Joreth Music Composer System
Software for the Commodore 64
Ian Waugh explores Joreth Music's integrated Music Composer System and Real-Time Linker - two powerful MIDI sequencing packages for the Commodore 64 micro.
Ian Waugh explores Joreth's integrated Music Composer System and Real-Time Linker - two MIDI sequencing packages for the Commodore 64.
The Joreth Music Composer System (MCS) has been with us for around two years and, strangely, attracted more devotees than publicity. Joreth were one of the first to put real-time and step-time systems into one package. At a time when much MIDI sequencing software is similar in concept, their design philosophy has remained unique. It can be summed up in one word - versatility.
Let's start our look at Joreth with the AL25, their MIDI interface. This is well-equipped with one MIDI In, three MIDI Outs, a Mixdown switch and a Mixdown Override socket. The Mixdown switch lets you 'bounce' several parts into one and if you plug a footswitch into the override socket you can perform a real-time drop-in.
For syncing with non-MIDI equipment there is a Sync In, a Sync Out and a Sync switch to select internal or external clock. One of Joreth's particular strengths is their attention to sync facilities and the MCS manual covers this subject in detail.
The AL25 also has a Panic button! This causes a cold start reset but leaves the program and data intact, so if you really get yourself into a hopeless mess or manage to crash the system (unlikely but possible) this will get you out of trouble. I have crashed other MIDI programs (it's a talent of mine) leaving no option but to re-boot the system with the loss of all data. At times, the Panic button is a lifesaver.
The AL25 plugs into the Commodore's user port which has better facilities for sync than the cartridge port. All Joreth software now works with cartridge port interfaces from other manufacturers, too - if only all MIDI software was as versatile. If you have such an interface, look out for Joreth's BL43 (catchy name, eh?), a low-cost user port sync unit (no, nothing to do with washing dishes, luv).
If you use non-MIDI gear then take a close look at the AL25 as Joreth's software is designed to use its syncing facilities to the full.
Having plugged in and turned on you can boot the MCS program. This is an 8-track sequencer divided into real- and step-time sections. It queries you about your interface and printer and asks if you want the MIDI channels numbered correctly from 0 to 15 or conventionally from 1 to 16. Thoughtful, eh?
First stop is the Real-Time System and you can start recording right away. The system will store eight separate pieces of music known as Parts. Each Part can be transposed over a two-octave range and can be given one of ten quantisation settings. Quantisation only takes place on playback so you don't have to worry about losing your original data. Nice!
You can store velocity information with each Part and this can be omitted from playback later. Other forms of modulation, however, are recorded and cannot be deselected.
Memory is dynamically assigned, that is memory isn't reserved for empty Parts, and trailing note rests are automatically lopped off when you exit record mode.
With a few Parts in the program, the next step is to arrange combinations of Parts into Tunes. This is a fairly standard MIDI sequencing program operation. For example, Tune 0 could consist of Parts 0 and 1, Tune 1 could be Parts 0, 2 and 3, and Tune 3 could be Parts 4, 5 and 6. Get the idea?
Finally, a Song is produced by stringing Tunes together and can contain around 70 to 80 Tunes. A Song or Tune can be made to repeat indefinitely on playback but there is no provision for looping within a Part, which would have been more useful.
The top line of the main screen displays the current metronome rate and sync settings for both MIDI and non-MIDI equipment. These should let you sync just about anything to the system.
Pressing SHIFT and T keys takes you to the real-time Trimmer screen. This was originally used to trim leading metronome beats from a Part (hence its name) but now it includes the velocity on/off facility and access to a disk handling routine, a consequence of software updates.
SHIFT and E take you to the realtime Editor. Messing around with music at byte level can be a chore, but the MCS gives you access to lots of facilities not found on other real-time systems and tries to make the process as painless as possible.
The Editor lists the music byte by byte along with about 16 mnemonics telling you what each byte does. For example, OC opens a command stream and tells the program that what follows is a command (seems fair), TN selects a tone bank, QN sets quantisation and ME selects a new metronome rate. Note-on and note-off details are printed out so no problems there.
You can insert any kind of MIDI command into a Part including Clock Start, Stop and Continue instructions to control drum machines. You can programme tone bank and MIDI channel changes and incorporate system exclusive messages. Such options are just not catered for in most real-time systems.
Occasionally, the Editor will misinterpret a new instruction [I often have the same problem - Ed.] so you need to check every alteration, but commands and note data can be inserted and deleted with ease so nothing is likely to be fatal.
I had a few niggles with the MCS but most were of a minor nature and due in part to the way the program updates had been incorporated. For example, why not set the velocity from the main screen, and why, when you erase a Part, does the velocity setting disappear too? My preference would have been for it to stay. You can allocate all Parts to a Tune with one entry but they must be erased one at a time (yes I know, to protect us from ourselves); a bulk erase facility or system reset (with Confirm) would have been handy.
