Software for the Atari ST
The competition for an industry-standard sequencing program to accompany the industry-standard computer hots up, as Simon Trask finds out when he picks up the mouse on C-Lab's contender.
The most prolific area of the ever-expanding catalogue of Atari ST music software is sequencing. Joining the field is C-Lab's Creator, how does it fare against the competition?
IN LITTLE MORE than a year the range of Atari ST MIDI software has developed dramatically. And it's a trend which shows little sign of abating, as companies who previously wrote for the Apple Mac start to port their programs over to the ST - for instance, Intelligent Music with their ever so intelligent programs M and Jam Factory.
German company C-Lab, like their compatriots Steinberg Research, graduated to the Atari via a different route: the ubiquitous Commodore 64 - in fact, you may remember their neat C64 SuperTrack sequencer. Creator is their new ST sequencer, and while SuperTrack was derivative of Steinberg's Pro16 (and actually improved on that program), Creator has its very own character.
CREATOR ALLOWS YOU to record a maximum of 99 16-track patterns. Each pattern can be as short or as long as you want. If that's too vague try this: the maximum length of any one pattern is 1,040,896 1/768th notes, which works out at 1355 4/4 bars or 45 minutes of music at a tempo of 120bpm. Creator records to a resolution of 192ppqn (a 1/768th note). OK?
On to the display. In the lower right-hand corner of the main display are the usual array of tape transport-style controls for real-time recording. Recording is to one track at a time, selected by highlighting the relevant track. You can assign each track to any one of MIDI channels 1-16, or alternatively select channel zero (labelled "original") in which case Creator will record and play back whatever channels come into it. This is invaluable if your controller is a MIDI guitar in mono mode, or a multisplit master keyboard.
To record, you click on the Record button (pretty logical program, this) and keep on playing for as long as you want. Creator also allows you to set a count-in period of up to 42 4/4 bars, which I guess gives you plenty of time to come up with some ideas.
Unlike certain sequencers, the first-recorded track doesn't define the length of the pattern - subsequent tracks can be as long as you want. If you don't like a particular track you can easily delete it by dragging it across to the left-hand side of the main display. On the other hand, if you've accidentally started recording over a performance you wanted to keep (the entire track is lost as soon as you press Record) you can click on the Undo box and your effort is returned to its former glory.
In the interests of keeping everything in time, a metronome bleep is emitted from the monitor speaker, but Creator also allows you to trigger a metronome beat over MIDI. You can select the MIDI channel, note number and velocity of the note - so basically you can direct it to anywhere in your system. Ordinarily the metronome is only active during Record and Punch modes; however, if you tick the Play Click option the metronome will sound during playback too.
MIDI Thru/merge is, of course, part of Creator's vocabulary, allowing you to play any slave instrument from your master keyboard together with sequenced parts.
The menu option Key Remote enables remote triggering of the transport controls plus cycle, drop in/out and track number +/-1 from notes on your master keyboard. Although the sequence of notes is fixed, you can change the base note (to move the trigger notes into a different range). Additionally, drop-in/out can be triggered from MIDI controller 65 (portamento footswitch), a sensible idea if ever I heard one.
In the top left-hand corner of the main screen display is a real-time clock showing duration in hours, minutes and seconds. Next to this is a memory free display (starting at 110,898 events on a 1040ST) which decrements whenever MIDI data is received - very reassuring.
Other parameters displayed in the top row of boxes include Arrange on/off, Sync Delay Amount, Internal or MIDI sync, Tempo and Quantisation. In the top right-hand corner are the main counter and left and right counters (used to define the start and end points for drop in and record cycle mode, for instance). These indicate bar:beat:quantisation value:dock.
Each track within a pattern has a number of parameters associated with it; those for the current track are displayed in the column to the right of the pattern window. Here you can define a transposition value (+/-96 semitones), a velocity offset (+/-127), compression (expressed in ratios; this compresses the velocity range of the track), lowest/highest (allowing you to define a note range) and loop (allowing the track to loop after so many beats).
Delay allows you to shift whole tracks in 1/768th-note steps up to a maximum of 9999 1/768th notes.
Alternatively the delay can be specified in milliseconds (for instance, the duration of a 1/768th note at 120BPM is 2.5 milliseconds).
