Passport Mastertracks Pro 4
Software for Apple Macintosh
Passport's Mastertracks has been one of the leading Macintosh sequencing programs for several years. Mike Collins boots up the latest version to check on its progress.
The eternal Mac sequencer triangle: Vision, Performer and Mastertracks Pro - has its recent upgrade given Mastertracks Pro the upper hand?
THE MACINTOSH SEQUENCER wars are really starting to hot up with the release of Mastertracks Pro 4 from Passport Designs Inc. First this year there was Opcode's Vision, with its great combination of graphic and event-list editing. This was countered by Mark of the Unicorn's Performer (v3.21) which added a pretty tasty graphic editing system to its already excellent event list editor. Now Mastertracks Pro (first reviewed MT, July '87), which previously boasted the best graphic editing facilities around, has been upgraded with various new features, including event-list editing, to rival these other two programs.
LET'S TAKE A look at the new features to be found in Pro 4: first of all there's a new Global Edit Filter which allows you to include either specific notes, or notes within specified velocity or duration ranges, specific measures in a track (such as every third measure), or specific beats and sub-beats within a measure. This latter feature is just what you need for sophisticated drum programming so that, for example, you can set up the accents you want within a bar.
Various edit operations can now be performed in real time, while a sequence is playing - a feature which is becoming increasingly common on sequencers. Up to 16 sequences can be open at one time and sequences can be linked together into a single Playlist for live performance - an aspect of Mastertracks Pro which has always been one of its strengths. You can operate the sequencer controls from your MIDI keyboard - another feature which is becoming standard on Macintosh sequencers. The sequencer's resolution is still 240ppqn, which is half that of Performer and Vision, but more than adequate for most musical styles. Also, you cannot set tempos to fractions of a bpm, which is a bit of a shame because this can become important if you want to exactly match a tempo which includes a fractional number of beats per minute - say matching the tempo of a drum loop. There is actually one circumstance in which Pro 4 will allow fractional tempo values, and this is when you use the Fit Time function, or any other operation which would result in a fractional tempo. In such a case, the program will alternate between the two whole number tempos to achieve the desired result.
Fit Time is very useful when writing music to picture, and Pro 4 is very good for this type of work. Pro 4 has a Markers Window, similar to Performer's, and you can jump to any Marker using the Tab key in the Track Editor window. You can Lock Markers to specific SMPTE "hit" locations to match on-screen action, which is a feature first developed by Mark of the Unicorn on Performer. And again, this feature is particularly important when working to picture, where you may wish to synchronise sounds with visual effects. It is worth noting that Vision does not provide this feature.
PRO 4 WILL synchronise to MIDI Time Code (MTC) as well as to standard MIDI timing clocks. This has the benefit that you can use internal tempo maps and the Fit Time function, and you can edit tempos using the Tempo Map window while syncing to MTC. If Pro 4 only synchronised to MIDI time clocks and song position pointers (SPP), you would have to create and edit your tempo data in whatever SMPTE/MIDI converter you were using, and you would have to put up with the generally less flexible facilities available on such converters. MTC sends no tempo information, just a steady stream of data derived from the speed of the tape. Pro 4 then generates its own tempos from this data. You can set a SMPTE "dropout" time - which allows the sequence to continue playing even if the SMPTE signal disappears due to a tape dropout - until the code reappears. You can adjust the length of time for which Pro 4 will cover for loss of SMPTE via this dropout time setting. This is an excellent idea which I am sure other manufacturers will pick up on now that Passport have led the way.
PRO 4 WILL now chase controllers, and, like Performer v3.21, the program allows you to turn this feature on or off, and select just what combination of controllers and patch change commands you wish to chase. This is the right way to implement this feature, unlike the way it is done in various other sequencers, including Vision, where you cannot disable this, so you always have an annoying delay after selecting Play while the program checks and chases any controllers. It won't matter to you whether the program chases or not if you haven't used any controllers or patch changes, consequently this delay can be an unnecessary frustration.
"Pro 4's Humanize command allows you to randomise start times, durations, or velocities of notes - a feature not found in either Performer or Vision."
