Dr T'S KCS Omega
Atari ST Software
Combining four Dr T's programs, Omega brings together scorewriting, sequencing and powerful editing facilities on the Atari ST. Ian Waugh reckons it's Christmas.
Dr T's Omega brings together four powerful programs handling everything from scorewriting to algorithmic composition - but how does the balance of integration and power settle?
WHAT DO YOU want from a music software package? A powerful yet easy-to-use sequencer, graphic editing perhaps? Do you like the graphic song arrange mode in Cubase? What about a little computer-assisted compositional help and a scorewriter, too? These are the sort of features Dr T's reckon make up most musicians' "wish list" and, in traditional but unseasonal fairy-godmother guise, Dr T's have put them together in a single Atari package called KCS Omega.
The pack contains four disks holding around 1600K of data. They aren't copy-protected, which is good news. This is a new policy Dr T's are trying out and if it works - that is, if you don't give copies to your mates - it's a policy we may see spread to other Dr T's lines. I can't be the only muso who is heartily sick of dongles and key disks, so give it some careful thought...
Omega isn't a new program, but a collection of existing but updated Dr T's programs. There are so many parts that it is impossible to cover them all in any depth in a single review. Fortunately for loyal MT readers, you can pick up more info about several of the programs in past issues. Check out June '90 for KCS and Tiger, and November '90 for Tiger Cub (which includes the Quickscore module).
In order to give a balanced view of the package we'll run through the major aspects of all the programs.
ON OPENING THE box, the first thing you'll notice is individual shrink-wrapped manuals - four to be exact - for KCS v4.0, KCS Level II, Tiger and the Graphic Song Editor. The first three are punched for insertion into the binder - but the binder's too small! It'll only hold two of them. OK, good documentation is important but c'mon guys, let's have a binder big enough to put it in. The Graphic Song Editor manual is a stapled booklet, so that can sit next to the binder (and some loose pages) on your bookshelf.
While you're sorting through the manuals you'll probably be looking for one with "Omega" on the front - there isn't one. Instead, documentation covers the four programs mentioned above plus lots of utilities. You'll have to read the manuals - or the rest of this review - to see how they fit together.
KCS (KEYBOARD CONTROLLED Sequencer) in its various incarnations and variations has always been the flagship of Dr T's sequencer programs. It has 48 tracks with a resolution of 384ppqn and lots of powerful manipulatory features.
Power users can add Dr T's Phantom SMPTE synchroniser which lets you access 32 MIDI channels. Add C-Lab's Export MIDI expansion interface and you can access 64 channels. If you have a Fostex R8, you can sync it to KCS's transport controls. If KCS is also slaved to the Fostex via Phantom or smart FSK clock, you can control the whole system from the ST (they run out of sync during fast winds if they're not slaved).
We can take it as read that KCS does all the usual sequencer functions although, as with many Dr T's programs, you have to wrap your head around a few "different" concepts. For example there's an Open mode in which you can define up to 128 sequences, any number of which can play back simultaneously. A sequence can include commands to start and stop other sequences so you can build up pretty complex arrangements. You have to copy tracks from the Track Play screen to the Sequencer in order to use them - it does take a little getting used to.
Amongst KCS' interesting functions are velocity scaling, pitch transposition and inversion, and inversion of scale durations and controller data. One of my favourites is Time Reverse which reverses the order of events in a track - yes, it plays it backwards. Brilliant with Bach, interesting on drum tracks and especially effective on long runs of 16th notes.
If you already have KCS, you'll notice a few differences in v4.0. These include the multiple port outputs mentioned above and the replacement of Song mode with the MPE Song Editor (coming up). You can program KCS to auto load MPE modules on booting, and run non-MPE modules from within KCS. You can designate more than one channel as a drum channel to prevent it transposing.
You can also install KCS as an application so you can run it by clicking on any .ALL (KCS song format) file, although this did clash with some of my TSR patches.
There are a few things I find odd about KCS. One is not being able to assign a track to a MIDI channel from the main screen - you have to go to the edit screen to do this. Another is the way it steps onto the next empty track during recording so you can't space out the parts by recording, for example, basslines on tracks 1-5, drum patterns on 10-15 and so on - all recorded tracks are consecutive.
"On opening the box, the first thing you'll notice is four individual manuals for KCS v4.0, KCS Level II, Tiger and the Graphic Song Editor."
