Software for Sinclair Spectrum
Music software for the Sinclair Spectrum is alive and well. Simon Trask reports on a ten-track sequencer package from Swedish company 10 Systems.
The Sinclair Spectrum may no longer be the budget home computer to beat, but a Swedish company called 10 Systems have squeezed the last drop of computing power from Sir Clive's miniature micro, and come up with a package of real musical value.
In the early days of MIDI software (which means less than two years ago), the humble Sinclair Spectrum was the most popular budget computer for both sequencing and other MIDI applications. Since that time, its position has been usurped by the Commodore 64, leaving Spectrum owners with little to choose from while MIDI software has become increasingly sophisticated.
In a way that's surprising, because although the Spectrum isn't exactly the world's most powerful computer and its storage facilities aren't of the quickest, there's no denying the sheer number of Spectrums (Spectra?) in the world guarantees a healthy market for any enterprising software developer. And as XRI Systems have shown with their Micon sequencer (reviewed E&MM June '85), the Spectrum and good MIDI software can go hand in hand.
The appearance of a new 10-track sequencing package for the Spectrum from Sweden's 10 Systems confirms both the computer's international appeal, and its ability to support well-conceived MIDI software.
The sequencer is conceived around a single-screen display, with ten columns (alternating yellow and grey for visibility) corresponding to the ten sequencer tracks.
Recording is accomplished in units which 10 Systems call 'segments'. There are 128 of these available, each of which can be up to 255 bars long. Before you can play back a segment, you have to insert it into one of the 10 tracks. Each track can be up to 1000 bars long; bar numbers are given in a column to the left of the tracks, and these in conjunction with a dotted 'cursor line' across the tracks indicate your exact position (to a resolution of a 16th-note). Unfortunately, the display doesn't scroll during recording or playback.
In practice, it's best to insert some empty segments into your track(s) before recording, as this enables you to move between record and playback modes with the minimum of fuss. The sequencer's track format allows you to see which segments are on each of its 10 tracks at any given moment, which is undeniably useful.
Recording and playback always begin from the current position of the track cursor. This means that when recording, you hear whichever other segments are coincident in the track table; you can control which tracks/segments are heard by turning individual tracks on or off. The segment you're recording is selected independently of the track table, however, so as mentioned, above the segment (more correctly, a pointer to the segment) has to be inserted into one of the tracks before you can hear it played back.
The time signature of each segment can be set to any value between 1/16 and 64/2. Now, not only does this allow you to work in all sorts of weird and wonderful times, but 255 bars of 64/2 gives you a commendably lengthy recording period, too. And because in the track table you can combine different segments which can also start at different points in time, it's possible to build up some complex compositions if that's your thing.
Your performance is recorded exactly as you play it, but can be quantised afterwards (to 4, 6, 8, 12, 16, 24, 32, 48 or 96th-note resolution). Quantisation is irreversible, so it's advisable to copy your performance into another segment first, before you subject it to modification by computer.
Control changes, program changes, aftertouch and pitch-bend can each be filtered out at the recording stage, and once you've recorded a segment, the sequencer allows you to erase all key, controller, pitch bend, program change and aftertouch data. It's even possible to remove individual controllers (any controller number from 1-127) and to replace one MIDI control code with another.
"Design: The sequencer is conceived around a single-screen display, with ten columns corresponding to the ten sequencer tracks."
As with any sequencer, you can add performance data in later by recording it into a separate segment and sending the two segments on the same MIDI channel - useful but not very economic, though 10 Systems' sequencer allows you to bounce down segments, which gets around this problem. Being able to bounce down segments is also useful if you're recording several percussion parts on a MIDI drum machine, or more than one keyboard part to be played on the same instrument; when you've finally got the parts as you want them, you can bounce them down if you need to free tracks for other parts.
Further segment editing functions allow you to transpose a segment up or down in semitone steps, increase or decrease the velocity information (which can be useful for balancing parts, or allowing for the varying velocity response of different instruments) and delete all data from a segment. You can also copy one segment to any other segment(s).
10 Systems have given their sequencer a useful range of track-based features as well. Segments can be inserted and deleted from a track at any point (to a 16th-note resolution), and where you want periods of silence on a track you can insert these without having to define them as blank segments. Tempo changes can be inserted at the beginning of any bar, and apply to all 10 tracks. For each track you can insert program changes (0-127) and key changes (±99 semitones) at the boundaries of a segment or in an empty position. These are displayed in a separate column, and can easily be inserted and deleted at anytime.
The word processor approach to composition also allows you to search and replace any segment within a track with any other segment, and to copy any section of a track to anywhere in the same or another track.
The sequencer can converse with the outside world via two MIDI Outs, Roland's DIN sync, Clock In/Out (selectable to 24, 48 or 96ppqn in and out - making the sequencer compatible with non-MIDI drum machines from Roland, Korg and Oberheim) and Tape Sync In/Out. Shunning the Spectrum's pathetic internal beep, 10 Systems have included a metronome click on the Tape Sync Out socket.
MIDI song pointers are also supported, which, as you may know by now, allow you to slave the sequencer to a tape machine via a SMPTE/MIDI converter - a superior arrangement to standard tape sync, if you can afford it.
On the storage front, tracks and segments can be saved to either Sinclair Microdrive or cassette as a single file, and given a 10-character filename. You can also catalogue and erase files.
The accompanying manual is commendably thorough in some ways (you'll certainly be aware of how much the sequencer can do), but not so good on the mechanics of actually getting your music recorded and assembled onto the tracks. A step-by-step example or two would do no harm here.
The 10 Systems sequencer is a flexible, sensibly-designed package which should win a lot of friends - particularly when you consider how cheap a Spectrum is, and, for the quality of what you're getting, how cheap the hardware and software are, too.
Prices Software £75; MIDI interface £125; Sync interface £10; Introductory offer: complete system £199.95; all prices including VAT. Advanced Step Time Editor/Composer package available shortly, free to sequencer buyers.
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Review by Simon Trask