An unconventional approach to sequencing but could be just the thing for ST users with limited keyboard skills
Phil Brammer looks at a revolutionary composition package that anyone can use
MIDIGRID comes as a disk and a wire-bound manual. The manual is printed on good quality paper and is well covered by high density lacquered artboard. It is also currently riddled with typographical errors, but I can assure you that this will not affect your enjoyment of MIDIGRID. We are here looking at a so called "entry level" package which the makers assure us is ideal for people with "certain disabilities", although the only specified symptom in the good book is cerebralpalsy. Having said that, I am satisfied that this method of making sound is both utilitarian and FUN!
Load up MIDIGRID and it soon gets into Demonstration Mode, which can be quite entertaining (but there's some weird stuff in there, kids!), especially if it's not your first time and you've already saved some of your own song files to disk, because until you hit the mouse the program will play through all the song files on disk. This is an excellent example of positive reinforcement.
Imagine... you're in to your music therapy class and as your program loads up you hear the tracks playing which you recorded during previous sessions... All you wanna do is hit the mouse and go for it! WHAT? The point is that you can record songs with this thing using only the standard Atari mouse. You don't have to physically be able to play the MIDI keyboard in order to record chord sequences. The only time any real dexterity may be required is in Save/Load functions when computer keyboard control is necessary to name files. As the Mouse movement can be scaled to erratic or shaky hands (or feet), I would suggest that this program may be especially useful in therapy for certain ex-musicians in drug rehabilitation clinics who would otherwise be unable to interface with any other musical device. But let's look at the grid and see how it works...
Entering the program for the first time we are confronted with a list of song patterns (A:/*.PAT) within an Item Selector Box. Loading either of these gives access to a Midigrid representing one of the Demo tunes you will have heard before hitting the START button. Amusing to play with for a few minutes, but as these include the awful "Abide with me", it is better that we look at creating our own tunes. So, click on NEW.PAT, OK, and a small grid of 20 empty boxes (4x5) appears with a series of icons across the top. The grid itself is expandable to 10x10, but more on this later.
Click on the middle icon and a bar appears screen top. Click RH (Right Hand Mouse button) and with the mouse you control a square cursor which takes you across the bar - each section of which plays middle C through the different sounds available on your MIDI instrument. In this case we are using the humble Yamaha DX-21 keyboard. Hit RH to choose a sound, and we are back to normal grid playing mode. We are now faced with twenty empty boxes and feel obliged to fill at least some of them with something.
Move now to the keyboard icon at the top of the screen, hit LH (Left Hand Mouse button) and choose a note by moving the cursor across the key board representation which has appeared across the screen top. NB: You will need to move the cursor down slightly when entering most function screens. Hitting RH freezes the keyboard cursor on the chosen note leaving you to choose an empty box on the main grid in which you would like to keep the sound. RH tap places the note in the box to be represented by a single black square. Now pressing LH while the main cursor is in this box will cause the chosen note to play the previously chosen sound on the keyboard. Repeating the above procedure allows you to either build up a chord (by storing successive notes in one box) or to produce a string of boxes containing individual notes, or any combination of chords and notes.
To leave the current mode go to the exit icon and press RH. The usual "play" icons appear, including the recording icon in the top right hand side of the screen. Highlight this and press RH. From the moment you play a boxed note or chord, that and subsequent notes/chords are recorded. To stop recordings simply exit (again mouse only operation), or hit any key on your computer. It only remains to enter your sequence into another blank box, and indeed the recorder icon will remain only half highlighted until you do so by (you guessed it), tapping RH.
Note that the sequence is represented as a black strip across the top of the box and it will play through by normal mouse activation. Thus recording patterns in real-time is easy, although a metronome would be handy. This system makes for a useful musical notepad for serious musicians as well as an easy introduction to MIDI composition for beginners.
The scissors icon gives access to the editing functions. In this mode all top screen icons are self explanatory, except perhaps the top left icon, which shows a box with four arrows pointing away from it. By clicking onto this function we can "blowup" a box and edit the notes or chords therein. Editing options include individual note transposition, MIDI channel switch and cancellation of unwanted notes. The neat graphics make these functions childs play.
These graphics are not available should you wish to edit a sequence box, however. Instead, a question box appears offering you Pitch, Speed, Channel or Exit. The latter two, I hope, are self-explanatory. Choosing Pitch allows transposition in semitones by plus or minus 24 (two octaves). Speed offers changes in tempo down to a half or up to double time or anywhere inbetween. In fact more change is possible. In order to quadruple your tempo, for instance, use the Speed option twice, doubling the speed each time. All other "Edit" mode icons simply allow various types of copying/deleting of items from box to box.
