Dr.T's Tiger Cub
Combining some of the best features of Dr.T's KCS sequencer and Tiger editor, along with a handy auto-scoring utility, this 12-track 'entry level' program packs an awful lot of power for its low price. Game warden David Hughes tracks it down.
Following hot on the heels of Dr.T's TIGER sequence editor program comes TIGER Cub, which the American software house modestly describe as an 'entry level' sequencer/composer package for the Atari ST. You might be forgiven for thinking that TIGER Cub would be nothing more than a cut-down version of its larger stablemate, but you'd be wrong. TIGER Cub is really a stand-alone sequencer package in its own right, whereas TIGER (The Interactive Graphic EditoR) is dedicated solely to manipulating pre-recorded MIDI data.
TIGER is a powerful package which greatly simplifies the process of sorting and modifying MIDI events into some kind of musically meaningful order. However, it offers little in terms of real-time data entry and, consequently, you need to use a sequencer program which supports the standard MIDI file format in order to get the best out of TIGER.
With TIGER Cub you get the benefit of both worlds, in that it incorporates a 12-track sequencer and graphic editor functions within the same program. Furthermore, Dr.T have also seen fit to incorporate a third program, Quickscore, which provides you with the ability to print any of your musical compositions using standard musical notation. Both TIGER Cub and Quickscore run under Dr.T's exclusive Multi Program Environment (MPE), which means that they will quite happily co-exist within the same computer.
TIGER Cub supports both medium resolution colour and high resolution monochrome displays, although you must have at least one megabyte of RAM to run the program. This comes as something of a disappointment, since many 'entry level' users will be owners of 520 ST machines.
As is the norm these days, the master program disk is copy protected. However, in doing so, Dr.T have implemented the worst kind of copy-protection that I can think of - although you can make working copies of the program, the master disk must be inserted in Drive A whenever you load the program. I accept that this method is easier and more cost-effective to implement than, say, a 'dongle' based method, but this really is an invitation to disaster. Master disks should only be used for generating working copies of a program and then packed away carefully for safe keeping.
Once the program has loaded, you're presented with the sequencer page. This follows the more-or-less traditional tape recorder layout, recording MIDI data rather than actual audio signals. The screen layout is similar to Dr.T's well-known KCS sequencer, with the main part of the screen taken up by the track list. This consists of instrument, MIDI channel, and name fields for each of the 12 tracks, as well as solo, mute, and group fields. I liked the addition of the large 'comment' field, which allows you to elaborate further on the function and/or contents of a particular track. It's a great improvement over the usual eight or so characters that some programs restrict you to. The screen layout is simple, and therefore clear, and it's easy to see what's going on at any given moment. On the other hand, I would have preferred to see more than the 12 tracks provided, even on what purports to be an 'entry level' program.
Each of the available tracks can store information from any of the 16 MIDI channels. The MIDI channel number displayed in the 'CH' field corresponds to the channel number of the first MIDI event that has been recorded on a given track. This is important if you're using a split keyboard or a guitar controller, or if you're building up tracks using the MIDI merge function, although once you've recorded MIDI data onto a given track you won't be able to modify the MIDI channel from the tape recorder page. Initially, I wasn't very happy with this feature - I would have preferred to be able to change the MIDI channel of a track directly from the tape recorder page, because it's a fast and effective way of listening to new ideas. In practice, you can change the MIDI channel of a track, although you have to switch over to the graphic editor page to do so.
Continuing with the remainder of the tape recorder page, we come to the 'control panel', situated below the track list area. It consists of the usual start, stop, fast forward, and rewind buttons as well as counters for the elapsed time and the song position pointer. The tempo of a piece can be set using a horizontal bar and slider, which basically involves clicking over the slider icon and dragging the mouse to the left or right. Tempo can also be fine tuned by clicking over the arrows at the ends of the horizontal bar. This will increment or decrement the tempo in single BPM (beats per minute) steps. There are a number of other buttons within this page and these govern functions such as MIDI merging and MIDI rechannelisation. There are also functions which allow you to filter out unwanted controller and aftertouch data, which often waste huge amounts of valuable memory space, and you can also select the degree of note quantisation which is applied to a piece. Overall, the tape recorder page is well set out with everything labelled in a clear and helpful manner.
When I first came to record a few bars into the sequencer I ran into a few problems. I copied the TIGER Cub program to a separate folder on my hard disk and attempted to run the program from there. However, what I had forgotten to do was to remove my Satellite desk accessory (which is part of my 'usual' sequencer, Steinberg's Cubase) and, as a result, I couldn't get TIGER Cub to 'see' any of the masterpieces that I was hammering into it from my master keyboard. However, once I'd removed the desk accessory TIGER Cub ran without any detectable problems at all.
