Does Opcode's new Macintosh sequencer have what it takes to oust 'Performer' from the sequencer king's throne? Mike Collins enjoys finding out...
Does Opcode's much talked about new Macintosh sequencer have what it takes to oust Mark Of The Unicorn's Performer from the No.1 spot? Mike Collins finds out...
MIDI sequencing has come a long way since the first hardware-based units appeared in the early 1980s. So have personal computers and the programmers who write the software. I have been using a Macintosh since shortly after it came out, and the first truly professional sequencer package which gained a wide degree of acceptance on this machine was Performer from Mark Of The Unicorn. Other Macintosh sequencers have subsequently appeared, each with their own particular strengths, but Performer has reigned supreme - with good reason. Its Event List editor is very clear and easy to use, once you are familiar with it; its region commands, which allow very sophisticated editing and manipulation of the data, are extremely comprehensive and were considered highly innovative when they first appeared; and its 'look and feel' have put it in a class of its own, compared to other Macintosh sequencers. Passport's Master Tracks Pro is preferred by some for its speed and ease of use, and its ability to 'draw' MIDI Controller information graphically on the screen; Southworth's MIDIPaint also has its devotees, because of its graphical approach to note editing; other users prefer the organisational approach of the Opcode sequencers.
Dave Oppenheim and Ray Spears have built on their experience gained in developing the original Opcode range, and have developed their Macintosh programming expertise, especially in the area of the user interface, to produce Opcode's latest offering - Vision. Naturally, they have worked with the benefit of hindsight, and have incorporated most of the best features of all the other MIDI sequencers on the market. But they have gone a lot further and incorporated features which none of their competitors have, as yet. In creating Vision, I believe Opcode have raised the stakes in the Macintosh sequencer wars to a new, higher level. It is not that Vision leaves no room for criticism - there is always room for improvement - but Opcode have managed to stand out from the crowd by including more of the neatest concepts and innovatory features than I have seen packed into any single program before!
Vision certainly has 'depth'. You could go on digging into it for a very long time and still not explore the full range of its capabilities. I have had access to it for just a few weeks, courtesy of the UK distributors, MCMXCIX. It is not possible for anyone to cover all aspects of such an enormous program in that short space of time, even if they were able to devote all day and night to it for a month.
The first thing I did was to transfer an existing piece of my music from Performer, by saving this as a MIDI File, and loading it into Vision. I had about 16 tracks in the original Performer piece, with the instrument names in Performer's track name fields. There were details in the comment boxes, next to the track name fields, saying which patch I had used on the particular instrument, and so on. The original track had been synchronised to SMPTE, and had a SMPTE start time recorded in Performer's Counter window, and a tempo was set in the Metronome window. Some of the tracks had System Exclusive data embedded within them and, naturally, a variety of MIDI channels were in use. Performer tracks last the whole length of a song; it is not a pattern-based sequencer, and I had not used any loops (which would have needed to be 'expanded out' before being transferred as a MIDI File). I was curious as to how much of the original information would transfer successfully. Here's what happened...
I saved the Performer file as a Standard Format 1 MIDI File, and checked the option to save track names as plain text. I opened this MIDI File from Vision, and checked off everything there. It was like magic! Sequence A opened up, with the same name as my original piece, and contained all the tracks from Performer. The tempo was correct, and the SMPTE offset was there. The SysEx data and all the other MIDI data transferred perfectly. And the track names were listed in the event list editing windows for each track. I had to transfer these names manually to Vision's track name fields (not too tedious), although at this point I started to wish that there were comment boxes in the main track list display, as in Performer. It is possible to enter comments in Vision's event list, in between the MIDI data. This is a good idea in itself, but the only way to read a lengthy comment was to widen the window, as all the text appeared on one line! On my Mac SE, I could only fit about 15 words across before the text disappeared off the screen, so it was not practical to enter all the original notes from Performer, some of which were longer than this.
