Mark of the Unicorn Performer
Software for Apple Macintosh
Our resident Mac user Martin Russ steps his way enthusiastically through two of the best written software packages for the Apple Macintosh computer [in this part] - 'Performer', a comprehensive multitrack sequencing program.
Martin Russ reviews the Performer package for the Apple Macintosh computer.
The Performer package consists of a 3.5 inch disk and a 130 page spiral-bound manual. The latter has comprehensive sections detailing the installation and working of the program, as well as a very useful reference section which supplies reminders and hints as to how to perform a wide range of tasks and utilities, plus a description of the function of each command found in each menu and window.
To use the software, you push the disk into the slot on the front of the Mac and wait for a second or so for it to read the disk, after which a disk icon (a pictorial representation) appears on the screen labelled as 'Performer Master'. Double-clicking on the 'Performer' folder then opens an information window and displays the 'Performer' icon, as well as a folder (a collection) of demo sequences...
Double-clicking on the 'Performer' icon sets the program into operation, displaying a title screen that shows which version of the software you have (the review copy was version 1.21 and had been created at 1:24pm on Tuesday, April 16, 1985 - I used the 'Get Info' option from the File menu to discover that interesting fact!). You are then asked for the Master disk: once this has been inserted and verified, the serial number is displayed and the Performer program continues...
As expected the program assumes that you want to start a new sequence and so the main screen opens ready to record a sequence called 'Untitled' - when I say ready, I mean it; you just use the mouse to 'press' the on-screen Record button and you are off, recording Track 1 on MIDI Channel 1, beginning from measure 1, beat 1 and tick 0. Let's look at the main screen and the facilities we have at our disposal...
The top of the screen is dominated by a wide window, the Controls window, titled with the name of the sequence and containing some very familiar-looking tape recorder type controls: Rewind, Stop, Play, Pause and Record. Above these is a scroll bar display which is used to show you where you are in the sequence. The current position is marked by a white triangle on the grey scroll bar, with coarse and fine 'nudge' boxes available at either end of the bar to enable you to move the pointer accurately, although you can of course always 'drag' the pointer to a new position by using the mouse.
To the left-hand side are a few miscellaneous indicators: a 'count-off bars' display to state how many bars of metronome you want before recording starts in real-time mode, showing from O to 9 measures; a 'sound on sound' box which enables you to add to a track without erasing previously recorded material; a parallelogram which indicates that the 'tape' is moving; a 'MIDI data' light showing when MIDI is active at the Macintosh's MIDI Input - normally lit when used with instruments with active sensing outputs; and finally, the 'set marker' button, which enables you to position reference markers within the sequence, either as you record or at your leisure afterwards during playback.
On the right are two further buttons: Wait can be used in conjunction with any of the tape recorder controls (Play, Record etc) to inhibit the set action until something happens on the MIDI input, enabling you to hold-off from recording until you are fully ready - very useful and the sort of feature that you don't get on real tape recorders. The last button, Auto Record, is used to give you accurate and repeatable punch-ins without any fuss or difficulty.
Intimately connected with the Controls window is the Counter window, which contains a counter showing elapsed time in measures, beats and ticks. Ticks are always referred to note values, ie. a quarter note is 480 ticks and a one-twenty-eighth note is 15 ticks. For the tick counters amongst you, that means that Performer has a better real-time accuracy than Yamaha's QX1, which has only 384 ticks per quarter note. (In fact 480 is not such a large leap - it is really only the next 'magic number' up from 384, but that is another article...)
Back to Performer: you can set the values of the three Counter sections either by clicking them with the mouse and typing in the new value, or by moving the triangle pointer on the position bar, again with the mouse - the counter reading automatically follows the triangle's position. Under the counter readout are two boxes marked with Edit and Auto Record symbols each containing a counter reading. These are used to set the range or 'region' over which an edit or punch-in has effect, and are defined by setting the counter readout (measure, beat, tick) to the desired value and then clicking the appropriate word: Start, End, In or Out.
Also connected with the timing of the program sequence is the Metronome window. This has a display of the number of quarter note beats that occur in a minute (96 bpm is the default value) and a sliding marker which can be set by the mouse to alter the value between 20 bpm and 400 bpm, with plus and minus 'nudge' boxes at either end of the scale for fine adjustments. By clicking on the quarter note symbol you can set other values of note length as well as change the timing of the clicks produced by the metronome. At the bottom of the window are a time signature display for reminding you of the number of beats per measure shown by the counter, as well as toggle controls for the 'flash' box (which pulses at the set tempo) and metronome sound output. Finally, another toggle enables you to select between an external MIDI clock (such as that from a drum machine) and internal clock.
