Hybrid Arts Edit Track
Software for the Atari ST
The latest update to Hybrid Arts' MIDI Track range of Atari ST sequencers gives them a host of new and improved features. Davd Bradwell re-examines Hybrid's track record.
Three years after the release of the first of the MIDI Track sequencers, Hybrid Arts have refined the program to compete with the German market leaders - how does it fare?
EVER MINDFUL OF the growing number of tapeless studios, Hybrid Arts have finally released Edit Track, the fourth in their MIDI Track series of sequencers. Both of the company's other top-line packages, SMPTE Track and Sync Track, have come complete with hardware to sync to tape. While this facility is undeniably important in conventional recording studios, for composers who never stray far from their bedroom it is a considerable and unnecessary expense.
Enter Edit Track, a sequencer with virtually all the features of its bigger brothers, but no hardware - and therefore a much diminished price tag. At the same time, the whole MIDI Track series (with the exception of the budget EZ-Track Plus) has been upgraded to final release specification. This adds new levels of sophistication and all-important user friendliness to the program that was first reviewed in MT in June '87.
EDIT TRACK IS a 60-track sequencer that runs on an Atari ST with a minimum of 1Mb RAM and colour or mono monitor in medium or high resolution. Owners of previous software versions with 52OSTs (myself included) have the option of using the new program without any desk accessories and a very limited memory, or forking out to upgrade their hardware. In turn, the program offers linear and pattern-based recording with full text and graphic editing, all under the optional control of mouse, keyboard or both.
The main screen is split vertically into two halves, one containing track information, the other the control display. All menu bar functions, with the exception of text and graphic editing, are accessed via dialogue boxes on the main screen.
Edit Track is always in Record mode, even when the clock isn't running. Pressing the space bar or clicking on Play starts the clock and plays all currently selected Tracks. Anything played over the top is automatically saved into a Keep buffer, and this can then be saved on any Track, regardless of the one selected at the time of recording. The Keep buffer is wiped as soon as the program is re-cued or any Track Editing takes place. The Keep buffer is also operative when Tracks are edited: changes are placed in a buffer, so that at the end of the editing process, it is possible to decide which Track the changes are saved to, leaving the original intact if desired. It can be frustrating to accidentally wipe the buffer before saving a performance, but once you've done it a couple of times you soon remember you have to press Keep.
Auto-locating is possible anywhere within a range of 20,000 beats of music or 5,000 bars of 4/4 time, by setting a start point and clicking on the enable bar. This is useful if you're working a long way from the start of a track, and doubles up as a default setting for the beginning of text and graphic editing. Punching in and out on a track is fully automated using points set in advance. This is done the same way as auto-locating, and allows easy correction of a section in the middle of a track, either erasing it fully or replacing notes within it. Punch In/Out is enabled by clicking on the "punching glove" icon which is then indicated by punch 'impact marks" (very Mike Tyson).
The other main method of inputting musical data is Step Recording, which the manual admits can be tedious. In practice, Step Recording on Edit Track is no worse than most other sequencers once you understand the basics. Clicking on different areas of the counter allows you to control the advancement of the beat or fractions of the beat directly, where one quarter note is equal to 96 ticks. Play a note and hold it down while you advance the counter to make it last longer. If you're playing a crotchet (or quarter note, if you're American) and advancing the counter by 16ths, you hold the note down for four movements of the counter - simple really. Once a Track is successfully recorded and safely saved, it requires a name: point to the Track, click and hold one mouse button, then click the other, and type in a name of up to 16 characters - much easier than the previous menu-driven system. The same process applies to naming Songs, Sections and Registers (about which there will be more later).
ONCE THE MUSIC you've recorded has been safely assigned to Tracks, Edit Track really begins to shine. Editing is possible in three different ways. Text Editing allows you to insert, delete or modify any MIDI event from a complete list of events for every Track. Graphic Editing shows you a track graphically and permits you to move, erase or paint in new notes, as well as draw curves for attack/release velocity, polyphonic pressure, aftertouch, control change and pitch-bend. The third type of editing is that done to the Track as a whole, and is perhaps the simplest place to start.
