Software for Commodore 64
Dr.T's MIDI Sequencer software for the Commodore 64 has been much applauded in the USA for its versatile real-time and steptime operation. Now that it's available on prescription in the UK, we asked software surgeon Ian Waugh for his diagnosis...
Is your sequencing all work and no play? Then call the Doctor, but see he doesn't try your patience. Ian Waugh keeps his finger on the pulse and wonders if this Keyboard Controlled Sequencer is available on the NHS?
As soon as you see the name Dr.T you know it's American. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but some American publicity blurbs do tend to be a bit OTT - picked this up from our computer manufacturers, I think. This package is heralded as "Fulfilling the promise of MIDI". Nice one. It is, however, a rare beast, offering both real-time and step-time sequencing for the Commodore 64 in one package without resorting to loading additional transfer and convertor programs. It's being handled in the UK by a new company, Take Note Music Services of Camden.
Dr.T is presumably one Emile Tobenfeld, the brains behind the software. One very nice thing about the program is the fact that it will operate with the Passport or Sequential MIDI interface and probably a few other ones, too. Dr.T also produce their own interface, the Model-T (presumably you can have it in any colour as long as it's black!). The MIDI standard has not yet filtered down to interfaces and it's an ironic contradiction that while MIDI promised (among other things) to free the buyer from the shackles of one particular manufacturer in order to ensure compatibility between his or her equipment, the poor buyers - that's you and me - now often find themselves shackled to one MIDI software and hardware producer to ensure compatibility between software. God giveth with one hand...
It takes over two minutes for the 1541 disk drive to load the program; must be lots of goodies going in. The 100 page manual leads you gently into the basic operating procedures beginning with real-time sequencing.
The first menu to appear is the Initialization Section (which you should pass through at this stage of familiarity) which sets up global default values which will remain in force until you reinitialize. Here you can select clock options such as sending MIDI clock pulses, toggling, start/stop, on and off, setting the number of external clock pulses per step and setting the metronome rate per pulse eg. 24 will produce a click every quarter-note.
Step-Time entry allows 15 values for note duration, 15 for separation and six for note velocity. These values are each assigned a key on the computer. The Step-Time entry option allows you to select which values you are going to use. The note durations default to 1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 12, 16, 18, 24, 32, 36, 48, 72 and 96 which caters for the most commonly-used notes including triplets and dotted notes. With this option, however, you can set other values so you can enter quintuplets (ie. five notes in the place of two) and every other kind of timing exotica. Not the sort of thing you may do every day but the option's there. Alternatively, you could edit such timings into a piece.
The Real-Time Transpose options allow you to similarly set up pitch, duration and note velocity defaults. Transpose in Dr.T's program can be performed upon duration and velocity, too.
Cataloguing the disk is done from BASIC and erases any recorded sequences. The re-run instructions even omit a crucial comma. A very disappointing catalogue routine. You often need to see what's on your disk before loading or saving a sequence.
Finally, you can change the display colours. Full marks here as all too often I've struggled to read brilliant white text on a black background.
On to the main menu screen which offers: (1) Play (2) Create New Sequence (3) Edit Sequence (4) Copy/Append Sequences (5) Merge Sequences (6) Overdub and (7) Other Options. The Play screen lists information relating to stored sequences. Up to 35 sequences can be recorded and they are identified by QWERTY keys 1-9 and A-X (you can use Z, too, but this key is normally used to trigger a replay). The screen shows how many times the sequence will repeat, how many plays it has left, from where the sequence is being called (more of this in a mo') and whether it has encountered a Wait (W) command.
To play a sequence you just press the desired sequence key. Starting more than one sequence playing at the same time is done by pressing f5, the relevant sequence keys and then the space bar. Normally a sequence will repeat forever (or until your electricity is disconnected) but pressing the sequence key again reduces it to a single repeat. Pressing it yet again will cease it playing completely. You can Mute a sequence by pressing SHIFT and the key. Pressing the key again un-Mutes it. The > and < keys control the tempo but the actual speed is not displayed until the screen is re-drawn.
During play, sequences can be transposed in real-time and the sequence range is selected by pressing the left arrow and the 0 key. The keys which alter the pitch, velocity and duration, as set in the Initialization Screen, are shown on the bottom of the screen and they can all be reset by pressing the SHIFTed function keys.
The most important section is probably that concerned with creating new sequences. This first asks for the sequence key - hit a key and it warns if something is already recorded there. You then enter the method of input: real-time, step-time or from the computer keyboard. Real-time entry presents you with another menu (feeling hungry, yet?).
The first option allows you to play back any sequence - by pressing its key - while you record another. Normally the program records MIDI Note On and Off events but the second option lets you switch this off. The third option lets you record MIDI control events such as program changes, modulation and pitch-bend controls which tend to use up lots of memory.
The fourth option toggles aftertouch on and off. This has been kept separate to option three as it's almost impossible to play keyboards with after-touch (eg. DX7s) without sending this information. Very thoughtful. Option five allows separate storage of Note Off events. If you want to play more than 16 notes at once you must use this to record them as separate Note On and Note Off events. Definitely one for the committed MIDI buff, this, I think. Finally, option six lets you record using a mother keyboard and play back on a different synth through another channel.
So many options and we haven't recorded anything yet. Fortunately, most of these have sensible default values so you can ignore them until required.
The Recording screen is virtually the same as the Play screen. Function key f3 toggles the Align feature on and off which ensures your composition is a whole number of bars long. When you start to play, the metronome begins although you can get a count in by pressing f5 and then the space bar. When you've finished recording, press f7 and the piece will play and repeat.
