Universal Patch Librarian
Tired of rummaging through RAM cards and boxes of floppy disks in search of a particular synth patch? Greg Truckell checks out a far more convenient way to store and recall patches.
The Atari ST reached the level of an industry standard a long time ago; consequently, many of us have become a little blase about reviews of new ST software. Well, all I can say is that if you don't read this then you might regret it. Chameleon is something a wee bit special, and could radically change the way you approach your MIDI system. Unlike most radical changes, however, Chameleon doesn't require that you spend a fortune and make most of your other software redundant in the process. Quite the contrary, as we'll see.
Chameleon is the first product from new UK-based company Keynote Music Software, and is described as a Universal Patch Librarian. The program is supplied on a single disk and will run on any ST. The A5 manual is clearly and thoughtfully set out, with Introductory, Tutorial, and In Detail chapters as well as useful 'Making The Most Of' hints and tips, and appendices to top the lot off. The diagrams and layout of the manual are really rather slick.
At first glance Chameleon looks like it uses standard GEM, but appearances can be deceptive. However, having mentioned standard GEM it would be timely to point out that Chameleon will run as a desktop accessory from within any GEM-based program, such as your sequencer. Revisions in the pipeline will enable Chameleon to operate from within any sequencer, regardless of its operating system, using 'hot' keys to access the program. Come to think of it, Chameleon will operate with any sort of software - not just sequencers (and word processors); so if you like Chameleon's librarian functions but want to stick with your present visual editing systems, Chameleon still fits the bill.
Chameleon uses one of the few copy protection systems that I can honestly say I am quite happy with. If you want to use Chameleon in its desk accessory form (it can also be loaded as a program in its own right), then you have to copy the accessory to your boot disk. This works fine; any copy made will work in every respect except one - the Save icon is disabled. If you want to save to disk, but didn't boot with the program disk, simply insert the program disk when you wish to save and select Save. Couldn't be simpler.
Up to nine libraries are operational in Chameleon at any time. To make a library the current library and display its contents, simply click on it or type a number from 1 to 9. Loading a new library from disk is as simple as clicking on it with the right mouse button; this is just one of the many instances where a short-cut exists. However, the first-time user who hasn't looked at the handbook yet isn't excluded; conventional Load, Save and Delete icons are available too, along with a Format icon - handy if you can't format a disk from within your sequencer. You can select your drive (single or double sided) and even format extra sectors to 800K, for those of you still running your studio on less than 10 disks!
In order to get your synthesizer sounds into Chameleon, you first have to ensure that you have bi-directional MIDI communication, then let Chameleon know which instrument it is about to receive data from, and in what format (bulk dump for banks, single voice dumps for libraries). Bulk dumps are unsurprising things these days (most sequencers readily cope with them), but the single voice libraries are fun to watch. All the single patches from the instrument are individually transferred to Chameleon's current library, and sorted into alphabetical order by name as they are transferred. If a patch with the same name already exists in the library, then Chameleon lets you know, and checks to determine whether the data for the patches is also identical. You are then invited to take some appropriate action, such as renaming non-identical patches, not adding the new patch, or replacing the old patch with the new one without renaming it. If your instrument doesn't allow patch naming (such as the Casio CZ101-5000, or Roland Juno 106), then Chameleon presents you with a form to type in a patch name for each new patch.
A clipboard facility exists in order to facilitate sorting of patches on the computer. Unfortunately, due to differences in the data types, transfer of voices from banks to libraries cannot always be executed via the clipboard. Contrary to the handbook, they sometimes have to be executed via the instrument itself, which will of course require bi-directional MIDI communications again. There are plenty of other functions for the clipboard, though. It can hold up to 128 patches - if you put more in, then you lose the first patches you entered. In order to save memory, the clipboard doesn't actually hold the patch data, just a pointer to it. If you try to erase a patch which has a pointer to it in the clipboard, you will be alerted.
Transfer of patches within banks is a simple enough matter: click on the Bank icon and you are presented with the patch names sorted as they are in the bank. Rearranging the bank, or between banks, can then be carried out with a variety of click and drag actions.
Chameleon also features the ability to load files from disk from other pieces of software, by clicking on 'Get' with the right mouse button or typing 'Z' (ever heard of mnemonics. Keynote?). Theoretically, this works by reading the data from the disk and treating it as if it were the data from the ST's MIDI In. Well, I tried it with Hybrid Arts' GenPatch files and Dr.T's Caged Artist files, and it didn't work!
Probably the most powerful operational features of Chameleon lurk within the Display Groups. These offer a database styled approach to patch selection. There are 32 groups, each of which the user may name. As the manual says, choosing group names requires very careful thought, as you will quite probably be using the groups every time you use Chameleon. The appendices contain some useful advice on this matter - for instance, there is little point in having a group called 'Loud' if you already have a group called 'Soft', they say, as they are mutually exclusive; there will be no patch in both groups. While it probably makes sense to use the same 32 group names for all your libraries, you are not restricted to this. A library may have any 32 group names that you like. It is possible that you might want more terms to describe the electric pianos for your DX7 library, and more terms to describe brass and string pads for your Matrix 1000 or ESQ.
Having chosen your groups, you must then go through what is undeniably a laborious and time-consuming procedure: stepping through all of your libraries for all of your synths, assigning all your patches to the various groups. If you have 10 instruments with libraries of perhaps 500 to 1000 sounds for each, then at half a minute per sound, this process will take over 60 hours! It also won't be much fun - and I would imagine it might lead to some of the dead wood being cut out of your forests of decaying DX7 patches.
