Geerdes D-Series Editor
If you're using one of Roland's D-series synths (or an MT32) and you're tired of doing battle with its programming system, this ST editor/librarian can help. Gordon Reid goes soft on his D5.
The parameter-access style of programming employed on most modern synths makes it difficult to get the most out of a synth without the aid of a computer-based editor and librarian - like this one for Roland's D-series.
While I'm not in possession of all the figures, I suspect that Roland's D-series synths, with more than 300,000 units sold, are the most successful (semi-) pro-orientated synths ever launched. This remarkable success has inevitably spawned a very competitive third-party support industry, including voice cards, editors, librarians, RAMs and ROMs. With such a proliferation of existing goodies already available, it's difficult to offer something new. One possibility is to come up with something every D-series user wants - and to then throw in some extra facilities at no extra cost. This is the approach adopted by German company Geerdes, because their D10/D20/D110/MT32 Softworkstation editor/librarian (which also runs with the D5) includes 1st Track - a fully-featured, 24-track MIDI Sequencer which will run concurrently with the editor/librarian in an integrated environment Geerdes call Softworkstation. If I wanted to attract custom, I reckon a free sequencer would be a good way to go about it.
The editor and manager (librarian) plus sequencer that comprise the Softworkstation come on a single disk which is dongle copy-protected. The program requires a minimum of 1Mb of RAM and a hi-res monochrome monitor to run. Personally, I dislike programs which only run in mono - I don't own a monochrome monitor. Even using a selection of hi-res emulators I was unable to run the Softworkstation on my colour monitor. (That you're reading this at all is by the grace of the guy who loaned me his SM124.) Is the insistence on mono justified? Certainly some of the editor/librarian screens are very busy, and running in mono is easier on the eye.
The program disk and dongle are supplied in a small ring binder with two manuals. The editor/librarian manual totals 36 close-typed pages; the sequencer manual is somewhat longer and better laid out at 46 pages. Unfortunately, soon after the intro (which includes a useful description of the differences between the various D-series 'synths) the editor manual runs into trouble: explanations of new ideas are glossed over or omitted entirely, Germlish pervades the manual and there is no reference within it to the D5. To compound all of the above, many screen shots in the manual differ from the screens that you see on your monitor. Yes folks, it's the dreaded "the software's been updated since they wrote the manual" syndrome. Thankfully, importers Newtronic have promised a new manual, commissioned by them, and written entirely by a Brit, which will be available by the time you read this.
The editor/librarian section of the Softworkstation is structured into five sections: Tones (Manager, Database and Editor); Timbres (Manager and Editor); Patches (Manager and Editor); Rhythm Setup; and Overall settings. The program uses the tone/timbre nomenclature of the D-10/20 synthesisers, so if you're an MT32 owner, you'll have to translate this review accordingly.
If you like your programs simple and self explanatory, this one isn't for you. But once you overcome the initial obstacles, the operation of the Tone Manager is fairly straightforward. Eight boxes each contain eight Tones (a Tone bank), and five of these may be loaded into memory simultaneously. This arrangement is then duplicated: the first set of boxes, called "actual Tones" provides the slots into which you load your tone data (either from the synth or from disk); the second set, named Setup, provide the metaphorical blank piece of paper onto which you write your new Tone banks. Bank creation is straightforward: select, click, drag... And besides moving Tones between boxes, you may also duplicate or swap them between banks. Receiving to and sending from the synth, plus loading and saving to/from disk, are carried out via a box called ActualDisplay. Nothing exceptional here, except that the Softworkstation can save Tones to the synth even when the memory protect is on. Create your own nightmare scenarios out of that. Unfortunately, I discovered a nasty bug that limited my ability to receive and transmit banks to and from the D5. Newtronic have, of course, been notified of this, and it should be rectified by the time you read this. But, in common with many dangerous substances, the Softworkstation also offers some powerful options for users tough enough to handle them. Examples of these are Random, which creates a bank of eight variations on a single Tone and Crossfade, which creates eight random re-combinations of any two selected tones. I particularly liked Crossfade, and the results of this were often useful additions to my patch-banks.
