AB Software Midistudio
Software for the Atari ST
If computer-based sequencing seems too complicated or too expensive for you, AB Software's Midistudio could change your life. Ian Waugh boots up a friendly and inexpensive sequencer for the Atari ST.
Attracted by the potential of software sequencing but intimidated by its complexity? Midistudio could have been written just for you.
WHAT WITTY LINE, what attention-grabbing introduction can I think of to introduce you to yet another ST sequencer? Let's try quoting from the advert (which you can see in most computer magazines) - "Out performs Pro24 v2.1 in almost every way". Says who, you may ask. Says "Atari ST User Jan '89" says the ad. Who actually said it in Atari ST User Jan '89, you may go on to enquire? Well, if you dig out the issue in question you'll find Midistudio mentioned in the news section. Read on and you'll find the quote is attributed to Richard Blunt, spokesman for Ladbroke, the distributors of Midistudio.
Either Ladbroke's ad department doesn't know what Ladbroke's promotions department is up to or... Well, I'll leave you to draw your own conclusion. However, we'll not let a little thing like hype stand in the way of an MT review. Let's plug in, turn on and see what Midistudio is about.
It's supplied in a small cardboard box with a bonny sleeve which contains a dongle, a disk and a slim 32-page manual. The review version was v2.3 and although the manual was written for v2.1 (there is a three-page ReadMe file on the disk) this version will probably be around for at least a year before another update.
The program doesn't use GEM (except for the standard GEM file selector box). The "menu" buttons at the top of the screen draw new sections onto the top and bottom areas of the screen to handle different tasks. There's a lot of information packed onto these screens but after a read through the manual it's not too difficult to remember what everything does.
Midistudio is a pattern-based sequencer. It has 20 Tracks and recording is tape-recorder based with Play, Record, Fast Forward and Rewind buttons and so on. But you don't record on a specific track: you record Phrases (patterns) and then arrange them on the Tracks by dragging them from place to place.
THE FIRST THING to do when recording is set the number of bars in the Phrase you are about to record and the number of beats per bar. A bar can be anything from 1-16 beats long. You can create a very long phrase (up to 682 bars at four beats per bar) if you want to work in a linear fashion. You can select a count in (1-16 beats) or choose to start recording as soon as you press a note.
Click on Record and play your phrase then click on the List button and the phrase will appear in a Phrase List at the bottom of the screen. One hundred phrases can be stored here. Click on Arrange and the Tracks appear horizontally in the upper part of the screen.
Any Phrase can be placed on any Track by clicking and dragging, and can be copied, inserted and deleted just as easily. Tracks can be soloed and muted and Phrases and Tracks can be named. A MIDI Thru option can be toggled on and off and you can select the channel the data is transmitted on.
And so you construct your Song. Simple.
ON THE DESK screen you assign MIDI channels to the Tracks, set transpose if required, and select program numbers. A nice touch here is the ability to decide how program numbers are displayed. They can run from 0-127, 1-128 or they can be shown in banks running from all-b88 or a01-b64. I haven't seen this feature in a sequencer before. Hands up everyone who keeps a bank-to-program number conversion table by their keyboard or expander.
The Desk features sliders to let you set the relative volumes of each Track. This uses MIDI controller number 7. You can do a mix on the fly (like Trackman - reviewed MT, March '89) using the cursor keys but this cannot be stored and reproduced on subsequent playbacks (unlike C-Lab's Notator). This is under consideration for a future update.
A clock on the Stop bar tells you how long the last playback lasted - every sequencer should have one although it doesn't increment as the piece plays.
There's an option at the bottom of the screen to send automatically Program Change and Volume Control data at the start and end of playback. It also sends Omni Off and Poly On commands which can be a nuisance. A toggle here would be helpful.
BEFORE WE GET down to editing, I'd like to mention one strange aspect of the program - its internal clock resolution, which is 24ppqn (pulses per quarter note). The manual says "On consultation with professional musicians, the general consensus was that a greater resolution led to 'greater confusion and no real improvement in timing or recording convenience', and that anyone who was over-concerned with ppqn resolution had 'either been misguided or misinformed on the subject matter'. I wonder who said that.
The fact is that a fine musical ear can detect a difference in the length of two notes as small as 10ms (Ref: Psychology of Music by Carl E. Seashore). But being able to judge whether or not a note is on the beat or a few clicks late is not the only consideration. A fine resolution can help with quantisation, and how does the program handle hemi-demi-semiquavers (the things with four tails which give you 16 notes to the beat - Bach used them), glissandos, quintuplets, septuplets and so on?
Perhaps we're getting a little academic here, but I reckon an increase in resolution is definitely called for. The resolution of Pro24 is 96ppqn, and that of many other pro sequencers is much higher. The manual does say, however, that an increase in resolution will be considered for the next version if enough people request it. Can't say fairer than that.
