Pandora Technology Powertools M1 Editor
Software for the Atari ST
If you're looking for an easy approach to programming your new Korg M1 workstation, this Atari ST program could be for you. Vic Lennard goes to work with a mouse.
As useful as a computer is for such tasks as sequencing and patch editing, handling one at a time can be a severe limitation. Anyone for patch-editing desk accessories?
CAPTAIN'S LOG: STARDATE 14-56.9. Science officer Spock has been contemplating the mysteries of the Yamaha Frequency Modulation synthesis system for several planetary rotations.
Kirk: "That's a seriously mean piece of music you're playing, Spock, but can't you make that synth sound a bit more, um, heavy?"
Spock: "You must be joking Jim, it takes more than my superior intellect to edit a bloody DX7!"
Exit to strains of la la la-la-la-la-la...
It seems that the more complex the manner of synthesis becomes, the greater the headache of editing it and the greater the likelihood of being stuck with presets. Sure, some synths have optional programmers like the PG1000 for the D50, but the extra cost they involve often prohibits their use. Alternatively, if you have a computer to hand, software is a cheap and practical alternative.
There are currently some very good editors for the Atari ST, in particular the Dr Ts Caged Artist series, but how often has the situation arisen where an edit is required while the sequencer is already resident in the memory of the computer?
Taking these two problems together brings us to the point of this article. A new British company by the name of Pandora Technology have just released a range of editors called Powertools, which are available as Atari ST programs for the six-operator Yamaha DXs, the Roland D110 and the Korg M1. The particular aspect that makes these stand out from the crowd is that they are desktop accessories, which means that they can be held in memory and used without quitting the sequencer.
There's little doubt that the M1 has continued from where the D50 left off - with one major difference. Where the D50 is completely programmable in the way that four-part sounds can be put together to make a Tone, the M1 isn't, but has a comprehensive filtering system to allow the PCM-sampled sounds to be altered in weird and wonderful ways, as well as having a set of drum samples which put many dedicated drum machines to shame.
The fly in the ointment is the onboard sequencer. Not to dwell too long on this subject, none of the people I know who are fortunate enough to own an M1 make use of it. It may be a useful tool from a live point of view, but in the studio most musicians seem to use a hardware sequencer or a software sequencing package.
The only other point to mention is that a basic sound is called a Programme, groups of Programmes together with individual MIDI channels, outputs, tuning and transposes are called Combinations and the MIDI aspects/drum settings are kept under the heading of Global.
THE EDITOR IS comprised of a copy-protected disk and a manual, the latter of which was unavailable at the time of writing this review, making comments on its quality impossible. The protection method is by key disk, so the files on the editor can be copied to another disk, booted up and the master disk inserted at the appropriate prompt. On loading, the editor actively senses whether an M1 is at the other end of the MIDI cables and transfers its data into the computer. On completion of this, a check under the "Desk" heading shows that "M1 Accessory" is indeed resident in memory. Next, load up your sequencer and it and the editor are in happy co-residence.
A left mouse-click on M1 Accessory pulls down the first page of the editor to which the immediate reaction of many is likely to be one of deja-vu, as the layout is similar to that of Pro24 or Creator/Notator. It's relatively uncluttered due to the use of double-display windows. Each parameter name is in its own box, and as the cursor is positioned on that box, it changes to the actual numerical value of that parameter without the need to click on the mouse buttons. Some boxes flash when pointed at (you can get arrested for that) if they are command boxes or have no specifically attributable value.
THERE ARE SIX pages of edits available: Programme, Performance Parameters, Effects/Output, Global, Drumkit and Bank. The first five exhibit common characteristics in that the screen is made up of five basic windows. On the right-hand side is a column for selecting the MIDI and Global channel; in the centre is the menu bar including master tune, programme/combination switch and MIDI receive/transmit indicators; bottom right is a box showing the basic data for programme/combination, depending on which one has been selected, and can be altered, and the edits re-written to an M1 memory slot by clicking on Write Program or Combination. At this point a selection box called the Choozer appears, listing the names of all the internal patches. If in Combination mode, a click on "combination set up" brings up a window showing the particular make-up of the programmes grouped together for this combination, including all aspects of output and panning. To the left is the display curve for either variable digital filter (VDF) which alters the tone of the voice, variable digital amplifier (VDA), which changes the attack, decay, sustain and release, or pitch envelope generator (EG), which affects the warp of the notes. Above the central menu bar is the window for the main editing and selection of waveforms and drum sounds.
