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C-Lab Notator

By combining their 64-track 'Creator' MIDI sequencer with a set of powerful new features and a scorewriter, C-Lab have produced arguably the most sophisticated music notation package to date for the Atari ST. Ian Waugh supplies the notes...


By combining their 64-track Creator MIDI sequencer with a set of powerful new features and a scorewriter, C-Lab have produced arguably the most sophisticated music notation package to date for the Atari ST. Ian Waugh supplies the notes...


Just as technology marches inexorably on, so the boys at C-Lab continue to improve and update their Creator sequencing program. Since its review in SOS Nov 87 it has seen several enhancements, and now they have produced a scorewriter for it.

The scorewriter is actually encapsulated within Creator and they are now effectively one and the same program (although Creator can still be bought separately). This means you have immediate access to both programs and can flip quite freely between real- and step-time input, the Event Editor and the scorewriter. It's very flexible and extremely convenient.

For a full picture of the system it's probably a good idea to dig out and re-read the Creator review. Meanwhile, here's a (very) brief overview...

Real-time input is tape recorder based. There are 99 Patterns each containing 16 Tracks (or Sequences as the program sometimes calls them) which can be arranged into a song or songs. It has a 64-track capacity using all 16 MIDI channels.

I'd like to echo some points raised in the original Creator review, namely the fast response to mouse clicks and the speed at which the screen updates. It's amazing how niggled you can get in a few seconds while waiting for a screen to redraw, and quite a few ST music programs take several seconds to update their display. A high resolution monitor is essential, and there is an awful lot of information packed on to the screen.

Notator is multi-tasking, too, as far as the Atari will allow. You can play and edit at the same time and it will scroll through the score as it plays. Again, the displays update quite quickly, a fact you'll appreciate if you've used some other programs.

Notator's sequencing page - essentially the same as Creator.


THE CREATOR



On booting up the program, the first display you see is Creator's main screen. Before diving into Notator itself, let's see what's new here.

The Accent feature not implemented on the review version (1.2) of Creator has now become the Groove function. It gives you 16 pre-defined swing factors plus 16 user-definable ones. The swing factors range from 50% (no swing) to 70.8% using 16th or 8th note values. Special Grooves give combinations of straight notes and triplets (for example, 1/8 and 1/12) and there are Quintuplet, Septuplet and Pentuplet settings. Try a light Groove on a piece of Bach to find out if you're drunk or not.

You can also pre-Groove a track so whatever you record will fall into the Groove. I'm starting to sound like a 1960s disc jockey so I'll move on to the Quantise menu.

This now has a Humanize function, which adds a random time offset to a Track. An obvious application is to apply it to a Track which has been recorded in step-time. The effects can be quite severe so a little restraint is recommended. You can now insert spaces into a Pattern and reverse a section of a Track - try this with some Bach (his music's jolly useful when you're playing with sequencers).

The other big addition to Creator is the RMG - Real-time MIDI Generator - which lets you generate MIDI events in real-time. You get 16 on-screen faders, one for each Track in a Pattern, and events are transmitted whenever you alter the position of the sliders. You can enter Program Changes or - and this is one of its most interesting uses - alter the volume of the instrument on that particular Track. This feature does not affect the velocity of the notes but uses MIDI Controller 7, which means your instruments must be able to respond to this controller if you want to do a mix (most do). You can record the changes into an empty Track which will apply them on playback.

In case you get into a hopeless tangle, Creator's True Program and True Volume options will look for a Program Change or Controller 7 message that lies earlier in the track and transmit it. Wish they'd had one for the Pitch Wheel, too. Have you ever tried zeroing a Pitch Wheel when your instrument doesn't have one!

As well as being able to save a complete Song and a single Sequence, you can now also save a Pattern. There are quite a few more frills but we'd better move on to Notator - that's what this review is about, after all.

THE NOTATOR



Software-based sequencers have been around for quite a while and in spite of the wealth of computer power now at our disposal, the conversion of real-time sequences into traditional music notation has been slow to materialise. Many musicians, too, I know, would like to be able to compose and arrange in traditional notation rather than use an event editor or some other none-note method of step-time input - or even the popular grid note editor. Let's see what Notator has to offer.

You call up Notator by clicking on the Edit icon. This used to take you to the Event Editor - and it still does. The top part of the screen contains the familiar (if you've used Creator) Event Editor but the bottom half shows Notator's Score Editor - a stave and some music symbols. You can move the dividing line between the two editors at any time simply by clicking and dragging, and the Score Editor can be switched out completely. Alternatively, the Event Editor can be reduced to only one line which highlights the current note. This will also hide the Partbox, from which you can select an event and drag it to the Editor. The Partbox is also used to choose the events that will be displayed in the Editor, so you don't have to have reams of Pitch Wheel data cluttering up the display.