A very useful feature retained from the SuperTrack sequencer (reviewed E&MM June '86) is Ghost Of. This allows you to create one or more tracks which play the data of another track using their own track parameters. Thus without duplicating note and other performance data you can create thicker textures or all manner of echoes (the delay parameter), parallel notes such as octaves, fourths or fifths (the transposition parameter), or keyboard splits (the low and high note parameters).
Clicking on the Solo box solos the currently selected track, whilst clicking on the Hide box mutes the current track. This mute setting will be retained, but a more flexible approach is to turn the relevant mute button (which is actually part of the arrange mode) on or off while recording; these settings will be recorded in real time. It's also possible to record tempo changes in real-time.
On the left of the track window are the status displays for each track. White indicates unrecorded, black indicates recorded (with a level meter display for the velocity values) and an asterisk indicates that the track is either completely or partially muted.
MIDI data can be filtered at the input and the output stages: two separate windows allow you to click on a list of MIDI commands, selectively filtering them out. This can be useful if, for instance, you don't want to record aftertouch or pitch-bend data, or alternatively if you want to record pitch-bend but not notes. Filtering out data at the output stage can come in handy if the MIDI buss is being overloaded with performance data, say - though it's worth pointing out that Creator gives absolute priority to the timing of note on events, which seems like a sensible choice.
Creator includes so many data manipulation functions that there's just not enough room to consider all of them. There's a whole menu given over to quantising, and C-Lab have included several different quantise methods: Note On, Note On and Off, Musical Quantise I (which quantises note ons and note offs without altering note length) and Musical Quantise II (same as I except that Creator attempts to recognise systematic timing errors). Quantising can be non-destructive, and it's possible to retrieve a resolution all the way down to 1/768th notes.
Other data changing functions include Length Quantise, Minimum/Maximum Length, Fixed Length, Double Speed/Half Speed, Mixdown All Tracks, Demix All Tracks and Extract One Channel. In addition, Process Data allows you to alter track parameters at any point in a track, while Transform allows you to transform any MIDI data into any other MIDI data.
The increasingly common practice of recording drum parts into a sequencer has not gone unnoticed by C-Lab. Included in Creator is a Record Cycle mode which loops around the segment defined by the left and right counters. With Overdub selected, up to 16 layers can be recorded and selectively erased within a single track. In this way you can record rhythm patterns as you would on a drum machine.
Creator manages this by assigning each layer to a different MIDI channel, though all layers are transmitted on the channel assigned to the track. This allows you to further organise the layers by using Extract One Channel and Demix All Channels - so that you can delay individual layers or adjust their velocity, for example.
Segment Copy allows you to copy a portion of a track to any position in the same or another track/pattern. You can specify any number of repeats - so you could record a four-bar bassline and copy it multiple times through to the end of the pattern. In this way Segment Copy allows you to build up a whole song structure within a single pattern.
With Replace selected, the destination segment will be overwritten by the source segment; if Replace is deselected, the source segment will be merged with the destination segment.
Copying and merging whole tracks within a pattern can easily be achieved by dragging the source track to the relevant destination track. In the case of merging, a Dialog box first asks you whether you want to go ahead.
You can record into Creator when it is set to external (MIDI) sync, and the sequencer's internal resolution isn't lost just because it's reading a 24ppqn clock.
CLICKING ON THE Edit box flips you instantly to the Event Editor screen. This presents you with an eleven-line list of MIDI data (if you're looking at a track which has already been recorded), with the commands interpreted in English so you don't have to memorise the hex code for a note on, say. This makes life considerably easier.
To the left of the data display is a list of MIDI commands which can be filtered out from the display; you select or deselect these by clicking on them. This isn't the same as filtering them from the input, which is handled elsewhere by the input filter window. Being able to streamline the data display is invaluable, especially where continuous data is involved.
You can use the Event Editor in a number of ways. Most obviously, you can use it to edit the data that you've just entered in real time, but you can also enter MIDI data in step time, look at the MIDI data as you record it in real time, or simply look at what your instruments are spewing out without recording them. In fact, the editor is a valuable educational and diagnostic tool as much as it's a means of manipulating your music.
Along with MIDI's own events, C-Lab have added what they call P-user (pseudo) events. There are relatively few of these at present, but there seems to be provision for others to be added at a later date. Current P-user commands include Absolute and Relative Tempo Changes, Mute on/off, Loop Point, Song Select and MIDI Clock on/ off. These can be inserted at any position in the MIDI datastream using the Event Editor.
