JCD Feeling Partner
Atari ST Software
One emerging trend in software sequencing is that of endowing your computer with musical "intelligence". Ian Waugh contends that machines can have feelings too.
Who says machines don't have feelings? Feeling Partner sets out to endow your Atari ST with a sense of musical style and become a part of your musical lifestyle.
You can make smutty jokes about the name Feeling Partner but the distributors certainly knew what they were doing when they chose it. That is, they knew the English connotation although what they could not know is what effect, if any, it will have on sales or on our perception of the program. Perhaps they believe it will make it more sexy - and there's not much software brings sex to mind.
Feeling Partner is a music sequencer and arranging program from French developer JCD Software. C-Lab Notator and Creator owners may have a sense of deja vu when looking at the main screen - that's partly intentional, and the design was done with the tacit consent of C-Lab. It may help to know that in France, Feeling Partner's distributors (MPI) are also the main C-Lab distributors.
The program comes on a protected disk which acts as a key disk - you can copy the files to another floppy or hard drive but the original disk must be inserted on booting. The program requires 1Mb of RAM but will run in hi-res or medium-res. Feeling Partner's screen is divided into four main areas. At the top is a mixer with one fader for each of the 16 MIDI channels. On the left is a window which toggles between a Pattern List and an Arrange Song window. On the right is the Pattern Tracks window and in the middle is the Pattern Style window and sequencer transport controls.
Like Notator, Partner lets you construct a Song by chaining together Patterns, each of which can contain up to 16 tracks with a length of up to 999 bars. However, it also lets you add auto accompaniments to your sequences.
The first step is to get the program and your MIDI setup talking to each other. Partner opens with six instruments in the Pattern Tracks area - drums, bass, strings, guitar, piano and brass - each assigned to their own MIDI channel. These are used to produce the accompaniment patterns. You can select a sound on your MIDI equipment for each instrument along with a volume and pan setting using the Mixer at the top of the screen.
With MIDI Thru on, your keyboard will transmit messages on the MIDI channel of the currently highlighted track. Click on Program in the Mixer area and use the slider (or click on the number) to send a program change message to select a suitable sound. Adjust the Volume and Panoramic parameters in the same way. The sliders are most useful in showing the relative volumes of the channels.
Default settings are for the Roland MT32 but it's easy to select sounds for any instrument (although only 128 program change messages are accommodated, so changing banks on instruments with more than 128 sounds has to be done manually). The mixer controls are very sensitive and it's easy to skip a number when altering the settings; the numbers are quite small and difficult to read even at an arm's length from the monitor.
The next step is to set up the drum map to match your drum sounds. Sixteen drums are used and, again, the map defaults to the MT32 but you can assign different keys to the sounds by clicking on a small keyboard which pops up. You can save and load drum configurations separately so you can use different kits for your "proper" gig sets and the Come Dancing jobs you won't admit to. This even makes it easy to switch drum machines.
When you create other patterns you can use these "preset" instrument settings and, unless you change them, they use the same MIDI channels as the original MIDI configuration, simplifying new pattern creation procedures. Two asterisks appear in the Channel column to indicate this. You can override them, of course, simply by scrolling to different MIDI channel numbers.
However, it would still be nice to know which channels these are assigned to without having to flip back to the previous configuration - so that you know which sliders to tweak in the Mixer if you want to change them. It would be useful if the fader corresponding to the currently-selected MIDI channel was highlighted.
The manual contains a tutorial which takes you through the main functions of the program. However, Feeling Partner has a certain level of complexity so you'd be advised not to tackle it after 17 cans of Pilsner Urquell. We'll look at the accompaniment generation first. The architecture goes something like this...
There are 74 Styles divided into a number of groups. The manual says there are 32 groups but there were only 15 with the review copy (v1.52) - rock, rock shuffle, slow rock, jazz rock, jazz, funk, disco, samba, afro, suka, bossa nova, tango (argh), paso, march and waltz.
Styles provide the "feel" of the accompaniment but many of the Styles within a group are not radically different from one another. On closer listening, the only discernible difference lies in the drum patterns - something the manual doesn't make clear.
Styles load with the program and cannot be loaded separately. Program updates (already in the pipeline) should offer a greater range and variety of Styles.
"Feeling Partner supports MIDI files, so you can export the resulting arrangement into your sequencer for further editing."
