Martin Russ loops the hours away with Version 1.2 of this new MIDI sequencing package for the Atari ST computer from Germany's C-Lab.
Despite the name, Creator is a sequencer designed to create music. It runs on the increasingly popular Atari ST and makes a very good job of thoroughly exploiting the high resolution graphics that you expect from this latest generation of 16-bit personal computer. Having used a wide variety of sequencers on both the Apple Macintosh and the Atari ST, I was very impressed with the speed and usability of Creator - you did not have to repeat mouse clicks, or wait for a response from the machine. In fact, the user interface felt much more like a Mac than any other piece of software I have seen on the ST. This probably sounds like a bit of computer 'in-fighting' and not relevant to musical use - but remember that the transparency of the user interface is one of the most important things for the long term viability of a piece of software. Initially, you might not notice that a particular program is a bit sluggish in responding to the mouse button presses, but after a couple of hundred hours in the studio working on an album, the smallest faults can become suicidally critical! I was impressed, and this is after using a Mac on most working days over the last 18 months (and an ST for about a year).
OK - so the computer responds quickly and effectively. What about the interaction between the computer, the user and the music? Well, this is also impressive: Creator manages to squeeze a lot of information onto the screen (a single, properly implemented GEM window!), and it shows virtually all the information about what you are doing simultaneously. You do not need to go selecting parts of pages or windows to find out what a particular parameter is set to - you can usually see without having to find it. Having all the information available at once can speed up the creation of music quite impressively, and Creator is very strong here. Let's look at the structure of the main screen:
In the centre is the Pattern area. This displays the activity; whether anything is recorded on that track; the MIDI channel; track name and instrument; as well as one of a number of selectable parameters. This is also a big give-away as to the overall structure of Creator - you record individual tracks to form a Pattern, and chain Patterns together to form a Song. Actually, there is quite a lot more to it than that, but the overall data structure is very similar in some ways to a drum machine. I mentioned a choice of displayed parameters - this is determined by the smaller sector to the right of the Pattern area - the Track area.
In the Track area you can display any of the values shown (channel, quantise, transpose, velocity...) in the Pattern area by clicking on that parameter in the Track area - just as you would expect. This intuitive clicking extends over the whole program - for example, to edit a track name, you just double-click on it and type the new name; to change the displayed track, you just click on the track name in the Pattern area and the inverted bar moves to that track, with the Track area now showing all the parameters for that track. Editing numerical parameters is also quick: you use the left mouse button to increase the value and the right button to decrease it.
Most of the parameters do exactly what you would expect but there are a few surprises. 'Compress', for instance, allows you to compress the velocity range of a track so that you can smooth out an overly dynamic performance when the lows start to disappear in the mix. 'Accent' wasn't implemented on the Version 1.2 review software, but the name probably gives a hint...
With the Loop parameter we begin to see some of the power of the Creator software. You can loop a track so that it keeps playing the same segment over and over again. Nothing special - until you realise that this is a track-based parameter, so you could have a pattern consisting of 16 tracks, all with different loop times! I tried it with a simple sequence but looped it complete on one track, with a note rest on another, two notes rest on another, etc. I very quickly generated several hours worth of complex polytimbral sequencing eminently suitable for Film/TV atmospheres and backgrounds - all from the same sequence and for only a couple of minutes effort! (Very much the same sort of area as Jam Factory and M on the Macintosh, but on a lower and less graphical level.) 'Loops' so far seems clever and quite useful, but wait - you can still use any remaining tracks in the non-looped mode. So you can have a complex 4 against 5 against 7 repeating sequence on three tracks, but wait until bar 30, say, before you record a theme on another track. Equally, you could have a bass sequence and drum pattern looped over 12 bars to form the whole of a backing track, whilst recording the chords and melody as a single take on an unlooped track running the whole length of the song. (In fact, you would have to do this, since a loop is always a loop - ie. once set up, it plays and plays and plays...) In practice, and even for real, you would probably try out your ideas by looping, but then copy the relevant length segments as many times as necessary to construct the pattern.
Since editing takes place at track level, the Edit and Track control buttons are sited underneath the Track area - exactly where you would expect to find them. Pressing the Edit button switches the display to the Edit page.
As with the Pattern area you get plenty of information, though the leftmost Part Box lets you choose what parameters you display in the central area - usually notes only - you don't normally want pitch bend displayed in all its verbosity! You also get time information in bar, beat, and quantise level form, plus details of the event at that time.
The graphic display to the left of the central area is an ingenious way of showing the duration of events and their simultaneity - long horizontal bars for sustained events, vertical alignment for simultaneous events. This means that you can very quickly see chords, flammed notes in chords, and many other hard-to-spot features that tend to disappear into the more usual list of events. You can, of course, edit the graphical part as well as the numerical part of the display, but this is no substitute for a music notation display (as found in Steinberg's Pro-24, version 2.1). Even so, overall, the Edit page shows that a lot of hard thought has gone into Creator.