Notator can handle a 32-stave score and a scroll bar to the right moves you forward and back in time across the Tracks. You can also scroll through the events with two arrows to the right of the Edit screen.

If you click on a note in the Score Editor, its corresponding MIDI info is highlighted in the Event Editor, and vice versa. You can always see where you are in a score and what the event is. In fact, the score display is taken directly from the MIDI note data - after running through some quantise options, which we'll come to in a moment. This means that, on the score, as you add or alter a note's pitch, duration or place in time, those values change in the Event Editor - and vice versa, too.

To the left of the Score Edit display is another Partbox containing music symbols. Repeated clicking on one of these cycles through a family of associated symbols. For example, the notes cycle through 'straight' and triplet values and the accents and volume instructions offer a variety of each.

STEP-TIME INPUT



You can drag a symbol onto a stave but an easier way is simply to press the right-hand mouse button, which makes the symbol fly across the screen to the arrow. As long as you keep the button pressed, a Command Line appears which shows the position of the note in the score, its pitch, velocity and length. You can move it around the stave and place it by releasing the button. When in place, its details appear in the Event Editor.

Editing is very flexible. You can delete a screen object by clicking on it and dragging it off the screen. You can copy notes from one stave (Track) to another. You can move a single note or symbol by clicking on it and repositioning it, and a group of notes or symbols can be selected and moved in a similar way.

When you edit a note in this way the Control Line appears and shows the note's movement in pitch (in semitones) and in time. You can move a note in both pitch and time but it's quite easy to move it in time when you don't mean to. If you're dexterous, however, you can click on a note with the left mouse button and toggle between Transpose and Time by clicking the right button. Unfortunately, the program forgets the selection as soon as you release the left button. It would have been nice to retain the option over several edits. The bars expand and contract on-screen to fit the number of notes you put in them, and there is a spacing option, too.

Notator tries to make intelligent decisions about your editing and the music. For example, if there are two 8th notes (quavers) and you insert 16th notes immediately after each one, the program will tend to turn this into a group of four 16th notes, although the Event Editor will still have their correct details. This flexibility, however, has its drawbacks because when inserting an note on the stave you have to place it in exactly the right spot. You can work this out by looking at the Event Editor but that rather defeats the object of the exercise. The Command Line comes in very handy here, because as you move a note its position in the music will increment in units of the note's value. To enter a run of quavers, for example, click each subsequent note exactly over the last one and then move it on until the Command Line clicks over. It doesn't suggest this method in the manual, and my thanks for the tip go to Will Mowat.

However, you must remember that the Command Line increments according to the duration of the current note. If you try to insert a quaver after a crotchet by only moving it on one click, the quaver will intrude upon half the crotchet's time and make it appear as a quaver on the screen.

After a little practice crotchets and quavers are pretty easy to insert, but when you get down to 32nd notes and triplets the display can become confusing. For example, when entering 8th note triplets, after the first two insertions the display looks nothing like a triplet, and it's only after the last one has been entered correctly that the display resolves itself.

You can insert notes from a MIDI keyboard by selecting a duration and playing a note but this suffers from some of the same problems, and it won't handle triplets at all. To make sure a sequence of notes go where you want them to go, you often have to insert the first one manually, otherwise they may appear in the wrong place. The first note entered from a keyboard does not always appear after the currently highlighted note.

A rest can be inserted by pressing the Tab key. It doesn't flip onto the stave like the notes but waits until you insert a note after it before appearing. There's a certain logic in this but I'd much prefer to see rests appear as they are entered.

Lest I have painted too black a picture let me hastily say that the system does work and quite well, too, although you have to keep an eye on the Command Line and some combinations of notes may require a few tries to get right. There really needs to be some sort of auto-spacing facility, though, even at the expense of some flexibility. And it would be very helpful to see exactly what you enter at the time you enter it.

Another gripe, a minor one, concerns the range of note values. There are no minim triplets or dotted notes. I think minim triplets are beyond the program's abilities at the moment (but that's easily remedied, I'm sure) and note durations can always be adjusted in the Event Editor if required. At its finest resolution, Notator can display 64th note triplets. You don't see many of them around.

8th notes and shorter are automatically beamed in groups of beats. If you edit beamed notes it adjusts the beams accordingly (flipping them if necessary). It doesn't produce slanted beams; all beams are strictly on the level - horizontal. This is fine for most music but it takes the edge off the appearance of scale passages. You can disconnect the beams, however, to make a track for a vocal score. You can also beam selected notes and de-beam them, although there's no facility for flipping note stems. You can insert signs such as repeat bars and double bars, but they don't affect the running of the sequencer.

