C-Lab Notator Logic
Software for the Apple Macintosh
A logical development for Notator users? Maybe, but as Ian Waugh discovers, someone still has to cross the T's and dot the I's on this latest software sequencer from C-Lab.
A new departure in sequencing software or scorewriting for Vulcans? It's Notator, Jim, but not as we know it...
As a muso of the old school (I like to work with the dots) and a Notator user for some years, I long held the view that it was the best sequencer-cum-scorewriter on the market. However, as time progressed and software developed, I found myself harbouring a sneaking admiration for Cubase's Arrange page and wishing Notator had a more flexible method of putting tunes together from individual patterns.
The solution to the problem seemed to lie in Notator Logic - an advanced program which has been 'almost ready' for about two years and well hyped throughout this period. Now it's finally made an appearance on the Apple Mac so I seized my chance to check it out.
OK, so what do you do with a new piece of software? Well, I'm sure nine out of ten users simply boot up and see how far they can get before having to resort to the manual. I'm not usually like that. I reckon a good manual can cut many hours off the learning period and as time is money, I like to get into things as quickly as possible.
Put simply, Notator Logic is not a program with which you will get very far without some recourse to the manual. The main thrust of Logic - its modus operandi - is its working environment. This is a radical departure from every other sequencer on the market and, indeed, from most software programs.
Logic has so many features, facilities and methods of working which are not found on other programs, that we'll have to take the basic record/arrange/playback functions as read in order to squeeze in as many new features as possible. Even then I can't promise to be 100% comprehensive. This is a big program!
The software is protected by a dongle which plugs into the Mac's ADB socket. You can connect it between the computer and the keyboard and you won't even know it's there. After donglising, the next thing you must do is wrap your head around the basic principle on which Logic is based. So get out the Perrier, this is not something you should attempt on a couple of cans of Red Stripe.
Logic takes an object-oriented approach to music creation and uses a virtual music environment. Let's examine the first part of this more closely. Operation revolves around windows which act like normal Mac application windows. The program retains many features from Notator such as Hyper Edit, the Event List, the Score Editor and the Matrix Editor - each of which have their own window. It also has an Arrange page reminiscent of the Cubase layout, and this is the main window.
Essentially, any number of musical sequences can be assembled so that they become a new object: a folder. Sequencers and folders can be moved, copied, cut, transposed and so on, and any number of objects - folders or sequences - can be packed inside other folders in much the same way as you pack files and folders within other folders on your Mac hard disk (aren't you glad you left the beer in the fridge?).
An example should make things clearer. A sequence is the smallest building block within Logic (not counting the individual events which make it up). When you make a recording, what you create is a sequence. Say you've recorded several sequences in the Arrange window (...think of this window as an open folder you can't close) - select a few sequences and choose Pack Folder from the Structure menu. The sequences will pack into a folder which will appear on a new track. You can pack this folder (plus other sequences if you wish) into another folder and so on, ad infinitum.
You can unpack a folder by selecting Unpack Folder from the Structure menu and you can see what's in it by double clicking on it. At this point, a new window will appear showing the sequences (and any folders) inside it. This effectively creates a half-way house between the folder itself and its higher level which (if you've only packed one folder), will be the Arrange window itself.
This form of hierarchical structure enables you to work with blocks of music at any level in their organisation. For example, you could create a rhythm pattern consisting of half a dozen drums - each on their own track - and put them into one folder which could then be handled as a single 'drum track' object. Add a bassline and some chords to this, put them with the drum track in a folder and this would be a 'backing' object.
You can build up complete tunes in this way and even create a single folder which could hold all the songs for an entire set. The system is not totally unlike Performer's 'Chunks' but it goes several steps further. In fact, it offers far greater flexibility than other track/pattern-based sequencers and is probably the most flexible method of music arrangement available on a computer today.
Now let's check out this virtual environment thing. A good place to do it is the Environment window. This displays a virtual representation of your MIDI set up using icons linked with (virtual) cables to represent the data flow. It's a bit like a musical CAD program.
You can create icons for objects such as synths, MIDI channels and individual instruments or sounds. An instrument's parameters will contain the MIDI channel and MIDI port assignment plus program change, velocity, transpose parameters - and so on. Once these are set up you can assign sounds to tracks by name without having to worry where in your MIDI setup they are.
Each instrument has an instrument parameter box (which is duplicated in the Arrange window). Here you can name instruments and assign to them an icon from a selection of over 300. As well as these standard instruments, there are mapped instruments which have transpose disabled and which are used in drum setups. This also allows you to map any MIDI note onto a new one.
