EMR Studio 24+
Still suffering from a dearth of software, the powerful Acorn Archimedes computer has yet to gain acceptance in music circles - will this sequencer help it on its way? Ian Waugh checks it out.
The only 32-bit micro computer currently on the market is Acorn's Archimedes - but it's had to wait two years for its first music software.
IT'S A FUNNY old game isn't it, music and computers? I mean, there's never a right time to buy a computer or a piece of music software; there will always be something better around the corner.
I remember when the Commodore 64 was the music computer (it wasn't that long ago) and now I don't know of any company actively developing new C64 music software.
It wasn't until Atari unleashed their ST on the world that powerful and affordable music software became available to the masses and the ST assumed the tag of the music computer. And it looks likely to stay number one for a while at least, although it keeps glancing over its shoulder at the Commodore Amiga, the infinite variety of PC clones and the mighty Apple Mac.
And then there's Acorn, who made a fortune out of the BBC micro in England and lost it twice as quickly in America. Always at the forefront of technology, however, Acorn were not content with jumping from 8-bit to 16-bit processing, instead they leapfrogged over all the competition to produce a 32-bit computer, the Archimedes - the fastest micro in the world. More speed, more power, more memory; surely this is destined to become the new music computer.
On top of the fastest micro in town, what else do you need? Well, some software would be nice, wouldn't it? The Archimedes has been with us now for nigh on two years but if you're a musician rather than a computer buff you can well be forgiven if you haven't given it more than a cursory glance. In spite of its enormous musical potential, the Archimedes is having a devil of a job attracting the attention of the music software developers. Acorn have produced a MIDI Podule which plugs into a backplane (along similar lines to PC plug-in cards) and at least three companies are rumoured to be working on music software but it's a long time coming. Part of the problem, I feel, is the cost of the Archimedes itself which is considerably higher than the ST and Amiga. OK, I think most pundits will agree that it's certainly worth the extra ackers, but the marketplace is largely governed by price, and even Acorn's new computer, the entry-level A3000 at £746, is hardly an ST basher. And if people don't buy it in droves, who wants to write software for it, especially when the ST and Amiga are still burgeoning - and reasonably safe - markets?
ONE COMPANY, HOWEVER, has risen to the challenge. EMR (ElectroMusic Research) have a history of involvement with Acorn computers and have developed a range of music software for the BBC micro. EMR's Archimedes software falls under the generic banner of the Arpeggio Music System and EMR have been promoting the concept for well over a year. The vision is a fuIly integrated suite of programs including a range of sequencers - not just one - a scorewriter and a drum pattern editor complete with links to pro audio/visual equipment.
Studio 24 Plus is the first sequencer off the launch pad and, needless to say, it is also the first sequencer program for the Archimedes. As such, it sets the standard by which all others will be judged.
The manual describes the program as suitable for home, school and semi-pro use and it hits the shelf at a budget price. EMR have other plans for the pro user and are working on a program called, modestly, Megastudio which will accommodate 8064 channels. (This, however, requires additional hardware and that's another story altogether.) So let's plug in and boot up.
ONE OF THE nice things about Studio 24 Plus is the ability to play music using the Archimedes' internal sounds, and up to eight internal voices can be assigned to the tracks. You can set the stereo position and pitch offset of the internal sounds and tune them, too, although the tuning table doesn't seem to bear any resemblance to the A=440 we know and love so well.
When you load the program you're asked to allocate memory for the Waveform Filing System which holds the internal sounds. In theory you can access 32 sounds but this figure is dependent upon the amount of memory you allocate to the WFS. EMR have also produced a SoundSynth program for creating and editing the internal sounds plus several Sound Creation disks containing sound samples and these can be loaded into Studio 24.
"EMR's vision is a fully integrated suite of programs complete with links to pro audio/visual equipment."
You can enter music from the computer keyboard, so external equipment is not essential, but to get the most from the program you need to link it to the outside world with a MIDI interface. You can opt for Acorn's interface which has one In, one Thru and two Outs or go for EMR's MIDI 4, a full-width Podule with four Outs. The program will not work, however, with the Acorn MIDI add-on to its I/O Podule. The program automatically recognises which interface is in which Podule.
