Darrin Williamson takes an advance peek at Micro Illusions Amiga MIDI package
The Battle is hotting up in the World of Amiga music, programmers are now starting to use the machines enhanced potential as Darrin Williamson discovers with this offering from Micro Illusions.
There are a lot of different MIDI packages now available for the Amiga. Sequencers, voice editors, Generic Patch Librarians etc all claiming to be "professional" which usually just means difficult to master.
So you can imagine how sceptical I was when I visited the Mediagenic and saw another sequencer package billed as a world-beater. "Ho-Hum", I thought.
Then I saw it in action...
I had to find out more about this program so arranged to see Music X in action as it approached completion. Wanna know what it can do? Read on...
First and foremost Music X is a sequencer package, however Micro Illusions see it as a Musicians tool rather than just a sequencer. Why? Because on top of being a first rate step and real time MIDI recorder, Music X is also a complete MIDI workstation on disk.
However I shall leave the juicy bits until later. I'll tell you about the sequencer first.
A bog standard A500 will give you a record/playback capacity of something like 25,000 MIDI events. This is enough for the average length pop song so no worries there. These events can be spread over 250 (that's right, 250) tracks which is over four times more than its nearest competitor. This means that you can really play the indecisive producer and have a dozen different basslines of even a number of different riffs to choose from. This number would also be useful for synth expander users with a set of drum sounds on one MIDI channel (like the Roland MT-32 for instance). Each drum sound could be recorded onto a different track which would allow an incredible degree of flexibility when chaining your sequences into songs.
You aren't limited to external MIDI sounds either, you can store up to 16 internal sounds (memory permitting) and play up to four simultaneously.
These can be IFF, Sonix or Music X format so you've got plenty of scope there.
As you can see the layout of the screen is comprehensive yet uncluttered and makes good use of the Amigas Desktop environment. In the top left hand corner of the screen are the tape transport controls which perform the functions you'd expect. At the bottom of the screen is your track list which tells you what is on each track, what MIDI channel it's transmitting to and from bar it will come in on.
This particular feature is quite interesting in that you can record a sequence with everything starting at the beginning of the track and experiment with bringing in instruments one by one which is the way most 12" Singles are spun out. As you'll notice as I go on the ability to experiment with the manipulation of MIDI data without doing irreparable damage to your potential chart-topper is a key feature of this package as it brings back to music the creative curiosity of a musician which has been lacking in so many of the music packages I have so far seen. Throughout the entire program you are sub-consciously telling yourself to try out new ideas which has got to be a good thing for the music industry. As with multi-track tape machine Music X has the ability to drop in and out of recored mode at any place in the recording which is great in and out of record mode at any place in the recording which is great if you just want to redo a small section of a sequence. However unlike a tape machine you can drop in and out precisely down to a fraction of a second thanks to the built-in SMPTE time-lock.
Furthermore the point won't drift at all as there is no tape involved to slip or overshoot.
In addition to drop ins, you also have four Cue points which you can set anywhere in your piece of music. This saves a lot of tedious mucking about looking for the start of the middle eight for instance. Once set a click of the mouse on the marker will take you straight to your desired destination.
Another invaluable feature of this particular segment of the program is the MIDI channelizer which allows you to experiment sending a recorded track to any MIDI channel. This is useful to see which of your sounds suit a particular sequence. Again, nothing is permanent until you save it.
You can synchronize the sequencer in five different ways. The default is internal, however you can hook it up to the MIDI clock from a Drum Machine, from a SMPTE timecode generator, from any form of video locking system or from a MIDI timecoder such as the little Tascam unit on sale for about £120.
The final area of interest on this section of the program is the mixdown area which allows you to mute one, some, or all of the tracks in a sequence allowing a degree of automated mixdown. This are would appear to have a lot of potential however it was not quite finished in the version I saw.
Once everything is recorded into Music X you will no doubt want to correct a few mistakes you have made or add a few fiddly bits in step time. For this job we have not one but two editors at our disposal.
Firstly we have the Event Editor which lists out, in sequential order all the events on one track as MIDI values. This allows very precise editing of all recorded MIDI information on one track totally independent from all the others. So you could do some very strange things by, for instance, changing the tempo of just one track within a sequence. This may sound like a bad idea on paper but may sound great in a sequence. More immediately useful is the ability to scroll through a sequence slowly in step time and insert, delete or alter specific notes. All sequencers do this to a certain extent but Music X is the only one I've come across that actually plays the notes in step time making the hunt for that bum note a hell of a lot easier.
