Leader Of The Pack?
Dr.T's Keyboard Controlled Sequencer - Level II V3.0 for the Amiga
One music software house that showed greater awareness and belief in the Commodore Amiga from the outset was Dr.T. David Ellis checks out version 3.0 of their top-of-the-range sequencer to see how it rates against the growing competition.
Given that the Amiga's major claim to fame when released was as a 'workstation' for music and video, it's a little surprising that professional standard Amiga sequencers have taken so long to appear. In part, the fault must lie with some of the earlier, supposedly professional offerings - in particular, Mimetics' Soundscape Pro MIDI Studio, which, at least in its original incarnation, suffered from a rather confusing user interface and, more problematically, major timing faults. The other drawback (which is due to be corrected with the release of Workbench 2.0 and the so-called 'enhanced chip set') is the Amiga's fairly mediocre, non-interlaced screen resolution of 640x200 pixels used as standard, which makes life difficult for sequencer programmers who obviously want to do visual justice to all the bells 'n' whistles of their latest creation. In the last year, however, there's been something of an explosion of activity on the sequencer front, with highly original products like MicroIllusions's Music X, Blue Ribbon Bakery's Bars & Pipes, and ports over to the Amiga (with appropriate enhancements) of various ST/Mac-originated sequencers, including Passport's Master Tracks Pro, Intelligent Music's M, and Steinberg's Pro24.
One company that showed greater awareness and belief in the Amiga from the outset was Dr.T, whose lengthy (and potentially bewildering) product line includes a range of Caged Artist patch editors, three different versions of The Copyist (differing mainly in terms of the number of pages of score that can be worked on), the newly released TIGER and TIGERcub graphic editors, and last but far from least, the Keyboard Controlled Sequencer (KCS). To complicate matters further, KCS itself is available in two versions - Level I and Level II - the latter also incorporating Dr.T's so-called 'Multi Program Environment' (MPE) and 'Programmable Variations Generator' (PVG). The present version of KCS has now reached V3.0, which should reflect the benefits of several years of updating.
Comparing this version with its forerunner (V1.7), there are certainly many significant additions and alterations. Drop-down menus have been added liberally, which makes selection of functions much less of a chore. The Track mode screen now has a tempo slider, fast forward/rewind buttons, six cue loops, and 48 visible tracks. Track mode also gets nearer to the idea of using a conductor track (track 1), which takes on the role of controlling events on other tracks. A useful addition is a 'go to measure...' function, which allows you to jump directly to any measure in the song.
Track mode also includes a remote control feature and special functions for interfacing with Phantom (Dr.T's software/hardware SMPTE synchroniser) and the Fostex R8 tape recorder (if you have one, of course).
Edit screens and windows have also been updated, supposedly making them more attractive, and adding a variety of functions, including controller processing and improved event scaling. Also included on the main KCS disk is AutoMix - 32 on-screen faders which can be assigned to control various MIDI parameters. Finally, file requesters have been updated to be more user-friendly, a timing bug has been fixed, and KCS now incorporates the Amiga-specific version of Dr.T's Multi Program Environment. What have been ditched are the help screens, but sleep won't be lost over their absence.
In common with other Dr.T products, KCS Level II comes on a copy-protected disk together with a reasonably well-presented, A5 size, ring-bound manual. An auxiliary disk is also included, and this contains various demos and IFF format samples. The supplied keyboard template assists in negotiating the huge number of KCS keyboard commands, should you choose to forego the pleasure of mouse selection.
Given the relatively high price of KCS Level II (£299), it's irritating that Dr.T haven't followed the path of other software publishers (MicroIllusions, Passport, and Blue Ribbon Bakery, plus most of the conventional business software world) in ditching copy-protection in favour of substantial manuals that would deter photocopying by most would-be pirates. In fact, you can obtain a second, backup copy of the software simply by sending your registration card and proof of purchase to Dr.T in the USA. The bad news is that you won't be supplied with updates unless you return the original or backup disk - which means, in effect, that you have to get the backup disk, or otherwise you'll be stranded without the software whilst you're waiting for the update to arrive. So why isn't a backup disk included in the package in the first place? Well, I'm sure Dr.T could give a good reason, but I have to say that Dr.T's general air of distrust over software piracy doesn't warm me to them.