Each Track has a range of parameters accessible from the Display Parameter screen which control the way the notation is displayed. This affects a step-time score but it plays an even greater role in interpreting real-time input, so we'll look at it in that context...

REAL-TIME CONVERSION



One of the major problems in rendering a real-time recording into notation is the computer's precision. If you play a run of 8th notes and hit one note just 1/32nd earlier than it's written, the computer will record it as such. Scorewriters allow for this by quantising the notes to the nearest beat. In the above example you'd need a quantise value of 1/8th to pull the note into line. Sometimes, however, even that is not enough and most scorewriters have problems with triplets. Not if they are played exactly, of course, but we're talking about converting a human interpretation of triplets, which is rather more tricky. And then there's the overlap problem. It's so easy to inadvertently run notes into one another, especially when playing legato. A literal interpretation will produce two-note clusters.

Notator tackles these problems with some rather clever, almost intelligent, quantise routines. First of all, the overall quantise setting shown just below the Menu Line affects the display. Obviously, if a piece contains 16th notes and you quantise down to 8ths, the music is going to 'squash up'. Likewise, a setting of 32nds may reveal too many 'off beat' notes.

The Display Parameters screen lists the 16 Tracks in a Pattern and each can have its own quantise settings. There are 16 quantise values, including 16-24 and 32-48 to help handle both triplets and straight notes.

Even more interesting are the next three columns. Here you can toggle Overlap on and off to avoid the two-note cluster problem. The Rests column suppresses tiny rests which may occur between notes, and Interpretation is described as a super version of what Rest and Overlap do. It attempts to interpret the way you play and show, in notation, the effect you were trying to achieve. Now that's a pretty tall order, and the manual says no more than that, but I did use it on some pieces with good results.

The really nice thing about all this is that even though my playing was not always spot on - and even, at times, stretched the boundaries of acceptable 'human feel' - the score was nearly always pretty close to the way I wanted it. And when it wasn't, I could make the necessary adjustments without much hassle.

SHARPS AND FLATS



You can select any standard key signature (up to seven sharps or flats) and each stave (Track) can have its own key signature. The note display automatically changes to fit a new key signature (this is not a transposition which is available elsewhere). You can select a minor key, which affects the way accidentals are displayed. The program also decides if a note should be displayed as a double sharp or flat and it puts good default accidentals in the score. The Event Editor, however, always shows accidentals as sharps, whatever key you're in.

Notator is smart enough to re-adjust an accidental should you edit a preceding note. For example, in the key of C if you enter a Bb followed by a B natural, it will flatten the first B and naturalise the second. It will also naturalise a B an octave higher or lower, which isn't strictly necessary but is helpful. If you remove the flattened B note, the natural sign in front of the second note will disappear also. If you don't like the way Notator interprets an accidental you can do an enharmonic shift to turn, for example, a Bb into an A# or a Cbb (double flat).

Problems can arise at times. For example, in the key of C it displays Bb as a B with a flat sign (b) in front of it - which is what it should do. If, however, you try to insert both a B natural and an A# (Bb) on the same note stem, you'll get one note (a B) with both a natural and a flat (b) sign in front of it, although the MIDI events will play correctly. In such cases, however, you can change the A# note enharmonically.

You can select a full range of clefs - Tenor, Alto and Mezzosoprano, along with Treble clefs which will play an octave higher or lower than written, and a Bass clef which will play an octave lower. There are no 8ve signs.

The selection of some options depends not only on where you click but also how fast you click. For example, clicking briefly on the clef will change it as described but clicking and holding lets you reposition it on the screen.

From the Display Parameter screen you can transpose the Tracks - ideal for transposing instruments. This does not affect the MIDI data, only the display, although you can perform a true pitch transposition from the main screen.

In true C-Lab style there are lots of display options. You can bracket staves together, connect their bar lines, and set the minimum bar width. You can remove a Track from the display or print it as an empty stave. Each Track can be printed in miniature - about half size - which is useful for showing a solo line above a piano accompaniment, for example, or for a concise score display.

DISPLAY COSMETICS



Generally, what Notator displays is quite acceptable - but there are exceptions.

Figure 1. The problems of polyphony. The result of trying to combine the first bars of the two staves is shown in bar 2.

For example, one of the most difficult things for any scorewriter program to handle is polyphony. If you're scoring for monophonic instruments there is no problem. Notator can easily handle chords, too, but let's say you want to sustain a note for four beats and play four separate notes over the top of it. Look at Figure 1. Trying to combine the first bars of the two staves onto one stave results in bar 2 (don't ask what happened to the fourth beat of the semibreve). Such two-part arrangements are very common in both classical and modern keyboard music.

