Software for the Apple Macintosh
Opcode's latest sequencing software for the Apple Macintosh aims to include all the facilities of other sequencers and add some more of its own. Carter Scholz believes he's seen the light.
After a long wait, Opcode's newest look at MIDI sequencing for the Apple Macintosh has arrived - in all of its thorough, complex, intimidating glory.
THE NEXT GENERATION of software sequencers has arrived. Vision is more than an upgrade of Opcode's own Sequencer 2.6, it's just about every good idea that's appeared in a sequencer to date, plus a few new ones. It's more evolutionary than revolutionary, confirming the impression that MIDI software is currently at a stage in which consolidation and refinement, not innovation, is the order of the day.
OPCODE HAVE COME up with what's perhaps the most versatile user interface yet. Every turn reveals another well-thought-out innovation. Entering and changing data is a dream. Every number can be changed by typing in a new value, or by dragging the mouse like a slider on the parameter. Note pitches can be changed by touching a MIDI key and menus pop up everywhere. If you see bold type on screen, click on it and you'll get a local menu of options. For instance, if a rhythmic value needs to be set, it appears as a musical note. When you click on it, a menu of 21 common values appears around it. Or you can use keys dedicated to rhythmic values on the numeric keypad if you prefer. It's also possible to select other values by typing in the number of ticks. Touches like this provide both ease and flexibility.
The Mogrify icon (Opcode admit the name's silly) appears wherever you're faced with enough menu choices to make life difficult. Clicking on Mogrify prompts a list of commands from the Do and Edit main menus. Quite a convenience.
Recording modes include: real-time (on multiple channels, with the option of splitting different channels to different tracks), step-time, looping (where you can keep layering notes during each subsequent pass), punch-in and overdub. Recording may begin with a variable count-in, or with the first received MIDI event. In step-record you can sustain a note by holding it down. So easy, so obvious, so long overdue. Chords are entered by playing notes "almost" together, or by holding down the sustain pedal.
You may also customise the display and editing windows. Sometimes a piano-roll display is perfect for editing; at other times you really need an event list. Vision has both - windows can be open side-by-side and any changes to one are instantly copied to the other. The left margin of the graphic window labels the notes vertically, when there's no room it displays a piano staff. If you're uncertain whether middle C is C3 or C4 (Yamaha call it C3, the MIDI spec calls it C4), Vision lets you choose. The upper margin contains bar and beat numbers. If a track contains more than one MIDI channel, you can select which one (s) you want to see.
You can open a 'strip" below the graphic display in which any MIDI controller, or note velocity (including release velocity), can be edited with the mouse. You can view any of the 28 defined MIDI controllers. But instead of forcing you to remember and type in the proper number, or giving you a fixed, incomplete list of common controllers, Vision lets you save your own list of "favourite" MIDI controllers as a user preference. In addition to MIDI data. Vision-specific types of "events" can be displayed here, including lyrics, cue points, markers, and tempo.
Any MIDI key can be mapped to any Macintosh key combination. This permits remote operation of the program from your MIDI keyboard. This is accomplished with the "MIDI shift" feature: define any MIDI controller (such as a footswitch) as the MIDI shift, and while it's pressed, the keys on your MIDI keyboard activate the Mac keyboard equivalents you've defined.
WITHIN VISION, YOUR music is organised in up to 26 Sequences, each of which can contain 99 Tracks. Tracks in a sequence can be looped independently, and loops can be of any length regardless of bar lines. Each Sequence can also have its own tempo map. Sequences can themselves be looped, and they can be triggered from within a Track.
Finally, you can capture the MIDI output of any Sequence (or Sequences) to another Sequence.
When you embed a Sequence in a Track it becomes a Subsequence. If one Track in a Sequence is designated as a Song Track, its Subsequences are played end-to-end, like a drum machine. Otherwise they can overlap, each one starting at the time you designate. The same Sequence can be started more than once, and a Sequence can start other Sequences - including the one that started it. However, a Sequence can't start itself. If you have looping Tracks within a looping Sequence, the Sequence length takes precedence, restarting all Tracks from the top when it loops.
Each Subsequence is really a copy of an original Sequence, and each can be edited individually. Changes to the original Sequence will affect all copies unless they've been edited individually. There are actually six types of Subsequence, including Gated, Stop, and Transpose, but there isn't space to describe them all here.
A Vision Instrument defines a MIDI channel on either of the Mac's serial ports, plus MIDI key range, overall velocity shift values and transposition, if you want to get fancy. This is not just plus/minus transposition - you can actually map any MIDI key to any other. Once you've set up an Instrument, you can refer to it by name when assigning it to Tracks.
