Bit By Bit MIDIDrummer
Software for the Atari ST
If you're currently using a software sequencer you'll almost certainly remember the days of drum machine programming as sublimely simple. Ian
Waugh investigates a program that returns to basics.
When you're sick of forgetting which keys you've assigned your drum voices to and wishing for a simple way of writing drum patterns into your sequencer, you're ready for MidiDrummer.
MIDIDRUMMER ORIGINALLY GOT the MT once-over back in February '88 when, whilst receiving a cheerful thumbs up, it was found to be suffering from several shortcomings. It has now undergone a considerable revamp - and a corresponding price increase. For those of you who might have missed the original review, here's a (very) brief resumé.
MidiDrummer is basically a grid editor for creating drum patterns. It runs on colour or mono monitors and will work on a 520. It has been likened to the Fairlight's Page R and shares similarities with the Drum-Edit page in Steinberg's Pro24 Ill, although the original release of MidiDrummer predated this by several months.
Patterns are constructed on a grid which occupies most of the screen. Up to 100 Patterns can be created, and these are selected by clicking on the Pattern Selector grid in the top right of the screen. Patterns are strung together to produce a Song and the program can store ten songs at once. Simple, eh?
Let's see how the new MidiDrummer (review version v2.06) fares in practice by working through the process of creating a song.
THE FIRST THING to do is assign the drum sounds on your equipment to the instruments on the grid. The original MidiDrummer supported only 16 voices but v2 can handle 32 in two sets of 16. Each drum can be given a 12-character name and allocated a separate MIDI channel and MIDI note number for both transmission and reception. Setting these to different values can be useful as we'll see when we come to enter a pattern.
A useful time-saving feature is MIDI Note Assign. If you press a drum pad on your drum machine - or a key on your keyboard - it automatically allocates the note number and MIDI channel to the currently-highlighted name. Voice assignments can be saved to disk.
NEXT YOU SET the time signature. This can be a global value for all patterns or each pattern can have its own. However, there are several common time signatures which MidiDrummer doesn't support. The greatest miss is 12/8 and it has the cheek to convert 6/8 into 3/4. Odd time signatures such as 5/4, 7/4 and 9/8 (the original time signature of The Impossible Dream') are missing, although it does allow 5/8 and 7/8 and, believe it or not, 0/4. These anomalies are a leftover from the original MidiDrummer.
Actually, the time signature only sets the pattern length, blocking off extra hits, so why haven't the boys at Bit By Bit adopted the method used by commercial drum machines and let us decide how many steps the pattern should contain: 8, 16, 24, 32 - or any number? As it is, we're stuck with unnecessarily restrictive pattern lengths.
AND SO TO work. Select P.PLAY in the control area under the Pattern Selector, select the Pattern number you want to program, click on Start, and off we go. The Pattern loops automatically to allow you to build up patterns drum-machine style, and there's a metronome option if you need a hand keeping time.
The resolution of the grid is determined by the current Quantise setting. MidiDrummer v1 had a resolution of 32 hits per grid but v2 ups this to 96. The full range of Quantise settings are: 1/8, 1/8t (triplets), 1/16, 1/16t, 1/32, 1/32t and 1/96.
You can click hits onto the grid with the mouse or enter them in real time by pressing keys on the ST's keyboard A to P in both upper and lower case. MidiDrummer also allows you to mute voices.
You can enter Patterns in real time via MIDI - this is where the receive note settings come in. You could, for example, make the reception values match a convenient group of notes on a master keyboard and enter a pattern by playing it manually - many musicians now work this way to avoid creating mechanical rhythms. During play, however, the sounds still follow their transmission settings. Good, eh?
"When entering hits via a MIDI instrument, the nearest velocity value is shown but the actual value is used - MidiDrummer is pretty hot on velocity."
I began by entering a few basic rock patterns in real time from my master keyboard using the 1/16 quantise setting. If you want a really rigid pattern you can correct selected lines to any of the quantise values.
Then I thought I'd get clever and try a couple of complicated fills. Actually I chickened out and clicked these into place with the mouse using the 1/32t quantise value.
The left mouse button inserts hits and the right one is supposed to delete them. If you click exactly on a hit it does - if you don't it inserts another hit. Why? I wondered. This problem is more apparent when working with finer resolutions.
Echo allows you to insert Flams with the mouse. You can stipulate the spacing (in 1/96th steps), the number of repeats and the velocity difference between hits and whether they rise or fall. This is excellent.
Now, having constructed my drum track with MidiDrummer, I remember that my drum machine happens to contain a killer Latin fill which would fit neatly into the scheme of things. Will MidiDrummer allow me to import it? Yes, easily.