TIGER Cub always records data on the lowest numbered track in the track list, and this is indicated by a steadily flashing '*RECORD*' label in the track name field. If you're using a master keyboard and a couple of sound modules, you then have to specify the MIDI channel of the instrument you want to talk to. This is accomplished with the rechannelisation icon, wich redirects any MIDI data entering the Atari's MIDI In port to the relevant module.
Clicking on the record button will normally start the sequencer as soon as you hit a key on your master controller. You can, if you prefer, set a count-in so that you get a chance to hear the metronome before you start to record. If you want to record a track in several short sections rather than in a single take, you can use the 'cue' option to create a loop, and then record data between the start and end points of that loop.
Another method of getting data into TIGER Cub's sequencer is to import song data from another MIDI sequencer. To do this you have to have a sequencer that saves songs in the MIDI file standard. (You can import data from Dr.T's KCS, for example.) I tried to import such MIDI files from two sequencers, Steinberg's Cubase and Gajits' Sequencer One. TIGER Cub was able to read the MIDI data almost perfectly, the exception being a single Cubase MIDI file which would not load correctly on the Gajits program either, which nicely lets TIGER Cub off the hook! [See page 96 for more about MIDI files - Ed.]
TIGER Cub is remarkably flexible in the way that it lets you tailor the system to your own requirements. This is especially valuable if you're already used to working with another sequencer. After all, who wants to learn a whole new method of working just to accomplish the same task? You can tinker with the system parameters using the Environment Window, and this lets you define the length of the count-in I mentioned earlier or the possible range of the song tempo. You can also specify the number of steps per beat and the number of steps per metronome. These two variables set the fundamental clock resolution of the sequencer, which can be as course as 24 steps/beat - the MIDI standard value - or as fine as 240 steps/beat (ie. 240 pulses per quarter note).
This page also incorporates a number of fixes for problems which are more concerned with external hardware - typically, there is a MIDI Slow function which, when enabled, adds a small delay after each MIDI message. This is basically a fix for certain early Yamaha instruments which were not able to handle incoming MIDI data at full speed, and which manifests itself in the form of stuck notes and garbled program change messages. For example, my Yamaha DX5 synthesizer does demonstrate this fault occasionally and did so during the review period - that was until I created a small delay between each MIDI message, after which the problem did not re-occur. Consequently, for me, it was a useful function to have to hand.
Once you've recorded some note data into the sequencer, you'll probably want to modify that data in one way or another. The next step then is to resort to the graphic editing page. This opens into a single window which details the MIDI note data for a given track. Each MIDI note event is represented by a horizontal bar to show the duration of a note and a vertical bar to indicate the velocity of the event. I like this approach and I'm surprised that nobody else has thought of it before now. I also wonder how long it will be before this 'style' starts to appear in other manufacturers' programs!
At the top of the edit window is the track information line which, as the title suggests, tells you all sorts of useful facts about the currently selected track. The line basically consists of a string of text messages which detail the name of the track, its current MIDI channel, and the initial program change and volume level which are transmitted when the track starts to play. Several of the text fields on this line are surrounded by small arrows, and this indicates that the parameter within the arrows can be modified. For instance, if you want to view the MIDI data for track number 2, you simply click over either the left or right arrows until the number of the required track is shown.
On the far right of the track information line are the selectors for the individual controller windows for each track. Clicking the mouse pointer above any of these fields causes a second window to open below the main edit window, and this displays the recorded information for the selected controller (pitch bend, aftertouch, modulation, etc). More on these functions later.
At the bottom of the graphic editor page are a collection of icons and these control the various functions of the mouse within the main window. These are quite simple to use and therefore don't require much in the way of elaborate explanation. For instance, the 'pencil' icon allows you to draw in new MIDI events and the 'eraser' icon allows you to remove any unwanted events. The remainder of the icons are equally self-explanatory and, in fact, once you start to grasp the meaning and function of each icon - simple hands-on experience is all that's required here! - it all becomes very much second nature.
Where I found TIGER Cub really useful was when it came to interpreting MIDI controller events, such as pitch bend and aftertouch. Pitch bending is a performance technique which takes years to master correctly and my technique is a bit 'iffy' at the best of times! When I'm recording a track which requires pitch bend I usually resort to one of two methods:
(1) If I'm feeling particularly pedantic, I'll spend quite a bit of time attempting to get a particular phrase and its associated pitch bends and modulation levels exactly right.
(2) If I'm feeling lazy or maybe just looking for a quick solution to a problem, I usually play the note phrase into the sequencer 'flat' - that is, without any form of expression or use of the performance controls. After that I then edit the required performance controllers on an adjacent track (set to the same MIDI channel as the instrument being controlled) until I'm happy with the result. Later on these tracks can be merged together.