Other niggles concern the abbreviations the program uses, such as PT instead of PART, and some of the Editor mnemonics could have been just a little more explicit - although you do get used to them in time.
SHIFT and C take you into the step-time Composer section which is based around an MCL (Music Composition Language). Note durations appear on screen as actual note characters and pitches are written as note name plus octave number.
Music and commands are stored in numbered lines exactly like a BASIC program and, in fact, you can write a Composer program on an ordinary Commodore 64 without the MCS although you won't get the note graphics and, of course, you'd require the MCS to play it.
A Composer file can be loaded, saved, listed and edited just like a BASIC program. As it is a language, a Check facility gives the syntax the once-over and an Interpret routine produces an expanded listing of the music so it is easier to read.
As an alternative to entering music with the QWERTY computer keys you can use a MIDI keyboard, in which case pitch information and syntax is taken care of automatically. Durations are selected from the keyboard's tone banks. The first seven tone banks produce note durations, the next three produce triplets, dotted and double dotted notes, the next four produce accents and staccato etc., while bank 14 produces a rest and bank 15 activates Rhythm Pattern mode (more of this in a moment).
After a duration selection, the system automatically resets the tone bank to 1 (although it can be programmed to reset to any number) so when you change duration you don't also change sound. This means, however, that the likes of Casio's CZ1000 and CZ101 synths can only access the first eight values as you need to press a select button, too, to access banks 9 to 16, and as soon as you do that you're back to bank 1. You can't really lay the blame at the door of the MCS but it's a shame as the CZs work well with the system.
Some mother keyboards on the other hand, including Yamaha's PF70 and PF80 pianos, can assign a specific transmission number to each voice so you can choose the duration values you use the most. This is great. In case of problems with a particular keyboard, all values can be selected with the computer keys.
Normally after each note or chord entry you are presented with the same duration, but Rhythm input lets you create a sequence of durations which will continually cycle - ideal for repeating riffs.
Working in the Composer's Editor is almost like working in the Commodore's BASIC environment. Helpfiles and additional programs can be run from within the Editor, which makes it easy for Joreth to produce new modules to fit into the system. For example, on the disk is an Options file which allows you to load the Syntax Checker or the real-time Editor (they are mutually exclusive upon first loading) without re-booting the system.
Another module called Style is stored on the MCS disk and comes with its own manual. It allows you to define the on-time of staccato, tied and normal notes.
Joreth already have two additional utilities: the Part Loader and the Key Programmer (£11.85 each). The Part Loader lets you load individual Parts from separate disk sources and the Key Programmer lets you re-transpose Composer files. A Part Loader is included with Joreth's Real-Time Linker program (coming up) although that version is not compatible with the MCS.
Moving on, Score displays the current music file in traditional notation on a piano-type stave. This is restricted to two Parts in different clefs and with the same time and key signatures. It is principally a good check if you are entering from sheet music and you can send a copy to a printer, too. It's quite amazing to think such a facility is part of the package.
Before you can play a Composer file it must be converted to real-time format. The Create option does this then you can flip to the real-time system and play it.
I missed the ability to define my own note lengths in order to programme duplets, quintuplets and Chopinesque runs. This can be done from the real-time Editor but you have to get down to byte level and do a few sums. Rather than do that I'd probably be tempted to stay within the limitations of the system.
That apart, the Composer is friendly, easy to use and, especially for a step-time program, fast. The MCL environment is one of the best step-time systems I have used. The duration selection procedure is more natural than that adopted by some programs (eg. Steinberg's Pro-16 and C-Lab's SuperTrack) where a minimum note length must first be selected and each duration entered as a multiple of it.
Like the real-time Editor, the MCL has many commands for setting metronome rates and sending MIDI messages, etc.
The MCS won't save a file to disk with a filename which already exists. It doesn't tell you it hasn't saved it; you can only guess by the short disk access time and the flashing red light (no, not a Watney's public house). You could easily and forgetfully assume it had been saved (guess how I discovered this!) which could be either a nuisance or a disaster. Oh for a 'File Exists. Replace Y/N?' prompt...
The Joreth MCS can store around 6000 notes or up to 9000 if you don't use the Score Writer. Most sections of the program have a printout facility so you can get a hard copy of just about every operation you perform. Handy! There is also a useful utility on the disk which checks that the MIDI interface (the AL25) is working properly in case you suspect a fault.
The MCS has developed faster than the manual is updated and a six-page booklet of corrections and additions accompanies it. You must read the two together. Even then, some aspects are still not correct. The disk contains a Help file to document new features (if you don't read it you won't discover the Options program) which is one way to keep the user up to date.
