With the wealth of cheap PC clones on the market it was only a matter of time before the floodgates opened for budget music software
It's not easy being a PC owner if you want to use it to make music. Okay, it's easy but it's not cheap! The first thing you need is a MIDI interface and that could set you back about £200.
Cheaper interfaces are available but they generally aren't full-spec which means they may lack a few of the facilities you really need. For example, if you want to record your music onto a multi-track tape recorder - a portastudio will do! - you'll need a sync-to-tape facility.
And then there's the software to consider. The mainstay of any MIDI system is a good sequencer. This could set you back as much as £400.
Again, cheaper sequencers are available but they may not have all the bells and whistles of the more expensive programs. However, that is often what the extra facilities are - bells and whistles. You may not actually need all the frills and a cheaper package may well do the job you require of it.
So the bottom line is this - if you want to dip your digit in the PC's musical water you could be in for an expensive swim.
But Computer Music Systems to the rescue. CMS has put together a MIDI music package called, appropriately enough, Musicpak, containing both an industry standard MIDI interface plus a reasonably powerful and comprehensive sequencer. And if you decide you do want a few more frills, CMS has a buy back policy which ensures you don't lose out on your original purchase. More of that later.
So let's open the Musicpak box and see what falls out. There's a Voyetra V-4001 MIDI interface and a Voyetra Sequencer Plus Mark I program. Individually, these retail at £184.00
respectively so the package saves you a rather jolly £74.00.
The V-4001 interface is compatible with the Roland MPU-401 which is the industry standard PC MIDI interface and virtually all software is written to support it. The manual, however, is kind enough to point out the differences. Basically, the MPU-401 has two MIDI Outs (the V-4001 only has one) and it sends out Roland 24-click Sync signals which the V-4001 doesn't. It also has a built-in speaker which is used for the metronome. The V-4001 has a Metronome Out socket which must be connected to an external speaker. Both have sync-to-tape facilities.
The interface plugs into one of the slots at the back of the PC and is very easy to fit. Both interfaces are described as "intelligent". This means they help handle the transmission of MIDI data to take some of the workload off the computer. Again, most software is written to support this and may not work with some cheaper "un-intelligent" interfaces.
To run the sequencer you need at least 512K of RAM and the program will work in any display mode. CMS can supply a version which will run from hard disc.
So let's boot up. Sequencer Plus Mark I has 16 tracks and operation is very simple. Press R to go into record mode then Space to start recording, Space again to stop and Space again to play back. Simple!
A nice feature is the ability to name each track and you get a very generous 20 characters with which to do so. You can change the MIDI channel each track will play back over so you can record everything from one instrument without changing transmission channels. You can also send a Program Change message - useful if you have an expander or two. There are Transpose, Loop, Solo and Mute functions which are fairly self-explanatory plus a Quantisation option. This "tidies up" out-of-time recordings by setting each note onto the nearest beat. It only works on playback, however, so you never lose your original recording - nice.
The last column on the screen shows how many bars have been recorded on each track. This is useful for editing purposes. You can vary the time signature from 1/2 up to 32/16 and you can give each track a different time signature. Not many sequencers allow you to do this - and you may well think there's not much demand use for it. Chopin, however, wrote some piano music with different time signatures on treble and bass clefs, the intro to Tubular Bells is written in this way and much contemporary music uses staggered time signatures. It can also be used to great effect to create polyrhythms in music or drum lines and is a fascinating area to explore. There are two screens to assist with editing. Both use a grid format which is very popular in sequencer programs, especially among musicians who aren't quite at home with traditional music notation.
The View screen shows the individual bars which make up the tracks. You can play from any bar and the cursor moves as the piece plays so you can see how the tracks line up against each other. This makes it easy to pounce on any particular section of the music. You can record in this screen, too, from any bar.
Editing facilities include Copy, Insert and Delete so you can arrange verses and choruses to suit your music, even individual bars.
The Edit screen takes you a step deeper into your music and shows the individual notes which make up the bars, again in grid format. You can edit the notes' duration, pitch and velocity. MIDI events such as Program Changes and After-touch are also shown here and you can edit these, too.
Notes can be inserted and although the process is relatively simple it's not really a viable method of step-time input. It's a shame but remember that the program is basically a real-time sequencer.
Transforms add to the power of the editing facilities. They allow you to change note data in a range of bars rather than a whole track. Transpose lets you apply harmonic transpositions to a piece as opposed to traditional transposition which shifts every note over the same number of semitones. Interesting!
Offset moves a track in time. As well as using this to pull forward a sound with a slow attack, it can be used to create MIDI echoes. The nice thing about MIDI echoes is each one is as sharp and clear as the previous ones as they are all first generation - although they need not all sound on the same instrument or same MIDI channel.
Split can be used to move notes within a certain pitch range onto another track. This could be used to split the left and right hands of a piano part which were recorded at the same time. It could also be used to extract individual notes, say from a drum track which could then be fed to another sound source such as a sampler. Other facilities include Quantise and Merge.
Voyetra produce a librarian program called Patch Master Plus (£180.00) which lets you set up parameters for a range of MIDI instruments. Sequencer Plus contains a simplified version of Patch Master which lets you assign parameters for up to 32 instruments and transmit them to the instruments at the press of a button. The parameters are saved along with the song file - useful - although you do need Patch Master to up-load and store the voices.
When you save a song the time and date of the save is recorded, too. When loading, a Quick Find facility follows the letters you type in at the keyboard to find a particular file, rather like the way some spelling checkers work. Nifty. You can delete and rename files from within the program and it will report how much free space is on the disc but there is no format option so keep a few spare discs handy - you always do, don't you?
Control is from a series of menus which you flip through on the bottom of the screen - the standard PC way of doing things. Two levels of help are available but you can remove them as you learn how the program works.
The manual is rather large but it's not a heavy read. The Tutorial section will get you going with the minimum of fuss. There's also a chapter on how to sync with external equipment such as drum machines and tape recorders. It also contains information about the use of MIDI Clock and Song Position Pointers.
If you want to print out your music in traditional notation, Sequencer Plus can save it in a format compatible with Dr.T's Copyist.
My major disappointment is Plus's lack of good step-time input facilities but then most sequencers are real-time biased and the majority of musicians seem to prefer this way of working (I like the benefit of both worlds). As this program is labelled Mark I, you may be wondering if there are others. Well there are! Voyetra's Sequencer Plus Mark II (£228.00) has 32 tracks and Mark III (£368.00) has 64 tracks. Both have more editing facilities, more options in the Transforms menu and more sync facilities. Here's where CMS's buy back policy comes in as it allows you to upgrade to a higher version by paying the difference in price. A demo disc of Mark III is included with the package so you can see some of the features you are missing.
As a starter package, however, Musicpak and its Sequencer Plus Mark I is a goody. If you're a complete newcomer to the world of MIDI, CMS has a couple of sheets called Questions and Answers about PC Music Software which are worth reading.
Supplier: Computer Music Systems, (Contact Details)