The most talked about Amiga software ever is finally in the shops. Was Microillusion's program worth the wait? Phil South waxes lyrical about the first professional integrated music sequencing and editing program to take full advantage of the Commodore Amiga's powerful multitasking features.
Music X, the most talked about Amiga software ever, is finally in the shops. Was it worth the wait? Phil South waxes lyrical about the first professional integrated music sequencing and editing program to take full advantage of the Commodore Amiga's multitasking features.
The Commodore Amiga was very much a mystery computer to most musicians until recently. A shadowy figure in the middle distance, whose price precluded casual use and for which there was no software to make use of its admittedly fabulous graphics and sound. The machine occupied a market slot now cornered by the Acorn Archimedes - the hackers' toy. No day-to-day user would ever go near them, especially as there was no software for them. But as you probably know, that situation was remedied a couple of years ago by the launch of two new Amigas, the B2000 and the A500, giving both the business and games users something to look at.
As well as its impressive video/animation/genlocking facilities, MIDI has always been supported on the Amiga, but never more so than in the last 12 months. We've seen Dr. T's KCS, Copyist and Intelligent Music's M being ported over to the Amy, plus Caged Artist and Sound Quest editors. Steinberg's Pro24 III and Passport's Master Tracks Pro are recent additions, too, but all of these products have a slightly ported feel to them. None of them were written specifically for the Amiga, making use of its fast 'blitted' graphics and unique multitasking abilities. Until Music X was announced...
Microillusions have long had a firm commitment to the Commodore Amiga, like a lot of West Coast companies in the USA they were producing product on this computer before it was even heard of over here. They've always seen the serious side of the Amiga, and possibilities never pass them by. They created the Photon Video series, a collection of video and graphics products aimed at the professional audiovisual and desktop video markets, including Cell Animator, EDLP (an off-line edit decision list controller) and various other transport controllers, etc. SMPTE was the order of the day. So the move to MIDI wasn't altogether painful for them. In fact, Music X doesn't entirely leave the pro movie/video scene behind, as it supports SMPTE synchronisation as well, with special frame rates for film and video, PAL and NTSC. So in this way it can be seen as a natural extension of the company's other products.
In the box you get a massive 480-page ringbound manual, plus three disks: the Music X program disk, Music X utilities and a disk full of example sequences, libraries and editors. Simply put, Music X is a fully featured professional sequencer program with built-in editor/librarians and full MIDI and SMPTE sync capability.
Sounds like a wish list, really. But unlike most wish list programs, this one is finally here and on sale in the shops. All the sections of the program are organised into 'pages' which deal with each function — so let's turn the pages and look at them.
The basic page, and the one to which your attention is directed on boot-up, is the Sequencer. You notice immediately that the screen is a deep blue colour. You can't alter the colours of any of the screens yourself, but rest assured that if a bunch of Californians can look at them for a year or so they must be pretty mellow!
The tape transport style controls do the obvious things, and the clocks give you time in bars and notes or in hour/min/sec/frame format (useful for your movie soundtrack). Music X can handle 250 sequences (tracks) in total, and these are listed at the bottom of the screen, with a scroll bar to the left to help you rifle through them all. The box at the top right of the screen shows you which sequences are playing, and as a bonus you can mute any of them just by clicking on the name with the mouse pointer.
Having recorded your sequence in a loose way in real time, there are two ways you can edit it, these being the Bar and Event editors. The Event editor will be most familiar to those who have previously used Dr. T's KCS or something similar - it basically offers a list of note events, with event numbers, clock timings and type of event to be considered, as well as a toggle between durations or 'play until' markers. The Bar editor is a different kettle of fish. The sequences are displayed in a graphical way, with rectangular coloured blobs for the notes (there is a keyboard up the side of the screen to match the note values) and bars for velocity attack or release. Using the mouse you can move the notes around freely or snap them to a grid.
In both editors you can employ external modules or programs which you call up to perform certain jobs. These could be written by third-party companies, but in the case of the release program you have a few of Microillusions' own to keep you going. The three modules available in the editor suite are Quantise, Velocity Scale and Aftertouch Scale. The Quantise program does exactly that, it shuffles the notes around into positions dictated by the grid. That means that if your playing is sloppy, like for drums and keeping time (you really can't keep time, can you?), you can tighten it up. The thing about the Quantise module is that it is a bit more subtle than your average quantiser. You can set a threshold 'window' so that only notes falling within the timing window will be pulled into line, which is like saying to the computer (as the manual puts it), "Look, if it was that much out, I must have meant it!" The scaling modules for aftertouch and velocity do a similar job.
The difference between the Bar and Event editors is that the Bar is good for moving events around and editing simply and roughly, while the Event editor is good for precision editing, and all the sort of stuff where you need to know what clock values you're saving the tune between. Let's say one particular note you played is just a click out. You can either turn the Snap function off and move the offending note a click into place using the mouse in the Bar editor, or you can correct its timing directly by typing in the right clock value using the Event editor. If the note event in question was originally something like 02.02.178, you can push it right onto the beat by simply typing in 02.01.00. It'll then come in at exactly the same time as the metronome count.
To change the pitch or position of a note in the Bar editor you can select it with the mouse, then re-position the note with the cursor keys - time running left-to-right, pitch being up and down. You can transpose the whole sequence by clicking Select All and then moving it around. If you press the Amiga's Shift key, the change in pitch up and down is an octave.