Slave MidiDrummer to the drum machine's MIDI clock and click on Fill under the Song menu. The patterns played by the beat box are now recorded by the software in the sequence they're played. You now activate the Scrunch function (love the name) which removes duplicate patterns leaving a nice tidy Song. This assumes that the Patterns and time signature in MidiDrummer are the same. If they're not, the information will go in but the Patterns won't match. The program can only record 100 consecutive patterns in this way but you can copy patterns from one Song to another.
Using a similar technique you can record a complete Song (well, up to 100 patterns/bars), in real time using drum pads or a master keyboard.
I just wanted to extract one pattern from my machine and that was relatively simple. When MidiDrummer records a track in this way it overwrites the existing patterns so first you must save anything you've created. You can save and load individual patterns, however, so mix 'n' matching is no problem.
The note entry processes are flexible and quite painless. However I did encounter some difficulty when dealing with the smaller quantise values - especially 1/96. This is due in part to the limited resolution of the ST's display. Consecutive hits entered on the same line with resolutions smaller than 1/32t just blur into each other. You probably won't be entering many consecutive 1/96 bass drum hits, but it is extremely difficult to see exactly where the hits fall in the pattern with such a fine resolution.
WHEN A NOTE is entered on the grid, it's shown as a digit between 0 and 9. This represents one of ten velocity values which are set in the Velocity Defaults window. The current value can be changed by pressing a key on the numeric pad making it an easy matter to change velocity during the creation of a pattern.
When entering hits via a MIDI instrument, the nearest default value is shown. However the actual velocity value is used and this can be altered by double-clicking on a hit. MidiDrummer is pretty hot on velocity.
"If your imagination is running a little low, try the Hit Generator - this adds hits at random according to quantise value and Density and Scatter percentages."
THERE ARE MANY editing facilities to assist in Pattern creation - Copy Line, Copy Pattern, Clear Line and Clear Pattern, to name but a few. You can also Humanise a pattern by applying random 1/96 offsets which can be effective in small doses.
If your imagination is running a little low try the Hit Generator. This adds hits at random to a specified drum line. You can set the quantise value and Density and Scatter percentages. This really needs further development in order to become practical but you can have fun with it.
OK, THE PATTERNS are in; now to string them together to form a Song. In Song mode you click on the Patterns you require in the Pattern Selector grid with the right mouse button. The Pattern numbers then appear in the Song Window at the bottom of the screen. Continue clicking patterns into the Song until it is complete.
This is a very simple and intuitive way of working. Patterns can be tried and inserted on the fly. There's no messing about with repeat bars, coda signs or whatever. You can, of course, end up with a rather long list of Patterns - up to 1053 - but you can move around the Song very easily. To help with Song creation you can rubber band a block of Patterns and perform Cut, Copy and Paste operations.
And in case you think you'd get lost looking at a list of 1053 Patterns, you can attach labels above the patterns in the Song Window. These can stay with the Patterns they are attached to or remain fixed to the point in the Song to which they refer. Very flexible.
IF YOU USE a software sequencer you will not relish the thought of tying up your ST to play the drum track as you had to do with the original MidiDrummer. Version 2, however, allows you to Export the Song in MIDI file format - you may think the program's gone to sleep during this process but I can assure you that it hasn't. I loaded files into sequencers which support this without a hiccup. And in case you're thinking of moving on to v2, files created with v1 are upwardly compatible.
The instructions supplied with MidiDrummer are a mere six and a half photocopied sheets of A5 with no diagrams - skimpy to say the least - although a new manual is currently in production.
The program contains several help screens, although the latest version, v2.11, which should be available by the time you read this, has had to drop these to make way for other facilities. These are to include Rotate Voice (to move a line forwards or backwards in relation to the pattern) and Voice Gain (to change the overall volume of a voice).
MIDIDRUMMER IS A flexible and versatile program. My gripe about the grid only becomes a major problem if you're not working in 4/4 time.
The disk contains some demos for Roland's MT32 and these highlight one of MidiDrummer's most useful areas of application - with equipment containing drum sounds but no means of creating drum tracks.
Of course, MidiDrummer can be used with standard drum machines and I reckon you'll find it intrinsically easier to create tracks with than the programming facilities of many drum machines. And there's the bonus of being able to store the drum track with the music, which removes the risk of the track being overwritten on the machine. And it's very easy to re-configure the voice assignments to run with other equipment.
One final question to help you make up your mind - if you find you have to refer to your machine's instruction manual whenever you create a new drum track it's probably time you looked at MidiDrummer.
Existing MidiDrummer owners can upgrade for the difference in price between their version (this could range from £39.95 to £59.95) and the new version plus £2.00.
Price MidiDrummer v2, £85.00 including VAT; Demo disk, £5.00.
Gear in this article:
Review by Ian Waugh
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