IBM PC Software
This combined sequencer and tone editor for the IBM PC will work happily with Roland's MT32 and LAPC1. Ian Waugh looks into a serious PC music system.
If you own an IBM PC and an MT32 and feel left behind by the current glut of Atari software, take heart - Ballade is a MIDI Sequencer and Tone Editor just for you.
BALLADE IS a combined sequencer and tone editor for Roland's MT32 sound module - nothing too earth shattering there. But Ballade runs on an IBM PC or compatible - now there's a novelty. Software for the PC isn't exactly thick on the ground, but then there aren't too many people trying to make music from it. But for those of you who are, here's Ballade.
As Roland's LAPC1 sound card is an MT32 equivalent, Ballade will work with it too (see last month's issue for details of the LAPC1 and Roland's other CM sound modules). In fact, Ballade was being shown at this year's BMF and PC Show running with the LAPC1. And very impressive the pair sounded, too.
As with most PC software, a certain amount of setting up needs to be done before you actually get to run the program. Dedicated PCers will be used to it - some even thrive on it - but if you simply use your PC as a tool you'll have to read the small print carefully.
Minimum system requirements are 640K RAM and EGA or VGA graphics. You need an MT32, of course, plus a suitable MIDI interface or an LAPC1 (plus a MIDI interface if you want to record from an external MIDI device). Ideally you should have a hard disk, too (as with most things PC). The manual explains how to format disks, make back up copies, create new directories and copy the program to hard disk. You may also need to change your config.sys file (hope you've a word processor handy).
Now if you're sitting comfortably, I'll begin. The first surprise is the fact that Ballade uses a graphic environment and is mouse driven. There are keyboard equivalents for many options although not enough, perhaps, to satisfy die hard PC enthusiasts.
THE PLAY SCREEN is laid out like a ten-channel mixer. Channels two to nine map onto the MT32's eight voice channels and have faders, level meters, program number indicators, pan pots and reverb and mute on/off switches. Channel ten is used for the rhythm section.
Channel one is unused as far as the MT32 goes but it could be used to play an external synth or expander. Sync can be set to internal, external or tape (MIDI clock) so channel one could be useful here.
To the right of the faders is a bar (measure) counter, tempo indicator, reverb mode indicator, a transpose control and a master volume fader. To the right of these is the orchestration section which lists the names of the instruments which are playing on each channel and below these are tape transport controls.
The first thing you'll want to do is play the demo files - and they are absolutely excellent. They include Bach's 'Air On A G String' (no tittering at the back, Smythe), 'Promenade' from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, one of Brahms' Hungarian Dances and four modern pop/rock/funk pieces.
A neat feature of Ballade is its ability to chain-play the tunes in a directory, sequentially or randomly, or repeat a tune or directory ad nauseam.
When a tune is playing the faders fade, the pan pots pan and the program change indicators indicate the current instruments. You can make alterations on the fly by clicking and dragging the sliders and pan pots. You can change instruments, too. When you do, the music stops and up pops a list of available instruments which you can page through to select the one you want.
MUSIC ENTRY IS performed in the Song screen which shows a treble and bass stave (the Grand Stave) divided into vertical sections representing note durations. You can select quarter, eighth, 16th or 32nd note divisions plus triplets.
There are three ways to enter music into Ballade. You can click notes onto the stave with the mouse and record in real or step-time from a MIDI keyboard.
Under the Palette (yep, it's American) menu you can choose which of six palettes will appear on screen - Note, Play, Forte (loudness), Slur (articulation), Ride (note offset) and Rhythm (this can only be selected for the rhythm track). The palettes can be situated anywhere on the Song screen.
To enter a line in step-time from a MIDI keyboard you click on step-record in the Play palette, select a note duration from the Note palette and play a note or chord. And it appears on the stave - brill (to coin a quaint Brummy expression). The process is not what anyone would call instantaneous, and the screen (or bits of it) redraws quite laboriously after each note, but it has a fair sized buffer and it gets there in the end.
Alternatively, you can select note durations from the Note palette and click them onto the stave.
"The Setting Sheets for tempo, master volume, pitchbend and modulation are some of the easiest scaling operations I've seen in a sequencer."
TO RECORD IN real-time, click on the real-time record icon in the Play palette. This lets you select the range of bars you want to record (like a punch-in) and the tracks you want to playback during recording. You can filter out control, pitchbend, program changes and "other effects". The manual is not very forthcoming about what "other" actually encompasses although it doesn't include velocity information which is recorded during real-time input.
After real-time recording you are given the opportunity to hear what you have played and record it again if you don't like it. Alternatively you can quantise it (up to 64th note triplet resolution) after which it appears on the stave. The notes are grouped and beamed automatically - you have no say in the process.
A major niggle here is the fact that you are only allowed one go at quantisation - post recording - and you can't see the music on the stave before you quantise. It can't handle real-time triplets, either.
Other options include count-in, metronome click and loop on playback. The manual says it will loop during recording but it doesn't - a shame, particularly when creating rhythm tracks.
There is a Tracking function in the form of a green vertical line which moves through the score as it plays. Although it's a good way of pinpointing a section of music, the screen can take a while to update (especially on an XT) and it redraws rather than scrolls.
THE FORTE PALETTE is used to set the volume of the notes. There are eight preset options ranging from ppp to fff and a slider below these lets you select any value from 1-127.
