Dr T's Keyboard Controlled Sequencer
Mark Badger explores the programming environment of Dr T's 48-track keyboard controlled MIDI sequencing software for the Atari ST range of computers and draws some interesting conclusions...
Dr T is a US software house based in the Boston area of Massachusetts (my home town). The 'doctor' in question is Dr Emile Tobenfeld. The Keyboard Controlled Sequencer, Level 1 (to give it its full title), is a development of the good doctor's earlier efforts with MIDI sequencers for the Commodore C64 computer.
Further expanding on the ideas established with that software, Dr T has taken advantage of the far superior processing power of the Atari ST computer to give the user an extremely flexible working environment, and some "well funky functions".
However, in providing this flexibility the Dr has been forced to abandon parts of what makes the Atari ST such an ideal choice as the basis of a computer controlled MIDI sequencer. Apart from the integral MIDI interface, one of several advantages the ST has over its competitors in the computer market is that it also has a 'built-in' operating system (GEM) with some very powerful features. Many of these features have to do with the way the computer handles its screen displays, and the workings of the Atari's mouse (an upside down 'tracker-ball' with two buttons on the top). The user moves this around on a flat surface (ie. table-top) and controls the movements of a cursor on the computer's screen. When the cursor is positioned over a given option, it can be selected by pressing a mouse button. This greatly simplifies the task of getting to grips with using a computer program because you don't have to remember lots of bizarre keyboard strokes in order to implement functions.
These routines are carried in ROM memory in the Atari and can be accessed by the programs which run on the computer. The various functions enable programmers to write software which is very easy to operate, simple to understand, yet comparatively powerful. They also have some fundamental drawbacks and are not as flexible as they could be, partly because of the need to standardise their operation. An example of this is that the 'windows' (little boxes which display the function options onscreen), which Atari provide routines for, always open from the centre of the screen inevitably obscuring some bit of vital information possibly crucial to the task you are about to perform.
So, why am I going on about the Atari's operating system? Because Dr T has taken on the task of developing their own, rather than use the one that comes with the computer, and this has a number of important implications when attempting to assess this software. Version 1.0 of the program was entirely text-based, presenting a stark, no nonsense, working environment. The Atari's 'friendly' mouse was all but ignored, with all input to the program being from the computer QWERTY keyboard or your MIDI synth.
However, within a few hours acclimatisation it became obvious that the KCS 1.0 refreshed some parts other programmers hadn't reached. Auto Track Assign took the first recorded pattern as a loop length and automatically directed the program to record on the next track when looping, and there were 48 tracks! The edit page listings included, and replayed, all MIDI events (controllers, etc, as opposed to just note events). Song Mode provided a very easy and fast framework with which to arrange sections of songs. But the thing that really blew me away was Open Mode, where 128 sequences and songs could be stored. The Open Mode edit page could be used to write things called 'control code sequences' - master sequences that controlled the replay of any other sequence or song, in any order. You could record new parts and tie them in at will. The bar counter went up to 9,999 and to top it all off, every one of the 128 sequences could be started from the Atari's keyboard, giving the system awesome performance potential.
You might be thinking, how come nobody told me about this monstrous software? Well, the rub came (in Version 1.0) with the fact that the program worked, but only just. Not that it was prone to crashing, far from it, but that all the options didn't quite work in harmony. So why am I reviewing the KCS software now?
Because Dr T are currently shipping Version 1.31 and virtually all of the rough edges have been polished. This software has matured very well.
It's been a pretty general discourse so far, now I'll blind you with a quick tour of the program itself. There are three main modes in the KCS: Track, Song, and Open. Each has a pair of 'pages' (screens) devoted to it - a 'play/record' display and an 'edit' display. There are also two sub-modes operational in Track and Open mode, which are for step-time writing.
Track Mode turns the Atari into a 48-track MIDI sequencer. Each track can be up to 999 bars long and can play any number of MIDI channels. Not bad to start with. The program 'boots up' (starts) in this mode and the user is faced with a split screen, the upper half of which is arranged as 'slots' for the tracks (36 of them, there isn't room to simultaneously display the other 12!). The lower half contains the familiar 'tape recorder control' symbols - Stop, Play, Pause, Fast-forward, and Rewind. These are selected by using the mouse.
The program throws the user straight into a recording session; the sequencer will start recording on track 1 as soon as the master keyboard you have connected starts sending MIDI info. Track 1 sets the overall looping length for the rest of the tracks, and it can be anything up to 999 bars. Any MIDI information you play to the computer is recorded on subsequent tracks as it loops. As MIDI Thru channel changes are possible 'on the fly', it is possible to build up huge sequences of information using all 16 MIDI channels, without pausing for breath. Any track can be (temporarily) muted with the mouse or by pressing the appropriate key on the Atari's keyboard. This allows you to quickly disable dud tracks as you go.
