Multitracking On A Budget
Software for Commodore 64
Do we need another German software package for the Commodore 64. The C-Lab company think we do, and after playing with their first system, Simon Trask finds himself agreeing.
The C-Lab SuperTracker looks like just another German sequencing package for the Commodore 64. But delve deeper into the software and a number of novel features come to light, and they're useful, too.
Usually, I only get a sense of de ja vu when the alarm clock goes off in the morning. But a new 16-track sequencing package for the Commodore 64 from German company C-Lab has changed all that. For truth to tell, there's a striking similarity between the C-Lab and the Steinberg Pro 16 sequencing package reviewed in E&MM February - though the new package is different enough to have its own character. A good idea is a good idea is a good idea, I guess.
Like Pro 16, the C-Lab SuperTrack confines all its essential operations and information to a single screen, with a sensible layout paying great dividends in both ease of use and accessibility. Operation of the sequencer has been kept fairly straightforward, and the tape-style approach to recording that Pro 16 adopted so successfully is to be found in the C-Lab package as well.
SuperTrack also follows Pro 16 in being realistically priced, and in having MIDI and Sync interfaces (the former offering three switchable Out/Thrus) which you can buy separately. But C-Lab have gone one further in allowing a number of different MIDI interfaces (including Steinberg's) to be used with SuperTrack, which is an encouraging move.
Apparently, C-Lab also have a scorewriting package (imaginatively titled ScoreTrack), though a date for its availability in the UK has yet to be fixed.
SuperTrack's pocket-sized manual is a lot better than it looks like it should be, but some of the explanations leave a lot to be desired; fortunately, C-Lab importers Sound Technology are currently engaged in producing an addendum which should clarify all the confusing bits.
The sequencer offers 64 patterns, each consisting of 16 tracks, which may be chained into a single 256-step Song; storage capacity is 8633 events. Recording can be in real or step time, and a punch-in/out facility has been included, similar to the Pro 16's in that it's controlled from the Commodore's QWERTY keyboard - though in SuperTrack's case, it's activated by pressing the Shift Lock key, which does at least leave both your hands free for playing. A footpedal option would definitely be more useful, however.
It's becoming increasingly common for sequencers (and SuperTrack is no exception) to include a 'mix' facility, whereby incoming data from your master instrument is merged with any sequence data and sent on MIDI Out. This is valuable because you can hear parts on the instrument(s) they're intended for. On SuperTrack, the facility is available all the time, which means you can hear a new part on the instrument(s) you want it to be played on at any time during recording, playback and 'idling' modes.
The main display presents you with a Song table, a Pattern table and a Delay table. The first is presented in the same scrolling column fashion as on Pro 16, with 24 steps on-screen at a time; changing song steps and pattern numbers is accomplished using the 64's function keys, again as on Pro 16.
Anyone in a position to use both sequencers (in a studio, say) shouldn't have much trouble adjusting from one to the other.
SuperTrack allows you to turn individual tracks within a pattern on or off (even while a sequence is playing), and to set each track to any of MIDI channels 1-16. Velocity range is also controllable for each track within a pattern, on a scale of 1-15. What this allows you to do is adjust volume levels (in real time, if you wish) on touch-sensitive instruments, and it comes in handy balancing two parts on the same instrument, for instance. It's also useful in compensating for any discrepancies in MIDI velocity response (the DX7, for instance, tends towards an extreme response when controlled via MIDI).
Tempo is individually programmable for each pattern, which affords a nice element of flexibility when chaining patterns together. Other track- and pattern-specific parameters are transposition (±31 semitones in semitone steps), quantisation (all the way from crotchets to 192nd notes, including triplets) and looping. Quantisation values for each track can be altered without affecting the recorded data.
The Loop parameter allows you to specify the length of each track (in beats) for looping. Setting a track loop to the pattern length means that it won't loop within the pattern, but equally, you can define a four-beat loop, say, in a much longer pattern, which is a valuable way of saving on memory (not to mention effort).
"Facilities: Like many sequencers, SuperTrack makes a virtue of shielding the user from lower-level MIDI operations. But it also includes a MIDI Event Editor page which offers greater control."
SuperTrack's limit of 255 beats for each pattern illustrates a limitation common in pattern-based sequencers, namely that they all presume you will build up your music bit by bit; anyone thinking of recording lengthy improvisations will be in for a bit of a disappointment. What's more, if your method of generating ideas is to improvise at the keyboard and you'd like then to be able to isolate particularly successful moments for further work, you'll be in for a shock on two counts, as SuperTrack doesn't allow you to isolate parts of a track (by copying the relevant parts onto a spare track, say).
The C-Lab sequencer includes two further facilities which can help to cut down on memory usage (always useful with the relatively limited memory of eight-bit machines like the C64). One of these allows you to define 'ghost tracks', which are tracks that play the music data of another track but apply their own parameters to it. Thus where you want, for instance, the same part played an octave lower or higher on the same or another synth, with a different velocity level and perhaps a delay effect as well, you can do it without duplicating the music data in memory.
The second facility is potentially even more valuable. It allows you to define track on/off settings for each song step, which means the same pattern can have different tracks active depending on its position in the song. So instead of duplicating track data in different patterns, you could build up one 'composite' pattern and pare it down depending on your requirements at any given stage in the song.
