Hollis Research Trackman
Software for the Atari ST
A new sequencer program for the Atari ST from British company Hollis Research sets out to be powerful and friendly without breaking the bank. Ian Waugh reckons it's on the right track (man).
If choosing sequencing software for your Atari ST is losing you sleep, this concise and cost-effective program could restore your faith in your computer.
"WHY TRACKMAN?" ASKS the manual, and a jolly good question it is too. The Atari ST is blessed with more than its fair share of sequencer programs so what has Trackman - yet another sequencer - got to offer?
The manual answers itself in best rhetoric style. "When you use Trackman", it says, "you will have Time. Time for Music."
Sounds inviting, eh? Let's open the rather large Trackman box and see what's inside. First impressions are: rather more than you find in your average sequencer package. There's an auxiliary MIDI socket, a footswitch attached to about six feet of cable, a System disk, two manuals and the inevitable dongle.
Of the two manuals, one is a tutorial manual, designed to get you up and running and the other is a reference manual which explains the menu options.
The most striking thing about the manuals is their size - or rather lack of it. The tutorial has 44 pages and the reference manual has a mere 31. They are both glossy publications and the reference manual has a thumb index down the side so you can flip instantly to any section. Quality stuff.
The auxiliary MIDI socket plugs into the Modem port. Tracks can be routed here from the Main screen giving you access to 32 MIDI channels. The footswitch plugs into the joystick port and can be used to control a variety of Trackman's operations.
LETS GET DOWN to business and see what Trackman is about. A good place to start is to look at its modus operandi. It can store 100 sequences of 32 tracks each. Sequences are organised in bars and may be up to 999 bars long.
The Main screen looks deceptively simple. At the top are several large boxes which are easy to click on and underneath are the tracks. These appear in two banks of 16 and you switch between them by clicking on the Bank button. A track is selected as current by clicking on it.
Each track has assigned to it a basic MIDI channel upon loading. Tracks 1-16 are set to channels 1-16 respectively. Tracks 17-32 are set to channels 1-16, too, but routed to the auxiliary MIDI Out. All these can be changed with a click of the mouse.
There's more to this than meets the eye because when you switch the MIDI Echo function on, incoming data is routed out on the currently-selected track's MIDI channel. This means that once your instruments have been assigned to their MIDI channels you can play any one of them from your master keyboard by clicking on the relevant track (and thus channel number). It's an incredibly simple and intuitive method of working although each track can record information on all 16 MIDI channels if you wish.
Below the track numbers and MIDI channel numbers are Solo and Mute buttons. The intriguing thing here is that both can be operative at the same time although Mute takes precedence over Solo. You can Solo more than one track and although that may seem to be a bit of a contradiction in terms, it's easier to Solo the four tracks you want to hear than it is to Mute the other 28.
Below these are faders which control MIDI velocity. This is, simply, brilliant. If you have a multitimbral instrument you've probably noticed that some sounds are louder than others. That means you have to readjust their relative volumes, probably on the expander itself, as you add new parts and introduce new sounds. Using the faders you can control everything from the computer and mix a piece "on the fly". As the faders control MIDI velocity, they could also affect timbre or other attributes of the sound, too, depending upon the patch.
AND SO TO recording. Operation is tape-recorder based with Record, Stop, Play and Fast Forward and Rewind buttons. If the sequence is long it can take a while to scroll through the piece (about 12 seconds for 100 bars) but the Locate function will take you to any bar instantly.
Because of the number of tracks and sequences and the way they are arranged, you can use Trackman like a 32-track tape recorder and record a song in a linear fashion - that is, in one piece from start to end. But you could just as easily record a number of individual patterns in separate sequences and chain them together, drum machine fashion. Flexible, what!
To move from one sequence to another you simply enter the two-digit sequence number on the numeric keypad. Sequences can be named, too, which is very useful.
The first step is to set the sequence length, although this can be altered later. A dialogue box offers you two bars in 4/4 time but this is easily changed. Time signatures between 2/2 and 32/16 are valid and it protects you from the ignominy of numerators with a value of one and greater than 32 (although it lures you into a false sense of security by allowing you to enter them in the dialogue box) by upping or lowering them to the nearest permissible value.
Next, click on the track you want to record on. Remember this will echo MIDI input to the MIDI channel - and instrument - the track is set to. Next click on Record and the metronome will tick away and recording will start. Alternatively, you can press the footswitch.
THE TRACK LOOPS automatically. Once Record has been activated you can use the footswitch or the space bar to punch in and out. Punch in doesn't overwrite the track but overdubs on top of what has already been recorded. You can practice a part, therefore, by playing along with a track and then hit the footswitch to punch in without losing your stride. Hit the switch to punch out, practice another part then punch in again. It's an ideal way of building up drum patterns.
