Clive Grace reviews KCS - One of the most transported sequencer packages around.
16 Bit sequencing packages are becoming increasingly popular these days. Clive Grace takes a look at one from Dr-T's.
One feature of new 16 bit computer systems is that software tends to get ported from one machine to another with relative ease - take, for instance this American package from MIDI stalwarts on the 8 bit field - Dr-T.
In writing versions of their software for many different machines, Dr-T are able to produce a piece of software that the computer musician will be familiar with regardless of the hardware at the front end. Software that is this portable soon becomes industry standard, because there is such a large user base, and although Dr-T's KCS isn't an industry standard sequencing package, there are a great many features that I found both easy to use and endearing.
KCS is an acronym for Keyboard Controlled Sequencer, and what an apt name it is - for many of the commands can be triggered from the comfort of your own keyboard (providing it has a reasonable MIDI spec), many of the commands are inter-related, and affect different "levels" of the song you are writing, more of which later.
The Dr-T philosophy is to give facilities that a musician would want to see, not those that a computer hack would want. In this way, the software fits itself into the environment of the machine quite nicely (The Atari ST and Amiga versions being more or less the same) - and if you are new to the world of sequencing and all that then Dr-T may be a bit bewildering at first, but what it lacks in user-friendliness, it gains in power.
KCS operates in three modes of operation, being Track Mode, Open Mode and Song Mode.
In Track Mode, the program acts like a 48 track tape recorder - except of course this is MIDI music so a tape machine is a million miles away from what the MIDI musician is up to. The Track mode of operation allows all sorts of tape machine-like facilities such as record, playback, punch-ins (from a foot pedal if you want), editing and variable recording speeds.
Open Mode is a little different - this is a more rough and ready way of producing music by acting more like a note pad where you can bash out a track and get it down into memory. It is significantly different to the other modes in that it enables looping effects to be set up - say 8 bars (dependent on your first successful record or CUE point).
Song Mode on the other hand is used to take all the sequences written either in Open or Track Mode, and put them into the context of a song (being built up of parts in the traditional sequencer fashion).
It is possible to write whole pieces of music using either Track or Open modes, and you can effectively "bounce" the sequences from one mode to the other, so if you are happier writing in Track Mode, but produced a "really great sequence in Open Mode", then you will find that the two modes are reasonably inter-related.
If you are in the business of writing songs, then you will find that various parts (or sequences) will lend themselves better to various modes - for example, Open Mode ideal for Bass lines and Drum Patterns, although Track Mode is better for melody and harmony lines.
All three modes can contain any sort of MIDI information including note data, continuous controllers (memory greedy — but it is there!), Pitch Bend (not so memory greedy), After Touch, System Exclusive messages and real-time commands.
Each mode has its own edit/play/record screens and, although each screen is effectively a separate part of the program in that most of the editing commands are the same, the three modes each have some special way of interfacing with a sequence whilst it is playing - so you can edit a sequence while it is playing!
The KCS has a number of different file LOAD and SAVE options making it a very flexible package to use when making several mixes of your music - you may want to change just a few patch changes in a song - providing you haven't altered the note lengths of any of the notes in your sequencer file, you can try out different variations on a theme.
Most of the time however, you will be working with the .ALL file designator (same for the Atari ST, PC and Amiga versions) as this saves all of the necessary MIDI information such as patch changes and dynamics. You can save files as IFF (Interchangeable File Format - for use with other packages like Deluxe Music Construction Set and Aegis Sonix) on the Amiga and as standard MIDI dump files on the Atari ST, although this isn't really a common practice amongst MIDI users...
Naturally one person's MIDI setup is going to be different to the next, and indeed many people will have one or two synthesizers (and that is all you need until you start getting technical) which is fine, the KCS works fine with just one synth or a complete studio of synthesizers and MIDI controlled effects. In testing the software, I was able to try the software out on a modest setup consisting of a Roland MT-32, A Yamaha DX-9 (remember those?) and a retro-fitted Pro One (great for bass lines).
The MIDI interface I used was the Mimetics Corps for the Amiga, although Dr-T have taken the wise step in making sure that it is compatible with the most popular interfaces on the market for that particular instrument. For the Atari ST this is of course completely academic, but for the Amiga, Datel's or Mimetic's models will do fine — it all depends on how many MIDI OUTs you want.
To call the KCS a big package is an understatement — it is a very big package that needs time and a lot of experimentation, not only to familiarize yourself with the features, but some of its quirks as well!
There are more features on this software than I have ever seen in my life, Steinberg V3.0 is just about on a par with the level of complexity although there are none of the Drum editors or stave display editors to look forward to using KCS, a bit of a shame, but then that would have specialized the graphics somewhat.