The second half of the Tone Manager is the Tone Database. This enables you to save the information regarding 2,300 Tones in a single information file, and then sort and recall the individual sounds according to 53 search criteria - number of partials, type of sound generation, a given string of up to ten characters, and 50 user-defined code names. Of course, the actual sound data is not held in the database - this simply tells the computer where to find the Tone data within the files that you have already saved. Tones may be freely added to, or deleted from, the database, the only restriction being that at least one search criterion must be defined when you add a Tone to the database. This is a chore, but once you have hundreds or even thousands of Tones on disk, you'll appreciate the benefits of well-designed sort codes and the ability to find a specific Tone from among thousands of others.
The next module within the Softworkstation is the Tone editor. The layout of this adopts the "as many parameters on the page as possible" convention. In fact, the editor gives you simultaneous access to every parameter contained with a D-series tone. To Geerdes' credit, the layout of this information (nearly 250 parameters) is clear and straightforward, and you can quickly get down to some serious editing. Each synth parameter is named, and four columns are then shown alongside - a column for each partial. Modifying values is accomplished by clicking on the appropriate figure and using the left and right mouse buttons to increment/decrement the value. Unfortunately, the polarity of the buttons (left/up; right/down) is the reverse of every other package I've ever encountered, and is a pain. However, it is also possible to click both mouse buttons and then drag a parameter value bar up and down onscreen. This saves much time, but unfortunately a bug in the program caused the bar to extend beyond its box, thus obscuring other parts of the screen. It remained this way until the program was rebooted. Another programming shortcut enables you to modify all four partials simultaneously by using the increment/decrement buttons while pointing at the parameter name itself. All four partial columns then count up or down together.
Graphic screens are available where appropriate, and clicking on a button named Ctrl allows you to display graphics for each of the TVAs, TVFs, TVA Biases and Pitch envelopes. These can then be modified in the time-honoured way, by picking up the edit point on any curve and dragging it to the required position. This is very useful, particularly in the TVA/TVF screens where all eight curves are displayed simultaneously, enabling you to get a firm "analogue" grip on the Tone you're modifying.
A PCM wave selector is also provided. This enables you to choose your PCMs by name, rather than by having to rely upon PCM numbers only. PCMs can be dumped from the selector directly into the four partials before returning to the main editor screen. The editor also includes a randomiser (for which the number of parameters effected, and the range to which they are modified, may be user defined) and a partial copier, which enables you to move elements of one sound into another without having to go through the time-consuming and boring task of recreating a partial from scratch.
"You'll appreciate the benefits of the database's well-designed sort codes and the ability to find a specific Tone from among thousands of others."
Although each of the Timbre, Patch, and Overall Managers and Editors have their own edit screens and separate chapters in the manual, they're minor programs next to the Tone editor and librarian. Let's face it, a D10 Timbre, while being the fundamental building block of multitimbral setups, is only a Tone with four parameters stuck on it. But the Timbre manager and editor performs a useful service, if only because it can display 128 Tones (for example, the complete A-bank and B-banks) simultaneously. Eight Timbres can then be modified simultaneously and retransmitted to the synth or saved to disk.
There are two patch editor/managers within the Softworkstation - one for the D10/D20, and the other for the D110. No patch editor is supplied for the D5 but, since this was the synth with which I was reviewing the software, I tried using the D10 program (selected from the configuration menu in the main menu bar) and see what happened. Happily, all went well. Selecting Performance mode on the synth enabled the software to transmit and receive performances happily, with the proviso that the synth's chord play, chase, harmony, and arpeggio functions were ignored, and the software's reverb parameters (which don't exist on the D5) were similarly discarded. A single Softworkstation patch setup is comprised of 16 banks each of eight patches; within this you can individually edit the patch name, mode, balance, and all the other parameters associated with D-series patches.
D110 patches differ dramatically from D10/20 patches. Accordingly, the D110 patch manager and editor is quite different to its D10/20 counterpart. While I can make no statements regarding its operation, the D110 patch manager appears to contain all the necessary parameters and controls. The screen dump contained in the manual shows that the key ranges for the eight multitimbral parts are displayed graphically within the patch manager main screen - a neat touch, which helps you to create powerful splits and overlaps very quickly.
The Overall Settings page ties up the remaining functions of the synths. These differ between models, but the program has been written so that all synths can be addressed by one program, each synth using or ignoring parameters as appropriate. For the D110 this module appears to be a waste of time, since it duplicates the functions of the patch editor, but for the D5 it fills a gaping hole in the timbre editor - the creation of multitimbral setups.
