Universal Patch Editor for Atari ST
Following on from the success of the Trackman sequencing software, Hollis Research have released a universal patch editor and librarian for the Atari ST. Ian Waugh finds the universe at his fingertips.
Making life with MIDI easy, part one: use a patch editor that will work with any synth and run at the same time as your software sequencer - an editor like MIDIman.
SOMEONE - I DON'T know who - once said the computer is a solution looking for a problem. Nowhere does that ring a greater bell of truth than in the world of music software. I'm sure there's a little guy - or gal somewhere who does nothing else but dream up new computer music applications. And long may he continue!
One of his/her latest ideas is the software equivalent of Dr Good's Universal Panacea - a program which is all things to all musicians. And so the word generic (adj. applicable or referring to a whole class or group) entered music software vocabulary and the Generic Editor was born.
The idea is not brand new and devoted readers may recall a review of Hybrid Arts' Genpatch in our April '88 issue. But whereas Genpatch helps you store and organise synth patches, MIDIman lets you edit the voices themselves. In other words, Genpatch is a librarian and MIDIman is a patch editor. However, it's more (and also less in some respects) than a patch editor: it's also a performance tool, too. Intrigued? Then read on.
MIDIMAN WAS DEVELOPED by John Hollis of Hollis Research and follows hot on the heels of Trackman (reviewed MT, March '89) which has now been updated to version 1.5 - updates are free, too. MIDIman will work with any ST from a 520 up to a Mega ST4 and runs in high or medium resolution. It operates as a desk accessory and it should be compatible with any legally-written GEMbased software.
Desk accessories are special programs which load automatically when the computer is switched on and which can be entered from the Desk menu while the computer is running another program. Although you could run MIDIman with your word-processor, you'll probably want to use it with a sequencer. If you use it with Trackman (version 1.4 or above), extra features become available, which we'll look at in a moment.
SO HOW IS one program able to edit the patches in any synthesiser? Simple. It loads in control files from disk, each of which is configured for a particular synth. There are currently 20 control files supporting over 30 instruments and more are being developed and will be issued free of charge (there's that lovely phrase again) to MIDIman owners.
A consequence of the universality of the program is that all the control file screens look basically the same - and there are no graphics. Each control file can use up to six Pages or screens and each Page can hold up to 24 parameter controls. Pages are selected from a list on the right of the screen.
The program and control files aren't protected, so you can freely copy the ones you require to work disks. However, when you first access MIDIman, you are asked to enter a word from the manual which is on a certain page, paragraph and line. It's a minor nuisance but worth it to help keep the software pirates at bay.
With a control file loaded, you click on a control with the left button to decrease the value and click on it with the right to increase it. The controls are labelled so you know what parameters they effect, and the current values are shown next to each control.
This highlights one area in which MIDIman differs from dedicated patch editors, as the control values on screen will not necessarily be the same as the parameters of the voice in the synth: they are simply the values which were set when the file was saved.
Say a parameter in the synth has a value of ten and the control shows 20, a right click will instantly set both synth and control to 21. Communication between MIDIman and synth, then, is one way - from MIDIman to the synth. In this respect, MIDIman operates rather like a hardware programmer such as Roland's PG10 for the D10, D20 and D110 synths, and if you look upon it as such then its method of operation and its role in the musical scheme of things becomes clear.
There is another consideration, too: MIDIman was designed to be used in conjunction with a sequencer - in real time - and with more than one synth. To establish handshaking with several synths would require their Outs to be connected to the computer's MIDI In. As you'd also probably want an input device such as a master keyboard to plug in here, too, you'd need some pretty fancy routing equipment to be able to flick from application to application.
LETS HAVE A closer look at the control files and how they operate. As there is no handshaking, no names (of patches and so on) appear on screen. However, some synths are very helpful and when you alter a parameter, they show you what is happening on their LCD. The TX81Z is superb in this respect. Others, such as the D110, have to be in a particular mode in order to show certain changes.
The control files offer access to most of the parameters of the synths supported, although several instruments have two files: one for voice editing and one for multitimbral setups.
