Digigram MC5 Composer
Tired of scoring out your music by hand? Simon Trask investigates a computerised alternative and discovers it may try to muscle in on the composition.
The Musical Composer from French company Digigram combines sequencing and music printing functions in a single unit. Is it the answer to every composer's dream?
CREATING A SCORE from a musical performance is an area of music production well suited to inclusion in a MIDI sequencing system. The advantages are numerous: a composer can print out compositions, an improviser can print out a performance, an arranger can print out parts. And any musician, regardless of whether or not they can read or write music, can have a printed score of their music for others to play or for copyright purposes.
While an increasing number of MIDI software companies are writing music printing programs for the Apple Macintosh, IBM PC and Atari ST, French company Digigram have chosen to combine sequencing and printing functions in a single dedicated unit which needs the addition of an IBM PC-compatible printer (at around £200+) to become what the manual describes in a burst of enthusiasm as "a high performance tool, a veritable digital MIDI studio". Well, we shall see.
The MC5 Musical Composer has a 12-track sequencer which can store upwards of 11,000 notes recorded in real and step time. Ten of these tracks are polyphonic (each up to eight notes) and the remaining two - labelled Melody and Chord - are monophonic and, er, chordal respectively (more on these later). The MC5 allows you to mix two tracks onto a third empty track, copy a track onto an empty track, chain two tracks together to form a new track, and erase tracks either individually or all together. Mixed tracks can't be edited or printed, however.
RECORDING IN REAL time can be at any tempo from 48-252 BPM, and in any one of 12 time signatures ranging from 2/2-15/8. Unfortunately, tempo and time-signature changes during the course of a track are not part of the MC5's vocabulary.
The Composer has an inbuilt metronome, but also allows you to specify any MIDI note to be sent out as an alternative (useful if you're working with headphones on, or just playing loudly). The metronome also provides you with a two-bar count-in for recording.
In both record and playback modes you have to select the tracks that you want to listen to before you can do anything else; individual tracks can then be dropped in and out while the sequencer is running. You start and stop recording by means of a dedicated front-panel button or a connected footswitch. Recording can be either from the beginning of an empty track or a continuation of a partially completed track, while punch-in mode (from the footswitch only) allows you to record from any position but sadly not to drop out again.
More encouragingly, whenever you finish recording you get a message in the MC5's 2X16-character LCD display (non-backlit, unfortunately) asking whether you want to try again. So if you've just played a minor 9th chord when you meant to play a major 9th (well, everyone has off days) you can quickly record the whole passage again before you have a chance to get too depressed.
Each track can have its own record resolution (from a quarter note to a 96th note - or triplet hemidemisemiquaver, if you prefer). Pitch-bend, controller, patch-change and aftertouch recording can be enabled or disabled, while you can choose to disable playback of recorded velocity in favour of a single velocity value (0-127). Each track can of course be recorded on any MIDI channel (1-16), and the MC5 includes the now familiar MIDI Thru feature, which passes on incoming MIDI data together with existing sequence data out of MIDI Out. Once a track is recorded it can be transposed up or down two octaves in semitone steps.
Playback of individual tracks can be delayed in 96th-note intervals up to a value of 999 (more than ten 4/4 bars); you can use this feature to thicken up a part (by copying it to a second track and experimenting with very short delays), or to produce echo effects or specific compositional results.
You can also specify a patch change (0-127) to be sent at the beginning of each track, while a more unusual feature called "drum record" allows you to record (but not to print out) notes of zero duration - in other words, notes shorter than the MC5's smallest resolution.
STEP-TIME RECORDING and editing allow you to enter notes either from a MIDI keyboard (complete with velocity) or from the MC5's front panel. The latter option involves playing notes on a one-octave keyboard (which actually consists of buttons rather than keys) and then selecting the required octave using the +/- buttons, while rests are input with the Enter button. You can also insert and delete notes.
Note durations are selected by using the buttons to the left of the keyboard, and can be anything from a semibreve to a 64th note (including dotted and triplet notes). Digigram have chosen to display a single voice at a time in the MC5's LCD window, which means that any step-time input will be to the currently selected voice; to input a four-note chord, say, you have to select four different voices in turn. It's an odd system, but one you can get used to. The MC5's LCD window tells you which track you're on, which voice is being displayed, which bar you're at and the pitch and duration of the current and adjacent note(s). The MC5 is very precise when it comes to printing out note durations, so you soon learn either to record with the quantisation that you want printed out, or else to tidy up a track in step edit mode.
"The Composer's task is made a lot easier by not having to cope with the difficulties of polyphonic layout. In other words: the MC5 is in control, you aren't."
SONG CONSTRUCTION ON the MC5 allows you to chain together individual tracks in any order, with an open-ended number of steps (one step takes the space of a note in the MC5's memory). The MC5 can store up to 10 songs at any one time, each of which can be assigned a MIDI song number (0-127) which can be transmitted or received as appropriate. The Composer can be set to internal, MIDI or tape sync. Song Pointers can be sent or received, so the MC5 can easily be incorporated into a larger recording system. However, in these days of SMPTE/MIDI converter boxes which allow you to record into a sequencer while it's slaved to tape (see August's Nomad SMC review) it's a shame that the MC5 will only listen to an incoming MIDI sync while it's in playback mode.
The MC5's tape sync sockets double as connections for transferring its memory contents to and from tape - not most people's favourite form of storage, though on a more positive note the Composer retains all its data in memory through power-down. The MC5 will also accept SysEx dumps from MIDI instruments, but only from those instruments which can initiate a patch dump from their front panel and don't require a two-way conversation to see it through - which rules out Casio's cheaper CZs, for instance.
THE MC5'S CHORD track allows you to input block chords from a MIDI keyboard or from the MC5's own front panel. In the latter case you press one of the buttons on the MC5's "keyboard" for the chord's root note, and then select one of 11 standard chord types by pressing the appropriate button to the left of the LCD display. The MC5 will recognise chords of up to four notes from a MIDI keyboard, but foolproof it isn't.
Once you've recorded a melody and a chord sequence on (you've guessed it) the Melody and Chord tracks you can get the MC5 to indulge in a spot of automatic composition. Call up the Harmonisation function, select three empty tracks and the Composer will compose three new melodies in no time at all (well, a few seconds). Nothing too sophisticated seems to be going on, as the results stick to the rhythm of the Melody track and the notes of the chords in the Chord track (what happened to passing notes?), but it's a feature worth experimenting with.
THE MC5 OFFERS a choice of two score formats: single stave (treble or bass clef) and piano/vocal. Printing out a page of score takes just under three minutes; with a page of piano/vocal format averaging seven or eight bars (unless you're into lots of 32nd notes) it would take around 25 minutes to print out 64 bars. Not bad at all. And the quality is crisp and clear, if inevitably not up to the professional standard that a laser printer would provide.
Well, that's the good news, but unfortunately there's bad news too. In fact, there are two significant disappointments which greatly reduce the potential usefulness of the MC5. Firstly, those polyphonic tracks that you've painstakingly recorded can't be printed out polyphonically; the MC5 only allows you to print them out one voice at a time.
Secondly, the piano part of the piano/vocal score is another of the MC5's attempts at automatic composition based on whatever you've recorded into the Melody and Chord tracks. And its efforts can hardly be described as inspired: a right-hand part which follows the rhythm of the Melody and confines itself to chordal inversions, and a left-hand part which simply alternates the root and fifth of the current chord (and fails to take into account the fact that a diminished chord doesn't have a perfect fifth in it). Nor does the MC5 indulge in such niceties as dynamic and tempo markings.
The above limitations are no accident: the Composer's (but not the composer's) task is made a lot easier by not having to cope with the difficulties of polyphonic layout that your performance would inevitably create. In other words: the MC5 is in control, you aren't.
MUSIC COMPOSER MAY find use as a composer's "notepad", for which task its portability (it only weighs 2lbs and comes in its own carrying case) will no doubt be an advantage. But although both easy and enjoyable to use, the MC5 is also ultimately frustrating because it performs none of its allotted tasks with any great thoroughness.
To put the MC5 into some sort of perspective, consider that it's now possible to base a far more powerful sequencing/printing system around a general-purpose computer (with a monitor display making score-based working feasible) for around the same price as Digigram's device. Such a setup is also inherently more open-ended than the MC5, in that it allows for both software and hardware updates (the latter in the form of hard disk and laser printer add-ons). I know which direction I'll be looking in.
Price £999 inc VAT
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Review by Simon Trask
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