A Vision Player (there are up to nine) plays a Sequence in real time from the Mac keyboard. Sequences can be set to sync to a beat or not. The same Sequence can be started independently by different Players. This is primarily a live performance feature, but a 'live performance" may occur in the privacy of your studio, capturing the performance in a Track. Each of the Sequences you trigger during the performance becomes a Subsequence in the Track, where it can be edited. Since Track records the entire performance, each Track actually has nine of its own Players. It can then play back as performed, without other Sequences getting in the way.
If you're the simple type, you can just use Vision as a track-based sequencer, putting your whole song into one Sequence.
THE FULL POWER of any sequencer lies in its editing functions, especially those that operate on a group of events. Correcting single notes is an essential function, but being able to move, transpose, quantise, and time-scale large chunks of music is where real power lies.
Vision has all the usual group-editing functions, with enough bells and whistles for a small circus. For instance, quantisation uses what Opcode call "the five S's". Imagine a track of notes as a set of dots on a page. Quantisation lays a grid, like graph paper, over the dots, and automatically pulls each dot to the nearest grid line. This gives a mechanical, drum machine feel.
Sensitivity (0-100%) adjusts how close to a grid line a note must be in order to be affected. Say you've set the quantise value to a crotchet (quarter-note). With sensitivity at 100%, any note within a quaver (eighth-note) of a grid location will be pulled to it. A sensitivity of 50% will leave notes further than a semi-quaver from the grid location unaffected. Strength (0-100%) determines how closely quantised notes approach the grid line. A value of 100% pulls them onto the line; 50% pulls them halfway there. Swing (50-100%) shifts every other beat forward or back in time. A Swing value of 50% yields no change, while 75% would change steady quavers into dotted quavers plus semi-quavers. Smear (0-100%) adds a random element to the result. While we're on the subject of subtle timing changes it's also worth mentioning that Vision has an impressive 480ppqn resolution.
Vision's Transposition functions begin with your standard "shift everything up 'n' semitones". You also have a comprehensive set of harmonic mappings that cover many scales and modes from any root. In addition, you can remap any MIDI key number to any other, and you can save any such mappings you create for later use. To use this is to love it.
Time scaling stretches or contracts the selected events in time. This is extremely useful for syncing music to film if your cue is a second too long, Vision will compress it by the appropriate amount. It's also a fascinating musical tool. Look up "mensuration canon" in the nearest music dictionary. Time reversal is also available in order to play the selected section backwards.
Note velocities, durations, and controller values can be set to a fixed value, scaled by a percentage, offset by a fixed value, clipped to a minimum and/or maximum, or randomised within a user-specified range. Durations can be "legato-ised", which moves all note-offs to coincide with the next note-on. A repeat-paste function lets you copy selected data any number of times with one action. I've often wished for this in other sequencers. Good work, Opcode.
Now, how do you specify a group? You can just draw a box around it on the graphic screen, or select a start and end time with the mouse, but there are many more options. The options for event selection are daunting - a group of notes may be selected (bracketed by time in bars or by event type) if it matches a value or falls within a range you specify - or if it doesn't. Once the selection is made, any group-edit function (quantisation, transposition, time scaling...) will operate only on the selected notes.
Any other MIDI message (pitchbend, aftertouch, controllers) can be selected with the same detail. Moreover, you can define your selection brackets (the events in time between which the selection is made) in equal detail. You can further restrict the selection to operate on a particular instrument.
It may seem like overkill, but when you have several thousand MIDI events in a file, and you have to isolate some of them for editing, every available tool helps and Opcode are to be applauded for not trying to second-guess what "important" musical relationships are.
You can select as many discontiguous notes as you want, one at a time or added to a group selection by shift-clicking on each. If you move to the list window, only those notes selected are highlighted. Very convenient. Finally, Vision records and plays System Exclusive MIDI data. You can edit this data in hexadecimal format only.
AFTER YOU'VE RECORDED and edited your tracks, why stop? You can extract the rhythm and/or the melody of a Track and use them in what Opcode call a "generated sequence" (a little window that performs M-like algorithmic variations - forward, backward, notealternating, and random - on the elements in various combinations). There's too much to explain fully, but let's say I had a lot of fun with this.
If you don't want to leave the final result to chance, you can capture all the notes of the generated sequence to a separate Track for precise editing.
Something tres chic: 32 on-screen faders (only 20 on the smaller-screen Mac Plus & SE) are available for your mixing pleasure. Each one can be used to fade the MIDI velocity of an instrument or to send a MIDI continuous controller message on a specific instrument. One fader can also be assigned to control overall tempo. You can move these while music is playing with the mouse or remotely from any external MIDI controller. You can remap any MIDI controller input to any other MIDI controller output (you could use the mod wheel to control pan position, for instance). In addition, you can record and edit all your moves, giving you automated mixdown via MIDI volume changes. However, velocity-fade moves are not recorded.
