Tired of swapping Atari disks to edit parameters on different synths - or of paying for a variety of editors? Send for a universal synth editor. Ian "Mr Universe" Waugh flexes Chameleon's muscles.
There's no escaping it - if you're a patch editor or librarian, you've got to be able to work with any MIDI synth. Chameleon is reasonably priced, British and universal...
CHAMELEON WILL RUN on any ST with a mono or colour monitor and it uses a clever system of copy-protection. The program can be copied to other disks and booted from them but it will not save files. However, if you then insert the master disk and click on Save, it reads the protection, realises you're a legitimate user and reinstates the save facility. This enables you to run the accessory version along with other accessories. It's a tad fiddly, but it helps keep the pirates at bay and the point is, you probably won't want to save files once you've set up your libraries.
Now that Chameleon is resident in your ST, let's run through a typical setting-up session. One of the first things you'll want to do is to load the patches in your synths into the program. To do this, first you must load a library file. This contains the instructions necessary to communicate with your instruments (more about this in a moment). Files for around 30 Instruments are supplied and more are being developed. These will be supplied to Chameleon owners for the cost of a disk plus p&p, probably about £3. Up to nine libraries can be resident in the program at once.
THE NEXT STEP is to drag a library to the Get icon. The patches from the instrument will be transferred to the program and appear in the central display window.
Most instruments allow you to name patches, but if the one you're working with doesn't have a naming facility, Chameleon ask for a name for each patch. It sorts the patches into alphabetical order as it loads them, which is interesting to watch (I'm easily amused). If it comes across a patch with the same name as an existing one, it warns you and gives you the opportunity to enter a new name. It also tells you if the data for the two patches is identical - very useful. If you don't change the patch name, the new patch will replace the old one.
You can load one patch after another into the library, up to the limit of available memory, so you can create one large library containing all the patches for one instrument. This is similar to the library facilities in programs such as X-OR and Explorer 32, and once you've discovered the benefits of having all your patches in one library you'll wonder how you ever managed before. It also provides a useful check on duplicate voices in different files (which voice programmer copied from which?).
To the right of the screen is the Display Groups area. This is used to create and select characteristics of the patches to help you sort through them at a later date. You can define up to 32 characteristics. Typical definitions might be Attack, Sustain, Clean, Dirty, Soft, Brass, Wind, Voice, Breathy, Lead and so on.
Next you drag the library to the Info icon. This works through the patches in the library and allows you to assign suitable characteristics to each one. This is probably the most difficult task - mentally, not physically. If you're thinking strings, for example, you may overlook the patch's potential as a soft brass sound. One day a patch may seem Polyphonic, another day it may seem 'Pad". But you need to strive for some sort of uniformity as the success of the search procedure depends upon the characteristics you assign.
DURING ASSIGNMENT, THE patch is sent to the synth and you can play it by pointing to a shaded area of the screen and pressing the mouse buttons. Clicking on the play icon makes the whole screen available for playback. The left button plays a note and the right plays a major chord. Left is low, right is high, up is loud, down is soft.
When you're finished, you save the new library to disk and repeat the process with all the sounds for all your synths. It may seem tedious but you only have to do it once. And it's actually a good exercise and it makes you think about your sounds and how you use them.
My major niggle here is having to enter new sets of Display Group characteristics for each file. More often than not you want to apply the same criteria to sounds from several instruments - if not all of them and the ability to copy a Display Group set from one library to another would save a lot of time.
TO USE CHAMELEON, load the libraries for the instruments you need for the session. You can send a patch to a synth by clicking on it with the right button or by highlighting it and clicking on the Send icon.
To find out what patches have a particular combination of characteristics, highlight the characteristics in the Display Groups area and the central window will show the matching patches.
"You can load patches into the library up to the limit of available memory to create a library containing all your patches for one instrument."
There are actually four types of match which you can use, selected from the filter box at the top of the Display Groups area. And displays patches which have been assigned all the highlighted characteristics (and possibly others), Or displays those which have at least one, Not displays those patches which do not have any of the selected characteristics and Equ displays those which have only the selected characteristics.
These can be useful for double-checking patches, in case you missed out a characteristic from its assignment and for looking for "opposite" or contrasting or complementary sounds.
AS WELL AS being able to store libraries of patches, Chameleon can handle banks of libraries. In this case it is the library name which is shown in the central area. Click on the Bank icon to see the patches it contains; this displays another window which lists the names of the patches, and here you can copy and swap patches from one position to another.
The Clipboard at the bottom of the main screen also appears in the library bank window. Its main use is to allow the interchange of patches between a library and a bank. Patches, individually or in a group, can be dragged between the Clipboard and a bank or library. In order to do this, however, the individual patches and the patches loaded en masse in bank form must share the same format.
Surely a patch is the same whether it is loaded individually or as part of a bank? No, not always. The TX81Z, for example, compresses bank data slightly and the program will not allow transfer between a TX81Z bank and individual TX81Z voices. You can get around this - if you're clever - by altering the voice transfer instructions to load the voice individually instead of as a bank.
The Loading, Saving, Getting and Sending of individual patches and complete libraries is versatile. Patches can be Sent and Got in ones or in bulk. Patches and libraries can generally be dragged around the screen in order to accomplish functions such as loading, saving, sending, receiving and deletion.
Individual patches can be saved in MIDI file format for loading into other software.
You can load a patch into a library direct from disk (a voice dump from an editor, for example) instead of from a synth, although this only works with certain types of files, mainly those which save the patch as raw MIDI data. You can't load Chameleon patch files this way, nor MIDI files, which seems a shame.
