2B Or Not 2B
UMI 2B Software
The 1B version was good, but Simon Trask has spent a month with its successor, and reckons it deserves its reputation as the most professional sequencing package designed round a home computer.
The world's most expensive home micro-based music software package is also one of the most comprehensive and one of the easiest to use. But is there still a place for it now that programs for a new generation of computers are on the horizon?
We all know that the future of computer music software lies with the new generation of 16-bit micros, with their multitasking and their superior graphics. Just how far away that future lies isn't really clear, though, and in the meantime, there are plenty of software writers devoting attention to older computers which already have a large following of everyday users behind them.
Umusic, the people behind the UMI 2B 16-track MIDI sequencing system reviewed here, have stuck their necks out and gone for the BBC Micro, which has enough trouble competing with the cheaper and bigger-memory Commodore 64, let alone the hordes of 16-bit invaders to come. Their system has neither the graphics features of new-generation software, nor the ability to contemplate doing more than one task at a time. Yet it's a powerful, well-thought-out, and well-designed system that goes out of its way to be flexible and responsive to the demands of the musician, rather than impose its own set of demands.
That was pretty much the conclusion we came to when we tested the package's predecessor, UMI 1B, in E&MM December '84. The 2B - as before, distributed exclusively by the London Rock Shop - is better still.
Like its forerunner, UMI 2B takes advantage of the Beeb's ability to hold several ROM chips full of software, which you plug into the appropriate socket inside the machine and then forget about. What this means is that when you power up the Beeb you just type *U. and you're instantly into the UMI system, which beats loading from disk any day. It also has the added advantage that the software doesn't have to reside in main memory, so there's more space free for sequence storage. There was quite a bit of memory inside December's test micro anyway, seeing as it was equipped with an Aries B20 20K expansion board. However, the Aries is no longer available as a separate item, so the 52K version of UMI 2B is sitting waiting for new memory boards as I write this.
Price of the basic 2B package is £495 including VAT, which means a total cost of around £1000 if you don't already own a Beeb. OK, so it's not cheap. But it's under half the price of a Yamaha QX1, which is probably the sequencer most people will draw comparisons with. A second ROM will be available soon to add a number of facilities to the system which, presumably, have come about in response to feedback from users.
Speaking of which, there are now quite a number of pro and semi-pro musicians using UMI in one or other of its forms - which isn't something that happens to too many music software packages. Musicians currently using the system include Vince Clarke, Depeche Mode, Blancmange and Tears For Fears. On the studio front, Battery, Mayfair and Hollywood studios all have a UMI system installed, too. There's even one just gone out to America to receive a test drive from the Cars (sorry).
There are two parts to UMI: the software on ROM and the hardware (designed by Umusic's Lynton Naiff and Paul Ludgate respectively). The latter comes in the form of a slimline, custom-designed hardware interface unit which plugs into the Beeb's 1 MHz bus, and allows the software to interact with the outside world. A single button sits atop the unit (this is the Run/Stop button and controls pattern and song start/stop, as well as any drum machines or sequencers connected to the hardware unit), while all the sockets are spread out across the unit's rear panel. No stingyness here: in addition to the rather essential MIDI In, there are no fewer than four MIDI Outs. These are divided into two pairs, with each pair linked to a different ACIA (Asynchronous Communication Interface Adaptor, as if you didn't know). This gives parallel processing of outgoing MIDI data, with each ACIA processing eight of MIDI's 16 tracks - a great help in reducing bottlenecks caused by MIDI's serial nature.
But UMI doesn't confine itself to MIDI communication. There's also Roland's DIN Sync 24 (output only, unfortunately), Clock In and Out (Out set to 24ppqn, In variable over 24, 48 and 96ppqn) and Start/Stop jacks, Trigger Out (determined by the selected clock rate), Click Out (for the internal metronome) and, wonder of wonders, Sync-to-tape In/Out. Plenty enough to keep a lot of people happy.
Surprisingly, you can't sync UMI directly to a MIDI drum machine or sequencer. The system simply won't send or receive the requisite MIDI Start/Stop codes (let alone Continue) or timing bytes. Clearly, UMI's designers want you to use their system to record and play rhythm patterns by taking advantage of the facility commonly found on MIDI drum machines whereby specific pitches (conveyed as MIDI note numbers) are assigned to trigger each drum voice. Ultimately, this system does give you the greatest flexibility.
But what about all those great patterns you've already got recorded in your drum machine, just waiting to be played at the press of a button? And what happens if you don't want to use up any of UMI's patterns or processing time when your drum machine has its own memory and its own processor, just waiting to be used?