When selecting the Edit Menu the first thing you notice is that the name of most functions is followed by "/r" which indicates that Region Editing is possible. Clicking on the left mouse button will cause the whole track to be affected, clicking on the right only affects the Region between the currently selected start and end points. In keeping with the Hybrid Arts philosophy of nondestructive editing, all amendments can be saved to any empty Track, so the before and after results can be safely compared. This means you can take bigger risks when manipulating Tracks, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Quantisation is one of the most used of all editing features. Edit Track offers nine different default quantise values, but you can select your own resolution for any beat value between a minim (half note) and a 192nd note. Click on the chosen value and you're asked to choose a Track to quantise. You're then asked which Track you'd like the result to be assigned to, so you select one, click on the right button and it's done for you. Computer-generated "feel" can be added to a quantised Track with the Humanise function. The computer randomly places each note near to the Quantise value, varying note placement by plus and/or minus a specified number of ticks, up to nine either side.
Durating a Track affects the length of the notes within it, rather than altering their placement in time. Again you're offered nine default options, but can override these to any beat value between a whole note and a 384th note. Tracks can be transposed and copied with similar ease. Shadow Track, a completely new feature of the software, allows one Track to be copied to another without using up any extra memory, although when you alter the original the shadow follows suit. (Similar to Creator's Ghost Track facility except that Ghost works in real time whereas Shadow is an editing facility.) Shadow Track is useful for layering different instruments - the shadow has a separate MIDI channel - as well as different Track Offsets. Tracks can be Offset by clicking on the white Multi-Function Switch at the bottom of the screen. This then converts the Track Memory Percentage display to a readout of currently selected Track Offsets, or a range of -90 to +99 ticks. These changes can be made in real time while the sequence is running, so you car get an instant idea of the effect the offset is having.
Tracks can be Mixed together to tidy the screen up (you're rarely likely to need more than the 60 Tracks provided) and similarly Unmixed either by MIDI channel or key zone, the latter being an area in which many other sequencers fall short. Unmixing is the shortcoming of Edit Track because the Track you unmix from remains unaltered, while the chances are you will want the information you unmixed erased. For example, if you've bulk dumped from a drum machine, and your whole Track has been given a default velocity setting (normally 64), you may decide the hi-hats are too loud while the bass and snare drums have disappeared. Rather than being able to unmix the hi-hats and reducing the attack velocity, you have to unmix the whole track into its component instruments (congas, cowbells, toms, cymbals, shaker and so on) or the hi-hat pattern is doubled in the original, still at the default velocity. This becomes even more of a pain where you unmix flattened chains (more later).
There are further advanced editing features which more or less speak for themselves. Insert/Remove Time allows you to insert or remove time within a track, Velocity Adjust allows you to alter the attack and release velocities, either by shifting, scaling or setting a value for them. Tempo Tracks can be built to automatically speed up or slow down a Song at any given point. Meter Tracks do much the same with regard to metre changes throughout a Song.
IF YOU'VE RECORDED a Track, quantised it, corrected the velocity and offset it to create a feel, you may find one of the notes is actually incorrect. Now's the time to start Text Editing. The Event List (selected from the Inspect Menu) allows you to view 18 separate MIDI events at a time, each of which occupies one complete row of information. Each row is split into five different areas: event time, a hexadecimal representation of the event, the channel on which it occurs, the MIDI event name (note on, note off, control change) and the event data (note, velocity and so on). Individual events can be moved in time, or altered if incorrect. In addition, events can be deleted and inserted. Any type of event can be inserted at any point in time, but you must remember to insert a seperate note off for every note on, as the sequencer won't do it for you. Text Editing enables very precise control of every part of a sequence, and it quickly becomes hard to imagine what life was like without it.
A Flip button on the Text Edit page allows you to enter the realm of Graphic Editing, the single most impressive addition to the original version of the program. Graphic Editing works in a complementary way to Text Editing, and the more you get into manipulating data the more you start regularly combining the two. To successfully work with the Graphic Screen you really need a high resolution monitor to be able to spot short notes, which may display as a single pixel. The key to understanding the system is to acknowledge the difference between Long (about quarter of a second) and Short mouse clicks. There are five Long Click modes available: Zoom, Play, Erase, Add and Move, and once you understand how to work with one of them the rest all come easy.