There are many operational short-cuts. For example, clicking on a library position with the right button will call up the file handler with a view to loading a library at that position. Clicking on a patch with the right button will send it to the synth, but beware, this may overwrite the existing patch. The transfer instructions (coming up) may switch off the synth's memory protection and activate the store function. Perhaps it would be an idea to have two send commands, one to store in the synth and one to send to the buffer. But again, these are determined for each instrument by the transfer instruction.
Most options have keyboard equivalents and you can set up five remote keys to allow you to control movement around the central display window from a MIDI keyboard.
Clicking on the logo icon - a key - shows the remaining number of bytes of memory and the number of patches in the current list (this would have been more useful on the main screen).
A MIDI Thru function sends MIDI data arriving at the ST's In socket back through its Out, and a channelise function sends the data out on the current library's channel.
AND SO WE come to the tricky bit - creating patch transfer instructions. This is accomplished using Keynote's MIDI Programming Language (MPL). Call up the Transfer Editor by clicking on the Chameleon icon and you get a simple text editor with a list of commands to the right. These include Send, Receive, Transfer, Wait, Loop, If and Elseif commands and so on, which are used to construct the instructions. Each library has two sets of transfer instructions, one for GETting and one for SENDing.
"The ability to store all the patches for a synth in one library and access all your libraries from one program is absolutely marvellous."
There's no doubt that dabbling with System Exclusive messages is only slightly preferable to a bit part in Eastenders. The manual explains the functions of the MPL commands and includes little examples, but it's not really a tutorial. As Keynote intend to supply files for all popular synths, you probably won't have to lower yourself to this level. I suspect most sensible musicians will steer well clear of it, although those of a computeristic bent will enjoy getting their digits dirty. If you do delve, then more options become open to you, allowing you to create custom commands to handle any type of MIDI data.
There's a MIDI Monitor to display incoming MIDI data. Its main use within the program is to check incoming data when debugging transfer programs, although it can also be used to read the contents of a disk file. An active sensing filter would be useful.
THE FILE ICONS include Load, Save, Delete and Format - always handy in case you run out of formatted disks.
The file selector is an "enhanced" version of the GEM selector you will be familiar with. It pops up when you click on a library with the right-hand mouse button and shows the length of each file, the amount of unused disk space - very useful - and it has three file extensions which can be selected by clicking on them. It also has provision for 16 disk drives! You can load a file quickly by clicking on it with the right button. Useful, too, but I suspect most people would prefer to be able to double-click on it with the left.
BEHIND THE KEYNOTE icon lies some interesting stuff. You can arrange nine libraries to auto load on start-up. You can specify the amount of memory you want to reserve for the program if you're using the accessory version. Selecting Accessory Screen Buffer reserves another 32K of RAM to provide instant screen drawing. You can alter the size of the MIDI buffer used by the MIDI monitor, you can invert the display (white on black), adjust the mouse speed and let it wrap around the sides of the screen. These are only active, alas, while within Chameleon.
The manual is well laid out and contains lots of diagrams. I hate to be picky but it could be organised just a little bit better and it could be a shade more informative in places, especially early on. There's a tendency to give you bits of information about certain functions as you go through the manual rather than presenting everything in one place. For example, information about bank editing is spread over three parts of the manual. And there's no index. Is this now de facto standard for music manuals or what?
Once you know how the program works, you probably won't need to refer to the manual very often except, perhaps, for the MPL commands although there is quite a lot to remember about which button to click and where to drag which icon.
Keynote are placing a demo version of Chameleon in the public domain and it should soon be available from most PD sources or direct from Keynote themselves for £3. Voice distributors are being licensed to supply their patches using the demo.
At the moment, Chameleon requires a GEM environment in which to work but Keynote are planning a Hot Key version which should work with non-GEM programs, which should be available sometime in the new year. And surprise, surprise, they are also developing a Chameleon Programmable Patch Editor which should also be available next year.
IF YOU ACCESS Chameleon from within a sequencer while it's playing, it stops the music. You can't, therefore, play and change voices on the fly, which many would regard as the ideal situation. To accomplish this would require a knowledge of how the sequencer was handling and transmitting MIDI data and it is clearly unrealistic to expect Chameleon to do this. Although with the advent of programs such as Steinberg's M.ROS and C-Lab's Soft Link (let's not argue about which does what, lads) the reality may not be far away. As it is, the music stops when you enter Chameleon but starts again from where it left off when you leave it which is arguably almost as convenient.
This apart, Chameleon is incredibly useful for sorting and selecting sounds. The ability to store all the patches for a synth in one library and access all your libraries from one program - and all without leaving the sequencer you are using - is absolutely marvellous. It will require a new way of working but one I'm sure most musicians will welcome. I would now hate to have to go back to the old way of selecting sounds by ploughing through individual banks in different voice editors and loading them into instruments before booting the sequencer. (This is not to decry the usefulness of individual voice editors.)
What is also incredibly useful is the ability to save patches from Chameleon as MIDI files and import them into a sequencer, thereby keeping sounds and music together. This sort of integration will become increasingly desirable as we move into successive generations of MIDI software. At the time of writing, however, I'm not aware of any programs which support system exclusive data in MIDI file format. But they will come...
Chameleon's final trump card is its price. It may not have all the facilities of some of the more expensive editors/librarians but it is programmable, it will run as a desk accessory and it is intrinsically very easy to use. It does what it sets out to do very well indeed. If you can't quite bring yourself to write a cheque for 90 quid then write one for £3 and send for a demo disk. It may convince you it's worth writing that cheque...
Price £89.95 including VAT
Review by Ian Waugh
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!