Dr T's Midi Recording Studio
Software for the Atari ST
Budget software that sets out to prove that budget doesn't necessarily mean limited. Simon Trask puts the MIDI Recording Studio through its paces with his eye on the "features for ackers" gauge.
If you were asked what you want from a budget sequencing package, your answer would probably be "everything" - but don't be deceived, Dr T's MRS may get closer than you imagine.
INEVITABLY WHEN A MIDI software company produces a budget sequencer there's going to be a list of features which won't be included. You might be forgiven for putting updates high on that list, but fortunately it seems that this isn't the case, with many software companies producing updates for their budget sequencers. Dr T's MIDI Recording Studio is a case in point, having recently been upgraded to version 1.1.
MRS IS AN eight-track/single-song sequencer with a memory capacity in excess of 125,000 notes on a 1040ST. There are basically two screens: Play/Record and Edit - though the latter leads into a number of windows for the editing features.
The Play/Record screen has undergone a cosmetic redesign since version 1.0, but doesn't introduce anything new. Eight track-boxes indicate track name and status, while underneath these are the familiar Play, Record, Stop and Pause "transport" controls. You can mute tracks in any combination simply by clicking on the appropriate boxes or hitting the appropriate numeric keys. Other features on the main screen allow you to enable/disable recording of controller and aftertouch data, set tempo, select MIDI merge and echo features (the latter allowing incoming MIDI data to be rechannelised), and set and activate a cue start point from which the MRS will play or record to the end of the sequence. Cue Record is a feature new to version 1.1 which allows you to start recording from a position other than bar one. To my mind this is a rather half-hearted addition; I would rather have had the ability to sectionalise track recording by setting Cue start and end points.
The length of track one defines the overall sequence length. If you want to record without any preconceptions as to how long you might go on for, you must record on track one - the length of this and subsequent tracks will be defined by when you hit Stop.
Alternatively you can flip to the Edit screen by selecting Exit, and preset the length. The disadvantage of doing this is that you lose track one for real-time recording. It is possible to enter notes into track one on the Edit screen, but perhaps more usefully you could use it as a "controller" track, dedicated to such things as tempo and patch changes.
To begin recording you can either click on Play (with Record activated) or start playing on your master MIDI instrument. It's also possible to define a metronome count-in if you want time to "feel the beat". If you make a mistake, or simply don't like what you're recording, click on Re-Record and you can start again.
When MRS reaches the end of one track it automatically loops back to the beginning and starts recording on the next free track - a way of working which can be a bit disconcerting to begin with. You can re-record a track at any time by first of all deleting it from the Edit screen.
TO REACH THE Edit screen you click on Exit in the lower left-hand corner of the Play/Record screen. If you've already recorded something into the current track you'll see a list of data on the left-hand side of the Edit screen. On the right-hand side is a long list of functions which can be called up by clicking the mouse on them. It doesn't take long to realise that the good Doctor hasn't skimped on MRS' editing features.
The event list has eight columns: measure/step, event number, time, MIDI channel, event type, note, velocity and duration. MRS allows you to insert events on all 16 MIDI channels within each track, a feature which greatly expands the sequencer's usefulness. For instance, if you want to send patch changes to several MIDI'd signal processors you could include them all in track one.
Included among the event types which MRS recognises are two non-MIDI commands: tempo change and delete event. MRS allows you to specify tempo changes at any position within a sequence, in any track. Only one tempo can be active at a time, though there is a neat way of playing around with different tempi that I'll come to later. DE events are "place markers" which serve to indicate the end of a track.
Further flexibility is provided by what Dr Ts call a "single-byte event". This allows you to enter a decimal value of 0-255, which effectively means you can insert any MIDI command and associated data. Powerful stuff if you know what you're doing.
As well as being able to edit at individual event level, you can define event ranges. For this purpose, version 1.1 allows you to highlight any range of events by dragging the mouse over them - much quicker than typing in start and end numbers. You can cut out or copy any section of a track to what Dr Ts term a Paste buffer, and from there Insert, Replace, Merge, Merge-to-End or Fill-to-End the pasted data, but only within the same track - sadly, MRS provides no means of passing data between tracks other than Track Copy.
It's always a good idea when editing a track to make a backup copy of it. MRS has a Backup function which allows you to make internal memory backup copies of each of its eight tracks, while Get Backup allows you to retrieve them.
