C-Lab Notator V3.0 (Part 1)
C-Lab's outstanding Notator and Creator sequencers have now been updated to version 3.0. Dave Lockwood checks out the new features.
C-Lab's Notator and Creator programs have been widely accepted as being amongst the first rank of sequencer/scorewriter packages for the Atari ST since their introduction in 1987. The system has received regular upgrades, and Version 3.0 is the latest release. Version 3.0 owners receive, among other benefits, a greatly enhanced 400 page manual to help explain all the new features (and some of the old ones). Highlights include an entirely new edit tool, Hyper Edit, even more sophisticated quantise and 'groove' strategies, and some printing enhancements, such as a very welcome 'page preview' mode, plus the ability to access alternative fonts.
Notator includes all the sequencing features of Creator, with the addition of the score display and printing facilities. (For the purposes of this review, I shall use the term Notator to stand for both programs, except where it is necessary to differentiate). The program is essentially a pattern-based system, employing 16 parallel tracks arranged as Patterns, which are then inserted into an Arrangement to create the desired song structure (although you can use patterns of infinite length if you prefer a 'tape-recorder' approach). You can actually run four Arrangements simultaneously in parallel giving the 64 tracks that the system lays claim to. This is achieved by having four levels to the Arrange List — levels a, b, c, and d. These are not to be confused (although you could be forgiven for doing so) with the extra MIDI channels generated via the Unitor (synchroniser) and Export (output splitter) hardware add-ons, which allow the system to support outputs A, B, C, D, E, and F — giving 96 MIDI channels in all.
If 16-track patterns are not enough for your way of working, and you do not find it easy to work in parallel arrangements, you can also configure the system in '32 tracks per pattern' mode, in which pairs of patterns are automatically tied together, with just two levels of arrange entry to work with. The Notator main screen manages to display all the tracks in a single pattern, most of the Arrange listing, and the transport and locator functions, all at once. Some say that this looks a little confusing at first, but you eventually come to appreciate the amount of information simultaneously available in this one screen as one of the program's greatest assets. Once you are familiar with the system, there is nothing confusing about it at all, and you waste no time waiting for screen redraws, and hopping in and out of windows.
Above all, everything on the Notator main page is 'active' — any value can be scrolled directly from the mouse buttons, without interrupting playback, which enormously enhances speed and ease of use.
A Track Parameters box always displays a set of playback-only parameters relevant to the currently selected track — Notator's unique layout allows all the parameters of one track to be viewed at the same time as one selected parameter for all the tracks. Track parameters include: MIDI Channel; Quantise; Groove; Transpose; Velocity; Compression; Loop; Delay; Lowest; Highest; Ghost Of. None of these parameters is destructive — they are simply imposed in the recorded data on its way out of the machine, and thus their effect is not displayed in the Event Editor. The exceptions to this are the Quantise factor, and its companion Groove ('swing', or syncopated quantise) facility, whose effects are displayed, as you would in fact need them to be for editing, even though they are not data-altering and therefore fully reversible.
The Loop parameter allows completely independent loop lengths (specified in beats) for all tracks within the pattern — loops, however, must start from beat 1. The Ghost Of facility allows the creation of copy tracks, for say, octave-doubling, without actually having the data duplicated. You are not restricted to Ghosting tracks within the same pattern; the source and copy may be in different patterns.
When an empty track is selected, the Track Parameters become the parameters of the MIDI Thru signal, allowing all the modifiers, other than those applicable to timing, to be used. Real-time Transpose, Velocity compression, and note-limits are often easier and quicker to set-up here than via the input instrument. Even Ghosting can be performed in real-time, allowing keyboard zoning, or splits, when used in conjunction with note limiting. Different Thru parameters for each channel can be stored as a default set, for instant recall.
It has always been a primary characteristic of the C-Lab sequencers that practically any processing or editing, including saving a song, or formatting a disk, can be performed without interrupting playback. All types of MIDI data, whether Notes, controllers, or Sys Ex, are recorded and handled in exactly the same way within a track; a consistency which enormously aids ease of use, and speed of learning. Any number of channels can in fact share a single track, remaining fully independent, and you can extract them at any time. Continuous recording in cycle mode can be performed, without having to stop to change tracks, maximizing the creative flow — you can even 'capture' the contents of the input buffer, and thus record without actually being in Record mode!
The second window allows access to the Event Listing, the Score Display (Notator only), two types of grid editor, and the new Hyper Edit facility. All editors function simultaneously, and are fully interactive — data altered in one will appear in all the others (except where the chosen resolution of the display does not allow it; for example a minute shift of position in the event editor cannot always be reflected by a change in notation).
You can change your system's defaults to display the combination of editors that you prefer, and even in the positions that you prefer, for the dividing lines between them can be shifted at will. The event listing can be reduced to a single line if necessary, allowing a larger Hyper Edit screen, or room for the notation to be run in Full Score mode (where several tracks can be viewed at once).
