Andrew Banner explores the possibilities of internal sound sequencing on the Atari ST
Andrew Banner explores the possibilities of internal sound sequencing on his Atari ST
The ST has always been criticised for it's poor quality sound output and praised for it's amazing MIDI capabilities, and it is this musical interface which has made the ST one of the most widely used computers in music today.
But what can be done about that awful Yamaha sound chip? Not much really, but it is still possible to obtain almost Amiga quality sound from the ST by using samples.
Until recently, samples tended to be large and ate memory, but with the introduction of compaction routines these have become smaller and more usable in commercial applications. But you are still limited by memory, and longer samples require more of it. Now, all you need is a series of very short samples stored in a single file and a new software package called Quartet.
Quartet, from Microdeal, is the first sample sequencer package for the ST, though I doubt it will be the last. Using four sample channels, Quartet is capable of producing sound quality which is close to that of the Amiga.
The new software is supplied as a suite of three programs. Two are sample manipulation utilities which prepare the samples for the main sequencer, the third is Quartet.
Quartet only displays one channel at a time, printing it as musical notation. Different channels can be viewed by clicking on the appropriate buttons. With only one channel on screen at a time, the less experienced musician will find problems with matching two channels together so that both play in the same key. To help overcome this, Quartet features a transpose option to shift the whole channel up or down to change key. What would be nice is to be able to obtain a musical printout, but, alas, this is not possible.
Below the stave display are a series of crochets, quavers and various other musical notes varying in duration, alongside these are their equivalent rests. Both notes and rests can be selected by clicking on them with the mouse.
Notes can be entered directly onto the stave by pointing the mouse at the appropriate point and clicking. Using the same procedure, notes can be altered either in pitch or duration. By pressing the right mouse button you can insert notes.
Standard time signatures are stored in a drop down menu and are changed by simply clicking. The software automatically inserts and moves bars according to the contents of the stave so you don't need to bother about that.
If you have a MIDI keyboard then you will find that using Quartet is somewhat easier. The software has two MIDI modes. The first, Polyplay, simply allows you to play the current sample using the keyboard so you can get an idea of what the music will sound like. It also allows you to change the sample being played by pressing the voice selection buttons on the MIDI unit. The second mode is Record. This dispenses with the mouse as an input device and users can play music directly into Quartet. Again, operating the voice keys on the synth will change the current sample. Record mode does have it's drawbacks though. While it tries its best to achieve the correct timing of note and rests, it does not always work properly and some notes may be abnormally short and you may find longer rests that you require. This is more likely if you are playing a faster piece of music.
Tempo buttons are arranged at the bottom of the screen along with the current speed which is adjusted to various presets by clicking on the buttons. When a piece is being played the screen is dominated by a digital type VU meter reading which pulses to the beat of each of the four channels. Incidentally, Quartet will allow any one channel to be played separately but you cannot specify which channels should be played and which should be left silent.
The package is supplied with 100 samples which is enough to begin with, but as you become more familiar with the software you will find that you want to use some stranger sounds and not be limited to those provided; that's not to say that 100 is very limiting. To be able to include your own samples you will need a sampler which creates Replay compatible samples.
Samples are packed together using one of the manipulation programs to form what is called a Voice Set. Each set can contain up to 20 samples and only one set is supplied. The rest of the samples are free from sets so that you can create your own voice collections to be used in your own compositions.
Quartet cannot play more than one note at a time on any single channel, thus chords are not possible unless the notes are spread across two or more channels which limits the software slightly. This could be easily overcome though by actually sampling a chord and using it in a voice set. However, the software can be programmed to have more than one sample on a single channel, very useful for a drum track or bass line.
Included with the software are some demonstration songs which show Quartet to be a very versatile package. The sound quality is brilliant, although sounds a lot better if replayed though an amplifier. To be able to do this effectively you require a Replay or Replay Professional cartridge which has an output phono connecter. Quartet can switch between monitor and cartridge audio in just the same way as the Replay sample software.
Digital is one of the other two programs which are included in the three disc package. Aptly named, this digital filter helps prepare samples for use with Quartet. It provides the users with a display of the current sample and allows the sample to be looped, cropped and filtered by giving it a specific frequency range and then performing a low or high pass filter on the current sample.
Voice is the last in this suite of programs. It's basic job is to create voice sets for Quartet and should be in constant use with the 100 samples which are included.
There is no doubt in my mind that Quartet is another winning musical package to come from Microdeal. After the success of the ST Replay series, what better way to complement the sample range than with the first sequencer. Like Replay, music created with Quartet can easily be incorporated in your own software using source code which is also provided.
Like most programs, Quartet has it's faults which count against it, but with a little work and persistence you too can produce fantastic ST sound which is currently unrivalled. The programmers promise a six channel version in the future which will move the boundaries of the ST even further. For now I am content with four, it's still one channel more than the ST can provide.
Address: Microdeal Ltd (Contact Details)
Review by Andrew Banner