Software for the Atari ST
Tired of using pencil and paper to write out your music? Fancy a hi-tech fix for your next composition? Ian Waugh scores a line (or five) with a new graphics-based music notation package from French company SARO.
As the scorewriting program comes of age, one French company adopt a graphic rather than musical approach to putting the dots on the stave.
IF 1987 WAS the year the Atari ST established itself as the UK's most popular music computer - which it was - then 1988 will surely go down in computer history as the year of the scorewriter.
The transfer of music from brain to fingertip to keyboard to traditional music notation has long been a dream of many a musician. Now, the advent, popularity and affordability of the 16-bit computer looks set to make it a reality.
Before I whet your appetite any further, I'd better make it clear that Musigraph does not attempt a fingers-to-paper transfer. This type of operation is not easy and software developers are only just beginning to get to grips with the problem. For example, they haven't quite worked out if a program should interpret that staccato crotchet you just played as a crotchet with a dot above it or a quaver followed by a rest. Triplets are tricky things, too. Unless you're a genuine keyboard wizard you'll have quite a bit of editing to do after your music's been through the conversion process.
HOWEVER, ON THE road to a perfect music score, Musigraph bypasses the keyboard part of the process completely. Quite simply it's a CAD (Computer Assisted Design) program, dedicated to the production and placement of music symbols on the screen. As such, its operation is rather different to what you would expect from a step-time traditional notation music editor, something it most definitely is not.
As Musigraph doesn't need reams of code to convert music files, it will run quite happily on a 520ST - most fileconverting scorewriters require at least a megabyte of RAM. You do require a high resolution monitor, though.
In use it's very quick and for once the publicity handout isn't far from the truth: "5 minutes with Musigraph will be enough to convince even the most computer illiterate (do they mean reviewers?) that this program is no more difficult to use than an electronic typewriter". Well, let's put down a few notes and see.
The program has two screens - a Selection screen and an Edit screen. Logically enough, the Selection screen is used to select a music symbol or function and the Edit screen is where the action takes place.
The Edit screen displays a page of music which will eventually print as half an A4 sheet, although you can vary the final printout size and format (more about this later). You can create follow-on pages with the click of a button and pages can be inserted and deleted.
Each page is an entity unto itself, however, so if you're dumb enough to leave out a stave, say, on an early page you can't just push all the other staves down, you'll have to create a new page, insert the missing stave and then transfer music backwards to fill up any empty space. Actually, that's not very hard to do - better than you deserve if you make such a pig's ear of your music.
The program can be controlled with the mouse almost completely, although you need the keyboard for text input, of course, and to enter a few parameters and for the Undo function. The Tools menu lets you assign 20 music symbols to the function keys and in practice, you'll probably find yourself using a combination of mouse and keyboard.
If you click on OK in the Tools menu with a write-protected disk in the drive, it will send you back to GEM even though you may try to cancel the option. It does give you the opportunity to save your score, though.
Talking of disks, the program will load an incompatible file - one without the correct suffix - and hang up. You should be more careful, I suppose - or the program should check what it's been asked to load.
THE FIRST STEP in the creation of a score is to put some staves on the Edit page. You can fit as many staves onto the screen as you like - if you want to be silly about it - but the program offers you sensible defaults and will automatically create five or six single staves, three piano staves or two piano/vocal staves. There are also "free-floating" staves which you can position anywhere on the screen.
You can select Guitar Tablature and there are special guitar symbols in the Stave Menu to produce guitar tablature notation such as numbers to indicate fret positions. There are guitar grid, finger position and open chord symbols so you can create your own busker-book type arrangements.
To put a symbol on the page you simply click on it. This takes you directly to the Edit screen - you don't pass Go, you don't collect £200 but neither do you waste time with superfluous clicks. You move the symbol around with the mouse and a click on the left button fixes it in place. You can continue to insert the same symbol anywhere else on the page. A click on the right button takes you back to the Select screen where you can pick up a different symbol.
There are two types of symbol. Simple symbols are of fixed size such as notes and rests and can be placed with a single click. Extended symbols require two clicks and are used to position ties and draw straight lines and boxes.
As Musigraph is a graphics program rather than a music one, it doesn't decide where a symbol should sit on the stave so you can place rests, for example, on any line, essential in pieces with more than one part on the same stave. There is an Align function, though, which ensures that the notes fit centrally on a line or in a space. Other symbols use Align to square themselves up, too, although you can deselect Align for pixel precision.
The Align function works vertically but not horizontally, so to help space the notes correctly you can superimpose a grid on the screen which subdivides it up with 64 equally-spaced vertical lines. With this you can achieve pinpoint accuracy. There is also a Marks function which lets you insert up to 16 vertical lines at any position. All symbol placements, however, are entirely under your control. You don't have to follow the grid so you can squeeze notes into a bar if you suddenly come across a run of demisemiquavers, for example.
Text can be inserted absolutely anywhere and there are three fonts and four type sizes to choose from. You can type directly onto the page or enter the text first and then position it.
There are Block Cut, Copy and Paste functions and, again as a result of Musigraph's graphic design, you can lift a set of symbols - say a scale in the key of C - and drop them anywhere on the screen, for example, a tone higher to produce a scale in D. How's that for instant transposition? A Block can even be defined as an entire page and blocks can be saved and loaded so it's possible to transfer copy from one program to another.
As each page is its own master, you can't notate an orchestral score and then print out the individual instrument parts separately. You could create individual scores from a master score, however, by lots of Block saves and loads.
Again, as a result of the program's graphic heritage, there is no transposition facility to enable orchestral arrangers to write a piece on piano and then transpose it for a Bb or Eb instrument or into the alto clef.