The Step-Time Recording screen shows the entry selection made during Initialization and note entry is just a matter of selecting the note's attributes and pressing a key on the keyboard. You can play chords by holding down a note and pressing some more. 15 note values should be enough for most people but other requirements can be edited in - or out. Rests are entered via f5 and if you want a note which is the sum of two menu options you must press one, f3, the other one and then f5. It's all quite logical - sort of.
The third method of note entry on the Dr.T sequencer is direct from the computer keyboard. You enter Time, Channel, Type, Note, Velocity and Duration. The computer supplies you with the Event number and the Measure and Step at which the event takes place (displayed left of screen). The number of steps in a measure may be altered via menu two which isn't numbered but is called up by option seven from the main menu.
Time indicates the number of clock steps which elapse since the last event (65,535 maximum) and you can enter abbreviations such as W for whole note, Q for quarter-note and A for the last note to make entry easier. SHIFTed letters produce notes a third of the unshifted value. Channel refers to the MIDI channel and different channels can be specified in the same sequence. Type sets one of nine types of event which can be recorded. There are seven MIDI events: ON - noteon; OF (orOFF) — noteoff; CC - control change; PG - program change; AT - after-touch; PB - pitch bend and * - single byte event. The * can be used for system exclusive messages. Two non-MIDI events complete the total: DE - deleted event or rest, and Sequence Start Event which would be any sequence key (A-Z or 1-9).
The values entered under Note, Velocity and Duration depend upon the entry in the Type column. Of special interest is the Start Sequence Event which allows you to build up a Control Sequence which will control the playing of other sequences. For example, if you entered A under Type, this would mean start sequence A. The value under Note would determine the pitch transposition. Velocity would be a velocity transposition and the Duration would be the number of repeats. A letter W in this column tells the Control Sequence to wait until the Sequence Start Event has finished before commencing any new events. Once the first line is in, you can use the "/" symbol as a default repeat to help speed up further entry.
Back at the main menu, option three takes you into Edit Mode. This first asks for the sequence you want to edit and then presents you with another menu of 14 options allowing you to list, copy, move, insert and delete events, transpose sequences and perform all sorts of useful editing functions upon them.
Certain options have yet more menu screens. Transpose, for instance, offers some interesting extras: the Auto-Correct feature is now common on most MIDI packages but there is also a Compress/Expand option on the Dr.T program which allows you to switch drum machines and maintain sync. It will also allow you to speed up or slow down a sequence relative to others in a piece. Time Reverse outputs the note events so the sequence plays backwards. Auto Channel Assign reassigns each consecutive event to a different MIDI channel. Fascinating stuff - and I've even thought of an application: swapping alternate notes between synth voices for a pseudoecho effect - or possibly a stereo repeat effect if two synths sound through different speakers.
Copy is self-explanatory and Append lets you tag one sequence onto the end of another in a chain-like fashion. Merge combines two sequences into one and Overdub is similar to overdubbing on a multitrack - without the hassle. All in all, there are enough facilities here to let you do just about anything you need to do to your music to build up and play sequences and songs. The Dr.T program can store 3550 events and usually only one is required to store a note.
Well, basically, that's a rundown of the features of Dr.T's Keyboard Controlled MIDI Sequencer program and if you haven't turned the page yet, thank you for staying with it. I say 'basically' because there are still umpteen other things you can do with the program and these are covered in considerable detail in the manual. Just to give you a taste, they include: further information on building up a Control Sequence, constructing riff sequences you can jam along with, constructing songs, using the edit functions to punch-in and out, doubling parts, creating echo effects, using shell structures to assist with song arrangements (unfortunately the shell programs which are on some disks were not on the review copy), storing and changing presets and using the sequencer to store drum patterns.
The manual also contains general MIDI information, useful MIDI commands, several pages on troubleshooting, plus application notes about Casio, Korg, Voyetra and Yamaha's synths and drum machines.
There's no getting away from the fact that Dr.T's program has a remarkable number of features not found in any comparable MIDI software. Real-time and step-time in one program is terrific - the real-time sequencing being particularly simple to use. Multiple takes and joining of sequences is possible so building up a song is easy, and you can go back and edit individual notes and events if necessary too.
Step-time isn't too bad once you get used to durations expressed as numbers but a bit of traditional notation here would have been welcomed. Not many packages give you the option of traditional notation but I love the ones that do. The editing facilities take you down to individual events and single clock pulses. At such a level editing is a bit of a chore if there is much to do but at least you have 100% control over the MIDI data, so we can't complain.
There were lots of little things about the program I found irritating, things like: some of the screen displays, the way some note information scrolls off the screen (although you can halt it); the fact that you sometimes have to press two keys when one key would suffice; the odd choice of some control keys and lack of information about current options when you want to change them. Various errors cause the program to stop with error messages. Continuation is by entering GOTO 2 which seems rather quaint, not to mention unprofessional, in these days of well-written, highly-protected programs.
I still keep coming back to the wealth of features offered by this package, but I can't somehow help but think that the presentation could be improved to make life easier for the user. Like everything else, use will better acquaint you with its methods of operation.
It has a lot to offer and it does take a little getting into but it really should be seriously considered if you are looking fora MIDI sequencing package for your Commodore 64. As for "Fulfilling the promise of MIDI", well, that's still someway off yet but I don't think we could accuse the good doctor of neglecting his patient...
Dr. T's Keyboard Controlled Sequencer retails for £125 and sole distribution is through (Contact Details)
Additional Dr. T software includes voice library programs for Casio CZ and Yamaha DX synths.
Gear in this article:
Feature by Ian Waugh
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