The main screen is fair crammed with icons and information (some observers have remarked upon the similarity between this and Steinberg's Pro24) but there is a really useful feature to help you find your way around. As you move the pointer (suitably disguised as a hand holding a baton) around the screen, a two-line help window at the bottom of the screen tells you what the feature is, often with a note on how to use it.
The program can be controlled almost completely with the mouse, although filenames - of course - and some numeric data must be entered from the computer. It's a shame you can't alter numbers by clicking on them. The three buttons on the mouse are used to select options and change parameters.
At the top of the screen are 24 tracks - hence the program's name. However, a recording is not limited to just 24 tracks. A song can be created from a number of patterns, each constructed from its own set of 24 tracks - when you change patterns, the track display alters accordingly. You simply add new patterns to the list when required - up to a theoretical maximum of 9999!
At the bottom of the screen is a set of now-familiar tape recorder controls in a section called the Control Desk. This includes a Punch In button and Cue finders.
TO BEGIN RECORDING, click on the Track number on which you wish to record, then click on the Record button and then on Start. Click on Stop or press the space bar when recording is complete. During recording, you can filter out program changes, pitchbend and aftertouch information and so on. Usefully, the Track display shows which Tracks contain recorded material. A VU display above the Track numbers indicates the velocity levels during both recording and playback. You can toggle between the VU display and a keyboard which shows which notes are playing.
You can solo Tracks, mute them and switch them off. A Pattern will play until the end of the longest Track and switching a Track off (as opposed to muting it) makes the program effectively ignore it.
The Track options are quite comprehensive, with separate settings for recording and playing back. Normally a Track will record data arriving on all MIDI channels (this is shown by F for Full in the display area) but you can make it record data from just one channel. On playback, a Track will transmit data on the same channel it was recorded on, but again, it can be set to transmit on any single channel. Furthermore, if you are using EMR's MIDI 4 Interface, each Track can be assigned to one of the four MIDI Out sockets giving access to 64 discrete MIDI channels.
When the MIDI Thru icon is activated, it sends incoming information to the MIDI Out socket on the currently selected track's channel number. This enables you to play a master keyboard and test musical lines with sounds on other equipment. However, this only works when record is activated so you can't audition a sound before going through the record procedure, which is a shame.
"As you move around the screen, a help window tells you what the feature is, often with a note on how to use it."
When a Track is selected for recording, its number appears under the Track display area and you can give it a 16-character name - very useful. It would have been helpful if the Track box became shaded when selected, too.
You need some way of keeping time during recording and Studio 24 lets you define a note number, velocity level and MIDI channel to act as a metronome. This obviously takes up one voice on your equipment, which could be precious if it only has four or eight voices. The pitch, too, may clash with what you play and this can be offputting. The manual suggests you hook up to a drum machine to keep time but this won't suit all users. Why not output a click through the Archimedes' speaker?
JUST ABOVE THE Control Desk are the Locators which show positions within the Tracks in bar/beat/tick format. These include Track Start and End points, Track Offset, Left and Right Locators and Destination position. There is also an indicator which shows the current bar, one which shows elapsed time - neat - and one for SMPTE timecode which isn't implemented in the current version.
The Locators are used to define a section of music to be edited in Copy and Paste operations using a Clipboard. There's a handy Undo button here, too - just in case. Locators were one of the first methods used by sequencers to pin-point sections within a track but they really are highly numeric. Many modern sequencers now offer some form of graphic editing which is generally easier to understand and work with.
To edit events you go to the Edit screen which, again, is highly numeric although quite comprehensive. Notes and other events are shown in an event list in bar/beat/tick format. Notes have separate entries for Note On and Note Off times. It would have been a little more user-friendly, I think, if the actual note durations had been shown.