As well as altering the MIDI Thru channel while everything is happening, you can switch recording of controller and aftertouch data on and off. You can also set drop-in and out points for overdubbing, and loop the tracks between two specific bars, or cue points. There are options to erase the track you last recorded or start you at the beginning again, ready for another take. There is also a Help screen, which displays all the options available from the Atari's keyboard when in Track Mode.
It's impossible to describe the sensation evoked once you've got 20 or so tracks going, all without stopping. I once saw a demonstration of the Fairlight which approached the sort of magical interactivity generated by the KCS.
If you stop recording you can merge tracks together, an operation the KCS performs very quickly. The sequencer automatically names each track with the MIDI channel it first starts recording. These are both features which highlight the sort of dilemmas that Dr T have attempted to address with their 'custom' operating system. It can be blisteringly fast in operation, and yet at the same time it can present a somewhat 'numeric' environment. I myself can think along numeric lines, and usually refer to my instruments in terms of their respective default MIDI channel numbers. I find this a necessity with so many available sounds/channels in my system (25 at last count!), so this feature makes sense. To others, especially at first, it may present a somewhat daunting and 'hard' face.
To change a track's name you have to go to the Track Edit page. This displays one track at a time and shows all the MIDI information recorded on it, in list form, down the left-hand side of the Atari's screen. The right side of the screen is devoted to the editing options available. This general format is adhered to throughout the program's three main edit pages. The mouse is used to select options and move the cursor around the list. Here again, the program benefits in operation from the Dr's 'home-made' graphics in that the list can be updated at a blistering rate; moving from the start of a 16,000 event track to the end is just a matter of clicking the mouse button on the appropriate area of the screen. The list is updated before you can lift your finger off the mouse!
I have used many different computer based MIDI sequencers and there are several editing features which can be considered 'standard'. Inserting, deleting or erasing a specific note or range, copying the track and naming it, can all be considered de rigeur, and the KCS offers these facilities too. Where the Dr begins to diverge from the standard fare is with the provision of many features which are commonly found on a good word processor.
There is a nifty 'cut-and-paste' feature which lets you remove a part or whole of a sequence, place it in a storage buffer, and then paste it anywhere you position the cursor. There's even the option to merge the added musical information, or shunt the rest of the sequence along. This is brilliant for 'twiddly bits', and I often use it to get the 'Mark King bass sound'.
There are a whole bunch of 'automatic' functions, which can process a given range of track. You can transpose the pitch, velocity, and duration of the notes in your track, as well as Auto-Correct (quantising) your playing. The quantisation of sequencers is always a thorny issue. People tend to love them or hate them, it's a personal thing. Dr T have chosen to provide a numerical quantise, ie. quantisation is set by number of clocks per beat. The KCS uses 24 clocks per quarter-note as its default setting, a pretty coarse time measurement which tends to do a bit of auto-correcting as you play. This means that quantisation is carried out in fractions of 96, so if you specify a value of 12 the track will be quantised to eighth notes (8x12=96). Because the clock itself is so coarse, the quantisation can be a little drastic at times. However, I find that there is a happy medium in that, for some odd reason, the quantisation pushes me to create snappy 12/8 rhythms. They just seem to come naturally when using the KCS.
Other automatic features include compressing or expanding the track or range in length(!), reversing the order of MIDI events in the track, scaling the velocity values or (another funky feature) assigning each successive event to a different MIDI channel, between high and low points. This function can also be used in a more utilitarian fashion for changing a track's MIDI channel. You can make a copy of the track before experimenting with any of the automatic options and recall it later if the result of your reversal, say, was not what you'd hoped. The track can also be split at a given note, the remainder being sent to the next empty track. For reference purposes, a list of the events in the track can be printed out if you've an Epson-compatible printer.
I mentioned earlier that the KCS's clock has a default setting of 24 clocks per quarter-note. Luckily, this is not a fixed value and it can be set to run at up to 248 clocks per quarter, a pretty fine time measure. This setting is adjusted using the mouse to open the Set Options window, another of the Track Edit functions. This controls the settings for the clock source - either MIDI, MIDI with Song Pointer, or Internal. Selecting MIDI with Song Pointer should allow you to lock the KCS to tape in conjunction with an appropriate synchroniser box but, unfortunately, this is not yet implemented on Version 1.31 of the software. (It is, however, currently possible to sync to MIDI clock). You can also choose whether or not to send MIDI clock timing data, in order to drive a drum machine, say.