I then had to go back to Performer to check which track should play on which MIDI channel, as all the Vision tracks were set to 'Instrument 1-1' on MIDI channel 1. I was concerned about the information from Performer's Markers window, which I find indispensable for letting me know which section of the music is which. I was relieved to find that this all appeared in the Meter Track in Vision. To play from one of these markers, you just click on the marker and then press Command-Spacebar. Vision's markers function is not as versatile as that of Performer, unfortunately. You cannot jump to a new marker without stopping the sequence playing, selecting a new marker, and then pressing Command-Spacebar again. However, all in all, I was very pleased at how smoothly the file transfer went, and surprised at just how much information was included in the MIDI File.
My next opportunity to try things out came a couple of days later. I needed to put a short example sequence together to demonstrate how to transfer MIDI Files into Finale, to be printed out. I wrote three or four tracks containing eight bars of music into Vision, without reading the manual, and found it to be very straightforward. The on-screen pop-up help boxes came in very handy here. You just hold Command-Option-Shift and point and click with the mouse on just about anything on the screen you are not sure about, and up pops a brief, but descriptive, help box. If only every Macintosh program had this feature! Even after using Performer for three years or so, I still have to refer to the manual on occasion for a quick reminder about some of the more esoteric features. This one feature could probably save enough money in studio time (which would otherwise be lost due to fiddling around in a manual) to pay for the whole program in a matter of days!
Still, there was some editing and copying to do to turn the eight bars into the 32 bars of correctly quantised music which I wished to transfer to Finale. As I did not want to waste any time there and then figuring out how to do this at speed using Vision, it took just a matter of a few minutes to transfer the sequence as a MIDI File to Performer, edit it there, and then save it as a MIDI File again. I then transferred this file to Finale (a rather more lengthy process involving setting up the distances between the staves, and converting the Finale file to a MIDI Playback file) and was subsequently able to play the piece back successfully via MIDI from Finale. An example of the type of collaborative work you can now do thanks to the MIDI File Format, which Opcode originally developed for the Macintosh, and which is now available on most computer-based sequencers. How about that for Dave Oppenheim's personal vision!
After these initial forays with Vision, it was time to take out the manual and start a more ambitious piece from scratch. By way of comparison, I wanted to create a new sequence, tape recorder-style rather than pattern-style, as I would have in Performer.
There are 26 sequences available in Vision, and each sequence can contain up to 99 tracks. So I opted to work just with sequence A. I would use 16 tracks, including several drum tracks, bass, electric piano, and so on. As I only intended to use one sequence initially, I thought I would close up Vision's File window containing the list of sequences, to conserve valuable space on my SE screen. Unfortunately, this closed up the whole piece - it was not possible to just close up the window! This was very unfortunate, as the Mac SE screen was starting to look very cluttered. So I tried to resize this window to just show a little of sequence A. I then discovered that the only window which could be resized to around the size of a matchbox (not that you would normally want it quite that small) was the List window. The Control Bar permanently occupied the top quarter of the screen, and the Graphic window would not resize horizontally to less than about three-quarters of the width of the screen. Running under MultiFinder proved awkward, because Vision's Control Bar permanently occupies the top part of the screen (obscuring my hard disk icon, for instance), and this cannot be closed up like a window without quitting Vision.
Then I looked for fast forward and fast rewind controls, and could not find any! Of course, you can type a location into the counter display, or increment the counter using the mouse, but this does not always seem to be the best method, and can be slower and more awkward than using Performer's controls.
Once I had come to terms with these differences, I started to get on a lot better with Vision, and quickly discovered the joys of non-destructive quantisation. I was using mostly 16th triplets in the piece, but occasionally there were some straight 16ths. All I had to do was use the Play Quantise feature to check which worked best, and then I could quantise quickly and permanently once I was sure. Brilliant! I also found track looping to be extremely straightforward, and used this on several tracks to build up my piece of music quickly. I discovered that there is a neat track shift feature, with the setting for any single highlighted track always visible at the bottom of the Sequence window. Rather like the Play Quantise feature, you could experiment with track shifts here - say, to compensate for a slow attack string patch - and then permanently shift the data in the track later on. Very neat! When it came to editing in the List window, I really appreciated that the standard MIDI Controllers (Portamento, Volume, Sustain, Pan, etc) were named rather than listed as numbers. This made editing them much simpler than having to remember what the numbers represented.