System Exclusive messages can be embedded in a sequence, along with Music X commands such as play a sequence, mute a sequence, stop a sequence etc. SysEx data can be used to change all kinds of parameters on your synths, on the fly - patches, reverbs, combinations, or even trigger another sequencer in another computer! You can do similar tricks like this using Filters and Keyboard Mapping.
Using the Keymap page, you can map your MIDI keyboard to send any note values, as you can in a normal keyboard split. But also you can map it to send any event that you can programme in the editors, or any System Exclusive command or, using your imagination, any form of trigger for anything you can interface to MIDI. You could probably set off a few fireworks from the bottom four keys of your keyboard, for good measure. But no, didn't some French synth wizard already do that? In fact, using Music X you have complete control over MIDI patching and re-direction. And filtering, too...
The Keymaps page is actually a sub-page of the Filters page. Before being recorded in the Sequencer, all incoming MIDI data is flowed through the filters. You can filter out any kind of MIDI event, or even make sure that only a certain type of MIDI event is received. But more subtly than this, you can 'thin out' certain events, alter the MIDI channels of events, echo events to sampled sounds internally, totally obstruct the passage of events, or transmute the note events into other kinds of event. All these functions are done by just one of the filters. There are 16 of them in all, each operating on one of the 16 MIDI channels.
The re-map panel on the Filters page is like a MIDI patchbay, and controls the flow of all MIDI events through Music X. Using it you could feasibly record a live band playing a number of MIDI devices and, via a MIDI merge box, ensure that they didn't overflow into each others channels. Filters deserves a tutorial article in itself. Suffice to say, this is one of the powerful features of the package.
Another unique selling point for Music X is its ability to play Amiga 8-bit sound samples in unison with sequences. Amiga samples are of the IFF variety, and are of the expected 8-bit quality. Hey, 8-bit was good enough for most people a few years ago. Even Trevor Horn had an 8-bit Fairlight! In actual fact, there is a hardware modification you could do to the Amiga to improve its sound quality, but frankly it's alright as it is, provided you sample with care and at a reasonable rate. (Note: you can convert Ensoniq Mirage sample disks to IFF format using a program called Sound Oasis, by NewWave; available through most good Amiga dealers. Think how many secondhand Mirage disks there are around at the moment.) The Samples page shows you a list of samples in memory, and gives you some control over their volume envelope shape. You persuade the samples to play in a sequence by assigning a MIDI channel to them.
So we come to the neat stuff - things that don't really contribute to the sounds you make but make using Music Xfun:
- For a start Music X is the best pro music program for the Amiga, simply because it doesn't take over the machine (see 'Multitasking Made Easy' sidebar). The program allows you to load and save, tinker around with sequences, delete and move things... and your tune still keeps on playing.
- All the screen updates are done very rapidly, so on all but the most speedy of sequences, you can see what notes are being run through the Bar editor in real time, allowing you to spot the location of mistakes.
- The built-in Generic Patch Editor is neat, but requires a steady hand and a copy of the MIDI spec of your instrument(s).
- The tempo slider glides up and down as the tempo changes in a piece, as if some ghostly hand were pushing it - neat.
- The program has frame rates for NTSC (29.97 frames per second) and PAL (25 frames per second) built in, so you can sync to these TV standards. Good for pond-hopping TV musicians.
- You can write your own modules and have them pop-up as menu items simply by assigning them to a MODULES: device.
- With the graphical cut and paste facility, you can improvise for the entire length of your computer's memory, and arrange it afterwards. You can build up enormous tunes this way, cutting and pasting your musical sketches until you obtain the effect you're looking for. And remember: quantising means never having to say you're sloppy.
I never thought I'd see the day when we'd all be holding our breath for the next bit of computer software. If you had told me that in the Seventies I would have laughed at you. Actually, I'd still do that now, but this is the way of the world now, my son, and it has to be said that software like this comes along infrequently. Music X has an integrated approach which works, and in use it feels as solid as a rock.
The one thing Music X really lacks at the moment is a notation module. And that's so darned obvious, I'm sure that Microillusions are tapping away at it right now. (Actually, if you can't wait, you can write your notation into Deluxe Music Construction Set or Sonix now, notation fans, and convert it using a special conversion program supplied on the Music X Utilities disk.) But let's get this in perspective. Here I am complaining that a piece of MIDI software doesn't do literally everything I'd want to do with music on my computer. This is obviously not a very fair complaint but, to be honest, it's the only complaint I can come up with.
At first I found the program too complex and the manual unhelpful. But I soon discovered that most of the complexity was in my own mind. I was so used to having to learn the way a program works instead of adapting the systems on offer to my own way of working. Music flows more with Music X. It trains you to play in time, because you feel you want to. It makes you more expressive, because you feel as though you have the room to express yourself. No other sequencer I've used gives me that feeling. It's the way you can see the music and, having seen it, change it just by moving the notes that makes the difference. I think it's a major contribution to music software in general, and the Amiga in particular. You and Sir Robert Mark can make up your own minds.
£228.85 inc VAT.
Microillusions Europe Ltd, (Contact Details).
UK distributors: SDL Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Phil South