The Edit screen uses an event window to display notes and MIDI messages in numeric format: note number, octave, velocity, note-on time and note-off time. The time is expressed in bars, beats and clicks. Altering the "on time" sufficiently will move the event through the event list. The phrase can be set to loop during editing although there is no automatic scrolling display.
Editing facilities include phrase Copy, Split (neat), Merge, Append and Transpose. Filtering can be done during recording or afterwards.
Velocity can be incremented or decremented by a specific amount, it can be set to the same level or it can be randomised (within predefined limits). Before you dismiss this option as useless, let me point out how helpful it is when it comes to humanising a drum track, for instance. You can also scale velocity to produce fade ins and fade outs - luvverly.
More than that, there is a Scaled Controller facility which lets you insert any controller number (and its range) at intervals throughout the phrase. This can be used to insert volume controller (7) information which will move the faders on playback. It could also be used to produce a stereo pan effect or alter a modulation wheel.
Midistudio has adopted MIDI controller 20 and uses it as a tempo control so you can insert raIls and accels throughout a Phrase. It's a global function, so you could use it to create a master tempo track.
The Quantisation values are sub-divisions of the program's resolution of 24ppqn - 1/1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/6, 1/8 and 1/12. For example, 1/4 will quantise to 1/16th notes. It would be more helpful, I think, if they could be specified as actual note values.
Events can be inserted and deleted by selecting an event and clicking it into the event list. You can insert notes into The list this way. It's fine for short sequences but it's not really a satisfactory method of step-time input.
There's a Buffer tucked away in the top right of the screen. If you perform a destructive edit, a copy of the Phrase is automatically stored in the buffer and can be retrieved. Useful. The amount of free memory is shown in the top left of the screen.
THE OPTIONS SECTION includes a System Exclusive File Loader and Transmitter. A routine to actually put the data there in the first place is being considered for a MIDI Utilities disk.
You can turn Song Position Pointer and Song Select transmission on and off and there's a Fine Tune Tempo control here, too, although I wonder how useful it will actually prove to be.
There is a Text area for storing notes about the piece and a Continuous Load and Play facility which will play though all the Songs it finds on the top-level directory.
The disk contains some excellent demos which include volume changes and patch changes. The Tracks are named with the instrument sounds but the demos don't take advantage of the Text area to advise you of the notes.
The manual is rather dry (as the author admits) and it really needs to be better laid-out with more explanatory sections and some illustrations - especially if the program intended to appeal to the relative novice. Many users could well miss some of the more exciting features (such the insertion of scaled controller data).
My major niggles with Midistudlo were not being able to access most of the program during playback - perhaps I'm an inveterate fiddler - and lack of good step-time input facilities. The file handling really needs to be tidied up too. The only error report you get is Disk Error, which covers a multitude of sins, and it's quite easy to lock up the program if you don't follow protocol.
One of Midistudio's design and programming criteria was that it should run on a 520 ST and the colour alterations, mouse pointer shape and mouse response options mentioned in the manual have been removed to make room for the mix-down facilities. Most music software developers, however, have found 512K just does not give them room for much expansion.
Future Midistudio updates under consideration are a scorewriter and a drum machine matrix. The program doesn't support the MIDI File Format although this, too, is being considered for an update and will probably be included on the MIDI Utilities disk. This should also include the missing colour and mouse management options plus a MIDI data scanner, the System Exclusive dumper and a sound to pretty lights routine (which requires a second ST). All files created with the current program will be compatible with new versions and updates.
I wonder how long it will be before Midistudlo requires 1Meg of RAM. I also wonder if the routines are going to be accessible from within the program. I don't relish the thought of powering up and down to access more features.
The updates sound fine but they will increase the cost of the overall package. As it is, Ladbroke has to persuade prospective buyers that Midistudio is worth more than the £50-60 programs such as Hybrid's EZ-Track Plus, Dr T's MRS and Microdeal's Super Conductor and better than similarly-priced budget programs such as Passport's MasterTracks Junior and Steinberg Twelve. If you're asking me for my opinion - go on, ask me - I can only say it's better in some areas but not as good in others. Sorry if that sounds like a cop-out but it happens to be true.
One point in its favour - the programmer, John Blackledge of AB Software, offers users a customisation service and there's a helpline available between 8pm and 9pm.
MIDISTUDIO CONTAINS MANY good ideas and it's obvious that a lot of thought has gone into the design. Its aspirations as a Pro24 basher, however, are best left to the imagination of the ad department. As Pro24 has now reached version 3, the comparison is, perhaps, somewhat academic anyway.
Yes, it does lack many of the frills of some other programs but it does have something a little different - and a little new - to offer the prospective sequencer buyer.
Midistudio is quite a powerful and friendly little program, and it's certainly easy to use. If you've previously been put off sequencing software by its apparent complexity and the size of the manual, Midistudio will come as a pleasant surprise.
Price £99.99 including VAT
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Review by Ian Waugh