Instead of simply choosing a MIDI channel for each track, Vision allows you to define an 'Instrument'. You can name the Instrument (such as 'DX7'), choose whether it is non-transposing (like drum tracks), choose a MIDI channel and output port, a range throughout which it will play, and various other useful attributes too numerous to mention here. You then select any of your pre-defined Instruments for each track. There is a MIDI Thru option on the Control Bar which allows you to transmit on any MIDI channel and have the signal automatically re-channelised and fed through to the selected Instrument - very handy. The first 10 Instruments can be alternately selected in the Keyboard Thru field at almost any time, using the Command key in conjunction with the numbers 1 to 0. I tried this, and Command-1, 2, 3, and 4 (which are normally reserved for standard Macintosh functions such as ejecting disks and capturing or printing screen dumps) produced no effect whatsoever - neither the Vision Instrument selections described in the manual, nor the standard Macintosh functions! I assume this must be a bug. The other Command key options did work as described, and proved a very useful shortcut.
On a more optimistic note, I was pleased to discover that many operations (such as track shifting) could be adjusted in real time while a sequence was playing, like on the popular C-Lab sequencers for the Atari. I also liked the 32 on-screen MIDI faders, although only 19 of these would fit onto my Mac SE screen. This means that a Mac II or an add-on large screen for the SE is required to allow you to mix 32 MIDI instruments using Vision. These faders may be assigned to Velocity, Tempo, or any MIDI Continuous Controllers. You can also send Program Changes, All Notes Off messages, Local On/Off, Omni On/Off, or Poly On messages from the Faders window. This is a feature I have wished for since MIDI sequencers first came out! Many sequencer programs will let you send some, or even all, of these messages in some way, but none so readily as Vision.
Using the faders, whose moves can be recorded to provide automated MIDI mixing of your sequences, I was able to create a great 'rough mix' of my track by fading Instruments in and out using MIDI Controller 7 (Volume) commands. I did want to fade the whole track out at the end, and the manual said that it was possible to set up a special Instrument with several layers, each set to a different MIDI channel, and then use that Instrument to send MIDI Volume on. Unfortunately, 'several' turned out in practice to mean eight, and I was using 16 MIDI channels already, so I could not get one fader to fade the whole piece. What a shame! I was using a fairly large setup (but not enormous in this age of multitimbral units) with a Roland D110 for drums and eight multitimbral synth parts, and several Yamaha instruments, including a TX816, TX802, TX81Z, DX1, DX5, and a DX7II. These all responded perfectly to the MIDI Volume messages. However, you should be aware that not all MIDI instruments will respond to Controller 7, so do check your manuals.
On to the editing features now. The note transposition options are very comprehensive. Apart from the usual Key Transpose, Vision allows you to change from Major to Minor key, or to map any MIDI note to any other MIDI note, or map any specified scale to any other scale. You can even transpose a part recorded on a half-tone synth for replay on a quarter-tone synth with the Scale Size feature! This is much more comprehensive than Performer. The quantisation options include settings for Sensitivity and Strength, a Shift amount, a Swing amount, and a Smear (randomness or humanisation) value. These options are comparable with those available in Performer.
The Modify Notes feature allows you to Set to a value, Scale to a % of the values, create Legato notes which extend until the following note is played, Add Amounts to velocities or durations, and Set to Max or Min value limits. You can apply these modifications to key velocities, release velocities, and note durations. In comparison, Performer has some extra modification features, but doesn't handle release velocities.
You can create or thin continuous data as with Performer, but from the Graphic window rather than via the Do menu with the Event List. You can Reverse Time, Scale Time, and Split Notes, as with Performer, but Vision also has an extremely powerful feature which allows you to select events in all manner of ways so that you can then modify only the selected events. You can select events which occur at particular times or within particular ranges, before or after particular events, or events which occur at some particular point within a bar or beat. This includes events on the down beat, or those which are off the beat, meaning you can accent parts of your drum patterns, or any musical parts, selectively. Great!