Well, if your drum machine has some suitable connections on its back panel, you can take advantage of UMI's non-MIDI triggering facilities to provide straightforward start/stop functions. But if it hasn't, or you're using a sequencer that hasn't, you're going to need a synchronising box like Korg's KMS30 before UMI will talk the same language as your existing machinery.
And just in case you're thinking of hooking this software up to a broader recording setup using SMPTE in preference to UMI's sync-to-tape facility, you'll have to rely on the Clock In and Out for your interfacing.
Still, at least until MIDI gains a standardised song file format which can then be used to interface with SMPTE in a more extensive way - there's not much difference between the information conveyed over MIDI and non-MIDI channels.
So much for the hardware - time for an overview of the software. The first thing you're confronted with on entering UMI is a clearly laid-out menu page which displays every option together with the key required to access its relevant page. Each page is accessed by pressing one of the Beeb's bright red function keys, which seems eminently sensible.
Menus (and having to return to them) can become rather annoying once you've learnt all the appropriate keypresses, and again, UMI's designers have recognised this: UMI 2B allows you to move directly from one page to another at any moment (provided a pattern or song isn't playing) by pressing the relevant function key. Meanwhile, the usual method of returning to the main menu screen is to press the Return key, and this can be done from virtually any point in the system providing a sequence isn't running. As mentioned earlier, Pattern and Song start/stop are controlled by the only button not found on the Beeb's own keyboard: the R/S (run/stop) button found atop the UMI hardware unit. So keyboard input is minimised and movement around the system is made as speedy as possible.
And it's because you can access every part of the system quickly that operation of UMI becomes a very 'integrated' affair. Much more than is the case with most currently available software packages, UMI lets you use it in the way that best suits you - very, very quickly.
UMI adopts a programming approach that'll already be familiar to a lot of people through working with drum machines, using patterns as basic building blocks which are then chained into songs. But unlike a song on a drum machine, a UMI piece can have up to 16 chains running concurrently, giving 16 'tracks' each of which can be globally assigned to any one of the 16 MIDI channels (so it doesn't matter which MIDI channel you used for inputting your music).
"Background - There are now quite a few pro musicians using UMI — which isn't something that happens to a lot of MIDI software packages."
Each track is capable of chaining together almost 100 patterns, and UMI has provision for a maximum of 127 patterns to be resident in memory at any one time. The system has been designed to hold a single song in memory, but this poses no problems: saving to and loading from disk is very fast, and automatically saves all pattern data along with the song data, so you can easily start on a new song, save that too, and then call up any other song you might want. A nice feature of the Save and Load pages is that you can catalogue a disk at any time so you know precisely what's on each disk.
As things stand, you can't save patterns to disk independently from songs. But one of the second ROM's updates will allow individual patterns to be saved and loaded in their own right as well, so you'll be able to build up libraries of patterns and load them into a song where appropriate, or use them as the basis for a new song.
A pattern can be as little as one beat or as many as 64 beats long (with a beat definable as either a quaver or a crotchet), which gives a maximum pattern length of 16 bars in good ol' 4/4 time.
Real-time recording allows you to specify a count-in period of up to nine beats (set up in the Defaults section of the main menu) or launch straight into record simply by starting to play on your synth. When you reach the end of the pattern, UMI switches automatically to looped playback of the pattern - which means, sadly, that you don't get the typical drum machine feature of looping in record mode so you can add new bits each time around.
In pattern record mode, you have the software option to set UMI's MIDI Outs to become effectively MIDI Thrus, so that the music you play into the sequencer is passed out to any attached instruments as well as being recorded - useful if the pattern you're recording requires a layered sound. What you can't do, however, is use this facility and play back an existing sequence at the same time; the system will record, but not pass on, your incoming data.
On entering the step-time recording page, you're presented with a five-column matrix display of pitch names, one octave per column. First off, you define how many beats per bar and how many steps per beat you want. The latter figure can be as high as 24 steps per beat, while the former allows UMI to indicate which bar you're currently in. That's useful for knowing where you are in longer patterns, but it would be more worthwhile still if it told you which beat you were currently on, too.
You input pitches by playing the relevant note or notes on your synth, and these are then highlighted on the matrix display. If you enter a wrong note, you can delete it simply by re-keying the note before moving on to the next step; the relevant highlight is removed to show you that all trace of the miscreant note has indeed been eradicated from the face of the Earth.
Notes or chords which last longer than a single event can be indicated by typing in an event count after entering notes, and you input rests by typing in an event count without playing any notes - all very logical. You can hear the pattern at any stage by pressing the R/S button, which is extremely useful. It's also possible to give each step its own attack velocity value by typing in a number from 1-127 (the MIDI velocity range), and select 'gate' lengths of 10%, 30% and 75% for each step.
