C-Lab Creator And Notator
Software for the Atari ST
Following the success of C-Lab's Creator sequencing software for the Atari ST, the company have updated it and added a sophisticated scorewriting program. Simon Trask takes note.
C-Lab's Creator set standards as an Atari sequencer; Notator looks set to set standards as a scorewriting program. Can anything stand in their way?
NOWADAYS WE HAVE an abundance of means with which to record our music: analogue and digital multitrack tape machines, analogue and (quite possibly before the year is out) digital portastudios, hard-disk recording systems and - last but not least - MIDI sequencing. Yet these forms of recording have all been developed within the latter half of this century (most within the last decade).
In contrast, music notation has been around for centuries as a means (in fact, the only means) of disseminating and preserving music - primarily the "art" music of church and subsequently state patronage. While the ability to "read" a score became as natural as breathing to composers of past centuries, it is audio and MIDI recording techniques which today's composers need to be thoroughly conversant with.
Yet music notation is far from dead. On the contrary, it's now available to everyone, not just to an elite. From mediaeval organum to the Phil Collins songbook in under a millenium. Isn't civilisation wonderful?
NOT SURPRISINGLY IN this day and age, music notation has been brought into the digital realm of computer software, and professional desktop music publishing is already a reality. Notation software doesn't have to be integrated with MIDI, but it takes on a much broader significance if it is. From Hybrid Arts' budget EZ-Score Plus for the Atari ST to Coda's highly sophisticated Mac-based Finale, music notation is steadily invading the world of MIDI.
Possibly the most integrated sequencing/notation package is C-Lab's Notator, which combines scorewriting and transcription facilities with the company's Creator MIDI sequencer in one package. With the latest software versions (v2 in both cases), Notator and the "stand-alone" Creator package contain identical Creator features.
Notator removes any division between MIDI notes and scored notes by allowing the sequencing and scoring software to draw on the same data format. The program's real-time, step-time, event-list, grid and notation entry are all equally and interactively available methods of entering and editing your music.
MT FIRST REVIEWED Creator in December 1987. Since that time the program has been upgraded considerably, and now is a good time to consider the new features. Remember that all these features are available in both Creator and Notator. To familiarise yourself with Creator, check out the original review. However, an overview is in order here.
Creator has 99 16-track patterns, each of which can be over 1000 bars long. Each Track can hold data on up to 16 MIDI channels; Tracks can be merged, and individual MIDI channels can be extracted onto different Tracks. Creator can now individually address up to six MIDI Outs with the addition of C-Lab's ExPort Add-on MIDI Interface (three Outs) and Unitor SMPTE-to-processor unit (two Outs), making a total of 96 MIDI channels.
Creator has an Arrange mode which allows you to create Songs by chaining Patterns together in up to four parallel Pattern-chains (giving a total of 64 Tracks), with the ability to record Patterns within the context of a Song. You can record into any section of a Track using record, punch in/out, overdub and loop-in-overdub. In addition to the usual range of MIDI data, Creator can record a number of "pseudo events", including absolute and relative tempo changes, track mute and demute, and text. Muting and demuting is a particularly powerful aspect of Creator, available at all levels of the program and certainly as powerful as any external automated muting systems.
Creator also has very sophisticated quantisation options, including "groove design", a new feature which allows you literally to impose a "feel" on individual tracks. You can create your own "grooves" from existing Tracks, and further twist them with a swing percentage factor. This feature won't automatically give your music the funky tightness of James Brown's backing band, but it just might have the potential to do so.
Another new feature is the RMG, or Real-time MIDI Generator. Creator's RMG window provides you with 16 onscreen sliders, one for each MIDI channel, which give an easy means of recording MIDI data such as patch changes, pitch-bend and controller changes into a Track in real time. It provides an effective way of, for instance, balancing the volume levels of different Tracks (on different channels) in real time. Creator also now provides True Volume and True Program features to ensure that, wherever you fast forward or rewind to, it always begins with the correct values. It's a shame this accuracy doesn't extend to all MIDI performance information, nor to tempo changes (which aren't accurately updated when you fast-forward or rewind through them).
Perhaps the most sophisticated addition to Creator is the Transform page, which essentially allows you to transform any incoming MIDI command into any other MIDI command, and apply arithmetic operations to the command data. Three observations on Transform: you need to take time out to understand it properly, you need to understand your MIDI data in order to use it, and you'll probably go on and on finding new applications for it. As a few examples, you could assign a footpedal to play a bass drum on your drum machine, scale the velocity output of your master keyboard, convert one controller into another, or convert aftertouch into pitch-bend.