The last window to appear as a default is the Tracks window. This shows the named tracks which you have recorded so far, as well as enabling you to add or delete tracks. This is also the window to use when you are choosing which tracks to monitor during a recording. Two major toggle switches are provided - one for Record, and one for Play. When highlighted (dark) these are active - normally you will only have Record active on one track at a time, but will want to monitor and thus have Play active on all or most of the other tracks.
MIDI channel assignment is also controlled by this window with each track assignable to any number of channels up to the maximum of 16.
The Move indicators on the far left of the Tracks window are used only to change the order in which the tracks are displayed on-screen. On the far right is a scroll bar to enable you to move quickly through the tracks - the window itself can be made larger or smaller in size as desired, within the constraints of the screen, but can still only display about 23 tracks at once, so it helps to organise your tracks in sensible groups. The literature supplied with the Performer program mentions "up to 99" as well as "more than 200" tracks! - in practice, you can add more than 100 tracks but beyond this they become unwieldy due to the sheer weight of numbers, as well as being difficult to mentally keep track of...
In reality, with programs like this, given the limitation of 16 MIDI channels and restricted numbers of MIDI instruments, I tended not to use large numbers of tracks in the completed version. Instead I often used tracks to enable me to isolate different lines on a single instrument, ie. several mono tracks all assigned to the same instrument, with octaves, inverted lines and harmonies all kept separate.
During the creation of a piece of music I will use some tracks as 'scratch-pad' areas which I then merge together and edit as needed, to arrive at a final, small set of tracks which I can comfortably assign to different instruments.
To continue on the windows theme, there are two further window options which can be selected with the aid of the Windows menu at the very top of the screen: the first, the Markers window, shows the position of any previously set markers (in the form of counter readings) and enables you to assign them useful and meaningful names like 'Chorus' or 'Good solo until he loses track of the key here'. The second window shows the memory used and is available as a pie-chart. During most of my simple work, this display hovered around the 600K free out of 850K total. As with all such computer-based sequencer packages, the glib note-capacity claims make no mention of memory-grabbing System Exclusive or Modulation Wheel data, so I assume that for simple Note-On/Off data, with no extras like pitch-bending etc, the 50,000 note storage figure is representative. Remember that this is only for a single sequence held in memory at once - you can store many such sequences on a single, double sided 3.5 inch disk of 800K capacity.
I will now run quickly through the housekeeping-type facilities that you need to set up before doing anything really clever with Performer. Most of these are included in the appropriately titled Basics pull-down menu, and cover things like Step Record and a MIDI Thru toggle.
The Step Record option gives you a whole screenful of info about which note value you are using and what you just played etc, and is very easy to use - you just play the notes you want for each step on the inputting MIDI keyboard and use the space bar on the Mac's QWERTY keyboard to indicate rests.
All the rest of the Basics options are concerned with MIDI. You can set up Performer so that it will work with a range of MIDI interfaces by altering the clock rates that the Mac sends and receives on, as well as choosing a separate MIDI Sync source. As usual, you can sync the sequencer to almost any other timing source by using the appropriate converter unit to convert to MIDI Sync - a Bokse US-8 or Roland SBX-10 for example. I used the small and neat Opcode Professional MIDI Interface which is supplied by Argent's Keyboards for use with all their Mac software (it is available in standard or Mac Plus versions) and there were no problems in using it.
The Basics menu also features a couple of useful MIDI utilities that you don't always find - an All Notes Off command (only of use if your synth recognises it, of course!) and a MIDI System Reset for cases of sheer desperation! I have left the most important till last - the Input Filter. This enables you to be very precise about what information you record on your tracks, and to pick and choose between types of MIDI data. Along with the obvious MIDI parameters like Note-On and Note-Off, and separate On and Off Velocity, Pitch Bend, Patch/Song Changes and Mono and Poly Key Pressures, you can also select Tune Requests, Mode Changes and System Exclusive. So you should be able to record just System Exclusive info and thus store your patch dumps along with your sequences.
A nice touch is the ability to choose which Controllers you listen to, as well as a 'Record only from MIDI Channel (No.)' option. You also have a similar set of options for use when copying between tracks or regions of tracks so you could, for variety, filter out the pitch-bend and pressure info used on a previous solo line if you intend to copy it to a later part of your track.
One of the wonderful things about sequencers, as opposed to tape recorders, is the ease of editing single events precisely and quickly. In order to edit a Performer track, you must first define the region where you wish to alter things - you just set the Edit Start and End points in the Counter window to the beginning and end of the section you want and you are ready. Having a clear idea of what you have recorded and what you want to modify are very important before embarking upon any edit, and setting the region using the counter forces you to keep track of counter readings and numbers of bars, as well as placing markers at relevant points. Bit by bit, the software gently persuades you into planning out and structuring your music - a very good idea which can avoid unnecessary hassles if you suddenly discover that part of one verse is 6 measures long when all the other verses seem to do it in 4!