Another central theme is that of changing the page visible on the M1 to that being edited on screen, a useful idea and one which allows rapid checking on precisely what's going on.
THERE ARE FOUR headings on the menu bar:
- PAGE: allows the selection of any of the six main editing pages.
- LOAD/SAVE: this permits the loading and saving of individual drum kits, effects, programmes and combinations as well as the entirety of the sequencer or global functions to either Atari disk, a memory slot or RAM card on the M1, or to an internal computer buffer, called the clipboard, which holds a copy of the present editing environment for comparison purposes.
- DISPLAY: Selects which of the three different visual screens are to be monitored on.
- UTILITY: Allows for "turbo graphics" which redraw the screens faster to be turned on or off. If turned off, there should be more memory space available (see later). Utility also allows you to audition sounds - a note sounds each time a parameter is altered - and also allows the M1 to be reconfigured to put it on-line if it's turned on after the editor. User settings can be saved to disk under the file name Config M1 and will be automatically loaded on boot up. Handshaking can be set on or off, which is necessary for certain parts of the editing (for instance, being able to save an individual drumkit) and the final utility allows for the clipboard and the present edit to be switched.
PROGRAMME EDIT: THIS accesses all parameters pertaining to the waveforms, including waveform select using the Choozer, all aspects of the VDF and VDA, selection of oscillators one or two and a flip switch in the top left hand corner for instant change to the page for...
- PERFORMANCE: This includes the section for quick and dirty parameters which will totally alter a tone by changing one or more of eight options, so allowing rapid alteration without going through page after page of editing. Complete control over the joystick functions and aftertouch also exists on this page and in the top left-hand corner is a flip switch to, you guessed, the previous page.
- EFFECTS: This controls the output section of the M1, permitting changes to the kind of effect used and all of the attributable parameters. Bearing in mind that the M1 has two channels of effects, each containing 33 choices, and the ability to put these in parallel or series across a selection of the four outputs, the clarity of this page is of the utmost importance. And clear it most certainly is, with excellent graphics depicting the various effects and with the parameter boxes labelling themselves in response to the chosen effects.
- GLOBAL: Pedal assignments, scale and key selections, memory protections and MIDI controls exist here. Unfortunately, the latter two do not appear to have been implemented, as they are unselectable.
- DRUMKIT: It doesn't take a genius to suss this one out. There are four drum kits available, each of which can have up to 30 percussion instruments assigned out of the choice of 44 internal sounds and any ROM cards which are bought out at a later date. The Choozer selection box is again used and drums can be "dragged" from this into the required position on the drum table. Output routing and panning - very important as the setting here takes precedence over the setting anywhere else - are to be found on the right side of the top window.
- BANK: In my opinion, the worst point of the M1 is the lack of user memory, which means that any editing of internal programmes actually destroys factory presets, most of which happen to be rather good. A configuration now exists on Hybrid Arts' Genpatch program, but that means spending another £120. This M1 editor has the ability to save either bulk or individually and can have two banks of either programmes or combinations (but not a mixture of both) resident simultaneously. To determine which bank is to be overwritten when one is loaded in, simply ensure that the cursor is on a tone in the bank that is to exit stage left. Dragging one slot to another will swap their positions, hence the point of having two banks in memory, while dragging with the left shift button pressed down will copy the dragged memory to the new slot. Selecting a voice and clicking on the Edit icon will immediately change to the last edit page used and on return, clicking on Insert will replace the edited voice into a chosen slot. Having done any of the above, the new bank must be saved onto either disk or keyboard or else it will be lost as soon as the bank page is left.
IT IS QUITE evident that there are a number of quite novel ideas within this editor but how well does it perform?