I was particularly impressed with the auto-correct facility which is used to round off all of the time or duration values in a track or a sequence so that it fits in a multiple of a number (normally based on timing). This feature is used to smooth out a particular error or mistake in a recording so that all of the note changes start on or around a specific PPQ (point per quantum) — if you are into writing music that fits to a perfect beat (such as dance music), then this feature will go down a treat - but go easy, this can also make the music you are writing a good deal more robotic. Still, if you don't like what you have auto corrected, then all you have to do is to UNDO it (as you can with most, if not all, of the facilities on offer in the KCS) and all will be fine and dandy.
All the usual functions are there, including a rather neat Time Reverse facility, enabling events to be rearranged so that they play in reverse order. Ideal for creating variations on a piece of music. If you re-edit the score so that the chords are also inverted, then the music produced starts sounding very strange indeed. Unfortunately this will not preserve the relationship between the notes (as an inversion is what to do) but this is to be expected.
Unlike a great many MIDI packages, you can MIDI merge your instruments using KCS so you could use a simple MIDI controller keyboard (such as those from Roland or Cheetah) and plug it into a MT-32 or a rack mounted synth. The inclusion of MIDI merge means that it is now possible to have a MIDI setup based entirely of modular based synthesizers, and not just for superfluous keyboards everywhere. They are easier to carry around, and, if you are lucky enough to be touring (or just carting round the synth for a rehearsal), you will find it easier to "go modular" than lug synthesizers around all over the place.
In the five years since the release of the original KCS package for the Commodore 64 (still available by the way), there have been thousands of people coming up with numerous suggestions for the later versions of the software - Dr-T's listen to these and implement the ideas that are most popular, so in many ways the KCS has become the people's sequencer. Where possible such suggestions have been added and this is why Dr-T's have managed to keep the sequencer looking similar throughout it's varied lives on other machines.
Both the Amiga and ST versions are identical with a few minor differences between the PC version and the Amiga, for example, loop back to recording is now a great deal easier than before and there is good compatibility between the KCS and Steinberg's V3.0 software.
But the World of Dr-T's isn't limited to mere sequencing! As I mentioned earlier, the KCS can also interface directly with other pieces of software, such as their range of patch and sample librarian disks for samplers and synthesizers.
For the Amiga, running these packages in a multi-tasking environment is a doddle — if you have the memory that is! And you really do need an extra disk drive as well - but after the additional outlay of an extra £200 or so, you can start multi tasking the machine so that you can run the KCS in one area as well as run a patch librarian/editor in another. On the Amiga this is a particularly attractive feature as it now means that you can start editing sounds whilst actually running a sequence (no mean feat if the synth in question is a MT-32!).
Dr-T have a number of editors for their sequencers (KCS being just the tip of the iceberg) - they have produced a series of editors and librarians in the "Caged Artist" series.
Caged Artist editors run happily on their own, and enable you to edit the sounds of previously fixed or difficult to program instruments (such as the MT-32, the TX-81Z, the D-50 and DX-7 series). Once installed, they work away at simulating the front panel of a synth, but this time on a computer screen (an idea first dreamt up by Yamaha back in the days of their MSX machine).
Direct editing is, of course, specific to one machine, and if you want three patch editors for three supported synthesizers then fine, but be warned, they are memory greedy pieces of software, so you will need quite a bit of extra memory if you are running this on an Amiga.
Atari ST owners have to force their machines into doing something called "collaborative multitasking" (in much the same way the Archimedes computer works, or the way Apple's multi finder for the Mac holds everything up until a task is put into the foreground). You will need to buy a special little software switcher for the Atari ST that enables the user to easily flit from one task to the other - but this is at the expense of speed and response time. The KCS was sluggish when running as a multitasking operation either on the Amiga or the Atari St.
To conclude, the KCS is a very good piece of software - truncated to the point of being utilitarian in some places, but on the whole, it is quite friendly and it does attempt to make the most of the available features of the particular machine it is running on - the Amiga version is really the best version as it easily multi-tasks, it is fast enough, and the presence of colour is a welcome one.
If you think it feels like an 8-bit package, then you would be right! The KCS is very much a sequencer for people who have moved up from the 8-bit world of Commodore 64's, BBC B's and Spectrums, to the 16-bit world - it does not mollycoddle users into a false sense of security whereby it takes months to learn all of the icons and pictures just to get the simplest of ditties going - no, KCS is capable of handling a great deal of data - it is the central core to a much larger world of modular packages (the Caged Artist editors I have briefly touched upon) which are just reaching these shores as I write (look out for their release to tie-in with Frankfurt) - stave editors, more patch librarians, and an enhanced version will be on their way.
As it stands I would give the KCS a reserved recommendation - don't choose it if you are looking for the Steinberg approach, but if you like your sequencers ready, willing and just a little unfriendly, then I recommend this as being good value for the Amiga and Atari ST.
The PC world is a little different in that the multi tasking capabilities are even more limited unless you have a decent co-processor board fitted or a 12 MHz 1Mb machine. Likewise on the Amiga, memory is tight, and the Amiga 500 is just about able to cope although an additional drive and the memory upgrade are a necessity if you want to make it multi-task.
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Review by Clive Grace