Big Band & Studio 24
Martin Russ orchestrates his way through two fascinating ST programs from French software house, Digigram.
Martin Russ orchestrates his way through two fascinating ST programs from French software house, Digigram.
Into the maelstrom of MIDI manipulated music comes a variation on an old idea, brought bang up to date by the latest technology. The combination of Studio 24 and Big Band, both by French software house Digigram, brings the automation possibilities offered to the MIDI user to their highest point so far - Studio 24 is a powerful 24-track sequencer offering note editing via a musical stave, whilst Big Band is an orchestrator capable of turning sequenced melodies into complete scores, or creating melodies from chord sequences. If this sounds rather too close to the auto-rhythm type of technology found on home organs, then keep on reading, because I too was very sceptical before using this system!
Some time ago, while visiting a friend's house, I discovered a Steinway piano hidden under a blanket and a pot-plant. (The owners were trying to protect it from the excesses of drinkers at the party!) Never one to pass up an opportunity, I sat down and idly tried to remind my fingers that this is what they should be playing if I could afford it! My hosts came and listened as I tinkled happily away, and one of them said: "I didn't know you could really play". It seems that one of the disadvantages of making music with synthesizers and computers is that people think they are doing all the work, not you! It is exactly the same with people's attitude to orchestrators/melody generators. I must confess to being very averse to the sort of auto-play facilities you find on home keyboards, where a single press of a key produces a walking bass guitar, drums with fills every so often, rhythmic chugging from a synthetic guitar, and all the keyboard player needs to supply is the melody - usually painstakingly picked out with a studiously controlled index finger. It's hardly real music, is it?
Before we condemn all such devices, perhaps we ought to look at how a system designed for musicians rather than the musically illiterate works. Since Digigram's Studio 24 sequencer forms a nice, familiar bridge into the Big Band orchestrator, let's start with the sequencer...
The Atari sequencer market seems to have settled into three stable islands of cost versus performance. Below £100 there are simple but capable real-time tape recorder emulations, often designed as entry level products for the home user. Up to about £200 there are the middle range of powerful sequencing packages, designed for the serious home user or for straightforward studio use. Above £200 we enter the realms of professional studio tools, with very powerful and flexible programs designed as musical workhorses.
Studio 24 seems to lie within the middle range of sequencers. It does not have quite the versatility or the hard-to-define 'professional' feel that qualifies it for the serious studio user's first choice, nor does it have the complex and graphically busy main screen so popular these days. (In car terms, it would probably be a Ford Sierra!) Conversely, it is very easy to use and understand, and the editing and MIDI File storage make it a useful program to own.
The main screen display is the same for both Studio 24 and Big Band. There is a large and slightly unwieldy tempo slider on the right; huge buttons for the tape recorder emulation functions, which are also repeated with the function keys; small boxes showing the current time position, with a button to zero it; time signature; synchronisation status; and a looping on/off control. Occupying the whole of the top half of the screen are three horizontal bars divided into 24 sections. These are the Record, Play and Solo boxes which, when the appropriate numbers are selected, allow you to choose which tracks will play or record, or be played back in isolation.
If this all sounds straightforward, then it is. The Play boxes have the track number displayed in grey until you have recorded something on the track, and so can't be selected by the mouse. The Solo arrows work exactly as you would expect, and the Record boxes again work intuitively. About the only thing that is not immediately obvious is why the two boxes which should have '23' and '24' inside them, have and 'M' instead.
The 'C' track is for chords - Studio 24 will recognise chords consisting of up to four notes, and this will be the form in which they will be displayed when editing. The 'M' track is a monophonic track only, used for recording a melody line. Both of these functions are designed to be used with the built-in harmonising features of Studio 24 and Big Band - the sequencer has obviously been designed to integrate very well with Big Band right from the start.
The reason that the main screen is so uncluttered is the menus. Almost everything, apart from the basic functions, is selected from the pull-down menus. This is a deliberate attempt to make Studio 24 easy to use - you do not need to learn any complex mouse or graphic techniques, instead you choose a menu option and interact with the pop-up dialogue box which usually follows. I found this to be slightly tedious to use as I became more familiar with the program, but it has the benefit that all the features are immediately available from the main screen, and are displayed on the menus. Figure 2 shows what's available on the menus.
You can record in real time from the main screen, but any adjustments to the individual track recording parameters have to be made from a dialogue box accessed from the Parameters menu. This provides input filtering of Pitch Bend, Control and Program Changes, and Aftertouch, as well as potential trouble spots like drum machine Note-Ons followed immediately by a Note-Off. The (Note-On) Quantise function can be set from a crotchet to a 192nd note. You can record on more than one MIDI channel as well, and set the memory protect on or off for individual tracks.
With the recording parameters dialogue box on the screen, you can select and set any of the remaining tracks by clicking in the track select box, which appears again in many parts of the program. Studio 24 calls merging 'mixing', and so you can both mix and unmix tracks if you set the Mix switch to 'Yes'. Tracks can be named and their MIDI channels set up in other dialogue boxes.
