Powertools D110 Editor
Ideally every synth and sampler editor would allow you to edit sounds while your sequencer is running. One that does is this desk accessory for the Atari ST. Vic Lennard opens the box.
Ideal in principle, inconvenient in practice, what a visual synth editor really needs is to be available for use while your sequencer's running.
VISUAL EDITING SOFTWARE - a phenomenon brought about by synths that offer you so little control from their front panels that they're effectively impossible to program. An indictment on the state of synth design if ever I heard one.
In principle, visual editors make a lot of sense. In practice, they only seem to get used in "editing sessions" because nobody really wants to exit from their sequencing software, boot up the editor in question, make a few arbitrary changes to a patch and then re-boot the sequencer to see if the altered sound suits the song any better than the old one.
One of the main attractions of the PowerTools range of editors is the fact that they can co-exist in memory with other software, and can be accessed from another program as a desktop accessory. Editors for the Korg M1 and Yamaha DX series have already been released, and now Pandora have turned their hand to Roland's D110 - an instrument that could have been designed with a visual editor in mind.
THE PACKAGE CONSISTS of a copy-protected disk and a rather nifty Filofax-style manual. Load-up is quite a complex procedure as all of the default files have to be transferred from disk. Checks are made for any connected D110's and RAM disks already present in memory and the entire procedure takes a little under two minutes. One thing I noticed was that the disk drive continued to spin after the program had been loaded, which could cause damage to the master disk when removing it.
A look in the Atari's desk menu shows the "D110 Accessory" to be resident; your sequencer can now be loaded. I loaded C-Lab's Creator and received an "Out of Memory" message for my trouble...
It turns out that this editor differs from Pandora's others in that all of the files are disk files. The problem is that the D110 Accessory loads up with a RAM disk and rapid re-draw turbo graphics installed which leaves insufficient memory for the sequencer. The RAM disk had to be removed - more about this later.
THERE ARE TWO methods to get to the editor; the Desk menu or via the hot-keys - press Alternate and Control together (not Alternate and Shift as the manual states) and voila. The display is relatively uncluttered due to the existence of "magic" windows whose titles change to show the value of the parameter when the cursor points at them. In fact, the layout is the best that I've seen on any editor. Other boxes wink at you to inform you that they are command boxes, whose selection can be changed, or toggle switches.
There are five different pages of edits, namely Patch, Tone 1, Tone 2, Rhythm and Bank, and the first four pages exhibit certain common traits as they are each made up from five windows. To the righthand side of the screen is a vertical bar which shows the MIDI channel for each Part, and can be toggled to show the unit number of the D110 being currently edited. Roland allow you to give each module a different unit number (usually starting from 17), so that multiple D110s can be individually edited. In the centre of the screen is a horizontal menu bar which includes master tune, MIDI receive/transmit indicators and the "write to memory" switch, while the lower right-hand corner shows either Patch name and reverb details in Patch or Rhythm mode, or common Part information in either of the Tone edit modes.
On the lower left-hand side is the interactive graphic display with a small black box which will follow your cursor movements along the curve. A click with the mouse instantly pulls the graph towards the crosshair cursor, which then changes to a pointing finger. Very quick and easy to use. Time variant amplifier (WA), time variant filter (TVF) and pitch envelope curves can be selected for each Partial, and the curves for all Partials in use in a particular Tone can be overlaid on top of each other. Finally, there is the main edit window above the menu bar.
INSTEAD OF THE Atari menu at the top of the screen, this has its own menu bar with four headings:
Page: This allows you to move around the various edit pages by either selecting the option or pressing the relevant Atari key. In fact, all menu selections can be made by the latter method.
Load/Save: Individual Parts, Tones, Patches, effects and Rhythm Parts can be either saved to disk or transmitted to the D110. The choice of keeping to individual files is a good one, as the alternative would be to work with bulk dumps which can already be done from within the D110 itself.
Display: Selects the graphic display from amongst the various options.
"None of the sequencers I used crashed while running with the Pandora D110 editor - in fact, this article was written on a word processor co-existent with it."
