Software for Commodore 64
Mark Jenkins supercharges the studio with this latest hi-tech recording software for the inexpensive Commodore 64 micro.
Mark Jenkins supercharges the studio with hi-tech recording software for a low-price computer...
If anyone had predicted two years ago that a humble Commodore 64 could become the centre of a professional studio he would have been laughed at. Even after the first micro-MIDI packages from Sequential and SIEL came out the future looked cloudy, with the limitations of the systems often becoming more apparent than their capabilities.
But something has obviously changed, and it's not the good old Commodore 64, which remains as eccentric as ever and still gives the appearance of being on its last legs despite dominating the home micro market throughout the world. There are so many C64s in circulation now that any software package written for the machine still has a good chance of success, yet the machines themselves are available for prices which should make the would-be hi-tech composer drool.
And, yes, a learning process has taken place, and the software houses have discovered ways of stretching the 64's musical potential far beyond the most optimistic predictions. And so we can now enter a music store and buy a disk which turns the Commodore 64 into a real- and step-time 16-channel polyphonic MIDI composer of enormous power and versatility.
The C-Lab Supertrack package which allows you to do all this is similar in many ways to the Steinberg Pro-16 launched a few months ago, but in some areas exceeds it in versatility. It runs via almost any MIDI interface (the Steinberg interface is in fact mentioned, along with MusicData, Passport, Yamaha, Hybrid Arts, Korg, C-Lab and Jellinghaus units), and although the package itself stems from Germany (like the Steinberg), the small handbook is written by the American company MusicData Inc who apparently market the system as MusicData MIDI Sequencer II in the USA. Here in the UK it's handled by Sound Technology.
The first time you load the package you have to type in a codename of your own choosing, so no-one else can use the system; the disk is very heavily copy-protected but the American company apparently makes a back-up disk available to existing users for $10. Once the software is loaded there is only one main display apart from the Edit page and Save/Load prompts.
The main display consists of six differently coloured columns with assorted headings indicating tempo, loop status and so on. On each of the 16 recording channels available, you have channel number, on/off status, MIDI channel, velocity level, transpose value, quantise value and loop length, and there's also an overall tempo display and overall pattern length display. This is measured in quarter notes and the longest individual pattern can be 256 quarter notes; this parameter allows you to programme time signatures such as 7/4, 5/4 and 6/8.
You can alter all parameters using the cursor and +/- keys, and like the Steinberg package you can change tempo while the pattern is playing, although changing most of the other parameters (such as MIDI channel) will stop the sequence.
"The software has its own little autolocator built in which allows you to assign a total of eight cue-points."
Patterns are recorded simply enough: just position the cursor over any of the parameters of an empty track and hit 'R' for a four-beat count-in, which can be lengthened, shortened or removed as desired. Your playing can be auto-corrected to any value up to 1/192 notes, and as we'll see later you can also record in step-time.
Once you've recorded a pattern you can switch it on and off ie. mute it, change its MIDI channel, vary its volume (on velocity-sensitive synths only) by changing the velocity display from 'Vel' (the original level recorded) to any value from 0 to 15, transpose in semitones, and cut down the pattern length with the loop function. Loops with any number of bars can be set up and all tracks loop independently. Each track can be muted too or you can solo a track using '0' and 'Shift/0'.
It's possible to delay each track independently from 1/192 beat (to compensate for poor synchronisation of a synth or drum machine) to several seconds (for ADT, echo and other effects). You can copy tracks or merge two tracks (the higher numbered track disappears, to be combined with the track immediately below it) and you can merge up to 15 tracks together by connecting the MIDI Out socket to MIDI In.
The delay function can also be applied to drum machines if you have the appropriate sync ports on your interface, and even more excitingly, you can switch the drum machine sync off for any pattern so that the drums take a break during playback.
Unusually, it's possible to create a 'ghost track' with all the note values of an original track maintained but with different delay, volume, transpose, quantise, MIDI and loop settings, so you can experiment on the track freely without having to change your original version at all. A brilliant idea, and one which somehow conspires to work without taking up any of the computer's memory.
"...and even more excitingly, you can switch the drum machine sync off for any pattern so that the drums take a break during playback."
If you have trouble playing a piece manually, it's possible to double or halve the speed of playback, and if you still can't achieve the desired effect you can try step-time programming. The step length is the same as the quantise value, and the space bar adds rests; either chords or single notes can be entered.
Should you want to change a track, it's possible to punch in to a given section by pushing 'Record/Shift' (which can be locked down if desired). Ideally this function should be assignable to a footswitch but not all interfaces are so equipped.
