Master Tracks Junior
Software for the Atari ST
A powerful sequencer for a less than overpowering price? Simon "loadsamidi" Trask discovers the slimmed-down version of Master Tracks Pro might just be Passport's passport to mass popularity.
Looking for a sophisticated sequencing package that won't burn a hole in your pocket? Passport's latest program is more powerful than its price might have you believe.
LIFE CAN BE tough. You've decided that you want to get into computer-based sequencing. You've bought an Atari ST. Now, do you pay out a lot of cash for a sophisticated sequencing package which quite possibly has more features than you really want, or do you pay out not a lot of cash for a budget sequencer which doesn't quite give you everything you'd like. Clearly there's a middle-ground in terms of price and power which manufacturers have neglected - until now. US company Passport Designs, veterans of the MIDI software business, have released a scaled-down version of Master Tracks Pro which goes by the name of Master Tracks Junior and retails for £99. What is so impressive about Junior (apart from its parentage) is that, considering it costs less than half the price of the Pro (which retails at £250), it doesn't appear to lose that much in terms of sequencing power.
The most noticeable omissions are the Pro's grid-based step-time input, graphic controller-editing and SysEx librarian features. However, that still leaves you with 64-track recording in real- and step-time (Junior substitutes a more primitive step-time sequencer for the Pro's grid system) and a recording resolution of 240 clocks per quarter note. What's more, you can record multiple MIDI channels at once onto each track. Real-time recording is done from the Sequencer window, where you'll find a list of 64 tracks each with its own name, MIDI channel, initial patch number, mute and solo status and loop setting.
While many sequencers force the length of all tracks to comply with that of the first, Junior has independent track length and independent looping. Although individual tracks are rounded to a whole bar, it's possible to adjust the length of the track by rebarring and deleting any excess data. One point to bear in mind about track looping is that if you shuttle to a position beyond the length of a track, you won't catch the loop.
Each track can be given its own 31-character name, and if you're not using all 64 tracks (which is quite likely), you can use the name fields of the spare tracks as a notepad for further information on the song you're recording.
Passport's latest sequencer includes Record Filter options allowing you to enable/disable recording of notes, pitch-bend, channel aftertouch, poly aftertouch, controllers, modulation, and patch changes. You can also get Junior to quantise to any value as it records your ramblings, and to reject data on all but one MIDI channel.
Junior has four main windows: Transport, Sequencer, Song Editor and Conductor. You can open or close these at any time, size them, and position them anywhere on the screen. When you've decided on a screen layout which suits you, clicking on the Preferences option in the File menu allows you to save layout details to disk as a file; whenever you load Junior, the program will boot up with your screen layout. Only one window can be open at a time, however; you select the window you want by clicking on it with the mouse, or pressing a function key. A bit laborious, but certainly flexible.
THE TRANSPORT WINDOW provides familiar tape-style transport control buttons together with a bar/beat/clock counter and an elapsed-time counter. To the right of the transport controls are buttons for punch on/off, Thru on/off and Thru channel, wait for MIDI keypress (which I couldn't get to work), auto on/off, count-in on/off and metronome on/off. With Auto turned on, each time the sequencer is stopped it will automatically "rewind" to the last playback start point, a handy feature if you're working on song sections.
Clicking on either Play or Record starts you from whatever position the counter is currently at, while double-clicking on the Rewind button zero-returns the sequencer. There are two ways to set punch in/out: either by typing in bar/beat/dock values in the Punch window or by highlighting a region in the Song Editor window using the mouse. If you then select Record, the sequencer will drop in and out of Record mode at the selected points. Junior appropriately shortens notes held over the drop-out location, but one strange anomaly occurs when you hold note(s) over which have been sustained for more than one bar: Junior truncates them to one bar in length.
The Conductor is an extra "guide track" which allows you to program as many tempo and time-signature changes as you need. These govern all 64 of Junior's tracks. Each new tempo can be absolute or a percentage of the current tempo, while you can also specify a smooth tempo change (up or down) between any two bpm values over any number of bars. The easiest way to handle the Conductor track is to set up a "template" track in advance of recording, so that your tempo and time-signature changes are already in place.
THE SONG EDITOR window provides an alternative display of the 64 tracks, which appear as 64 chains of one-bar segments. Filled-in segments indicate the presence of MIDI data, hollow segments indicate empty bars; the end result graphically indicates when different tracks are active or silent.
Junior provides up to 9,999 bars by 64 tracks of literal track data. How you divide this up is entirely up to you; for instance, although the sequencer can only hold a single Song at a time in memory, you could divide those 9,999 bars into any number of songs - so each time you load a Song you're actually loading an entire set (memory permitting).
