Roland MT32 Update & Editors
If you own an MT32 then you really should be using a computer-based voice editing program to make the most of its facilities. Martin Russ compares three possible contenders for your money from Tigress Designs, Dr T and Steinberg.
Martin Russ revisits this popular expander, and compares and contrasts three editors from Dr.T, Steinberg, and Tigress Designs.
Since I last looked at the MT32, way back in the September 87 issue, it seems to have fulfilled most of the prophecies I made about it and has become almost as well-known as the D50 - the flagship of Roland's LA synthesizers. There are advantages and disadvantages to reviewing a product very early in its life - photocopies of notes instead of finished manuals, and often confusion as to the actual final specifications. So, before I cover the developments in the third-party software support for the MT32, I thought it would be fitting to bring my original MT32 review bang up to date. I decided to go to Axe Music, my local music store, and examine an 'off the shelf' current model - this is what I found:
As with all equipment, there are several features and traps designed to catch the unwary.
• Channel 1? You can alter the MIDI channel assignment from the front panel controls so that, instead of the default 2 to 10, it uses channels 1 to 9. This means that DX7 MkI owners with limited options over MIDI output channels can control the MT32.
• Pressure? Aftertouch as a MIDI controller is not recognised by the MT32, so all those D50 'expression by pressing' effects need to be adjusted to use the Modulation Wheel controller instead, which is recognised.
• A bug! Yep, when you altered a Patch parameter in the Rhythm Part, the early versions of the MT32 had a rather unfortunate tendency to wipe the Patch Bank memory. (Some editors can get around this...)
• Feedback. Not really a bug, but an observation. Much like the D50, the MT32 does not give any visual feedback on the LCD display to inform you when a parameter has been changed, or a new voice received. I guess it could be that the Yamaha 'this is what just happened' method has become entrenched in my mind, but I really do prefer to be reassured!
• How to quash a rumour. The MT32 forgets all the user sounds stored in the internal RAM when you power down. The MT32 that I looked at back in August last year had a printed circuit board with component locations marked for a RAM backup battery and the required power-down sensing and switching - but none of the actual components were fitted. Current MT32s have a different PCB without any mention of an expensive Lithium battery. When a disk-based sequencer is used to control the MT32, it seems silly to spend money on providing a permanent memory when you can use the sequencer to save all the internal memories on disk and load them when needed.
• Noise. The MT32 is slightly noisier than the D50, mainly due to limitations of the synthesis hardware and the anti-aliasing filters, although this has not stopped either device becoming a bestseller. More interesting is the quantisation noise which becomes apparent at the end of long release sounds, characterised by a grainy, buzzy sound. It can help to reduce the level of the reverb, since high reverb levels make it more noticeable - reducing the release time has the advantage that it not only hides the effect but also helps to 'open out' the sound because there is more space between notes.
The other problem is more quirky, and depends on the output level of the Parts: this is the reason why you start off at 80 out of a maximum of 100 - you will find that too much level combined with high velocity values will sometimes cause a characteristic digital clipping 'click'.
• Volume. When you turn on the MT32, it checks the state of all the front panel controls. The switches will normally not be pressed and so there is no problem. However, the rotary control used as the major selection mechanism is a clever object lesson in analogue-to-digital conversion - but is it clever enough? The rotary control produces a voltage which is proportional to its position. This voltage is converted to a digital representation and is sent to the MT32's microcontroller processor. However, when you switch on the MT32, this rotary control could be positioned anywhere (and usually is!) and this value is then set as the master volume - perversely, the value is often so low that you cannot hear the MT32. The solution is easy - either turn the rotary control fully clockwise before powering up, or just remember to set the master volume after switching on.
• Structures. The MT32 actually has more scope for controlling the structure or organisation of the Partials used to make its sounds - up to four Partials can be combined, with each pair connected in any of 13 different ways. Two structures (8 and 9) of these assign the Partials to the stereo outputs, giving you extra flexibility and scope for imaging effects. Additionally, you can control the re-assignment of the unused Partials to maximise the polyphony, and you can reserve Partials for sounds where you want to maintain a given number of simultaneous notes. This intelligent Partial assignment has several advantages over the more usual methods of setting a number of notes and a range over which they work, since it allows dynamic allocation during a piece, ie. when not being used for one sound, the Partials can be used to play another. This increases the apparent polyphony except in cases when all you are doing is 'doubling up' sounds for thickening purposes.
