Mixing by numbers
Entry-level music software
Steinberg's MusicStation for the PC combines sequencing and audio recording capabilities in one handy package. Is this the entry-level user's perfect initiation into integrated recording? Ian Waugh finds out...
A lot of musicians would like a program which combines MIDI sequencing with digital audio, but not all can afford the likes of Cubase Audio, Logic Audio or one of the stand-alone hardware packages.
Steinberg's MusicStation is the MIDI/digital audio solution for the rest of us, and it throws in an accompaniment generator too. It's nicely priced, but as you would expect, some features have been sacrificed.
There are several pieces of software - the MusicStation sequencer, a tutorial called MIDI Xplained and WavePlayer Plus, which helps you play audio files from the sequencer.
MIDI Explained is a pretty comprehensive explanation of MIDI, written along the lines of a Windows Help file. It contains an introduction to MIDI, the MIDI spec and a useful troubleshooting guide, which everyone should browse through at least once.
The sequencer is a sort of souped-up Cubase Lite, with 16 tracks and the familiar Cubase Arrange page where you create arrangements by dragging music parts to various positions on the tracks.
It has a similar score editor to Lite. You still can't add music symbols but you can add text, lyrics and chord symbols. The chord symbols can be used by the arranger section of the program, as we'll see in a moment.
Unlike Lite, MusicStation has a piano roll editor, so if you don't read music you can still edit the notes. There is also a graphic controller editor, which shows seven types of controller data in a sort of bar graph form which makes it fairly easy to edit. However, there is still no event list. You may not want to use it on every session, but at least if you have one you know you can get down to the grass roots if need be. It's about control.
Like Lite, the program has a GM/GS Editor, essentially a MIDI mixer geared towards General MIDI, which lets you select sounds for each channel, adjust their volumes, pan positions, chorus and reverb. Nice stuff, but you can't record changes into a track in real time and alas, the controls don't move during playback. Oh well, I like a little animation with my mixing.
One of the major additions to the program is the Style Station, which brings portable keyboard accompaniments to the sequencer. It's not a million miles removed from programs such as Band-In-A-Box, but it's a touch more interactive and it's perfectly integrated into the sequencer, so you don't have to swap between programs.
The accompaniments can follow chords you play in the lower half of an attached MIDI keyboard in real time, effectively turning your synth into a portable keyboard. It even recognises the different one finger chord systems employed by Roland, Yamaha and Casio. These are for the less-experienced user, and let you play major, minor and seventh chords by pressing one, two or three keys.
So, you can use this on-the-fly system to generate an accompaniment while you doodle around at the top end of the keyboard searching for melodies. It may not be everyone's idea of swing city, but it can undoubtedly be a useful creative tool.
The system will also read chord symbols inserted into a Chord Track, so you can quickly and easily predefine a chord progression you want an accompaniment for. This is another useful writing aid. You can cycle through the backing while you work out lines to go on top.
The styles are controlled through one of the tracks, which is nominated as the Style Track. Up to 15 styles can be loaded at once, and each style can have up to eight variations such as Intro, Main, Break, Ending and so on. You can select these in real time from the Track info section of the Arrange page, but what's more interesting is the ability to assign changes to the eight lowest notes of your keyboard, so you can quickly make changes on the fly.
You can also trigger changes via pitch bend, velocity or controller messages. Changing patterns via velocity is very appealing, but it's not so easy in practice although there are a couple of styles which demonstrate the principle.
Now here's the clever bit. The styles are actually Cubase Arrangements which you can load into the program, and play and examine just like any other piece of music. And of course, you can edit them and create new ones of your own. This is reasonably straightforward as long as you follow a few guidelines, although coming up with the musical ideas is another matter. Over 30 styles are supplied. A few more would be nice, but it does leave the way wide open for third-party file producers.
One useful feature is the ability to save the style output as a MIDI file. You can incorporate it into the sequencer proper, tailor it to suit a particular song or even save the whole thing as a Standard MIDI File to give to others.
WavePlayer Plus lets you assign Windows Wave files to MIDI notes. Let's say you've recorded an audio sample and saved it to disk as a WAV file. You could assign it to Middle C, for example, and then whenever you want the sound to play, you simply insert Middle C into the track. The output of a track containing Wave notes must be assigned to the WavePlayer rather than a MIDI output.
Perhaps it's not a very elegant solution, but it works. There are a few things, however, that you need to be aware of. Suppose you want to sync a vocal track to a MIDI backing track - there is no built-in way of doing this. The program assumes you have a sound card and recording software. To get the MIDI track and the audio track in sync you must start sequencer playback, switch to the recording software and then sing or play along.
Well, that's fine, too, but the two systems play together rather than being synched in any way. If the playback speed of either changes during the course of the song, they'll run out of sync. The manual suggests you record the audio in short sections to minimise such occurrences. You must also make sure that you don't change the tempo of the MIDI tracks after recording the audio, or the two will definitely be out of sync.
The program can only play back one WAV file at a time. As the data is being read direct from disk, the length of the audio is limited by your hard disk capacity, not your RAM.
A version of the MusicStation is available bundled with the X-DMC digital audio card. It's a high quality 16-bit card with the Ensoniq chip set, and the GM sounds are among the best you'll find on a PC sound card, although they could be improved by a dash of reverb.
You can't create your own sounds, unlike some cards which use wavetable synthesis, but I suspect this won't bother the vast majority of users. The card is Sound Blaster compatible so you can use it with games, too. Nice.
Software bundled with the card includes Voyetra's AudioStation, which looks like a hi fi system and lets you play audio CDs (via a CD ROM drive), WAV files and MIDI files. There's a MIDI jukebox, a MIDI Orchestrator mixer, and a waveform editor.
The integrated approach to MIDI and digital audio offered by Cubase Audio, Logic Audio and the like is undoubtedly the most intuitive. In the absence of such a system, it's down to a system similar to that adopted by MusicStation. It may not be the ideal but the program implements quite well.
Any good sound card will handle the audio side, but the X-DMC has the advantage of Ensoniq's GM sounds, and it's fairly priced in the bundle.
For the newcomer to sequencing and someone wanting to include digital audio in their music, MusicStation may have its limitations but it's still a very good place to start.
Price inc VAT: MusicStation £199 MusicStation + X-DMC card £399
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Review by Ian Waugh
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