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Music X

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.

Sequencer: The main page of the program, with its counters and display of the 250 available sequences, of which you can play 20 at a time. The tape transport controls play and stop the sequences.


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.

Bar Editor: This graphically displays your music. The notes are squares, and velocity information is shown as a bar.


OVERVIEW



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.

SEQUENCER



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.

TX81Z Editor: One of the specially written patch editors supplied free with Music X. Others for the Korg Ml and Roland MT32 are in the pipeline.


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.

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...

Keymaps: From this page you can set any key on your mother keyboard to set off any MIDI event. You can do keyboard splits and add MIDI events, in conjunction with the Filters, in original ways.


FILTERS



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.

AMIGA SAMPLES



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.

Event Editor: For more precise editing of your sequences, try the event editing. You can either type in your information, or just highlight the event you want with the mouse and move the sliders at the right-hand corner to the desired value.


NEAT STUFF



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.

Generic Patch Editor: Not for the faint of heart. This gives you access to any kind of synthesizer/drum machine patch, by letting you edit the raw bits! Ouch.


Here is how the pages in Music X are organised. Most are available at all times through a single menu, but others are just a step away from the top four.


CONCLUSION



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.

FURTHER INFORMATION

£228.85 inc VAT.

Microillusions Europe Ltd, (Contact Details).

UK distributors: SDL Ltd, (Contact Details).

EDITORS & LIBRARIANS

One of the many USPs ('unique selling points', for those of you without a Marketing-English dictionary) of Music X is that it can utilise its multitasking operation to make the Amiga the centre of a working music environment. Using either the protocols which come with the package or ones you write yourself using a supplied protocol editor, you can talk to your synths from within Music X and load and save patch details from them to disk. This saves a fortune in expensive media. Compare the price of a 3.5" floppy disk at £1 to the cost of a Korg M1 RAM card at almost £100, and you'll start to get the picture! Libraries containing some new sounds are included in the program to get you started, for the Casio CZ1000, Roland D50, Yamaha DX100 and DX7.

As if that wasn't enough, you can also edit the patches, once again using the Editor modules supplied, or ones for other synths that you can buy from Microillusions for about £10 or so. If you select Edit whilst in a Library, the computer looks for the editor to match this type of synth. It finds the editor on disk, or prompts you to insert the disk it's on, and off you go.

If you don't have a suitable Editor module for your synth, there is a kind of Generic Patch Editor available, which lets the technically-minded get to grips with the bare bytes of the patch in question. There are some Editor modules already included in the package, and these are for the D50, DX100 and TX81Z. These three editors must be worth the price of Music X on their own! The D50 editor is particularly well programmed, with multiple windows and control toggles for all the D50's important little places. Editors for the Korg M1 and Roland MT32 are in the offering, and no doubt others will quickly follow.


MUSIC X AT A GLANCE

The spec goes like this: you've got 250 sequences, of which 20 can be playing simultaneously. The clock is accurate to one millisecond and has a resolution of 192 clocks per quarter note (in comparison, Steinberg's Pro24 runs at 96ppqn on an Atari ST). You can record step-time or real-time sequences, and the amount of events you can store is limited only by onboard memory; an Amiga B2000 has an upper limit of 8Mb internally, sky's the limit externally.

The method you use to record your music is up to you. If you like to store your sequences as short bursts (can't play in time for longer than a bar, eh?) and chain them together, then you can do that. Or you can record each part as a long sequence, the full length of the song. Or you can do both, having a chained piece covered by one long solo, for instance.

On top of all this wonderment you can talk to your synths, via MIDI, and edit their sounds and store them on Amiga disks, using Editor modules which you buy from Microillusions for about £10 each! In the pipeline is the Micro SMPTE device from Microillusions. Costing around £150.00, it will allow you to read and write SMPTE timecode with your Amiga and Music X, and should be by far the cheapest road into full SMPTE compatibility.


MULTITASKING MADE EASY

The Commodore Amiga is a multitasking computer. This means that it can run several programs at once. Each program has its own window on the screen, and reacts as if it had the whole computer to itself. You could run Music X and a word processor at the same time, for example. Then to write the words to your song you just click the 'go to back' gadget on the corner of the Sequencer window and the word processor window comes to the front. You can control the computer, the printer and modem simultaneously, printing out one document whilst transmitting another down the pipe and writing a third. With the Amiga B2000 and an IBM emulator called a Bridgeboard, you can even run an IBM PC program at the same time as an Amiga program! [Editor's note: I use a PC word processor running on an XT Bridgeboard inside an Amiga 2000 to edit Sound On Sound each month. The XT Bridgeboard is slow but the multitasking works fine!)

Music X was written especially for the Amiga. So it's fully multitasking and sits comfortably in the Amiga's memory with whatever else you care to run with it. There is a feature in the program which allows you to turn off the program's access to the serial port, suspending MIDI activity, in case you want to use a communications program and a modem on the same port without quitting the sequencer.


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

Man of Vision

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Opcode Vision


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Oct 1989

Donated by: Mike Gorman, Bird201

Scanned by: Mike Gorman

Gear in this article:

Software: Sequencer/DAW > Micro Illusions > Music X


Gear Tags:

Amiga Platform

Review by Phil South

Previous article in this issue:

> Man of Vision

Next article in this issue:

> Opcode Vision


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