Associated with Transform are the "universal maps", which provide easy means of "rescaling" MIDI data. For instance, by inverting a map assigned to pitch you can create an inverted keyboard a la Zawinul; if you want to get even more experimental, you can "rescale" individual pitches to any values you want.
"Creator has had a limited matrix display from the start, but only now have C-Lab come up with a full-blown graphic matrix editor."
Creator is able to record and transmit SysEx data to and from its Tracks with no limitation on length. You can save multiple data dumps to disk as a Creator pattern, and subsequently play them back out consecutively. C-Lab have included several pseudo (P-User) events for facilitating any required SysEx handshaking (for example, set up a chain of data requests in a track, then insert P-User event 127 between them; this causes Creator to wait for a specified number of incoming MIDI bytes before sending the next message). By inserting a "SysEx Pattern" at the head of a song you can ensure that all your patch data is stored with the song it's intended for.
Creator has had a limited matrix display from the start, but only now have C-Lab come up with a full-blown graphic matrix editor. This can be switched in and out on the Event Edit page, and you can move the dividing line between event list and graphic display (down to one line of the event list, if you want). Pitch is displayed on the horizontal axis (with a graphic piano keyboard across the bottom of the screen), position and duration on the vertical axis. Notes take the form of black bars (the longer the note, the longer the bar), and you can zoom in and out on the display from 1/768th to 1/16th note per pixel. Notes can be inserted and deleted, transposed and time-shifted, changed in length and changed in velocity. All in all a welcome addition to the existing methods of entering and editing music.
Creator can respond to the usual range of MIDI sync commands, but with the addition of C-Lab's Unitor SMPTE-to-processor unit, it can enjoy a much more sophisticated relationship with the outside world. Unitor works only with Creator and Notator, and for synchronisation purposes bypasses MIDI altogether, dealing directly with the ST and C-Lab's handling software. A SMPTE/EBU Synchronisation window in the software allows you to select any one of the four timecode frame-rates, and set song start and end positions together with a SMPTE timing offset (with bit resolution) and a tempo (with 0.0001-second resolution). In fact, you can create a tempo track within Creator from the SMPTE window (with the next software update, you'll be able to select any one of Creator's 64 tracks programmed with P-User tempo events). A full review of Unitor can be found in the February '89 issue of our sister magazine Home and Studio Recording.
C-Lab have at last included MIDI Files compatibility, with the ability to save and load files in format 0 (one track containing events on all 16 MIDI channels) or format 1 (several parallel tracks containing events on all 16 MIDI channels). In MIDI File format, Creator will save and load all MIDI channel data, SysEx messages without handshakes, track names, text events, tempo and time-signature; note positions will be stored with Creator's full resolution (1/768th-note). MIDI Files will not recognise Creator's realtime track parameters, channel and pattern names or P-User events (except for tempo and text), nor Notator's additional graphic symbols and page layout. Additionally, you can't transfer an Arrange-mode song structure.
CREATOR USERS WILL have no problem adjusting to Notator. To all intents and purposes, Notator is Creator with the addition of a notation option which can be found on the Event Edit page. Note Display must be ticked on the Edit menu in order to access the notation option; if not, Creator's graphic matrix editor will appear (or, if that isn't ticked either, you'll get only the Event List). Simple but effective.
The MIDI Event List editor is always present on the Event Edit page, but you can reduce it to one line by "dragging" the dividing line between notation and event list up the screen. This one line will always display data on the current note or display symbol in the score. In the case of a note, .this means you get a numerical representation of the note together with its bar position, MIDI channel, velocity and length. You can edit the event list at any time while you're on either the score or the matrix page, which means you can easily "fine-tune" the graphic display. As all score symbols and text are included (in numerical form, of course) in the event list, it can sometimes be easier to edit them in this way than by graphic means. Flexibility is the name of the game.
You can choose to have either a single track or the "full score" (up to a maximum of 32 tracks) displayed. Each track can be single stave or grand stave (piano score). You can scroll up and down through a full score using the slider icon on the left-hand edge of the screen, while the scroll bar on the right-hand edge of the screen allows you to adjust your bar position within the score (in fact, the score is redrawn rather than scrolled, although vertical scrolling of staves with their names but without their notes is possible).
Each track can be globally displayed in either full- or miniature-size notation, with any combination allowable in full score. One use for this feature is to increase the number of staves visible on the STs screen. As a rough guide, using full-size staves, a one-line Event List, minimum spacing resolution, nothing less than quavers, and no excessive use of leger lines, you can fit four bars and five staves on the screen. Using miniature staves with the same conditions, this rises to seven staves and around 7-8 bars.