You can make a few cosmetic alterations to the score - text, slurs, ornaments, accents and so on - but the notes themselves are fairly rigid. You can't, for example, make a note into a grace note - far neater than a 32nd note at the end of a bar.

A Track can be displayed as a single stave or as the Grand Stave (piano-style) and the split point is selectable. As long as the treble and bass parts keep to their side of the split point everything is fine. But there will be times when the treble wants to dip down into the bass clef for a note or two and still maintain its affinity with its fellows in the treble clef for cosmetic reasons. Unfortunately, it can't.

When you insert an accent, crescendo mark, repeat bar marker or coda sign, etc, into the music, a Pseudo Event appears in the Event Editor - even text appears here! These are for cosmetic purposes and information only, and have no effect on the music. All, that is, except the Ped On and Ped Off symbols which insert Sustain on and off Controller messages into the Editor.

There is enormous scope here for allocating messages to all Pseudo Events. Imagine being able to draw in a crescendo, an accent, a dynamic marking or even a trill, and have it automatically applied to your music. Notator can't do this yet but the bones are there.

WHAT IT CAN'T DO



During the course of my experiments I came across a few things I would have liked to do but which Notator did not allow. For example, you can't change key signatures in the middle of a Sequence and you can't give different time signatures to different Tracks in the same Pattern, although you can change time signatures globally at any point.

The program doesn't allow a time signature with a minim beat value, such as 3/2, 4/2 or 2/2 (a particularly sad omission), although the number of beats in a bar can run from 1 to 31. These are all things which could easily be altered with a software update.

I also discovered a curious anomaly in the display and printing routine, whereby a couple of adjacent bars would look fine in the middle of the screen but if they were at the edge of the screen a note would get pushed from one bar into the other.

The current version of Notator (1.1) doesn't support the MIDI File format but this is being seriously considered by C-Lab. (Although several software houses have agreed a MIDI File standard amongst themselves, no standard seems to have been given 'official' approval yet.) Notator has just been released in the UK although it has been on sale in Europe for a short while. Already many changes have been made to it and the operating manual contains several pages of addenda. I felt that several important points were not covered sufficiently in the manual, and some options are not even mentioned!

CONCLUSION



Many professional sequencing programs use a Grid Editor for editing and step-time input. These are graphically very helpful and have many devotees, but if you read music and think in notation form there is just no substitute for composing and writing on the stave. Notator lets you do this and I will say that it comes closest to my ideal method of note input that I have yet used on an Atari ST. There is room for improvement, however, and already designers Gerhard Lengeling and Chris Adam are working on new developments.

As far as converting real-time input into notation goes, Notator does an impressive job although, again, there are a few problem areas - and I'd still like the manual to explain more.

The price of the program (£485) can not have escaped your attention; Notator has the dubious distinction of being the most expensive music program for the ST. You are getting a sequencer and a scorewriter for your money, though, and pretty powerful and flexible ones at that.

I enjoyed using the program immensely although it was not without its frustrating moments. I found it duly impressive and can well recommend you check it out. However, the most exciting thing about Notator, for me, is its potential. Clues as to what it could eventually become are scattered throughout the program. We all know how long it takes to develop a piece of music software but hang on in there, because the perfect notation editor-cum-scorewriter could be just around the corner.

Price £485 inc VAT. If you already own Creator, you can upgrade to Notator for £299.

Contact Sound Technology plc, (Contact Details).

PRINTING YOUR SCORE

Several printer drivers are included on the program disk and you're almost certain to find one which works with your printer. Having said that, there's no driver specifically for the Epson FX80 - which seems odd as it is the standard printer here in the UK - although there is one marked Epson FX85. There are drivers to handle 24-pin printers and 8/9-pin printers which have a 'micro feed' (less than one line) ability, but you only get one print style per driver - you can't select draft or final print quality and you can't re-size the printout, although printing in miniature stave mode produces a different display.

The printed score's shape and form is also dependant upon the driver, and you can create more than one driver for the same printer to produce different printouts. This is only slightly easier than reciting the MIDI specification backwards in Japanese!! A comprehensive set of drivers needs to be included by C-Lab and the option of a draft and final copy mode, too.

However, my trusty Epson FX80 worked with two of the printer drivers supplied. One produced a small, dense, very well-defined copy. The other was larger and fainter like a draft copy.

You can specify the part of the score to be printed and bar numbers can be included if you wish. They can be Offset (increased by a given amount - they can even take a negative Offset) and displayed in Steps (every so-many bars). There's a quick print facility for convenience, which will start printing from the current position in the score or from the top of the Tracks.


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

The Production Centre

Next article in this issue

The Silencer


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Sep 1988

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Review by Ian Waugh

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