But what if you have an instrument with more than 128 sounds, if you use several MIDI instruments or if you are wont to load in a new set of sounds before you start a new project? Well, you'll have to create a new setup for each bank of sounds, but once it's done you can limit what you see on screen by creating 'layers' for each instrument, group of sounds, processors, MIDI mixer, etc. This keeps onscreen info to a minimum.
You can have multiple windows open at any time so you can view the same data in different editors. Each window can show various 'levels', part of what the manual refers to as the program's three-dimensional structure. For example, if you double click on a sequence in the Arrange window, you can open the Score Editor. Double clicking on a note can then open the Event List - which is as deep as you can go.
You can backtrack along the levels. Double clicking on the start of the Event List produces a list of the sequences which are in the Arrange window. Each window has a Link button which will make it move through the same levels as any windows it's linked to. This lets you move in and out through the structure of your music very easily. There is also a Catch button which ensures that the current playback position is visible.
With so many windows available, it's easy for the screen to become cluttered. You can tidy things up with Tile and Stack functions and also Zoom. On top of this you can store up to 90 Screen Sets (layouts), so you can easily flip from a group of edit windows, for example, to a full arrangement.
Each window has its own menu which restricts your access to functions which can be applied in that particular window. Most windows also have a set of icons or setup parameters on their left. However, in many cases, the only way to see all of these is to open the window to almost the full size of the screen, and this can be both awkward and inconvenient at times.
The time-related windows - Arrange, Matrix, Hyper and Score - have a bar ruler across the top with zoom icons so you can resize the display. Markers are used to indicate the start and end of a musical section (a sequence, song or even a folder) and you can adjust these, even giving them a negative position to allow for Program Changes, for example.
The main screen has three menus - File, Edit and Windows - which let you access the various windows, file management and general editing functions. All windows are interactive and automatically update when editing takes place in any one window. The Arrange window is where the basic arranging is done, so we'll start there.
Logic supports an unlimited number of tracks at a resolution of 960ppqn and tempos from 0.5 to 9999 beats per minute to two decimal places - talk about extremes! The Arrange window houses the transport controls (although you can also call up two other Transport windows) and displays the current song position in bar and beat format and as SMPTE time in hours, minutes, seconds, frames and bits. You can assign any SMPTE time to any musical position and the program has direct support for Mark of the Unicorn's MIDI Time Piece.
The Playback Parameter box concept will be familiar to Notator users. It includes Quantise, Loop, Transpose, Velocity, Dynamics, Length and Delay. The effects are only applied on playback so the original data is not altered - although the Normalise function will permanently convert the data. Use this before exporting as a MIDI file.
There's also an Instrument Parameter box which looks somewhat similar, but is used to change the program's virtual instruments, and works on a 'per track' basis. The Track List is very cute: click and hold here and you get a list of all the virtual instruments you set up in the Environment window. This too works on a per track basis and is a doddle to use when you're selecting new sounds.
The main area of the window is where your song is arranged, and again, it's a joy to use. You can move the sequences around the screen and shift their start and end points. You can layer them onto one track, overlap them and, of course, cut, copy and paste just as you would with any standard Mac application. In fact, combined with the options for selecting sequences and tracks - or parts thereof - there is virtually nothing you can't move, copy, insert, split, join or otherwise mess around with. And to help you with your musical DIY, you'll find a Toolbox with Arrow (the normal cursor), Eraser, Text, Scissors, Glue, Solo and Mute tools.
But a word of warning. I found it very easy to end up moving something twice because I thought the program hadn't responded the first time, when actually it was simply recovering from the last operation. Indeed, when full control is returned, you can find that an action has been repeated several times. Perhaps this is a user fault (my haste in using the program), but I've never had this problem with any other software. Surely when the program is busy it would be better if it locked you out completely and didn't keep a buffer of any actions. Either that or you could wear mittens. Anyway...
There are four locators which function as two connected pairs - one for Cycle and one for Autodrop. You can loop individual objects and nest loops within each other. Apart from being useful in general song construction, loops can be used to produce polyrhythmic serial-type music.
Quantisation options are many, and cover the same sort of range as Notator - including swing settings. Also similar to Notator is the layout of the Event List window where the lowest level shows notes and MIDI information such as pitchbend and controller data, but it is possible to step up through the levels to see sequences, too. Display filters allow you to work more easily on one type of data such as notes or program changes and there are options to select objects of the same type for global editing. Neat.
