EMR MIDItrack Performer
Software for Sinclair Spectrum
John Harris and Shirley Gray dissect Electromusic Research's latest software package for the Sinclair Spectrum.
EMR's first MIDI software package - for the BBC Micro - didn't exactly stand the music world on its head. Now they've turned their attention to the Spectrum - will it prove a more fruitful combination?
The latest software offering from Electromusic Research is the MIDItrack Performer, designed for use with the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (48K) and EMR's own MIDI interface unit. Basically, the program allows you to record eight separate tracks with control over bar length, tempo, transposition, and simple touch-sensitivity (full or without pressure). Each track can be mono or polyphonic, assigned to any MIDI channel between 1 and 16, and the whole lot synced to tape by connecting the Clock Start/Stop on the interface unit to any rhythm unit, sequencer, or microcomposer with a sync-to-tape capability (for more information on this area of synchronisation, see Trish McGrath's review of the Korg KMS30 elsewhere this issue). All eight tracks will accept any form of performance data the connecting synth is capable of transmitting via MIDI, and a metronome (complete with selectable count-in) is always on hand for you to keep time to when recording, which is all accomplished in real time. Once your composition has been recorded, you can of course save it to cassette for future delectation and disturbance.
After you've made all the appropriate connections (using standard-wired five-pin DIN cables to connect the interface to your MIDI instruments) and loaded the program, all control operations are carried out using the colourful main screen display. The upper portion of the screen shows the current settings for each of the eight tracks, and each of these can be altered once you've selected it with the cursor keys.
Play allows you to replay an already-recorded track, Channel is used to select the MIDI channel you wish to assign the track to, Pitch lets you alter the tuning of the selected track up or down in semitone intervals, while Mode enables you to select either of two MIDI modes - Mono and Poly. Mono mode is what you select if you're using a keyboard capable of linking all its oscillators together in unison on one note, or a multi-timbral system such as that inherent in the SCI MAX and SixTrak. Back at the main menu, Control enables you to choose whether or not you want to record dynamic information (the after-touch on the Yamaha DX7, for instance), as this uses up large amounts of valuable memory.
Most lower screen features are accessible by selecting the highlighted screen letter, and this can be done whatever the position of the cursor. If you want to playback one or more tracks from any selected bar in the composition, this can be achieved with the Start control once you've checked the non-user accessible Bar reading. No traditional music notation is used in this software, but you can set a number between 2 and 7 to set the number of beats in a bar, and if you don't have a rhythm unit connected via clock or MIDI, the metronome and adjustable count-in are obviously extremely useful features. The metronome is created by sending a brief pitched note to any MIDI instruments set to channel 1, and fortunately both the pitch and loudness of the metronome can be altered - it can be more than a little distracting if it's in a different key to the one you're playing in.
The overall tempo of both recorded and replayed signal can be set to be anything between 1 and 1026 beats per minute (!) if you're using the internal clock, while for external clock control, the interface unit is compatible with the Roland 24 pulses per quarter note sync code, and an optional clock converter is available from EMR for owners of Korg, Linn, Oberheim, and E-mu equipment, among others.
Play sets the number of repeats of the whole composition (0-254), and if you're courageous enough to select 255, the track runs continuously until you press Break/Space on the Spectrum. If you're worried about how much memory you're using up, Free is updated after each recording to show how much memory remains. Finally, if you suddenly have a brainstorm and decide to remove a piece completely from the memory, you just use the Z (for Zap, what else?) button. Simplicity itself.
Recording is pretty straightforward. Once you've set all the above-mentioned parameters so that they fit in with your idea of sequential heaven, you need press only two keys followed by Return to get the recording ball rolling - a quick stab at the Break/Space key stops it again with the minimum of fuss. When you go to record subsequent tracks, those recorded previously will automatically play in sync, and it doesn't matter which order you record the tracks in. The length of the piece as a whole is determined by the length of the longest track, so if you're only playing on the intro on one track, you can stop recording as soon as you've finished rather than having to wait for the end. As you record, the display tells you not only which bar is currently being played, but also how much memory you have left, this latter feat being accomplished by a bar across the top of the screen that gradually fills up from left to right - a bit like the ones you see on games that show you how much air/fuel/time/alcohol you have left before the Earth is destroyed by an alien life force or an Electronic Soundmaker reader.
You can play back your composition from any point (default is bar 1), which is handy, and you can also loop a piece simply by entering the number of plays you want at the required loop point.
Entering Playback mode is achieved simply by pressing P followed by Enter if you're using the machine's internal clock, or by starting your rhythm unit if you're clocking from that. The machine will stop automatically when the piece has finished, or you can take the laws of computing into your own hands and stop it at any time by pressing the Break/Space key.
The program takes about four minutes to load, but this is accomplished easily enough, and if you want to hear the MIDI Performer go through its paces before making any creative decisions of your own, there are two demonstration pieces - a Bach Fugue and a composition entitled 'Demo' - which can be loaded off cassette. The latter piece incorporated voice changes on track 4, but try as we might, we couldn't coax the software into accepting voice changes from our DX7, though all other MIDI information was handled without complaint.
One major drawback with the example of the program we tried was its tendency to crash whenever a typing error was made on the Sinclair, or go into a world of its own in which it would not accept any commands and the only solution was to turn off and reload the program. Whether this fault was unique to our copy of the tape or something common to all MIDI Performer packages is open to debate (the root of the problem might even have been a dodgy Spectrum), but it was certainly a nuisance - we ended up loading the program about 15 times during the review period.
You want more gripes, you got 'em. There's no drop-in facility on the Performer, and although you can playback from any bar in the composition, you can't record from any point other than the start. This makes life difficult if a complicated part is to be played manually, as it places the onus on you to get it right for the whole length of the composition. Still, there's always the option of recording at a slow tempo and playing back at the right speed if you harbour doubts as to your own performing prowess.
When everything is working properly, the MIDItrack Performer is a reasonably versatile, thoughtfully-written and generally user-friendly package that should make a lot of people happy. It has its idiosyncracies and its fair share of important omissions, but then there are very few MIDI software packages about which the same cannot be said.
The system's biggest single failing lies in the fact that the software can't be run in conjunction with any Spectrum MIDI interface other than EMR's own, which strikes us as being short-sighted in the extreme. After all, if you've already splashed out on someone else's interface box because you wanted to run, say, that company's step time program, why should you be forced, to cough up for what's effectively an unnecessary duplication of some fairly basic electronics hardware?
Still, what can't be denied is that this package is a vast improvement over EMR's previous endeavour, written for the BBC B and reviewed in E&MM August 84. Like an awful lot of MIDI software companies, EMR seem to be getting their act together bit by bit (no pun intended), and the MIDItrack Performer is a significant step in the right direction, even if it's still got a number of inherent weaknesses that really should have been ironed out at the development stage. It'll do.
RRP of the EMR package reviewed is £169 inclusive of VAT.
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