Bit by Bit MIDIDrummer
Software for the Atari ST
If you're looking for a visual aid to drum pattern editing or a means of turning your Akai S900 sampler into a drum machine this Atari software could be the answer. Chris Jenkins investigates.
The missing link between your MIDI drum machine, your Atari ST and graphic editing of your drum patterns could be this software package from a new British company - and the price is right.
AS THE MARKET for music software expands, it's good see that more unusual packages are beginning to appear. One good example is MIDIDrummer from Bit by Bit Software - it's cheap, it's flexible, and just for a change it's British.
Once again the Atari ST is the target machine; already graced with a choice of the best sequencer and patch editing programs from Steinberg, Hybrid Arts, System Exclusive and others, the STs built-in MIDI ports and 3.5" disk system, not to mention its price, make it the natural choice for musicians and therefore music software developers.
SO WHATS IT all about? MIDIDrummer is a form of sequencer, but, as the name implies, it's a "vertical" application, meant to solve specific problems which other sequencers aren't designed to handle. Very much like the Fairlight's famous "Page R", MIDIDrummer is a visual composition and editing system for percussion patterns; although, by careful editing of MIDI note values and synthesiser settings, you could persuade it to play "tuned" patterns. The nearest comparison is the $150 Intelligent Music UpBeat package for the Apple Macintosh, but even that doesn't yet seem to be available for the ST.
MIDIDrummer is especially useful in two situations. The first, controlling MIDI drum machines, may seem redundant; after all, drum machines are capable of creating and memorising patterns themselves. MIDIDrummer, though, adds an invaluable visual dimension to the process of creating patterns and songs, and also allows you to safely store the fruits of your labours on disk rather than depending on the drum machine's (limited) memory capacity. A more useful application of MIDIDrummer is in conjunction with multi-point samplers such as the Akai S900. These multiple-output devices are often used to provide percussion effects, but of course lack the pattern and song creation facilities of a drum machine. While any hardware sequencer or software package could theoretically do the job for you, MIDIDrummer is better designed for this specific application.
MIDIDrummer is supplied on a single undongled disk in a simple folder with an uncomplicated manual. The program is fully GEM-based, using all the mouse and menu functions which make the Atari ST so easy to operate.
LOADING THE PROGRAM (which runs in medium resolution in colour, or high resolution on a mono monitor) brings up a comprehensive main display which includes the function menus, current drum pattern with default instrument names, Pattern Selector Grid, Song Display, and Tempo and Function controls.
Your first task is to assign the 16 software voices, A to P, so they correspond to sounds on your MIDI equipment. Most newer drum machines, for instance, have their individual percussion voices assigned to standard MIDI note values but older machines, such as the Sequential DrumTraks, need a software update to operate in this way. Most samplers can have any sound desired assigned to any required note value.
Under the Control menu is the option Assign Voices. Selecting this calls up a dialogue box which allows you to select a voice, (A-P), enter an instrument name for it, and assign it a MIDI channel and individual note value. Normally you would assign 16 percussion sounds from a drum machine or sampler, but there's nothing to stop you connecting up any MIDI instrument to supplement the sound selection - anyone still excited by the DX7's Log Drum will be well catered for. The voice assignment process can be a little slow, since you have to return to the main display to test each value. However, if you have the proper documentation, it shouldn't take too long to MIDI everything up and save your setup. If you save it on the program disk as DEF.DRM, it will load as the default file for each session.
Creating patterns is simplicity itself. The pattern display shows the pattern number, time signature, names and channels for each voice. Patterns are built up by clicking on the required beat on each line, marking the point with an asterisk. This can either be done in blissful silence or you can click on the > button to start the pattern playing continuously, and build it up instrument by instrument as you would with a drum machine. The time signature of the pattern can be changed using a dialogue box in the Pattern menu. Triplet timings such as 12/8 are available, and unusable portions of the editing grid are then divided off with a line. You can also erase all pattern data, one pattern, or one voice.
SO FAR SO good, but how about more precise editing? Apart from the fact that you can also enter data in real time (tapping the STs A P keys) you have full velocity control over every beat.
Select Velocity Display on the Pattern Information menu, and the asterisks on the box change into figures 0-9. Each figure corresponds to a velocity which can either be a default value or one you define yourself. The Velocity Default dialogue allows you to assign each value a velocity from 0-127.
Default velocity values (0-9) for each beat can be entered on the grid, or for exact results you can use another dialogue box to enter any velocity value, 0 127 at any beat. You have the best of both worlds, then: quick operation using the default values or precision using the dialogue boxes. By editing the velocity values, I was soon able to build up convincing-sounding patterns which would have taken considerably longer to program on any other system I'm aware of. It's also possible to change the nature of the trigger output, depending on the type of drum machine, sampler or synth you're using. The Trigger option transmits a MIDI note off signal immediately after the MIDI note on; most drum machines work best, in this mode. There are also options that turn the note off after one beat (three MIDI clock signals) or sustain it. In this last case, the voice will keep playing until it is triggered again, or retriggered at zero velocity. This is usually the best option to use with synthesisers.
Synchronising MIDI Drummer with other equipment such as sequencers is straightforward, since MIDIDrummer can be driven from an external MIDI clock or from its own clock, the tempo of which can be changed using the mouse. The program transmits MIDI start, clock and song pointer information, and receives them when in external clock mode.
Building up a song is equally easy: select S.PLAY on the desktop and MIDIDrummer will play a sequence of patterns, updating the display accordingly. Eight songs can be held in memory at once; you select your song from another dialogue box. The name of the song you have selected is displayed on the desktop.
The sequence of patterns forming the song is shown at the bottom of the screen. Up to 100 patterns can be created, and songs up to 1024 patterns in length are put together by going into Song Edit mode, and clicking on each pattern (A-J, 0-9) in the pattern selector box in sequence. Using the S.PLAY button, you can then play the song from any point, either once, or, using the Set Repeats option on the song menu, any required number of times. Song editing options are pretty comprehensive. You can insert or delete a single pattern, or define a block to be deleted or copied any number of times. MIDI song pointer information is automatically incorporated into the songs. Patterns and songs can of course be saved to disk, and reloaded even while a pattern is playing. Recent work towards a MIDI disk filing standard indicates that you will soon be able to create patterns with MIDIDrummer, then transfer them for use in sequencer packages such as Steinberg Pro24, Iconix and Hybrid Arts MIDITrack. This is remarkably good news, since, good though MIDIDrummer is, you might not want it tying up your ST while you have more complex sequencing to work on.
SEVERAL OTHER UPDATES to MIDIDrummer are in the pipeline, and will be supplied free to registered users. These include an increase in the number of voices available, to 32.
The main drawback to the existing version of MIDIDrummer is its lack of fine timing resolution. While most drum machines and sequencers will resolve at least 96 beats to the bar, MIDIDrummer, partly due to the nature of the visual display, is limited to 32 beats to the bar. Improving this would mean major changes to both the display and the data structure, so it will probably be presented as a more advanced version of the program rather than a free update to the existing one.
The programmer also plans to incorporate in future programs a "humaniser" feature, which would imitate the facility on many drum machines to offset alternate beats by random amounts, in order to escape from the metronomic precision of the rhythm.
While bearing in mind the resolution limitation, MIDIDrummer is flexible, easy to use and remarkably inexpensive. Already in use in several studios, it's fun, and it's a valuable addition to the computer musician's range of software tools.
Price £39.95 (currently available only by mail order)
More from Bit by Bit Software, (Contact Details). Square Dance Audio, (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
Review by Chris Jenkins
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!