Atari ST Software
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Or is it possibly the most impressive piece of software around? Ian Waugh plugs into the Grid and emerges a wiser man.
Just like conventional instruments, computer programs invite you to form habits that prevent you getting the best out of them. Enter MidiGrid, a software sequencer unlike any other.
IT WOULD BE fair to say that MidiGrid has been very well received in certain quarters of the press. One reviewer was moved to comment: "...I may well have just reviewed the most significant piece of music software to appear in 1988". It would be equally true to observe that the quarters in question are mainly those with a computer bent. But is their enthusiasm justified and if so, why haven't we heard more about MidiGrid?
In spite of MidiGrid's good press, the distributor, CDP (Composers Desktop Project), is still a touch sensitive about how the program is perceived. In fact CDP was moved to admit to a certain difficulty in communicating the compositional potential of MidiGrid to prospective users; so much so that it put together an 11-page "MidiGrid Profile" for that very purpose. It's very informative and well laid-out but it also contains a generous helping of hype.
YOU SEE, MIDIGRID is something different. It doesn't fall neatly into the pigeon hole of sequencer - which, indeed, it isn't - nor is it a composition generation program like M or Ludwig. CDP present MidiGrid as a musical instrument in its own right and promote it both as a performance and a compositional tool which, in fact, is probably closer to the truth. It has also had some success in use with disabled and handicapped people.
So what's MidiGrid all about? Well, the basic concept is deceptively simple. You create a grid on screen - this can be anything from a single square to a ten by ten grid - and inside each box you can place a note, several notes or a sequence of notes. You play the grid by moving from box to box with the mouse. There is, of course, rather more to it than that, so let's begin at the beginning.
The program is supplied on disk and each copy is personalised with the user's name. You are free to make copies for your own use and institutions can make several copies as long as they're for use on the same site.
MidiGrid will only run in hi-res and the public domain mono emulator by Mick West is included on the disk for users with TV sets and medium-res monitors. It will, however, run on a 520ST. It has been converted to run on the Archimedes 310 (a MIDI Podule is also required) and will be ported to other systems if demand is there. The program was reviewed on an ST and the review version is v1.1.
Upon booting, the program will play through the files or disk until you press start - a sort of demo option. It is not GEM-based.
Control is entirely with the mouse although many options are available from the keyboard, too. The grid almost fills the screen and five icons sit above it. There is a default grid on the disk to help get you going and the manual contains a good Getting Started section. In fact the manual is a rather excellent 45-page A4 affair, well illustrated and written in a tutorial manner.
YOUR FIRST TASK is to choose some instrument sounds. To get the best out of MidiGrid you really need a multitimbral instrument. You can enter notes from within the program, so a physical MIDI input device is not essential, but it can be very useful as we'll see in a moment.
The first stage of selecting an instrument is to click on the middle icon - containing a xylophone and a flute. A numbered bar replaces the icons and this allows you to select a MIDI channel. This is then replaced with a bar containing 32 boxes, and moving the cursor along the boxes transmits MIDI patch change numbers (1-32) so you can select the sound you require. Clicking on the left of the bar cycles through four bank change commands (which have the effect of adding an offset of 32 to the patch change numbers).
Having chosen a sound, you then select the notes to go in the boxes. You do this via the keyboard icon. This draws a large keyboard across the top of the screen (a plain bar also available) and the mouse moves a cursor across the keys allowing you to select a note which can be placed in any box. The note selection process is repeated until your grid has been constructed.
A box can contain up to 16 notes and each can be assigned to a different MIDI channel so the potential for complex, multitimbral textures is enormous.
ONE THING WORTH mentioning at this point is the use of the mouse. In order to access the large number features contained within the program, you step your way through the options by clicking with the left or right mouse buttons. Some of the procedures are quite intricate. For example, let's look at the process of placing notes in boxes.
You move the mouse over the keyboard to the note you want and press the right mouse button. This freezes the note. Next you move the mouse around the grid to select the box you want to place the note in and press the right button again. You must then press the right button once more to repeat the process.