One mode will always be effective, and is shown in the Click Mode Indicator box. Modes are cycled through by Short-Clicking the right button within the boundaries of the Notes Display. In Zoom, Play and Erase modes you have to Select an area to be affected, Add mode lets you paint in new notes with the mouse, while Move mode is enabled when a note is selected. Areas are selected by Clicking and Holding the left button in the Notes Display, dragging the mouse to the right, and then releasing the left button. The action is affirmed by a Short Click on the left button, and cancelled by a Short Click on the right.
A Curve Display above the Note Display shows the attack and release velocities, polyphonic pressure, aftertouch, control change or pitch-bend information for that particular portion of the Track. These curves can be redrawn quickly and simply in one of two ways. In Free Hand mode you hold down the left mouse button and literally draw a curve from left to right. Straighter lines can be drawn using the intriguingly-titled Rubber Band mode. Short Click on the left button where you want the curve to start, give another Short Click where you want it to finish and Edit Track draws a straight line for you.
Play mode allows you to hear sections defined in the same way as for Zooming. It allows you to compare the edited version with the original either solo or as part of a full mix. Alternatively, pressing the space bar will play what is currently showing on the note display -whatever mode is selected. A Play Beam moves across the display, adding an element of visual entertainment to the proceedings.
Notes are painted in Add mode by clicking at the desired start point and dragging to the right. A right click automatically quantises the note on to the nearest quarter of a grid. Notes are always added with a default attack/release velocity of 64, but can then be edited with either the curve display or on the Text page.
A Short click with the left button on any note already present selects that note for editing, and it may then be moved, erased or altered in any way. The degree to which you're able to adjust notes is always dependent on the Zoom factor. If you need finer control simply Zoom in closer to the part you're working on.
THE LAST MAIN area of the program moves away from the idea of Edit Track as a linear recorder, regarding it instead as a section sequencer. A Section is a twodimensional slice of music, comprising the data between a start and end time on one or more Tracks. Up to 100 different Sections can be defined at any one time; there is no limit to how many Sections each Track can appear in, and Sections can overlap each other freely. Each Section can be given a name of up to eight characters, and can contain up to 24 Tracks.
There are two main uses for Sections - you can either Glue one into an existing Track or create a sequential Chain of them, like song mode on a drum machine. Glueing a section is as simple as choosing a start time and deciding how many times you want the Section to repeat. The resulting Glued Section will be a mix of all its component Tracks, and can then be unmixed by MIDI channel or key zone. Chaining Sections together requires that you have a certain number of Sections ready prepared. Calling up Assemble Chain from the Edit Menu offers you the possibility of linking a series of up to 200 Sections together, which can then be saved as a Chain Track. If a Song contains several Chains you start running into problems like Chains within Chains and you end up in a mess. To get round this, you can Flatten a Chain, which converts the Chain Track into one long linear Track of the same data. This then needs to be Unmixed, which again can be messy, but you end up with a much more logical arrangement of information.
HYBRID ARTS SEEM to have got it right with Edit Track. The lack of the ability to loop overdubs and the problems with Unmixing are disadvantages at the moment, but further updates to rectify these are being written as you read this. Other features, like the ability to import Tracks from other Songs, set up and name 27 different versions (Registers) of each Song at any given time, and to have GenPatch as a desk accessory, are worthwhile compensations. As a package Edit Track is user-friendly and the manual is clear, informative and written in an accessible style. The improvements in the software over the 1987 version make it a much more serious competitor to the likes of Steinberg's Pro24 and C-Lab's Creator - in particular the Graphic Editing is a joy to use.
The program's author, Stefan Daystrom, has taken on two co-programmers to speed up the availability of updates, although from now on there will be an upgrade fee.
Edit Track is part of the complete Hybrid Arts system, which includes scoring and compositional programs as well as a generic patch librarian. They all interact with each other and together form the basis of a very powerful studio. I have to admit to being very impressed by what's on offer. The more you use it the more intuitive it feels, and the more you appreciate its subtleties. And the more you can confidently disregard any apparent limitations.
Price £179.95 including VAT