FM Melody Maker
Turn your Atari ST into a complete software music system for well under a ton. Ian Waugh fires up a new all-in-one music program from an independent British company.
Looking for a cheap 'n' cheerful way of getting music out of your Atari? This complete software music system allows you to create whole scores with the minimum of fuss.
FM MELODY MAKER is a sort of Big Band out of EZ-Score but it was developed by an independent company, Richard Watts Associates, which was responsible for the Music Sales Sound Expander for the Commodore 64. The astute reader with a good memory will find several points of similarity, although this is a totally new package.
The idea is really quite neat - a self-contained music system, complete with composition software. I seem to recall a machine called the Failrite... Fairlife... or something, which is based on a similar idea, and there is also the powerful and fully-integrated Hybrid Music System from Hybrid Technology (no relation to Hybrid Arts) which runs on the BBC micro and is the affordable face of computer-based music systems.
FM Melody Maker, however, is not quite as ambitious as either and its aim is to make life as simple as possible for the user. Basically, you enter a monophonic melody line and some chords and Melody Maker will produce an auto accompaniment for it, complete with bassline, backing chords and drum track.
The sounds are produced by an FM chip housed in a cartridge which plugs into the ST's cartridge port. It has two phono sockets to produce a stereo output which must be plugged into an external amplifier or hi-fi system.
The program will run in hi-res or lo-res. It has one main screen showing a treble clef stave in the upper half with a collection of note and music icons below. You can toggle between notes and rests and select dotted, triplet and tie symbols.
OPERATION IS VERY simple indeed. Select a note or rest, move the mouse into the stave area and click it into place between the square brackets - the Edit Box. When the cursor is in the Edit Box it becomes a note (lo-res) or a cross (hi-res - but why not a note here, too?) and the note name appears in the box. The stave automatically scrolls on ready for the next note.
Bar lines are inserted automatically in accordance with the time signature, although if you add a note which is longer than the time remaining in the bar, the program draws three bar lines to inform you of the fact, rather than splitting the note over two bars.
The next block down has selectors for chords, repeats, key and time signatures. Clicking on the shaded area calls up the selection screen and clicking on the unshaded area places your selection on the stave where the Edit Box is.
The program supports 13 chord types including sus4, m7-5, 11 and m11. The repeat options include first to ninth time bars, DC, DS, Coda and Fine symbols. There are 13 key signatures including the enharmonic F sharp and G flat and eight time signatures including 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 6/8, 7/4, 9/8 and 12/8.
Editing is basically limited to deletion and insertion, although you can transpose notes by semitone and octave. To delete a symbol you scroll it into the Edit Box and click on the trash can. Chord symbols must be attached to a note or a rest and they are deleted before the note. It's best, therefore, to edit notes by transposition if you want to retain the chord, although if you want to replace the note with others of different durations the chord will have to go, too.
There are 16 accompaniment patterns and it's worth listing them as they are at the heart of the system: Pop, Disco, Soul, Rock, Slow Rock, Reggae, Rock 'n' Roll, Ballad, Latin, Swing, March, Big Band, Bluegrass, Afro and R 'n' B. Although there are a variety of time signatures, they only affect the music on the stave, not the accompaniments. For example, patterns such as Pop and Rock always play in 4/4 and the Waltz always plays in 3/4 no matter what the time signature. The odd time signatures, therefore, play across the beat. The accompaniments are similar in style and variety to those you might find in low-priced portable keyboards.
HAVING PUT SOME music in, let's see what we can do with it.
First there's the Voice Selector. This calls up six selector bars in the bottom half of the screen, one each for the melody, the four accompaniment parts and the bass. You scroll through the selectors to choose the sounds you want. There are 78 different sounds for the melody part and 15 for the others. If the music is playing you will hear the changes come into effect immediately. The 16 accompaniments each have their own preset range of instruments but you can retain your own set when changing backing.
It would have been more helpful, I feel, if the sounds had been listed in a window so you could see several at once. Until you learn which order they are in (especially the melody voices) you may find yourself scrolling back and forth looking for a particular sound.
