Hybrid Arts Professional Sequencer
by Jamie Krutz
Years in the making, SMPTE Track, the new top of the line sequencing hardware/software double whammy from Hybrid Arts is a major achievement. It's packed with features and is one of the best sequencers I've seen on any personal computer.
The first thing you notice about SMPTE Track is its fast, responsive feel. You can do most operations from the main screen with GEM drop-down menus and specialized screens appearing quickly when needed. In addition, you can use the mouse for almost every operation, although keyboard commands are also available.
On the main screen, tracks are shown on the left and tape deck-style controls are on the lower right (see Figure 1). To record a track, you click on the "play" button with the mouse (or touch the space bar) and play your MIDI keyboard in time with the built-in metronome. There's no "record" button because an extra buffer track is always in record mode. When you've performed something you like, pick a track and hit the "keep" button to store your performance there.
There are 60 tracks and you can view any consecutive 20 at one time. Everything you'd want to see is displayed, including whether a track is muted, protected from accidental erasure and/or assigned to a MIDI channel. Also shown for each track is memory use, how many notes are playing at a given instant and when the track has reached its end.
Each track can record all 16 MIDI channels at once, making it easy to transfer sequences from another sequencer. Tracks can be combined from several sequences into one sequence using the "import track" function. Patch change data can be recorded, controller information can be recorded or selectively filtered, and Hybrid Arts has said they will support system exclusive data in a future version.
Should 60 tracks not be enough, a "mix" command lets you bounce tracks together, and an "unmix" command lets you undo this if you change your mind. Remember, you are limited to MIDI's 16 channels--unless you have Hybrid's MIDIplexer, an optional piece of hardware which gives you a total of 64 MIDI channels and another MIDI input!
Unmixing can also be done by pitch; useful for separating left and right hand piano parts or getting drums onto their own tracks for flexible editing. Another feature, "Track Delays," allows you to move individual tracks forward or backward in time. This is great for getting percussion tracks to "feel right," and for accomodating synth patches with slow attack envelopes.
Chain Your Brain
Working with SMPTE Track is like working with a 60-track tape, which may seem powerful enough, but SMPTE Track doesn't stop there. At any time you can say, "from here to here on these tracks is a section, and I want to combine these sections in this order to make this chain." Different sections can share tracks and overlap time periods. Your "60 track tape" can be cut up into incredible mosaics, and yet the original is always there undamaged, ready for more experimentation.
Once you make a chain, you can still use any number of free tracks to record more parts linearly along with the chain. You can even have several chains playing at once, all while multiple linear tracks are playing! This is extremely flexible and powerful. A "flatten chain" command allows you to record all the tracks in the various sections of any chain linearly onto one track.
What SMPTE Is
SMPTE time code (often called "SMPTE"), was developed by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers as a way to number each frame in video and film.
Using an included piece of external hardware, SMPTE Track reads and writes 30 frames per sec (fr/sec) and 30 fr/sec drop frame for NTSC video, 25 fr/sec for EBU time code (used in PAL and SECAM video) and 24 fr/sec for 35mm film. Thus it's compatible with standards in the U.S., Japan and many European and other countries. It even accesses "user bits," another set of SMPTE numbers often used to record the date or reel number onto every frame. It can also generate MIDI clock, MIDI song pointer and various FSK (frequency shift keying) signals, making it compatible with non-SMPTE gear.
The program's direct SMPTE support makes it a professional tool for composing video and film soundtracks. SMPTE is also the best way to synchronize to any kind of tape deck, from a home cassette, video or 4-track deck to a megabuck digital multitrack.
For any deck, once you've recorded SMPTE onto a spare audio track, you can wind the tape to any point and play it, and SMPTE Track will read the time code and begin to play exactly where it should. If you're watching a video, you can play musical ideas as you watch. Rewind the tape and SMPTE Track will play them back against the picture just as you played them (with an accuracy of 1/96th of a beat).
How I Use It
When composing music for picture, I first get a time-coded video copy of the production. Using SMPTE Track's ability to regenerate identical time code I record fresh, matching time code onto a multitrack recorder. After composing the basic MIDI tracks with the sequencer locked to the video, I lock the sequencer to the multitrack and add any non-MIDI instruments, sound effects, voiceovers and vocals I need. The accurate lockup also allows the same MIDI instruments to be used more than once in a sequence, by recording them in several passes to different tape tracks.
|Figure 1: SMPTE
Track's main screen.
Tracks are shown on
the left and tape
are on the lower
The fact that SMPTE Track's SMPTE support is built in makes it much easier to use than sequencers that rely on MIDI Song Pointer and generic (but expensive) SMPTE to MIDI interfaces, and much more accurate than FSK (Frequency Shift Keying) systems (which put a pulse on the tape that's not numbered). The built-in SMPTE support makes the use of the new MIDI Time Code (MTC) unnecessary, although Hybrid is also considering supporting MTC. MTC's drawback is that it adds a constant overhead to the MIDI data stream.
