Battle of the Algorithms
Ian Waugh takes a side by side look at Fingers and Tunesmith.
If you're stuck for ideas on a piece of music then your ST can give you a hand with the aid of an algorithmic phrase generator - Micro Music give two such packages the once over
Composition programs are currently very much in vogue - if a computer can help you sequence, edit synthesisers and print out your music, why not go the whole hog and let it write the music for you in the first place?
Fingers and Tunesmith are two of the latest offerings, both from the prolific software emporium of Dr T. Although at ground level they have similarities, they are in reality rather as different as chalk from cheese.
Fingers was written by Dr T (Emile Tobenfeld) himself while Tunesmith was written by Jim Johnson who also wrote both the Tunesmith and the Fingers manuals. Both run in high or medium resolution and both can run within Dr T's MPE (Multi Program Environment).
Let's start with Fingers. It's subtitled the Interactive Composition Program and Dr T, says the manual, wrote it to be used by anyone, even those with no musical ability.
It produces four monophonic lines of music. Each line is constructed from four parameters - time, pitch, velocity and articulation. The parameters are listed in columns called parameter series with the headings Tim, Pit, Vel and S/L (staccato/legato).
Line icons labelled 1 to 4 (for each of the lines) step through the columns and their position next to a parameter determines that aspect of the note. There are a number of series control elements which may be put in a column to produce loops and skip parameters.
If you're starting to feel a little lost, don't worry, you're not the only one! The terminology used throughout the program is self-indulgent at best and deliberately elitist at worst. And we haven't mentioned the invisible arithmetic icons yet!
It's a shame because the program's operation is otherwise not too difficult to understand but it certainly goes against Dr T's aims of providing a program anyone can play. Let's assume we've cut through the jargon and see what happens next.
Basically, the Tim column supplies durations which are mapped onto the pitches in the Pit column. If you can imagine putting together a piece of music by creating separate pitches and durations you'll have an idea of what the output is like. (This compositional technique is not new and can be traced back to the Middle Ages.)
There are many other ways to manipulate the output. For example, you can adjust the timing of each line with advance/delay parameters and you can manually skip over elements. You can mute a line, reverse the movement of the line icons, alter MIDI channel and program number, transpose lines and adjust velocities.
Time Adjust alters the speed at which a line plays. Selecting inbetween values creates phase music in which lines drift in and out of time with each other.
The affectionately-named series control elements enable you to split a column, link columns, skip elements, make loops and insert rests.
And what's a composition program with a random function? Fingers has two types of randomisation. It's nice to know just how random you're going to get and the manual describes what they do (this involves Guassian distribution curves). However, they are easy to invoke.
And the result? Well, Fingers can produce melodic material as some of the demo files prove. But they also contain some pieces which can best be described as experimental. It can be used to produce some interesting rhythmic textures.
Dr T is, apparently, very much a boffin in the egghead mould and most of the processes involve numeric rather than music manipulation of the data. Unfortunately, this is by no means guaranteed to produce interesting music. A few music-oriented adjustments would have been useful.
There is, however, at least one - Shift - which lets you preserve the overall length of a series. With this on if you reduce a Tim value, the following Tim will be increased accordingly to compensate.
To control Fingers requires the use of the mouse and the ST's keyboard. This is a bit of a nuisance in itself (why can you not use the mouse all the time?) and, in addition, some aspects of operation seem particularly inconsistent. For example, there are at least three different ways of deleting different types of unwanted parameters.
You can save a Fingers performance as a file which can be loaded into Dr T's KCS or MIDI Recording Studio. If Fingers is run from within the MPE, performances are automatically saved to the KCS and KCS sequences can be copied into Fingers.
Fingers obviously works best when attached to some MIDI equipment but it will also run quite happily with the ST's internal sound-chip - albeit with the loss of one music line. The voices are set to produce lead, bass and drum sounds. This is currently the only composition program which can be used without any external MIDI equipment.
Let's look at Tunesmith now. It's subtitled The Interactive Algorithmic Phrase Generator and was released a little later than Fingers. One could be inclined to comment that the programmer, Jim Johnson, has learned a few lessons from Fingers.
Tunesmith is still highly numeric in nature, however - compare the screens - but apart from a momentary lapse into arithmetic icons it is considerably easier to understand than Fingers. It is far more musically (as opposed to mathematically) oriented, too, and you can load the program and create some themes straight away.
Tunesmith can hold five themes (called TA, TB, etc) each of which can have three variations (called VA1, VA2 and so on. You select a theme for playing by clicking on it with the left button. Clicking on it with the right button generates and plays a new theme.
A theme is the product of several parameters which are set in the Theme & Variation Parameters panel at the top of the screen. As in Fingers, notes are a combination of pitch and duration which are produced separately by different sets of parameters.
Microbeat, Theme Length and Pulse together determine the overall length and theme and where the accents will fall. Rest Probability determines the percentage chance of a rest occurring.