For each style there are a number of sets of Models and a set of 16 Algorithms. At the risk of allowing terminology to obscure explanation, a Model is simply a one- or two-bar sequence, a variation on the selected Style.
Within each group, each instrument has its own collection of Models - the actual number varies from group to group but averages around six. The instrument Models are two bars long while the drum Models are one bar long.
You can try out each Model for each instrument using the Taste Model (in keeping with the name of the program) from the Model menu. Having found a Model or two you like, you can assign them to the Model 1 and Model 2 areas on the main screen. These are basically buffers which are used to determine the Models used in the Algorithms. Perhaps it would be useful if Models were assigned to the Model 1 or 2 areas automatically after exiting the Taste Models option.
An Algorithm (you were dying to ask) is a collection of Models and Icons (coming up) put together to form a pattern (the Algorithm) which can be up to 16 bars long. This is quite neatly done in the Setup Algorithm window where you can drag icons (small i) of the Models into the Algorithm list. Icons (capital I) are other patterns (sequences/rhythmic styles) which include rests and the "basic" Style rhythm.
The Icons - and icons - consist of two bars of Models, et cetera in different combinations so that you can select, for example, a one-bar rest followed by one bar of Model 1 or one bar of the basic Style, followed by a bar of Model 2 and so on.
Three of the instrument Icons make the parts play in time with the bass drum, snare drum or hi-hat. The drum patterns, er, icons in an Algorithm can be set to play a fill with a "density" determined by a percentage setting. Use a 100% setting at the end of a phrase or a lower percentage fill to add a little variation in the middle of one.
For all the choice this gives you it would, perhaps, have been easier to use one-bar icons, thus doing away with the need for several two-bar combinations. Perhaps for ultimate flexibility, you could be given the ability to assign any Model number to any of the Algorithm's bar slots. However, as it is, the system works fine.
OK, so this isn't the easiest concept you've been asked to grasp within the pages of Music Technology, but it makes more sense when you're clicking the mouse, tasting Models(!), dragging icons and reading the manual - if you're one of those clever dicks (or dickesses) who ignore manuals, don't say you weren't warned.
Having explained (I hope) the basics of Partner's modus operandi, let's see how it works in practice (relax, you've done the difficult bit).
First, select a general Style for your song from the Style list. You can audition them on the fly. Next, create a new Pattern and name it in the Pattern List (the name in the Pattern window doesn't change as it does in Notator). Set the length of the Pattern, the time signature and adjust the tempo.
Now add tracks to the Pattern using the Create Tracks option. This lets you insert the auto accompaniment instruments but you can, of course, create your own tracks, either additional accompaniment patterns or a melody line.
Select suitable Models and Algorithms for the accompaniment parts. There are Modify Pattern and Modify Track options which will select these at random - useful when you're feeling lazy.
"The range of material in the Styles and Models come into their own for creating non-repetitive and customised accompaniments."
Now you need to enter some chords so the accompaniment section has a set of harmonies to follow. Partner doesn't use a chord list as such, rather it gets its chords directly from one of the tracks. The program recognises 12 chord types including major and minor 7ths with flattened 5ths. However, it doesn't recognise 9th, 11th and 13th intervals which I could live without but neither does it recognise 6ths or augmented chords, the latter being a more serious omission.
After recording your chords, you can nip into the Track Editor to see what a mess you've made (quantisation buff joke). The editor is simply a numeric event list which shows all recorded data - note ons, note offs and aftertouch (a display filter would be useful here). Editing in the editor is rather basic. Scrolling through the list is rather slow, too - fine for a 16-bar pattern but tedious for anything much longer.
There is a quantise function if you need it although, again, it's rather basic. You can set the quantise value in fractions of a semibreve and select triple time (represented by T) or double time (represented by B - something left over from the translation?). There's also an Auto Quantise function which saves you having to think about all this.
If the program discovers a chord in your recording and the track has been defined as a Track Driver (coming up), it shows the chord name and type. This is why it's important only to play chords it recognises and to ensure that chord changes occur at the correct place within the bar. Nice, easy and precise is the way to do it. It's not just a question of bunging in a melody and some loose chords and expecting to get an accompaniment out - you won't.
Chords are displayed in two parts: the name and the scale number. The scale number refers to the chord type from which Partner generates the scales it uses for the accompaniments.
Interestingly, you can change both the chord name and type from within the editor, so if you recorded a C major chord you could change the chord to E minor 7th and the accompaniment would produce a different set of harmonies. Come to that, you could change it to F#m7b5! Lots of scope here for the adventurous harmonist.