Step-time entry is also achieved on the Edit page, although this is not the best implementation I have seen. You drag an event from the Part Box and place it at the appropriate time position in the central area or, alternatively, you can input MIDI data from an external synth or master keyboard. Grid-based step entry, as in Iconix, is still my favourite method but it is certainly possible to use step entry with Creator - although when you consider some of the features I will describe later on, you could find that you never use it!
Returning to the main screen is easy - you just click on the 'OK' box. The user interface appears here again: the 'OK' box is in almost exactly the same screen position as the Edit button on the main screen, so a click takes you to a close-up of things on the Edit page, and another click (without moving the mouse) takes you back to the main screen. Nice and natural - no hunting around the screen.
Over on the right-hand side of the main screen is an area dedicated to the control of playback and recording. Yep, you get the usual 'lookalike' tape recorder transport buttons which can be activated using the mouse or the keys on the ST's numeric keypad. The Forward and Reverse buttons move you back and forth one bar at a time, whilst Fast Forward and Fast Reverse take you to the beginning and end of the current pattern. Start, Stop and Continue need no explanation.... Interestingly, the layout of the transport buttons on the screen is different to that of the Atari's keypad - so although you can control the operation from the QWERTY keyboard, it is initially very confusing and, in the long term, mind-boggling to use! There's more - two of the designated buttons aren't even on the numeric keypad! (This one really had me furrowing my brow.) As well as the tape recorder type controls there is a Time Counter, and two Locators (or memories). You can choose to cycle between the values shown in the Locators, as well as use them for drop-ins (manual or automatic, although I couldn't find the 'Park' position in the Automatic mode!). You can record whilst going merrily round a cycle, adding bits as you please - very reminiscent of a drum machine.
The Time Counter serves as an almost indispensable tool for showing you where you are, time-wise. It has a bar, beat, quantise and remainder type of display - where the quantise value shows the current quantised time value, while the remainder value shows the number of internal 'ticks' so far within the quantise value. So, for a 4/4 measure with 16th note quantising, you get 48 internal ticks per 16th note, ie. the internal ticks are zipping away at the rate of (16 x 48) 768 per measure. This is quite amazing resolution, better than just about anything I have ever seen - dedicated hardware or otherwise.
Recording is very complex (joke!) - you select a track by clicking on it (it will invert to white letters on black) then click on the Record button. The whole screen then swaps black for white and you are recording! Having persuaded my cat to stroll along my DX7II's keyboard, stopping the recording results in the track now being annotated with an ** OK ** label. Double-clicking on this label lets you alter it and assign a name with the QWERTY keyboard - 'Catwalk 1' being a suitable name here. You can also further annotate the track with an additional eight character comment in a smaller letter size. As you can see, recording is quick and easy - all done on the same page and without using those awful pop-up dialog boxes.
Speaking of dialog boxes, you might be expecting that the setting of the time signature, quantisation level etc, would be done using these rather obtrusive little devils. Wrong - in common with the whole concept of Creator, you just move to the relevant display and click it up or down. The only time you get any dialog boxes appearing are for options where keyboard entry is needed (like labels) or when there are a lot of options to choose from.
There are only two boxes on the main screen that this 'no dialog' rule does not apply to: over at the top left is the real-time display, showing in hours/minutes/seconds format the time the sequencer has been playing. Next to it is the memory display, showing how many events can be recorded in the Atari's RAM. All the other boxes on the top row of the display are user-clickable, as are the Locators - click on the words 'Left Locator' and the time display (and playback!) moves instantly to that time; even when you are playing a sequence!
Let's follow this up: you can perform most functions of the program while it is playing a sequence - load a file, format a disk, quantise a track, etc. Priority controlled multi-tasking is the buzzword here - it means that the computer's processor assigns the highest priority to outputting the notes on time, but any spare time can be spent doing more mundane tasks. Once you have been exposed to this, you really notice other programs asking you to 'Please Wait' whilst they execute similar tasks. Yet another example where Creator saves time and effort.
There are actually quite a few more dialog boxes, but they are all sensibly hidden as parts of the pull-down menus (see 'Menu Overview' diagram). Presumably, if you have selected a complex option by using a menu, then the dialog box gives you time to dwell on the consequences, whereas the main screen deals with immediate and quick changes.
So recording is quick and easy, with immediate access to the sort of parameters that you might need to change (time signature, quantisation, channel, etc). To make things even easier, there is a Half-speed/Double-speed option which makes the real-time recording of fast fiddly bits a lot easier, as well as removing the need to resort to step-time note entry. By recording at the resulting slow tempos, I found I could zip up and down the keyboard at speeds that subsequently replayed at light speed in real time! I am aware that this technique was actually pioneered by Les Paul (of guitar fame!) using tape recorders many years ago, but I have never seen it implemented in a MIDI sequencer in such an easy to access form.
I can see that the gentleman at the back is getting twitchy, so I will move on and explain that it is very easy to remove any human element you may have introduced into the timing with this sort of Half-speed entry, by using the Quantising options. Satisfied? You should be - Creator has more quantising options than most Chinese Take-Away menus. You can choose from simple 'all events are quantised to the nearest quantised tick, and damn the consequences' type, via 'keep the note length constant and try shuffling the time position' types, through to intelligent quantisations that try to tidy things up without making it too obvious... Having set a quantise you can, of course, restore the previous 'musically relevant, slightly off-beat timed' phrase with the Undo button.