The Hyper Edit window is, again, based on the one in Notator. It can be used for creating drum tracks and for drawing in control changes and other MIDI data. The Matrix Editor is a grid or piano roll editor and shows notes as oblong bars on a grid alongside a piano keyboard. I must confess I never use the Matrix editor in Notator, but I know many musicians who virtually live there.
As I pointed out earlier, I'm a muso of the old school and prefer to do most of my work with a score editor, using an event list to check and adjust note values. This is easy in Logic - all you do is open a Score and an Event window.
There's a partbox containing notes and music symbols which you can pick up and place on the score. It supports enharmonic shifting, confirmation accidentals (when an accidental is not strictly necessary but useful as a reminder), manual stem adjustment, beaming and unbeaming.
There's also a very nice Score Style window which lets you select the stave type, stem direction, beam type, split point and so on. There are options to adjust the stave size and the space between them which makes it very easy to tweak a score so it fits onto a page - I love this - and you can create polyphonic staves by assigning different voices to different MIDI channel numbers as in Notator. These parameters may then be saved as a Score Style for use on other staves.
But good as it is, I must confess to being a little disappointed with the Score Editor. Whilst it is still the editor I would use the most, it doesn't have all the facilities of Notator - at least not yet. Although there are crescendo and slurs, for example, these haven't been implemented in the current version. You can't bracket staves, there is no support for grace notes or tuplets, you've no control over bar spacing and there's no option to print the name of the stave at the beginning of every line - although you can enter text anywhere in the score.
Also, the display quantisation doesn't work in exactly the same way as the one in Notator and some tweaking was necessary to duplicate a score transferred from Notator. No doubt these omissions will be addressed in future updates so that the Score Editor is brought up to Notator's standard - and even beyond. But I hope it's not too long.
By contrast, the printout function, using as it does the Mac drivers, makes the best use of whichever printer you happen to have and involves far less faffing about than printing from Notator.
Logic uses a single file type - the Song - and you can load several Songs at once, making it easy to exchange data between them. It's certainly nice not to be confronted with a dozen different filetype options. Logic can read MIDI files and they don't even need the Mac MIDI filetype attribute (mega advance, this). It can also import files produced by Notator SL on the ST (you'll need a utility such as Access PC to transfer them unless you can put up with Apple File Exchange). Notator's four Arrange tracks, a to d, appear as four Folder tracks.
The manual is quite helpful, although some explanations could be a little clearer and it lacks a tutorial which all programs of this complexity really do need. However, it declares itself a preliminary manual with the official version to follow in due course, so perhaps we'll get a tutorial and more explanations then. Whatever its final form, the manual is essential, make no mistake. You could fuddle through a lot of the program without it, but I guarantee you'll miss the majority of functions and facilities.
One of the things C-Lab appear to have missed - at least I was unable to find any reference to it - was the ability to enter notes in step-time from a MIDI keyboard. How on earth this could have been overlooked I can't imagine, but unless I'm very much mistaken, that's what seems to have happened.
For a new release (review version 1.1) the program was quite stable. It did throw up a few errors though it does at least try to give you the opportunity to save your material before it quits. I may just have been lucky but it never completely locked up on me. I wasn't happy with the 'delayed reaction' problem but perhaps I should learn to slow down.
Notator Logic certainly takes a different approach to sequencing. Operation is not as immediately intuitive as the pre-release hype would have us believe and it has enough non-standard Mac functions to ensure a significant learning curve. So it's not something you'll pick up in a day. But then, most high-end sequencers take quite a bit of getting to know. And at least Notator users will come to it with some advantage.
Logic's object-oriented approach and virtual environment are the most powerful arguments for computer-based sequencers yet devised, although there will doubtless be those who remain to be convinced and others for whom it will all be a bit too much. And that's a shame because they'll certainly be missing out on one of the most creative ways of organising a MIDI setup and processing music yet devised. (Of course, we are entering the realms of subjectivity here.) One must also accept that there will be people who will use the program in the most minimal way - and that too will be a shame. But I suppose most word processors only have a small percentage of their power utilised. And with Logic you can at least grow into its special features as you gain confidence and experience.
I don't think the developers would mind me saying that there is room for improvement - and improvements will no doubt follow soon. But already Notator Logic can be counted up there with the other top-end Mac sequencers. The development team have proved what they can do with Notator and if they apply the same level of commitment and development to Logic, it will soon be one helluva program. Pioneers and power users sign on here.
Price: Notator Logic £499 inc. VAT
More from: Sound Technology Plc (Contact Details)
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Review by Ian Boddy
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