You can do much the same thing with TIGER Cub - play the sequence in flat and then 'draw' the controller information in real time whilst the phrase is playing. Once you've created a single perfect pitch bend, you can use the 'cut and paste' buffer to create copies of the controller information and insert them wherever they are needed! It's a very powerful tool to have to hand.
The possible uses of the graphic editor page don't end here. You can use the step-time recording feature to create fast or complex passages that are too hard to play by hand - even at a slower tempo! You can copy, delete, or erase whole sections of a particular track simply by selecting the required range with the mouse. I also liked the 'quantise with swing' function, which pushes notes further away from or closer to the downbeat depending on the degree of swing you specify. Great stuff!
Nestled within the graphic editor page is the conductor track, which governs the tempo and time signature(s) of the current song. Selecting the conductor track opens a window which is identical in layout to the MIDI controller windows outlined above. Here tempo events can be 'drawn' in real time using the right mouse button and edited with the left. TIGER Cub also allows you to specify the time signature for any bar. You can select from the range of preset signatures available or possibly one of your own invention.
Although I liked the graphic editor page on the whole, I felt that the program relies too heavily on various combinations of keys on the main keyboard to select a given function or to play a particular phrase from a given point in the track. In practice, you only tend to use a small subset of these available functions, because initially it's a bit confusing and remembering the function of each key takes some doing. I would have preferred to see a small section of the screen dedicated to a collection of icons, or possibly an addition to the menus, which would accomplish the same thing. It would save time and effort, and help you to get more out of the package in the shortest possible time.
Also, I would have liked to see some 'preset tools' to assist the user when it comes to constructing various bits of controller information. The logic behind this is that drawing freehand with a mouse takes a bit of practice, and if you're attempting to create a slow fade in or out on a particular track using MIDI volume messages, it can take several attempts just to draw something as simple as a straight line between two volume levels.
TIGER Cub, in common with all Dr.T software releases, runs under the Multi Program Environment or MPE. This means that you can have as many as nine MPE-compatible programs resident within the Atari at any instant, providing that your computer has sufficient memory to support them, of course. I like the whole idea of the MPE. It lets you configure your system around a basic core without filling up your precious memory with options and features that are very rarely used, as is the case on a number of the more 'upmarket' packages. You can then tailor your system with as many programs and modules as you see fit - providing, of course, that they all run under the MPE!
One such program is provided with the TIGER Cub package: Quickscore, as I mentioned earlier, lets you view a composition in standard musical notation and is based on Dr.T's top-end professional scorewriter program, Copyist.
To load Quickscore, you simply go to the MPE menu and select the 'New' option. Once loaded, it immediately sets to work encoding the current song into standard notation for you and the resulting score is displayed on the Atari screen ready for your inspection. The program is a little slow when it comes to drawing the finished results and screen refreshes sometimes seem to take forever, although the end product is worth the wait. You can view the score for a single track or for the whole song, and the output can be saved to disk or dumped to a printer for a hard copy. It's important to point out that you can't actually edit the score in any way - you can only edit the way the score is presented - but, since that's basically the domain of the graphic editor page, which is always only a few key clicks away, it is not really a significant drawback.
Although the program was generally well behaved, I did run into a few problems along the way. For instance, TIGER Cub became very confused when I dropped out of edit mode and attempted to play the song with a cue loop set up to repeat after the first eight bars. Although the 'cue' icon was set, the program ignored the end of the loop until the mouse was clicked over the 'end of loop' icon. There was also a rather irritating glitch in the playback when any of the menu options were selected.
TIGER Cub has obviously inherited a number of its considerable talents from its equally well endowed parents - the TIGER editor and KCS, Dr.T's excellent flagship sequencer. The features that TIGER Cub boasts are essentially a subset of those offered by the aforementioned programs, and the resulting union is definitely a success. The editor section is definitely one of the best I've seen in this price range and allows you to be creative in a way that even puts many of the top range sequencers in the shade!
On the downside, TIGER Cub is a trifle lacklustre - the screens are a bit spartan - and the review copy did contain what appeared to be the odd bug. The program is comparatively complex to use due to the number of key combinations that you have to learn to get the most out of the package, but then this approach may be perfectly satisfactory to you if you're not altogether at ease with the mouse.
Have any serious compromises been made in the design of TIGER Cub? I would say 'no'. What TIGER Cub really offers is considerable sequencing and editing power (though more tracks would be welcome) for comparatively little outlay, and at £99 I'd say that it represents outstandingly good value for money.
Somehow, when Dr.T describe TIGER Cub as an 'entry level' program, I can't help feeling that they aren't really doing this program the justice it deserves.
£99 inc VAT.
MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).
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Review by David Hughes