Software for the Atari ST
This new Atari ST sequencing software package from America combines affordability with flexibility. Simon Trask applies the soft touch.
Looking for an Atari ST sequencing program that will neither break the bank nor scramble your brains? This mid-priced package from the States could be your baby.
JUST WHEN YOU thought it was safe to switch on your computer, along comes another sequencing package for the Atari ST. However, MIDIsoft Studio is situated in the midprice range - between £100 and £200, an area not brimming over with sequencing packages; it also happens to be an intelligently-designed package worthy of investigation.
Although not a known quantity in the UK, American software house MIDIsoft have been in existence for just under three years, and in addition to the Studio sequencer they produce voice editors for a variety of instruments. However, at present only the MIDIsoft Studio sequencer is being imported into the UK by Protobase.
MIDIsoft Studio is available in two versions, the 32-track Standard and 64-track Advanced; it is the Advanced version (v3 update) which is under review here. MIDIsoft claim the following approximate note-storage capacities for the Advanced version: 320,000 notes on the Mega4 ST, 140,000 notes on the Mega2 ST, 55,000 notes on the 1040ST and 15,000 notes on the 520ST. A horizontal bar in the upper right corner of the main screen shows the remaining free memory; this can be displayed either as a percentage or in Kilobytes.
The sequencer provides real-time, step-time and event-level recording/editing. It doesn't have grid-type input, nor (directly) traditional music notation input. However, MIDIsoft have a tie-in with Hybrid Arts whereby Studio files can be loaded into EZ-Score Plus and printed out in music-notation format. Apparently, files can be transferred in both directions, though I wasn't able to try out the combination (however, a passing EZ-Track Plus was roped in, and yielded successful results from Studio to Plus but not vice versa). You can hold both programs in memory at the same time, but each time you want to use EZ-Score Plus you have to load it in again. Still, the existing compatibility is a tremendous bonus for anyone wanting to print out their music.
Although the manual claims (on the front cover) that MIDIsoft Studio supports MIDI Files, there is no specific provision for importing and exporting such files, and indeed the program wouldn't load a MIDI File created on Passport's Master Tracks Junior and successfully loaded into Steinberg's Pro24 v3. Instead a window pops up to tell you there's a file load error because the file isn't a Studio song file (or track file).
MIDISOFT STUDIO HAS been designed to operate along multitrack tape recorder lines (now where have I heard that before?). This means that you get a main screen which displays 16 horizontal tracks, underneath which are tape transport controls (play, record, rewind...) which are activated either by clicking on them with the mouse or pressing the function keys. You can scroll up and down the 64 tracks one track at a time, or in 16-track blocks. For each track you can specify a 16-character name, track status, MIDI channel, patch change, volume and octave; additionally a size parameter displays the length of each track in bars.
Setting a track's MIDI channel to zero allows you to record and play back on up to 16 MIDI channels at a time; if you subsequently set the channel to a value 1-16, the track plays back on that channel only, though the recorded channel settings are retained in memory. With the great number of tracks and the multi-channel facility at your disposal, it's worth bearing in mind that you still only have 16 MIDI channels to play with - unlike some manufacturers, MIDIsoft have no multi-output MIDI box to bump up the effective number of channels.
Nowadays, an essential feature on MIDI sequencers is the soft MIDI Thru, which combines incoming MIDI data with existing sequencer data and transmits the merged result on the sequencer's MIDI Out. MIDIsoft Studio allows you to switch this feature on or off as required, and additionally allows you to adjust the MIDI channel (again, zero means re-transmit as is), patch change, volume and octave of the incoming MIDI data; the latest version Standard software now has MIDI Thru but not the associated adjustment features.
Studio also allows you to adjust several parameters in real time during playback. You can transpose individual tracks +/- three octaves and adjust track velocity and volume settings - though, in the latter two instances, only if the track is set to a single MIDI channel (for instance, you couldn't combine all your parts on one track and fade them in or out with a single parameter adjustment).
Real-time recording from bar one can be preceded by a count-in of between one and four bars; if you begin recording elsewhere, you get no count-in. Recording can begin from any point within the longest track-length. When a track hasn't been recorded onto, its status is Clean; once you've recorded into it, it defaults to Play but can be muted at any time (though mute settings aren't programmable, sadly). This means you can only record from one position into a track, but with so many tracks at your disposal you can always pick another and merge them afterwards.
MIDIsoft Studio isn't short on helpful features. For instance, by clicking the right mouse button on Rewind you return instantly to bar one, while any active track may be solo'd by clicking the right mouse button over its Track Mode column.
You can select a master time signature of anywhere between 1/4 and 16/4, and, although you can alter it at any time, it isn't possible to store time-signature changes. Consequently, if you do use changes in time signature, the bar count will be wrong. More encouragingly, Studio does allow you to create a tempo track, though there are problems with this which I'll come to later.