Because of the copy-protection, the original KCS Level II disk has to be in a disk drive even if the software is run from a hard disk. Once the Amiga's workbench has loaded, and you've double-clicked on the KCS icon, you're into the Track mode display of KCS. The display looks more-or-less like other versions of KCS (for the ST, etc), with the 48 available tracks in the top part of the screen and a variety of tape recorder function buttons and other so-called 'radio' buttons in the bottom part. Annoyingly, a third of the screen height is left bare, but I'm fairly sure that this is a function of the software not being converted from the American NTSC video standard to our PAL standard. Music X is another culprit in this respect, but refreshingly, Bars & Pipes makes use of the full height of the display.
As a prelude to recording, various features may need to be set from the Environments drop-down menu. These include a visual/audible metronome (using either an internal Amiga sound or MIDI), screen colours, remote control (which simplifies the display to just the function and 'radio' buttons, so that it can be run from a small window whilst multitasking another program), clock source, punch-in, realtime display (various types of counters plus a flashing quaver next to the track name to indicate event activity), event filtering, rechannelising, and so on. Although KCS Level II supports SMPTE (with the added Phantom software/hardware combination), MIDI Time Code isn't supported (both Music X and Bars & Pipes include MTC as a sync option). However, KCS will read and write Standard MIDI Files (SMF), so that files can be shared with other sequencers.
Real-time recording is really as simple as it could be. The first track is recorded, F10 pressed, and then the sequencer finishes recording until the end of the measure, looping back to the beginning. If nothing more is played on the keyboard, the first track plays back. If playing is continued, then recording starts on track 2 and continues until the end of track 1, where it loops back again. Both the 'auto loop' and 'auto record' functions are two of many options available from the drop-down menus. This sort of continuous overdubbing has obvious similarities with drum machines, and it's a good way of getting the creative juices going. In contrast, most other Amiga sequencers involve a lot of button pushing to go into record on a succession of tracks.
A mute function operates by clicking the mouse on any track, and a limited display of track activity is provided by a flashing quaver next to each track name (this can also be switched on or off from a drop-down menu). Individual track functions are fairly comprehensive, and include the means of time-shifting a track ahead or behind the rest. Quantisation is applied on a track by track basis, either on recording, or using a transform function when editing. This works well (ie. convincingly), but isn't quite up to Music X's sophisticated system of quantisation thresholds.
A less rigid alternative to Track mode is Open mode. In essence, this is a more generalised sequencing environment which allows independent looping of up to 128 separate sequences. By embedding control events, it's also possible to have sequences that stop and start other sequences, which in turn control yet more sequences, and so on.
KCS defaults to a resolution of 240 steps/pulses per beat, though this can be increased up to 384 steps per beat (though Dr.T advise against this degree of timing resolution).
The Open mode recognises 22 different types of events: seven MIDI and the rest non-MIDI. MIDI events include ON (note on), OF (note off), PG (program change), CC (control change), AT (aftertouch), PB (pitch bend) and * (single byte event - for System Exclusive messages). Non-MIDI events include 1-9 or A-Z (primary sequence start), ST (secondary sequence start), XX (sequence stop), XL (loop stop), MS (mute sequence), US (unmute sequence), PT (transpose sequence pitches), VT (transpose sequence velocities), TM (tempo value), AC (accelerando), DC (decelerando), SM (steps/measure), RA (random events), CU (wait until cue) and DE (deleted event or rest).
Not surprisingly, there's a fairly steep learning curve involved in making the best use of the above. There's not much that can't be achieved in Open mode, and you rapidly learn ways and means of simplifying your work. Stock files, with pre-defined rhythm patterns stored as a number of separate sequences, avoid having to enter drum data afresh each time. Similarly, controller information for pitch bend or aftertouch patches can be filed away and pasted into a sequence. The 'Split' function allows a sequence to be split into different parts by using MIDI note numbers as split points. By assigning MIDI note number 0 as the split point, all note events can be sent in the direction of one sequence and all controller events left on the original sequence. The controller events can then be tidied up and edited as necessary. One rather interesting control event is RA, which instructs KCS to select a note at random from a list of notes following the RA event. One way of using this is to create a variety of different tom roll sequences, each selected at random from a list of sequence control events, in order to inject a more spontaneous or human feel into a drum part.