When a note is frozen you can hear the contents of a box by moving to it and pressing the left button (note, you can't hear a box unless a note is frozen). You can also hear how a note would sound in a box without committing it by moving to the box and pressing the left and the right button.
A note sounds as you fix it (by pressing the right button) but it's possible to abort the fix procedure by pressing the left button before releasing the right button
Obviously, some sort of multi button pushing routine in order to give you access to more than simple options at a time. MidiGrid meets the challenge quite well but it takes a little while to become familiar with its operation and some procedures are rather tiresome. For example, choosing a different instrument from the note insertion routine requires six button presses.
The boxes can be played in two ways. Siting the cursor over a box and pressing the left button plays that box only. Moving the mouse while holding down the right button sounds every box the cursor passes through.
This whole process and its results may seem rather superficial and, perhaps. a little unexciting, but they can produce some fascinating results. Over ten demo patterns, are supplied on the disk and you can find yourself spending hours just clicking your way over them. One produces like arpeggios, another contains big open guitar power chords, one plays jazz chords and riffs, another contains notes from a pentatonic scale - instant Oriental music - and one plays 'Abide With Me' as you move sequentially over the grid.
AN IMPORTANT ASPECT of MidiGrid is its ability to record and store sequences. This is activated by the icon on the right - two tape reels - and whatever you play on the grid is recorded and can be stored in a box, even one containing notes.
You can also record a sequence live from a MIDI input device. If any other sequences are playing at the same time, the whole performance is recorded and stored as a new sequence. You can also opt only to record whatever you play which allows you to create a tune to fit over an existing sequence. The recording procedure, therefore, is quite flexible and can be used as a form of multitracking.
Sequences are played just as you play a collection of notes - by clicking on the box with the left button. The same sequence can be triggered independently up to eight times allowing you, for example, to create echo effects or play a canon (that's a round to you and me). Sequences can be made to loop and a number of them can be made to start in sync.
The recording and sequence creation procedures can be used quite constructively as alternative compositional aids - one of the main aims of the program. However there is no clock or other means of time-keeping (unless you record a sequence containing a constant click), nor can you edit a sequence. There is another problem and this concerns the movement of the mouse over the grid. If you're trying to move in a straight line, say from left to right, it's very easy for the cursor to slip up or down a line. A grid lock option would be useful, although as both buttons are used during playback, this would probably involve use of the computer keyboard.
THAT LEAVES TWO icons. The second one - a pair of scissors - calls up the Edit screen. Here boxes can be copied, moved, swapped and deleted and the note content of a box can be edited. Options include insertion and deletion, channel changing and transposition. The current version of MidiGrid only allows editing of individual notes, not sequences, although there are global edits such as speed and channel which affect a sequence.
The final icon is a treasure chest, and this, appropriately enough, contains lots of goodies. The first option - in my opinion, of the most useful features of MidiGrid - is keyboard mapping. Quite simply, this allows you to trigger boxes in a grid from keys on a keyboard - or any other MIDI input device. The box will play for as long as you hold down the key, and if you have a velocity-sensitive instrument, the box will respond to this, too. Ever played a keyboard on which each key plays a tune?
The second option in the treasure chest is a Step-Time mode. This lets you select a sequence of boxes you want to play and then tap in the rhythm using the mouse buttons - again there is no clock to help you keep time. You can play several boxes simultaneously and up to 500 steps can be entered.
The third goody calls up the Load and Save options. Sequences and Patterns can be saved and loaded, of course, and you can save mapping and step-time information, too.
Behind the Update menu is the customisation section. Here you set the size of the grid and the range of notes which appear on the keyboard at the top of the screen for note entry. The range can cover a full 128 notes or it can be reduced to just a single note. The range of MIDI channels can be set, too. You can choose to have all 16 available or limit them to suit the instruments you're using.
Another interesting option here lets you alter the sensitivity of the mouse so a twitch sends it shooting from one side of the screen to the other. You can also elect to use the mouse the other way around with the buttons nearest to you (not upside down like a tracker ball - this does not work). Some people, especially children, find it easier to use this way.