After using the ST for a while you tend automatically to click on things to alter them. This doesn't always work as you might expect. For example, you select the effect that clicking on a track will have from the Track Function menu. Select Mute and the track mutes, select Erase and it erases it (you do get a confirmation prompt). To rename a track select Name a Track. Most alterable parameters are shown on the screen as plain numbers or text. There's nothing to indicate that they can or cannot be changed until you try clicking on them.
These are just observations. If they seem strange to me it's probably because of the way I'm used to working, although it must say something about KCS's slightly non-standard interface.
I was disappointed to hear a glitch during playback when accessing some menu functions. Obviously the program doesn't give interrupt priority to the playback routine. It's a minor point but be careful not to mess around when recording your sequences onto tape.
KCS LEVEL II is essentially the same as KCS v4.0, but it additionally supports polyphonic aftertouch and has two extra features - PVG (Programmable Variations Generator) and a Master Editor. Both versions are supplied with Omega because Dr T's realise not everyone will use the extra features and the standard KCS uses less memory. You can always boot up Level II when required.
The PVG manual admits it's an experimental program - it's actually a deterministic/aleatoric/algorithmic composition program, depending on how you use it and the mood you're in at the time. Basically - no apologies for oversimplification - it comprises a series of pages containing functions such as velocity, pitch and duration. You can enter an amount by which these can change and give them a weight which determines the probability of them doing so.
There are some fascinating functions here, such as In Betweens, which creates a sequence based on linear extrapolations of two existing sequences (like the inbetweening used in cartoon animation). Ornaments adds notes "around" existing notes. This'll either turn you on or turn you off depending upon your predilection. Personally, I find it quite sexy although not so much that I'd miss my weekly Video View Mariella fix for it (yes, I'm a romantic, too).
It's a highly numeric business, and the main thing I'd suggest you bear in mind is this - neat mathematics do not groovy music make. The worst thing about it is the manual: it tells you what everything does but there are no examples, no Quick Start Tutorial. This is one for the experimenters.
The Master Editor contains six pages, only a couple of which are self-explanatory, so here's a quick run-through. Blend lets you mix data, Chords lets you arpeggiate chords, Controllers lets you copy controller data and thin it out, Tempo Changes lets you scale the tempo, Track Utilities lets you delete events and insert space into a track and Pitch Map can map any MIDI note onto any other. It's well worth booting up Level II when you're in an adventurous mood and have a few hours to kill.
TIGER - THE INTERACTIVE Graphic EditoR - is a neat idea. It displays music data in graphic form and lets you edit it as such. You can draw in controller information and volume changes with the mouse and edit notes in usual graphic editor style. One encouraging thing about the note display is that the traditional horizontal bars which represent the notes have vertical stems to indicate velocity - very easy to edit.
Tiger is packed with features although, unlike the PVG, the main concept is easy to grasp. Thoughtfully, there's an Instant Gratification section in the manual. It can run as a stand-alone program or from within the MPE (more about MPE in a moment, honest).
"Omega offers an awful lot of programming for your money, and the integration of MPE modules provides a versatile and flexible system."
QUICKSCORE, TOO, CAN run as a stand-alone program or from within the MPE. It's a cut-down version of Dr T's Copyist intended to display music in notation form and print it out - a task it performs reasonably well.
You can't edit the notes in notation form, however, and you can't add text, lyrics, chord or music symbols to the score. But you can set various display options for each track, such as the number of bars per line, the clef, quantise value, time and key signatures and whether syncopated notes should be shown tied over the beat.
My main niggle is the excruciatingly long time it takes to draw a screen's worth of notes - around 10-12 seconds per stave. In fact, it doesn't just draw the notes you can see but also the ones you can't. This speeds up the display when scrolling in certain directions but the process is still too slow. The screen of an averagely complex eight-part score took over a minute to draw. However, the output, even on a humble 9-pin dot matrix printer, is very good.
THE GRAPHIC SONG Editor is another stand-alone/MPE program. In operation it shares similarities with Tiger and in essence it's not totally unlike the front page of Cubase.
Before use, tracks in KCS must be copied to the Sequencer. They can then be selected and drawn into the Song Editor with the pencil tool. You can alter their length, position, velocity and pitch, move them around and generally have a whale of a time playing arranger, producer and God all at the same time.
A Skip Percentage function lets you create aleatory sections within a song. This can be used to give a percentage chance of playing a part such as a drum break or a riff fill. Interesting, eh?
A future version of X-OR, Dr T's universal voice editor (reviewed MT, November '89), will be able to receive a message from the Song Editor telling it to send an X-OR performance.