A "ruler" across the top of the screen provides a bar-count, while musical sections can be highlighted by placing markers at appropriate positions in the music (complete with descriptive text). Once you've set your markers, you can advance through them by pressing the STs Tab key, while Shift-Tab reverses through them. As well as marking out musical sections (verse/chorus) you could use them to highlight multiple songs.
Selecting a region for editing in the Song Editor window is simply a matter of highlighting it by dragging the mouse (the minimum region is one bar). Once you've done this, you can go to either the Edit or the Change menu and select the appropriate function. The Edit menu allows you to cut, copy, paste or clear the highlighted region, or to mix in data or insert blank bars. Junior uses a "clipboard" in the STs memory to store data from a Cut or Copy operation (this can be a single track or any block of tracks). The Paste and Mix commands take data from the clipboard and place it at any position in any Track or Tracks (Paste overwrites existing data while Mix, as its name suggests, merges clipboard data with data in the highlighted region). In case you mess up on any of these operations, clicking on the Undo option at the top of the Edit menu cancels the last alteration you made; a nice safety measure. Another thoughtful touch is the Show Clipboard option; when selected this pops up a window which tells you the track range and bar/beat/clock start and end points of the data currently on the clipboard.
While the Edit menu provides you with word processor-style operations for moving or deleting blocks of notes, the Change menu allows you to adjust note duration, transposition, velocity and quantisation within a highlighted region. Duration allows you to set all note durations within the region to a fixed value (whole to 64th notes including dotted and tuplet notes) or to adjust the current durations by a percentage value (1-999%), while Transposition allows you to change the key of the selected region (which could of course be a complete song). Velocity allows you to set all note velocities (attack and/or release) to a fixed value, adjust the existing velocities by a fixed value or a percentage, or specify a smooth change from one velocity value at the beginning of the region to another value at the end of the region. Finally, Quantise allows you to quantise note on and off or just note on (with a resolution range of whole notes to 64th notes including dotted notes and tuplets). Normally, quantisation moves notes to the nearest quantise step, but with Junior you can specify in percentage terms how near or far a note can be from the step in order for it to be quantised to that step. Furthermore, by setting an Intensity percentage you can tell Junior how strictly it should apply its quantisation. You can also time-slide notes in the quantised region to clock resolution either ahead of or behind the beat, so you can create subtle shifts in the feel of a rhythm track, say.
If Junior has any shortcomings in the edit stakes, they lie in its inability to get inside a track and deal with specific MIDI channels, note ranges and types of MIDI data. It would also be useful if you could demix channels and note-ranges, but of course you can't always have your cake and eat it (I can hear the refrain even now, and it goes like this: "what do you expect for 99 quid?").
The Step Record window is no substitute for the Pro's grid editor, but it's certainly usable. Basically you select a note value (whole note to 64th note including triplets and tuplets) and then play a note or notes from your keyboard; junior automatically advances to the next step when you release your hands from the keyboard.
The sequencer records velocity information along with the notes, and allows you to decide at each step whether you want the note(s) input to be staccato, normal or legato. Rests can be input by clicking on the Rest or Measure buttons in the Step display.
Junior provides a bar/beat/clock count to help you keep on course, and allows you to fast forward and rewind to any position in a track, where you can resume recording. The Step Editor is permanently in overdub mode, allowing you to build up complex parts within a track if you're so inclined.
WHEN SET TO internal sync, Junior sends out the full range of MIDI sync commands including song pointers. In external sync mode it responds to all these commands, and what's more interpolates its 240 clocks per quarter note based on the incoming MIDI clock rate, so you don't lose timing resolution. If you really want to be ambitious you can include a MIDI merge box in the input chain and record into Junior while slaving it to tape.
Selecting Import Files or Export Files from the File menu allows you to load and save music in the MIDI Files format. You get two options for saving MIDI files to disk. Type Zero files merge all channels onto a single multichannel track; channel assignments are saved, but text, patch-changes, loop assignments and markers aren't. Alternatively, type One files save parallel multi-channel tracks, channel assignments and text and patch-change assignments, but again not loop assignments or markers.
FOR A JUNIOR, this sequencer is pretty grown-up. It retains many of Master Tracks Pro's most important facilities while foregoing what could be regarded as the icing on the cake. Yet for £99 you're getting some pretty solid confectionery here. Quite simply, there isn't another sequencer that can hold a candle to Master Tracks Junior in its price range. I'm impressed, guv'nor.
Price £99 inc VAT
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Review by Simon Trask
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