To the left of the score display is a Partbox containing a selection of notation symbols which can be dragged onto the display and positioned wherever you want them. This Partbox contains a selection of the full range of symbols which Notator makes available. To access the complete Partbox, you pull the mouse pointer "below" the screen, upon which a full-screen Partbox appears; clicking on any symbol here automatically copies it to the Edit screen Partbox.
As well as dragging a symbol onto the notation display, positioning the mouse pointer where you want it and then clicking the right mouse button causes the currently-selected symbol to "fly" to that position. The Partbox includes notes (from whole note to 32nd note, with triplet and dotted options in some cases; Notator will transcribe 64th notes, but for some reason you can't input them), clef, time signature, guitar chord-box, any selection of interpretation and dynamic marks, and options to select Text, Lyric and Chord. Text and Chord can be positioned anywhere in the notation display, as can guitar chord-boxes. Text can be displayed in any combination of bold, underlined, italic, light, outlined and small. Lyric is a slightly different case of Text, in that it provides automatic spacing of notes against text. A special option allows you to create a Text header above the notation display, for the first "page" only. This is where you can type things like "Piano Sonata Opus I by John Smith" or "this is a good piece once you get used to it".
"Software cannot understand how humans want to see a piece of music organised on a stave - Notator provides means of getting around these problems."
Repeated clicking on certain symbols (clefs and time-signatures) in the Partbox or on the notation display causes the program to switch through the different options; where relevant, the display is automatically updated accordingly. At present you can't enter rests, which means that the program does this for you depending on where you position a note horizontally on the stave; this can be awkward, especially with shorter notes, but apparently the next version software (v2.1, being debuted at the Frankfurt Music Fair) will introduce inputtable rests.
You can also micro-shift notes on the score with or without affecting their timing. This can be useful where, for instance, you have adjacent notes on separate stems; although the program should really sort this out automatically, at present they overlap.
Key changes can be inserted at any bar, and are independent per stave. Notator provides all sharp and flat key signatures, with major and minor options affecting how accidentals are displayed. Still, it would be asking too much of Notator to always get accidentals right, particularly if you're modulating through different keys and/or using complex jazz chords. C-Lab recognise this, and allow you to enharmonically alter each individual note in a score, including double sharps and flats where appropriate (confusingly, the Event List always displays accidentals as sharps, though).
Clefs are also stave-specific, and can be inserted at any position. C-Lab have provided a full range of clefs, including octave up/down versions of the treble and bass clefs. Time signatures, on the other hand, are applied globally, though you can at least change time-signature in any bar. Composers who like to employ different time-signatures in different musical parts (not yer everyday pop song, I know) will no doubt be suitably disappointed. Still, time signatures can be selected from 1-31/4, 1-31/8 and 1-31/16, which should be more than adequate for most people.
Other display options allow you to print out empty staves (for adding hand-written notation), bracket together and connect up bar-lines for any combination(s) of staves, adjust the distance between staves, set a minimum bar width, and transpose the notation on individual staves without transposing the MIDI data (very handy if you're scoring a part for a transposing instrument such as a saxophone).
Notator makes transposing and copying individual notes, collections of notes and highlighted blocks of notes an easy task, while any events on the score can be deleted simply by dragging them outside of the score window.
Eighth notes and shorter are automatically beamed to reflect quarter-note divisions, but you can adjust this beaming in any way you want (while selecting Vocal mode removes beaming altogether). At present, Notator only provides horizontal beams, but slanting beams is a confirmed update for software version 2.1.
Translating between MIDI and music notation is not all plain sailing by any means. While precise note positions and durations are crucial to a MIDI sequencer, literally interpreted in music notation they would make a score extremely difficult to read. At the same time, while the concept of grouping notes is crucial to music notation it is an irrelevancy to a MIDI sequencer. What's more, a software program cannot properly understand how humans want to see a piece of music organised on a stave. Notator provides means of getting around these problems. Firstly, you can select a display quantisation for each Track independently of the actual MIDI record and playback quantisation, so that for instance a run of 16th notes can be displayed as such even if they haven't been played exactly in time. However, this facility would be even more useful if you could select regional display quantisation (at present it's global per Track).
Notator provides other useful features for making the score more intelligible: overlap correction ensures that any slight note overlaps (quite common in human legato playing) are suppressed, while rest correction and interpretation provide other means of "tidying up" the natural timing discrepancies of human performance (in practice it's best to experiment with various on/off combinations of these features, especially if you're entering notes directly onto the score with the mouse - rest correction has a tendency to tie notes where you want rests).