In common with several other MIDI programs, Vision has a feature called Generated Sequences which allows for 'algorithmic composition'. I had a guitar-like riff on my TX81Z Pizzicato patch. It seemed like a good idea to create an ostinato part from this riff, by doubling the tempo and playing the riff alternately forwards and backwards. Vision's Generated Sequences feature allowed me to do this very quickly. I copied the Pizzicato riff, and then opened a new sequence as a generated sequence. I pasted the Pizzicato riff into the 'non-rhythm' track of the generated sequence, chose the 'Alternate' note order setting, and a 32nd triplet numerical value. I then copied this ostinato sequence and pasted it back into a spare track in my original sequence, using the 'Capture Sequence to Track' option in the Edit menu. And there it was - a perfect ostinato part based on the original riff, but at double the speed in 32nd triplets!
I then decided to develop the piece further by adding patch changes to each track. In the Instruments box there is an option to use Program Changes numbered either from 0-127 or from 1-128 - very handy; all my synths used the 1-128 option. I put the patch changes for each instrument at location 1.1.0 in each track. A problem then arose when the tracks which were looped started playing from their 'bar 1' positions again. There was a glitch caused by the Program Change message being retransmitted as the sequence looped. This disappeared when I removed the patch changes. So I decided to create two blank bars at the start of each track, and move the patch changes into these. Then another problem arose. Vision (unlike Performer) does not allow you to set a start point for the loops, just an end point. So my two blank bars were always contained within any loop I set - no good! How did I get out of this? Time to create a song track containing sub-sequences!
To do this, I copied sequence A to sequence B, then deleted everything but the Program Changes from sequence A and set its length to two bars. I then named sequence Y as my conventional song 'parts' sequence, and used Step Record to chain sequence A to sequence B in track Y, similar to how you would chain two patterns together in a drum machine. Now sequence Y played the first two bars from sequence A, with the patch changes, followed by the rest of the song played from sequence B. Problem solved!
And now things started to move quickly. I created a 44-bar Intro section by copying selected tracks from my original sequence into sequence D. I then copied 16 bars of drums to sequence C, then 16 bars of the complete set of rhythm tracks to sequence E. Then I recorded another trial chain of sequences to my song 'parts' sequence Y. This gave me a list of sections of the form ACBCEDEDC in track 1 of my 'parts' sequence. I then copied this into sequence Z (my 'song' sequence). Here I recorded several extra tracks, including solos and percussion over the whole length of my song. Using a combination of sub-sequences and recorded fader movements, I was then able to finish a mix of the whole piece, complete with fades and sections with various Instruments dropped in or out.
By this time, I had tried out perhaps 60% of Vision's features and written 3,436 words of this review. There were still many areas of this vast program which I had not covered in depth, including: the MIDI Keys feature, which allows you to control the sequencer functions from your MIDI keyboard; and the Queue and Players features, which let you ready other sequences for playback, or start a different sequence playing while other sequences continue playing. There are also many MIDI data filtering options, and Vision will chase Controller data and patch changes when you start from some point along your sequence rather than from the top. But the deadline for delivering the review was fast approaching, and it was time to sum up.
So what's my verdict? Well, I've got to buy a copy of Vision immediately! It will allow me to get much closer to delivering a final mix of any piece of sequenced music than any other MIDI sequencer on the market, and has such an enormous range of features, plus the ability to transfer its sequences to any other MIDI File compatible program, that I cannot afford not to have a copy. It can also do many things that other sequencer programs cannot. However, it does seem to me that to get the best out of Vision you need a large screen, preferably running from a Mac II. And plenty of RAM is advisable too, especially if you want to run several other programs concurrently under MultiFinder.
I do have some criticisms of the program's design, while acknowledging that its creators have done a magnificent job overall. The program did crash several times [don't all Mac sequencers? - Ed.], especially when I was carrying out rapid editing operations and then going back to play or record modes, but, generally, it was quite stable. As a Mac user and fan, I am particularly looking forward to the next software revision, which Opcode have stated will allow you to use the new Apple MIDI Manager and MIDI Driver routines, and will scroll the graphic note display in sync with the music.
In the meantime, I will still use Performer for what it does best, especially as it will probably take me several months to get up to speed using Vision to its limits. But if Opcode continue to develop Vision in both innovative and practical ways, I believe it stands a good chance of taking over the No. 1 spot in the Macintosh MIDI sequencer market from Performer, and keeping it!
£399 inc VAT.
MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).
Review by Mike Collins