John Renwick goes back to school with a whole range of music tutorial packages from Hybrid Arts
John Renwick goes back to school with MIDIMouse music software
With piles of MIDI technology and a computer to help you out, it's easy to forget that conventional playing skills and a sound understanding of music theory are necessary if you're going to get the best results. Most of us will never play like Rick Wakeman, but it's always worth taking any chance to brush up on your skills, even if you don't want to go to the lengths of having regular keyboard lessons.
Unfortunately, many musicians (myself included) find it difficult to stick to any serious practice scheme without some sort of threat or bribe! That's why I was so impressed by the MIDIMouse music tutorial packages for the Atari ST - they're such fun to use that you don't realise how much hard practice you're getting.
By linking the instrument to the computer via MIDI, you get a system which can analyse and react to your playing but, unlike the traditional music teacher, it can't give you a clip on the ear when you make a mistake!
The MIDIMouse series is distributed in this country by Hybrid Arts UK who hope that both individuals and educational institutions will adopt the packages as useful learning aids. You'll need an ST, any type will do, with a mono or medium res colour monitor, and a MIDI synth, which should be connected to the IN and OUT MIDI ports of the ST, and set to MIDI channel 1 or OMNI mode.
The programs come on a single disk, which can be backed up or copied to hard disk, but you have to insert the original in drive A before the backup will load. Each package includes a short tutorial booklet, which is hardly necessary since everything is GEM-driven and very straightforward.
The MIDIMouse packages are truly interactive, not only do the programs set you tasks to perform on the synth, they will also play you examples, and mark your efforts at the end of each session.
There are three packages in the series so far, Note Wizard, Scale Master and Chord Magic. I would recommend tackling them in that order, while Note Wizard and Scale Master start on a fairly easy level and work up, Chord Magic is a bit intimidating for beginners.
Don't expect any sort of graphic sophistication in the packages, and you won't be disappointed. The three look very much the same, using the simplest GEM-based structure of drop-down windows, requester boxes and standard file menus.
The basic idea common to all three packages is that you choose a level of difficulty at which to start from the drop-down Drill menu, then the program sets you an exercise which has to be completed in a certain time. This could be correctly playing a named chord, or a particular scale, or a series of notes. Help screens explain some of the more difficult bits of music theory, while the report section lets you print out a "score-card" at the end of an exercise so you can check on your progress.
Note Wizard helps you recognize different notes as they appear on the music staff. The program has five difficulty levels, with nine stages per level, and up to six notes per problem. Typically, the program will play a little tune on the synth as it displays the notes on the stave. It then clears the screen and invites you to play the same tune within a time limit.
The entertaining part of the program is that if you complete an exercise correctly within the time limit, your synth plays a jolly little tune, if you make a mess of it the program displays the incorrect notes you played, the synth plays a mocking "Wha-wha-whaaaaa...!" and you get the choice of going back to the start of the exercise or returning to the main menu - maybe to pick an easier exercise! You can set which synth patches are played by each tune, or if you're fed up with the whole idea you can disable the tune option.
Note Wizard covers both the bass and treble staff, and gives you exercises for both left and right hands, so it helps to develop good fingering technique as well as note recognition.
Scale Master features six levels of difficulty which start with simple major or minor scales running up or down through one octave, working up to harmonic, melodic and blues scales over two octaves. All twelve keys are covered, so by the time you have finished working through the program there should be nothing you can't play!
Like all the packages, Scale Master features several tutorial pages accessed through the Tutor menu. One covers the Circle of Fifths, which explains the relationship between the key signatures, I've never quite understood the concept, and to be honest Scale Master doesn't clarify it very well - but at least you can step through the Circle a key at a time until the idea begins to sink in.
Chord Magic is the one that really gave me a headache. If you can't tell the difference between a C major and an A Minor 7th Diminished, this is that one for you - but don't expect instant results. Even the tutorial pages tend to lapse into jargon and present bald statement without any explanation.
There are six levels of complexity starting with simple Majors and Minors, and working up to Root Inversions, First Inversions and Sevenths. The principle's the same as the other programs, the software displays a chord and challenges you to play it within a time limit. The notes you play appear both on the music stave, and on a graphic representation of a keyboard. If you goof, the program will politely point out your mistakes and play a derogatory little tune. There are several tutorial routines and an Ear Training section where a chord is played without being displayed on the screen, and you have to copy it. If you can master this routine, you're a better player than I am (which wouldn't be difficult)!.
Thrown in, as a bit of an afterthought, is a simple sequencer routine. This allows you to record short realtime passages of up to 1200 notes from your keyboard, then play them back at a different tempo or key. The sequence of keystrokes and mouse clicks required to do this is so badly worked out that I can't imagine anyone making much use of this feature - especially since you can do exactly the same thing with any decent sequencer package. There are a few other batty aspects to the program too, such as the way in which you have to move the pitchbend wheel of your synth to get out of some of the Drill sections - although this feature can be disabled.
Although I enjoyed using the MIDIMouse packages, I got the feeling that all three could have been combined for the price of one package. At £65 for the lot, they would be an essential purchase, at £65 each, you would have to be pretty dedicated to shell out for the whole set - but it may be worth it, if it gets your performance up to scratch.
Product: Note Wizard/Scale Master/Chord Magic
Format: Any Atari ST
Price: £65 each
Supplier: Hybrid Arts UK, (Contact Details)
Review by John Renwick