Dr T Keyboard Controlled Sequencer
for Atari ST Computer
One of America's most innovative software houses comes up with its first program for a 16-bit computer, the Atari ST. Rick Davies takes it for a spin.
With a host of new recording facilities and editing functions, Dr T's first program for the Atari ST is more than a mere adaptation of previous packages.
EVER SINCE MIDI became a reality for home computer owners, an American company known simply as "Dr T" have been generating some of the most intriguing software on the market. These have included the first Keyboard Controlled Sequencer (KCS) and Algorithmic Composer programs, which gave musicians the tools with which they could toss MIDI data about as no other program could. These programs made the most of what limited speed and memory the Commodore 64 and Apple II computers had to offer, but the sophisticated features of the software only made the hardware limitations that much more evident.
Since the Apple Macintosh, Atari ST, and Amiga computers have made their presence so well known in recent years, and MIDI-oriented musicians have had time to find out what their specific needs are, the Commodore 64- and Apple II-based systems are not quite the attractive options they once were. For owners of Dr T's original KCS programs, then, there has recently been a time of deliberation: if an Atari or Macintosh is to replace the Commodore 64 or Apple II in my MIDI system, what will replace the Dr T programs? Well, Dr T obviously saw this coming, and at last June's NAMM show in Chicago, they announced the ST-based KCS program. The wait is now over, and shipments of the first KCS-ST have commenced to the UK.
Now, ever since an ST first found its way into the Music Technology offices, we've been wondering when the real software would become available. After all, Macintosh users (an unruly bunch that would rather fight than switch, generally) are always quick to point out the mind-bogglingly huge software catalogue for the Mac, whereas ST owners get by on the promise that their time, too, will come. And as ST software packages - like the Steinberg Pro24 reviewed in E&MM September '86 - become available, the ST's built-in MIDI ports, mouse, and programmable function keys help keep hopes up. So for many of us, the KCS-ST comes not a moment too soon, and eager eyes and ears await.
ON THE HARDWARE side of life, the KCS requires no more than an Atari 520 or 1040 ST computer, one or more MIDI-equipped synth(s), and a couple of MIDI cables to get things rolling. Since the Atari has no external clock input, the only means of synchronisation is the MIDI In port, which will generally be occupied by the master controller (keyboard, guitar converter, and so forth), so a MIDI merge box (such as the 360 Systems MIDI Merger) is recommended for combining a drum machine's MIDI clock with the MIDI data to be recorded. If a merger isn't available, you can record in sync with the Atari metronome, and sync to external MIDI clocks for playback only.
Dr T have also included a MIDI echo feature which causes incoming MIDI data to appear at the ST's MIDI Out port, so that synthesiser modules can follow both the master controller and the sequenced events.
Once you've loaded the 3 1/2" disk, the KCS comes up ready to record in Track mode without further ado. Play a note on the master keyboard (or other controller), and the metronome begins. Play any notes you like, then press F10 to stop recording the first track. Unlike many sequencers, which would then force you to select another track and play a game of Twenty Questions before letting you get on with it, the KCS immediately starts playing back what you've just recorded (having rounded off the sequence to the nearest measure to ensure that sync is maintained), and records any further playing onto the second track.
Each time the sequence repeats, the KCS moves on to the next available track, unless you haven't played anything, in which case the KCS remains on the current track waiting for you to play something else.
Forty-eight tracks later, your synths are playing something that would normally require a few dozen hands to play. You've taken Track record mode through its paces, and yet the only time the ST demanded attention was when you pressed F10 to set the sequence's length. A pleasant way to get started, and one which is certain to agree with first-time users.
The KCS is divided into three main areas: Track mode, Open mode and Song mode. Track mode operates like a multitrack recorder; Open mode operates in a similar way to the old KCS programs; and Song mode chains sequences together for playback in any order, one at a time.
Each mode has a record (or build) screen, and a corresponding edit screen. Depending on how you prefer to work, you can start recording in Track or Open mode, then switch to another mode to edit, add more tracks, chain sequences into a song, or whatever method best suits your purpose. Each mode has its advantages, and the KCS takes advantage of them all by translating sequences from one mode to another.
