Hybrid Arts SMPTETRACK II
Is Hybrid Arts SMPTETrack for the Atari ST keeping pace with the front runners? David Mellor upgrades his sequencer package to version II software and hardware.
The front runners in the ST sequencing stakes at the moment are probably C-Lab's Creator/Notator and Steinberg's Cubase. I'm judging this only by the number of times their names crop up in conversation and by how often they contribute to the 'Software Support' pages of Sound On Sound, but I think most people will see these as very important products at the very least. Both of these programs are heavily 'feature' orientated, like the dashboard of a top-of-the-range car, but simplicity can sell too. A sequencer which is easy to use may aid musical creativity just as much as the all-singing, all-dancing model.
I was fortunate enough to review Hybrid Arts' SMPTEtrack way back in 1988, shortly after its release. At that time I was wrestling with an over-complicated and under-informative sequencer whose name deserves to remain unmentioned for all time. SMPTEtrack came like the proverbial breath of fresh air, because it was so simple to use once the basics had been firmly grasped. I am still an avid SMPTEtrack user now, and would be even if the Version II software were not yet with us. It's not the only sequencer I use, indeed I am more often to be found punching the buttons of a hardware sequencer (ASQ no questions!), but SMPTEtrack allows me great versatility, especially when composing music without a strict rhythmic pattern.
SMPTEtrack II builds on the foundation of the original program by streamlining many of the operating procedures and fixing the odd bug, and by adding a number of valuable extras. This new version of SMPTEtrack may be looked upon in two different lights:
• As an improvement, providing extra capability and versatility by adding new features.
• As a departure from the concept of simplicity embodied in the original SMPTEtrack, presenting a more complex interface to the user.
I would find it difficult to come to a firm conclusion either way, because many of the new features are very welcome, some speeding up operation enormously. I do find, however, that I am forced to remember more information, because of these new features, such as precisely where to click the mouse, and which combination of mouse buttons to use, to obtain the result I require. But preempting my end-of-review conclusion, I can say that I am generally pleased with the results and shall be shelling out my readies for the upgrade fee without qualms.
Since my original SMPTEtrack review was a while ago [see SOS April 1988], let me look once again at the basic program operations.
SMPTEtrack is a timecode compatible sequencer supplied with a SMPTE interface unit called SMPTEmate. SMPTEmate is the hardware portion of SMPTEtrack which can stripe a timecode track on tape and supply the software with synchronising information to lock a MIDI sequence to the multitrack tape recorder. SMPTEmate Plus is the new upgraded version of SMPTEmate, which uses its own power supply rather than taking power from the Atari ST's joystick port and has a metal, rather than plastic, case with LEDs showing the unit's function. SMPTEtrack II will work with either of the two SMPTEmate units.
Moving to the more interesting software side of things, the main screen of SMPTEtrack is split into three sections: the Track Display, the Control Display, and the central Control Column. The Track Display, shown in Figure 1, is simply a listing of the sixty available tracks, including Shadow, Tempo, Metre and Chain tracks. To the left is a scroll bar which gets you quickly to any track on which you want to work. Although compact, this Track Display is very informative showing pretty much everything you would want to know, except whether it sounds good or not - they're probably working on that!
The Control Display of SMPTEtrack II (Figure 2) is rather busier than that of the previous version and takes a little getting to know. The 'transport' controls are tape recorder-like, but with one exception - there is no Record button. That's because SMPTEtrack is always in a record-ready state, capturing any MIDI data input that comes its way while the sequence plays. This MIDI data goes into the Keep Buffer and is allocated to an empty track only when you click on the Keep box or press the Enter key on the ST. You need never miss a take with SMPTEtrack, as long as you remember to click 'Keep' before restarting, something you soon get used to.
In Figure 2, SMPTEtrack is shown in Register Mode, its normal operating mode, as opposed to Section Mode which I shall explain in a moment. There are 27 possible registers for each song, each of which remembers track on/off status, tempo, start/stop times, and punch in/out times. It can be a very convenient autolocator for working on different parts of the song. Recording in Register Mode is always linear, ie. from the beginning of the track to the end, or between points you have designated as the start and stop points, just as with multitrack tape.
Section Mode has two functions, the first of which is to take material out of linearly recorded tracks in order to build them into a chain. Figure 3 shows the distinguishing features of the Section Mode display: you simply set a start and end time for the section by clicking the mouse on the digits of the counter displays, then pick which tracks you want to be included in the section. A great advantage of SMPTEtrack is that sections can be defined very easily, not just to the nearest bar but to the nearest 1/96th note. Resolution this fine is essential if you want to record music without the restrictions of a fixed rhythm.
The three buttons in the centre of the display work like this: Find New looks for the next empty section (from the 100 sections available); Make Next finds an empty section and sets both the Start and End times to the End time of the previous section (note that it doesn't assume how long you might want the section to be); Copy To Next finds an empty section and copies over all the settings of the previous section. When you have finished making up sections and return to Register Mode, the sections you have defined can be assembled into a Chain Track, which can play by itself or along with linearly recorded tracks. There can be several Chain Tracks playing at the same time.
The other function of Section Mode is to perform Cycle Recording. Cycle Recording is much the same as the way drum machines work, and was sadly absent in the previous version of SMPTEtrack. To record a cycle in Section Mode, click on the Cycle button, click Play, and you are off recording a two-bar section which will play over and over as you add new notes. You can, of course, change the length to suit your requirements and also overdub to other tracks in the section that were not recorded in this manner.
In both Register and Section Modes, there is a new feature called Quantised Record. Like many sequencers, the original SMPTEtrack recorded in real time (or as near to real time as it could get) - 1/96th notes - and quantising had to be performed as a separate operation. Now, you can quantise as you record, saving effort later. This is useful in Register Mode, but invaluable when Cycle Recording in Section Mode.
The proof of the sequencing is in the editing, and SMPTEtrack offers both graphic and text editing screens (Figures 4 and 5). The graphic screen has a note display at the bottom and a display at the top which can be switched to show velocity, aftertouch, or any MIDI controller data. The graphic screen is totally mouse-driven by different combinations of left, right, short and long clicks. You can zoom in on any part of the track, displaying all channels or a selected channel, and play it, add notes or erase it. An individual note can be selected for editing, its attack made earlier, release made later, or moved as an entity by grabbing it in various ways with the mouse. There is also numerical confirmation of all the MIDI data relating to the note the cursor is pointing at.
In the upper part of the graphic screen, a line can be drawn with the mouse which will be translated into MIDI velocity, aftertouch, or controller data according to your selection. This is particularly good for creating crescendi and tweaking pitch bend data that has been played in manually.
In short, this graphic screen is excellent for editing and quickly hearing the results, the only trouble being that it's too tempting to spend time editing when it might be easier simply to play the track again!
Clicking the Flip button switches directly to the text editing screen (Figure 5) which, unfortunately, is not so good. Its worst point is showing Note On and Note Off both as 'Note On' (Note Off will have a velocity of 'Off or '0') in the same column, where it would have been much better to show Note On and Duration separately. There is also a lot of mouse movement involved when you adjust a value and then have to click on a small arrow to the left of the screen to confirm the edit. I'm afraid I have to say that I never use text editing in SMPTEtrack - it's too much trouble compared to graphic editing.
Still talking about editing, the Edit menu has a lot to offer too, and this is explained in detail elsewhere. Just to mention one of my favourite new features here, Keysplit Track separates all the different notes in a track onto individual channels. I use this feature when I am laying drums down onto multitrack tape one at a time. I find it much easier to do this in the sequencer than to allocate the separate outputs on my sampler, and I end up paying more attention to each drum sound this way.
In the centre of the SMPTEtrack main screen there is the new Control Column (Figure 6), which shows real-time controller changes, patch changes and pitch bend, with a small bargraph meter for each MIDI channel. As an alternative to inputting this data direct from the synth or mother keyboard, there is also a fader which pops up, replacing the Memory Used indicator, and this can be grabbed by the mouse and adjustments made in real time, all of which will be recorded.
Probably the best use of the Control Column will be for controlling MIDI Volume (Controller number 7). With this, a degree of mix automation can be obtained that will probably save time and effort which would otherwise have been spent on nifty fader work on the mixing console. It's not a full automation system, which would offer more detailed editing than the simple overwrite capability available here, but it's definitely useful and good to have.
Controller chasing, by the way, is now a feature of SMPTEtrack. So wherever you now start playback from, the software looks back in time to see what the last control change was on each MIDI channel and outputs that value. No more pitch bends where you didn't expect them!
A good way to get an overview of the capabilities of any new piece of software is to look at the items available on the menu bar. SMPTEtrack offers quite a reasonable selection, I think, so let's explore them...
SMPTEtrack supports not only its own file format but Standard MIDI Files too, with SNG file loading and saving being selected by the left mouse button and MIDI Files by the right.
Individual tracks can be imported from SNG files if desired, and up to 48 files can be programmed to load automatically to perform a Set. When performing a Set, each new song will load up and play automatically. It is possible to perform the set once or continuously, which may be useful for background music.
When a track is a Shadow of another track (see 'Edit' menu), you can find out the number of the original track from this menu. For some reason it doesn't seem to have been possible to include that information permanently on the main screen. Tracks can be protected or unprotected here, too.
This is the longest menu by far and Hybrid Arts will have to find alternative accommodation for any Edit menu additions they may plan for future versions of SMPTEtrack.
Copy/Swap uses SMPTEtrack's system of left/right mouse button selection - the left button activating Copy, the right activating Swap. Copying a track obviously duplicates the MIDI data. You also have the option (selected from the Options menu) of copying the track name and its channel assignment. Swapping is similar and helps sort out the type of organisational mess you can very easily get into with 60 tracks at your disposal.
Shadowing a track is a good way of filling out a particular musical line by having it played by two MIDI instruments. If Track 1, say, were Shadowed onto Track 2, then Track 2 would always contain identical MIDI data to Track 1, imitating exactly any changes made through editing, but with a different MIDI channel of your choice, and possibly also with a different timing offset and transposition interval. Warnings are given (when you attempt any Delete or Replace operations on the original track) that its 'shadows' will also be affected, and a dialogue box asks whether you really want to lose your shadows. It is also possible to shadow a track without entering the Edit memory, by clicking both mouse buttons to the left of the track number. A shadow of that track will then be placed on the next empty track.
Mixing tracks is good for organising your music, by collecting together different parts for the same instrument that you have recorded separately, eg. left hand and right hand piano parts perhaps. The mixing function takes account of the channelisation of the tracks, so if you had three tracks channelised to MIDI channels 1, 2 and 3, then the resulting track would contain all of those channels separately, and could itself be rechannelised.
When you have several MIDI channels on one track, it's just possible that you might want to place them back onto separate tracks at some later stage. The Extract Channel function will allow you to select which channels you would like to remove and assign to another track. This can be done for a region of the track - a certain length of time - by selecting the Extract Channel function with the right mouse button.
Unmix Channel is a quicker way of getting at the different MIDI channels on a track. This function will separate out all the different channels contained in the track and automatically place them on individual tracks - 17 of them. If you are wondering what the 17th track is for, it's for storing non-channel data such as System Exclusive.
ZoneSplit and KeySplit work similarly to Extract Channel and Unmix Channels, but they separate the data by note rather than by channel. ZoneSplit is the long-winded way of doing it, when you have something that requires a bit of precision. KeySplit simply takes each note and puts it on its own track. This is good for separating different drum sounds, which may have been recorded together, onto individual tracks for further manipulation or convenient layoff onto multitrack tape.
Flatten Chain is a function that will be used, I am sure, at least once during the course of every composition. When several verse, chorus and bridge sections etc have been chained successfully into a complete piece of music, Flatten Chain will create a complete single track out of the whole lot, which can then be Extracted, Unmixed, ZoneSplit and KeySplit for further editing. Although SMPTEtrack can play back a sequence of chained sections perfectly happily alongside continuously recorded tracks, you really need to have all continuous tracks at the 'final product' stage for the proper setting of time offsets.
The middle section of the Edit menu entries concern time, which can be inserted or removed, stretched or compressed. Inserting or Removing simply adds or takes away a number of blank bars and beats as defined by the Region set by the autolocator. Alter Timespan works by moving the events in a track closer together or further apart, not by changing the overall tempo. There must be some good creative uses for this function.
Glue In Section takes one of the sections you have already defined and inserts it at a chosen point in the composition with a selectable number of repeats.
The final Edit menu section offers functions such as Quantise, which needs no explanation; Humanise, which is a sort of semi-random Quantise function; and Durate, Transpose and Velocity Adjust, etc - all sequencer standards.
Replace Every is for replacing one type of controller with another. For example, Modulation Wheel data can be changed to MIDI Volume or even to Channel Pressure (Aftertouch). The results can be unpredictable in their effect, but it's good to have the facility, and fine tuning can easily be made on the graphic edit screen. Eliminate Every simply gets rid of controller data of a chosen type.
Optimise Every can thin out controller data to a manageable level. Continuous controllers can add masses of data to a track, which not only eats up computer memory but can ultimately affect playback timing - a useful feature.
Level Hold Pedal is another optimiser, this time for sustain pedal operations. If you are recording more than one track on the same instrument, multiple sustain pedal operations can become confused on playback. Levelling the sustain adjusts note lengths to achieve the same musical result, but in a tidier fashion.
Graphic Screen and Event List editing are offered, each having a Flip button to switch over directly to the other without having to return to the menus. Chain, Tempo and Meter tracks can be set up and edited from here.
A Chain track is one of SMPTEtrack's 60 ordinary tracks turned over to the direction of playback of sections, and there can be several Chain tracks on the go at the same time. A Tempo track is another standard track but this time devoted to tempo changes and where they occur. Although there can be several Tempo tracks, only one can be active at a time. The same applies to Meter tracks, which keep tabs on the number of beats in each bar.
Sections can be inspected using the next menu item. You are informed which tracks each section contains, and their start and end times.
Key Command Macros is a very useful addition to SMPTEtrack Version II. Perhaps it isn't the height of technology anymore, but I feel that it is essential for every piece of software to allow users to devise their own keyboard shortcuts, and not just with the Atari's Function keys either - let's use all the keys available. It's funny how keyboard shortcuts that you invent for yourself are so much more memorable than the ones provided as 'factory presets'.
Send Mode Messages sends messages such as 'Omni On', 'All Notes Off etc on selected MIDI channels. Input Filters decides which types of MIDI messages should be allowed to be recorded. You may not, for example, want to trouble yourself with Aftertouch data, which is often not needed and tends to clog up the system with too much information. The choice of items to be enabled or filtered includes: Aftertouch, Pitch Bend, Control Change (all or individual), Program Change, Note On/Off, Mode Commands, All Notes Off, and System Exclusive. I would have liked Velocity to have been included on this list, too, but you can deal with that elsewhere.
Output Options deals with synchronisation matters. Metronome beats can be assigned different notes, possibly on different MIDI channels for the downbeat and subsequent beats of the bar. Channel Settings allows patch numbering to correspond to the way it appears on each instrument. For instance, some synths have banks of eight programs, others have banks of 10. The maximum Velocity allowed for each channel can be set here, too. Some synths don't expect MIDI Velocities to extend all the way up to 127 and consequently can produce odd noises - this function fixes the problem.
Control Change Names allows you to name your own MIDI controllers, which makes more sense than having to remember the numbers of those controllers which don't have 'standardised' names as yet.
The MIDIplexer Input facility is for those users who have the extra Hybrid Arts hardware to access up to 64 MIDI channels simultaneously.
'Box' refers to the external sync box: SMPTEmate or SMPTEmate Plus. There is a choice of 10 external sync types, including SMPTE and audio click, but excluding MIDI, which is of course handled through the ST's MIDI connectors rather than through SMPTEmate.
Options is a menu that cannot be too lengthy, in any software. Just imagine software that is customisable to a degree where you only ever see the functions you want to use on the screen, those functions being selected from a list of hundreds. Well, that's still a dream and there will probably always be irrelevant functions to plough through, which will differ from user to user.
Despite my comments, which are comments on the state of software in general, SMPTEtrack II has some useful options in this menu. Punch Method allows the insertion of events or notes. A note, of course, has an On and an Off point which Notes mode would take into account, not leaving anything hanging on. For some purposes, Event mode may be more suitable as it inserts data exactly as received.
Early Amount allows notes played slightly ahead of a punch-in point to be included in the take. You set how 'early' with this function. Rounding Amount is for setting locate points on-the-fly, as the sequence plays. This can be done to exact values using the left mouse button, or to rounded values - ie. to the nearest quarter, eighth or sixteenth note - with the right button.
Quantise Method offers Note On quantising (which shifts the start of each note but leaves the Note Off as played) or Shift Note (which moves the note with its duration as played). Fader Precision affects the resolution of the Control Column fader.
Cycle Take Mode involves the important new Cycle Recording feature and offers the option of adding extra parts each time the loop cycles round, allowing you to hear those additions like adding drums to a drum machine, or a mode where you only hear the take you are recording, previous takes being switched off. This is meant for those times when you are trying for that 'golden take' and need to have plenty of goes at it.
User Preferences is another valuable series of options which let you customise SMPTEtrack and save the results in a User Preferences file. Auto Inject is only used in conjunction with other pieces of Hybrid Arts software, Genpatch and Genedit, and allows synth patches to be sent automatically to the relevant instrument(s) when a file is loaded. Initialise Song does exactly what it says.
The Safety menu offers safeguards against making mistakes, such as deleting a track you wanted to keep. So you can either play safe but slowly, or live life in the fast lane of sequencing.
Help pages are very useful in any software package and these are no exception. But can we have more in the next update, please?
Like pretty well any modern sequencing software, there is so much to describe in SMPTEtrack that it would take all day. But the original concept of SMPTEtrack was simplicity of operation, and the current version still maintains this to a large extent. It doesn't have absolutely every bell and whistle you could possibly imagine, but it certainly has the most useful. If Hybrid Arts are looking for pointers then I would suggest that, in their next update, they definitely improve the text editing screen, and also attend to a few smaller points such as providing an option that tells the software not to play two identical notes on the same channel at the same time - a very desirable feature for Cycle Recording.
Even with attractive newcomers around. Hybrid Arts' SMPTEtrack is still an important sequencing package, especially now in its Version II guise, because it works well and works efficiently. I for one shall continue to use it.
SMPTEtrack software with SMPTEmate Plus hardware £499 inc VAT.
Hybrid Arts (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Review by David Mellor