By this point you should appreciate how easy the C-Lab package makes recording of individual patterns (or riffs). When you want to chain the patterns together into a song it's simply necessary to use the four function keys and the shift key. These allow you to scroll along the left-hand column of patterns, which combine to form a song up to 256 patterns in length, with 63 different patterns being held in the computer's memory at any onetime.
One massive advantage of the C-Lab software is that patterns do not have to play in the same way each time they recur in a song. If you switch off some tracks of a pattern as you're entering it into a song, these tracks won't sound on song playback. This means that you can write an intro passage with just one instrument playing without having to tear apart the main body of the tune to get at it - an enormous saving in memory, time and effort.
It's possible to transpose patterns within a song too, so you don't have to re-write patterns for a chorus in a higher key. This doesn't use up any memory either, which may seem too good to be true, and as we pointed out earlier, the sync to drum machines can be turned on or off for each pattern within a song as well. Furthermore, the mute function can be used to prevent any drum parts recorded in the sequencer from being transposed within a song.
"...this sequencer package from C-Lab is better than the opposition on matters of detail - the sort of thing you never thought you'd need until you discovered you couldn't live without it."
The software has its own little autolocator built in which allows you to assign a total of eight cue-points to which you can jump at any time using the computer's numeric buttons. In addition, the package creates MIDI Song Pointer signals which are capable of telling a MIDI-SMPTE interface such as Roland's SBX-80 what point in the song has been reached. This means that the computer can lock up rapidly to a SMPTE-controlled tape machine for faster editing and overdubbing - who wants to have to play a track from the start every time you want to make an overdub a minute from the end?
The software, in fact, has two additional pages. One is a simple Help page with all the main functions listed as in the back of the handbook. The second is a Note Editor page which you can access after selecting any single track of a pattern. Hitting 'E' produces a complete list of MIDI events including patch changes, velocity and controller information (not after-touch) which you can edit using the cursor and +/— keys.
Although a few other sequencer packages have similar functions, the C-Lab display is unusually clear, giving the type of information in simple English followed by the data values. For instance, if you obtain the following display...
"Although a few other sequencer packages have similar functions, the C-Lab display is unusually clear."
This section helps to make the C-Lab package enormously powerful, encompassing the flexibility of realtime recording, the precision of steptime and the variability of on-screen editing. Saving edited songs, patterns or even individual tracks to disk is very straightforward, and so only the synchronisation capabilities remain to be discussed.
These will largely depend on the type of interface you're using (the cheapest Steinberg and Jellinghaus interfaces will only produce MIDI clocks) but potentially the software can be driven by its own internal clock, by an external 48 ppqn signal, by an external 24 ppqn signal, or by a MIDI clock. The internal clock signal can be recorded on tape and the software synchronises to it in 48 ppqn external mode.
The handbook is full of helpful suggestions on synchronisation - such as clocking from a drum machine synced to tape if you don't have tape sync on your computer interface - and briefly explains the sync-to-SMPTE function.
During the time I used the software no major problems arose, although it's hard to say whether the capacity of the system was being approached or not. Total note capacity is around 8,500 notes and all merging and copying functions are extremely rapid.
The display doesn't have the comprehensive simplicity of the Steinberg Pro-16 package, but then again, it does have a few additional features to cram in. Sometimes these aren't obvious at first - the smallest asterisk on the display is highly significant but the brief handbook is pretty explicit and is generous with warnings about possible procedural problems (like - don't lean on 'Ctrl/X' because it erases EVERYTHING!).
In some cases the manual leaves you to your own devices, pointing out that tracks are soloed by pressing '0' but not that they're de-soloed with 'Shift/0'. It doesn't take long to come to terms with minor details like this though.
At first glance the C-Lab software does seem to have some competition at the moment, and it will have more in the near future with the launch of 16- and 24-channel MIDI packages for the Atari 520ST. But there are way more Commodores being used for computer music and if you look beneath the surface it seems that this sequencer package from C-Lab is better than the opposition on matters of detail - the sort of thing you never thought you'd need until you discovered you couldn't live without it...
SMPTE synchronisation, cue points, cursor editing, real- and step-time recording, versatile song mode functions, rapid copying/merging and a single, easy-to-follow display make the Supertrack a very impressive proposition for any MIDI studio. With the current price of the Commodore 64 and disk drive (around £100 on the second-hand market) and a wide selection of compatible interfaces available (from less than £35), the C-Lab Supertrack is a real winner.
The Supertrack (disk version only) is £64.95 plus VAT.
Further details from Sound Technology, (Contact Details)
Feature by Mark Jenkins