Dr. T's Beyond
Sequencing software for the Macintosh has tended to be be either high-spec and highly priced, or entry-level budget ware. Have Dr. T found a happy medium with Beyond? Matthew Newman investigates.
Dr. T's Beyond, as its name suggests, attempts to boldly go further than any other piece of Mac sequencing software currently on the market. Dr. T claim in the marketing literature that it offers all the standard functions of professional sequencers and a host of new "musical tools", all in a friendly and musical package. Given its very attractive price — just under £260 — in a traditionally expensive field, it can hardly fail to be a tantalising prospect.
Beyond requires at least System 4.2 to run, and System 6.02 or higher is recommended. The software is compatible with the entire Mac range, and it will run in mono or colour. The minimum hardware requirement is 512K. Beyond actually seems to take up very little memory, making it ideal for running with Multifinder or RAM disks. Because the program is fully Multifinder-compatible, you can have other software open and accessible from the Finder at the same time as you are running your sequencer — provided you have enough spare memory. The obvious use for this facility is to have voice editors available to edit your various synths and samplers. You might also want to have a word processor for lyrics, or notes on song structure and MIDI set-up. Several other Mac sequencers are a little temperamental about running with desk accessories like Mockwrite, but Beyond isn't, and has its own built in Notepad anyway. (This is great for brief notes, which are saved with a song.)
Those of you considering purchasing Beyond will no doubt be pleased to hear that there is absolutely no copy protection, so you should have no problems making back-up copies straight from the Finder. There are no lengthy installation routines involved in tossing Beyond on and off a hard disc, and you don't have to root around for a master disc to get ID verification at the start of each session. Dr. T also suggest that this should make for a "more stable system operation", and indeed appear to be quite passionate about the whole issue of copy protected software. They have made quite a stand by completely dropping copy protection across their entire product range.
I hope this move works well for them commercially. It is a very refreshing change in a world where more and more software authors feel the need to channel greater efforts into protecting their creations. In the words of Al Hospers of Dr. T: "people have told us we're crazy for removing copy protection. We sincerely appreciate your help in proving these people wrong". Further discussion of the issues involved in the copy protection debate is better suited to Sounding Off than the pages of this review, but it would be nice if other companies felt inspired to follow this lead.
One particularly agreeable feature of working with Beyond is the real-time nature of many of the editing options, whether you're altering existing data or indeed 'drawing' in new information (including notes, tempo, controllers and program changes). You can act upon almost any aspect of your data as the sequencer runs. Assuming that you are looping a reasonably short section of music, you can quickly establish whether or not your changes are for the best. This is one area in which I felt early versions of Passport's Master Tracks Pro let itself down, and maybe lost a lot of sales. It was easy to see what was going on in your note data and easy to make changes, but you were forever having to re-trigger a section to hear the result — the edit looping was all a bit clumsy.
First impressions of Beyond are excellent, and the traditional Macintosh multi-window environment is applied to particularly good effect. Most of the windows can be viewed quite small unless you need a detailed view of their contents. Basic navigation is performed in a window known as The Bridge (see Figure 1), which in its compressed form contains the usual tape transport controls. Next to these is a display of current location in both absolute (SMPTE) time and bars/beats/clocks. Enlarge the window with the zoom box, and you can display and alter fields controlling MIDI through, section looping, sync, overall tempo and time signature etc. The metronome controls are also found here, along with the punch-in icon.
Clicking around in this area yields results as rapid and consistent as with its equivalent on any other software sequencer I've used. Most of my work with this package was on a Macintosh Plus that had not been 'souped up' in any way, and its humble little processors had few problems. I did manage to get it to lock up once, but I had to go out of my way to do it by sending in absurd amounts of MIDI data whilst asking the program to change locations and switch between several different windows.
Beyond's Instruments Window (Figure 2) allows you to carry out mixing operations on your music in real-time. There are 32 automated sliders which can be assigned to instruments to modulate any controller value as the music plays. Each fader can transmit data on three MIDI channels. Obviously, the extent to which you will be able to take advantage of this feature will be limited by the modulation facilities of the synths you are using. However, even on the less innovative and preset orientated machines you should be able to achieve automated fades, panning and filtering etc.
Once your controller changes are recorded, the graphic representation of the slider will obediently move up and down the screen to indicate what changes are being sent to which instrument and when. It's probably just my age, but however many times I see this happening I'm still impressed. The speed with which you can work out exactly what is going where is greatly increased by the fact that you can name instruments at the base of each slider. You are not stuck with having to constantly remember what sounds are on which MIDI channel — particularly handy when layering instruments, and so much more practical than scrawling all over your computer screen with a chinagraph pencil.
The Continuous Data window (Figure 3), which allows you to graphically display and edit controller data, draws inevitable comparison with some of the better aspects of Mark of The Unicorn's Performer You can only view one type of data at once, and it isn't quite as easy to view graphic representations of the controller and note data simultaneously, but this still is a good system. Drawing in new controller data with the pencil tool is predictably easy and effective.
Song construction is the one area of Beyond's operation where procedure and terminology become a little less than obvious. It is ironic that it is in this respect that the software most resembles Vision by Opcode, a package which owes a large measure of its success to the ease with which the user can view and alter this information. Songs are assembled by stringing any of 32 Sections together. Each Section can contain up to 99 Tracks. To confuse matters slightly, any Track can contain up to 16 Sub-Sections, each of which in turn can contain 99 Tracks.