Total mouse control can be attained with little reference to the manual. The Right Hand button of the mouse is normally used to enter a function, but I must mention here its use in normal play mode.
If you trigger a note or chord box and drag the mouse around the screen (still depressing LH) you will notice that its sound will sustain, leaving you free to play any other box or sequence of boxes you fancy with RH. As with any musical instrument this will need practice. Or, as Genie says, "Just freakout!" Another useful feature is that sequences can be "synchro started". Just click on each required sequence box with RH, and LH will start the chosen sequences simultaneously. These sequences can also be cycled (or "looped"), but when recording a sequence to cycle be careful to stop recording at an appropriate time such as on the beat!
Three large pictures superimpose themselves on the screen when you tap on RH whilst the magic box is illuminated. These extra functions are (from left to right) Keyboard Mapping (KM), StepTime and Exit, the latter being no ordinary exit. But first... Click LH on the Keyboard Mapping picture and a question box will ask whether you require KMON or OFF. Answer "ON" (still by mouse control) and a keyboard bar will appear above your musicgrid. Freeze the main cursor on the gridbox which you wish to allocate to a key on your MIDI keyboard with RH. The small keyboard cursor is now free for you to choose a key. Hit RH and that key will now play the contents of the chosen box. Repeat ad nauseum.
Without a click-track or metronome facility, sequences maybe hard to play "intime" in real-time as you struggle to move the cursor into the correct box. However, choosing the "legs" (StepTime) icon offers you the chance to first choose the order of the boxes which you wish to appear in your sequence. Simply click RH on the boxes containing the desired chords or notes in the order you'd like them to sound. Then use the escape door and you'll be asked if you'd like to finish your sequence here. If "YES" you are returned to full screen in order to enter record mode and click away through the box positions just entered into MIDIGRID's memory, concentrating now on your tempo and rhythm. You are still playing "in real time", of course, but this time the computer moves the cursor for you through the pre-chosen box positions.
The third of the series of functions available through the magic (extra functions) box icon is reached through the big door picture. Highlight the door, click, and the options Save, Load, Quit, Update, Notes off, and Cancel are offered. Hit Save and the Item Select or box reappears.
Unfortunately if you have restricted or shaky hand movement, you now have to enter a filename for your grid to be saved to disk. Ideally, a more dextrous person should have created some blank pattern files on a separate disk beforehand. Loading is possible by double clicking the cursor on the file listed in the selector box in the normal way. It is also possible, by the way, to save your step information but only by hitting "S" whilst in step-time mode. Keyboard Mapping arrangements can be similarly saved from the mapping screen.
Finally a few words about the Update option, in which we find some real goodies. Highlight Update, click, and six large pictures appear on screen with an OK box midscreen. By illuminating and clicking on these pictures we are able to:
*CHANGE the number of grid boxes on screen by altering the number of boxes across and down. The maximum grid size is 100 boxes (10x10), but I think it is unlikely that one could remember the contents of so many boxes (as there is no way of labelling them), unless one decided to duplicate a series of sounds to facilitate their playback.
*CHOOSE Maximum number of sequences you wish to be playing simultaneously, and whether or not they should play as if looped or "one-offs".
*SCALE the Mouse to Cursor movement by a factor from 1 to 16 to suit the user, and opt, if desirable, to operate the mouse up side down. Even if you are fairly dextrous, I would recommend you experiment with the scaling factor together with the number of boxes on screen to facilitate play.
*DEFINE upper and lower keyboard limits, number of MIDI channels in use, and soon.
If you are, or are working with, a less able person or maybe trying to interest a non-musican in sound composition, then take a serious look at MIDIGRID. By making a back-up copy of the disk with some pre-named pattern files, changing the mouse scaling factor, number of grid boxes etc. You are able to adapt the working environment to suit the user at the start of a session. After an initial tutorial session I doubt that further supervision should be necessary.
This package will also be popular with avant-gardeners as it offers a unique way to compose (compost for the avant garden). Indeed the very nature of the beast seems to encourage you to experiment more with tones, for example, than the more conventional fussing with chords and associated technical jargon. Don't expect features then, which are available with one of the more "professional" music software packages.
If you need Quantizing and all that jazz, check out the Steinberg Pro-12, it's more economic! If, however, you are not as dextrous as most and want to get into Music for Micros PLEASE take a look at MIDIGRID.
MIDIGRID Atari 520ST
Supplier: Composers Desktop Project Ltd. (Contact Details)
Review by Phil Brammer
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