Steinberg 'Twelve' MIDI Recorder
Steinberg have divided Pro24 roughly in half and have arrived at what may well turn out to be the best answer for many people starting out, namely a 'new' low-priced 12-track sequencer called Twelve. David Pickering Pick investigates.
Steinberg, the Germany-based originators of the massively successful Pro24 MIDI sequencer for the Atari ST, have divided the said Pro24 roughly in half and have arrived at what may well turn out to be the best answer for many people starting out, namely a 'new' low-priced 12-track sequencer called Twelve. David Pickering Pick investigates.
Steinberg's enviable position as purveyors of the industry standard sequencer (I think it's time we all stopped using this outmoded name in favour perhaps of the more descriptive title 'MIDI Recorder') was achieved largely by being the first off the mark. Whilst in the States the Apple Macintosh became the first choice for musicians and studios looking for a computer powerful enough to run a comprehensive MIDI Recorder program, the Mac's high price prevented it being widely used in this country. The Atari ST range was one third of the price, equally powerful, and even possessed its own built-in MIDI ports. This more or less guaranteed that it would become the centre of attention for music software developers; and sure enough Steinberg, already quite well known for the Pro16, which ran on the Commodore 64, were first with Version 1.0 of Pro24 in early 1986.
Pro24's success was immediate and has continued, even though there are now plenty of other Recorders of equal power available. This has probably happened for two reasons: the learning curve for any software of this complexity is quite long, and once studio engineers and programmers had learned one system they weren't about to start again with another; and secondly, because Steinberg did not rest on their laurels but went on improving Pro24 right up to the present Version 3.0. However, there must be many who do not need the complexity and sophistication of an all-singing, all-dancing program like Pro24, and who also baulk at the price.
This latter point always strikes me as a little odd, bearing in mind the total cost of all the hardware in a typical MIDI system, but people often suck their teeth at the combined cost of an Atari 1040ST and Pro24, ignoring all the other useful things you can do with the computer when you're not producing your magnum opus.
Be that as it may, Steinberg have well and truly broken into the mid-price sequencer market (there I go again) with a kind of sawn-off Pro24, the Twelve. The real masterstroke, rumoured to be getting other software companies hot under the corporate collar, is that Steinberg have made a deal with Atari to bundle a version of Twelve free with every 1040ST sold from selected dealers. This piece of mutual back-scratching must be beneficial to both companies, as well of course to prospective ST owners. Those of us rashly committed ourselves earlier to the ST miss out as usual. To put figures on this, you can have a 1040ST, mono monitor (not essential but highly recommended), and Twelve (plus whatever other freebies you can squeeze out of your Atari dealer) for around £599. By comparison, my first Atari 520STM, with monitor and Pro24, cost me £850 in August 1986, and soon afterwards I had to spend a further £100 on extra memory. I think that makes the new system good value. Financial considerations apart, what does Twelve have to offer?
Firstly, operation is very similar to Pro24. Almost every function is the same, there are just less of them. This is more important than might at first be apparent, because of the learning curve mentioned earlier. Anyone taking their first steps in MIDI recording with Twelve will be able to effortlessly progress to Pro24, the extra functions merely adding to the flexibility of the system. Moreover, and this is potentially of great value, song files recorded on Twelve are compatible with Pro24, and vice versa. The only limitation to this seems to be that only tracks 1-12 will transfer in either direction. Thus, you'll be able to lay down the backing tracks at home on Twelve, and then go into a studio running Pro24 if greater power is needed to finish your piece off. Incidentally, if you are running short of tracks, it is possible (though it's not mentioned in the manual) to bounce tracks onto one single track - just set the destination track to record on 'No' MIDI channel, switch off the program's MIDI Thru function, and physically connect the computer's MIDI Out to its MIDI In. It works.