MIDI events can easily be inserted in the event list by selecting them from a small menu. You can insert notes this way, too, but there is a step-time entry mode which lets you choose durations by clicking on a note symbol to cycle through the durations. Oddly, this doesn't have a semibreve (whole note). The constant clicking to cycle through the durations can become a nuisance (step-time is time consuming at its best) and it would have helped if all the durations had been shown on screen - there's plenty of room and selection made with just one click. The pitch can be entered via MIDI or from the computer keyboard.
Quantisation takes place from the main screen by selecting a value between two and 64 (why not specify a note by value or name?). There are no quantisation frills or tricks (such as a tolerance range or velocity quantisation) and quantise affects the whole of a track.
During playback, the mouse is effectively disabled apart from allowing you to click on Stop - so you can't alter MIDI channel settings, change instruments, mute Tracks and so on as a piece plays. This is standard fare on many 16-bit machines and as one of the Archimedes' most powerful facilities is multitasking it seems an odd omission. The tempo and pitch, however, can be altered during playback from the keyboard.
Other features include a facility to print out information about the current Pattern, transposition and Track loop. You can select internal or external clock, transmit a stream of up to 50 bytes of MIDI data (previously set up from within the Options menu) and there's an All Notes Off button easily accessible from the main screen - every sequencer should have one.
"Ultimately you come to the conclusion that full use has not been made of the Archimedes' power and facilities."
YOU CAN CREATE a piece from separate Patterns by stringing them together in the Arranger - this is a doddle. To hear the song, you click on a button on the front panel to toggle between Pattern and Song modes. The Conductor function lets you change tempo at different points throughout the song although there is no tempo scale function to let you program automatic rallentandos and accelerandos. Many windows only have an OK button - no Exit or Cancel. Especially during the early stages of use, it's very easy to make an alteration to something, realise you've made a mess of things and want to get back to where you first started. Sorry, but in Studio 24 that's not always possible.
In the Files menu you can load and save eight file types: Song, Arrangement, Pattern, Track, Clipboard, Voice Set, Conductor and Waveform. Comprehensive, eh?
The manual begins by telling you what Studio 24 can do and how it is constructed. If you know little about MIDI and nothing about the program this is not really very helpful. And presumably you already have the program so the sales pitch is no longer required.
The manual suggests that if you're new to MIDI you read EMR's booklet, MIDI, Micros & Music (a mere £1.75 but couldn't it have been included with the package?). It could be a little lighter in style and a tutorial section would have been reassuring, although it doesn't lack much in the way of information. It has a good contents page but no index.
THERE ARE SOME aspects of the design of Studio 24 Plus which bring to mind EMR's programs for the BBC micro. The user interface, I feel, could be improved in many areas and I personally would have preferred a more graphic and less numeric bias.
The program has many powerful features but some are not implemented as well as they could be and there are tantalising glimpses of facilities not yet implemented at all. Ultimately you come to the conclusion that full use has not been made of the Archimedes' power and facilities. But then it's certainly budget priced by current software sequencer standards so you need to balance the price against its facilities and assess your own personal requirements.
EMR, I'm sure, realise the program's limitations, and Studio 24 Plus version two is already in development. It will provide support for Render Bender pictures and feature full multitasking control, extra edit facilities and will probably cost under £150.00. A SMPTE Podule will also be available. Megastudio, mentioned earlier, is planned as Studio 24 Plus version three.
Other developments in the pipeline include entry of data from printed music with a scanner. I'm sure this is technically possible but I for one won't be holding my breath.
Let's go out the way we came in, with a few philosophical musings about the state of computers and music software. The Archimedes is waiting patiently in the wings for someone to write the perfect piece of music software for it. Studio 24 Plus, alas, is not perfect - but then it is a budget program, as I keep reminding you. If you already have an Archimedes and want a sequencer for it, at the moment you have no choice. If, however, you're looking for a musical excuse to buy an Archimedes, I'm afraid I don't think Studio 24 Plus is it.
There are other music developments on the horizon but until they draw closer and we see what they're made of, Studio 24 Plus has no competition. Whether EMR will retain its market advantage remains to be seen. Steinberg's Pro24 was the first sequencer for the Atari ST - and look where it is now! If EMR take advantage of their lead they could become to the Archimedes what Steinberg are to the ST.