Concluding C-Lab's educational series of programs for the Atari ST is the ear training program, Aura. Ian Waugh teaches the world to sing.
AURA IS ONE of three programs in C-Lab's new Education System package. The other two are Midia and Notator Alpha (see reviews elsewere in this issue). While all three have been tagged "educational", Midia and Alpha have a range of applications outside education and will be of interest to many musicians. Aura, however, is unashamedly educational and although it's both curiously addictive and enjoyable, its sphere of interest is likely to be restricted to those who need its help.
Aura is an aural training program - and consequently provides what is traditionally the music student's least-favourite part of the syllabus - yet it performs its task with finesse and aplomb. There are five types of exercise - Intervals, Chords, Scales, Random Music Lines and Rhythm Exercises, which each have their own (slightly different) screens. Operation, however, is broadly similar for all exercises. For example, you can select the highest and lowest notes to be used, the velocity and MIDI channel. All exercises let you choose a range of difficulty options.
You can enter your answers in a variety of ways - by clicking on the onscreen keyboard, from a MIDI keyboard or by selecting one of a range of answers offered by the program.
Let's look at the Intervals exercise. Aura plays two notes in succession (the "arpeggio" time can be adjusted) and you must name the interval either by playing it on a keyboard or from a proffered list (the proffer is optional). You can select which intervals the exercise will contain from a list on the right of the screen.
You can repeat the question (in case you weren't listening the first time) and you can make the program wait until you find the first note (helpful if your sense of pitch isn't quite perfect). It will accept inversions, although if you can't even tell if one note is higher than another you should take up drumming (sorry Nigel). You can also select Next Question and Repeat options from a MIDI keyboard, which is very useful.
The Chords test works in a similar fashion except it plays, er, chords. You can really tie your ears in knots here. There are five levels of complexity - simple, average, advanced, consonant and dissonant - plus a range of chord styles including classical, pop and jazz.
If the supplied chords aren't tricky enough you can create your own and add them to a chord library file. A Chord Analysis option will analyse any chord you play. If it can't match it with a chord in memory it applies a bit of logic to the situation to see if it can work out what it is.
Scales offers similar complexity levels and style options as Chords. After a well-deserved pat on the back for recognising the difference between harmonic and melodic minor scales, try some of the mixolydian and blues scales. Again, the adventurous can make up their own scales (I do, frequently) and save them in a scale library.
Random Lines plays a sequence of notes from one or more of the scales, which you then have to repeat. The length of the sequence can be set from two to 14 notes. As the notes are selected at random, there is little melodic (or harmonic) structure to the sequence, which can make it difficult to remember - budding Stockhausens sign on here.
Rhythm Pattern taps out a rhythm (you might like to assign the output to a drum sound) which, again, you have to repeat. The pattern is made up from over a dozen rhythmic motifs such as quavers, triplets, dotted quavers, random ties and so on. This is fun (especially when you get the answers right) but if you mix motifs (almost as bad as mixing metaphors) the rhythmic pattern can be quite difficult to analyse. There are four levels of quantise, however, which offer various degrees of tolerance towards your input. Handy.
To tie everything together, the program keeps a record of your answers in the statistics page. It shows the number of questions, the number of attempts and the number of right and wrong answers. All the individual tests are summed up as an overall percentage.
For use in the classroom, a whole series of exercises can be linked together in the Auto Lessons page - just like an exam.
Aura will only run in hi-res and although it's not dongle protected (thankfully) the disk is copy protected. You can copy it but the original then acts as a key disk.
Although Aura tackles a rather dry subject, it handles it in quite an entertaining way - as entertaining as aural questions can be. As it can readily be customised, it's ideal for tackling students' specific problem areas. It can go far beyond the level of aural ability required by standard music exams. It is, however, very much a program to be used by individuals one at a time rather than a group.
If aural expertise is your weak point, it could well be worth buying Aura to help you through your exams. Educational establishments, too, I'm sure, will find it very useful in reinforcing students' aural skills.
Price £99. Price may be subject to change due to the recent increase in VAT.
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Review by Ian Waugh
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