If the Repeat button is pressed during Record it automatically repeats any notes you hold down - again, useful for drum patterns. If activated at any other time it lets you enter a Note Duration in ticks, a Velocity Decay value and a Pressure Sensitivity value. Instant echoes, anyone?
The repeat rate is determined by the current quantise value which is set in the pull-down Quantise menu. This works on incoming data and can help pull your playing into line, although you can switch it off and quantise the notes after recording.
If you hit a bum note what do you do? There are two options. Undo will undo everything from the time you pressed Record until you pressed Stop. It basically gives you another try at a take.
The other option is Erase. If this is activated while Record is on, it removes the notes you play. It observes the MIDI filters, too, enabling the selective erasure of controllers, patch changes, aftertouch and pitch-bend. If you select Erase at any other time, up pops a dialogue box which allows you to erase complete bars.
If a track is playing, clicking on Transpose lets you temporarily transpose it by pressing a note on your master keyboard. The transposition is cancelled when you stop playback.
A permanent transposition is made by selecting Transpose when the sequence is not playing. You can also select a range of tracks which will not be affected by Transpose - watch your drum tracks.
THERE'S ONLY ONE other screen in Trackman - the Screen Edit screen. Enter it by clicking on the large Screen button.
It's a grid editor, a format which has proved very popular over the years, especially with musicians who aren't quite at home with traditional music notation - it's also considerably easier to write a grid editor than a stave editor.
The grid editor controls are summed up in half a page in the reference manual although the tutorial does give it more space. It's very easy to use and it's a simple matter to move, copy, delete, insert and alter the duration and pitch of the notes. From one to four bars can be shown on screen at once and you can loop the section as you edit it.
Those are Trackman's basic recording features and together they form a powerful yet easy-to-use method of real-time recording. Now let's have a quick look at the pull-down menus.
THE FILE OPTIONS are used for saving and loading sequences. You can handle them all together or one at a time. The tempo, channel and fader settings are saved along with the notes.
You can also send and receive MIDI data which is stored on disk. The routine can handle virtually all MIDI data and although I didn't try dumping a sample, it's a simple matter to save patch data (but it can't initiate a MIDI dump request).
The Edit menu houses Copy, Erase and Delete bar functions. Within the Copy function you can insert, append and replace bars and you can copy from one sequence to another.
The ranges in all the editing functions are set with dialogue boxes and now's as good a time as any to mention the default values which appear when you select an edit option. Trackman offers the values for the "most likely" use of that function. For example, Copy offers to copy from the first bar to the last bar of the current sequence to the end of that sequence. The defaults are easy to edit if you have something else in mind.
Bounce Tracks lets you merge or overwrite tracks even between different sequences. Extract Notes will move a range of notes on a range of MIDI channels from one track to another. This can be used to erase unwanted notes or to alter the velocity, say, of a particular drum on a multi-part drum track. Rotate Sequence moves a sequence back or forward in time.
Work Loop is useful. It copies one or more bars of a sequence to another sequence (the default is sequence 99) for a bout of potentially destructive editing. If you like what you've done you can copy it back, if you don't you can return to the original sequence.
Make Song is where you chain together a list of sequences - assuming you've decided to work that way. This doesn't actually create a new Song track as such, but a Song list. This can be copied to another sequence which, in turn, can be treated just like any other sequence.
In the Options menu we find Loop to Bar which lets you set the bar number the sequence loops back to. It doesn't have to be bar one - you can loop back to the start of the last chorus, for example. Here you'll also find Velocity as well as Pitch Transposition - useful if you need to even out the velocities of some tracks.
Index lets you scroll through a list of all the sequences and tells you how many bars they contain. It also tells you how much memory is free. A 1040 should be able to record at least 80,000 notes, probably more if you don't go overboard with controller data.
Sync Output can be set from 1/4 to 1/64th clock pulses or sync 24, which is suitable for some older drum machines. This is routed to the auxiliary output.
Patch Memory maintains a separate list of patch change numbers for each sequence. This is transmitted when you select Stop.
The Footswitch option assigns functions to footswitches. Although one footswitch is supplied with the system, it can support three more if you plump for the expansion unit (coming up). The functions are: Play/Stop, Record, Locate, Erase, Repeat, Mouse (same as pressing the left button) and Tap Tempo (this lets you set the tempo by double tapping on the footswitch). The Space Bar can be similarly assigned.
You can see how much control a few footswitches can give you. A considerable amount of recording could be done without even touching the computer.