The immediate problem is that of how much memory space is left for recording on a sequencer once the editor has been loaded in. This depends in part on whether the turbo graphics are used or not, and unfortunately, no two sequencers use the same method for sorting out the memory left. Blocks, bytes, events - why can't they all use the obvious musical thingy called notes? I appreciate that the likes of pitch-bend and polyphonic aftertouch use up more MIDI events than note ons and offs but still, a degree of uniformity would be nice. Consequently, the following table is only approximate and all values are in notes on a 1040ST.
|Sequencer||No Editor||with turbo||without turbo|
|Master Tracks Pro||112,000||48,500||59,000|
Every function within the editing pages can be accessed by using "hot" keys which are an alternative to using the mouse buttons. Once in the editor these cause no problems, irrespective of the sequencer being used, but the method of getting into the editor without dropping the Desk menu is by holding down the Alternate and Control keys together and this caused difficulties with Creator/Notator in that it always reset them back to the first bar of the section - which isn't so much of a problem in itself if the section is relatively short and can be cycled - but is a real headache if the section is of a fair length. This isn't a problem on Master Tracks Pro and doesn't occur at all on SMPTETrack (because you can't run the editor at the same time as the sequencer, as the menu bar cannot be addressed without the sequencer being static).
Bearing in mind that the editor is actively altering the data for the M1, re-routing the MIDI Out to the MIDI In of the Atari allows for these edits to be recorded. Set the sequencer into record mode, drop the editor and edit. As long as the particular sequencer being used allows for the recording of system exclusive data, this is a definite possibility. However, there are problems again. By thus routing the MIDI connections, a MIDI loop is encountered and must be broken by turning off the MIDI Thru in the sequencer. Even after this, I found the mouse pointer occasionally refused to reappear once the editor had been entered and while hitting the return key sometimes sorted this out, a lock-up occurred too often for comfort. In fact, where Pro24 was concerned, this lock-up occurred whether or not SysEx was being recorded, and the MIDI Thru had to be turned off at all times if the editor was used while the sequencer was running.
The programmers are aware of these problems and are considering using different hot keys to sort out the first case and a slight re-write to eradicate the second problem, and will ensure that their implementations exist before the program is released.
Having been used to Dr Ts editors, I thought I would miss the method of being able to move the mouse around the page and play an imaginary keyboard from left to right with low velocity at the bottom of the screen and vice versa. However, the audition mode here is very flexible. Each edit triggers a MIDI note on the M1 as long as the global and note channels are set to the same number and the function keys at the top of the Atari will also play different notes from C1 on the function 1 key, up to F#4 on the function 9 key, and whichever function key was last pressed will set the note to be triggered from the mouse for future auditioning. The default note is C3.
There are two other nice features; the first is the use of the Undo key on the Atari, which can be used to either undo the last edit or to remove a loaded file and replace the previous one; the second is the automatic changing of the parameters in the windows when grabbing a small black box in the curve display.
Finally, the speed of the editor is generally impressive, especially in Turbo graphics mode, although changing info on the Global page is slower than on other pages as the data for the entire page has to be sent each time an edit is made, this being a problem with the system exclusive on the synth. Each time an edit is made, the MIDI transmit indicator can be seen merrily flashing away - edits are sent to the M1 immediately and the reaction time of the M1 when being auditioned is negligible.
THE IDEA OF having an editor running at the same time as a sequencer invokes visions of CPU overload - in layman's terms, the Atari being asked to do too much. However, allowing for the few problems which will (hopefully) be sorted out before release, I was impressed with how this editor handled itself (careful - Ed). To coexist with the likes of Pro24 and Notator is no mean feat and while the memory space is cut down, probably below an acceptable minimum in the case of Notator, the ability to access an editor without having to reload the sequencer, let alone running the two together, can be an absolute godsend.
I have a feeling that certain other companies are going to be looking over their shoulders at Pandora's editing programs and attempting to emulate them within the not-too-distant future.
Thanks to Brendan at Music Village, High Barnet, for access to computers and synths.
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Review by Vic Lennard