UMI's step-time editing facilities are a touch on the minimal side, though. You can step back through your pattern to change anything while remaining in record mode, but unfortunately, every step is deleted along the way. So if you want to change a note or a velocity value 10 steps back, you have to re-input the intervening nine steps as well.
And once you've reached the end of a pattern, there are no step-based editing facilities except for Erase Notes, which allows you to step through any pattern and selectively erase notes in the manner described above.
When you've finished recording a pattern in either real or step time, you can go to the Edit page for any further work. It's from this page that it becomes possible to overdub onto the pattern in real time. This is a useful and very easy way of building up a pattern, and UMI allows you to do a seemingly endless number of overdubs - the only limits are the voice capabilities of your synth and your own sanity. Overdubbing is also a useful way of adding things like pitchbend, modulation and patch changes. Again, you'll find your pattern going into an endless playback loop until you stop it by hitting the R/S button.
If you aren't happy with your overdub, you simply select Overdub again and your previous overdub is replaced. If you are happy with what you've done, select the Commit Overdub option and it'll become part of the pattern.
All of which gives you admirable flexibility, spoilt only by one unfortunate omission: you can't listen to any other patterns while performing an overdub. As it is, you have to set up the relevant patterns in Song mode, make a copy of the pattern you're about to overdub, do the overdub, go into Song mode to hear it in context (which commits the overdub for you), and if you don't like the result, call back the original pattern from its copied position and start again. A slightly long-winded way of doing things in what is generally a very fast sytem.
Other options on the Edit page allow you to change the auto-correct value (anything from crotchet to triplet semiquavers), compact pitchbend and modulation data, and erase pitchbend, modulation and patch change data. Two further pattern-based editing facilities on their way (on the new ROM) are real-time velocity sensitivity expand/contract and a universal controller code erase. The Retrieve function acts on all the above modifications except Erase Notes to return the pattern to its unmodified state (so long as you use it before exiting Edit mode), while Cut-off isn't as painful as it sounds: if you're left with notes hanging on at the end of a pattern because you didn't release them in time, this option sorts the problem out for you.
Further pages dealing with patterns as opposed to songs are Erase Pattern and Copy Pattern. With the latter, you can specify an additional parameter which is the length of the new pattern, and this can be either longer or shorter than the original. If it's longer, you'll obviously have some blank beats at the end, which you can record into by overdubbing - a neat way of building up longer patterns. A further option allows you to isolate any number of beats from a pattern (always beginning from the first beat) and copy them into a blank pattern with a specified number of repeats.
"Operation - Having to keep returning to menus can be annoying... but UMI lets you move directly from one page to another at any time."
And so, finally, to songs. There are two pages relating to these: Write/Edit Chain and Play Song. UMI's 16 tracks are labelled A to P, so you can access any track with a single keypress. Each song page displays the links in the chain for one track, and you flip from one track to another by keying the appropriate track letter.
Both song pages also display the current track letter, the MIDI channel allocated to that track and, if you've entered them, the names of the synths playing that track. It proved irritating not to be able to change MIDI channel assignment from the Write/Edit Chain page (you have to go to the Track Assignment page and step to the appropriate track). But you've guessed it, this irritation is due to be remedied as one of the updates on the forthcoming second ROM.
Links (ie. pattern numbers) are entered in three columns, with all links being numbered on entry automatically. At the sequencer's simplest level of operation, all you have to do is type in the pattern number and press Return for each link. On playback, the song loops continuously unless you've typed in an 'S' at the end of track A.
In this way, it's possible to set up basic sequences very quickly. You can also specify a transposition value up or down for each link, over what is effectively the entire MIDI-playable range of 127 pitches. So you can easily experiment with patterns in different octaves, or with mixing different harmonies derived from the same pattern, or create octave divider effects.
Editing facilities available are Link Insert, Delete and Overwrite, and you can move a cursor around the screen to any link. Complete chains can be copied from one track to another, and a useful facility allows you to specify an offset number - so that pattern 11 with offset 10 becomes pattern 21. New patterns created in this way don't actually have to exist, so you can align related pattern numbers for easy cross-referencing when you're recording. Patterns 11-19 run in parallel with patterns 21-29, for instance.
But UMI also provides what are rather endearingly called 'routemap pointers'. These allow you to define such niceties as looping sections, first- and second-time repeats, jump to coda and return to sign. The looping facility provides an infinite repeat for any number of links, which is useful if you want a repeat-to-fade at the end of a song. Otherwise, you can use it in conjunction with the first- and second-time repeat markers, in which case you can use repeats more than once in a track.
A more usable approach would've been to allow any number of repeats to be specified for each loop. But what has been usefully included is a facility for redefining the start point of a sequence — which allows you to home in on a particular section of a song very quickly.