Pro 4 does have a SysEx feature, but this only allows you to store non-handshaking bulk dumps as files on disk.
To send such a dump back to your MIDI device, you have to find the file on disk, and then send it back to the device. This is quite a useful feature, but nowhere near as powerful as Performer's SysEx capability which allows you to record any amount of SysEx data directly into any track, where you can edit it, and then play the data back to your MIDI device from any point in a track. Obviously this will not worry you if you don't make much use of SysEx data, but for those who do, this is quite a major limitation.
SO WHAT'S THE program like to use? Well, the user's manual has been completely revised and updated by Paul Lehrman, an American MIDI programmer and journalist, and is now extremely clear and easy to read. Unlike some manuals, which can put you off by throwing you head first into the complexities of a program (presumably to show off just how complex it can be), the Pro 4 manual offers a very easy to follow Quickstart Tutorial. This shows you how to record a couple of tracks, name them, and then save the file - probably the first things anyone would want to do with a new sequencer. There is only one simple example program supplied, which is a bit of a shame, as most other sequencers have several demo songs supplied. However, this Bach two-part invention is used in the Quickstart Tutorial to show you how to use the Track Editor window to quickly copy, paste, repeat, or delete a section, which is probably the very next thing you would wish to do with your new sequencer.
THE TRACK EDITOR window may be thought of as the program's main window, because it's on the left-hand side of this that you select tracks to play or record, name your track, choose an initial MIDI volume message or Program Change command, and select the MIDI Channel/Port for each track. The right-hand side of this window has a display showing each track, with tiny rectangles to indicate bars - the rectangles are filled in black if there is data in these bars. You can scroll this display to right or left to see the complete piece of music, and you can scroll it up and down to view the 64 available tracks. If you choose Follow Playback from the Layout Menu, the Track Editor (and Step Editor and MIDI Data) window will scroll as the sequence plays, highlighting the measure that's currently playing. I would like to mention here that this Track Editor window, in common with most of Pro 4's other windows, can be re-sized to be more or less as big or small as you like, which is extremely useful when working on the SE's small screen area. Opcode could do with taking a leaf out of Passport's book in this respect with their Vision sequencer, which won't allow anywhere near as versatile re-sizing of its windows. Markers may be entered directly into this Track Editor window, or into the Markers window. Either way, they will appear along the top of the Track Editor display (and in the Step Editor and MIDI Data windows). It's very easy to select regions within tracks, including data in several tracks, by clicking and dragging over the track display using the mouse. You can then make your edits using the commands in the Edit and Change menus.
"Change Filter is one of the most advanced features of Pro 4 - it allows you to define parameters to limit or delineate data affected by the Change Menu."
The Edit menu contains all the usual Undo, Cut, Copy, Paste, and Clear commands which you expect in all well-written Macintosh programs. In addition, you can Mix (merge) data, Insert or Delete measures, Show the details of the Clipboard contents (in case you forget what you put there), or access the Change Filter. This Change Filter is one of the most advanced features of Pro 4 which provides you with a special set of parameters to limit or delineate the data that is affected by an operation on the Change Menu. The option to only apply changes to notes within a specified number of clocks of specified sub-beats is particularly intuitive to use, unlike any written explanation so you'll have to take my word for it here. You set the selection criteria here, and then apply this Change Filter to the particular type of MIDI data you're working on in the Change Menu. This system seems to be much easier to use than the corresponding function in Vision, although both systems have about the same capabilities.
The Change menu provides more or less the same type of editing features as can be found in Performer and Vision, although a couple of the more esoteric commands available in these programs - such as Reverse Time and Invert Pitch - are not to be found. However, Pro 4's Humanize command allows you to randomise start times, durations, or velocities, a feature not found in Performer or Vision, although Vision does provide this for start times. The Quantise options are as powerful as any to be found elsewhere, and include Intensity and Swing settings. You can also slide notes within tracks from within the Quantise dialogue box, which is not as convenient as setting this from the main Track window, as in Vision. The list of available commands also includes a Channel command to change the MIDI channel of selected notes within a track, and Strip and Thin Continuous Data commands. Pro 4 allows you to have data on different MIDI channels within any track, which can be very useful if you want a melody to play on different instruments in different sections, for instance. Stripping out or thinning out continuous data is something which you probably need to do quite often, so it's good to see these commands included in Pro 4.