After altering control parameters, you can save the file to disk (although you must make sure to add the correct file extension). You can transmit all the settings on a page to the synth which allows you to set up a sound - or a subset of parameters of a sound - save it, and call it up again at will. If your sequencer can load and save system exclusive messages (Trackman can) you may be able to do this anyway. If it can't, MIDIman offers an alternative.
Given the lack of graphic displays (of envelopes and so on) and the necessarily restricted amount of information which can be shown alongside each control, you will find editing far easier if you have a working knowledge of how your synths operate. This isn't essential - you can have fun just pressing buttons to see what happens - but it helps.
SUPPOSE YOU ONLY use presets and aren't really interested in programming your own sounds. OK, but you still have to organise them into patches, performance memories, configurations, parameter memories or what-ever in order to play your music. You can do this by fiddling with the front panel controls or from within a dedicated voice editor. If you use an editor and have more than one synth you'll have to load more than one editor and then load your sequencer in order to hear what it sounds like when applied to your music - not an ideal state of affairs.
The multitimbral control files, however, give you access to the performance setups of the synths and let you flick through the banks and voices and set volume levels, tuning, output routing, MIDI channels, pan setting, note ranges and so on, all without leaving the comfort of your sequencer.
Without a doubt this is one of the most useful - and downright fun - applications of MIDIman. It beats front button panel beating any day. And having settled upon a mix, you can save it to disk along with your sequencer's music file.
If you want to create multitimbral setups and edit voices too, to save loading and saving two files, you can have two or more copies of MIDIman resident as desk accessories. This would give you instant access to both voice edit and multitimbral setups or even control panels for two different synths. There's no reason why you couldn't assign different pages to different synths, each holding a setup for a particular song.
IF YOU RUN MIDIman from within Trackman you can perform edits on the fly. Just to spell it out, what this means is that you can change voices, volume levels, MIDI channels and so on as a sequence is playing.
And what's more, with Trackman you can assign any MIDI controller to an edit control. For example, you could make the modulation wheel control a filter or the data entry slider control pan position. Or both. You can also assign note velocity or note pitch as the controller.
The range of the MIDIman control is spread evenly over the range of the MIDI controller. For example, if a control is ranged 0-10 and you assign it to a pitchbend wheel, the value would be five when the wheel is centred, ten when it is at maximum and 0 when it is at minimum.
You can connect MIDIman to Trackman at its Input or Output stage. Input connects MIDIMan to Trackman's input and allows control changes and edits to be recorded in Trackman. You can change the channel of incoming MIDI data from MIDIman's display. This is useful - and essential - as SysEx messages cannot be rechanneled.
Selecting Output places MIDIman between Trackman's output and your synths, and this lets you select different processing for each track. This will save memory (as control messages take up less space than system exclusive blocks) although you will have to keep a separate MIDIman file for each song.
Before you rush off to experiment, you should be aware of the fact that some synths may not take too kindly to having certain parameters altered while they are trying to play music.
YOU CAN USE MIDIman with the control files supplied, but if you are of an inquisitive nature, or if there are a couple of parameters on your synth you'd like to alter but which are not catered for in the control panels, you can have a go at creating your own. This means getting your hands dirty with SysEx messages. Lost any readers, have I?
SysEx is a pig. Its claim to porcine infamy is enhanced by the fact that while the format of MIDI Implementation Charts bear a degree of similarity to one another - and you thought they were difficult - there is no universally agreed method of presenting MIDI message content and format details. Plus you need a nodding acquaintance with binary and hexadecimal numbering systems, and a rudimentary knowledge of logical operators and masks wouldn't go amiss. And just to rub salt into the bacon slice - some information given in some manufacturer's system exclusive tables is wrong. Computer buffs will love it.
Musicians, I'm afraid, will probably stick with the supplied control files. But it's amazing what a little time and application will do, and it's well worth having a go before you dismiss the idea out of hand. Working with system exclusive sure makes you feel like a pioneer.