Playback makes use of a similar dialogue box (in fact, almost everything has a dialogue box) which gives control over playback delay, in 192nds of a note, and velocity - either the recorded value or a fixed user-definable value. Most useful are the initialisations - Program Change, Pitch Bend and miscellaneous MIDI controllers; all on a per-track basis. A track select box lets you configure all the tracks you will be using and stay within the same dialogue box.
When you have finished recording a piece of music, you can save it and play it as a named Song. 24 songs can be programmed, with each one consisting of 20 steps, where each step consists of a track number and the number of times it should be repeated. This 'drum machine' approach to recording seems to be designed so that you can build up short segments and then chain them together, although you can only chain single tracks.
Editing is based around a visualisation concept - notes are shown on staves as note symbols, and all editing is done by interacting with the music notation graphics. Polyphonic tracks are edited in monophonic voices, one at a time - mixed or merged tracks cannot be edited. Accessing the edit pages is very easy, you can either select the appropriate menu option, or double-click on the relevant box in the Record or Play boxes on the main screen.
This graphic representation gives a clue to the method used for step-time entry of notes - you use the note symbols to build up your sequence. The Atari's QWERTY keyboard is mapped to note and rest values, and can speed up the entry of step sequences quite effectively. Overall, the combination of editing and step-time entry in a visual way blurs the boundaries between quantising, editing and step-time entry - I tended to record my sloppy playing, quantise it to get readable results on the screen, and then edit or step record the bits I was not happy with. The ability to move easily between these three methods is actually very useful, and the printing of monophonic scores could also be useful. But what if you don't read music?
This is where the 'C' and 'M' tracks begin to make their mark. Studio 24 will take the Chords and Melody from these two tracks and will calculate up to three other harmony parts for you. If you want any control over what happens, then you will need Big Band...
Big Band is an extension to the harmonising function in Studio 24. It appears as one of the extensions in the Functions menu, although it can also be used as a stand-alone program, when it behaves like a restricted subset of Studio 24. It enables the orchestration of chords or melodies, but in an interactive way and with many possibilities to explore.
Big Band uses up to 13 tracks to store the results of the calculations it makes. When you select the Orchestration option in the Function menu, the dialogue box for Big Band will appear - this is the first in a series of interactive boxes which control the operation, and is referred to as the 'main page'.
The left side of the main page provides a choice of musical styles, dependant on the time signature chosen - some of the names sound decidedly home organ-ish: 'Samba', 'Bossa-Nova', 'Paso'; whilst others have the drum machine approach: 'Disco', 'Funk', 'Rock', etc. Below this Style section is the Configuration Table, used to customise the orchestration to suit the equipment you are using. Big Band comes with the appropriate configurations for the Roland MT32 expander, but you can easily create your own to suit your particular instrumentation. The Configuration determines the note numbers and velocities assigned to the drum instruments, the minimum velocity used for other parts of the orchestration, the program numbers sent, volumes and a MIDI controller. There are three sections dealing with the orchestration instruments and two drum kits, and these can be saved and loaded from disk.
The right-hand side of Big Band's main screen contains the Compute controls (Figure 4). Seven buttons indicate and allow control over the generated parts. The available choices are: Chords, Rhythmics, Riffs, Counterpoints, Solos and Melodies, as well as an All option. Depending on the style chosen, some of these options will be unavailable (shown in grey). Clicking on one of these buttons produces another dialogue box detailing the possible variations. Here, you choose the calculation mode - variations are shown on the left, the range of the parts on the right.
Because of the number of variations available, and the division of the resulting orchestration into separate tracks, it is very easy to experiment with changing the options in the calculations, editing the results, or even replacing a track with one of your own invention. I tended to pick parts of the orchestration that I liked, and recorded my own versions of other parts - for example, I couldn't stand the auto-accompaniment style choppy guitar Rhythmics track, so this was first to go!
The beauty of Big Band is that you can perform this sort of interaction - the orchestration is not a fixed entity, you can alter it to your own purposes, and ignore or exploit the ideas it produces. I found that some of its results were very predictable, whilst others were not at all how I would have done it! If a program makes me think about what I am doing, then it becomes a creative tool instead of just a labour-saving aid.
There is a lot to talk about in Studio 24 and Big Band. A review is not the place to go into elaborate detail on all the functions provided in software of this complexity. Instead, I have tried to give some flavour of the possibilities opened up by this rather different approach to a sequencer and harmony generator. I enjoyed using the programs, and they certainly have the potential to produce useful results if used intelligently.
I was not very happy with the preponderance of pop-up dialogue boxes - there seem to be rather too many, and in some cases there are several used where one would do. As with all software, this is exactly the sort of thing which could (and should!) be changed in future updates. I suggest that users report their feelings back to the designers, because this is probably the best way to get what you want out of a program.
As music software grows in complexity, it seems to move further away from straightforward replacements of existing pieces of hardware and more into a flexible interaction with the user. Setting up configurations in Big Band will force you to learn about your equipment, how it works, and what it is capable of. Using Big Band will give you the ability to make decisions about what to retain and what to discard - it is not necessarily just an easy route to producing good music. It looks as if the magic ingredient for using Studio 24 and Big Band may be talent. If you can add this, then these programs might be exactly what you have been waiting for!
£199 each, or £349 the pair.
Soundbits Software UK, (Contact Details).
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