Residing under the heading Transpose/Auto are eight options which provide MRS' more unusual editing features. Again you can define any range of events within a track to be processed (default is all events). Pitch and velocity transposition (+/-64) are fairly self-explanatory, except that you can also invert values around any centre value. Duration transposition allows you to lengthen or shorten all notes by a fixed amount, without changing their position; in this way you can quickly make a track (or part of a track) staccato or legato.
Auto-correct (quantisation) provides quantise values ranging from 32nd notes through to whole notes. Along with note position, MRS also allows you to quantise note duration. Auto Channel Assign provides an auto of a different kind: the ability to "rotate" successive notes in a track through a user-definable range of MIDI channels. By setting the same value for Low and High channel you can rechannelise a complete track.
Time Reverse simply plays the sequence of events for an individual track in reverse order, while Velocity Scaling allows you to create a velocity-induced fade-in or fade-out over any portion of a track.
Compress/Expand is where you can really start having fun with multiple tempi. For instance, entering a value of "two" results in the track being twice as long, while "0.5" halves the length of the track. But you needn't use such simple values: "0.75", for instance, will make a track three-quarters as long. And Dr Ts haven't stopped there, because you can also specify whether or not you want duration to be similarly effected.
New to version 1.1 is the Internal Voices option, which allows you to utilise the three voices of the STs internal soundchip. The MRS program disk comes complete with three sounds (melody, bass and drums) which are automatically loaded into the three soundchip voices when you load the main program. To switch a soundchip voice on you must first assign a MIDI channel to it. This allows you to sequence it from your MIDI keyboard (set to the same channel); however, you must also select Echo, and set the Echo channel to that of the appropriate voice (not that the manual tells you this). The supplied sounds won't exactly do wonders for your music, but for anyone starting out on the MIDI trail and short of gear they might be a useful stop-gap.
MRS can be set to internal or MIDI sync, with further options to turn MIDI clock transmission on/off, to treat received MIDI Start as the first clock byte, and to slow the MIDI transmission rate slightly. When you've set MRS to MIDI sync you need to zero its position by pressing Stop, while to ready it for playback you must press Start. Unfortunately MRS won't respond to MIDI song position pointers, so if you're slaving off tape via a SMPTE box or one of the new generation of FSK boxes, you're still limited to starting from the beginning all the time. Now that's a real pity, especially as MRS has the ability to record whilst set to MIDI sync (though this wasn't something I was able to try out).
Set Options allows you to define number of steps per metronome, measure, beat and MIDI clock. Steps per metronome allows you to define the metronome beat rate (to ridiculous extremes, I might add), while steps per measure defines the time signature for Edit list display purposes, steps per beat defines the quantisation for recording, and steps per clock defines the MIDI output sync rate in relation to internal tempo. Be careful with these features - you can tie yourself (and the software) up in knots.
Once you've created something worth saving to disk, click on the Load/Save option and MRS allows you to select drive number and then save the complete contents of memory to disk. Similarly when you load in a file it overwrites whatever is currently in the memory. Formatting and erasing of disks must be done outside of the sequencer.
MRS uses the same file format as the company's Keyboard Controlled Sequencer, so you won't lose music recorded in MRS if you subsequently upgrade to the more sophisticated package. But what if you want to upgrade to another company's ST-based sequencer? MRS doesn't implement Standard MIDI Files storage, but you'll shortly be able to use it in conjunction with Dr Ts Copyist scorewriting software, which does - allowing you to save your MRS files in SMF format via Copyist (a compromise in the good Doctor's favour). Dr Ts are making Copyist available in three versions, ranging in price from £100-300, so if you want to add music notation to your working methods this could be a good route to take.
Finally, a good word for MRS's manual, which is well laid out and contains many helpful MIDI tips together with a troubleshooting section and an effective index. Altogether it's an impressive effort, marred only by the occasional clear-as-mud explanation (what do you want, perfection?).
THERE'S NO DENYING that Dr Ts have crammed a lot of power and flexibility into MRS. However, for an entry-level sequencer it's not particularly intuitive, and lacks some "higher level" features (such as sectional recording) which would make it more readily usable. Though it lacks the "in depth" power of MRS, Microdeal's Super Conductor is in many ways more powerful at real-time sequencing.
However, if you're prepared to invest time and effort in getting the most out of MRS you'll be quite surprised at what Dr Ts have managed to cram into a "budget" sequencer.
Price £49.95 including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask