So, who needs another sequencer for the Macintosh anyway? Mike Collins assess the chances of Opcode's latest addition to this market
Until recently the choice was between the well-established and full-featured programs such as Performer or MasterTracks Pro, or a recent newcomer to the Mac, Dr T's KCS Level II. Opcode had produced one of the earliest Mac sequencers, but had allowed it to fall well behind the others as far as features were concerned.
Southworth Systems had produced an interesting sequencer called MIDIPaint, but the company unfortunately went out of business before the program became too well established. So Dave Oppenheim with his programming partner, Ray Spears (at Opcode) decided to re-enter the affray and have designed a new sequencer which seems to provide more features than any of the others.
Vision provides both Graphic and Event List Editing, to cater for most people's preferences. Loop recording is provided to allow you to record drum-machine style, using different instruments on different MIDI channels. After loop recording, you can unmerge the resultant track to put each instrument on a different track.
Each Vision file is made up of 26 sequences which you can chain together in patterns. Each sequence can contain up to 99 tracks, so you could just use one sequence, recording separate tracks in a linear tape-recorder style, if you prefer to work this way. Or you could use several sequences chained to form a song, and then record a linear sequence to play for the length of the song. In other words, Vision allows for plenty of flexibility in your working methods. When you chain sequences together in 'song mode', they form subsequences within another sequence. There are still plenty of tracks free within this sequence to record linear tracks alongside the song.
Features, which I particularly like, include real-time track shift which allows you to shift tracks forwards or backwards in time while they are playing. The shift can be made permanent afterwards. The quantise function works in a similar way. You can select different quantize resolutions on each track as they play, and then choose permanent quantize resolutions afterwards. Vision is the only Mac sequencer which allows this nondestructive quantisation at the moment, so if this feature is important to you - get Vision!
Up to 32 faders are available which can be assigned to control a variety of functions. The fader movements can then be recorded onto any track. For instance, you could assign a fader to track shift for a specific track, and record the real-time track shifts you make. This could make for some pretty interesting feels if people start to use this feature on the next crop of sequenced records! Alternatively, you could assign the faders to MIDI Controller 7 (Volume) and record a mix of your instrument levels. I found that this worked very well in practice, although a couple of people who tried the program said they felt that the fader travel should be longer to allow really smooth fadeouts. I should mention that you can only fit about 19 of these faders onto an SE screen, because you can't scroll down the faders display - shame about that.
Vision is the first sequencer, I am aware of, which allows you to take music performed in free time, without listening to a metronome click, and stretch it around to make it match the bar lines that you figure it should do, so that you can then quantize or transcribe it. Any change you make to the relationship between the notes and the bar lines will automatically be compensated for in the tempo track, so that the piece will still perform just as you originally played it, although the bar lines will now be correctly aligned. This is not very well documented in the manual, but apparently you use the Insert Tempos to Maintain Timing option in the Scale Time function, which is accessed from the Do Menu.
This feature is essential for musicians who wish to play in rubato or freely improvised styles, and still have the option to correct their performances afterwards using a MIDI sequencer's editing functions, which must be applied in terms of bars and beats. Opcode should make more of this capability, as I am sure that there are plenty of people out there who would buy Vision for this one feature alone!
Vision does have all the main features common to the best Mac sequencers: SMPTE synchronisation, 480 PPQN, punch in/out on the fly, change tempo to create accelerandos or ritardandos, or to fit a piece of music into a specific time, record and playback of sysex data, step record, MIDI files, and so on. And there are plenty of other features which are unique to Vision:
- The MIDI keys let you trigger any Vision command from your MIDI keyboard, remotely.
- The Input Map lets you create custom maps for incoming data, which is very useful if you are transferring old hardware-based sequencer files into Vision, or for setting up complex synthesizer splits.
- Generated sequences allow you to randomize and experiment with your music in many useful ways. You can even lock one set of notes to another set of rhythms - so you could set the notes of a bass part to play back in the same rhythmic pattern as the bass drum, or whatever! This is definitely a useful little trick!
- One of the most interesting new features in Vision is the ability to create Instrument setups. This is a new concept, so let me explain: Rather than choose a MIDI channel to play back your MIDI data, you choose what Opcode call a MIDI Instrument. You have to define these Instruments yourself in a window accessed from the Setup Menu. When you open this window, you are presented with several columns containing fields into which you enter your instrument setup data. You type a name of your choice into the Instrument Name column, and select a MIDI channel and MIDI port for it to play back on, in the Channel column. You can stop any instrument from responding to transpositions, an option which you would typically select on your drumtracks. You can select highest and lowest allowable notes to define a range of notes throughout which the Instrument will play and you can choose whether MIDI Program Numbers used within your sequence data go from 0 to 127 or from 1 to 128, for individual Vision Instruments.
- There is an Overflow mode so that two or more MIDI synthesizers can be played from one Vision Instrument, each providing a certain number of notes. When the first synthesizer runs out of polyphony, the second or subsequent synthesizers will take over and play the extra notes. Several synthesizers such as the DX-7II, TX-802, and D-110, already have this feature built in, but Vision goes one better and allows you to use this feature with any synthesizer.
You can also use this Overflow Mode to provide extended flexibility when using synthesizer Mono Mode. For instance, you can use Vision's Mono Mode to make a single-line synthesizer voicing possible, even if the synthesizer lacks this feature. This is useful in Vision if you are using a Constrain To Scale transpose map for an instrument, because if adjacent keys are mapped to the same note (which they often are if 'Constrain To Scale' is in use), and you play an adjacent key before releasing the first note, the note off from the release of the first key may choke off the note on of the second key - and different synthesizers react to this in different ways. With Mono Mode assignment this will not happen. As soon as you play the second key, the first one is shut off before the second one is echoed.
- There is also a column which allows you to choose which of Vision's Faders, if any, will control Velocity Fade for each Instrument. An adjacent column allows you to set a scaling amount for the percentage by which velocities will be scaled for the Instrument. And two more columns allow you to Mute or Solo any combinations of the MIDI Instruments. These options are very useful when you are working on your mix after recording several original tracks.
- The transposition functions in Vision are very comprehensive, and they start with the various settings which you can make in the Instrument Setup window. The Octave Transpose column lets you transpose to 5 octaves up or down. A separate Semitone Transpose column lets you go up 6 semitones or down 5 semitones. These 2 columns cover the most basic transpositions you would need, and allow you to set them up extremely quickly! But if you want to get fancy, you can use a Transpose Map! Each Instrument may have its own Transpose Map, and this will allow all the transpositions which are provided in the Transpose command in the Do Menu, which I will describe later. The interesting thing here is that when you apply a Transpose Map to a Vision Instrument in the Setup window, the transpositions are carried out in real time, rather than as permanent edits.
The Transpose Maps which you set up may be used for both real-time and permanent transpositions, so once you have the transpositions the way you want them, and have auditioned them using the real time method, you could use the Do Menu Transpose function to make the transpositions permanent in your tracks. These Transpose Maps can also apply to instruments with Don't Transpose set. Why? So that you can set up new mappings for drum parts to allow you to quickly swop drum-machines.
This is a well thought out little feature, which illustrates just how well the program has been put together. Perhaps the simplest way of transposing in Vision is to select notes in the Graphic Window and drag them up or down with the mouse. But if you want more complex transpositions, Vision's Transpose function will let you map any MIDI note to any other MIDI note, or map any specified scale to any other scale. To restate a major theme in a minor key is really easy, you just choose Major To Minor in the Transpose dialog box to change your selection.
If you want to be more ambitious, you could transpose a part recorded on a half-tone synthesizer for replay on a quarter-tone synth with the Scale Size feature. You can also map one drum machine to another by specifying any MIDI note to be output for each of the 128 MIDI notes on the original track! This is really neat stuff! Key Transpose lets you pick a source key and scale, and a destination key and scale, from pop-up menus in the Transpose dialog box. This is really easy to do, in practice, and again illustrates the thought that has gone into the design of Vision's user interface.
If you want all the notes you played to fall exactly into the destination scale, there is an option to Constrain To Scale. Map Transpose lets you do just about any kind of transposition imaginable! You can map any original note to any other note. You can even set the transpose scale size to numbers other than 12, to make up a 24 note scale to play on a synthesizer tuned to quarter tones for instance. Finally, you can save your Transpose Maps separately from from your Sequences in a Setup File. This allows you to use these maps with other pieces of music in the future.
All-in-all, these transposition features are very comprehensive and flexible, and should allow you to work even more creatively, especially with different drum-machines, or with differently scaled and tuned synthesizers.
- Vision's Event Selection options are the most powerful I have come across on any sequencer I have seen. You can apply a collection of various criteria to all events in the selected tracks to allow you to select only those events which meet your selection criteria. There are 5 types of criteria, including Event Time, Event Description, Instrument, Bracketing Events, and Metrical Placement. Event Time criteria let you select events which occur within specified time ranges between the Start and End Edit times. Using Event Description criteria you can select events of that type, or all events except that type.
There are 8 categories of events, plus 8 varieties of MIDI Controller. You can get even more selective at this point by specifying events with particular parameters. These parameters would include Note Number, Velocity, Release Velocity, and Duration if you choose Note events. For instance, you could say the event is a Note On event whose parameter is a particular Note Number, like C1 for a bass drum on your drum-machine. And you can specify a range of values in a variety of ways using the following selection criteria: 'is... or less', is... or more', or 'is from... thru... '. You can also use 'is not... ', 'is... or... ', or 'is not from... THRU'.
If the selected tracks have more than one Instrument amongst them, the Instruments used by those tracks are shown. In this case, you can select events on one or more specified instruments and not on others. Using Bracketing Events, you can describe two additional events which can turn on or off the selection search for events which meet other criteria. For example, this feature would allow you to select notes played with the sustain pedal down.
You can use Metrical Placement to restrict the events selected to those events which occur at some particular point within a bar, or beat. This lets you select events on the down beat, or those which are off the beat. This is very useful if you want to accent particular beats in a drum part, for instance. With the Input Map, it's possible to assign different Instruments to events coming in on different MIDI Channels, so that, for instance, you could record data on multiple MIDI channels from another sequencer in real time, and use the Input Map to set up which incoming MIDI channel becomes which MIDI Instrument inside Vision. Or you could assign different Instruments to different parts of a single MIDI keyboard, to set up split-keyboard performance and recording. Such maps are very useful if you use several different MIDI Master Keyboards, which need different input setups, and you could have a different Input Map to suit each keyboard.
In addition to assigning Instruments, you can assign Trigger Modes, or Transpose Mode to incoming MIDI channels or keyboard zones. This lets you reserve part of a keyboard for transposing playing sequences, and lets you trigger individual sequences either with a single, or range of keys, each of which transposes the sequence appropriately. Instead of having your MIDI keyboard play notes, you can have it play sequences, or transpose sequences which are already playing.
Transpose Mode causes any key to transpose all sequences which are already playing, although it won't transpose a sequence which you are recording on, because you would normally play your new notes in whatever key the sequences were transposed to.
The Trigger Modes cause any key to trigger one or more sequences - each key you press starts one copy of each sequence. The sequence is transposed according to what key you press - if you press several notes simultaneously, you will get several transposed copies of the sequence playing simultaneously. In Trigger Mode, every time you press a new individual note, the sequence will stop and restart, transposed to the new note. If you play new notes simultaneously, each one will start a simultaneous copy of the sequence.
With Continuous Trigger Mode, playing new notes won't stop old sequences - they will play throughout their entire length. If you choose Gated Mode, each sequence will play only for as long as you hold the key down. For instance, you could record a trill or arpeggio sequence, and the entire keyboard would trill or arpeggiate whenever you play it!
- The Queue feature is very useful when you are putting sequences together to form a song. If, for instance, you had 4 sequences, A, B, C, and D, but you weren't sure of the best order to play them in, you could use the Queue feature to chain these sequences together in a temporary buffer (the queue). Just click on the Queue check box in the Control Bar, and click in the Players field on the Control Bar, then type the letters D, A, D, A, B, A to link your sequences in this order. Sequence D will begin playing, then A will start when D ends, and so on till the queue of sequences has ended. The queue is lost from the buffer once you have played it through. This Queue is actually the first of 9 queue Players which you can use.
Using these Players you can play more than one sequence at a time, without going into Record mode or using subsequences. You can select the current Player either by typing the number corresponding to the Player you want on the keyboard, or by clicking on the number of the Player you want in the Control Bar. If you record using multiple Players, the resulting track will play back just as you entered the Players.
- When a chain of sequences is recorded into a Vision track, these sequences are known as Subsequences. You can just put any track into Record, and play sequences by pressing keys A to Z on the Mac, and these will be recorded into the track. Or you can use Step Record, or you can insert them using the List Editor.
In real time you can use Queue Mode, of course, which makes the process very easy, although Step recording subsequences couldn't really be simpler. The Subsequences exist in the new track as copies of the original sequences, rather than as actual MIDI data. These sequences can be easily edited in the List Editor, and you can transpose any of these subsequences here without affecting the original data, which you may be using in another place. You gain a lot of flexibility to allow you to structure your music when using these subsequences. For instance, I discovered that playing sequences simultaneously which were set to different Meters allowed me to sequence polyrhythms very effectively.You can even record various alternative performances using subsequences.
You could play the Mac keyboard to trigger sequences, or whatever, or use MIDI keys to assign the sequence play letters to your MIDI keyboard and play them there. Or you could use one of the Trigger Modes, with or without the Input Map, to trigger a different sequence from each key you hit. You might just start one sequence, and use Transpose Mode to transpose it as it plays.
In addition, you could use more than one of the Players to have several sequences playing simultaneously, and each track actually has 9 of its own Players. Whichever of these functions you use, you can record the entire performance into a track. Each of the sequences that you played during your performance becomes a subsequence in the track. Once in the track, you can edit it till you get it just the way you want it.
For anyone who likes to control their sequencer from a MIDI keyboard, Vision probably offers more versatility in this area than anything else available. Also, if you like to play around with several sequences at once, or try sequences played in different order, or quickly transpose sequences as they are playing, and simultaneously record the results of your experimentation, then Vision is for you.
The Instrument Setups are a great new idea, and I am sure that many other sequencers will follow suit and incorporate similar functions in the near future - but Vision has this now! The Players idea is a new one on me, but I can see this being a very useful feature to use from time to time. Subsequences are great! The flexibility which these allow is just amazing! I find that the realtime editing options, such as track-shift, quantise, and transposition, are extremely easy to use, and useful in practice. The List Editing and Graphic Editing features are also very comprehensive, and the equal of just about any sequencer on the market.
So what don't I like about Vision? Well it does have a tendency to crash much more often than, say, Performer, especially while carrying out some editing operations. The windows do not all re-size as neatly as those in Performer, nor do the graphics or text fonts look as pleasing to my eye as those used in Performer. And the looping options are nowhere near as good as those in Performer. The SysEx recording capability is better in Performer, and the general look and feel of Performer is somehow slicker and neater.
Now Performer version 3.21 has just added Event Chasing, which Vision had first. But Performer does allow the user to choose which types of events to chase, and lets you disable this function if you wish. When you play from some point within a sequence and Event Chasing is on, there is an annoying delay while the chasing happens, before the sequence starts. Often you do not need to chase events, because the sequence plays OK without doing so. In such cases it is doubly frustrating to have to wait. Performer has got this one right! Mark of the Unicorn have also added Sequence Chaining, and Graphic note editing, and Remote Control from your MIDI keyboard, to Performer in an attempt to match Vision's feature list.
I have used Vision for about 3 months now, and I haven't used all of its features yet. I will continue to use it in the foreseeable future. But I will also be checking out Performer 3.21, and using this for what it does best, transferring sequences between Performer and Vision using MIDIFiles, which both programs support.
I can't wait to check out Passport's Pro 4 to see if this latest Macintosh sequencer release has any advantage to offer compared with Vision or Performer. Watch this space to find out what happens next!
Supplier: Opcode MCMXCIX (Contact Details)
Review by Mike Collins
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