Paul Freeman gets composing with this notation package for the Amstrad
Paul Freeman gets to work with the new Composer's Pen from Composit Software
Hands up those of you who have an Amstrad PCW-8256/512 or the 9512 and what's more you've composed a song in your head or the odd symphony and somehow, never had the chance to get it down on paper before all is lost. Yes? well here's a little package that gives you the flexibility to create on screen, your own musical masterpiece then have it printed ready for any orchestra to read and perform without the slightest hitch. Well that's the theory anyway.
The Composer's Pen (Full Version) packs a powerful punch of musical notation all from a single disc giving you, with your knowledge of music and perfect pitch, just about unlimited freedom to compose anything you've ever wanted to, provided a matrix printer is to hand for hard copy. So all you 9512 owners will need to rush out and buy a compatible printer. Unfortunately, they cannot be 24 pin types or lasers.
On loading the software you are greeted by a full screen picture of musical genius Beethoven, followed by a Titles screen containing a menu of musical pieces, be they demos or your own creations.
Having decided to create a score for yourself, a decision remains with you as to what instruments or voices you would like to score for. The text for these appears at the left hand end of the stave. The order in which these instruments appear on screen does not matter at this stage as they can be moved around later. Lurking below the instrument lines is a bar line stave. The bar line can save a lot of time. It can be used for writing in time signatures that automatically generates bar lines and time signatures on all the staves. Text can also be written under the bar line stave and when the full score is printed out, text will appear under every stave - a useful aspect for choirs. So in effect, the bar line stave is a duplicating arrangement.
Now on to some musical statistics. You can score for up to 99 lines of music, should you be writing for full orchestra and up to 20 note chords can be accommodated on one stave (try playing that on keyboards!). Notes in the chord are assumed to be all of the same length when keying in, but chords of different note length can be arranged. All key and time signatures are available, but handling 99/64 might be a little fraught. There are seven different clefs to choose, ranging from the lofty soprano to gravely bass, should you be thinking of scoring for choir.
Selecting a note to be placed on the screen can be chosen using one key and cycling through from a semi-demi-semi quaver to the semi-breve. A small icon in the top right hand corner tells you which note is available for scoring.
Little intricacies like that of 'robbed time' can be catered for. These fiendish little notes steal time from their neighbours and having no time value as such, they appear on screen in a smaller notation. This action occurs by pressing the letter A key and annoying it is too. Being right next to the note cluster, it is easy to drop into this mode without realising it.
You have full control over note and stave spacing. A good point this because it allows plenty of space over or below the stave to write the lyrics, say, for four part harmony. The space is there to include several verses or perhaps a second language under the one stave if you want to show the versatility of your hand. And while we are on the subject of text there are four styles to choose from and up to ten lettered words can be assigned to each note. The facility also exists to separate the words into syllables tucking each part under the appropriate note. Writing in text can be a little tiresome, but we are assured an improved version is on the way.
What about the notes and how easy is it to set up? I hear you shout. Now, normally if you are a composer the natural thing to do is compose from the music keyboard, and if that keyboard happened to be connected to a music computer composer program, the notation would appear on the screen, something I've been used to with other music programs, so it came as a bit of a shock to me when I was faced with composition from a typewriter keyboard.
This is where Composit Software, who sell the program have made excuses and have come to a compromise for PCW owners. The notes are entered on to the screen via a key cluster system from the keyboard on the basis that the less the fingers have to move, the quicker and easier it is to program in the notes. I'll go along with that. However our familiarly lettered notes (A-G) do not match up with the cluster letters. Aaagh, identity crisis time. They say this doesn't matter because one composes by touch and not by looking at the keys. This is something I would agree with although I'm sure sticky labels placed over the keys would help in the initial stages of learning in order to prevent visual confusion.
So the left hand controls the note cluster starting with the little finger on Q (this is middle C) and the forefinger on R produces an F - got it! On the other hand, the right hand that is, the key cluster operates accents like the sharps, flats, stem direction, and octave up or down. I like the idea of stem direction change, it produces a neater picture. If you also decide that the last note needs to be sharpened up a bit, by pressing the sharp key, the symbol is inserted in front of the note, no need for back tracking. Notes can be deleted in various ways but not, curiously enough, by the delete forward or backward keys but they can be altered with an overtype facility. This is carried out by default but should you feel the need for a quick insertion to get those vital triplets or any tuplets in, a key is at hand for the job.
A huge range of musical symbols are available to place anywhere on the score with a pleasing display of typographical accuracy. These include crescendos and staccatos through to the upper and lower mordents (I'm dying to get my hands on those) to forte and pianissimo.
Talking of neatness, when beaming notes (that's joining notes with a bar along the top or bottom) the appearance on the screen can look a little tatty, particularly when joining high notes to low notes (roll on the days of high definition screens). The problem is resolved by altering the length of the note-stem so the beam can join the notes horizontally — they think of everything, well almost! An elegant feature of the graphics moving exercise is how the bar width can be justified to fit different sizes of paper, this means the physical width of the bar lines can be adjusted to fit neatly across the paper.
Now say you've finished your latest madrigal and you take it down to the local choral society for its debut and to your embarrassment, the basses cannot reach their intended parts that the sopranos can - all is not lost as parts can be transposed automatically by the flick of a few keys.
Print size is good and quality very reasonable, it's something that the composer must be aware of. For clarity must be good if he or she expects others to read it and play or sing with confidence.
If you are an accomplished musician it remains to be seen whether you would find this package an aid to your creativity. You may consider it quicker using the time honoured tradition of manuscript paper, pen and the more modern aid, a photocopier.
As a teaching resource for the individual or even networked for a classroom situation, this has to be a program of extreme value in education.
On balance, I would persuade the serious musician or choirmaster that the advantages of using a computer for composition outweigh the disadvantages when it comes to saving time. Inevitably your composition will have to be modified (even Tchaikovsky was unhappy with and discarded most of his first drafts) and nowhere is that modification easier than on screen. For this little piece of software enables you to get the best out of the wordprocessor functions like cutting a section of your music and pasting it up somewhere else or even copying a section and dumping it in other places (the human psyche loves musical repetition — play it again Sam).
If you already have an Amstrad and a musical instrument to try out your script, this package must be one of the best options for a relatively small outlay.
The major disadvantage as far as I'm concerned is the lack of MIDI facility. Its all very well to have composed a piece, get it printed out and turn to your Steinway or your local friendly orchestra, to see if it makes musical sense and it's another to have a studio that could contain many electronically sampled orchestral instruments that cannot try your latest masterpiece via the computer. This is a slip which I hope Composit Software will soon sort out in the next version.
The Composer's Pen comes in two options: for the 8256/512 the pocket version is £30.00 or the full version (reviewed here) for the 9512 is £75.00
Product: The Composer's Pen
Price: Pocket version £30, Full version £75
Supplier: Composit Software, (Contact Details)
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Review by Paul Freeman