Digigram Studio 24 & Big Band
Software for the Atari ST
Another sequencing package for the Atari ST, but this one has a companion that will help compose and arrange your music. Ian Waugh strikes up the band.
Short of an inspired melody for your latest competition? Having composed your platinum single on Studio 24, Big Band will help you orchestrate it.
IF YOU WERE at this year's British Music Fair you may have chanced upon a Frenchman in an unassuming corner of the Farfisa stand demonstrating a couple of Atari programs called Studio 24 and Big Band from Digigram. Birmingham-based Soundbits Software were sufficiently impressed to acquire both programs for distribution in the UK. So what did they get?
Studio 24 (review version 2.1) is a 24-track sequencer - no surprises there - but it is a little different from your average sequencer. Tracks one to 22 are eight-note polyphonic (not many sequencer manuals tell you the polyphony of their tracks) but track 23 is used to store a list of chord sequences and track 24 is used for a monophonic melody line. The stated note capacity is 50,000 on a 520ST and 200,000 on a 1040.
Big Band is a composer program. Given a chord sequence or a melody line it will compose a variety of "orchestral accompaniments" in a number of styles. It's quite distinct from algorithmic composers such as Intelligent Music's M and Dr Ts Fingers in that it doesn't manipulate the data you put into it but rather uses it to produce new melodic and/or harmonic lines.
Before we get into all that, let's look at Studio 24's basic sequencing facilities.
STUDIO 24 IS billed as easy-to-use and easy-to-use it certainly is. It's tape recorder-based and the main screen has three sets of icons for each channel - Record, Play and Solo. To select a track for recording you simply click on its Record icon and press the Record button. The Play icon turns light grey when a Track has been recorded and dark grey when it has been selected for playback.
You can set Input filters - Pitch Bend, Control Change, Program Change and Aftertouch. Drum Record lets you record notes with zero duration. You can set the input quantisation from a quarter note to a 1/192 note, the internal resolution of the program.
You can also determine which facilities will be active on playback. These include sending Program, Pitch Bend and Control information prior to playback and using the recorded velocity or a fixed velocity. You can also delay a track's entry in increments of 1/192nds of a note. Try this for MIDI echo.
You can record several channels onto the same track and tracks can be bounced together (merged). An Interactive Mix allows you to alter the tempo and switch tracks in and out during the mix. You can de-bounce a track by MIDI channel, too.
There are the usual editing functions such as copying and chaining tracks plus an Auto Punch In and Out. Erasing a track removes its content but not its MIDI parameters - good. If the track had a name, erasing doesn't clear it, though, and I found this annoying, especially when working with Big Band. Copying doesn't copy the track name, either. If you Erase All, the MIDI parameters go, too. Mixed blessings here.
There is an option to protect a track which gives you an extra reminder before performing an erasure. If you do go ahead and erase you can't re-record on it until the protection is removed - silly.
The tape recorder transport controls move through the score by beat and by bar. Many sequencers have clocks incremented in bars, beats and clicks but for a lot of work, bars and beats is quite adequate - and easier.
The time signature can be adjusted from 2/2 to 15/8 (what, no 3/16?) although not all possibilities are catered for and all tracks take the same time signature. The Loop option affects all tracks.
Onto the Chord track. This will record chords played in real-time and convert them into its own style. It recognises four-note chords and if there is any ambiguity over the name, the lowest note is taken to be the root.
It has a limited vocabulary of 11 chords (no C7#9, for example) but the basic chords are there. If it doesn't recognise the chord, the program doesn't record it - instead you get a rest - and you can only change chord on the quarter beat. On playback the chords are always played in the register around middle C no matter what part of the keyboard they were recorded from. This may appear limiting but it will accomodate a great deal of pop and rock music.
Synchronisation can be set to Internal, MIDI or Tape and you can save and load individual tracks. There's a MIDI dump facility for instruments which can send a dump without being asked.
When you've got your tracks together you can chain them into up to 24 Songs. You can't have more than one track playing at the same time so this facility is limited although you can mix Tracks before putting them in a Song.
SO FAR STUDIO 24 has all of the functions you'd expect of a sequencer, although without some of the bells and whistles you'd find on certain programs.