The Step editor lets you view and edit note data graphically, one track at a time. A grid is provided, which you can switch on or off, with a vertical keyboard at the left of the screen to help you identify notes. You can zoom in or out to suit the type of edits you're making, and you can quickly switch to edit a different track by clicking on the track indicator number on the Step Editor's menu bar. This latter is a brilliant feature which adds greatly to the speed of use of this well thought-out program. At the top of the window are several note icons representing the rhythmic values of the notes you can insert with the pencil, or step-enter from your MIDI keyboard. An eraser is provided to delete notes, and there are also controls to set note articulation, velocity, and tuplet values. The graphical editing functions are simple and effective in use, but you still have the option of double-clicking on any note to bring up a numerical editing dialogue box for that note - almost the best of both worlds (graphical and numerical).
This leads us on to the Event List editor. Passport have just added this feature to Pro 4 in response to user demand. The guys at Passport firmly believe that graphical editing is the best way to go, but many users (myself included) prefer event-list editing, possibly having "grown up" with Performer. I suppose the method you prefer depends on whether you are working in left brain/right brain, or analytical/intuitive mode when you are using your sequencer. It's obviously best to have both options available, because each has its own particular strengths and weaknesses.
"Pro 4 will synchronise to MIDI Time Code (MTC) as well as to standard MIDI timing clocks - this has the benefit that you can use internal tempo maps."
There are seven more graphical editing windows available in Pro 4, including those for Pitch Bend, Channel Pressure, Key Pressure, Modulation, Controller, Program Change, and Tempo Map. The first six look and work pretty much the same way, and are quite similar to the Step Editor as well. The events appear on a grid, where the height of lines or points corresponds to the numeric value of the event, while the horizontal location of the line or point indicates the position in the track where the event occurs. Each window has an arrow icon to choose the arrow tool to select data, a pencil for drawing data, and an eraser, and editing is very easy and intuitive. The Tempo Map window lets you edit beat values, time signatures, and tempos. Here the tempo is represented by a horizontal line moving through the measures, so this display looks a little different from the others. Tempo changes can be inserted on any clock with the pencil tool, and erased with the eraser - what could be simpler?
In practice, I compared editing pitchbend data in Vision, Performer, and Pro 4 using the graphic methods available in all these programs. It turned out that Pro 4's editor worked best in practice, the others feeling clumsy and less easy to use. I can now see myself recording and editing some of my music in Performer or Vision, and then transferring via MIDI File to Pro 4 to edit the controller data - it is that much easier.
THE SONG PLAYLIST allows you to construct a Playlist from the currently open songs. You can arrange the songs in any order, and you can use up to 16 if you have sufficient Macintosh memory. You can have the songs flow automatically from one to the next - with a gap between if you wish. This gap can be set from 1-999 seconds, which should be a long enough pause for the most rapturous applause. Alternatively, you can tell the program to wait before going on to the next song until it receives a MIDI message, or until you press a key on the Mac. The MIDI message can be any note or controller, such as a sustain pedal, and this is very convenient for "live" gigs.
PRO 4 STILL doesn't have quite as many features as Performer or Vision, but what it does do, it does well. The graphic editing features are definitely better than those available in the other programs, particularly when it comes to editing controller data - as you might expect from a program which started off featuring graphic Editing alone. The event editing is not quite as good as Performer's, but the ease with which you can select regions in the Track Editor window and carry out your edits in Pro 4 gives this program a distinct speed advantage in comparison with the others. I wish the SysEx capabilities were better, and that the resolution was 480ppqn, and that there were MIDI Volume faders which you could use to record a mix, but I do like the program's stability - it didn't crash once, and the timing was rock-solid at all times. So, Performer and Vision are still ahead in many ways, but Pro 4 does deserve recognition as a very quick and easy-to-use full-featured MIDI sequencer program, particularly suitable for either live use, or for working to picture.
Price £395 including VAT.
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Review by Mike Collins
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