But better than this, the Volume Setting Sheet lets you insert scaled volume changes into a track. These can range across a couple of beats or through the entire piece. The volume is reflected in the fader movements in the Play screen. There are also three velocity curves - one linear and two curved.
There are other Setting Sheets for tempo, master volume, pitchbend and modulation. They offer some of the easiest scaling operations I have seen in a sequencer.
The Slur palette determines the articulation of the notes and works in a similar way to the Forte palette. There are six preset levels of articulation ranging from short staccato to slur plus a slider for finer control. The manual reads as if selecting the slur will automatically tie notes of the same pitch but it doesn't. Instead you have to enter the notes, click on the first to be tied and then click on the slur icon (it took a while to figure this out).
The Ride palette lets you push or pull the attack time of a note from 1/48 to 3/48 of a quarter note.
TRACK TEN IS laid out like a drum grid with 12 rows. All 34 drum sounds can be accessed by selecting one of three pages (of 12 rows) although it's a shame you can't scroll the grid up and down.
You can't alter the order of the drums or select a different set of sounds. (Incidentally, while you can) record the extra LAPC1 sounds into the rhythm track in real-time from a MIDI keyboard, they don't appear on the grid and you can't edit them. Ballade was designed for the MT32 although a suitable upgrade should be a simple matter.)
You can enter a rhythm pattern in real or step-time exactly as you would a music track. The Rhythm palette offers a choice of six levels of note velocity plus a slider for finer adjustment.
THE SIGN MENU is used to select time and key signatures which can be changed at any point in the music. The Setting Sheets are selected, here, too, and the last three selected appear at the bottom of the screen. Program Changes can be inserted at any point as can pedal symbols (as used in piano music) which switch sustain on and off. You can set pan positions and you can choose a treble or bass clef instead of the Grand Stave.
Editing is fairly comprehensive. You can highlight a section of music by clicking and dragging the mouse across it and perform block cut, paste and erase operations on it. You can Write a section of music onto another section of music, effectively a merge operation allowing you to construct melody and harmony lines on separate tracks and merge them when correct.
"PC users used to the stilted graphics of many PC programs will find novelty and freshness in Ballade's screens and WIMP environment."
Whole tracks can be copied one to another and you can insert notes, transpose sections of a track and save a section of it to disk as a Pattern.
THE MAIN SCREEN of the Tone Editor shows the four partials which make up a tone. Selecting one of them displays the information associated with that partial on the rest of the screen.
Parameters are altered by clicking and dragging sliders and by clicking on increment and decrement buttons. Clicking on one of the three envelopes - Pitch, TVF and TVA - draws another screen which lets you move the nodes of the envelope by clicking and dragging. The values of the parameters change as you do so.
The Tone editor is well-designed and on a par with some dedicated voice editors although there is no random voice generation function (is that a miss?).
You can hear the tone by clicking on a blank area with the mouse or by playing your MIDI keyboard. You can also play a Phrase saved from the Song screen.
New Tones can be saved into six pages which can each hold 64 Tones. These are stored on disk and movement between pages can take several seconds although it seems to be the processing which takes the time, not the loading.
FILE HANDLING IS comprehensive and allows you to create new directories, rename, copy and delete files. However, in an effort, presumably, to protect the user from the intricacies of MS DOS file handling, it uses its own hierarchical directory and file system and stores a contents list on disk. If you want to give your latest masterpiece to a mate you'll probably have to do the copying through the program rather than copy the files with MS DOS.
The files on the factory disk are not the same as the ones shown in the manual so don't flip through too many directories looking for them (pity, I would like to have heard 'Spring' from Vivaldi's Four Seasons played on the MT32).
THE MANUAL IS also comprehensive, with screen dumps and illustrations on virtually every page. Some may argue that it is a little too basic as the first lesson in the Training Guide shows you how to load Ballade and quit it - and it takes a full seven pages. But better too many explanations than too few.
The Training Guide shows how to enter the first few bars of the Theme from A Summer Place but the dears have managed to get some of the note durations in the melody line wrong. Still, the manual deserves pretty high marks. It even has a comprehensive index, how about that?
PC USERS TO whom the often-numeric screen displays and stilted graphics of many PC programs are the norm will find novelty and freshness in Ballade's screens and WIMP environment (to ST, Amiga and Mac users, however, this will be nothing new).
For a program which deals (I'm almost tempted to to say revels) in stave notation, it's a shame there is no printout option. I find this difficult to understand, although if I tell you that a companion program called Dyna Duet has printout facilities, a little commercial light may begin to dawn.
One final comment - Ballade works best with the extra processing power of an AT. With an XT it may become a little hesitant particularly at the start of a piece. However, XT owners can run Ballade in XT mode which disables the level meters and faders in the play screen in order to improve timekeeping. Perhaps it's time to upgrade to an AT.
I like this program. It took a while to win me over but win me over it did. I had a few disagreements with it and there are a few areas in which I think it could be improved, but it's powerful and easy-to-use and I'm a sucker for traditional notation.
For the PC user with an MT32 (or LAPC1) or who is contemplating such a purchase, who likes to work with stave notation and who would like the convenience of a self-contained, integrated system. Ballade is absolutely excellent. It may not be as intrinsically flexible as a dedicated sequencer, but if the MT32's your expander and the PC's your computer, Ballade is your program.
Price £199.95 including VAT