Song mode is used to chain sequences created in Track and Open modes into complete songs. Rows and columns are used to order sequences, and for each choice, delay, transposition up or down, and the number of repetitions can be specified. When the song is complete, it can be played from the Song mode play screen, but it can also be converted back to Track format (using the 'Song To Tracks' option), thereby creating a new, longer version of the original tracks, which can then have further tracks overdubbed on top.
Track, Open, and Song modes all have their own edit screens. The approach used throughout is of event lists, with the appropriate track selected by clicking on one of the grid boxes in the lower right-hand corner. There's no concession to either graphic or notation displays, and there's also no real-time scroll through events as they're playing (in contrast, both Music X and Bars & Pipes offer pretty sophisticated real-time displays). There are, however, a very full range of cutting, copying, pasting, and general transforming options, which extend to MIDI continuous controllers like modulation wheels. New events can be entered from the Amiga keyboard, or entered in step time from a MIDI keyboard. Two particular options are exclusive to Level II - namely, PVG and Master Edit. 'Seq To All Tracks' and 'All Tracks To Seq' are options found in the Track mode only, which allow data to be moved backwards and forwards between the 48-track environment of Track mode and individual Open mode sequences.
One of the strengths of the Amiga is the fact that its operating system is properly multitasking. So, for example, at the time of writing this review, I'm using PC-Write on an AT BridgeBoard, listening to the output of KCS and keeping my eye on a mini digital clock in the top right of the screen.
Dr.T's 'Multi Program Environment' (MPE) was developed originally for the Atari ST to allow multiple programs to reside together in memory and communicate with one another, eg. an editor and a sequencer. One might therefore question the necessity of having MPE on the Amiga, which is already a multitasking machine. Well, the drawback of the Amiga's multitasking (at present) is that there's no facility to pass common data between programs. That's where MPE steps in. The problem is that MPE will only work with Dr.T programs. If you want to use someone else's graphic editor with KCS, with the intention of using MPE to glue the two together, you won't get much joy. What's needed is a common language to allow different sequencers to use different editors (or whatever). MPE is a step in the right direction, but it's not the ideal answer. AREXX, on the other hand, is a language that's already available (and to be included in Workbench 2.0), and which allows data to be shared between programs equipped with AREXX message ports. The only problem remaining is to get all sequencer manufacturers to agree on common parameters.
However, back to MPE for the time being. All programs towing the MPE line are accessed from a drop-down menu on the Trackmode screen. How many programs you can load at once will obviously depend on how much memory (RAM) you have. On my Amiga B2000 with 1 Mb of chip RAM, there's just enough room for KCS itself plus AutoMix, but not enough to run the BridgeBoard as well. So, if you're planning to run KCS together with The Copyist, a Caged Artist patch editor, and TIGER, then you'd better invest in some extra memory.
AutoMix is an MPE-compatible program supplied on the main KCS disk and provides automated MIDI mixdown. 32 real-time sliders are provided in the form of two rows of 16, which are nominally configured for pan (controller 10) and volume (controller 7). AutoMix receives the output from KCS, displays channel activity in bargraph form, and then allows MIDI events to be modified in real time, either sending the resultant mix straight to MIDI Out (to rehearse the mix) or back to KCS to be recorded. This can be repeated one-by-one for all 16 channels.
Extra built-in features are 'Update', which keeps a check on the MIDI output and prevents conflicts between old and new slider movements, and 'Snapshot', which stores up to 16 snapshots of slider positions per song. Other useful additions are 'Panic', which sends an All Notes Off message to clear hung notes, and 'Sound Check', which plays a short preset sequence and allows you to check the instruments you have allocated to the 16 MIDI channels. In fact, I was pretty impressed by AutoMix-and it's fun to use.
Dr.T's 'Programmable Variations Generator' is unashamedly the more experimental side of KCS Level II. But whether it's (quote) "an enormously capable musical instrument" and "the most powerful composition system ever seen on this planet" is arguable. One thing's sure, though - it's complicated. Some measure of the complexity of the PVG can be gauged by the fact that the PVG part of the KCS manual spans 112 pages! Basically, PVG is an attempt to order degrees of chaos into something resembling music - or vice versa. Other programs have had similar aspirations - Intelligent Music's M, for instance - but PVG is probably less restrictive in what can be achieved.