• Drums. There is more to the MT32's Rhythm Part than you might think - you can actually control the panning, volume and reverb on/off for each key individually. Additionally, you can select the sound for each key, and you need not select the PCM drum sounds - any of the LA sounds can be used as well. So you could use the 'Orche Hit' sound without using up a precious Part, for example. Be careful though - the PCM sounds do not change pitch whereas the LA sounds do. In fact, the PCM waveforms for all the drum sounds are available, although some are split up (into attack and sustain sections, for instance) which doesn't leave much room for other waveforms. A few of the classic sounds are there - organ start, bass sounds, bow scrapes etc, but some of my favourites like the sustained samples of electric pianos are missing.
• D50-MT32 Transfers. Can you transfer D50 voices to the MT32? Not directly; there are many differences between the two instruments (apart from the keyboard!). Firstly, the PCM waveforms are different, and this tends to make most sounds diverge from the original. The MT32 also lacks the chorus, EQ and has less LFO modulation routings. Despite this, many software voice editors offer conversion from one format to the other; and so although you can<'t connect a D50 and an MT32 together and transfer sounds, you can do it with the aid of a computer and the right software. In practice, although the conversion process can produce sounds which are usable, you might as well forget any ideas about obtaining all of the classic (and therefore over-used!) D50 sounds - much better to create your own MT32 classics. Also, because you cannot initiate a system exclusive bulk dump from the front panel, you cannot transfer Timbres from one MT32 to another directly - you need a computer-based editor or a suitable sequencer with the right software. Talking of which, what about editor packages for the MT32?
Roland themselves do not manufacture any Atari ST-based editing software for the MT32, but there are several third-party companies now offering editing packages. I will be investigating the Dr.T MT32 Editor/Librarian, the Tigress Designs Patchbox 32, and the Steinberg Synthworks MT32. If you have previously only used the MT32 from the front panel then the transition to an editor will be quite a surprise. The MT32 is much more powerful than it at first appears. What I like to have before I try any editing is a clear picture of how the instrument is organised, and I couldn't find one. In the separate 'MT32 Overview' panel you will find my explanation of what goes on inside the MT32, so read it now if you are unsure. [The manuals supplied by Roland and the editing software companies do not seem to make the MT32 workings very clear, which is why I have tried to describe what is happening. The manual supplied with Roland's new D110 (see last month's review) is very much better in many respects and gives a good guide to how the D110 and the MT32 are organised, although in some ways the MT32 is more complicated!]
As you might expect, the editor programs all use the Atari's mouse as their major method of editing, although equivalent computer keyboard commands are available in the Dr.T program. They all behave very similarly, mainly since they are all trying to edit the same piece of hardware! The differences revolve around the methods used to display and edit the parameters, and the ease or degree of control possible over some of the more obscure parameters. Rather than bore you with detailed text descriptions of each editor separately, I have amalgamated the major facts about each program in a table. Since a picture can tell you much more about what a program looks like than any amount of description, I have also included screen dumps of the important pages.
I have assessed the programs for the key elements you would expect to have in an editor, and have included some personal interpretations of their 'user interface'. These rows are labelled Fitt's Law, Rationality, Choices and Modes:
- Fitt's Law measures how well related buttons are kept close together and in a consistent position on screen.
- Rationality shows how well the program splits tasks up into understandable and usable chunks.
- Choices measures the efficiency of the program at reducing your decisions and thus pointing you in the likely direction.
- Modes tells you how infuriating the program is likely to be in the long run, once you discover that you have to do lots of work to achieve a simple task.
For the performance measures I have allotted an order of merit for each of the above user interface features based on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is the worst performance and 10 is the best, judged on all the programs I have ever seen for the Atari ST (one or two hundred!).
Additional notes highlight the major points which influenced the decision. Bear in mind that these figures will become increasingly important for serious longterm use of the programs - a minor niggle at first can quickly become an unbearable nuisance.
Dr.T employ a common user interface for all their editors. It does not behave like a standard GEM program, instead it is designed to be 'intuitive'. All editing can be achieved with just the mouse (except when entering text for names etc). The major editing device is a 'virtual' slider which runs up the left side of the screen and can be used to edit any parameter by selecting that parameter (one click of the left-hand mouse button) then moving the mouse pointer until it is horizontally level with the slider marker (known as the 'thumb' in the official GEM documentation) and moving the slider up and down to change the value. Alternatively, the left and right mouse buttons can be used conventionally to nudge parameters down and up respectively. There are also equivalent keyboard commands for those who dislike using the mouse.
