Siel's first piece of sequencing software for the Commodore 64 is a six-track steptime only composer with a capacity of around 1500 events per track, each of these being monophonic. Key velocity information can also be stored (assuming that your keyboard is velocity-sensitive and is capable of transmitting dynamic information via MIDI), and unlike some other systems I've come across, the Siel doesn't seem to need much memory space to store this data.
On powering-up the computer, the software is accessed by inserting the disk and typing LOAD"CMP1.1",8,1. When the computer responds with READY, you type in SYS50000, and the micro goes a-hunting for the main program, which takes a few minutes.
When this has been done, the main menu appears, and this presents you with three options, these being Composer (accessed by typing C on the 64's keyboard), which allows you to record, edit and replay music; Disk Operation which lets you load, save, rename and erase music files; and MIDI which enables you to assign any of the six tracks to different MIDI outputs and to select one of three MIDI modes.
As an example of the way this bit of the software works, let's take the factory demo piece that comes with the disk.
Now, the first option you select is obviously D. Once you've decided which file you want, and given the computer your instructions (luckily, single keystrokes are the order of the day here), the micro will obey and return you to the main menu automatically once the file has been located and called up. It's worth noting that if the file in question is a little on the long side, the loading process can take a long time too (about five minutes, to be exact), which is a bit tedious and more or less rules the package out for live work.
Anyway, once you're back in the main menu, selecting M takes you to a further sub-menu from which you can select MIDI modes and channels. All three modes are offered, namely Omni (all parts played exactly the same), Poly (different parts can be assigned to different synths), and Mono (for use with multi-timbral synths such as the Oberheim Xpander and SCI SixTrak, where each monophonic track can be given both a different part and a different sound.
If you've selected Poly, the sub-menu will also let you assign MIDI channels (between 1 and 16) to each of the synths you've put under software control. Pressing RETURN then gets you back into the main menu, after which the third and final option - Composer - can be selected.
In this mode, the computer displays the current status and lists a summary of the data currently on-line by showing MIDI mode, which of the six monophonic tracks is assigned to which of the interface's MIDI Outs, and the total note values of each of these. To listen to a file, you have to type (in this particular case) P . 1 88 R. This asks the computer to play (P) all the channels (.) once (1) at a tempo of 88 beats per minute (88). And R sends all those requests.
If everything runs smoothly, you should then be treated to a rendition of the first movement from one of the Brandenburg Concerti, and very splendid it is too.
However, I suspect that most musicians will buy this package to record their own music rather than spend all day listening to Bach, and as already intimated, such recording is also accomplished in the Composer mode.
Now, to input music, you have to define rather a large number of parameters for each note, viz the channel number, step number, the note itself, the note length, and finally the gate-on time (which is normally two-thirds of the total note length, to allow for the release portion of the ADSR cycle). To end the piece, you define a step and type in a '@'. Just to give you some idea of what this definition entails, here's what a typical note might look like:
1 23 E5 24 18 (space bar)
As you can see, rather a lot of typing for just one note. It doesn't take a wild stretch of the imagination to realise that entering complex compositions with this software can take an awful long time - far longer, I suspect, than most musicians will tolerate.
I'm no slouch at data entry (before I started all this scribbling nonsense and playing music, I had a proper job as a data processor), but a sequence that took just a minute or two to enter into a Roland MSQ100 still took over 12 minutes with the Composer/Arranger. Given that in the professional music world, time is money, and that few pro musicians are therefore likely to have sufficient time on their hands to make the most of the recording facilities afforded by this package, I think it's a pretty fair bet that this particular Siel program was written by computer programmers who know little or nothing about musical performance. Even if you're one of the minority that positively relishes the prospect of row upon row of figures to enter into a computer, the processes involved are so mind-bogglingly slow, they're almost bound to sap your enthusiasm eventually.
Thankfully, the software's saving grace lies in what it lets you do to a sequence once you've recorded it. Like most step-time input programs, the Composer/Arranger allows extensive editing to be carried out on existing tracks, and relative to what you have to do to record a sequence, this process is surprisingly straightforward. All you have to do to amend a step is to type it in again, but although it's possible to insert blocks of data wherever you like, you can't erase either blocks or single lines, which is a shame.
Excellent copying and transposition facilities are also available, while in addition to the software's ability to store MIDI dynamic information, the Composer can also be programmed to change patches (again, using MIDI data transfer) on one or more synths at a given point during your sequence. A nice touch.
Well, there I was all set to give this package the thumbs-down on the grounds that this particular form of step-time entry is a waste of both time and effort, and that Siel should really be turning their attention to writing real-time programs, when the Editor steps in and tells me the company have already done just that.
The Live Sequencer, as the new package is called, is capable of recording 16 tracks of fully polyphonic MIDI note information, its capacity - in its Commodore 64 incarnation, at least - being approximately 9000 MIDI events. And once a pattern has been recorded, it can be linked together with other patterns to form songs. It looks on paper to be good value at £64 (tape) or £69.50 (disk), but obviously a full appraisal will have to await a future issue.
So what of the Composer/Arranger? Well, if you're after extensive editing facilities and don't object to the laborious method of data entry, I suppose it ain't half bad. However, during the time I used the package it crashed on numerous occasions, one of which proved somewhat embarrassing as I was demonstrating 'the wonders of computer music' to a group of schoolchildren at the time.
Computer programmers and frustrated keyboardists who can't play a note will probably find the Composer/Arranger attractive, but traditional musicians like myself will probably opt for the Live Sequencer, when it appears.
The phrase 'horses for courses' springs to mind...
RRPs are £34 including VAT for the cassette version, £39 for the disk. Further information from Siel UK, (Contact Details).
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Review by Steve Howell
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