My biggest difficulty in using the program was not getting started, as the manual contains two Quick Start sections, but rather progressing from there to the more powerful features of the system. The facilities are documented but here and there I had to resort to trial and error to discover how to use some of them.
Having said that, the manual is superior to some supplied with other MIDI programs I have seen and it is probably a victim of Joreth's runaway success.
The MCS is a complex program combining the advantages of real-time and step-time recording with very powerful editing facilities. If you require even greater real-time flexibility then take a look at the Linker...
Consider the problem of repeats. You may have a Song (as it's called in MCS parlance) consisting of five sections arranged so: intro, verse, verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, chorus, chorus, outro. This would be no problem to the MCS as each section could be defined as a Tune.
If, however, within a Tune you have a repetitive bass line, a repeating chord sequence and a repeating synth riff, you would have to play most of them in their entirety. What is required is some clever looping facilities.
Enter Joreth's Real-Time Linker. This is a stand-alone package which is actually an expanded version of the real-time system, so if you've mastered that you're almost half way there. It can use files produced by the MCS and the disk contains its own Part Loader program.
The Linker introduces the ability to play sub-loops from Parts. It adds two new concepts to the real-time system: the Link and the Track.
It's important to understand the difference between Links, Tracks, Parts, Tunes and a Song, otherwise utter confusion will reign absolutely. There are eight Tracks and each one holds a sequence of 16 Links. A Link is simply a command telling the system to play a Part, or a part of a Part, a certain number of times. The section to be played can be specified in terms of metronome beats or bytes and you can define up to 128 (eight Tracks each with 16 Links) musical phrases or commands. You can cut and splice your music with infinite precision to a degree impossible with any other system.
With the Link mode in operation, the Parts have no intrinsic meaning; they are merely pointers to tell the system where the music data is. Tunes are more or less the same but Tune 0 is now defined as a sequence of Tracks.
Confusing? Well yes, it is initially, especially if you're familiar with the old definitions. Like the MCS, however, you must be prepared to learn how the system works. Unlike the MCS, you can't really plug in and go although the Linker manual contains a ten-page tutorial which is worth running through two or three times. Again, experimentation is the order of the day.
Apart from straightforward arranging, other applications for the Linker include selecting the best 'take' from an improvisation and producing pattern-based compositions. I produced some very interesting pattern-based music by randomly selecting bits of a 32-bar doodle. Great fun! The scope for producing and arranging your (serious?) music is enormous.
In order to make the most of the arranging facilities, the music should be in perfect time and this is most easily prepared from the Composer section of the MCS, which is not part of the Linker package. You may find some of your real-time sequences need tidying up and it will pay to acquaint yourself with the real-time Editor which will prove a real friend. The Linker contains enhanced Editor and Trimmer routines.
My main problems in using the Linker were correcting my real-time input (so who's perfect?) and working out which sections of which Part I wanted; but ease of use will undoubtedly come with familiarity. It was far easier to use with files already created with the Composer, and I must confess a preference for the accuracy of step-time recording.
The Joreth quest for flexibility is apparent in the Real-Time Linker as well as the MCS. I was surprised to see a lack of demo files (MCS owners check out 'FUGA 1' - didn't know it was there, did you?). It's always nice to see what the software designers can do with their system. All programs have Quick Start sections and you can use them at a low level without much effort, but if you can't be bothered to delve into them you'll miss an awful lot. Spend a few days getting to know the system and you'll be well rewarded.
There can be few packages on the market to match Joreth's syncing facilities and that will mean a lot to many musicians. Joreth proudly claim that they are happy to answer queries from users and they will advise on syncing matters, too.
Having used their AL25 interface and programs for a few weeks, I can honestly say I am impressed. They certainly live up to Joreth's claim of versatility and I can see how they could turn a user into a devotee; in a few more weeks I may be one myself!
If I could only use one program, my personal preference would be for the MCS, but the Linker was produced as a result of feedback from MCS users who wanted looping facilities in a real-time system - and boy did they get 'em - so you pays your money...
I would love to tell you to go out and buy one [so. I'm sure, would Joreth! -Ed.] but MIDI programs, like wine, women and fast cars, are quite personal so that decision, dear reader, is for you alone to make. I will, however, tell you to check them out, get a demo, see what they can do and discover how well they will suit your applications.
Joreth may so far have been short on market profile but they have certainly earned a place up there at the top. So don't you dare automatically dismiss them in favour of one of the more well-known names.
MRP: AL25 £138, Music Composer System £99, Linker £94.90. AL25 and MCS £225. AL25 and Linker £219.65. All prices include VAT. Other package deals available.
Contact: Joreth Music, (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
Review by Ian Waugh