Hybrid Arts EditTrack Gold ST Sequencer
Pro Power At A Nice Price
David Mellor looks at a fully featured sequencing package with a surprisingly low price tag.
Is it a sign of advancing maturity and experience that I have owned and passed on no fewer than five sequencers, and I am now on to my sixth? Or could it be that I simply have more money than sense and I just have to have the latest gadget that's on offer in my local hi-tech music shop? In justification of my extravagance, I would say that each upgrade has brought better facilities and has resulted in better music, and since music is my major hobby (not to mention a nice little earner) I don't mind paying out a little cash every now and then.
There is no such thing as an ideal sequencer (yes, I know I wrote an article entitled My Ideal Sequencer some time ago, but that was just a ploy to try and provoke designers into exploring a few new avenues), I don't expect my current favourite to be my favourite for ever, but I do have to say that compared to the offerings of earlier years, today's sequencers can be stunningly powerful.
Now is the time to look at the end of this review; not to take an early peek at my conclusion but to check the price of this piece of software. Done that? Well, you must be thinking that the sequencer in question is a cut-down, half-hearted attempt at pushing musical notes along MIDI cables in some mediocre state of organisation. Well if you were even starting to think that, think again. This is a version of a major sequencing package — one of my former favourites, Hybrid Arts' SMPTEtrack — which retains all of the more expensive product's features bar one, SMPTE timecode sync. EditTrack Gold is a heavyweight sequencer in all respects apart from its price.
If you are a MIDI system user who doesn't require sophisticated tape sync then EditTrack Gold will fulfill virtually all of your sequencing and sequence editing needs. And there's one more advantage to EditTrack Gold. If this had been a totally new piece of software you would expect it to be incomplete and to have probably more than a few bugs (if anyone ever does bring out a sequencing package which really is finished and bug-free on release it will be a major event). But since EditTrack Gold is a development of a program which has been around since 1987, it is a mature product which fulfills all its claims and seems impressively free from vices.
Figure 1 shows the main screen of EditTrack with one of my old SMPTEtrack sequences loaded, dating from the days when SMPTEtrack was my sequencer of choice. (No, I can't remember how I came to have so many bass parts; creativity leads and I merely follow.) The screen is split into three main parts, with a track list on the left and a locator section on the right. In the middle is a section dedicated to controller data, which I have to admit I have totally ignored since its addition to SMPTEtrack, but that may be my fault since I find control changes very fiddly to deal with because of sequencers' general lack of mixer automation-style updating facilities (but see box for more details).
The track list in a way betrays the age of EditTrack Gold, or at least of the EditTrack concept. Let's face it — a computer screen is a place for interaction. A list of tracks on a computer screen is hardly more interactive than a scribbled list on a piece of paper, but since Hybrid Arts are not asking the price of a Cubase, or a Cubeat even, I'll stop moaning right now. The list extends to 60 tracks, which should be enough for all but a very few users, and a clever scroll bar on the left allows you to get to whichever block of tracks you want to inspect very quickly.
Although the track list doesn't attempt anything like as sophisticated a graphic display as Steinberg's twin offerings, you can perform quite a lot of tricks by clicking the mouse in various ways in various places. For instance, left clicking to the left of the track number will make that the active track, and clicking both buttons will create a shadow of that track (which you would use to send the same MIDI information over another channel, for instrument doubling). Left/right clicking on the track number enters the editing screen, and the same action on the track name brings up a titling window.
I won't bore you with the other functions, but you should now have the idea that EditTrack is quite a 'mousey' sequencer. You have to remember where to click and how to click, but once you have the hang of that you'll get along quite nicely.
Over on the right of the main screen is the really interesting part. Hybrid Arts have taken the bold step of not making the operation of EditTrack similar to a tape transport. A tape-like interface has advantages and disadvantages. The principal advantage is that if you can see record, play, stop and fast wind buttons then you instinctively know how they are going to work. The disadvantage is that the power of the computer is inevitably compromised if it is being used to imitate a primitive mechanical device.
EditTrack has six 'transport' buttons, but you'll use three of them more than the others: the Play button makes the whole thing go; the Cue button gets you back to the start (or whatever position you have entered as the cue point); and the Keep button fulfills the role of the Record button supplied on other software. The Keep button actually requires a little bit of explanation. You don't ever have to put EditTrack into record mode; it is always recording when the counter is running. If you play something you like and you want to keep it, then just click the button and it will be saved on to the active track and the program will re-cue. You need never miss that perfect take, because EditTrack is always recording.
The only possible disadvantage is that until you get used to the way the system works there is a tendency to forget to click on Keep, and lose what you have just recorded.
Many sequencers have facilities for creating short sequences and assembling them into a song format. This can of course save a lot of labour, but it can also lead to music that sounds very sectional. One of EditTrack's strengths will be apparent to writers who like their music to flow smoothly from beginning to end, without too much obvious cyclic repetition.
As on any sequencer, you can record your song in one long chunk without using sections at all, but once you start using sections you will find that there is a lot of power at your disposal. Let's consider first the idea of a section. In EditTrack this consists of a number of bars, beats and ticks in one dimension, and a number of tracks in the other. You can define as many as 100 different sections. Now comes the interesting bit...