THIS LEADS US neatly on to the use of MidiGrid with the disabled. MidiGrid's designer and programmer, Andy Hunt, has been using it with some disabled people with considerable success and it is also being used independently in a number of hospitals.
The major problem at the moment, as I see it, lies in the use of the mouse as a control device. While there are certain disabilities which permit the use of the mouse, many more do not. In all the current areas of research into control devices for the disabled, I don't think the mouse features in any (I'd be happy to be corrected on this).
The mouse requires co-ordinated three-dimensional movement which makes it difficult to use for those with muscular and minimum control disabilities. A suitable comparison, perhaps, would be with a touch screen or touch-sensitive surface which only requires two-dimensional movement. Also, the use of a TV screen (or worse - the small Atari hi-res monitor) immediately rules out use with the visually handicapped (although Hunt reports that research is being done into a "talking MidiGrid").
However, this is not to denigrate the potential worth of MidiGrid for those disabled people who can use it. The system can be configured so that the user only has to move the mouse in order to play the grid and the beneficial and therapeutic aspects of this should not be underestimated.
However, Hunt is keen to point out that the program was not specifically designed as "software for disabled users", it just happens to have been picked up by some people and used for that purpose.
MIDIGRID HAS ALSO attracted some success in education but there are problems here, too. A recent survey by the Times Educational Supplement (17th March 1989) on the range of computers in schools reported: "Atari's share of the total market does not even register as
a percentage but there were seven times as many Ataris in schools this year as last. Surprisingly, none of the schools which commented on the Atari mentioned its applications for music."
As if this wasn't damning enough, there is also the question of money. The ST is well priced for the education market, but it is not only necessary to buy the computer but also the software (as far as educational software goes, MidiGrid is not cheap), and then in order to use the program a multitimbral instrument is required. I'm not trying to be defeatist about this, I'm merely pointing out the facts of musical and educational life. It would be interesting to hear comments from MT readers about music education and the use of computers and music software therein. We await an assault on our mail box.
THE COMPOSERS DESKTOP Project is a group of musicians working in academic, electro-acoustic and experimental fields of music. As such they have a particular interest in alternative methods of composition.
Perhaps it's a reaction against the hype, but Hunt freely admits that the program was never intended to be a substitute for sequencer programs, and openly admits that he uses a traditional sequencer to create songs and structured music. He uses MidiGrid as an aid to composition, to experiment with different sound combinations and to create chords which "keyboard thinking" would not normally suggest. In this respect MidiGrid is very useful and great fun - play around with some of the grids and I reckon you'll be hooked. However, it is not ideally suited to the creation of structured music and it is, therefore, doubly interesting to note that the demo pieces are all of highly structured music.
FOR ALL ITS novelty and innovation, MidiGrid is an experimental program. Its aim as an aid to help the disabled make music is exemplary, in spite of its limitations in this area. The innovative aspect of MidiGrid is the fact that disabled people who can use it, can create and perform music with much the same ease as an able-bodied user. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend interested disabled people and those working with them to at least take the time to explore MidiGrid's potential.
A new version of MidiGrid is in development. It will have many more facilities, including sequence editing, quantisation and a more traditional sequencer. A program to convert MidiGrid files to MIDI File Format is also being considered.
MidiGrid is an example to other programmers of what can be done when you get rid of the blinkered thinking which accompanies the traditional "software sequencer" concept. Some people will take to it immediately, although others may find its openness rather daunting and its lack of structured sequences too far removed from their musical ideas and concepts to be able to put it to practical use. I have heard very enthusiastic comments about it from musicians -as well as a few not so enthusiastic ones from the "so what?" brigade.
But my parting comment is this - MidiGrid is a fascinating program and one which everyone should try at least once. Perhaps twice. Or more.
Price £117.00 plus VAT CDP offers educational users a 10% discount and registered disabled users a 20% discount.
Review by Ian Waugh
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