The package allows you to copy any track to any other track (in the same or any other pattern), but omits a pattern-copying facility; there's also no facility for copying all pattern parameters to other patterns, though mute on/off settings can be copied to all higher patterns.
Like any MIDI sequencer, SuperTrack lets you bounce down any number of tracks onto one track, simply by connecting MIDI Out to MIDI In and recording onto the relevant track in real time - though it's a rather unsatisfactory procedure. There's also a facility for bouncing down two adjacent recorded tracks onto the lower of the two - to bounce track eight onto track seven, say. It's quick, but it's also irreversible, as your upper track is wiped clean instantly. And because SuperTrack (in common with many other MIDI sequencers) assigns only one MIDI channel to a track, you're effectively limited to bouncing down parts which use the same MIDI channel; a bounced-down track will take on all the other track-specific characteristics (such as velocity range and transposition) of the 'master' track. Still, it's a useful facility so long as you use it with care.
As you build up your tracks, you may well be grabbed by the sudden desire to isolate a particular track. SuperTrack includes a Solo facility which allows you to do just this, though not while you're recording or playing back. The only parameters that SuperTrack allows you to alter in real time are track on/off, track velocity range and pattern tempo.
The Delay table to the right of the display allows you to delay individual tracks in steps of 192nd notes, up to a value of 255. This means setting a value of 48 will delay a track by a crotchet duration - relative to the current tempo, of course. This doesn't affect the actual track data, but merely delays its readout; a delayed track will play on into the next track (which, remember, will itself be delayed).
There's also a track-shift function, which actually shifts the MIDI data in memory according to a value specified in the Delay table; this value may be applied repeatedly to generate some fairly long delays, but you lose data at the end of a track using this method. You can also shift data back towards the beginning of the track, so providing you haven't lost anything off the end, you can recover your original performance.
The SuperTrack's step-time recording follows what is by now a familiar procedure, whereby you select a step value, play a single note or chord for each step, and press the space bar once for each step. Any tracks already recorded and not muted will be heard in step (ie. your) time.
Step-time editing is non-existent unless you're prepared to delve into the deeper workings of MIDI using C-Lab's Event Editor page, of which more anon.
"Conclusions: SuperTrack offers full MIDI syncing and includes song pointers, which means it can he slaved to tape via a SMPTE-to-MIDI unit—great for professional use."
Song mode allows you to enter a single 16-track pattern for each of its 256 steps - a bit like splicing together pieces of tape, but a lot less messy. In addition to the step-specific track muting mentioned earlier, you can also define a pattern transposition value for each step and decide whether sync information for controlling drum machines, say, is to be conveyed - this can be useful if you don't want a rhythm track at a particular point in a song. It's also possible to define up to eight autolocate cue points, which can act as handy shortcuts to any step in a song (or perhaps to the beginning of each song, if you've divided the generous 256 steps into several songs). These appear to be for internal use only, so SMPTE-MIDI autolocation isn't a possibility.
MIDI recording packages such as Pro 16 and UMI make a virtue of shielding the user from lower-level MIDI operations. C-Lab's package does the same, but also includes a MIDI Event Editor page which gives you the sort of control over your musical input previously found only in Joreth Music's package for the C64 (reviewed in E&MM May '85).
If the thought of dealing with MIDI on anything like intimate terms sends you into a cold sweat, don't worry - you need never encounter the Editor page so long as you don't press 'E'. But if you are interested, the page is well laid-out, features MIDI commands that are translated into English and are consequently readily understandable, and allows you to alter the positioning and duration of individual notes down to as little as 192nd-note resolution.
Most usefully, you can insert, delete and alter note, velocity, patch-change and controller information with a degree of precision otherwise unattainable in software of this kind. What's more, the Editor page is valuable for diagnosing what your MIDI instruments are really saying to one another.
You can save and load either complete songs (ie. all the data) or individual tracks to disk. Tracks can be loaded back into any track position in any pattern, which is obviously rather useful - but why no pattern save and load? You can get a directory listing of your disk at any time, and also format a disk and delete, rename and validate individual files.
It's unlikely that you'll want to use the SuperTrack sequencer in isolation. The ability to sync to tape is - fortunately - pretty much de rigeur on sequencers nowadays, and SuperTrack includes standard tape sync via its Sync interface. Other non-MIDI sync possibilities are 48ppqn clock out and a choice of 48 or 24ppqn in, plus Roland DIN sync.
But consider, also, the possibility of slaving your sequencer to tape using SMPTE code. Even if you can't afford the expense of this method, you may well want to take your sequences to a professional studio that uses your favourite sequencing package (it's starting to happen), and they'll almost certainly be using SMPTE as well.
SuperTrack offers full MIDI syncing: start, stop, and continue commands and (crucially) MIDI song pointers, which means it can be slaved to tape via a SMPTE-to-MIDI unit - great for professional use.
And 'professional' is the key word here. C-Lab's SuperTrack deserves to be taken seriously by anyone involved in keyboard-based recording, in whatever capacity and for whatever purpose. Its virtues are ease of use, flexibility and power, and you can hardly ask for more than that. If you've been thinking of taking the plunge into MIDI sequencing, there's never been a better time - and C-Lab's package should be high on your list of possible choices.
Prices SuperTrack sequencer £115, MIDI interface £79, Sync interface £106; all RRPs including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask
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