Potentially useful MIDI features include the ability to transmit a MIDI song select code (0-127), MIDI tune request (an instruction for pre-digital MIDI synths to tune their oscillators), System Reset and All Notes Off. The latter command, when activated, sends out an All Notes Off command on all 16 MIDI channels; however, as not all synths implement this command, you can also get Studio to transmit Note Off commands for the entire MIDI note-range on all 16 MIDI channels - what you could call the "brute force" approach.
Other useful features (all of which can be found in the Setup menu) include MIDI mode and local on/off transmission on all 16 MIDI channels, the ability to define screen colour combinations (or inverse video for monochrome monitors), an expert mode (which does away with warnings, for when you get really confident), fast mouse option (which halves the length the mouse has to travel, effectively speeding it up), auto rewind (the sequencer automatically rewinds to bar one whenever you stop it), auto quantise (quantise on record), SysEx and aftertouch filtering, and a MIDI sensing option which flashes a couple of notes on-screen whenever MIDI data is received.
In the all-important area of synchronisation, MIDIsoft Studio can both read and transmit standard MIDI sync data (including song position pointers), and you're given the option to selectively enable and disable these features.
I must mention at this point an irritating feature. When the sequencer is at bar one and you hit Play or Record, there is a noticeable delay before the sequencer starts; however, from any other position in the song you don't get this delay. What is stranger is that the length of the delay seems to be directly proportional to the tempo (getting on for one second at 120bpm, longer for slower tempi). Fortunately this situation doesn't seem to present syncing problems when MIDIsoft Studio is controlling another sequencer or a drum-machine, as MIDI Start and clocks are sent in sync with Studio's actual start. Nor, fortunately, are there any problems when MIDIsoft Studio is started from an external source; in this instance the sequencer starts immediately. Very strange.
MIDISOFT STUDIO'S APPROACH to step-time recording allows you to step through a track inputting single notes or chords from your keyboard, specifying the note size (including triplet and dotted values) and the duration (as a percentage value between staccato and legato). Of course, you can specify a rest instead of notes, by clicking on the Rest button (obvious, really). An alternative, perhaps more flexible, way of specifying note size is to enter bar/beat/tick values under Note Size, while you can begin step-time recording from any position within a track by specifying bar/beat/tick Count values.
The sequencer won't advance to the next step until all notes are released; in this way you can build up chords in your own time, and adjust the velocity value for each note by replaying it until you've achieved the intended result. If you still need to alter any events just recorded, you can reverse through the steps by clicking on Undo - bearing in mind that Undo erases all the events it moves through.
MIDIsoft Studio only records note and patch-change data in step-time mode; all other MIDI data (pitch-bend, aftertouch and so on) is ignored. However, you can decide whether or not to record attack and release velocity data (this being part of the note messages); if not, you can specify a fixed velocity value (1-127).
Of its type, Studio's approach to step-time is quite competent; the ability to move to any position in a track is particularly useful, as it removes you from the purely sequential approach which step-time input sometimes suffers from.
MIDISOFT'S SEQUENCER HAS three levels of editing: track, region and event. These offer you an increasingly fine degree of control over your musical outpourings, and together provide a powerful and flexible approach to editing which covers most bases.
Track editing allows you to erase, copy, move, combine and re-channel whole tracks at a time - a set of commands which provide just about all the flexibility you could require at this level. Combined tracks retain their MIDI channel assignments, while track re-channelling allows you to change all channels to a single channel, change one channel to another channel, or extract all events on a particular channel - in the latter case, the extracted channel will be placed on the nearest spare track and deleted from the source track. Although this is a very flexible set of options, unfortunately you can't work at a note-range level (for manipulating different musical parts recorded on the same channel, such as rhythm parts which are sent to a drum machine).
Regional editing allows you to select any part of a track, down to "tick" (96ppqn) precision if you wish. A region is defined by setting edit markers on the main screen; though regional editing operates on single tracks at a time, the region itself applies to all 64 tracks. You can insert, delete, erase, transpose, quantise, tempo-adjust and velocity-adjust the region.
Quantisation ranges from a whole note to 64th-note triplets (MIDI clock resolution). You can alter the note location and/or the note duration (to the nearest multiple of the quantise value). Tempo editing allows you to create a master tempo track (you can also do this in Event Edit mode), by defining different tempi for any number of regions; as a quick way of programming accelerandi and ritardandos you can specify a start tempo and end tempo and get the sequencer to gradually change between the two. Handy.
Regional velocity editing follows similar lines, allowing you to define a constant velocity or a gradual velocity change between start and end values.
As regional editing operates on all channels within a track, you'll need to extract individual channels at track-edit level if you want to treat them separately; similarly, it might be advantageous to combine tracks if you want to work on several channels simultaneously. Overall, Studio gives you a pretty comprehensive range of editing options, but as with track editing there's no way you can work at note-range level.