The Steinberg Twelve (at least the commercially available version) comes in an A5-size ring binder, with the program on one single-sided 3.5" disk. The system requires only a 520ST with any monitor (TV, medium resolution colour or high resolution mono) but I would avoid the colour option unless you want to play a lot of games, and bypass the TV option altogether unless you are on a very tight budget. The disk is internally copy-protected and therefore is a departure from most Steinberg programs, which require a 'key' or 'dongle' to be plugged into the cartridge port of the Atari. I do not know whether the program would transfer to a hard disk, but I doubt it, especially as it would not load from my second disk drive - it had to be loaded from drive A, the internal drive. If you wish to save songs onto a second drive, you will have to address the index of the Item Selector box by typing in B: *.* then clicking on the Item Selector title bar, which will also show what files are on the disk held in drive B. Having done this, you will then be saving to drive B each time you select 'Save Song'.
Since many people thinking about acquiring this new software won't be familiar with Pro24, this is how the system operates: Using the simplest possible system of one synth and the computer, the MIDI connections are made in each direction (MIDI Out to In, In to Out). With the connections made and Twelve loaded into memory, you may wish to refer to the manual. This is reasonably well written, and assumes absolutely no prior knowledge of setting up a MIDI system. This means that those who know how to do this will be able to skip much of the earlier parts. I must say that I did try to test this section using my 12 year-old son as the guinea pig (well, the age seemed appropriate). It did not prove particularly easy, and reminded me again of the complexity of even a simple MIDI system and the many pitfalls for the unwary. The manual certainly provided a way through the jungle of MIDI modes, channels, timbrality and so on, but I'm not sure that a novice would really understand the significance of each step. Still, better this approach than assuming a lot of prior experience and skill.
As with the latest Pro24, most functions are available on the front page. The software is laid out as if it were a 12-track tape recorder, with play, record, stop and fast wind 'buttons' on the screen, which subtly change shade when 'pressed' with the mouse. Indeed, Twelve can be used exactly like a tape recorder, with each track recorded in turn for the whole length of the song, without stopping. It is not necessary to use any sort of click-track/metronome, if strict timing is not needed. The tempo can be set to an arbitrary figure, and the index counter showing bar/beat/click (96 clicks to the beat) ignored. However, recording in this way will not allow some kinds of useful manipulation of the notes after recording - quantising, for example. This is one extreme example of how Twelve can be used. The other extreme would be limiting the number of bars to be recorded by setting the left and right locators, and cycling around the prescribed bars to a click-track, which could be either the computer's own internal speaker emitting a piercing bleep, or a 'MIDI click' transmitted on any channel and note. Quantising in this instance is simple: the desired value (1/4, 1/4 Triplet, etc) is set, and the 'Quantise' box is clicked. If you don't like the effect, the previous version has been automatically saved into a buffer and can be recalled instantly. All this can happen without stopping Twelve. For those into the peculiar perversion known as 'step input', this too is available, and indeed the manual describes this in some detail.
In between these extremes there is a lot of flexibility about how to go about achieving the end result. My own preference is to divide the song into sections (such as 'Intro', 'Verse', 'Chorus' and so on), and then copying the basic tracks of each section to the relevant bar positions in the song. Any sense of repetition can easily be disposed of by recording some overdubs over the whole length of the song, thus introducing variation as the song develops. Others will have their own favourite way of working - Twelve offers the flexibility to accommodate most methods and types of music.
Most of the commonly needed functions are available from the front page. Along with the 'tape transport' functions, you can select tempo, cycle (repeating a set number of bars, like on a drum machine), synchronisation (internal or MIDI), soloing of individual tracks, return to zero, auto-record (drops a track into record mode at a pre-determined point), and so on. Variations in tempo and time signature are taken care of by the Mastertrack function (which is not on the front page but can be turned on and off from there once set up).
Any one of the tracks can be selected and a number of its parameters controlled, such as its name and those of the patterns which make it up, and the position of each in the song. Clicking your mouse on the Track Info box opens the possibility of altering the current pattern or all patterns by transposing, altering the velocity, setting MIDI volume, delaying or advancing the pattern or track, or selecting a Program Change to be sent at the start of the pattern. Other controls are available for all tracks at the same time from the front page: MIDI channel selection and muting of individual tracks, along with a display of activity on each track indicated by little bargraph meters at the bottom of the screen. It is worth noting that the track currently selected to record only flashes its bargraph when Twelve is stopped, not whilst recording is in progress.
Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of MIDI recording over tape recording is the ability to make minute changes, or sweeping ones, after the recording is complete. To do this, an editing system is needed which puts the very large amount of MIDI information contained in the song in front of the user in a way that is clear, accessible, and easy to manipulate. The graphics capability of the ST offers software writers a great deal of power in the way that the notes and timing can be displayed; after all, a MIDI recording is nothing more than a series of events referenced to time in the computer's memory.
The Grid Edit page of Pro24 is rightly considered to be one of the best, and indeed many other MIDI Recorders have very similar displays. Exactly why Steinberg have chosen to omit the Grid Edit feature from Twelve is open to conjecture. Whatever the reason, for me at least it is sorely missed. Grid Edit is an extremely powerful, and for the most part (and in the latest version) user-friendly facility which allows very tiny changes to be made relatively easily. Still, there's no use crying over spilled milk - it's not included and that's all there is to it.
What is included, however, is the Score Edit page. This first made an appearance (if my memory serves me correctly) in Version 2 of Pro24, and it has been subsequently improved in detail. It is enormously impressive, especially to people who are unfamiliar with MIDI recording. The selected Twelve track, after a brief whirr from the disk drive, is displayed as a stave of music with minims, crotchets and rests in approximately four-bar chunks (though this depends very much on the amount of notes in each bar).
It is possible to set a split point so that a two-handed player can see his or her work on the conventional separate treble and bass staves. The default key is C major (the computer, of course, has no way of knowing what key you are playing in) but this can be corrected instantly if required. Scrolling through the track can be (very) fast or slow, and individual notes can be highlighted by clicking on them. An information box displays the name of the note and its length. The velocity of each note is shown as a vertical black line underneath the note, and can be altered by changing its height with the mouse.
Steinberg employ a different system of naming notes to almost everyone else, which I understand is the German method. Middle C, which is normally C3, becomes c1. The octave below (C2) is c0, and C1 (the lowest note on a 5-octave synth keyboard) is C0. If your keyboard goes low enough, C0 is C1 - the numbers start going up again. Moving up the keyboard, C4 is c2, C5 is c3, and so on. There are times when this makes me want to strangle the cat, and I wish Steinberg would put me (and the cat) out of our misery and adopt the same system as everyone else. Please.
Other functions available on the Score Edit page include quantise, insert, step input from the computer or from the keyboard, deleting of notes and groups of notes, and more. You can hear the changes you have made with or without the other tracks playing, too. One of the limitations of score displays in general is that where the notes are not quantised, it is necessary in effect to quantise the display so that the screen is not covered with tiny rests and dotted demi-semi-quavers. This means that what you are looking at is not necessarily exactly what the computer has in its memory. The display-quantise setting can be altered independently for notes and rests. Unlike Pro24, Steinberg's Twelve is not capable of printing out the score it is displaying. That's about it for the Score Edit, which is very nice, but it's a pity they omitted Grid Edit.
As well as the ability to copy individual tracks and patterns to make up a song, it is also possible to assign particular tracks to 'Sequencer' mode. This entails setting one of the tracks to act as the reference track, with verses, chorus, and so on set in the correct place but as blank patterns (ie. with no notes recorded in them). Any other track assigned 'S' for sequencer will then play the correct pattern in the correct place. This sounds rather complicated but works reasonably well. The advantage is that once the reference track is set up, the song can be quickly constructed on the Arrange page by dragging the required pattern to the position it should occupy. Other tracks can still function as linear 'tape' tracks, which are not controlled by the reference track.
Twelve is a fine MIDI recorder program, which is powerful enough to do most things asked of it, perhaps 90%, but the added facilities of Pro24 are needed to obtain that last 10%. The ability to transport a whole song created with Twelve into Pro24 is most welcome. The functions all work without complaint, and I was unable to provoke the program to crash - even stopping it repeatedly in MIDI sync whilst in record, which used to be a particular favourite of Pro24. At £129 it's a reasonable buy; free, it's a veritable bargain!
£129 inc VAT, or free with Atari 1040 computer bought from selected dealers.
Daryl Stickley, Hugh Symons Distribution Services, (Contact Details).
Review by David Pickering Pick
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