Having recorded a chord track you need to define it as a Track Driver (a right click to the left of the track does it) which tells Feeling Partner which track to take the chord information from. The chords it is using appear in the bottom right of the screen.
You can drive Partner in real time from a MIDI keyboard - portable keyboard mode - and, by assigning a split point, use the lower half of the keyboard for chords and the upper half for playing a melody.
The program has three recognition modes. In Absolute mode, it treats any note you play as a tonic and generates a chord based on that. In Relative mode it tends to remain in the same key, so playing a D note in the key of C would produce D minor rather than D major. In Extended mode it will analyse the note you're playing to see if it forms part of a tonic triad which has just been generated and, if so, plays that rather than generating a new chord.
Again, you need to be quite precise when playing and it helps if you play a little ahead of the beat rather than behind it. You can select Step or Bar mode for the analysis. The former looks for a chord change on every beat of the bar, the latter just once every bar.
The sequencer side of Partner is fairly basic. You can copy and merge tracks, transpose them, change MIDI channel - but that's all. You can't punch in, adjust velocity levels, set delays, copy sections of tracks and so on. For the purpose of creating an accompaniment, this is no major loss although it's worth bearing in mind if you're hoping to do extensive sequencing work. Partner does have a Sync function which allows it to be driven by an external drum machine or another sequencer.
To build up a song you can copy and transpose Patterns, adjust their length and so on until you have all the bits you need for your song. The Pattern List window will show all these Patterns and you can now link them together by toggling this to the Arrange Song window.
You add Patterns to the list by copying and changing them or by using the Create Patterns option. The Arrange window shows the bar number at which each of the patterns starts. You can't alter this or allow for cuts or upbeats as you can with Notator, for example. The best you can do is to create a one-bar Pattern with a time signature of 2/8 and pad with others of a similar ilk. You can stipulate the number of times you want each Pattern to loop.
"When you build up other patterns they use the same MIDI channels as the original MIDI configuration, simplifying pattern creation."
Feelie supports MIDI files, so you can export the resulting arrangement into your sequencer for further editing. It'll even play the file as it saves it. You don't have to record the melody or any other parts, you can simply record the accompaniment Patterns, assemble them in your sequencer and add the toppings later. Given the limited editing functions you may find this a better way of working.
AS IF YOU haven't already been spoiled for choice with Models, Algorithms and Styles, Partner lets you create your own Models, too. Basically, it will take any recorded track, divide it into two-bar Models and store it/them in the Models Library. This is only available for instrument tracks, however, not drums.
The new Models Library can then be saved. It replaces the existing library and is loaded automatically when the program boots. If you want a greater choice of Models you could always create several alternate Model files.
What of the accompaniments themselves? They really are very good - they may lack some of the pizazz of the accompaniments found on Roland's E-series keyboards, for example, but they're infinitely more programmable and customisable and that's the name of the game - tailoring the patterns to suit your music.
The manual is quite thorough. It contains a good step-by-step introduction which you'll need to follow closely. However, it could do with a few more diagrams. The areas of the main screen are referred to by number - a few illustrations would be welcome and help break up the text - and it wouldn't do any harm to show the actual windows from the menus.
The tutorial is followed by a reference section which is organised alphabetically. There's also a list of all the menu options and the page numbers where further details can be found. And there's an index.
Appendices include keyboard shortcuts (although some need, to be explained more clearly) plus a four-and-a-half page introduction to MIDI.
Niggles are mainly to do with implementation, and the developers are already working on updates which will correct many of them - although they hope the innovative nature of the program will tempt interested parties into a purchase.
The fact that Feeling Partner can function as a sequencer is a bonus, and tempting to those whose arranging skills have yet to be honed but who are looking for a first-time sequencer.
However, Feelie is no substitute for a dedicated sequencer so if you were thinking along those lines, just make sure its facilities match your requirements. If you already have a sequencer then the program's ability to handle MIDI files makes it a more attractive proposition.
The range of material in the Styles and Models come into their own for creating non-repetitive and customised accompaniments. You can put an accompaniment together fairly quickly and spend time later beefing it up if you wish.
As with many new programs, Feeling Pard introduces a few concepts you have to wrap your head around before you can exploit its full capabilities. In return for your pains, however, you have access to the most flexible accompaniment generator currently on the market.
Price £175 including VAT
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Review by Ian Waugh