It's a good idea to start with themes one or two bars long so you can easily hear the differences as new ones are generated.
The Rhythm Algorithm and Variant parameters are used to determine the rhythm pattern. This is assembled from smaller rhythmic units called microrhythms. The manual explains how the process works although precise details are not revealed.
The next set of parameters are used to determine the pitch. You can set the pitch range (High Note, Low Note), the number of notes which will be generated before pitches repeat (Pitch Loop) and how often a single note is allowed to repeat (Maximum Repeats). Maximum Step Size and Maximum Leap Size determine how great the jump between notes can be.
The Onbeat and Offbeat Scale Weight parameters select probability tables which determine the pitch of the notes on the on beat and the off beat. You can define your own scale weight tables and they play an important part in determining the style of the theme.
Having set the parameters, click on a theme and away you go. The most important factor in determining the character of a theme is the rhythm. If this is too idiosyncratic or irregular the theme will be too.
However, you may have an interesting rhythm but the pitches may not sound quite right - or vice versa. Time for a few variations courtesy of the last three parameters in the Theme & Variation Parameters panel.
The Rhythm Var, Pitch Var and Variant parameters are used to select algorithms which will be applied to that variation's theme.
In other words, while a theme begins life as a set of parameters, a variation starts from the theme itself. The algorithms may not produce any variation at all or they may produce a line of music far removed from the original theme. The variation algorithms involve swapping microrhythms, halving the theme length, deleting micro-rhythms and regenerating, inverting, reversing and swapping the pitches.
Again, the variations have, to an extent, more of a basis in mathematics than music and you won't get a variation in the classical (or pop) sense. As you can see, they tend to juggle the notes rather than develop them, an approach is common to most composition programs.
However, you can alter the pitch or rhythm, without affecting the other which can be very useful.
You can store up to 26 of the settings you make in the Theme & Variation Parameters panel in the central T & V Presets panel.
Like Fingers, Tunesmith allows you to select different tonalities. It has 46 preset tonalities which can be activated by pressing one of the computer's keys. The more common ones are named, for example, Persian and Oriental.
You can also change mode (use the same basic key signature but start on a different step of the scale) by pressing one of the function keys.
For all our effort, all we have so far is a monophonic music line. The lower third of the screen contains the Accompaniment Generator which is where we can add up to five more voices. Each voice can be given its own MIDI channel and program change number, octave, velocity, accent, articulation and delay. Settings can be saved to 26 Accompaniment Presets.
The first voice always plays the theme. The others can have yet more operations performed upon them to provide the accompaniment. Just as the generation of a variation is based on its theme, so the generation of an accompaniment is based on the theme (or variation) which is currently playing. The manual is excellent here and includes examples - in music notation - of the sort of variations the various algorithms will produce.
Rhythm selects one of 12 algorithms which play notes where pulses, accents or rests occur in the theme. Divide divides the number of notes by a constant or a random value.
Harmony and Tran (transpose) settings are similar to Rhythm and Divide but are applied to the pitches. The harmony algorithms can produce parallel and random harmonies, contrary motion, inversion and arpeggios.
Some algorithms produce reasonable counter melodies but although many of the accompaniment algorithms are rooted in far firmer music soil than the variations - and most of Fingers' algorithms, too - the harmonies are based rather artificially, to an extent, on a single music line rather than on a cohesive harmonic or chord progression. This means that the accompaniments, in effect, are more like third generation variations; one may have expected them to add some sort of backing to the theme.
There are also five Drum Algorithms which assign drum sounds to notes. The disc includes a rather good demo of a drum rhythm created for the Roland TR-505. Some of the other demo files are quite impressive, too.
The final stage is to link themes and variations together in the Arranger - a process similar to chaining sequencer, tracks or drum patterns into a Song.
As in most Dr T programs, there are many other options for configuring the program to suit your system. File handling is comprehensive and there are six different sets of data you can save and load.
Music output can be saved as a Dr T KCS-compatible file and a Convert program is supplied on the disc to convert this into a MIDI format file.
The programmer suggests that Tunesmith should be used to create raw material for final shaping in another sequencer rather than a finished piece of music. If you adopt the same attitude you won't go far wrong. But that's not to say it can't be used to put together a piece of music on its own.
Tunesmith's main failing is its inability to accept user input for processing (although it can import sequences from Dr T's KCS). You are always, to some extent, at the mercy of the random number generator for your source material.
The music it produces varies widely according to the parameters you select. It can produce catchy riffs as well as garbage - it's up to you to sort out the chaff from the wheat. It is, however, more immediately accessible than Fingers and it is geared more towards the production of strings of notes - themes - which appeal to the Western ear.
As far as Dr T's worthy aspiration to produce a program that anyone can play goes, Fingers falls rather short of the mark, thanks mainly to the jargon. But if you can see past the manual and the terminology, if you see beauty in numbers and if you consider yourself to be an experimenter as much (if not more than) a musician then it could be for you.
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Review by Ian Waugh
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