The Event listing is the heart of the display, showing the type of data (note, controller and so on), any values attached to it (note name, velocity etc.), its position, and, where appropriate, its length. Time is shown in the form Bar/Beat/Display Format/Clock — the inclusion of the additional Display Format column means that you never have to deal with large numbers in the clocks column. If you are working with a Display Format of 1/16(th note), the clocks column will carry-over to the Display Format column at 48 (ie. on a 1/16th note), rather than having to go all the way to 192 (a 1/4 note) to increment the Beat column, as on a triple-column display.
Notator's internal resolution of 192 clocks per quarter note (768 per bar) is close to the optimum, in my opinion, although there is an option to double the resolution to 384 per beat. The sort of occasion you might feel safer using the higher resolution mode would be, perhaps, for something like a solo piano part, with lots of subtle nuances of timing, at a very slow tempo.
A Partbox to the left of the Event listing can be used to enter different types of event in step write mode, or as a display filter, removing selected events from the display, allowing others to be seen more clearly for editing. The Event listing is always accompanied by a simple grid editor, with horizontal beams representing note position and duration. This is actually a useful adjunct to the raw data of the listing, for it makes it very easy to spot things like unwanted overlaps and incorrect durations, or even deviations from the desired pattern.
The Notation display attempts, as far as possible, to interact fully with the Event Editor. Inevitably, however, the notation must be subject to a degree of 'display quantisation', even on an unquantised part, simply to make it readable. It is perfectly possible to edit via the notation display however, with the event listing immediately reflecting any alterations. Step-writing — entering notes and symbols directly from the notation partbox — is also possible, although I have always found this to be perhaps the least satisfactory area of operation within the system, and little improved in Version 3.0.
The Matrix Editor, using vertical beams to show both pitch and duration, is probably the least useful of all the editors, although I daresay Creator owners without the benefits of notation may well make use of it.
Finally, there is Hyper Edit, the new edit display, unique to Version 3.0. Hyper Edit initially appears to be a dedicated drum editor, but it can in fact be used for selective editing of any sort, singling out just one type of data (such as all occurrences of a specific note or controller), or one parameter (such as the velocity of all notes in a track). A selected event is termed an 'instrument', and you can set up to eight Hyper Edit Sets, each consisting of 16 instruments. Instruments are defined by dragging an event into the Hyper Edit display from the event listing (or by Shifted 'J' from the keyboard, after selecting the event). Once defined, the event's 'second data value', such as a note's velocity, or a controller value, is then displayed by the height of a vertical beam on the display's grid. Time, along the horizontal axis, can be compressed or expanded (by moving the vertical divider to the left) to view less than a single bar in the utmost detail, or up to 34 bars at once.
Instruments can be named, so that the individual drums within a kit can all be seen at a glance, and can be individually selectively delayed or advanced. Previously, the only way to achieve this amount of control over drum parts was to record each drum on its own track, thus giving it its own set of track parameters. This is not only wasteful of tracks, but also unnecessarily cumbersome whenever alterations are made that need to apply to the drum part as a whole. Hyper Edit allows a similar degree of flexibility to be achieved when drum parts are all recorded on one track. Entering the Hyper display, it is almost as if there were another 16 tracks within the drum track itself. A Quantise value is shown, although this only selects the resolution of the grid for the manual entry of notes via the mouse. With Auto-Insert enabled, notes are entered with a left button click, and deleted with the right. Velocity can be entered at the same time, by the vertical placement of the pointer within the grid, with the option to enter at a pre-determined, fixed velocity, where this is more appropriate.
A Hi-Hat mode allows only one instrument within a group, such as closed and open hi-hat or tom-toms, to be present at a particular position. Manually entering a note within such a group will delete any other note present at the same position.
Hyper Edit is not restricted solely to defining individual notes as instruments. If All Notes is the selected status, then Hyper Edit becomes a pure velocity display, allowing not only a clear look at the dynamics of the whole part, but also 'drawing' of, say, a crescendo, via the mouse. Similarly, when controllers are the targetted data, the display resolution can be tightened up to the point where the vertical beams are indistinguishable, and you are virtually able to draw a line with the mouse pointer to achieve subtle controller variations. Events are not restricted to a single channel — if necessary, all the events of a specific type, whatever their channel, can be displayed all at once.
Although on the surface it is primarily a dedicated drum editor, Hyper Edit is a useful enhancement of the program's selective logical editing functions. Although I confess to having been initially rather sceptical of its worth, still preferring to keep my drum tracks fully separated, I have since found more use for it than I initially imagined, both for controllers and for viewing and editing the velocity 'picture' of note data. Overall, a far more worthwhile enhancement than it at first appears, and one that perhaps fills in a slight gap in the program's original capabilities.
Next month, Part 2 of our Notator 3.0 review. Adaptive Groove, Notation facilites, and much, much more...
Notator £499 Inc VAT
Creator £299 inc VAT.
Sound Technology plc, (Contact Details).
Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2
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Review by Dave Lockwood
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