The tempo can also be accurately specified to one decimal place, and there is provision for a novel feature, MIDI Slow. This 'chokes' the rate at which the KCS transmits MIDI data in order that a certain very popular, but surprisingly slow, synthesizer can keep up with all the data in the stream. A pre-record 'count-in' can also be set but, unfortunately, this value corresponds to clocks rather than beats. This means that if you are using an ultra-fine clock rate you will only manage a one beat count-in!
However, when recording as the track cycles, the count-in is immaterial, so this isn't such a tough drawback.
There is another parameter on the Options page, MIDI Merge. This function is selected when editing patches on your synths via the sequencer. It causes the KCS to pass all System Exclusive information appearing at MIDI In through to the Atari's MIDI Out port. This allows you, for instance, to use Dr T's 'Caged Artists' voice editing software (not included) while sequencing - but you'll need two computers! (I've heard that 'K-Switch', from Kuma Software, allows you to load both programs - the KCS and a voice editor - into memory, and swap between the two at will. As with all software, see this working before you part with any cash!).
There are two different Step-Time modes which can be accessed from the Track Edit page. One is used to append extra information to the track you are working on, the other starts you writing a new track altogether. Visually, I think these pages represent the starkest aspects of the KCS. This doesn't impair their function though.
In fact, once you've got the hang of it, Step-Time programming can proceed at a fair old lick. The idea is that you select the number of clocks since the last note, the duration of the note that you are going to input, and the velocity value that it should take. The note value itself is input by playing the appropriate key on the master keyboard. Of course, you can delete notes you don't like, as well as tie them and input rests.
You can listen to what you are doing by invoking one of the five Play options: the whole track, the last 24 notes, the last eight, the last eight bars, the last two bars, or from the cue point. There is a bar and beat counter on-screen so that you can keep track of where you are. As with the rest of the KCS, most of the options can be selected with the mouse or directly with specific keypresses of the Atari keyboard. Though mice make computers very easy to use initially, they can become tedious, especially when you are familiar with a program and therefore capable of memorising special key assignments. On Version 1.31, virtually all the options in the program can be selected from the Atari keyboard and the mouse.
I've been concentrating on the Track mode so far. That's because this is the 'work area' of the KCS. Sections are recorded on multiple tracks when in Track Play mode, and then edited in Track Edit. You can swap between the two, rapidly building up quite extensive arrangements. The remaining edit options deal with the conversion of tracks to sequences and vice versa. What's the difference? Well, sequences are used by the other two modes of the KCS - Song and Open. You are provided with a variety of options, from turning all your tracks into one sequence to turning an existing sequence into one of your tracks, with all permutations in between. You can name the sequences and tracks as they are created. Having created a few sequences by using these options, you can then move to one of the other KCS modes.
Here, you are initially presented with a screen which looks very similar to the Track Edit screen. There is a blank list and some options arrayed on the left. The idea is that you can quickly chain together the sequences that you have made in Track mode. At the simplest level, this involves just typing in the number of the sequence required and hitting the [Return] key, the program automatically assigns the sequence null values for the various parameters with which each sequence can operate. These cover the tempo at which the sequence will play, a delay value in clocks before it is to commence, a transposition value to raise or lower the pitch of the whole sequence, and the number of times it will repeat before the KCS moves on to the next sequence in the chain.
In the current software, some of the editing options have yet to be implemented, such as the cut-and-paste options. These are the icing on the cake, however, and are not sorely missed. Naming a song is, of course, essential and each can be given up to a 60 character name, easily sufficient for even the most profligate of us to establish a unique name for each of the 10 songs which can be carried in memory. If you run out of room, a song can always be turned into a sequence to make way!
Selecting the Play option changes the display and you move to the Song Play screen. This lists the sequences in your song and number of times they are to repeat. Pressing the mouse button starts the song playing, and a little note on the screen display flashes alongside the sequence currently playing. The song name is displayed at the top of the screen, and along the bottom is listed vital information about the clock source, tempo and bar number. MIDI channels can be muted individually to facilitate pinpointing of instrument sounds.
Back on the Edit screen you can change songs, access the Options page, delete a song and invoke the 'Load from' and 'Save to' disk options (which can also be accessed from all other editing modes - handy). You can save or load the entire memory contents, a single sequence, the tracks you are using, the song you are working on, or the environment as set in the Options page. This is a very comprehensive set of options, and even has provision for routing your disk operations to six different drives, allowing you to make use of a hard disk drive very easily (the built-in 3.5" disk drive on the Atari ST can store 720 kilobytes of information; a hard disk on the other hand, which is attached via a port on the Atari, can hold 20 megabytes or more!).
