Commodore's Amiga computer is the beneficiary of this impressive - and colourful - sequencing package. Ian Waugh welcomes the illusion.
Much hyped in America, dazzling at this year's British Music Fair, Music-X is finally available in the UK. What's in store for Amiga users?
MUSIC-X HAS BEEN advertised and hyped in America for around two years. It's been reviewed - read "previewed" - in several UK magazines but full production versions only became available in time for launching at this year's BMF.
Music-X (review version v1.0) was created by David Joiner who the manual describes as a modern renaissance-man type of guy. Painter, composer, award-winning costume maker (does that mean he makes all his own dresses?) and programmer. He is quoted as saying, "The only mind-altering substance I use is breakfast".
Other than giving you an insight into the developer's sense of humour (which is not, thankfully, laboured on every page), the manual is ring-bound, well-written, well-illustrated, 480 pages long and over 3Ibs in weight.
Apart from muscles like Popeye, what do you need to use Music-X? Answer: an Amiga - 512K will do and a monitor. If you want to use MIDI you'll also need a MIDI interface. Budget models are available for about £30 and Microillusions are developing their own - called MIDI-X - with two switchable inputs and six outputs. Also, to avoid tears you really need two disk drives - as every Amiga owner knows.
The Music-X package contains three disks - Program, Examples and Utility - and the mammoth manual. The disks aren't protected - 11/10 for this Microillusions - and the manual gives explicit instructions for making copies - along with a request not to make copies for friends. Listen up, y'all!
Music-X screens are called Pages. There are four main Pages which are entered from the Mode menu and at least four ancillary Pages. Music-X is of open-ended design and can support third-party software Modules (more about Modules as we progress). You may have more Pages if you load extra Modules.
As the usefulness of a sequencer largely depends upon its sequencing abilities, we'll start by looking at...
BEFORE YOU BEGIN you need to understand the relationship between a Track and a Sequence. Music-X is a pattern-based sequencer. It calls its patterns Sequences and it can store 250 of them which are shown in a sequence list in the bottom half of the screen.
Playback is achieved by assigning a Sequence to one of 20 Tracks (so a maximum of 20 Sequences can play at any time). This is a fairly automatic process, however, and not one to worry about at first. If a Sequence is enabled it will be allocated a Track during playback automatically and will appear in the track list in the top right of the screen. The Sequences which play and the order in which they play are determined by the sequence list.
Advanced use enables you to solo and mute Tracks (as opposed to Sequences) so it is important to note the difference.
A Sequence can be from one to 4096 bars in length. A Song can be constructed from individual Sequences chained together or it can be recorded in a linear fashion from beginning to end across several Sequences.
Operation is based on good old tape transport controls. As well as the usual Play, Record, Stop, Fast Forward and Rewind buttons, there are four Cue buttons to take you to any location in the song and a Begin and an End button to take you directly to those points.
A Counter ticks away in Bar, Beat and Clock increments and the program has an internal resolution of 192ppqn (pulses per quarter note). Underneath the Counter, a Clock shows elapsed time which is particularly useful for timing pieces.
Recording in the Sequencer Page takes place in real time. When you click on Record you're offered a host of options. These include recording in Absolute Time (the recording is linked to hours, minutes and seconds rather than the Clock Counter); recording with Punch In including Mute Target Sequence; Punch Overlay (add new data to original data); recording with a Loop and Mixing Down. You can also set a limit on the number of bars you are going to record.
After recording a sequence it must be Stored into the sequence list. For each Sequence the list tells you the amount of memory used, the number of bars it contains, which MIDI channels have been used, which Music-X events (coming up) it contains, the time format, the name (up to 27 characters - yippee), the output assignment (MIDI or the Amiga's internal sounds) and the offset (used to mute a Sequence or delay its entry by a number of bars).
Editing from this Page consists of Copying, Merging and Extracting sequences. A minor niggle here: after performing, say, a copy operation, you're sent back to the Sequencer Page. If you want to do several copies you have to reselect the function. An append operation would have been useful here, too, although this is available from within the editors.
Extract will selectively remove channel events (any event recorded on a specific channel), System Exclusive events and Music-X events. There's also an option to start the counter from 0 instead of 1. Handy.
If you start Play from the middle of a sequence the program auto-locates by playing from the beginning so that program changes, pitchbend data and so on at the play point are all correct.
"The Bar Editor is a colourful 2D variation of the grid editor popular in many other
Pressing Escape sends an All Notes Off message. Holding Shift and pressing Escape sends All Notes Off on all 16 channels.
The Channelizer in the Options menu lets you redirect the output of the MIDI channels, for example, to send data recorded on channel one out on channel ten. This only operates on playback - works on the fly, too - so your original data is always safe.
Individual Sequences can be saved and loaded as well as a complete Performance. A Performance is the term given to a snapshot of the status of all the various Music-X Pages. It allows you to save patch settings along with the music.