Clicking on Edit on the MIDIman screen reveals all the 24 controls which fit onto a page. If a control has not been defined to do anything, then it doesn't normally show on the screen.
In edit mode when you click on a control a list of the MIDI bytes which are transmitted appears at the top of the screen. Double clicking on a control calls up the Control Editor. Here you discover how the program works.
You're probably familiar with the concept of MIDI note messages. When you press a key on a keyboard it transmits a message consisting of the MIDI note number (pitch), MIDI channel and velocity value, along with an all-important instruction which says "turn this note on". All instruments should respond to this message, but as voice parameters vary from synth to synth, special messages are required for each instrument. These come under the heading of system exclusive and, as the title suggests, are exclusive to a particular manufacturer and synthesiser.
The basic format is something like this: SysEx start, manufacturer's ID number, basic receive channel, group and subgroup number, parameter number, data, end of SysEx. It's the items in the middle which are tricky to work out and this is where you need to refer to the manufacturer's SysEx data tables.
THE CONTROL EDITOR lets you put together a string of such messages to be transmitted when you click on the control. To assist in this, MIDIman uses a set of about 20 instructions which form a simple low-level language called Profile.
The manual includes a simple example of how to make a program change and if you study the control definitions in conjunction with the SysEx tables of your synth, you'll be able to work out what many of the definitions do. However, to use the facilities to the full, a more detailed tutorial section on the use of the language is needed (this is already being considered). I didn't have too many problems in creating controls to perform simple operations like changing master volume and making a dump request.
One file on disk is a general-purpose editor for MIDI mixing and remote control. The volume, patch change and MIDI controller controls will work with most synths. The first page lets you set up a mix on channels one to eight. You could copy this to the other pages and set up different mixes, any of which could be sent to your synth by clicking on the Send button.
I discovered one or two anomalies in some of the control files. For example, in one the data for a control ran 0-7 but the synth showed this as values 1-8: a possible source of confusion. However, it's quite easy to add an offset so the correct value is shown on the control page. In another file the offset was incorrect, resulting in a setting of 0 applying a + 12 semitone offset. Also, some functions (changing banks, for example) may require two messages. In one file, the new bank was not activated until a different voice in that bank was selected.
Such errors, while hardly disastrous, could prove confusing, especially if the synth doesn't show you what it's doing. Hollis Research, however, are keen to increase the number of control files (and correct any errors) and will issue new files free to MIDIman owners.
MIDIMAN IS NOT really a substitute for a dedicated patch editor, although if you have a reasonable knowledge of how your synths work, it can well be used to create new voices. Also, it has no library facilities for storing banks of voices, although individual voices - or their control files can be saved and loaded.
However, if you ever get the urge to tweak a sound while playing a sequence - and who doesn't? - MIDIman will let you tweak until your fingers are sore. And you can flick between any number of synths without having to leave the sequencer or reconfigure the system.
The real excitement MIDIman holds for me, however, is its ability to create and balance multitimbral setups. If you use multitimbral synths but don't like flicking through loads of LCD screens to change parameters, then this will put a smile on your face. It's far easier, quicker and more friendly than punching buttons on an expander, although it does help enormously if the expander shows you what is happening in its LCD (I know I said this before but it bears repeating). The ability to recall pages of setups and send them to synths is useful in both home and professional studios.
If you also have the Trackman sequencer then many more creative opportunities open up. The ability to control any synth parameter from any MIDI controller is liberating, and although some other sequencers have a limited form of controller mapping, none offers anything like MIDIman's facilities. And, of course, you can record changes made in real time into Trackman along with your music.
Then there's the open-endedness of the system. With a little effort - and a more derailed programming tutorial you can create your own controls.
If you're using Trackman and a multitimbral synth, I'd go as far as to say that MIDIman is an essential accessory. Even if you're not using Trackman, if you use a GEM-based sequencer, you'll find it far easier and far more fun using MIDiman to create multitimbral mixes than fiddling about on the front panels of your synths.
Gear in this article:
Review by Ian Waugh
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