The program is page-based, with separate screen pages allocated to the major functions. There are very few dialogue boxes and no pull-down menus. Moving between pages is by means of a Menu box — a box which is always in the top right-hand corner of the screen, and contains the pages to which you can move from the current one. Function keys can be used to move between pages instead of using the mouse. The accompanying screen shot should give you a good idea of the overall organisation.
This editor uses MIDI intelligently, with a 'merge' function enabling the use of external keyboards to control the MT32's sounds whilst editing. Only one function of the program requires bidirectional communication between the MT32 and the Atari computer - the 'Get Parts' command, which is used to get Timbres for each of the eight Parts after you have edited a Setup. ('Setups' are used as a way of storing the current state of all the editable parameters in the MT32. These can be saved and loaded from disk.) This means that you usually only need a connection from the Atari's MIDI Out to the MT32's MIDI In.
Common to all Dr.T products is the mouse 'play' feature. This lets you play notes by pressing the right-hand button and moving the mouse - left and right movements control pitch, whilst backward and forward movement controls velocity. This is a very useful idea which should be adopted as a standard method of implementing note-playing in all editors.
• PROBLEMS The menu box can be a source of some problems: it is sometimes difficult to move from one page to another because the menu order keeps changing - destinations are moved around within it, so you always have to read it before clicking. There are often too many choices in the menu box, which slows down your selection, and the function keys change their meaning on a page-dependent basis. Also, because the menu box is in the top right-hand corner, it often needs large mouse movements to be reached. The menu bar also changes some of its options when you use Dr.T's Multiprogramming Environment. In time, I was beginning to remember which function key was which on each page, but I would much prefer a fixed function, at least for the commonly used operations.
It is not always apparent which is an editable parameter and which is not! The parameters are not indicated in any way - you just click around until you select something (when you do find an editable parameter it inverts colour). All parameters are shown as text in outlined areas, and just the parameter value itself is editable, so you cannot alter a value by clicking on the name of the parameter. This tends to require accurate mouse positioning and large movements around the screen. The virtual slider often needs considerable mouse movement to actually 'catch' the selected parameter and then drag it. Instead of a single mouse movement, two or more are often needed - I rarely managed to grab it the first time I tried.
An extra program is included which tries to 'port' sounds from the Roland D50 to the MT32. In my experience this was not entirely successful, since many of my favourite D50 sounds would not translate satisfactorily. This is a fault of the MT32's limited PCM waveforms and other features, rather than a problem in the software. The D50 convertor does work to a limited extent, although I thought there was a hardware fault in the MT32 when I first heard some of the results! Basically, any convertor program will have problems with some of the PCM waveforms, and there is no real workaround that I can foresee.
Do you use Desk Accessories on your Atari? All of the Dr.T 'Caged Artist' Editors take a distinct dislike to anything other than themselves and the control panel. This sort of forces you to use the Dr.T Multi-Programming Environment for any complex applications - I do not have a Switcher program for my computer, and so was not able to confirm if this editor would run under one.
• ADVANTAGES Once you have used one Dr.T editor it is undeniably easy to learn another one, although I am not so certain that this particular implementation works very well for the MT32. There are no dialogue boxes, except when exiting the program, and no 'Are you sure?' questions! Overall, the user interface is reasonably quick and efficient.
A Desk Accessory is provided to load Setups from disk whilst using another GEM program, and there is an easy interface with other Dr.T software. The manual is clear and concise, with useful hints and tips, including some information on programming LA synthesizers. It gives comprehensive control over all the MT32 parameters, with particularly good Rhythm Part controls. The concept of 'Setups' is easy to use and understand, and makes the MT32 more usable as a sequencer workhorse.
Patchbox uses a standard GEM implementation, with pull-down menu bars and a single page, context-sensitive, main screen from which all the subsequent pages are selected. Desk Accessories are supported, and you should be able to use this program with a Switcher, although I could not test this. Pages are selected by clicking on a list of options represented by rounded rectangles on the right-hand side, whilst extra functions are available from the menu bar. Although this makes the main screen look simple, the actual functionality in use is very good; I quickly got used to the layout and found it clear and uncluttered.
For each of the pages you select to edit, the parameters are presented in a list, where the value can be edited using the standard left or right mouse button 'nudge up/down' method, or by typing in the value and pressing the Return key. This parameter listing is not as uninspired as it may sound, since they are presented in a thoughtful, consistent and logical manner.
