HMM Piip Oy John The Composer
for the Atari ST
Before you ask, it’s not a typo: HMM Piip Oy is the name of the Finnish manufacturer of this auto-composition software called John - and why not? If you still don’t believe a computer can write music, ask Ian Waugh.
'Ello John, got a new song? Ian Waugh investigates a new computer composition program with a human face...
Composition programs are one of my pet foibles. To imagine that a computer could actually duplicate, recreate or mimic (delete as applicable) the human composition process is an intriguing concept. Perhaps the fascination lies in the fact that most of us who compose music don't really know how we do it, and those of us who can't compose are looking for something to help.
But the whole subject begs the question - if we don't know how we compose, how can we write a program to do it? A topic for discussion in Communique perhaps? Here we're looking at a piece of software with the intriguing title John The Composer, and what's interesting about it is the way John goes about his compositional activities - the program lets you alter many parameters in a very intuitive way.
John will run on any ST with 1Mb of RAM in mono or colour. It generates 4-part compositions - drums, bass, chords and melody line, and will play through the ST's speaker, though you'll get much better results if you hook it up to a synth. Unusually for such an inexpensive program, it's copy-protected with a dongle, which means that if you're working with a sequencer that also has a dongle (and you don't have an expansion socket), you have to switch off your ST, redongle it and reboot it - a real nuisance.
As I've said, John composes 4-part music - Drums, Bass, Chords and Melody. Each part has a Note Amount and a Syncopation parameter. Now here's the interesting bit. All the parameters are displayed as a horizontal line in the Edit window. The higher the Syncopation line, for example, the more the notes will occur on the offbeat. The higher the Note Amount line, the more notes there will be.
You can control these parameters by drawing and altering the line with the mouse. Want more notes at a particular point? Simply click in the window and draw a higher line. This process makes it easy to adjust the music in an intuitive way - you can specify the direction of the composition without having to specify actual notes, pitches, chord or rhythm changes and so on.
There are two further parameters: the Chords also have Change Amount and Cadence Amount parameters and the Melody has a Movement parameter. Change Amount determines how often the chords change; Cadence Amount how far the chords move from the home key. Movement lets you set the difference between the highest and lowest points of the melody. As well as fiddling about with these settings yourself, you can let John do his stuff (I just love the idea of empathy between musicians - Ed). The more control you give John, the further away from the settings he will take the music. He'll draw new lines into the Edit window and if you click on icons at the top of the screen he'll instantly recompose one of the music parts.
You can influence the chords and the frequency with which they occur by assigning them weight factors, and also specify how closely the melody uses the notes which make up the chords.
One of the most important concepts in the program is 'repetivity' (repetition to you and me). The Repetivity window contains beat and note divisions which double up from left to right - sixteenth note, eight note, quarter note, half note, one bar, two bars, four bars and so on. Each has a slider which runs from 0 to 100.
Essentially, repetivity lets you determine how often these sub-divisions within the composition will repeat. You could, for example, make the pattern of notes in the first bar fairly random but then make that pattern repeat every four bars. It's not a simple concept to grasp - although the settings are very easy to use - and, unfortunately, the manual does a most inadequate job of explanation.
The overall structure of the music can be specified quite precisely. You can define four sections - I (for Intro), A, B and C (for Coda) - whose parameters include the number of bars they should contain, the time signature and whether they can generate triplets. You can then specify how many times each section will play and in what order.
John has other parameters which affect the way the music is generated. For example, you can apply Compress, Expand and Invert functions to the lines in the Edit screen. One very interesting feature lets John examine previously-created pieces on disk and use them as a model for the current composition.
The manual is short but with the most annoying chapter/section/sub-section numbering system I've ever seen. It gives you all the basic information but some areas need more explanation and it could do with some worked examples. There were only two demo files on disk - both quite interesting - but more would have been nice.
By contrast, the program itself is very easy to use and thanks to the intuitive method of altering parameters, you don't have to be a musical whiz kid to use it - although this does mean you don't have precise control over the notes and rhythms it produces. And unfortunately, you can't change parameters on the fly.
But of course, of overriding concern is what the results sound like. Well, John can produce modern(ish) rhythms and lines - although not perhaps what you'd describe as mainstream pop or rock. However, because the program uses chord structures and progressions the results are essentially harmonic and therefore quite usable. In conjunction with a sequencer you should find you can hive off plenty of interesting bits.
No doubt in response to criticism of the way in which virtually all computer composition programs work (see 'Computer Composition - Pros & Cons'), John's developers, who are of Finnish origin, are working on an infinitely more sophisticated program which, they say, will be able to read your own MIDI files and produce material with a more 'human' feel based on these. But this, apparently, is well over a year away, so don't hold you breath.
Meanwhile, John is an interesting stop-gap. It's certainly one of the easiest-to-use composition programs on the market and also one of the cheapest. If you've ever felt the urge to explore computer composition, John will give you a good introduction to the subject - just don't expect him to write a Motown Medley and you'll get on fine. And yes, we have spelt the manufacturers' name correctly.
Price: John The Composer £49.00
More from: Newtronic (Contact Details)
Review by Ian Waugh
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