But the Event Editor isn't the only way of presenting MIDI data. It comes down to whether you're happy dealing with a list of numbers or whether you'd rather use a spatial analogy notation system (a score or a grid editor).
Creator's grid edit section is a useful companion to the data list, but it comes nowhere near the clarity and sophistication of the Iconix grid edit page. In fact I'd say that Iconix offers a much better step-time entry system for those musicians who don't want to be bothered too much with numbers. But that really shouldn't detract from the value of Creator's event editor, which like just about everything else about this sequencer is very well thought out.
WHILE ITS POSSIBLE to record a whole song within a single pattern, Arrange mode provides considerably more sophisticated organisational facilities. You can define up to four concurrent pattern chains or levels (A, B, C, D), providing a maximum of 64 tracks. It's worth bearing in mind that Creator can only output on 16 MIDI channels; unlike Steinberg Research and Hybrid Arts, C-Lab have yet to release an add-on providing individually-addressable MIDI Outs.
Parallel patterns are entered on successive lines of the Arrange window, their actual position in the music being determined by the start location that you give them. It seems odd at first, but there are advantages to this approach, such as being able to display a name for each pattern.
Arrange mode allows patterns to be recorded within the context of other patterns (those in the other chains). You can set out a complete song structure in Arrange mode before you've recorded a note, allowing you then to concentrate on recording your patterns within the context of the song. Alternatively, with one chain set up as, say, a rhythm track, you are free to record another pattern of open-ended length over it. A useful feature of Arrange mode is that pattern length can be altered at any time, simply by where you position the start of the next pattern.
Muting whole pattern chains is accomplished simply by clicking on the relevant chain header (A, B, C or D) - so for instance you could have a rhythm track in chain A and then flick between different accompaniments, or perhaps different versions of the same idea. Very useful for remixes, though it would be useful if some way could be found to store individual chains and the patterns associated with them.
A bright idea carried over from SuperTrack is the ability to define track mute settings and pattern transposition for each step in a pattern chain. In this way the same pattern appearing at a different position in a song can be transposed, or can have, say, its Latin percussion rhythm tracks dropped out, thus avoiding the necessity of creating two patterns with all the attendant duplication of data that that entails. It was an invaluable feature of SuperTrack, where memory was at a premium, but there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to conserve memory even on an Atari ST.
C-Lab have gone one step further by allowing you to record mute/demute settings in real time for specific tracks (the best way to do this is to record the settings onto a spare track in the same pattern). These settings will replace any settings you made in pattern mode.
Transposing a complete pattern could have a potentially disastrous effect on any drum tracks, where notes determine the sound being played rather than the pitch of a sound. To get round this, C-Lab have allowed you to specify which MIDI channels aren't to be transposed.
Other step-specific features in Arrange mode are Pattern Delay (allowing you to delay or push forward an entire pattern in 1/768th-note steps) and Upbeat/Cut. This latter feature deserves some explanation, as it's quite special. Ordinarily, sequencers force you to start recording from the downbeat of the first bar of a pattern, whereas it would be nice to be able to have a phrase, or perhaps just a syncopated bass note, on the upbeat. Creator records whatever you play during the count-in period, and arrange mode allows you to include that as part of the pattern. You do this by specifying an Upbeat start position (as a counter number less than one). This doesn't overlap with the preceding pattern, but forces that pattern to cut short. You don't have to use this feature just for Upbeats, however. Other uses include positioning patch changes slightly early so that they don't chop the start of a note on the downbeat, or forcing the end of a pattern slightly early so that notes can be turned off before the next pattern begins (Creator always ensures that no notes are left hanging at the end of a pattern).
CREATOR IS UNDOUBTEDLY one of the most sophisticated and well-thought-out sequencers on the market. While being crammed full of features which will take most musicians a long time to discover let alone use to the full, it is easy to get into on a simple level - always the mark of a good piece of applications software. It's certainly one of the best real-time sequencers on the market, though for step-time recording I'd personally go for the user-friendly grid input of Iconix.
No sequencing program covers all bases, but Creator covers enough, and with enough panache, to make it a sequencer that will last and last.
Price £285 including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask