Intelligent Music MIDIDraw
Software for the Atari ST
As well as being a communications standard, MIDI has encouraged the development of new forms of musical expression - like this graphic music program. Ian Waugh draws his own conclusions.
The magic of MIDI continues to break down the barriers between different art media - Mididraw allows you to turn your doodles into music.
YOU'VE CERTAINLY HEARD the saying "you are what you eat" and computer users will be familiar with the phrase "garbage in, garbage out". But what's all this got to do with music?
Well, to get music out of a system you must first put something in. Even music made with a computer-based composition program requires the setting up of suitable algorithms and parameters.
Mididraw puts a new slant on this input/output situation - your music is what you draw. It was developed by Intelligent Music, the boys who brought us M (reviewed MT, March '88). The copy under review is version 1.00 and it runs in high or medium resolution.
Mididraw is slightly simpler in concept than M (although you'd be surprised at how many ways there are of manipulating a drawing) but it borrows several operational concepts from it.
There is only one screen, smack bang in the middle of which is the Drawing Field, and this is where you draw the pictures which make the music. Surrounding this are four Control Panels which determine the way in which your doodles are turned into sound.
The top half of the Panels are all the same. The first three parameters are used to select the MIDI channel number the music will be transmitted on, the Program Number to be used and the volume setting. Below these are two sliders: one adjusts the duration (strictly the articulation - legato vs staccato) of the notes produced and the other sets the range of MIDI velocity values which will be transmitted, effectively making a Panel's output louder or softer in relation to the others.
Each Panel also has a Sustain switch which acts like a piano's sustain pedal. This is very useful for producing cascades of notes.
THE FIRST PANEL, top left, is the Picture Control Panel which controls current drawing movements. Holding down the left mouse button while in the Drawing Field produces a note. The further up the Field you go, the louder the note and the further right, the higher the pitch.
So far so good, but it would be rather boring if the program simply churned out notes in a C major scale. Fortunately it doesn't. Above the Drawing Field is the Tonality selector and really, it is this which largely determines the strength - or otherwise - of the melodic output.
Tonality settings one to six let you select the notes which will sound over the range of an octave. You can literally construct your own sales - major, minor, pentatonic, chromatic and ethnic. Tonalities seven to nine go a stage further and let you select the individual notes across a five-and-a-half octave range.
If you sweep the mouse from left to right it doesn't automatically play all the notes in the scale. If you move it quickly it misses notes out and the slower you move it, the more notes it plays so there is a certain amount of scope for "performance interpretation".
You can set the octave limits for the left and right sides of the Field within a range of C-2 to C+8 - that's ten octaves. If you set the left limit higher than the right one, the Drawing Field will work in reverse playing higher notes the further left you move. You can use this to effectively turns a piece upside down.
Back to the Picture Control Panel. The Drawing Mode Toggle switch toggles Note Repeat on and off. With Repeat on, notes sound as long as you hold down the button. With it off, notes only play when you move the mouse. You can adjust the repeat rate as you draw.
Other controls include a clear screen button and a Colour Toggle which switches between black and white ink on a mono monitor and grey and orange in high resolution colour. Drawing in white on a white background, for example, will produce MIDI data without creating a drawing.
BELOW THE PICTURE Control Panel is the Delay Control Panel. This repeats the notes played by the Picture Panel after a short delay - well, what did you expect? This delay can be set from 200 milliseconds (which produces a slapback effect) to two seconds. Sustain can be added and the delayed notes can be transposed. This is especially useful to help create arpeggios.
Top right is the Recorder Control Panel. OK, you're way ahead of me, but it records the mouse movements you make, not the notes, enabling you to alter the parameters on playback. You can alter the tempo, add sustain and toggle velocity variations on and off.
The SNP (Skip Note Percentage) box is used to set the percentage chance of a note sounding. For example, if you set it to 50, each note has a 50:50 chance of sounding. There's also a Note Order Toggle which selects notes from the sequence at random. Both these functions have equivalents in M.
The final option lets you play back the notes with an even rhythm or with the durations with which they were recorded. There are no quantise functions here.
In Play mode, the recording loops continuously so you can experiment with different Panel settings. I found one of the most interesting effects to be to change the Tonality end listen to the differences produced by the same performance.
The final Panel is the Interpreter Control Panel. This scans the Drawing Field looking for pixels. When it finds one it rubs it out (you dirty rat, you killed my pixel, see) and plays a note. It has its own tempo control and a SNP Toggle, too.
"A Movie can be saved in MIDI File format and loaded into programs such as M, Steinberg's Pro24 III, Dr T's KCS and Passport's MasterTracks."
The Interpreter can be made to play in sync with the Recorder, in which case the tempo is controlled from the Recorder Panel. This adds extra notes to the recorded piece, although as the interpreted notes are basically random I couldn't say that it adds much to the performance.
THERE'S A BUILT-IN Interpreter demo called the Starry Night Effect. It turns the Drawing Field black and as the Interpreter erases the pixels, it gives the impression of stars appearing. The manual says it could take up to six hours to clear the Field!
Although you hear what you draw, I'm afraid a Mona Lisa isn't going to be any more Brahms or Beethoven than drunken scribble - which means you can use it whatever state of mind you're in.
As each of the four Panels can be set to different MIDI channels, the program can play four sounds at the same time. The Interpreter is the only Panel which can produce polyphonic output - up to four notes at once - the other Panels are monophonic although you need a polyphonic instrument to make the most of the Sustain function.
HAVING DISCOVERED SEVERAL Panel settings and Tonalities that you like, you can capture them in Mididraw's equivalent of a User Memory - the Snapshot. There are 15 Snapshots in total and each stores all the Panel settings at the time the Snapshot is taken. You can flick instantly from one setting to another just by clicking on a Snapshot.
The settings stored by a Snapshot are known as a Setup and these can be saved to disk. Once again, M has similar facilities.
YOU CANNOT SAVE the contents of the Recorder or the picture you've drawn but you can create and save Movies - another crossover from M. A Movie is a real-time performance. It will capture all the changes you make and the result can be saved in MIDI File format and loaded into programs such as M (yes, indeed). Steinberg's Pro24 (version III), Dr T's Keyboard Controlled Sequencer and Passport's MasterTracks.
I'd suggest that one of the most practical uses of Mididraw (if you need to justify it with a "practical use") is as a source of musical ideas to be further manipulated in a sequencer program.
I found the manual extremely easy to understand - ten out of ten, Intelligent. Everything did what it was supposed to do without any trouble at all - there are very few manuals or pieces of software you can say that about although I can't deny that my familiarity with M may have helped with some of the concepts. Many operations have keyboard equivalents for those who don't like mice.
I wasn't impressed with the packaging, however. Most music software comes in a file or folder. Mididraw comes in a squashy box. As a bonus, however, the program disk contains a demo of M just in case you don't have this public domain program.
THE RAW RESULTS of Mididraw are musical in a "doodling" sort of way but the program is fun. It's very easy to use and even non-musicians can boot up and start making music after only a quick dip into the manual. At times I think some listeners could be convinced that they were listening to Debussy (albeit not at his best), although I doubt that you could keep up the pretense for very long.
As a stand-alone program, Mididraw's forte is what I'd call textural music. A carefully selected arrangement of sounds (piano, strings and pan flute, say) can produce very pleasing results. The success of a doodle depends quite strongly upon the Tonality selection. For example, a pentatonic arrangement could easily have you reaching for the sweet and sour.
I suppose the major disappointment is not being able to load or save your doodles, although as the Interpretation bears little resemblance to the picture on the screen it could be argued that such a feature is redundant.
Or this topic, I wonder whether or not it would be possible to interpret a picture in a more logical way. For example, why not scan a block of 16 or so pixels at a time to increase polyphony, and why not offer a selection of brush sizes to choose from when drawing?
The interpreter scans the Field at random. Why not scan it horizontally, vertically or in a wedge, arrow or circular pattern? These may not produce anything more tuneful but at least they'd provide a constant interpretation factor so you could see the relationship between picture and music. Just a thought.
As with many experimental programs. the more you put into it, the more you'll get out, but even then the results will be more Scales and arpeggios than the tunes so beloved by the Western ear.
But anyone car use it, and if you're of an experimental turn of mind and can afford 70 quid, Mididraw offers a new and different method of music creation.
Price: Mididraw, £69.95 including VAT
Review by Ian Waugh
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