While Notator handles beaming of notes effectively, and allows you to add phrase marks to the score, knowing how to stem notes is not so easy. The program allows you to manually alter the stem direction of individual notes and groups of notes, and to set a fixed split-point for a grand stave, but it also provides a much more sophisticated means of stemming notes: the flexible split-point.
Using the mouse pointer you can actually draw a variable split-point, not only between upper and lower staves but within them. In this way you can have up to four parts on a grand stave, and up to two parts on a single stave (essential for guitar music, for instance). Notator doesn't store this flexible split-point, but instead assigns notes either side of the split point(s) to different MIDI channels (though all notes can play over a single channel). It's a clever idea which avoids having to use extra memory for storing the split-point(s); you can also easily adjust the stemming of individual notes by changing their channel assignments in the Event List. However, I can't help feeling the software itself could be a bit more elegant in determining how notes should be displayed: for instance, if a minim is positioned under a run of 16th notes, Notator should be able to separate them out, rather than displaying the minim as tied 16ths on the same stems as the other notes.
"Experienced notation users shouldn't expect to be instantly familiar with Notator just because they're already familiar with notation."
There is another potential dimension to score interpretation within a MIDI context, namely extrapolating performance information from MIDI data when transcribing a performance, and extrapolating MIDI data and other performance information (such as tempo) for playback from a score which has been written directly into Notator. This is an area which C-Lab have yet to touch on (at present, the only notation symbols which Notator converts into MIDI data are sustain pedal on/off), which isn't surprising: it will require a lot of thought to implement successfully. Perhaps the best way to go about it would be to employ programmable interpretation "templates" which can be stored as files and "superimposed" on entire pieces, or even sections of music. One day, perhaps.
No notation software would be complete without providing the ability to print out your scores. Notator allows you to print out entire scores or any part of a score. At present it only supports 8- and 24-pin dot matrix printers (24-pin giving a better-than-screen resolution), but for that professional look you'll be able to use a laser printer (at that professional price) with the Notator v2.1 software upgrade.
Notator already contains a number of printer drivers, but perhaps not enough - it wouldn't work with all of the printers I tried. Fortunately there's a page which allows you to configure your own printer driver (if you can figure out what to do).
I WAS MIGHTILY impressed by Creator when I first reviewed it. Now with the latest version I'm even more impressed, not only with the software itself and wth C-Lab's design skills, but with the company's obvious commitment to their users. Quite simply, Creator is a perfect match of sophistication and user-friendliness, and a review can only scrape the surface of how good it is.
Notator (as in the notation part) has yet to reach an equivalent level of either sophistication or user-friendliness, yet it's essentially a powerful and flexible program which needs fine-tuning. For instance, it isn't able to handle grace notes (either in transcription or as inputtable symbols), irrational note values (5:4 and so on) or orchestral cues. Nor can it display breves, or handle minim denominators. Notator's way of indicating triplets isn't always correct, nor is its way of labelling chords quite correct, while most but not all musical symbols are available. All in all, nothing that C-Lab deserve shooting for, but things which they will need to sort out if Notator is to become a truly comprehensive and accurate scoring and transcription program (which it clearly has the potential to be).
As for the full program, C-Lab have got the integration of sequencing and notation pretty much spot on, and the potential is there for an even closer tie-in (with the interpretation possibilities mentioned earlier).
Software of this sophistication makes a good manual essential. Fortunately, C-Lab's Creator/Notator manual is clearly structured, well laid out, and written in a lucid and thoughtful manner. Nonetheless, if some of that thoughtfulness could be channelled into creating an index, I can't help feeling life would be made easier for C-Lab users (not to mention reviewers). Where there's a will there's a way...
Novice notation users shouldn't expect Notator to do all the work for them; as you might already have gathered, you really need to have some understanding of notation before you can get the most out of this (or any) scoring program.
Experienced notation users won't find every "tool of the trade" available, and shouldn't expect to be instantly familiar with Notator just because they're already familiar with notation.
As with any software there's a learning curve, but with both Creator and Notator any effort expended will be more than amply rewarded. Quite simply, this is software of the first order.
Prices Notator v2, £485 (or £12 update fee for existing owners); Creator v2, £299 (or £25 update fee for existing owners); Unitor SMPTE synchroniser, £349; ExPort MIDI Output expander, £113. All prices include VAT
More from Sound Technology, (Contact Details).
Review by Simon Trask
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue: