An Old Pro
Steinberg Pro24 Amiga
Steinberg's Pro24 amiga sequencer is the latest arrival in the rather sparse field of Amiga music software. Paul Overaa looks at a new incarnation of an old favourite.
The majority of you, being ST/PC/Mac oriented musicians, might be forgiven for wondering why the arrival of Steinberg's Pro24 on the Amiga is such a big thing. The reason is simple — good Amiga music software has, to say the least, been very thin on the ground. The Amiga has been very slow taking off as a music computer because, in a nutshell, so much of its music software has been, well... crap. Don't get me wrong, there are exceptions to the rule. Dr T's KCS, though dated in ST software terms, is a good workhorse sequencer which is certainly suitable for serious use. Bars & Pipes is innovative and has great potential as a composition tool. Micro Illusion's MusicXand Passport Design's Master Tracks Pro are also heading in the right direction, although some of the 'Amiga specific implementation problems' I've heard about make me less sure about these last two.
The lack of enthusiasm for the Amiga is perhaps surprising given that it has at least one very special advantage over other machines — it can multi-task. Pro24 Amiga runs in an environment which machines like the ST are finding very difficult to provide, whereas the ability to have several programs running simultaneously is something which the Amiga does as standard.
Pro24, the ST sequencer program launched by Steinberg in 1985, was well ahead of its time in many respects. It quickly gained professional acceptance, and its reputation has remained intact since, although more recent programs such as Cubase have taken its place in the limelight. The fact that ST and Mac software has moved on, and more powerful programs are now available, is neither here nor there for Amiga owners. The Amiga needs a far bigger selection of quality music software, and a version of Pro24 is very welcome indeed. It's also interesting to note that Steinberg have committed themselves to a place in the Amiga market.
The Amiga version of Pro24 is not an identical copy of the original program — it's a complete re-write. The aim was to produce an enhanced look-a-like, as opposed to a clone, and this has clearly been achieved.
The program comes on a single disk. There's the familiar Steinberg dongle (which will no doubt attract its fair share of "why do they have to use such an awkward protection scheme" complaints) and an A4 ring bound manual. The manual itself is very well written, with a good 'easy-start/introduction' section followed by more detailed sections. The program will run on an unexpanded (ie. 512K) Amiga, but 1 megabyte would be a more realistic minimum for serious use. That said, if memory does run low, the program will take steps to ease the strain — it can switch to less memory intensive graphics, and remove less frequently used parts of the program from memory.
The top half of the display contains the familiar Pro24 track indicators, and the Track Selection and Record pointer gadgets (icons). Below this you find the track 'activity bars' that give a visual indication of incoming data.
The lower part of the display contains the tape-deck type transport controls, together with a large number of other gadgets. The purpose of the tape transport section is obvious enough but some of other gadgets have functions which are rather less intuitive. Text labels on the icons would have been a useful extra, but clearly space limitations rule out such luxuries. After a week or so you start to remember what the icons mean, and from then on your hassles are over.
The Amiga version of Pro24, like the original version, is conceptually much like a sophisticated 24-track tape recorder. The tape can be moved forward, rewound, played back and so-on, with the tape transport control icon. Of course, on top of this you have plenty of facilities for editing and modifying the sequences that you record.
Besides the 24 tracks for data, there's also a separate Master Track, which is used to store tempo changes, time signatures and so on — parameters and characteristics that are common to all recording tracks.
I'm not going to go systematically through Pro24 Amiga's facilities, firstly because many of you will be only too familiar with the original Pro24, and secondly because the basic sequencer functions and operations are also common knowledge. For the benefit of Amiga owners, who in the main do not know Pro24, what follows is a kind of 'goodies sketch'.
There are 24 tracks, which can store data from any or all of the 16 MIDI channels. Tracks have playback parameters which determine whether output is played/muted, transposed, quantised, delayed, or filtered. You can record in either 'tape' or 'sequence' fashion, whichever you prefer. You can sync to the internal clock, MIDI, MTC and SMPTE, and the metronome/count-in options include transmitting MIDI notes as a click (you can also make the click note used for the first beat of a bar different to that used on the subsequent beats).
Playback parameters, as you might expect, have one thing in common — changing them does not affect the stored track data itself. You can make permanent changes with Pro24's track editing facilities, and there is the usual somewhat bewildering array of options on offer. You can separate several channels of data from a single track, re-directing it to new tracks on a channel by channel basis, and remove duplicate events (which frequently occur when combining sequence data). Also available to help get your music into shape are a step input function, cut/expand, pattern split, track mix, and tempo change options, all of the usual copy, move and delete block type functions, and both graphic grid editing and detailed event-by-event list editing. The Pro24 Amiga programmers have done a very good job on the editing facilities, with two-dimensional slider gadgets used to control zoom effects on the hi-res window displays (which are interlaced, so I should imagine that it's going to be nigh on impossible to work with Pro24 Amiga using a TV instead of a decent monitor).
A track survey window gives you a good overall picture of the data, and a track content display provides detailed event information. MIDI events can be monitored as they arrive, and the Subtrack Mode enables incoming MIDI data to be split by channels and redirected to separate tracks. All the usual functions — channel reassignment, punch-in/punch-out and so-on — are available.
Like its ST counterpart, Pro24 Amiga has a grid-style drum kit editor which operates using a 'drum map' (up to three maps can be defined). For more MIDI-literate users, the package also includes a 'logical edit' facility for carrying out sophisticated event-translation functions.
When Pro24 Amiga was first announced there was a rumour that it would be modified to include interactive score handling. Sorry; either the rumour was false, or it just didn't happen. You can display track data in score form, and you can alter the quantise characteristics of the display, but this is still display only, and definitely not an interactive notation interface.
An increasingly important requirement for sequencers is that of being able to both read and write standard MIDI files. It was pretty obvious that Pro24 Amiga was going to be able to this, and indeed it can, but after quite extensive testing, I did run into a couple of snags. One file (whose source I'm afraid I know longer know) made Pro24 Amiga lock up. This turned out to be due to a system requester being brought up in the workbench screen. On only one other occasion was there a real problem — a particular Type 1 file also caused a lock up. Here, I know the history of the file. It was a version of the Bread song 'If' that had originally been sequenced using Dr T's KCS. The file had been through various file conversions (via both Music X and Bars & Pipes) but it ended up being written as a Standard MIDI file using Master Tracks Pro. OK, so the song's a bit 'played out', but I doubt if that was the reason it failed to load.
To put this in perspective, however, I worked with about two dozen MIDI files (including other Master Tracks Pro files) and all of these, apart from the above exceptions, were handled without any problem.
That's about it really. There's a million and one other things that I could talk about — the comprehensive Sys Ex facilities, SMUS support, multi-channel echo effects, user definable undo-nesting, velocity fader facilities etc. — but we've got to stop somewhere. The only important things left to discuss are whether or not the package is any good, and more importantly for Steinberg, whether the program will sell.
A lot of ST users will say that, even with the new Amiga version, Pro24 has had its day. OK, relative to Cubase and all of the other Atari ST heavyweights, this is true. Pro24 Amiga is not going to impress users of these programs, and it's not going to make them go out and flog their STs to buy Amigas.
However, for the software-starved Amiga musicians, and newcomers who are entering the MIDI world and looking for suitable hardware and software, it's a different ballgame, and Pro24 Amiga is very welcome indeed. Make no mistake; it is a significant addition to the Amiga's current range of music software. It's destined to do very well indeed, and I for one wish it all the best.
Evenlode Soundworks, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Overaa
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