THE FIRST PART of this section, Track Record mode, is the simplest part of the KCS, yet is extremely powerful. It would be simple enough to record an entire song into a single 48-track sequence using the KCS' punch-in/out, cue, and bounce-down facilities, but there are many advantages to working in the other modes, as we'll see shortly.
The ST's screen is divided into three columns of 16 tracks, numbered 1-48, with corresponding dedicated key labels. For example, the '5' key is assigned to track 5, the 'W' key to track 32, and so on. This comes in handy for quick muting and solo monitoring of individual tracks (use the F3 and F8 keys to select the mute/unmute or solo functions respectively). So as the sequence plays, any track can be muted/unmuted or monitored by itself simply by pressing the corresponding track key, and the screen shows the status of each track (Record, Muted, or Play) quite clearly.
A variation on the mute/unmute option is the switch function, which lets you select two mutually-exclusive tracks that you switch between with the Return key. All of these features are useful for monitoring any combination of recorded tracks, so that undesired tracks can be deleted, then perhaps re-recorded.
In Track Edit mode, the left half of the screen lists the events (notes, patch changes, pitch-wheel changes) recorded on one of the recorded tracks. The event listing uses the format introduced by Dr T in earlier KCS programs, and displays the time at which each event occurred (in measures and steps, as well as relative to the previous note), the corresponding MIDI channel, event type, note number, velocity and duration in such a way that any event can be tailored after the fact.
For example, by simply placing a cursor in the desired position in the list, an A# on MIDI channel 5 can easily be turned into a patch change on channel 7. As with Dr T's other KCS programs, this gives you control over every single event in your music. And although this demands some patience at first, as you familiarise yourself with the Dr T event vocabulary, the rewards gained make this well worth the effort.
The right half of the Track Edit mode screen lists all of your options, so you select the desired function with the mouse, then click the left mouse switch. This method of selecting functions - while much more straightforward than the 'front panel' style displays used in many ST and Mac programs of late-can be a bit unnerving, as there's often no indication of the selected function once you've clicked it on. There are no highlighted characters, and sometimes, there aren't even any distinguishing notes in the ST's dialogue windows (which often request that you confirm whichever function you've selected). Considering that the Append and Delete functions are next to each other, you'd expect indications to be a bit clearer. But with the system operating as it does, you just have to ensure you've got your mouse-clicking actions in shape.
That gripe aside, the KCS provides enough editing options for just about any situation that might occur. The event listing can be edited much like a word-processor document, with cut and paste, insert, delete, and copy functions. In Track Edit mode, each track can also be auto-corrected, transposed, inverted (rotated around a "pivot" note), played at half or double speed or in reverse order.
Among several of the new KCS' more interesting editing features is the Auto Channel Assign function, which allows any one track to be played over a specified number of consecutive MIDI channels.
For example, if a melody is auto-assigned to MIDI channels 3-5, the first note would be played over channel 3, the second over channel 4, the third over channel 5, the fourth over channel 3, and so on. This feature comes in handy when polyphonic tracks recorded on one MIDI channel are to be played by several instruments in MIDI Mode 3, or by one instrument in Mode 4. In the first case, the melody can be divided among several instruments, an effect known as hocketting. In the second case, multitimbral instruments like the Casio CZs can play one track polyphonically with a few voices (each on a different channel with the same patch), leaving the remaining voices to play other tracks in the same manner. Obscure applications, perhaps, but they show nothing if not attention to detail.
Among other more standard sequencing functions are track bounce-down, for track economy; velocity scaling, to control the dynamics of notes on any given track; punch-in/out; count-in, for overdubs on the first down beat; the ability to record "non-keyboard" events such as synthesiser or effects control changes; and single-step recording.
For all its clever features, Track Record mode is extremely easy to use, and anyone who has ever programmed a drum machine should feel quite at home with this approach to sequencing.
The main limitation of Track mode is that there can be only one set of 48 tracks in the ST's memory at a time. So once you have your tracks just as you want them, you store them to disk, or convert any or all of them into sequences in Open mode.