Vision will read or write notation files directly in Professional Composer or Deluxe Music Construction Set (DMCS) Format, as well as Standard MIDI File format. Yes, read or write. So you can write a piece using standard notation in Composer or DMCS, and play it using Vision, or record it in Vision and print it with Composer or DMCS. I think that a lot of Composer/Performer users who got tired of Mark Of The Unicorn dragging their feet to support MIDI Files (Performer 2.41 does support MIDI Files, at last) are going to be very happy that the Composer/Performer relationship is no longer monogamous.
As far as documentation is concerned, the manual gets a "B" and the tutorial an "A-" By all means work through the whole tutorial, lengthy though it is. There are many sides to Vision, and you're liable to miss some if you don't take the complete guided tour. Some manual sections are a bit disorganised, and there's too much reliance on crossreferencing, but the info's all there.
STUDIO 3 IS a one-unit rack-mount MIDI interface and SMPTE-to-MIDI converter supported by Vision. Vision will run with any generic MIDI interface, but there are some distinct advantages to using Studio 3: SMPTE and MIDI Time Code, for example. Studio 3 uses both the modem and printer ports of the Mac independently, permitting up to 32 virtual MIDI channels. There are six separate, configurable MIDI Outs. In its Direct-Time Lock mode, Studio 3 can be used with MOTU's Performer. Jam Sync enables Studio 3 to regenerate fresh SMPTE code from a weak tape.
Very enticing is a switch labelled "audio in". Opcode promise that a future version of Vision will be able to sync to external audio, meaning that you can drive the sequencer's tempo from a live or taped performance. But it's not happening yet.
FOR VERSION 1.0 of a program, Vision is remarkably solid. It crashed on me just once, when I pushed its timing to the limit by playing 16 simultaneous tracks of continuous demi-semi-quavers (32nd) notes. Vision kept chucking out the notes, but the keyboard and mouse went to sleep, and I had to reboot. I also got a "you are running dangerously low on memory" message while working on a 140K file, but then I found that you can set the number of "maximum playable tracks" from the default of 144 down to 32 in order to free up some memory.
There are a few minor inconsistencies in the user interface, such as the jump To Selection command not working in both edit windows at once. If you select a note, "jump" to it in the graphics window, and switch to the list window, you're not at the note you jumped to. You have to jump in the list window separately. And you have to remember that Select All doesn't clear the selection criteria. (Good thing, too. Otherwise you could accidentally wipe out a few minutes worth of setup work). So if your Mogrify commands aren't Mogrifying as expected, look at your selection criteria.
There's no way to turn one type of controller into another after recording. You can't even cut the data from one controller type and paste it to another. You can remap them during recording using the faders; you just can't change your mind after you're done.
Visions architecture isn't as open as it could be. Why 9 Players and 26 Sequences? The answer is that 9 numerals and 26 letters are used to trigger them from the Mac keyboard. True, these limits are more than enough for conventional songs. but they do sell short the full potential of the Sequence-calling metaphor. Opcode have simply decided that a Sequence is a fairly complicated unit (with up to 99 Tracks), not many of which (26 maximum) are needed to make up a piece of music. In reality, it could just as easily be the other way round - in my own music it usually is. I seldom have use for anywhere near 99 tracks, but I often need more than 26 sequences. and I don't care whether I can trigger them from the Mac keyboard. Finally, you're warned not to play more than 16 Sequences simultaneously if you have less than two megabytes of memory.
Last gripe: Vision is copy-protected. You can install it on your hard disk, which makes efficient backups difficult by requiring that you uninstall the program before undertaking these chores. You can also insert the master floppy when you start the program. Most Mac sequencers are like this, more's the pity. At least with Vision you can quit the program and come back to it without inserting the master disk again, as long as you don't turn off your Mac.
VISION IS A winner. It's the most complete sequencer I've seen yet. It sets new standards in power, versatility, and friendliness for the next generation of Mac sequencers. It's not so revolutionary that it's going to take the Mac market overnight, but it certainly ups the ante for all the other guys. In the too-short time I've spent with Vision, it proved convenient, capable, reliable, and, above all, rewarding - not something I'm accustomed to finding in a sequencer. Although there are things I wish Vision could do that it can't (yet), these concern its architecture more than its features. I might like to redesign the room, but it's well-lit and has all the amenities.
Prices Vision, £399. Studio 3, £349.
Review by Carter Scholz
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!