The manual has a contents list but, alas, no index. It does contain application notes which include using Song Edit to set up cues for film and video work. Obvious really. When the cues are set you simply plonk the required piece of music onto the cue.
MPE STANDS FOR Multi Program Environment and it allows up to eight program modules to be loaded alongside KCS, memory permitting. The neat thing is that these modules and KCS can share data so, for example, loading Tiger into the MPE gives it immediate access to the tracks in KCS.
If you have a text editor or word-processor, you can edit the KCS.INF file to stipulate which MPE modules should be loaded on startup. There's also a routine which allows any program to run from within KCS, although it doesn't use KCS/MPE memory and it can't share data with KCS. When you quit the program it goes completely, data and all, but KCS data remains intact. The routine won't be compatible with every program but it's nevertheless a useful utility.
In addition to the MPE-compatible programs already described, there are three MPE Utilities: Control Change will change one type of continuous controller data into another or into aftertouch information. Unsplit is a fix for the way KCS stores long notes to allow you to edit them. It shouldn't be necessary, but there you are.
"Using the PVG is a highly numeric business, and I'd suggest you bear the following in mind: neat mathematics do not groovy music make."
Zero Duration gives all notes a duration of zero and removes note offs. The idea is that you use this for drum patterns to cut down on MIDI data, although the documentation is helpful enough to recommend that, as it violates - quite radically - MIDI guidelines, you don't use it. You know it makes sense.
As well as the aforementioned MPE utilities, you also get a collection of PD utils. These include a MIDI SysEx dump which can handle dumps larger than 5K (KCS's current limit) and save them as .SEQ files for loading into KCS. There's a program to convert between KCS .SEQ files and MIDI files (format 0). MIDI View lists incoming MIDI data in English (you'll be pleased to know you can filter out Active Sensing).
Music Calc is a calculator for figuring tape location at a SMPTE time code address from bar or beat numbers. However, as it only runs in medium-res when virtually all pro music programs use hi-res, I can't see it being used much.
The Injector Desk Accessory will read Caged Artist editor files and squirt them into your synth. There is also a Mouse accelerator - essential if you use the Atari mouse - and a RAM disk.
ONCE UPON A time Dr T's had a reputation for producing highly-numeric programs. They were feature-packed and powerful, but they weren't the easiest programs to get to grips with. They did, however, attract many devoted users among the computer-literate - users who revelled in the power and could handle the interface.
Times change. Over the past couple of years Dr T's programs have become more graphically orientated, and have shown a tendency towards integration. The MPE is definitely a 'good thing", allowing users to add extra facilities to their setup as and when required.
The Omega collection contains a very powerful set of sequencing and programming facilities. As an "all-in-one" package, its major shortcoming is lack of notation editing. I know many musos prefer graphic editing (put a Tiger in your ST) and lack of notation editing won't bother them one little bit.
But a few do like to work with the dots. While the printed output from Quickscore is pretty smart, you cannot edit the score directly. Given the very slow screen updates, popping into the event editor for a tweak and back again is like watching paint dry. However, considering that even the cheapest notation/scorewriting programs cost around £200, perhaps we shouldn't be too critical.
You're going to hate me for saying this, but Omega is both more than the sum of its parts and also less than them. You get an awful lot of programming for your money and the integration of the MPE modules provides a very versatile and flexible system. However, it's the very modular aspect of the package which makes makes it lack a certain cohesion and some would say that the stand-alone programs like the SysEx dump, the MIDI File converter and the MPE utils should have been added to the main program.
And KCS is quite complex. Not, I'd venture to suggest, for the beginner. Remember, too, you will need more than 1Meg of RAM to make full use of the MPE.
KCS Omega is aimed at the professional and serious amateur. If you're a power user I'd say it's aimed at you, too, and a little computer literacy would be an advantage. By and large the programs retain a high(ish) degree of numeracy, and many of the screens are rather bland (functional, I think, is the word) although they're considerably more friendly than earlier Dr T's programs.
Some of the concepts may seem a little alien initially, and you'll have to read the manuals to get anything out of the programs, make no mistake. None of the programs are intuitive, but powerful they certainly are, make no mistake about that, either.
Price £299 Including VAT
Owners of Pro 24, Creator/Notator or Virtuoso can purchase Omega for £179 Owners of Tiger Cub, Prodigy, Master Tracks Junior and others can purchase Omega for £199
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Review by Ian Waugh