THE MIDI MENU lets you toggle on and off the reception of Pitch-bend, Patch Change, Aftertouch and Song Select messages. Clicking on Controller Filters brings up a selection screen to enable controller filtering. Standard controllers such as Modulation and Volume are named which is helpful.
All Notes Off lets you choose which messages (Omni Off and so on) will be sent to each channel when playback stops. If you've been using an instrument which normally receives on all channels - Omni On - and it suddenly doesn't, the reason why probably lies here.
You can set Trackman to internal or external clock. But more than that, it can select the clock automatically: if started from the computer then internal is selected; if an external clock or a Continue message is received it reverts to external clock control. Clever.
You can save the settings of the items on the MIDI menu along with transpose exempt tracks, footswitch assignments and the sync output rate. These are automatically loaded when Trackman is booted.
Click selects the metronome speed, turns it off and offers a two-bar count in. The Quantise menu sets the record quantisation value from 1/4 to 1/64th note. You can set a Shuffle value here, too, from 17 to 84 percent.
Finally, a clock in the top right-hand corner of the screen shows the duration of the last play session. Why don't all sequencers have one?
THE EXPANSION UNIT mentioned earlier is available from Hinton Instruments (remember the Hinton MIDI interface?). It contains four programmable footswitch inputs, extra sync outputs and two auxiliary MIDI Outs plus a MIDI In with two Thrus. It is priced at £89.99.
Also on the Trackman disk is a Roland D50 Patch Librarian. This is a Public Domain program and only runs in hi-res. There are also 1000 DX voices courtesy of the Yamaha X-Series Owners Club.
Niggle time. The manuals contain most of the information you need but I do think the tutorial could have been arranged better. I reckon a tutorial should take you through the procedure of recording a complete Song step-by-step. Trackman's tutorial explains the screens and menus rather than taking you through a recording session, although several demo files are used to illustrate various options. There is also a three-page Quick Start Guide at the back. However, it's a credit to the program's design that lengthy instructions are not really necessary.
Most of Trackman's controls have keyboard equivalents although I believe if you have a mouse you should be able to use it for everything bar, perhaps, textual input. Some mouse-activated options require the use of the computer keyboard, too. I would particularly like to have been able to make numeric entries with the mouse. For example, Patch Changes, Transpositions, Auto Locate settings and so on. But I confess I was won over by the ability to change sequences by tapping on the keypad.
Although Trackman's editing features (Copy, Delete and Erase bars, for example) are easy to use and understand, a graphic approach (such as that adopted by Passport's MasterTracks) would have been even better.
The main screen doesn't show which tracks have been recorded on, nor does it show which are actually transmitting data during playback. A MIDI data reception indicator would be useful, too, to let you know that something is arriving at the MIDI In socket.
Although you can enter notes in the Screen Edit grid it's far from an ideal method of step-time input (try using it to enter a Bach Invention). And you can't get down to event level (although I'm sure most of us would prefer not to anyway).
THE ACCOMPANYING BLURB says two years of research and development went into the creation of Trackman. Research was even done to work out the correct size and position of on-screen buttons - the user-interface as it's called. And a damn fine job seems to have been done, too. You can't fail but get the impression that Trackman is a rebellion against sequencer packages with 100-page plus manuals and 1001 esoteric MIDI functions.
Taken individually, Trackman's features aren't unique but they haven't been put together in quite this way before. Make a list of the sequencers which give you access to 32 MIDI channels (without requiring expensive additional hardware), which have fader mixing, looping, auto overdubbing, erase and undo functions, and the choice of linear and pattern-based song construction.
OK, so you can't program ritardandos and accelerandos (although immediate tempo changes are possible) or scale velocity in a similar way (to produce crescendos) and there isn't a Time Reverse mode but the question you need to ask is, "How much exotica do I need?"
Trackman is certainly one of the most flexible, friendly and easy-to-use real-time sequencers to appear on the market. My own personal disappointment is the lack of better step-time facilities but that won't bother many musicians.
The price includes free software updates, and since its launch Trackman has already undergone several (admittedly minor) modifications. The next major alteration to be implemented is a track naming facility.
A Trackman demonstration disk plus the Tutorial Manual plus the 1000 DX patches plus the D50 Patch Librarian is available for the staggeringly unbelievably-small sum of £10. The Save facility has been removed from the demo and it gives you 30 minutes of playing time and 15 minutes recording time before it times out, but the clock only ticks away while you're working. Considerate.
If real-time sequencing is your forte and you want a sequencer which is musician-friendly rather than one which was written to pander to the programmer's fancies, you really must check it out - it'll only cost you a tenner. There's life in the ST sequencer market yet.
Price £199 including VAT
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Review by Ian Waugh
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