Hybrid Arts EZ-Track Plus
Software for the Atari ST
An upgraded version of Hybrid Arts' EZ-Track brings a new degree of sophistication to mid-price sequencing software. Gordon Reid takes it EZ with his Atari.
Still looking for a cost-effective Atari sequencing package? Hybrid Arts' latest budget software could be worth the wait.
TODAY'S SEQUENCER IS a multi-channel polyphonic device capable of driving many sound sources and modifiers and offering advanced recording and editing facilities. We've come a long way from early monophonic voltage-controlled hardware sequencers costing many hundreds of pounds to sophisticated pieces of software capable of out-performing them for a fraction of the cost. What can you expect for your money today? The answer, as you will see, is "quite a lot actually".
About two years ago Hybrid Arts released a primitive sequencing package called EZ-Track. This ran on an Atari ST520 or ST1040 and provided 27,000 or 63,000 notes on each machine respectively, meaning no song could realistically be longer than a couple of minutes. However, at the 1988 British Music Fair, Syndromic Music, the UK distributors for Hybrid Arts, were previewing an updated program: EZ-Track had "Plus" added to its name and cueing, punch-in, and fast forward/rewind added to its facilities. The price of the software had risen some £10 from the £49.95 of the original. As an owner of EZ-Track I visited Syndromic Music (British importers of the American program) who sent me home £12.50 poorer, armed with an new sequencer: EZ-Track Plus.
EZ-TRACK PLUS IS a 20-track MIDI recorder with the usual tape recorder-style features: Play, Stop, Pause, Fast Forward and Rewind. There is no specific Record button because the sequencer is, as described later, constantly recording. In addition, auto-locate allows you to move instantly to any position within the song and punch in/out allows you to correct sections within any part of a track. All 20 tracks can be edited whole or in user-definable sections, and cutting and pasting of sections is (with one reservation) nice 'n' easy. On the subject of tracks, Import allows the combination of tracks from different song files into one song, and Mix and Unmix facilitate the manipulation of tracks within a single file. All this is further enhanced by track transpose, real-time song transposition, MIDI velocity editing, track offset, and MIDI Sync features.
The manual is excellently produced on thick paper, bound in a tough three-ring binder and very clearly laid out. It's structured into chapters, and further divided into sub-chapters. Each of these are divided into sections which highlight a simple self-contained idea. It's neat, and an easy format to follow. It also allows for quick and easy reference for the more advanced user (for whom a full set of references and appendices are supplied at the back of the manual). If you're going to produce an entry-level package it has to be clear and simple to understand - which this manual certainly is.
Unfortunately, at the beginning of the manual Hybrid Arts claim that "EZ-Track Plus... provides the musician with the most flexible and powerful music production system available for the Atari Computer system". A shame, because whilst the program is undoubtedly very versatile, it is not the most so, and Hybrid Arts know it. (They also produce SyncTrack and SMPTETrack - 60-track text and graphic editing packages with Tape and SMPTE synchronisation.) Leave it out guys - the hype only detracts from the real qualities of the package.
BOOTING EZ-TRACK Plus couldn't be simpler - switch on, insert the disk, select the program, and double-click on the mouse. After a few seconds the main menu appears, and provided you have connected your MIDI equipment, you're ready to record. This screen does not change substantially at any time during the operation of the program which means that you always have all the recording information in front of you. It's a sound basic philosophy, although it leads to the one serious deficiency in the whole package: lack of an Edit page.
The screen is divided roughly in half - track display on the left, controls on the right. The usual pull-down menu bar gives access to most of the functions, subdivided into File commands, Track and Edit functions, MIDI and Timing options. The last menu option is a nice touch. Entitled Safety, it's a safety net that makes it difficult to delete or replace either Tracks or Songs and thus spares you the agony of watching 12 hours' inspiration spiral down the electronic plughole. Tracks can also be protected individually, and there is an option to make a backup of the previous version of a song every time you save a modified file.
The Track screen is informative, telling you which track you're currently writing to, its name (if you've given it one), track mute status, activity indicators, whether the track has been changed since the last Save, the MIDI channel output assignment, whether the track is protected against modification/deletion, and finally, the percentage of machine memory used by the Track. All this for each and every Track. With good basic design the information has been laid out in a clear and concise fashion which is easy to read and not at all overpowering.
"EZ-Track Plus comes complete with Hybrid Arts' Genpatch accessory, which allows you to access Genpatch libraries direct from the sequencer."
The Control display gives, if anything, even more information. Above the "tape transport" controls you will find the tempo setting, metronome, time signature, synchronisation type, start and end times (which double as the section definition markers) punch in/out times and enable controls, "tape" counter, transpose settings, MIDI Thru status, the memory used by the Song, and optionally, the remaining memory available in the system.
THE BASIC UNIT of the sequencer is the Track. There are 20 Tracks available in EZ-Track Plus, each of which can hold MIDI information on all 16 MIDI channels simultaneously and can, if desired, use the whole available memory of the computer system. A track can be muted or played allowing the monitoring of single parts within a Song - being the total information held on all 20 Tracks. (You can have up to 20 complete pieces of music in a Song - one on each track. Just be sure to mute the other 19 tracks when you play one back or the result will be cacophonous.) There is no doubt that EZ-Track Plus is intended to be an easy program to use but, at the same time, there is no shortage of advanced features. Most commands can be accessed by both the mouse and the keyboard - which can be very useful if you don't have enough room to move the mouse too freely on the desktop.
One of the advanced features of the package is that you can select your record track after you've played a section - so you need never lose your best performance (which, as we all know is always the session before the first take). This is perhaps the most important facility of EZ-Track Plus and is possible because the software records everything that arrives at the MIDI In. This data, which can be note information, patch changes, or pitch and modulation data, is then stored in a MIDI buffer. If you want to keep any given performance you select the track to which you wish to save it and then press the Keep button. This nondestructive editing enables you to save a recording to any track no matter where the track pointer was at the time you played the piece.
If you need to overdub sections within a track (who doesn't?) an independent pair of position markers exist for punch-in and punch-out. Since punching is a recording function, the MIDI data is again sent to the MIDI buffer, and can be assigned and saved to any Track. Very useful, and it stops you replacing a dodgy take with an even dodgier take.
Step-time recording is also provided. Steps as small as a 384th of a note can be accessed directly, which is tedious work, but the results (say on a snare flam or the strumming of a guitar patch) can be remarkable. This facility can also be very useful for precise punch-ins and editing.
The metronome can be set to either counter mode (beats and ticks) or to a metre mode which shows bars, beats and ticks. In addition you can specify the bar length, the number of lead-in measures, and the nature of the metronome tick.
"One of the advanced features of EZ-Track Plus is that it allows you to select your record track after you've played a section of music."
THE MOST IMPORTANT feature about editing is the ability to move freely within a Song. The greatest drawbacks of the original EZ-Track were its inability to start from any point other than the beginning of a Song, and the lack of fast forward and rewind controls. EZ-Track Plus overcomes all these faults. Auto-Locate can be set numerically on the track counter and can also be set "on the fly" if desired. A Track does not need to be playing to use auto-locate - if you want to cue to any position in a piece, simply set the desired start time on the counter.
Editing functions include Quantise, Transpose, and Adjust Velocity. Quantisation is to a maximum of 192nd note resolution and has two modes of operation - moving the whole note, and shifting the attack position. The latter is useful because it allows you to avoid shifting a note off command backwards beyond the start of a new note (when I was using the original EZ-Track it took me months to work out why some of my notes were being cut off just as they were played).
Transpose is pretty straightforward and an absolute necessity for those of you playing basslines on four-octave keyboards. A neat touch is the "Don't Transpose" feature which enables you to transpose the whole Song except for one track. Therefore you can change the pitch of a song without turning all your snare drums into maracas and your crash cymbals into rimshots. Thank you, Hybrid Arts, for remembering that drum samples are set to specific MIDI note numbers.
Velocity Adjust has a number of options including the ability to adjust attack and release velocities separately, the option to make the overall velocity softer or louder, and to set a specified track to a single volume throughout. The former allows you to discover the full range of expression in your synthesiser patches. Many keyboards seem to have a velocity range of around 20-110 (which seems to shrink to 80-100 on a bad night). Seriously, most keyboards are incapable of producing the full MIDI velocity range, and velocity shift can be useful in overcoming this.
All the editing facilities can apply to a part of a Track (a Region) just as well as to the whole track, enabling you, for example, to transpose the middle eight up a tone and to increase the volume and attack just as easily.
"'Don't transpose' enables you to transpose the whole Song without turning all your snare drums into maracas and your crash cymbals into rimshots."
When a section is defined, you can cut it from its original position and paste it into any position in any other Track. (Unlike, for instance, Dr Ts MRS which cannot copy between tracks.) So having spent weeks perfecting a chorus you can copy it from the end of the first verse and deposit it neatly at the end of the second and the third as well. This facility is an exact analogy to the cut and paste function in a word processor and no editor is complete without it. (It can also be used to insert time into the middle of a track.) Unfortunately, EZ-Track Plus lacks an Edit page to show where you are within the Song, and what, if anything, is happening on the various Tracks. If you take the time and trouble to work round the lack of an Edit page you will achieve results every bit as good as can be obtained with more expensive packages, but it's a shame that the simple visual approach is missing.
In addition to the Track edit functions there are a number of Song editing facilities. Performances can be copied from one Track to another, and bounced together using the Mix command. There is also an Unmix function which works on the data recorded on a specified MIDI channel. This enables you to extract a single channel from a mixed Track that has multiple channel performances stored within it. Unfortunately, Hybrid Arts forgot to allow for EZ-Track Plus to erase the Unmixed performance from the mixed track. So, if you want to edit the Unmixed portion and replace the original version, you will have to Unmix the entire track and delete it before remixing the newly edited version. Hybrid Arts should take care of that one, because the current system is tedious to use, and, after all, there may not be enough Tracks available to fully Unmix the Track and put it back together again.
One more editing function worth a mention is Track Delay which allows you to move a performance ahead of or following the beat - get in the groove.
MIDI THRU SENDS the MIDI In signal straight out through the MIDI Out socket on the Atari enabling you to control remote modules through the computer whilst playing. In addition, there is an option to send the Thru signal on any MIDI channel, no matter which channel the performance is being played on. There is a MIDI mode window which gives control of most of the full MIDI specification including the various modes, and there is a full set of MIDI filters. The filters are useful since they greatly increase the number of notes you can store in a given memory space once superfluous pitch-bend and aftertouch information has been removed. Finally, there is a MIDI synchronisation option for syncing to other devices in the MIDI chain.
SO, WHAT IS EZ-Track Plus like to use, and how good are the results? The program is very simple to master, intuitive, and friendly. All the functions that have been described are quickly available from the menu bar, and the options are laid out clearly and neatly. The system is quick to use and makes full use of the Atari's facilities. The quality of the results is entirely in your hands - the software certainly does its job.
People rarely seem to consider the support offered by a manufacturer when they buy a piece of musical software, but as computers become a more integral part of '80s music making, the back-up that the supplier is prepared to offer becomes more and more important. Syndromic Music will bring your software up to the latest version for a nominal fee plus postage and packing. Hybrid Arts also have a "buy back" philosophy which is designed to help you progress from the cheapest to the most sophisticated packages with the minimum of expense and hassle. If you have any Hybrid Arts package you can return it to Syndromic and they will supply the more advanced software for only the price difference between the two. Pretty neat. Imagine asking Roland to trade-in your Juno 6 for its original price against the purchase of a D10. In addition, Syndromic produce a bi-monthly newsletter for all registered owners.
Can you seriously fault a system that allows you to play into 20 tracks, freely manipulate the performance, is simple to edit, comes well documented, and costs a lot less than it ought? Well, yes you can. The lack of an edit screen is an oversight, and the inability to see the defined sections for cut and paste operations is an annoying deficiency. Also, the Unmix facility could have been better thought out.
EZ-Track Plus comes complete with Hybrid Arts' Genpatch accessory (which allows you to access Genpatch libraries direct from the sequencer) and if there was much more included it would start to become very difficult to justify the extra cost of many of the more expensive (typically £200-300) packages. If you're looking for an inexpensive entry into the world of software sequencing then EZ-Track Plus could definitely be the one for you. Try it - I think you'll like it.
Price £59.95 including VAT.
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Review by Gordon Reid
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