Hands On OnSTAGE
Atari ST MIDI File Player
Hands On's OnSTAGE package frees your ST from its monitor, and turns it into a gigging sequencer. Derek Johnson checks it out.
Let's face it: road-worthiness was not top of the agenda when they designed the Atari ST. Nevertheless, the MIDI capabilities of everybody's favourite music computer have ensured its repeated use in a live sequencing role. Possibly the weakest link in such a setup is the monitor and its connection to the computer. True, the computer itself isn't immune to being dropped or having beer poured down it, but the same can be said of most combos or other stage gear. So if you can take care of your other electronics, your computer should be OK. The monitor, on the other hand, is awkward to lug around, and hard to position on stage. If only there were a way of doing away with it completely...
It just so happens that Hands On Software, known for their MIDI files, have released a reasonably priced hardware/software combination that allows a suitably protected ST to be used on stage as a sequence playback machine. The one proviso is that all your songs have to be in MIDI File Format. OnSTAGE, the package in question, consists of a small display unit that plugs into your printer port, and a program disk. The display has a number of LEDs which help keep you informed while using your Atari blind: these are labelled Status, MIDI In, MIDI Out and Play, and there are a further four song bank LEDs, about which more in a bit.
The disk comes equipped with three programs. If you boot up with the disk (or preferably a copy) in your disk drive, you'll see the OnSTAGE MIDI File Player screen — not a lot of use at the moment. Reset your computer and get to the desktop. Put the OnSTAGE disk back in the drive, and double click on ONSTAGE.PRG. This will give you the OnSTAGE edit screen, which runs in any resolution. The remaining program is a test routine for the display unit.
The Edit Page consists of three main areas (apart from the ubiquitous menu bar): Track List, Song Banks, and replay control buttons. This last group consists of tape transport type controls (including pause, rewind and fast forward), and time display, tempo, and a bar counter.
The Track List section shows up to 64 individual tracks, each with MIDI channel, program number, and a MIDI activity indicator; tracks can be muted, and program number and MIDI channels can be changed, as can relative velocity and MIDI volume. The Song Bank section, however, will probably be the first place you start. There are four banks (A,B,C,D) which contain eight songs each. Choose File from the menu bar, and select Load Song. There are MIDI files on the disk, so choose one of those. Wait a moment, and you will see its name occupying Bank A, Song 1. Click on the next space down and load another song. It's that easy. Keep going until you've filled the 32 spaces or run out of MIDI files. You now have a Set. If this seems tedious, with the Fast Set facility the file selector keeps reappearing and lets you keep loading songs sequentially into subsequent slots until you've got all the songs you need for that particular Set.
To audition or edit a song, click and drag it to the track list. As if by magic, all the tracks and track names will now be visible for that song. Click on play and you'll hear the song. If you need to edit a track, double click on it, and you're presented with a dialogue box. Follow the prompts, and close the box. Once you've compiled a Set you're happy with, you still have to save all the songs individually to the disk you intend to gig with, since a Set is just a list of information telling OnSTAGE where the songs are. Now save the Set, which will have a filename 1.SET. Since OnSTAGE MFP only takes up 20k of disk space, make up a gig disk that contains the AUTO and CODE folders as well as the songs and sets you intend to use.
Let's say you've got your gigging disk ready. Unplug your monitor and plug in the display unit. Turn your computer on, and insert the MFP disk. When the program has finished loading, hit one of the function keys, 1-9. If you hit function key 1, the Set called 1.SET will automatically load. You should be prepared, and have a note of the songs in that Set. To choose a song, press the numeric keypad keys (, ), / or * for Banks A, B, C, or D. To start a song playing, hit any number from 1 to 8. The zero key will stop the song, decimal point will pause, and enter will continue. Use the + or - keys to increase or decrease tempo by single bpms.
That's basically all there is to it. To load another Set, press another function key (up to a limit of nine). If a song is still playing, all songs except the one occupying that space will load anyway. The tedious part of OnSTAGE is compiling Sets and preparing disks, but it's made as painless as possible by a very friendly working environment. Computer keyboard shortcuts are available not only with the display unit, but also during edit — what's more you can choose banks, select songs, and control playback by remote control via your MIDI master keyboard. Hands On have thought of everything.
I really don't know where to fault OnSTAGE — it didn't even crash once. I wouldn't have expected any kind of editing features, yet you can still modify individual track information to quite a useful degree. I had reservations about the limit to only 16 MIDI channels, but then along came an upgrade that supports Hands On's own 16+ Cartridge (available for £29.95), which allows another stream of 16 MIDI channels to be addressed.
Up to 32 songs can be held in memory at any one time, and with a 1 MB machine holding about 860k of song data, that could be 32 reasonably sized songs. Until now, the only alternative to using your Atari on stage has been the added expense of a MIDI file player, such as Alesis' Datadisk, Elka's CR99, or Yamaha's MDF2 — fine machines all, but a lot more expensive than OnSTAGE — or the dreaded backing tape. OnSTAGE is inexpensive, intuitive to use, and invaluable for the working musician. And remember kids: Keep sequencing live!
Hands On OnSTAGE £99.99 inc VAT (+ £1.50 p&p)
Hands On MIDI Software, (Contact Details).
Review by Derek Johnson
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