THIS SECTION OFFERS 128 sequence locations, and allows any number of these to play back simultaneously, regardless of the individual meter, tempo, and length of each sequence.
This means you can have a short 4/4 sequence play against a 5/8 sequence, with the two sequences looping independent of each other. Or, a short repeating bass line can loop continuously until a long chord progression ends, at which point another bass line can begin looping while the same chord progression repeats.
There are two ways to do this. You can enter Open playback mode, then start playback of any of the 35 "primary" sequences by pressing the corresponding sequence keys. This method lets you combine various sequences instantly, and is great for trying things out with little preparation.
For more carefully-arranged multiple-sequence playback, you can create "control" sequences which contain sequence start events. These events can be arranged to start sequences simultaneously or separated by a specified time; to loop endlessly or for a specific number of times; or to start playback when another sequence has finished playing. Control sequences can also contain note events, or non-keyboard events, though it makes more sense to put these into any of the 93 available "secondary" sequences, and then include those secondary sequences in the control sequences. Sequences can be recorded in Open mode, but it's probably easier to record them in Track mode, then convert them into Open mode sequences.
Open mode also has extensive editing functions which are basically the same as those in Track mode, but operating on individual sequences instead of individual tracks. Again, depending on how deep into your sequences you need to delve, you may prefer to work in Open rather than Track mode. Sequence-to-track and track-to-sequence conversion functions facilitate transfer's between modes in either direction.
Open mode is where Dr T's sequencers are light years ahead of others, even though it may not be everyone's idea of the perfect sequencer at the basic level. That, of course, is where Track mode comes in. If you want to create simple sequences, use Track mode; Open mode is best used when you want to do something out of the ordinary.
THE KCS ALSO has a traditional Song mode, in which sequences can be arranged for playback in any order. In many respects, songs aren't as flexible as control sequences (which allow several parts to play simultaneously), but as a result, they are considerably easier to assemble.
Songs are created in Song edit mode by assembling a list of sequences in the order you want them to play. Each entry in the song list is referred to as a segment, and each segment can be delayed relative to the end of the previous segment, transposed, and repeated a number of times before the next segment starts.
Now, there are advantages to the KCS' Song mode. First, any of 16 MIDI channels can be muted during song playback, allowing various combinations of instruments to be isolated. Additionally, individual program and volume changes on any or all MIDI channels can be inserted between each segment (without affecting any of the sequences themselves).
One major limitation of Song mode is that neither primary nor control sequences may be used as segments. But then, if you've already started working in Open mode, Song mode may not be necessary.
When it comes to keeping in touch with the outside world, the new KCS relies entirely upon MIDI clocks for sync. Considering how many drum machines generate MIDI clocks these days, and the KCS' relatively low price-tag, this may not be that big a problem. Oddly enough, the program version (1.0) we had for review did not reset the sequence each time a MIDI Start message was received, as you might expect. On the other hand, the KCS does recognise MIDI Song Pointers, so with the appropriate clocking device (eg. Roland SBX80), the program should start playback just about anywhere you need it to, and find a home for itself in MIDI/SMPTE-based studios of all sizes.
THE LONGER I worked with the KCS-ST, the more its potential impressed me. I think that Track mode, in particular, will draw many musicians towards the KCS, and even though I found the controls awkward at times, the new operations soon became second nature. Well worth the time invested, I'd say.
The 1.0 version is already available to the public, and the 1.5 version should be around by the time you read this. Upgrades to 1.5 will be free, but Dr T say they also have plans to release a "level 2" KCS in the near future, which will cost more than the current versions. Upgrades for that program will be available to owners of the 1.5 version for the difference in price, though it sounds as if it'll be an entirely new program, rather than simply an enhanced version of the current KCS.
The new Keyboard Controlled Sequencer for the ST is most definitely not your standard sequencer, and it's further evidence that Dr T are continuing to produce programs which leave room for some healthy experimentation, without losing sight of the kind of applications the average musician is interested in..
Price £250 including VAT