There are Erase and Mask functions which can be used to blot out unwanted stems or lines - or anything else - but they don't actually remove anything, they just hide it. The relevance of this will become clear when we look at the Undo function.
The pages are not stored in a graphic form but as a series of operations, and the first time you change pages the program runs through all the operations you used to draw it - it only takes a second. If you make a mistake, the Undo key will immediately remove the last operation. But more than that, it takes advantage of this method of storage by allowing you to step backwards and forwards through the operations until you reach one you want to Undo. This will most likely be a music symbol but as Erase and Mask don't actually delete anything, you can even Undo an erasure.
"A consequence of Musigraph's graphic operation means that as you move a note above or below a stave, leger lines don't automatically appear."
This may be a lifesaver or it may be totally irrelevant - it depends how well organised you are. Although Musigraph permits a certain amount of chopping and changing, you'll get the best out of the program if you know what you're going to do before you do it. I think that probably applies to all scorewriters.
MUSIGRAPH CONTAINS ALL the common music symbols you're likely to need - along with some you may never use. They are all very well-designed and under the Workshop heading you'll find a nifty little symbol designer so you can produce your own. A symbol, once defined, can be displaced in any horizontal or vertical direction and it can be made to conform to the Align option.
Sets of symbols can be saved and loaded but loading a new set will overwrite the existing one and replace any old symbols already on a page - again a result of storing screens as a series of operations.
A consequence of Musigraph's graphic operation means that as you move a note above or below a stave, leger lines don't automatically appear. Neither is there an automatic beaming function: these must be inserted manually - and very carefully, too. It's quite easy to step "over the line" when inserting beams and lines and some sort of beaming aid would have been nice.
There is no automatic spacing option to give each type of note a proportional amount of space but there is a Justify function which can compress or expand a collection of notes. This needs to be used with care.
A couple of minor points: there is no facility to insert bar lines, you have to draw them yourself and ties must be entered manually. Actually this is no great hardship but I mention it to stress, again, the difference between a music-orientated program and a graphic one.
One facility I did miss was an arc routine for drawing slurs and phrase marks, an odd omission for such a highly graphic-orientated program. There is, instead, a segment facility which lets you draw a series of straight lines without lifting your pen from the paper as it were. It's only slightly less convenient.
There is an option to input notes from a MIDI keyboard but this is really only useful for entering (up to six-note) chords. This method of input doesn't take into account any key signature you may have set, so playing F# in the key of G will produce an F with a sharp in front of it. To get a natural F (which will take its sharp from the key signature) you have to play F natural. A diagram in the manual shows a natural sign but there doesn't seem to be any way of getting one of these from MIDI keyboard input.
If you don't have a MIDI keyboard, the program will draw a picture of one at the bottom of the screen and you can select notes on this with the mouse.
Once recorded, the chord can be placed anywhere on the screen in best Musigraph fashion, but even this has its limitations, as a chord with a note designed to sit on a line, for example, can't be placed on a space.
I could really find no use for this method of note placement, although it may help anyone unfamiliar with stave notation.
Talking of MIDI, it will no doubt come as a great disappointment to many that the program is so heavily computer-based rather than MIDI-based. I was rather disappointed that it couldn't play back my carefully crafted scores, but then that's not what it was designed to do.
You can't load MIDI sequencer files for conversion and the program doesn't support the standard MIDI file format - there wouldn't be much point, really - but you can save the screens in Degas or Pluspaint format. This reinforces its role as a graphic editor and if any more confirmation is needed, look under the Graphics menu where you can select one of 40 patterns to fill any boxes you create.
LETS GET TO the printout. Musigraph loads with a printer driver which supports the Star NL10 printer. This seems to be Epson compatible and worked fine with my Epson FX80. You can create your own printer drivers although you'll need an ASCII text editor and have to dig deep into your printer's manual.
A driver is supplied for the Atari SLM 804 Laser printer but mine was tied up churning out bootleg copies of Music Tech for the Australian Yuppie market, so I was unable to try it. I suspect the resolution of the printout is a restriction of the screen resolution rather than the printer used but I could be wrong.
There are four print densities to choose from and a page can print in one of four sizes. Size an also be dependent on the printer driver in use. And the results... are excellent.
ALTHOUGH DISTRIBUTED BY Steinberg stalwarts Evenlode, the software was written by French software house SARO Informatique Musicale. The review copy was version 2.1 and comes complete with a naked dongle - one without a case. Nuisance.
The manual was translated from the French by a Frenchman (or woman) and a little Franglais is in evidence. In particular it insists on calling Editing "Edition" and when it says you must tell the program if you are playing in the key of G or F it is actually referring to the treble and bass clefs - a consequence of a literal translation from the French.
It's a shame they didn't let an English man (or woman) loose on the manual before printing it. Franglais apart, it's pretty thorough, although a more tutorial approach would have ensured a more immediate familiarisation. I'll give it seven.
THE NIGGLES I have are a result of the positive aspect of Musigraph's performance - a trade-off if you like. Perhaps it's asking too much of a CAD program to make intelligent decisions about such things as the insertion of leger lines and trimming off overlapping beams.
The positive aspects of Musigraph are there for all to see. You have virtually infinite control over the setting and layout and it's a control given to you without a mountain of complexities which are noticeable in some other scorewriting programs.
It took me a little longer than five minutes to work my way through Musigraph but it did turn out to be easy to learn. I was suitably impressed. If you don't need aural verification of your music via MIDI and want to produce versatile, quality music scores with the minimum of effort, then Musigraph will do an excellent job.
Price £150 including VAT
Gear in this article:
Review by Ian Waugh