Right, my cat has now finished recording the major themes and elements of its Feline Opus, and there are lots of patterns lying dormant inside the Atari ST's memory. At this point the 'Arrange' section comes into play.
Over on the left side of the main screen is the equivalent of a song structure in drum machine terminology. There are four Players (A, B, C and D). Each of these can use the 16 MIDI channels, resulting in the 64 tracks capability of Creator. Notice that using just the Atari's single MIDI Out port, you will only be able to have 16 separate MIDI channels but you can have 64 separate tracks controlling them. Still, for muting purposes you can either mute players or individual tracks, so the 64 tracks and 4 players are very useful for distributing events into manageable units. One niggle was the rather awkward track muting system - you can mute a track with the Hide button, but un-muting it was not as obvious... Clicking the Hide button again didn't seem to re-enable playback on that track (I resorted to Soloing and then Un-Soloing the track, which seemed to do the trick!). This apart, everything else in the arranging department worked fine.
Arranging the patterns into a song is really just a case of giving the patterns relevant names and arranging them into an ordered list. You can change the times at which patterns start, with a neat bit of in-built intelligence shuttling all following sections to take into account the changes... For long lists of patterns, you can use the 'Cue' box which turns the mouse into a sort of scroll box for the whole of the song - another aid to quick use.
Unfortunately, there is no use of graphics here, you merely get a list of the various patterns and when they start. Arranging is one area where a little bit of graphic imagination can really improve the usability of a program. I find lists of patterns difficult to visualise in my head, especially when I am not using a simple verse/chorus structure with tidy numbers of bars per pattern, and where the patterns can overlap in time. Perhaps fitting as much information as possible onto one screen has its disadvantages after all - the artistic element suffers but the speed of use goes up.
Somewhere in the arranging process I found that I was one 'repeat' short in one of the patterns - pulling down the Copy menu, I selected 'Segment' and proceeded to copy the relevant section and paste it into the gap. With Creator there may be a problem if you have several tracks worth of information - because it only copies one track at a time! Still, the Copy options are easy and quick to use, with the Track Copy option automatically popping up after each copy, almost as if it knows you wanted to copy lots of tracks! I was also distressed by the Locators' lack of user-friendliness - I couldn't set them by clicking or shift-clicking on another time display and had to keep upping and downing them with the mouse buttons. My version also took ages to format a disk — although the program warned me that doing this whilst also playing a sequence was not recommended! End of constructive criticism for this month.
You can sync to MIDI with Creator - I tried without any clocks and the tempo did a nose-dive into the ground. Having corrected things by connecting my Kawai R-50 drum machine, I tried again - sync! Apart from the hunting around between 120 and 119 bpm, which caused a rather distracting tempo display, there were no problems. Creator rather cleverly interpolates its own internal clock to fill in the gaps between MIDI clocks, meaning that you still get 1/768th resolution, not 1/96th. There's no direct sync-to-tape facility so this will have to be done via a drum machine, and syncing to SMPTE will require a suitable MIDI-to-SMPTE sync box.
What haven't I mentioned so far? Well, there are additional capabilities for processing and transforming MIDI data and events, with lots of options for the compulsive fiddler. You can incorporate MIDI System Exclusive data and messages into your tracks, so that you can change patches, configurations, etc. The demo song has a couple of DX7II sounds which automatically insinuate themselves into said synth when you run the program, showing that you can do all sorts of useful tricks which are not immediately obvious. Further control over MIDI and the looping functions, etc, is possible by using an internal command language in the Edit page, and this enables the use of dumps, and things like tempo and dynamics changes. You can tap in tempos if you wish, and unmix sequences into separate tracks if you are careful. I won't even bother to mention some of the obvious things like In, Thru and Out MIDI filters (output filters per track!), auto drop-in, count-in, metronome and merging - after all, this is a review, not the first part of a series!
Creator felt nice and convenient, with quick and easy access to the laying down and fine tuning/post-processing of tracks. Most of the important everyday functions are readily available on the main screen. I quickly established who was boss (me!) and after that we both had a fine old time trying to remember all those classical and popular melodies that you always use for sequencer testing. All in all, a useful and very fast general sequencing, dump storage and arranging package with some very neat access to its facilities — a sort of 'upmarket' vanilla sequencer/music creation package. It deserves a mark somewhere in the region of 9 out of 10, mainly because of that slight lack of sparkle - there again, who wants a flashy 'flavour of the month' sequencer?
Creator is undeniably a tool for the studio tunesmith, designed to quickly hone musical ideas into a commercial shape, without any unnecessary graphics or trimmings - and it did not crash, despite some very determined efforts! If you are swung by specs then the high timing resolution should interest you, and the multi-tasking can speed things up quite nicely. Try a demo, preferably from an experienced user - if your time is money, you could find Creator to be a very useful investment.
Price £285 inc VAT.
Contact Sound Technology Plc, (Contact Details).
Review by Martin Russ
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