Double clicking on a track's Play or Record icon brings up the edit screen. This is interesting. It shows the notes in traditional notation on a piano stave (treble and bass clef). There is no key signature but accidentals can be shown as flats or sharps. The range runs from three Cs's below middle C to four C's above it. Notes higher and lower than this are mapped onto the highest or lowest octave but without any 8ve signs.
Although each track is eight-note polyphonic, Studio 24 shows you only one note (voice) at a time. With chords, notes do not necessarily follow in top to bottom order (or vice versa), it depends upon which notes of the chord you actually press first. This is the major restriction of an otherwise excellent system and I wonder if it would be so difficult to show all eight voices at once.
Another problem in display arises if you play legato because, if notes overlap, one of them will be sent to the track's second voice. A cursory glance at voice one may give the impression that a note is missing. One way around this is to record monophonic lines in the Melody track.
There are five editing facilities: Insert, Edit Pitch, Edit Duration, Delete and Tie notes. They all work extremely well and you're never in any doubt as to which note you're editing.
Notes can be inserted or their pitch altered from a MIDI keyboard in which case they will also acquire the played velocity. The Velocity box shows the velocity of the note under the cursor. This can be altered and a Program Change can be inserted at the beginning of a bar.
Blocks can be defined for copying, erasing, transposition and moving but, strangely, this is done from another menu.
USING THE SAME editing facilities you can enter notes in step-time. This is one of my favourite features. You can keep your grid edit screens and your numeric parameters, give me notation every time. OK, so it won't suit everyone, but if you can read music I think you'll like it.
While you have virtually event-level control over the notes, this is not extended to MIDI messages.
THE PRINT OPTION is compatible with Epson printers and will print one voice from a track (don't try to print the Melody track's non-existent voices or the program will send you back to the desk top and lock you out). Polyphonic tracks must be printed a voice at a time which isn't terribly helpful. It would have been useful to be able to print a number of tracks underneath each other, too.
You can print a mono melody line from the Melody track and a chord and bass accompaniment based on the contents of the Chord track. This looks fine but whereas most piano/vocal arrangements duplicate the melody line in the upper piano part, this plays a sort of harmony and would be of limited musical use.
The notes aren't beamed in the display but they are during printout. They are arranged according to beat groupings and you have no control over this.
One of the Studio 24's most interesting features is the Harmonise function. This produces other voices to complement a line in the Melody Track and a chord sequence in the Chord Track. You can choose open or closed harmony. This is a great way to experiment with string lines and choir voices. Anyone for an instant hymn?
Anyway, this sort of composition facility leads us nicely on to Big Band which goes several steps beyond simple open and closed harmonies.
STUDIO 24 CAN share your STs memory with up to three programs or Extensions. Big Band is one and although it can also be used in its own right, it is far more flexible when used within Studio 24. Its main screen is similar to Studio 24's although, if loaded as an Extension, this isn't seen.
The Studio 24 disk is software protected but Big Band has a dongle. Both programs will run in colour or mono. My ST has had more dongles in it than the Sunday Sport has unlikely stories, but the one supplied with Big Band was such a tight fit I almost had to resort to a pair of pliers to get it out.
Big Band can compose music in 14 styles: Rock, Funk, Disco, Slow Rock, two Ballads, Paso, Waltz, Tango, Swing, Reggae, Bossa Nova, Samba and Blues. It computes the following parts: Bass, Drums 1, Drums 2, Accompaniment 1, Accompaniment 2, Riff, Counterpoint, Melody, Solo and Chords. Rhythmics consists of a Bass, Accompaniment and Drum pattern.
Before you begin, you need to set the Configuration parameters for the styles. Each part is allocated a MIDI channel, given a velocity level, a Program Change number and a volume level (sent via MIDI controller seven). You can opt to send another controller message, too.
None of the styles use all the parts and each has its own Configuration page. While this allows flexibility, you'd probably want the same parts in each style to use the same instruments. It's probably a good idea to start by setting all the pages' parameters to the same values. Oh, for a Configuration Page copy function.
There are also two drum kits; the first contains ten fairly standard items (bass, snare and toms and so on) and the second contains seven latin drums. You allocate drum sounds to note names (don't most drum machines supply this information as MIDI note numbers?) and give them a velocity level. Fortunately, the two kits just about cover all the styles.