The realm of the PVG is actually entered from the Edit screen, and indeed, PVG can be used simply as an editing tool - for instance, to transpose a sequence by a semitone upwards, instructing the PVG to ignore some notes and transpose the rest. Controlled random velocity variation is another simple use of the PVG to make a step-time synth solo less stiff.
The first PVG screen you encounter is the Changes screen. Across the top half are columns and rows containing track or sequence events. On the right there's a menu for accessing other PVG screens, and in the bottom half there are two further areas (General Options and Restriction/Protection), which broadly speaking either set how many changes are to be made, or to which notes changes shouldn't be made. But that's really only the tip of the iceberg!
One slight irritation is that there's no way of hearing the PVG's output until you've replaced the original sequence with new material (the 'Overwrite Original' option) or generated altered multiples of the original ('Consecutive Mults' and 'Evolving Mults' options) and then gone back to the Track mode screen to play either result. The beauty of Intelligent Music's M is that you can alter the randomising in real time and then add any particular setup to your list of snapshots. With the PVG, the multiple screens and lack of instant feedback make for a more deliberate and 'less fun' approach to virtually the same end.
Although the 8-bit companded sound produced by the Amiga's 4-channel Paula chip seems distinctly lacklustre in today's highly competitive climate of 16-bit samplers, it is conceivable that such sounds might fill some sort of musical hole. KCS Level II therefore supports IFF format sampled sounds, and a variety are included on the auxiliary disk. It's worth noting that there is a program available - Sound Oasis from New Wave Software - which will convert disks of Ensoniq Mirage samples to Amiga IFF format. There's also a simple public domain program available which toggles on/off the low-pass filters used on the Amiga's output, thereby allowing a maximum 15kHz bandwidth to the output (albeit with added digital 'grunge' if you're not extremely careful). Up to 16 different samples can be loaded at once (assuming sufficient memory) and each sound has its own MIDI channel, volume setting, transposition, and keyboard range. The internal sounds are velocity sensitive, though they won't respond to other MIDI controllers, such as pitch bend or aftertouch.
There's no doubt that KCS Level II delivers the goods. As long as you don't start mousing around whilst it is playing, its operation is rock steady, and it feels like a professional piece of software. Where it falls down a bit is in the quality (and complexity) of the user interface and the lack of any graphic or notation editor.
As I suggested at the outset, the Amiga's standard medium resolution display has been a hindrance as regards allowing really sexy graphics. However, that hasn't prevented the respective programmers of Music X and Bars & Pipes from coming up with attractive, informative, and readable displays. In contrast, KCS Level II looks boring, and some of the labels on the so-called 'radio' buttons are barely legible. Although the blame cannot be directed solely at Dr.T for this lack of imagination, I had hoped that version 3.0 of KCS would have brought with it a radical rethink of its graphics. But I suppose the real impetus for changing how KCS interfaces with the (Amiga) user will come with the new version of Workbench, which doubles the horizontal resolution of the screen display to 640x480 pixels (the so-called productivity mode) and where anything less than slick graphics would look downright silly.
As regards the lack of graphic or notation editing, there is a solution - but at a price - in the shape of other Dr.T products: namely, TIGER (for piano-roll editing) or The Copyist (for notation editing). But to use these alongside KCS (using MPE), you'll probably need to buy extra memory. To put things into perspective, both Music X and Bars & Pipes come with graphic editors (or more strictly, piano-roll type editors), and they're a darn sight cheaper than KCS. TIGER demonstrates that Dr.T are quite capable of producing a good graphic editor, and it seems stingy not including that facility within KCS Level II itself.
To summarise then, I like what KCS Level II does a lot, but I've got some qualms about how it does it. The trouble is that KCS Level II still looks like a ported product rather than something written specifically for the Amiga. The changes needed are little more than cosmetic, but if you've got to work with something to earn your daily crust, it's important that the up-front presentation is just right. You certainly won't be disappointed by KCS Level II's extremely sophisticated facilities, but it's worth having a look at the competition to see how other manufacturers have approached Amiga sequencing. On the other hand, if you're into algorithmic sequencing and a multiplicity of ways of constructing songs from raw MIDI events, then KCS Level II has a great deal to offer, even given its less than friendly user interface.
£299 inc VAT.
MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).
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