Event-level editing brings us to MIDI event list, presented in "interpreted" form for all those musicians who aren't fluent readers of hex or binary code. All the same, being presented with a massive list of data can be overwhelming, but fortunately Studio allows you to filter out a variety of MIDI data from the display. In this way you can concentrate on, for instance, note-ons or patch-changes without having to struggle through lengthy tracts of pitch-bend and aftertouch data.
Editing, inserting and deleting events is a straightforward process, and event-editing on Studio gives you most of what you need. However, it would be useful if you had single commands for extracting or deleting specific types of MIDI data from an entire track or region of a track - so that, for instance, you could remove aftertouch or patch-changes.
Selecting track 65 brings you to the Conductor tempo track. If you've entered any tempo changes in Regional Edit mode, they'll be displayed in event list format. Here you can insert and delete tempo changes with the same ease that you can edit MIDI data proper. However, here is also where you will, probably, encounter a serious bug which crashes the system faster than you can say "MIDI". Donning my Sherlock Holmes hat, I deduced that it happens like this: you start with a blank tempo track, insert an initial tempo, click anywhere in the event-list window, then click on Insert. Bang zoom, the program disappears and the cherry bombs appear; you then have to reset the computer before loading in the software again.
It's an easy "mistake" to make, and there's really no excuse for software bombing out like this. Imagine you're in the middle of a session and under heavy pressure, when suddenly the very heart of your setup goes AWOL; it's enough to make grown men cry.
Tempo track problems don't end there, though. In fact, there's a more pervasive, if less immediately apparent problem which occurs whenever you shuttle sequencer tracks to and fro. Specifically, when you rewind the sequencer it never checks for the tempo change preceding the position you stop at, with the result that it starts playing at the tempo of the next tempo change. A slight error of logic, perhaps, but the result is yet more problems for the poor musician. What's more, whenever you Stop the sequencer it switches to the next tempo value. There seem to be real problems here if you do anything but record or play back a song from bar one. Considering this is a version three software update, I find it a bit surprising such problems exist. However, the tempo track itself works extremely well, handling subtle and extreme tempo changes with equal facility. Of course with the sequencer under SMPTE control you won't encounter these problems; on the other hand, unless you get something like SRC's new AT sequencer (which reads and stores the tempi output by any MIDI sequencer), you'll lose MIDIsoft Studio's tempo-track facility altogether.
MIDISOFT STUDIO ALLOWS you to save and load songs and individual tracks, delete files and format disks (the latter option isn't available in the Standard version). In addition to the actual MIDI data, a song file saves all associated track information for the 64 tracks - all of which will, of course, be restored when you load the file back in again.
Additionally you can customise the sequencer to your own operational preferences using the Save Current Setup option. This saves to disk a file called Studio.CFG, which contains the current settings for beat, clock, enables, colours, expert mode, fast mouse, auto rewind, auto quantise, MIDI sense, SysEx filter, aftertouch filter, Play Thru, tempo and quantisation. This file must be stored on the program disk, as the Setup file is automatically loaded whenever you load the sequencer itself.
One unusual feature of the Advanced version (which, incidentally, isn't on the Standard) is its ability to load one song while another is playing - a handy time-saving feature, and definitely useful should you venture onstage with your Atari. When you Stop the current song, the sequencer automatically "rewinds" to the beginning of the new song, ready for playback.
IF YOU'RE LOOKING for an accessibly-priced sequencing package powerful enough not to impose unrealistic limitations on your music-making, but which isn't so overburdened with features that you end up more confused than enthused, MIDIsoft's sequencer fits the bill.
I've pointed out some problems which MIDIsoft Studio threw my way while I was using it, and I would hope to see them fixed in the next revision. Apart from these, the sequencer proved to be very reliable. What I haven't pointed out is that MIDIsoft Studio is extremely easy and quick to use, real friendly stuff. Of course there are features which could usefully be added (as there are on any sequencer), and bearing in mind the middle-ground pricing I don't suppose MIDIsoft would be prepared to add them all. In particular it would be useful to have track and region editing on a note-range basis, drum machine-style loop-in-overdub recording and global transpose (for that moment when you discover your song is in the wrong key for your singer). And, seeing as you can already mute tracks in realtime, it would be great if those mutes were programmable.
Good news is that MIDIsoft are, apparently, intending to add a grid-style input and edit screen, which in conjunction with the existing event-list option and the tie-in with Hybrid Art's EZ-Score Plus would make for a fairly comprehensive system.
Overall I would recommend MIDIsoft Studio as a flexible and user-friendly sequencing package (your "flexible friend", perhaps), well-designed from a musician's point of view.
Prices Advanced version, £183; Standard version, £114. Both prices include VAT.