You can save and load Configurations and there is a file on disk tailored for the Roland MT32. A major niggle here - after editing a Configuration you're sent back to the main screen when the place you really want to be is the orchestration window again.
BIG BAND ALONE has no record facility, although it is MIDI File compatible. The only track you can edit is the chord track. You can't enter a line in step-time, see a melody, edit a melody or do any printing.
If you're starting from scratch the first thing to do is produce a chord sequence - or let Big Band produce one for you. In fact, if you've no other information in the program, it insists upon having a chord sequence before it will do anything else. You can select a major or minor sequence but, as in Studio 24, the minimum resolution is one chord per quarter beat.
Your choice after that depends upon the style. Most styles will offer you a number of different versions of Rhythmics. Then you can go for a melody. Again, melodies aren't available from all styles. Then you may be able to fill in with Riffs, Solos or whatever. You can change style mid-composition (time signature permitting) so, for example, although you can't get a Melody out of a Bossa Nova you can create Bossa Nova Rhythmics and then select a style which can compute a melody.
Conversely, given a melody line Big Band will compute several chord sequences - take your pick - and from there it will compute the other parts.
The compositions are certainly interesting, but perhaps this observation should be tempered with a qualification of their being "conservative" and "middle of the road". I think I'd compare Big Band's efforts to that of a busker trying to follow a tune he's hearing for the first time. For example, some tunes have a very definite harmony (Stand By Me, for example) but I doubt if Big Band would ever harmonise it the way it was written (it didn't during my experiments). I reckon that goes for most pop songs, too.
Some of the parts generated by the program have elements in them which surface again and again, but you'd have to be a good listener - and listen for quite a while - before you could put your finger on the repetition. To be fair, I've heard a hell of a lot worse in all sorts of musical styles.
I don't know of any other program which can churn out such a variety of musical "ideas" in such a short space of time. I do wish there was a greater choice of chords, however, and/or the facility to create your own.
The program can't compute anything which isn't in 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 or 12/8 although you can program parts in a different time signature and then revert to a computable time signature to create other parts. I wonder how difficult it would have been to allow you to construct your own algorithms to create styles of your own.
Big Band sent me back to the desk top and locked me out three times, once while I was editing the Playback parameters. Oddly enough, the pattern continued to play but I had to reboot to start the system again.
SOME DETAILS OF the implementation of both Studio 24 and Big Band could be improved - being able to define blocks from within the edit screen and perform multiple track copies without recalling the menu would make them significantly more usable.
Both manuals have obviously been translated by a French person, albeit one with a reasonable command of English but lacking in the finer points of our language. Why, oh why, do companies not give their manuals to a native to check?
Although Studio 24 has few of the frills one is used to seeing on pro-level packages, it is very easy to use and it does have some novel facilities. If you don't need all the bells and whistles of certain programs I could mention, then I'd certainly recommend a close look at it.
Shortcomings aside, Big Band is a fascinating program and if you're not so hot on harmonising the melodies you write - or indeed, doing any of the things Big Band does - it will be worth your while to check it out.
Compared with other programs either side of their price range, the design of both programs seems to be a little lower than average - certainly as far as facilities go - although I'm sure many a pro would get a kick out of Big Band. But, lacking a little sophistication in some areas, I am concerned that they may be priced too highly.
I can see Studio 24 and Big Band appealing to many people who don't need full-blown pro facilities and who could benefit from the on-stave editing of Studio 24 and the auto arranging facilities of Big Band. But if, as is often the case, they can't quite justify spending £250-300 on "pro" music software, how are they to justify the cost of these programs? To get the best out of Big Band you really need to use it within Studio 24. In fact I'd hate to use it otherwise.
But cost is relative and if these programs sound at all interesting I can recommend you take a closer look at them.
Auto composing and arranging is, I believe, an area in which computers can be used to great advantage. Big Band is the first such program for the ST that I am aware of, so who knows how it may develop or what may follow. In spite of its limitations I an't help but like it and I will continue to experiment with it long after this review is completed - until they come and take it away...
Prices Studio 24 and Big Band £199 each or £349 together. Prices include VAT.
Gear in this article:
Review by Ian Waugh
Previous article in this issue:
> Map Rap
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!