AS WELL AS MIDI events such as Notes and Program Changes, you can also insert Music-X events (sometimes referred to as pseudo events in other programs). These include instructions to mute and solo a Sequence and Track, play a Sequence, set repeats, change Keymap (coming up), change tempo and time signature.
These events give you extra control over the music. Tempos, for example, are not global so you can make different Sequences play at different tempos - great for the serialists. You can create some pretty complex nested sequences, too. For example, you could use one Sequence as a master to control sub-Sequences and patterns. Some examples of this technique are included on the Examples disk.
MUSIC-X IS REPLETE with sync options. For the Master Clock you can select Internal, MIDI clock, Video clock, MIDI Time Code, or SMPTE. A Time Code Offset allows you to start Music-X's clock at any point during the reference Time Code; for example, to start recording music some way into the film.
Response to MIDI Start and Stop messages can be set to Transmit, Receive or Ignore. Song Position is supported along with a Song Position Delay option which should assist some of the older drum machines to catch up" with the signal.
Let's look at the editing Pages.
"BAR" IN THIS context does not refer to a musical measure but to the way notes are displayed on the screen - as bars. It's a variation of the grid editor popular in many other sequencers but this one is very colourful and in 2D. Data on different MIDI channels is shown in different colours - take a look at a 16-channel Sequence if you're feeling particularly psychedelic.
Note durations are shown as horizontal lines and velocities are shown as vertical lines. The Display menu lets you select the events to be shown on screen - notes, attack or release velocity, aftertouch, program changes and so on. This is useful, if not essential, to prevent the display becoming terribly cluttered. Zoom helps you home in on an area for detailed editing.
Block edits consists of Copy, Cut and Paste operations. Virtually any type of event can be inserted, moved and deleted, including Music-X events.
The Modules menu here gives access to three Modules supplied with the program - Quantise, Scale Velocity and Scale Aftertouch.
There are lots of Quantise options - start only, duration only, start plus duration and start with same duration. You can set maximum and minimum thresholds (if it's close enough, leave it alone) and Effect Percent (for partial" quantisation).
Scale Velocity lets you program crescendos and diminuendos or set an overall volume level. This operates in percentages - 0-300% - and allows you to introduce a random factor for that human touch. I reckon it would make more sense to use the MIDI velocity range 0-127. I mean, why stop at 300%, why not go up to 1000%, and how do you increase a velocity with an actual level of 126 by 300%? Aftertouch works in a similar fashion.
When you play the current Sequence a Time Line moves across the screen to show the current event. If scrolling is on, when it reaches the end of the display the screen is redrawn rather than scrolled. The constant updating means it's difficult to see exactly what events are playing - as well as being tiring on the eyes - although it does enable you to stop the sequence at a problem point. A proper scrolling display would be useful.
STEP-TIME RECORDING IS performed from within the Bar Editor. It basically involves holding down the keys, clicking on Step to advance the clock then releasing the keys. The clock advances according to the resolution which you specify in the Grid (although this isn't reflected in the Bar Editor display).
Auto-Step Record advances the clock automatically when you release a key. If your keyboard is a distance away from the mouse you can make certain keys trigger the Step function using the Keymap option (coming up, hang on in there) - neat.
It's a reasonable method of step-time input and better than some, but I still find it easier to work with a list of individual note durations. Music notation would be better still, although I realise this is a personal preference.
"You can set up your own default Performance parameters which will be loaded automatically on booting."
MANY OF THE Event Editor's controls are similar to those in the Bar Editor but here the events are displayed in a list. Being numeric, this is not quite as friendly as the Bar Editor but it does enable pin-point precision.
Notes carry a key number (MIDI note number) plus the note name and velocity value. The display can also show their duration rather than Off Time which I find generally preferable.
You can edit the list from the computer keyboard but most events can also be edited with the mouse (using on-screen sliders) and notes can be changed by playing your master keyboard.
You can easily flip from one editor to the other and between the two you should be able to edit just about anything without too much trouble.
THE FILTERS PAGE is used to process incoming MIDI messages and it has five basic functions. It can remove and thin out events and change their MIDI channel, it can route the music to MIDI output or the internal voices and it can transform note messages into other types of event (via the Keymap Editor).
It handles six basic event types: note, channel aftertouch, polyphonic aftertouch, program change, control change and pitch bend. Note, program and control change events can be enabled or disabled, the others can be "thinned out" using a percentage slider.
Perhaps the only thing you could wish for here would be the ability to select Controllers individually rather than en bloc.
There are 16 filters, one for each MIDI channel although you'd probably only require more than one if you were recording several parts on several different channels at the same time.
THE KEYMAP EDITOR is accessible from the Filters Page and is loaded as another Module. It enables the notes you play on your keyboard to trigger a variety of functions. You can create up to four Keymaps.
