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Passport Software

Article from One Two Testing, June 1985

writing for MIDI

THERE'S ONLY one reason why computers haven't completely dominated the music world yet — they're stupid. They're much stupider than the dimmest person you or I could possibly think of — but they are pretty good at counting.

If you could combine this rather one-dimensional talent with a bit of imagination and intelligence you could do something useful, like composing interesting tunes and then putting music transcribers out of business. Luckily, the people at Passport have got all the imagination you're likely to need, and have managed to transfer a little of their intelligence on to two floppy discs — one for the Apple II, one for the Commodore 64.

Of the two packages, Polywriter is undoubtedly the more interesting. Music Transcription has been a bit of a philosopher's stone in the computer music field; lots of people have thought they've found it, but closer inspection has always revealed some flaw. Realtime music notation has always had one major stumbling block — computers either do it much too accurately, reproducing the tiniest variations in technique and timing, or too inaccurately, merging notes which are actually fingered separately into single chords, losing fast trills, or failing to deal with vital notation such as legato slurs, octave notes or orchestral transpositions.

Passport, who've been successful in the States for a good few years (initially with their Apple-based Soundchaser synth, for which there's also a version of Polywriter) are now licensed to Japan, and Rittor Music of that country are marketing their packages in the UK. Each package needs an interface to run it.

Polywriter opens with a very snazzy graphic display, which you can skip once you've got bored with it, and goes on to a main menu allowing you to Create a piece, Edit it before printing, Save it to Disk or Quit and format a new disk. If we go on to Create we're faced with a variety of options for Filename (simply the name of your song), Printed Form (of which more later), Key, Meter, Tempo, Density (of notes which can be printed, maximum 2,512 per page), and Resolution ("error correct" on notes recorded). Once we've chosen values for all these (you're given a hand with default values of 4/4 time, Key of C and so on) you can start a metronome (a rather weedy bleep from the Apple which can be amplified) and record a piece.

Passport claim that their system can cope with anything you can play on a keyboard, and if you make a few mistakes you can correct them before printing if you know what you wanted in the first place. The basic form of notation is Piano, which puts your music on to a bass and a treble clef. Other options are Treble Only, Bass Only, Choral, Treble with Piano, Bass with Piano, Choral with Piano and Full Orchestral. Those should take care of most day-to-day jobs!

There are some eccentricities in the system, such as the need to open separate files for sections of a piece in different tempi and then combine them later. Passport, who presumably know what they're talking about, claim that this is best in the long run if you want to make any changes to your finished piece, which makes sense. You only get four staves on a page, but the software is completely flexible in terms of slipping from one page to the next — even if you have to go on to a new floppy disk of note information in the middle of a long piece.

When editing a recorded and displayed piece you use a cursor to centre on any note or notational mark, which include ledger lines, legato slurs and rests, and you can change any note by positioning the cursor over it and pressing a new note on the synth keyboard — changing one note of a chord is enough to change the whole chord. Single notes can be changed into chords and vice versa, and you can go on to enter text (lyrics to you, mate) in between the musical staves. Text files are stored separately from music files on disc, though, so be prepared for heart attacks when your music comes up with all lyrics missing or you get a lovely set of words with not a note to accompany them.

As for printing out your music — you need a graphics-compatible dot-matrix printer such as an Epson RX-88, FX80 or MX80, an Apple DMP, a Pro-Writer or other. You can get at any of the special functions and typefaces of these printers through Polywriter, and select any staff, whole page or piece of music for printing. If you've selected an entire orchestral score, Polywriter prints out a complete conductor's score followed by individual scores with traditional transpositions for Piccolo, Flute, Recorder, through the Clarinets and Saxes to Basses, Trombone and vocalists. You can print music horizontally or vertically on the page, whichever gives you the better and faster result on a particular printer.

The cost of running Polywriter is the cost of a 64k Apple II, IIe or II+, of a printer, one or two disc drives, monitor, interface, software and MIDI synth(s) (although a version for the much cheaper Commodore 64 is expected). I wouldn't guarantee that a Musicians' Union trombonist would be happy playing from a Polywriter score on a piece of printer paper, but if you have little or no knowledge of music transcription and suddenly find yourself in need of a string section, Polywriter could be more than invaluable.

In fact Polywriter is the sort of computer package of which we'd all like to see more — something which not only increases your natural abilities, but also adds to them significantly. MIDI/4, on the other hand, comes into the former class, acting as a four-channel polyphonic sequencer running on the Commodore 64 or Apple.

You can merge and overdub any channel and record information on velocity, pitchbend, patch change and modulation accurately. Sequence length can be around 6,000 notes and sync to a MIDI or other drum machine. Most of the important functions of MIDI/4 are controlled by the Commodore's four Function keys, along with the Space bar and Return button.

The four channels have spaces to type in the sound or keyboard name (for instance Yamaha DX7, or Flute, or Silly Noise #6), and there's a metronome with adjustable tempo with which to play along. You'll need this — MIDI/4 is strictly real time, having no autocorrect, and there are a few other eccentricities too. For instance, you have to decide before you record a track whether you want to be able to loop it afterwards; Track 1 must always be the longest track, you always have to play a spare note on the end of a sequence to define the loop point and this note will always be erased — and so on. No doubt you'd get used to these fairly quickly in everyday use, though.

You can Erase a track, Punch In to add to an existing track or mix two tracks, but unlike (say) Roland's MSQ700 sequencer, the mixing process means that all information from the combined tracks will emerge on the same MIDI channel — and no, you can't unmix tracks again! Tempo can be saved to disc as part of a file and you can decide whether or not you record velocity information in order to save memory space.

MIDI/4 seems to work efficiently enough, but it's very much a real time system, lacking error correct to round off your playing. Odd that Polywriter, which is basically not a sequencer, should have this facility in such a powerful form, and odd too that you can't transfer files from the Apple version of MIDI/4 to Polywriter for printing, or from Polywriter to MIDI/4 for playback after complex editing. Being able to compose a piece on a multiple MIDI synth setup, error correct difficult passages, play the entire thing back live to check that you like it and then print the whole thing out would definitely feel like heaven.

PASSPORT polywriter: £250 (apple)/MIDI/4: £85 (apple or commodore)/MIDI interface: £165 all prices approximate

CONTACT: Rittor Music Europe Ltd, (Contact Details).

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Hayman Vibrasonic Drums

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Europa DP400C FX Board

Publisher: One Two Testing - IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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One Two Testing - Jun 1985

Donated by: Colin Potter

Review by Mark Jenkins

Previous article in this issue:

> Hayman Vibrasonic Drums

Next article in this issue:

> Europa DP400C FX Board

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