From within this area you can quantize individual tracks. Nothing special in that, except you can quantize all permutations of note start, note duration and note end and you can vary the percentage of quantisation so that on a course setting only really wayward notes get corrected. Ones near the mark are left where they which make a sequence sound far more human.
To compliment the Event editor is the Bar Editor, which does much the same job but graphically. Notes are shown as white horizontal bars alongside their corresponding note on the keyboard drawn out on the left hand side of the screen. The longer the white bar, the longer the duration of the note. The taller the blue vertical bar behind the white one the louder the velocity level. I know it sounds a bit confusing describing it like this but take it from me, it's dead simple to pick up once you see and hear it in action. Editing on this screen is simply a matter of clicking the mouse where you want the new or corrected note to be. Once again, you can mess around with things without ruining anything. Presumably some people will find they get on better with the event editor, some will prefer the bar version personally I can see myself flipping between the two for different things.
Those three elements alone would constitute a very nice package but that's only the tip of the iceberg as we now see what MIDI utilities Music X has to offer.
Once you get into MIDI and begin acquiring Drum Machines, synths, expanders and so on, you soon need some convenient way of swapping your MIDI IN, OUT and THRU-puts as you don't really want to keep yanking out 5 pin din leads and shoving them in elsewhere, you want something to do that for you. Several Hardware manufacturers supply MIDI Patchbays, the cheapest is from Phillip Rees at under £100. With Music X a full 16 x 16 MIDI patchbay comes as just another section of the main program.
It's no ordinary patchbay either, with this one you can not only send the input of one channel to the output of another but you can also split the incoming data up and, for instance send the note information to one channel but the aftertouch data to another. Again sounds weird but could be useful and certainly makes creative use of the MIDI standard. In this area you can also vary the percentage of effect data has on another channel so the sound you have on channel one may sound great with a liberal smattering of Modulation however the sound on channel two may be more appropriate but may sound awful with that level of modulation. So to get over this problem you just take down the percentage of the effect that data has on that channel using the on-screen sliders. Up to four of these can [Text missing in article.]
Next we have a powerful Key-map utility which basically allows you to split up your keyboard so that different keys send MIDI messages to different things. This is useful if you had a bass sound on channel one and a piano sound on channel two. You could split your keyboard so that the bass sound was triggered from the lowest octave and the piano sound from the rest of the keyboard. However far more complicated set-ups are possible which could involve a different sounds/program changes etc, on each key which is not only useful of people in studio (home or commercial) with their Master Keyboard but also those of you who wish to perform live and control their synth rack from a remote keyboard. I think this is the first time a computer sequencer packages has been invented which actually helps live music in this way.
One further feature of this portion of the prog is the fact that it is also a MIDI monitor which is yet another £200 piece of rackmounted hardware you don't need to buy!
Finally comes the Librarian area which is a Generic Patch Librarian which can store all the System Exclusive voice and performance data of your synths, drum machine, etc. This is a godsend for three reasons; firstly doing MIDI data dumps onto Amiga disks is a lot quicker and more reliable than saving to tape, secondly it allows you quick and easy access to groups of sounds which can be saved together with the songs they belong to, so that you can load in both the song and all the synth voices needed for that song to be corresponding units in one fell swoop. Thirdly the cheapest program that does this on its own costs nearly £100 and the cheapest hardware equivalent costs over £300.
A large number of download protocols already appear on the disk for the most popular instruments, however, there are plans to produce additional data disks for use with this area of Music X containing new download protocols and possibly voice data as well.
What more can I say? Music X is not only a damn good sequencer but also a comprehensive set of MIDI tools to really make your system (big or small), sing. It takes full advantage of all the Amiga's facilities thanks to skillful programming from a true Amiga programmer. This package was written exclusively for the Amiga, and it shows. As proof it will even run background tasks at the same time (again, memory permitting).
If that doesn't make my feelings on Music X clear then how about this to stick on Micro Illusions Advertising Copy "Music X is without doubt the best piece of MIDI software to date. Buy It!"
Review by Darrin Williamson