in memory, and comes with command files already on disk for many common MIDI instruments; you can create and store additional command files as needed. One very useful feature is the MIDI file send subprogram that works as a separate desk accessory. This allows instrument setup within other GEM-based programs such as sequencers, and is an excellent innovation that I hope other MIDI software will incorporate. This program performs very well and is extremely easy to learn and use, particularly for a home studio. Like SYS/EX, though, it won't work with Casio synthesizers.
The TR707 Dumpstor ST ($64.95, Music Service Software) is specifically designed to deal with the nonstandard protocol used by the popular Roland TR707/727 drum machines. It's essentially a specialized version of the Data Dumpstor ST with similar features and performance. It can accommodate 20 full dumps (four tracks each) from the TR707 in memory and allows you to name each individual track, if desired. There's also a desk accessory version for file uploading to the drum machine. The only commercial ST program now available that can work with the TR707, this program is much cheaper than using the TR707's ROM cartridges and better than cassettes for storing your drum patterns.
The Pro-Creator ($240.00, Steinberg Research, distributed by the Russ Jones Marketing Group) is an unusual program. It is primarily a random patch creator for the Yamaha DX-7/TX series combined with a patch librarian. It is not a patch editor. You can have it create totally new patches or make up variations on a set of existing patches. Only two patch banks are kept in memory at a time, which can be a hinderance when relocating patches to come up with new banks. It uses a hardware circuit board key for copy protection; it must be inserted into the cartridge slot for the program to boot. Keeping it in place does not seem to interfere with other ST software.
Overall, I am not impressed with this program. The patch generator is an amusing toy, but not of much practical use without being able to edit and fine-tune the patch parameters. Pro-Creator is only barely acceptable as a librarian due to the two bank limitation and inability to address disk drives other than A.
(Editor's note: In the Spring 1987 issue of START, the ProCreator was incorrectly listed as a sequencer. Also, the zip code for the Russ Jones Marketing Group was incomplete. The correct address is at the end of this article.)
The accompanying charts compare the features of all these programs side by side. There's a separate chart for each type of software: players, sequencers, and librarians. Whenever possible I have tested and verified the features myself, rather than just listing the manufacturers' claims.
A whole new group of MIDI programs are nearing completion; by the time you read this article, many of them should be available. Below I have listed some of the software that should be brought to market soon.
- EZ-Score ST (Hybrid Arts): scoring program compatible with EZ-Track ST music files
- FB-01 Editor/Librarian (Music Service Software): patch editor for FB-01
- Four Patch + (Aegix): patch editor for Yamaha 4 operator synthesizers
- MIDI-Edit (Electronic Music Publishing House): upgraded version of MIDIplay to include step-time music entry and additional editing features
- MIDIsoft Enhanced Studio (MIDIsoft Corporation): advanced version of MIDIsoft Studio
- Samplemaker (Virtual Sounds Software): computer generation of digital samples for Sequential Prophet 2000/2002, Akai 5900, and Ensoniq Mirage samplers
- Soundfiler S612 (Drumware): librarian/visual editing system for the Akai S612 sampler
- XTRACK, XNOTES, XSYN (Beam Team): modular, integrated software for sequencing, scoring, and patch editor for Casio CZ, Yamaha DX, and Roland JX synthesizers
Whether your interests are in music education, Listening to a home jukebox, running a home music studio or just fooling around, there's ST MIDI for you. Sergeant Tramiel's Lonely Hearts Club Band is sitting inside your computer, just waiting to take you away!
- "The Ins, Outs, And Thrus Of MIDI" by Tom Jeffries, START, Spring 1987.
- MIDI For Musicians.$14.95 Craig Anderton, AMSCO Music Publications, 24 E. 22nd St. New York, NY 10010 1986. (212) 254-2100.
- Keyboard Magazine (see especially the synthesizer glossary in the February and March 1987 issues), 20085 Stevens Creek, Cupertino, CA 95014, (408) 446-1105.
- Electronic Musician Magazine (a TR707 librarian program for the ST was in the February 1987 issue), 2608 Ninth St., Berkeley, CA 94710.
- Introduction to MIDI Programming.Abacus Software, Inc., PO. Box 7219, Grand Rapids, MI 49510. (616) 241-5510.
LIST OF MANUFACTURERS
- The Music Studio
2350 Bayshore Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94039
- Four Patch + Aegix
PO. Box 9488
Reno, NV 89507
- XTRACK, XNOTES, XSYN
6100 Adeline Street
Oakland, CA 94608
- MIDI Recording Studio, Keyboard Controlled Sequencer
Dr. T's Music Software
66 Louise Road
Chestnut Hill, MA 02167
- Soundfiler S612
12077 Wilshire Blvd., #515
Los Angeles, CA 90025
- MIDIplay, MIDI-Edit
Publishing House, Inc.
2210 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 488
Santa Monica, CA 90403
- EZ-Track, EZ Score ST
Hybrid Arts, Inc.
11920 West Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90064
Key Clique, Inc.
3960 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Suite 374
Studio City, CA 91604
- Super Conductor
576 S. Telegraph
Pontiac, MI 48053
- MIDI Magic
Micro-W Distributing, Inc.
1342B Route 23
Butler, NJ 07405
- MIDIsoft Studio,
MIDIsoft Enhanced Studio
P.O. Box 1000
Bellevue, WA 98009
- Data Dumpstor ST, TR707 Dumpstor,
Music Service Software
801 Wheeler Road
Madison, WI 53704
- MIDIsoft Studio
625 Miramontes Street
Hall Moon Bay, CA 94019
Russ Jones Marketing Group
17700 Raymer St., Suite 1001
Northridge, CA 91325
Virtual Sounds Software
557 Tremont, Suite 11
Boston, MA 02118
- ST Music Box
P. O. Box 5228
Springfield, VA 22150