The drum editor is the last module in the Softworkstation editors. This enables you to reallocate drum sounds to keys and adjust the volume and pan of each. There is no graphic representation but, nevertheless, the editor is an operational piece of cake. You change sounds by clicking on the old sound, and audition the current sound by clicking on the key name. Saving and loading to/from disk, and transmitting and receiving to/from the synth are performed as usual. There's little else to say about the drum editor; it's clear, it's simple, and it works.
On the subject of rhythms, the Softworkstation can also receive rhythm patterns and tracks from the D10 and D20. This is a useful library function, but no editing of these patterns or tracks is possible on the computer, restricting the usefulness of the facility.
Newtronic supply 1st-Track as a stand-alone package (at a cost of £49) and having spent some time with it during this review, I could happily recommend it as an entry-level sequencer. Of course, it's not going to stop anybody from using EditTrack, Cubase, or Creator, but then £49 isn't going to break the bank either. 1st-Track is a 24-track sequencer operating in both pattern and track modes, with a wide range of advanced editing features, and enough bells and whistles to make it interesting in its own right.
The main screen shows all 24 tracks simultaneously and allows you to quantise, velocity adjust, transpose, and loop each track separately. The parameters for these operations are shown onscreen at all times and may be modified while the track is playing. All such operations are nondestructive. One of the most useful features of 1st-Track is the "marker". Identical in operation to the locate points on a genuine tape recorder, markers differ from other sequencers only in the number available: 80 of them - unprecedented for an entry-level package. This means that you can mark not only choruses and verses (or whatever) but every instrument's entry point, plus many other key events within the track. Loading and saving of tracks is straightforward and conventional, but it is also possible to load songs into current files at any position. This makes it possible to build live performances from individual tracks. Mind you, you'll need the RAM of an expanded Mega-ST if you're going to develop this facility in any serious way.
"1st Track is simple, intuitive and boasts functions that you wouldn't normally expect in a package costing £49, let alone in a freebie."
1st-Track also contains a complete MIDI event editor that may also be used as a step input facility. All the usual facilities are here and an added bonus is Catch mode, which chases the MIDI event table while a track is playing, enabling you to locate specific events, or even problems, quickly and easily. The final set of sequencer facilities are contained within the Multi Tool Box. This contains many of the sequence editing capabilities you'd expect to find in a more expensive package. These include copying between tracks, moving, deleting, transposition, velocity adjustment, channel replacement, muting, and a MIDI byte editor. These facilities can be limited to certain tracks, areas within tracks, or even MIDI channels and event types within tracks.
The latest version of 1st-Track also supports SysEx and MIDI File Standard, and may be synchronised to an external MIDI clock.
The Roland D-Series synths demand powerful editors because their built-in operating systems are such a pain in the... With their Tones, Timbres, patches, multitimbral setups, rhythm setups and effects, they need a piece of software that is simpler and quicker to use than the onboard operating system, and makes the relationship between the various sections of the synth much clearer. Accordingly, the Geerdes Softworkstation is packed with features which will, in all probability, help you to discover new capabilities within your synth - if you delve deeply enough. Once understood, the editors are powerful and relatively straightforward to use, but you must be prepared to think of your Atari as a computer, rather than as a musical tool to get the best out of them. OK, the manual is a disaster and there are bugs in the editors but, except for the Tone manager loading problems (which must be rectified immediately by Geerdes before any other D5 owner buys the package), these don't stop you using the program.
The 1st-Track sequencer is a pleasure to use. It's simple, intuitive and boasts a wealth of functions that you wouldn't normally expect in a package costing £49 (let alone in a freebie). The latest version of the 1st-Track manual arrived while this review was being prepared and, in stark contrast to the editor manual, it deserves credit for being clear and easy to use.
Should you buy the Softworkstation? If you have a D-series synth which you've been using as a performance synthesiser, and you want to move into the world of multitimbral sequencing, this package, with its combined editors, librarians, and sequencer, could be tailor-made for you.
Alternatively, if you consider yourself to be a "power user" and if money is no object, the Softworkstation may also be near the top of your list when you reach for your cheque book. But the price for this power is high - £149 is almost three times the asking price of some other manufacturers' D-series editors.
One final word. Before you buy this package, make sure that Geerdes have delivered the new manual and sorted out the bugs. If the editor/librarian can be improved to the standard of the sequencer, it will then be possible to give the Softworkstation a firm thumbs-up.
Price £149 including VAT.
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Review by Gordon Reid