As an example, suppose that having recorded an intro of 2 measures and a melody of 4 measures, followed by a chorus for 4 measures etc, we find that the chorus sounds wrong. All we do is set the region and use the mouse to 'press' the Edit button in the Tracks window. A new window promptly appears marked with the name of the track you are editing: as the default it shows the position of every event in measures, beats and ticks, note value, on and off velocity, and note length, although you can use the View button to display any of the options covered by the Input Filter mentioned above, so you could display just Note-On and Note-Off occurrences for clarity's sake.
A scroll bar on the right of the window enables you to zip up and down the region, and to edit an event you just click on it with the mouse button, and alter the values in a special edit box which appears - it's as easy as that.
Actually, it can be a bit confusing trying to figure out where you are in a region when editing and it takes a while to become used to the Edit display - hopefully future updates to Performer will include some sort of 'overview' to enable you to quickly find the bit you want to edit. This sort of niggling omission only becomes apparent after quite a lot of use - so don't expect to spot this during quick demonstrations. While we are discussing updates, I should mention that several enhancements were present in the review software, but were not mentioned in the manual - you get more than you thought from Mark Of The Unicorn!
Talking about regions and editing, Performer has a whole pull-down menu devoted to Regions. Via its list of options you can transpose the pitch of a region, using the mouse or a MIDI keyboard to set the interval, or quantise notes in lots of ways: align the starts of notes, or the end of notes, or both, or either, without changing the duration. You can select tuplets from 3 notes played in the time of 2, to almost any other sensible setting (39 in 32 for example!), as well as offsetting notes by single ticks... The De-Flamming option enables you to align the notes in chords so that they actually play at the same time - it is very humbling to be shown just how sloppy your playing is. You can also do things like inverting pitch and reversing time, for instant canons and fugues, as well as orchestrating and doubling parts.
In the more esoteric area you can alter the duration or velocity of notes as well as continous controllers like Pitch Bend, with a large number of control options on offer. You can also split tracks into parts based on note values, velocities, or durations.
The Edit pull-down menu gives you the standard commands like 'cut', 'copy' and 'paste' to enable you to edit sections of your tracks. You also get a 'merge' command for adding tracks together. All editing done with these commands uses the Macintosh's Clipboard as temporary storage space, and it is a good idea to keep looking at it whilst editing to confirm that you have cut or copied what you thought you had. With the available commands you can concentrate on recording the music you want onto separate tracks and then paste the pieces together into the order you want later.
It is worth pointing out that when playing back the tracks you can solo them, rewind, move the counter pointer etc, all without stopping the sequence that's playing - very useful when arranging parts and looking for edit points. Most of the commands can also be controlled by using the Mac's QWERTY (typewriter) keyboard instead of the mouse - full details are given in the manual.
Once you have recorded and edited your piece of music to your satisfaction, you use the File pull-down menu to store it as either a Performer file or as a Composer file (which can then be printed out using the Composer software). As usual, you can then open another already recorded sequence and play it, or alternatively start afresh to create a brand new sequence. Because of the way the hierarchical filing system works on the Macintosh computer you can have folders for each of the pieces you are working on, or keep them on separate disks as back-ups - it's all down to what suits you.
Whether you are a Mac devotee or not. Performer is extremely easy to use, since it makes use of lots of the controls you will be familiar with from a tape recorder, but with several significant advantages - like instantaneous rewind, silent drop-ins with no build-up of noise, plus amazing editing facilities. Changing instrumentation is just a matter of re-assigning MIDI channels or adding a few Patch Change commands to the sequence. All in all, Performer represents a very flexible personal composition tool when used with, say, a couple of Yamaha FB-01s to plan out a track in your own home; and its ability to control anything MIDI that you can get your hands on, makes it an equally powerful studio tool. Definitely one to checkout!
Mark Of The Unicorn's Performer program is a very good emulation of an idealised multitrack tape recorder, with added features and very precise editing of material, which makes the recording of music via MIDI a very pleasurable creative process, with lots of useful and musically appropriate facilities at your fingertips. Professional Composer offers facilities to write, edit and printout music from scratch or from Performer files, with wonderful results, and has many more facilities than I have covered.
Separately, these are both very good pieces of software, and together they form a very comprehensive and thoroughly professional package for producing music. Highly recommended.
'Performer' costs £260 and 'Professional Composer' costs £369.57. MIDI interfaces are also available at £113.04 for the 512K Mac and £160.87 for the Mac Plus. All prices exclusive of VAT.
I would like to thank Lindsay and everyone at Argent's for all their help.
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