Those Darn Mistakes
If you make a mistake while recording, SMPTE Track provides a lot of editing options.
You can tell your ST where a mistake begins and ends, have it start playing before the mistake and perform the part again. The sequencer will automatically "punch-in" your new performance, replacing the mistake.
Quantizing, humanizing, durating, velocity adjust and transposing are all available. Quantizing moves every note to the nearest time value you select. It can move the entire note or just the attack. Humanizing is quantizing with a random element introduced. Durating makes all notes the same length. Velocity adjust lets you compress, expand, shift, or limit attack and/or release velocities or make them all the same. Transposing moves the pitch of all tracks (with an optional exception for drums), and/or individual tracks.
All of these functions can be easily applied to a whole track or just to part of a track. When in doubt, try it! You won't hurt anything, since you can save all changed versions to other tracks.
The bullt-in MIDI event list editor is handy for small changes. It arranges the MIDI event data into columns, and allows data to be added or changed with the mouse. However, it does not allow you to listen to sections of the sequence, though it does provide icons to trigger individual notes.
The graphic editor allows you to listen to selected parts of the sequence as you work, with one or all 16 channels sounding (Figure 2). It does not allow new data to be added, but it's a much easier way to make changes in existing data.
You can move notes in time using the mouse, and you can even draw controller information and velocity with the mouse! Want a crescendo? Draw it! Want a faster attack on that breath-controlled note; more vibrato in measure twenty; more aftertouch in the climax? You can draw the changes in seconds. Even release velocity and polyphonic aftertouch are supported.
SMPTE Track isn't perfect--its biggest problem has been the time it took to arrive at the level of performance first promised "by March" at the January 1986 NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show. That was made essentially moot with updates finally released this year. Hybrid promises new features will be added in future versions, though eventually those versions will require at least one megabyte of RAM.
Some small complaints: You must click the mouse button for each numeric increment change, which is annoying if you're clicking one by one through 127 velocity levels in the list editor. If you change a patch number in the list editor it will not remember the offset you've given it from the main screen. Unmix by pitch would be quicker and more convenient if pitch regions could be set as easily as time regions can for other editing functions, and if pitch regions, once unmixed, weren't also still left on the original track. The section chaining can be a bit confusing to those first introduced to it.
|Figure 2: SMPTE
Track's graphic edi-
tor allows you to lis-
ten to selected parts
of the sequence as
you work, with one
or all 16 channels
You can back up SMPTE Track easily, although it won't work without the SMPTE box connected (both to the second mouse port and the serial port). This is an acceptable form of key protection, but there is no serial pass-through on the SMPTE box. The box is also a clumsy companion on stage.
It would be nice if graphic editing would allow the selection of multiple notes to move around together, rather than just one note at a time. As it stands, the only way to cut and paste multiple notes is with a separate "glue section" feature, which can be difficult to visualize without graphic representation. Also, although you can change a note's pitch in the graphic editing mode, you can't drag notes from one pitch to another.
SMPTE Track is full of nice touches. There are 27 registers for storing counter positions, tempos and mute combinations. You can route your controller keyboard to any MIDI channel and change synth patches from the computer screen. There is an easy step-entry mode, you can format disks from within the program, and like many word processors, SMPTE Track can automatically keep the penultimate saved version of each sequence file on disk as a backup.
An "Auto GenPatch" feature loads your synths with needed patches automatically each time you load a sequence but you'll need Hybrid's "GenPatch" genenc librarian software to save patch banks to disk from your synths.
"Hybri-Switch" is a program that toggles between SMPTE Track and other Hybrid programs (like EZ-Score Plus or DX Android). However you may need more than a megabyte to make this useful. EZ-Score Plus will change your sequence files into good-looking traditional music notation (with a three stave limit). Worth mentioning are the non-SMPTE version "SyncTrack" and the simplified "EZTrack Plus," both of which are file-compatible with SMPTE Track.
Stefan Daystrom, creator of the sequencer, and Joe Fitzpatrick, responsible for the SMPTE reader/generator, have done excellent work. SMPTE Track is a super product.
Jamie Krutz is a producer/director and composer for film and video productions. His 1040 ST has been one of his favorite tools since 1986.
SMPTE Track, $575; MIDIplexer, $299; GenPatch, $150; HybriSwitch, $29; EZ-Score Plus, $149.95; DX Android, 199.95; SyncTrack, $375; EZ-Track Plus, $65. Hybrid Arts, Inc., 11920 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, Ca 90064, 213/ 826-3777, Computer BBS: 213/8264288.