On a more modest scale, two instruments with libraries of 500 sounds each will take over eight hours - a day's work with no coffee breaks, if you're lucky. As the manual points out, you only do this once. If you decide at some future date to change the name of one of the labels, then you should bear in mind that doing so does not automatically remove that label from your libraries. However, labels can be removed by selecting 'Clear' before confirming the renaming of a group. Consequently, both radical and subtle changes in the meaning of a label are catered for. New patches can be assigned to groups as they are added to your libraries.
So why bother? Simple. Have you ever looked at a pile of half a dozen disks, knowing that somewhere on one of them is a file containing a bank of sounds that includes that lovely tinkly D110 piano sound that decays into a mellow pad, called... er, thingy. If you've been in this situation before (go on, admit it), then you probably made do with whatever sound was in the synth that came closest (and added lashings of reverb). With your Chameleon libraries, when you want a particular sort of sound, you select the likely groups and Chameleon cuts down the list to present you with a range of sounds which meet your requirements (searching on fields, they call it in database land). This should let you concentrate more on your music-making, as well as allowing you to increase your sound libraries to otherwise unmanageable proportions.
To help with this, above the display groups there is a filter box containing one of four logical operators: AND, OR, NOT and EQU. Selecting a couple of groups and AND will create a list of patches belonging to both groups; OR will create a list of patches belonging to at least one of the groups; NOT will create a list belonging to none of the selected groups; and EQU(AL) will create a list of patches belonging to the selected groups only. Those of you impressed by size may care to know that these facilities allow you to display the patches that you are looking for in something like 17 billion lists.
Patch information may be transferred to and from your synthesizer(s) in quite a variety of different ways. A little box within the MIDI screen displays three numbers: MIDI Channel, Patch number, and the enigmatic 'Other'. Change the MIDI Channel to match that of the instrument, and the Patch number to the number of the patch you want to load, or the patch you want to send to. Different libraries' transfer instructions might operate in different ways - for instance, one of the more recent libraries for the D110 sends to and gets from the D110's eight edit buffers, thereby operating non-destructively, and allowing you to audition all sorts of sounds in combinations without actually altering any of the Patches or Tones written into the D110.
To send the current patch to the current instrument, you can [i] click on the Send icon, [ii] hit the Return key, [iii] click on the patch name with the right mouse button, or [iv] drag the patch name to the Send icon. Flexible or what? If you attempt to do something daft, then Chameleon will respond with something witty like 'Dragging this object to this position does nothing'.
You can send several patches to an instrument by selecting the first patch in the patch list, setting the patch number to the first location that you want to write into, and dragging the library to the Send icon. As many patches as are in the displayed part of the library will be transferred, up to the number of patch locations available in the synth from the patch number selected. This might be an interesting way to encourage you to exploit your synth's multitimbral features. Suppose that you have a string part, and that you have called up four or five string sounds using the Display Groups. Send these to your synth, and instead of using just one, use all five by splitting the sequencer track across five MIDI channels or keyboard/velocity zones. Anything which encourages you to exploit multitimbres and polyphonic orchestration is a good thing in my books.
Auditioning your patches without leaving the computer is possible by clicking on the Play icon. Normal operation is disabled, and clicking the left mouse button plays a note according to the mouse's on-screen position, in time-honoured fashion (left/right for low/high pitches, up/down for loud/soft velocities). The right button plays major chords - and in each instance, notes are sustained until you release the mouse button, which is useful for any sound which takes time to evolve. Without enabling Play mode, auditioning of sounds is still possible by clicking on the shaded areas of the screen between the icons and windows.
Chameleon's Remote keys function offers quite a friendly means by which to check out a lengthy display list; any five keys on your MIDI instrument may be defined to control the selection of the next or previous sound, the next or previous page in the display group, or even the next library. If this seems a bit gimmicky, ask yourself which is more appropriate - playing your sounds on your keyboard, or with your mouse? Being able to audition all your electric piano sounds without touching anything other than the black and white notes seems pretty sensible to me.
Those of you not completely terrified of System Exclusive data might be delighted to know that within Chameleon lurks the potential for all manner of user-programmable MIDI madness. Keynote Software have designed a special MIDI programming language, called MPL, which enables the adventurous to create their own transfer instructions, should some of your MIDI equipment turn out not to be already supported. MPL commands include: send, receive, transfer, miss, wait, loop, outloop, nextloop, if, elseif, finish, calc. It is also possible to insert quotation marks around text within an instruction set; this text will be ignored, but it will probably help you to understand what you are doing if you are new to SysEx data. Clicking on the commands from the on-screen list displays help information about the commands, which should be enough to keep you going once you've started. The transfer instructions for the libraries supplied with Chameleon use MPL themselves, and therefore serve as useful examples.
So let's suppose that you take the plunge and start to write transfer instructions for your unsupported MIDI instrument. What do you do if it won't work first time? Chameleon includes a useful MIDI diagnostic tool in the shape of the MIDI monitor, which is accessible from within the MPL transfer instructions editor as well as from the main screen. The size of the MIDI monitor buffer can be set from the Chameleon Options form. The display is 200 bytes per page (use the mouse to change the page number displayed), and can be in hexadecimal or ASCII (handy for spotting patch names within transferred patch data).
So why did they call it Chameleon! The answer, according to programmer Ian Paterson (the brains behind the lizard), is that Chameleon changes its colours and adapts itself to suit its environment. Ironically, you might need to change the way that you work to fully exploit Chameleon, but then again, if you fully exploit Chameleon then you should be better exploiting your MIDI gear. You can customise the program to suit your own MIDI system requirements; for instance, up to nine libraries can be automatically loaded. This turns not only your MIDI system, but your sound libraries, into something a lot more like a 'workstation' than most multi-instrument setups. And tipping the scales at £89.95 and around 50K of RAM, Chameleon is as economical on memory as it is on your wallet.
£89.95 inc VAT.
Keynote Music Software, (Contact Details).
Review by Greg Truckell