Utility: Turbo graphics can be turned off, freeing about 67kBytes of memory, but then the screens take longer to redraw. Audition mode plays a note each time any edits are made so that you can hear exactly what is happening, but if a sequencer is playing the D110 while you're editing it, you'd want to hear the notes being played by the sequencer and not the editor, and so this can be turned off. Handshaking mode is used to check data for accuracy when transmitting and so that data can also be sent from the D110 to the editor, but this requires the use of two MIDI leads which may not be practical and so one-way transmission can be selected.
Configure: The current drive for edits (A, B or RAM disk) can be selected and options for backing up the RAM disk to floppy and getting the latest data from the D110 if in handshake mode are also on offer.
AS PREVIOUSLY MENTIONED, the data is in the form of disk files, so let's look at the implications of this. On loading up, a RAM disk is created, which is a portion of memory treated as a disk drive. All necessary files are copied to this so that edits to the banks and patches can be achieved with the same speed as would occur if the data were actually in normal memory. This RAM disk takes up about 160kBytes of memory and with another 7OkBytes being used by the turbo graphics, a 1040 ST is left with insufficient memory space to run any of the major sequencers. The Configure options allow you to remove the RAM disk and run all necessary files straight from a disk in the disk drive, although this has the disadvantage of slowing down the procedure dramatically. It should have been possible to bin the turbo graphics and reclaim the memory space for the sequencer, but when I tried to do this, the extra memory didn't join up with the existing free memory. Add to this the fact that the RAM disk was present on load-up but the Remove icon didn't light up and removal was impossible. The programmers are presently correcting this situation.
So, at least you have a choice - run the editor via the disk drive and put up with the slower approach, or use a RAM disk without the turbo graphics and get fewer notes into your sequencer. You could always buy a two- or four-Meg Atari but that's a different ball game...
CHANGING PARAMETERS IS extremely easy. Clicking with the mouse will increment or decrement numerical values, while clicking on parameters with selectable options will bring up the Choozer which lists all available choices for the particular parameter for which it has been called. A click on a Tone presents you with 255 possibilities made up from the preset, user and Rhythm Tones, the relevant list for Timbres has the 128 options currently in memory, while changing a PCM waveform for a Partial lists the 256 available waveforms. Clicking on the required selection automatically sends the command to the D110.
For those of you unfamiliar with the internal workings of a D110, a Timbre stores a Tone number along with various parameters for performance. This is because MIDI program changes can only handle up to 128 different selections, and as there are practically double that number of Tones in the D110, an alternative method of labelling had to be found, hence the use of Timbres. Pandora did not want to get involved with the complexities of Timbres and so this editor cannot assign Tones to Timbres, although the procedure on the D110 is a simple one and the data can then be transferred into the Atari. A shame in one respect, but it does make the editor easier to use, which is an important consideration.
RUNNING THIS EDITOR with a sequencer which can edit in real time opens up a new area of creativity. Record note information so that the D110 is playing, start the sequencer in record mode and use the hot keys to drop the editor onto the screen. Any edits that you now make are recorded onto the sequencer as SysEx data, and your edits will be recreated on playback. I tried this with C-Lab's Creator and found that it worked a treat. Little things like altering the TVF resonance or changing the level and depth of the reverb (which would be impossible from the front panel of the D110) can be achieved with ease. An editor like this goes some way to bringing back the halcyon days of analogue synths.
There are other features such as using the Undo key on the Atari to remove the last edit, and a Tone Grabber facility which ensures that should you attempt to save a Patch to memory with user Tones, these are transported as well.
One complaint I have is with the manual. Less of the perfect English and more of the "do this to get this result" approach would make it far more useful.
THE EDITOR APPEARED to behave itself admirably with various sequencers, although I had to run the data files from the disk drive due to the problems outlined. Hopefully the memory fragmentation and disk drive spinning problems will be sorted out before you read this.
As for reliability, none of the sequencers crashed or behaved awkwardly in the time that I spent working with them. In fact, this article was written on a word processor co-existent with the D110 accessory - now isn't that proof enough..
Perhaps the PowerTools editor is not as comprehensive as some of the others I've seen, but the real-time editing aspect is worth the lack of certain features. Check it out with your sequencer; I think you'll be impressed.
Price £99 including VAT
Gear in this article:
Review by Vic Lennard
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!