One of the most popular professional sequencing packages for the ST gets the once over from John Renwick
John Renwick finds out why C-Lab's Creator enjoys such a following among professional studio owners.
Software sequencing systems are now becoming so powerful that the computer becomes the centre of the entire music studio, whether it's a home system or the largest professional set-up.
One of the most comprehensive systems is C-Lab's Creator. One of the foremost rivals to Steinberg's Pro-24 and Hybrid Arts' MIDITrack, Creator is now available as a single package with Notator, the scorewriting program, and Unitor, a powerful hardware synchronisation unit. In its smart black plastic case containing a ring-binder and zippered hardware bag, it certainly LOOKS professional.
The Atari ST is the ideal machine to host Notator, offering as it does the high resolution display the program requires, large memory (you'll need a one meg machine), built-in MIDI ports, and fast processing. The one thing it lacks which in fact all computers except the Yamaha C1 lack is SMPTE interfacing. The Unitor hardware unit remedies this shortcoming, as well as acting as a software protection "dongle" for the main program.
We'll look at the applications and implementation of SMPTE later; first, a general overview of the facilities of Creator/Notator, which is in some ways more flexible and user-friendly than the slightly better known Steinberg Pro-24.
Creator is based on the excellent Commodore 64 sequencing program Supertracks. It retains many of the operating principles, while adding the sophisticated editing and synchronisation facilities available only with the larger memory and faster processing speed of the ST.
Creator runs entirely under GEM, using the mouse (or keyboard controls) to select functions from pull-down menus, and dialogue boxes to select parameters. It offers 99 patterns, each of up to 64 tracks arranged into four chains, A, B, C and D. Entering music data into Creator couldn't be more easy. Just select an unrecorded track (with a white panel to the left), click the Record button, and play along with the metronome. The bar counter to the top right of the screen shows your position, and when you've finished you click on Stop. An OK indicator appears on your selected track, and the white panel turns black. Muted tracks are indicated with a star.
The next step is to set the length of your recording using the numeric start and end locators. The cycle option lets you loop around these two points as you add more tracks, if you wish. The locators can also be used to set drop-in and drop-out points for punch-in recording.
Tracks can be named by clicking on the blank space after the track number. To the right of the track are listed the parameters for the currently selected track. Here you can alter the MIDI channel; quantisation; transpose; velocity level; low-note/high-note limits; delay or advance and so on. The loop function allows you to set the number of repeats each pattern plays within the start and end locate points.
Full system exclusive features let you filter out any information you don't want to record, such as velocity, aftertouch, pitch bend or patch change information, and by creating a Ghost track, you can copy all the data without taking up any more memory. Ghost tracks can be assigned their own parameters too, so you can easily create effects such as MIDI delays and repeats by delaying ghost tracks, or octave doubling using transpose.
The quantisation options are remarkably powerful, varying from 1/768th of a note to 1/4. Quantisation is nondestructive; only when you select the Do Quantise function from the menu does the currently shown quantise value become imposed on the music data using a different quantisation level for each track, if you wish.
Different modes allow you to quantise all data, including controllers such as pitch wheel; to quantise note on and off only; note on only; note position but not note length, and so on.
Also available is a Groove function, which allows you to introduce micro-timing patterns such as quintuplets, shuffles and so on, returning some of the human feel which is often lost by excessive quantisation. In addition to a large number of preset grooves selectable from a pull-down menu, there are also sixteen user-definable grooves.
If you really want to get inside your music for fine adjustments, the event editor display shows all the MIDI data you enter in both graphical and alphanumeric form. On the left of the window is the graphical display of solid bars on a grid, with each pixel on the screen representing a time duration of 1/96th note. On the right is the alphanumeric data, a string of numbers and letters representing the pitches, note on/off points and other data. An alternative display layout lets you spread the graphic data right across the screen and edit it with the mouse. If you've recorded a track and hear a simple mistake on playback, it's often easiest to correct it here rather than try to punch-in and re-record it.
Having built up a number of tracks and patterns, it's remarkably easy to chain them into songs.
Switching on Arrange mode means that the sequencer will play through whatever is shown in the Arrange window, rather than just the current pattern. You simply click and drag bars into place, labelling with the appropriate pattern and chain numbers and number of repeats. You can even record while in Arrange mode, allowing you to overdub a long solo onto a long sequence of tracks.
So far, so good, but you'd expect this much from any pro standard sequencer. The bonus from C-Lab is the Notator section of the package, which is a fully-specified scorewriting and printing program. It allows you to create music manuscripts from scratch, or display MIDI data in manuscript form. If that's your aim, you can set parameters such as the number of notes displayed on each track using the Global Display parameter window.
The Score Edit display exists side-by-side with the MIDI event editor, so you can happily jump from one to the other. Below the screen is a "partbox" of musical notes, you reveal it by pulling the mouse to the bottom of the page. You can set the display to full score or single track modes, and use the mouse pointer to pick up and place symbols from the partbox; notes, including triplets, quadruplets, and other dotted values; rests, slurs, accents, crescendo and decrescendo lines, pedal symbols and so on. It's also possible to enter lyrics by going into Text mode and typing. Text can be shown in a number of different fonts, justified , left or right, or centred.
Editing a manuscript is straightforward; single notes or sections can be shifted, copied to a new bar position, dragged off and deleted and so on, using a combination of mouse and keyboard commands. When it comes to printing out your masterpiece, the program includes a number of printer drivers for 9-and 24-pin printers.
While Notator is an excellent score package, and the integrated Creator sequencer makes it much easier to use than any stand-alone scorewriter, it isn't intended to teach you music theory. Bear that in mind while you're scratching your head over the manual!
The latest addition to the Creator system is the Unitor hardware option. This allows you to synchronise the Creator sequencer with practically any other standard system.
At its simplest, an external MIDI clock, such as from a drum machine, can be used to drive the sequencer. MIDI Song Position Pointers are supported, but if you want even more precision the Unitor can turn your ST into an integrated SMPTE/MIDI system.
Just to recap on SMPTE; it's a digital time-code system adopted as a standard by film and video engineers, which allows any position on a tape to be located in terms of hours, minutes, seconds, frames and bits. By recording a SMPTE code to one track of your master tape ("striping"), and reading the code back as the tape runs, the Creator sequencer can synchronise itself with great precision to the tape; invaluable if, for instance, you are writing music for film or video which has to synchronise precisely with the action.
The Unitor hardware is a wedge-shaped case which contains the package's software protection dongle, and which locks into position in the ST's cartridge port. It boasts two additional MIDI OUTs, allowing Creator to use up to 48 independent MIDI OUT channels; and two extra MIDI INs, so three distinct MIDI inputs can be merged simultaneously.
The Synchronisation Reference dialogue box allows you to set the SMPTE time offset and song tempo, as well as tempo changes during the song. All SMPTE standard frame rates are supported; 24, 25, and 30 frames per second, and 30 drop frame.
The Unitor also sports quarter-inch jack sockets for SMPTE IN and OUT, and a mysterious "multi-function" port for features as yet unimplemented. Whatever can they be?
If you already have Creator or Notator and want the Unitor, you have to trade in your old dongle for the appropriate version of Unitor (C or N). See your dealer for details.
If you're willing to pay the hefty price for such a professional system, the Creator/Notator/Unitor package will offer you undreamed-of possibilities for MIDI control. See it before you commit yourself to anything less.
Product: C-Lab Creator/Notator/Unitor
Format: 1 meg Atari ST
Supplier: Sound Technology, (Contact Details)
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Review by John Renwick