UMI uses track A as a master track for defining routemap pointers. Thus whatever 'route' you set up on track A is automatically adopted by the other tracks.
Track A also governs the other tracks when it comes to pattern length. All links across the 16 tracks have to be in step with one another, so if a pattern on track A is eight beats long and the concurrent pattern on track C is four beats long, track C will wait until track A has finished playing its pattern. This is where the copying facility comes in useful, as you can build up a short pattern into a longer one that'll align with, say, a long phrase on track A.
One update which'll figure on that second ROM, and should prove useful for reconciling patterns of different lengths, will allow any number of patterns of any length to be merged into one pattern, so long as the result isn't longer than the maximum pattern length of 64 beats.
A side-effect of pattern alignment allows you to define empty patterns very easily. Because so long as track A has all its pattern lengths defined, you can use an undefined pattern as a 'floating' blank bar which adjusts its own length to the length of the corresponding pattern in track A.
The maximum recording period of 64 beats is one limitation you have to accept when working with UMI, as it's part of the philosophy underlying the package to present the musician with certain restrictions, in order that the system ultimately gains in flexibility.
UMI isn't intended to function as a straightforward recorder, so if you want to record lengthy improvisations or extended solos, or even just play a composition straight through, UMI won't be of much use to you. If you want to record extended passages over UMI's backing tracks, your best bet is probably to go for a cheap MIDI sequencer like the Casio SZ1. But then, that'd lead you back to the syncing problems I mentioned at the start...
Frankly, though, I think it's unlikely that all of UMI's 16 tracks will be used to the full at the same time by many people. What that large number does allow you to do is incorporate a rhythm track or two as described earlier, or a multitimbral instrument, and still have enough tracks left not to feel too constrained.
"Facilities - There's a Notes page that allows you to create a basic track listing for all 16 tracks on-screen, so things don't get too hairy."
It would be nice to be able to turn a particular track on or off at the press of a key, but you can simulate this by assigning a track to a MIDI channel which isn't allocated within your system. It would also be nice to have some sort of block move facility which would allow you to shift sections of music around within a track and across tracks. Who knows? If I suggest it to Umusic, they might include it on that wondrous second ROM...
With 16 tracks at your disposal, things can easily get a bit hairy when it comes to knowing what's on which track. It's a practical point not lost on UMI's designers, who've included a Notes page that allows you to create a basic track listing for all 16 tracks on-screen, with columns headed 'synth', 'sound' and 'remarks'. You have to be concise in your wording, but it's surprising how informative this page can be.
Together with the Track To Channel Assignments page (which tells you at a glance which MIDI channel is assigned to each of the 16 tracks and allows you to reassign MIDI channels), Notes provides a useful ready-reference guide for each song setup. And the information on both these pages is automatically saved and loaded when you save or load a song, which is handy.
Perhaps wisely, UMI goes against current software fashion by not offering any means of printing out the music stored within it in notation form. I say 'wisely' because I'm not too sure a machine like the Beeb is really capable of printing out 16 tracks of music with any accuracy - though that new generation of 16-bit machines certainly will be.
In fact, there's no way you can print out anything you do with UMI. Which is a shame, as it would have been nice to have been able to have hard copy versions of the Notes and Track Assignment pages.
In addition to its sequencing duties, UMI is capable of saving and loading DX7 patches, singly and in banks. And the London Rock Shop also market a ten-disk set of DX7 patches containing some 500 sounds for around £80. An extra bonus (or added incentive) for owners of one of the most popular MIDI synths around.
UMI's manual isn't one of the best, though. While most of the relevant information is there, the layout could be a lot neater, and a more thorough Contents page — or some kind of Index — would make finding out what you want to know a much easier task.
Does UMI work? The answer is an emphatic Yes. I spent many hours working with UMI (far too many, probably), using four synths and a MIDI drum machine, and the package proved to be very, very reliable. Should the system freeze, you can press the Break key to reset UMI with your material remaining intact — a nice failsafe measure.
More than any software package I can think of, UMI succeeds in combining flexibility with supreme ease of use. As a straight-ahead, no-frills sequencer, it's one of the most powerful and flexible currently on the market, rivalled only by the QX1 but costing a heck of a lot less.
It doesn't have extensive step-time editing facilities, a great depth of access to MIDI codes, or the ability to record great chunks of music in one go - things that some of its competition (QX1, Joreth software) do include in their spec sheets. But the fact is that none of its competitors have all those facilities and a means of accessing them that's as easy as the way UMI presents its capabilities.
So if you're at all serious about sequencing, give UMI some serious consideration — regardless of whether or not you already own a BBC micro. It's a professional among amateurs.
Review by Simon Trask
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