There is also provision for formatting a blank disk, necessary when the floppy disk is being used for the first time. This facility can get you out of the sticky situation of having created something absolutely stupendous, but not having any room left on the disks that you've been using.
We can now move to the part of this software which I find the most rewarding, beyond even sequencing on 48 tracks without pause.
Clicking on (ie. pressing the mouse button, to those unfamiliar with the jargon) the appropriate area of the Edit screen transports you to the Open mode. Again, this screen looks very similar to Track Edit. The options are virtually identical, the differences being that all the 'sequence to track' operations are provided in Track mode and are thus unnecessary here. Sequence Copy, Append, Merge and Delete all refer to Open mode sequences, and don't make sense in the other modes. The now familiar list shows all the events, as in Track mode, except that now there is an important difference. As well as MIDI events, the Open mode sequences can control KCS events. These can be used to start and stop other sequences and change the tempo of the playback. Repeats and transpositions can also be set, as well as 'wait' states which cause the KCS to play a particular sequence fully before starting any other sequence. These are all given different codings and can be typed into the list by hand.
The 128 sequences are played and displayed on the Open mode Play screen. As the KCS plays back your arrangements, numbers appear next to the appropriate sequences, displaying information about the number of times it is to repeat and which other sequence it is being controlled by (if any). You can record a sequence in either real-time or step-time. Real-Time recording is done from the Play screen. Step-Time writing is done on a special screen, which looks and operates in the same way as the Track mode step-time screen. The sequence you record can be clocked in-sync with an existing sequence, or independently, and then tied to the 'master' with the appropriate control code.
The numerical orientation of the KCS really makes itself felt here, and writing control code sequences can produce puzzling results. The variety of options can make arrangements magical yet frustrating. This is not helped by the fact that if you are using a high resolution clock rate, say 192 clocks per quarter-note, the numbers that you end up dealing with can be huge, especially if you are, say, leaving 8-bar gaps between start events (8 bars works out at 4x192x8=6,144 clocks!).
The KCS is an extensive piece of software and although this has been a long review I have had to leave out a full description of every feature. I should quickly mention that there is a Vary function, which alters the notes and timing sequence to a given degree. This is a feature which I have found to produce pretty interesting, if slightly 'moody', results and is available from the Track and Open mode edit screens. There are encouraging Help messages which appear at the bottom of the computer screen, prompting you when an option is selected. There is a Find feature, which moves the edit list to a given bar of the track, sequence, or song. Not only can you record in time with other Open mode sequences, you can also overdub onto them. There is an 'events remaining' display which shows you how much space is left in the computer's memory... I could go on, but column inches are short.
I am a very strong believer in 'horses for courses' when it comes to software. Just as with guitars and keyboards, every software sequencer has particular merits and quirks which you may or may not find a bummer or a blessing. The particular boon that I feel the KCS has is that it allows you to work in an incredibly flexible manner. You can work in a 'length-wise' fashion, writing long tracks and songs which play once, or 'sideways' by writing pieces which use many different looping sub-sequences, or indeed any combination of the two!
The drawback to all this flexibility is in the way the program presents its data to the user. All the numbers, with not a standard note value in sight, can mean that a calculator is a very handy accessory when using the KCS. Also, while the program options are very easy to differentiate on a colour screen, it presents a pretty ugly prospect in black and white.
On the other hand, because the Dr has avoided the standard GEM operating system where possible, the computer and screen work very fast and you are rarely kept waiting while the computer 'does its thing'. Where possible, the Dr has written software routines which seek to make the most of using the Atari ST computer to be creative with MIDI. I know, for instance, that Dr T intend to have their 'windows' opening over the functions part of the Edit screen by Version 1.5, which will allow the user to see the events list while considering the parameters of the function they have called.
I am not a person who subscribes to what I feel is the Holy Grail for many computer users, that the software which makes everything work should be 'transparent' to the user. We are all too different to enable any one system to cater to all our tastes, and everything in life must be learned before you can act without thinking about it. As with other creative tools. Dr T's Keyboard Controlled Sequencer imposes a learning period on its users, and I'd be surprised if you could just 'pick it up and run'. Some of the concepts behind this sequencer are brilliant, allowing you to think of it as an instrument in its own right, something I feel is an accolade. Others may find that the means by which you 'play' the KCS are not concerned enough with music, the emphasis being too far towards the open approach provided by numbers and letters.
Whatever the pre-conception, this is undoubtedly a sequencer which needs to be seen working in the hands of someone accustomed to its operation. I urge you to check it out, if only to see the results of an alternative approach to MIDI sequencing and gain an insight into creative computer applications.
The KCS software retails at £250.
Distributed exclusively in the UK by Take Note, (Contact Details).
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Review by Mark Badger
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