The sounds themselves, again, are typical of those you might find in a portable keyboard. The chip itself is a two-operator FM chip with 15 preset sounds and one programmable one. Although it only has two operators, each can be a sine wave or a distorted sine wave, which explains how the program is able to produce 78 different sounds. Bearing this in mind, they really are very good. The accent is on traditional and acoustic instrument sounds but there are a few synth tones and sound effects. The sounds used in the drum section, however, which is preset, are particularly weak.
Running the output through a reverb or echo unit beefs up the sounds considerably - of course - and with the right combination of instruments the result can be greater than the individual parts would lead you to believe. Six excellent demos on the disk testify to this (although I didn't like the Heart tune at all).
NEXT STOP IS the Mixer which, again, produces a half screen display, this time of seven faders for the melody, four accompaniment parts, bass and drums. You can do a mix here in real time although the result isn't recorded into the music.
"The accent of the internal sounds is on traditional and acoustic instrument sounds - but there are a few synth tones and sound effects."
Although the cartridge produces a stereo output (actually pseudo-stereo), you can't alter the pan positions of the sounds.
You can channel the voices to an external MIDI synthesiser or expander. Clicking on Composer MIDI in the Options menu lets you set channel number and velocity for the melody, four accompaniment parts, and bass channels. Drum MIDI lets you set channel number, MIDI note number and velocity for the five drums - Bass, Snare, Hi-hat, Cymbal and Tom Tom - and also six other drum sounds which will only play via MIDI and which you can program from the drum grid editor (coming up).
If you send your composition out via MIDI, the relative volumes must be set with the velocity parameter; the Mixer has no control over MIDI volume - shame.
FM Melody Maker has three additional operations which are not directly related to the composition section. Selecting MIDI Recorder from the Options menu turns it into a one-track sequencer. There's a metronome, you can select from two to 12(?) beats in the bar and get a one to four bar count-in. There's a MIDI Thru function, too.
It works, what more can you say? Useful for jotting down ideas, perhaps, although it would be nice to be able to transfer a recording into the melody section of the program. You can load and save recordings.
The second feature turns Melody Maker into a nine-voice expander playable from an external MIDI keyboard. (The chip can be configured to produce either nine FM voices or six FM voices and five drum channels.) The nine voices are listed on the screen and you can allocate each to a different MIDI channel, detune them and apply an offset of +/-24 semitones.
MIDI Thru can be switched on or off and the voices can respond to velocity information. If you go over the nine-voice polyphony you can decide whether the first or last note played has priority. The drum sounds can be played from an external keyboard, too.
The third feature is a drum grid editor. With it you can create up to 20 drum patterns and string up to 20 of them together to form a song. It's quite versatile as far as it goes. A grid can have from one to 16 steps and the timing resolution can be varied from 1/8 notes to 1/32 triplets. Little notes at the top of the grid show where the main beats lie. As well as using the five built-in drums you can use the other six set up with the Drum MIDI option which plays via MIDI only.
Having created some patterns and a song, however, you can't use them in the composition part of the program. The 20-pattern chain is rather limiting, too.
SO THERE YOU have it. OK, it's not state-of-the-art and there are lots of ways in which the program could be improved, but it has been designed for ease of use and to a level of simplicity. There are even help screen (and a choice of three languages).
Aspects I found particularly frustrating include not being able to play back from the middle of a piece, not being able to program a change of sound into the middle of a piece and lack of editing facilities such as copy, move, cut and paste. It would have been nice, too, to be able to apply the patterns constructed in the drum grid to your tunes.
In a supreme attempt at helpfulness, the Save Music As... option refuses to allow you to overwrite a file (OK, so perhaps the Save Music option is for that sort of thing but a choice would be nice). Anomalies include the ability to tie rests!
But all in all, the program and sounds have been cleverly designed around the chip to maximise its potential - and hence the unintegrated extra bits.
Hybrid Arts are hoping to encourage software writers to include Melody Maker music in their games programs. As this would not require anywhere near as much memory or processor time as using samples, this could lead to very long musical soundtracks - could be very interesting. Whether this will become a reality only time will tell, but I wish them luck.
FM Melody Maker is not aimed at the pro or even the semi-pro market but I must confess I had great fun with it. There's nothing like a little auto accompaniment for instant gratification. It's a sort of computer-based portable keyboard. If the idea of an easy-to-use program which adds instant accompaniments to your melodies appeals to you and you can live with the limitations then give it a spin.
Price £69.95 including VAT
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Review by Ian Waugh
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