Mapping options include playing a note (not necessarily the pitch of the key you press), a sequence, making a control or program change, muting and soloing a track, changing tempo, activating a Music-X command and changing Keymap.
Once you start exploring Keymaps you begin to realise just how complex and convoluted are the effects they can produce. You can split a non-splittable keyboard and by assigning different sequences to different keys you can create one-note chords or riffs. You can also transpose the whole keyboard or a part of it.
Keymap files on the Example disk include Overlap to make two sections of the keyboard play the same range, and Backwards which turns the keyboard upside down (really throws you).
YOU CAN LOAD up to 16 samples in IFF and SONIX formats (and save them out again in IFF format), each assigned to a MIDI channel. You can alter envelopes by clicking and dragging on an envelope graph and you can add segments to the envelopes to increase their complexity.
The Amiga's audio filter can be switched on and off (although the Amiga 1000's filter is not software-controllable) to improve the quality of the output.
THE LIBRARIAN PAGE can hold up to ten library files, each containing up to 16 sets of data which will usually be voice patches.
In order to recognise data from different instruments, a protocol or special set of instructions (system exclusive messages and so on) is required for each synth. Protocols are supplied for a variety of Yamaha, Roland, Oberheim and Casio equipment and there are are Generic protocols, too.
"If you're an Amiga owner looking for sequencing software, Music-X really is a program you cannot afford to ignore."
If you can get to grips with SysEx you can create your own protocols. A section of the manual explains how to do this although it's not, I'd suggest, for anyone with high blood pressure (a comment on the intricacies of SysEx rather than a reflection on the program).
Some Patch Editors are also supplied to enable you to edit the voices. Patches without dedicated editors use a Generic Editor which contains rather a lot of numbers - in hex, too. Editor Modules for the Korg M1 and Roland D110 should be available by the time you read this. These and other editors under development are expected to retail at £10.
Library files can be saved and loaded along with Performances so you can store the sounds required for a Song with the Song itself.
Each page allows you to save the data relevant to its particular function except for the Sequencer Page which, as previously mentioned, also allows you to save the subfiles produced by the other pages.
You can set up your own default Performance parameters, which will be loaded automatically on booting.
There are programs on the Utilities disk to convert between Music-X and MIDI file formats. Music-X has its own format, a version of the Amiga's IFF called MSCX, which is still evolving, although upward compatibility is assured.
ANY MANUAL CONTAINING 480 pages deserves a solid mention. The manual is arranged to make reference easy, with footnotes to direct you to related sections, an excellent contents page and thumb index (markings at the edge of the page), a glossary and a comprehensive index. It is also full of Notes (the textual kind) which are used to impart Information which is particularly interesting or relevant to the section.
A Quick Tour chapter subtitled A look at the Editors (at the editor's what, I wonder) rushes you through the Music-X Pages. If you've just bought your Amiga, a Tutorials Chapter gives a brief overview of menus, screens, sliders and buttons. There's a complete chapter on the File Requester, a few pages on MIDI and an explanation of how to set up a Metronome Track. This may seem trite to old hands but it will allow first-timers to get stuck in fairly quickly.
There's also a chapter for Advanced Users which contains lots of hints and tips. These include using MIDI delay and doubling, fade-ins, constructing songs in linear and segmented fashion, relay chaining (using Sequences to trigger other Sequences), installing Modules and host of other topics.
THERE REALLY ISN'T space to even list all Music-X's facilities here. But it's impossible to use the program without becoming aware of its power and versatility.
Gripes are minor and possibly of a subjective nature. Personal wishes include better step-time input, although if you're a real-time kind of guy or gal I don't think you'll have any quibbles in this area. As the design is modular there is always the hope of a step-time input Module, and I await with bated breath the arrival of scorewriting facilities which should be here by Christmas for around £50.
If you want to be picky you may also yearn for pre-quantisation although I've never gone a bundle on this myself.
It's easy to see why the previews raved over Music-X. It has a mountain of features and yet you can still plug in and go on first acquaintance, albeit at a relatively low level. But you will have to read the manual thoroughly to discover all Music-X's secrets. This bears repeating because Music-X is one sequencer you won't be able to fly by the seat of your pants and that, perhaps, is the greatest criticism you can lay at its door.
But the bottom line is this: I haven't seen a software sequencer with such a range and number of features and certainly not at this price. It's a goody.
Before you rush out and buy a copy - Microillusions have appointed SDL as Music-X's official UK distributor, which rather upset Gem and HB Marketing who, it would appear, had prior agreements with the company and so decided to import versions from the US. The UK version sports a silver "Official UK Version" sticker and Microillusions have said it will not be carrying through the warranty agreement on the imports. The moral of the story would appear to be to buy British.
If you're an Amiga owner looking for a sequencer, Music-X is program you can't afford to ignore. You may even like to ask yourself the question, 'Can I afford not to buy it?.
Price £228.85 inc VAT