Basically, like many of the most pleasurable things in life, the whole process is considerably harder to describe than it is to do, and the nomenclature doesn't help. I have always found it easier when manufacturers and developers use completely new or at least unique terms. Mark of the Unicorn achieve this on Performer by working with, and talking in terms of, Chunks. Whilst this may not be the most elegant bit of nomenclature you've ever come across, it isn't easily confused with any other musical or computer term. The term 'track' is ambiguous enough in a modern musical context without every new piece of software having its own peculiar definition.
Overall though, Beyond offers you a pretty simple and speedy way to put together a piece of music. By constructing and then placing Sections or individual notes relative to bars and beats, or at a precise SMPTE time, you can employ a happy blend of speedy construction, flexible composition and easy overview. It is relatively simple to combine modular (drum machine style) and linear (tape recorder style) recording and composing techniques, without the mode switching headaches associated with some packages.
All note editing takes place in an environment highly reminiscent of Master Tracks Pro, in the Note Editor window (Figure 4). (Overall, it is Master Tracks Pro that Beyond has the most in common with, visually at least.) As the music plays, shaded blocks representing individual notes pass horizontally through the piano-roll style track window, running towards the now familiar vertical keyboard graphic. You can switch the display of velocity information on and off. When toggled on, the moving bars which denote the presence of a note acquire stems whose size varies according to the note velocity. Having spent some time using sequencers on both the old Commodore 64 and the Amiga I have been spoilt, and I'm convinced that the simplest and most effective way to display this sort of information is through colour, or at least shading. The stem system seems a little messy, especially when you are dealing with several notes played hard in quick succession or at the same time. The stems then begin to obscure both one another and the note bars. Still, if you don't like it, you can always turn it off, as they say. I did.
Dr. T's usual style of display list is also included, so that you can view note, program, velocity, and controller data as a list of numeric values. You cannot do any parameter editing directly from here at present, although there is an update on the way which will allow you to select a value with the mouse and then type in a new one. This is a simple and deceptively useful system of editing, and it will be a welcome addition.
At the moment, selecting a parameter will take you straight to the relevant edit screen, where you can make the changes you require. You then have to reselect the display list if you want to use it to check the results.
Another editing feature typical of Dr. T's software that is found here is a means of editing numeric values with the mouse. You click just above or below a number to be altered, and instead of releasing the mouse button you continue to hold it down, and drag the mouse down or up to decrease or increase the value. The further you drag, the faster the rate at which the parameters change. Dragging the mouse with its button depressed across several icons unrelated to what you actually want to change takes quite a bit of nerve at first — it also takes a good deal of practice to anticipate the rate of change — but once you are used to it, it's fine.
For a long time Mac user, learning Beyond's basic operation is simple. The track window is very like its counterpart on every other Macintosh sequencer I have ever seen, and 32 MIDI channels are supported — 16 from the printer port and 16 from the modem port. All the usual Mac protocols are adhered to. Most of the windows and the command key functions (such as Undo, Cut, Copy and Paste) behave exactly as you expect. Unfortunately, this is slightly marred by the Atari-like inability to drag-select any more than is currently displayed in the Note Editor window. This inhibits the use of an otherwise very impressive edit selection filter which allows for, among other things, editing only a certain pitch, velocity or note duration range. You can even choose to deal with only those notes that occur (or don't occur) within a specific number of clocks of designated beats. You can get around the window handicap by zooming the view out, but it would be nice if the display area would scroll when you try to select anything outside it.
Beyond is a particularly intuitive program, perhaps partially as a result of all the similarities it bears to other pieces of Mac software. As a result, the manual, written by the American Sound On Sound contributor and MIDI guru Craig Anderton, is mainly required as no more than a handy reference. This is probably just as well, because I found the Tutorial section a little perturbing, not least because instructions on how to stop the tutorial sequence are not given until page 72, and that corny little bass riff really starts to get to you after a while. Speaking of stopping, the Option-spacebar keyboard equivalent of clicking on the stop icon doesn't always seem to work, but this is an odd glitch in an otherwise reliable program that is a lot more stable than most new pieces of music software.
All in all, Beyond does not possess many major features that boldly go where no sequencer has gone before. It does, however, possess a good number of them, and in a unique and useful combination. To say it has taken many of the competition's best ideas and combined them in one piece of software is perhaps a bit of an oversimplification — but not too much.
It is undoubtedly very good value. Pricewise it falls somewhere between the 'toys' and the professional packages. Beyond retails at around £140 less than Vision, Master Tracks Pro 4, Performer and Composer. Cubase is nearly £300 more. In terms of facilities, it has many more features than budget-priced entry level packages for the Macintosh, although it must be said that these are cheaper still. More significantly, Beyond possesses many of the best features of far more expensive Mac sequencers, and on occasion it is also much simpler to use by virtue of not being cluttered up with a lot of complex or obscure functions. As a result, it will be popular chiefly amongst users who require some sort of graphic environment in which to create and manipulate music, but who don't want to pay for lots of features they may never use or fully understand. For many ordinary hobby and semi-pro Mac musicians, Beyond could well be their first and last sequencing software purchase.
£259 inc VAT.
MCMXCIX, (Contact Details)
Review by Matthew Newman
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