Instead of a feature called something like 'song mode' where sections are put into the correct order, EditTrack has Chain Tracks which control the playback of the sections you have defined. The great thing is that you can have lots of Chain Tracks all running simultaneously, completely independent of each other and linked only by the sequencer's clock pulse. Anyone for polyrhythms?
The versatility of sections and chains in EditTrack is such that if your style of working is to improvise freely and then create music out of promising fragments, this is the sequencer to which you may turn in preference to more expensive products.
I always find that the best way to find out about any piece of software, or at least to get some sort of overview, is to look at what's on offer in the menus. The longest menu in EditTrack is the Edit menu, which contains an interesting range of functions.
I suppose I ought to say now that the one function I can't live without (and I have tried!) isn't there. That function is quantisation with a selectable 'window' around the precise time values, within which notes will not be moved. Quantisation by this method corrects the mistakes but retains the humanity of the performance. Maybe when EditTrack Gold is upgraded to Platinum we may see it. But even though this one favourite of mine is absent (and many people get along fine without it) the Edit menu holds just about every option that a serious sequencist will require.
One excellent feature (which every sequencer should have) is called Keysplit Track. Let's imagine a scenario where this might be useful: suppose you're working on a drum track. At the very least you'll have to play the bass and snare drums together in one take, and if you are mega-talented you might add the odd cymbal and a couple of toms too.
Now suppose that you want to dump the drums to multitrack to free up your sampler for something else, you'll either have to mess about with the program on the sampler so that you can record one drum on each tape track — which is fiddly — or split the notes on to separate sequencer tracks which you can mute and unmute freely.
This type of thing happens with percussion tracks especially, when there's a tendency to add whatever instruments happen to be available on the keyboard. The risk is that as you painstakingly go through the procedure of separating the notes manually, you will miss out an important instrument completely, and it takes ages to do in any case. But not with EditTrack, which will separate one track containing several different notes into several tracks each containing one note, and do it very quickly. There are a variety of other splitting functions, all of which are welcome as aids to efficient organisation and reorganisation of data.
Another small, but valuable, feature — and this is another old favourite — is called Level Hold Pedal. Heavy users of the sustain pedal often find that if they overdub one performance on another (on the same MIDI channel, although EditTrack's recording system ensures that the takes will be on separate tracks), that pedal On and Off messages get confused, resulting in pedalling that sounds completely random. The Level Hold Pedal function analyses the pedal data, and lengthens notes by moving note offs backwards to create the same effect as the sustain pedal. The pedal data is then removed, and the track sounds as you played it but contains no pedal data, and consequently can be overdubbed without two sets of pedal data interfering.
There are two note editing screens in EditTrack: the Graphic and Text screens, shown in Figures 2 and 3. Let's deal with the text editing screen first. It's horrible. Do you see all the note on messages, and all the note off messages too? Can you imagine how confusing it would be if you moved a note on to a point after its corresponding note off? Well, this way of displaying the data mucks up just about everything you would want to do on this screen, so it's a good job the graphic screen is a hell of a lot better!
The graphic editing screen is as good as anything other sequencers have to offer. Its default condition is a white-on-black display in which short notes can be displayed as individual pixels on the screen. It's possible to view an entire track on the screen and see its overall shape, and then very easily zoom in to the region you want to look at in more detail. If you want to hear a section, just sweep the mouse cursor across it with the left button held, then click on the play icon and you'll hear it; click again to hear it once more. Individual notes can be selected, moved, lengthened or shortened with the mouse very easily, and you can use the punch-in function on this screen and play in corrections from the keyboard.
In the topmost part of the screen is a display of other MIDI parameters, such as velocity, aftertouch, pitch bend and other controller data. You can modify data by drawing a curve freehand, or by stretching a 'rubber band' between two or more points to create linear changes. Either way, you can modify the data quickly and accurately, and in case of problems there is always the Undo button ready and waiting.
There are a couple of menus on the graphic editing screen (pull-up, rather than pull down). These cover a smaller range of functions than the main screen menus, but in this screen the ability to select a region quickly and then, say, quantise it, is very useful. When you have finished editing, returning to the main screen will lead you into a prompt box asking you which track the result of the editing session should be placed on. This is a feature that runs all the way through EditTrack — you never overwrite existing data unless you confirm that you want to.
This software is definitely guilty of providing an excess of facilities at a very low price. If the price were a good deal higher, then I wouldn't say that it was competition for Steinberg's Cubeat or C-Lab's Creator, but then EditTrack Gold costs less than, respectively, half, and a third, of those programs. For the serious user with money to spare, they have to be better options even if you consider only their positions as industry standards.
But as a product in its own right, EditTrack offers features and performance which would have been considered top notch only a couple of years ago. Buy this and you'll have a serious sequencer which will take you a very long way towards your ultimate musical goals.
EditTrack Gold £75 inc VAT.
Hybrid Arts UK, (Contact Details).
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Review by David Mellor
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