A real-time sequencer is provided for trying out the edited Timbres. Simple, monophonic, 24-step sequences can be recorded and replayed. This can be accessed by clicking on the option rectangle as usual, or made to replay a sequence by merely placing the mouse over it and pressing the right-hand mouse button. The current state of the MT32 can be stored and recalled as a Configuration file, in a similar manner to the Setups of the Dr.T editor.
• PROBLEMS Unfortunately, Patchbox suffers from a major mode problem - you need to stop what you are doing, move to the bottom right-hand corner, and move up the screen to click on one or two boxes in order to play a sequence of notes, with another move across the screen to exit back to the edit. This makes editing slow and cumbersome, and is only partially helped by the quick right-hand button feature. I would have preferred to see the Dr.T style 'right-hand button plays notes' feature here.
Finding the 'OK' boxes on the separate screens often needs large mouse movements too. This is a problem often found in GEM programs which make extensive use of pop-up dialogue boxes, and can easily be solved by either making the whole area of the box (except the selectable options) an 'OK' box, or by placing it in a fixed relative position in all the dialogue boxes. Some much used functions are only accessible via the menu bars - this is slow and inefficient, and suggests that perhaps a few additional option rectangles on the main screen would have neatened the interface.
Patchbox makes very limited use of screen graphics, with the envelope editing and structure diagrams and sequencer keyboard being the only use of graphics. When you select graphic envelope editing, everything else stops and you have to put the envelope 'away' before you can resume - this is a very obtrusive example of a mode and seems to be a programmer's solution rather than a user's convenience. The graphics on the sequencer-play feature need tidying up, as some notes play different pitches depending on where you click on them! This is also the only way to play the MT32 sounds while editing - you cannot use an external keyboard! I found this to be a major disappointment, since the sequencer is so tedious to access.
There are too many options for saving various blocks of parameters - just Timbre banks and Configurations would be fine, though the Configurations take far too long to load from disk. They seem to be compressed (the program says 'compiled'?) and I assume that this is part of the problem. Again, this suggests a software programming problem which really should not be inflicted on the end user.
• ADVANTAGES The GEM interface is quick and easy to learn. The simple, uncluttered, presentation helps you stay in control and is fast to use. The limited use of graphics is economical but effective. There is a slim but useful manual, with an additional manual on programming the MT32. In combination with the program, this represents a very comprehensible method of accessing all the features of the MT32. Unlike the Dr.T editor, Patchbox does support Desk Accessories and also supplies a Desk Accessory to enable the Configuration files to be accessed from within a sequencer program etc.
Synthworks MT32 also has a GEM interface, with a more conventional structure using the menu bar to select all the main options. Desk Accessories are supported, although no D50 conversion program or Desk Accessory for using stored 'Systems' within other programs is provided. More use is made of graphics than in the Patchbox editor, and it is altogether the most sophisticated of all the editors in its use of the mouse and GEM. The right and left buttons have their usual increment/decrement functions, as well as others dependant on the currently selected page.
A five second real-time sequencer is provided for testing your edited sounds. The notes are entered from an external MIDI keyboard and the sequence replayed by pressing a key on the Atari's keyboard. A MIDI Thru option allows you to use an external MIDI keyboard to play the MT32 sounds using the Out socket whilst editing. You can also rechannelise any incoming MIDI to play a specific part of the MT32.
Comprehensive librarian facilities provide a range of options for categorising and filing banks of Timbres on disk, including alphabetical sorting of sounds and elimination of duplicate names. Patches can also be saved and retrieved from disk, although no provision is made for a composite 'Setup' as in the Dr.T editor. Some of the randomising options are more comprehensive than on the other two editors, with the ability to 'mix' between two or more sounds, as well as subtract Timbres from sounds already created. But there is no facility for choosing your own 'mask' for randomising.
• PROBLEMS The graphic envelope editing is hampered by the method chosen. Instead of allowing free selection of a vertex of the envelope and allowing you to drag it with the mouse, you have to select the vertex and then move just that point. This slows down envelope editing. You still have access to the envelope parameters whilst using the graphic editor though, so the combination can be relatively fast to use.
The sequencer is limited in that you cannot enter or play notes from the mouse, and need to use either an external MIDI keyboard or the Atari's typewriter keyboard to play notes or the sequence. I had some problems using the Thru function with other expanders connected to the Atari's Out socket after the MT32.
The use of the menu bar to select all the options looks neat and is easy to use, but is not as fast or as convenient as the system used in Patchbox. There are some links between the functions (when you select a Timbre in the Library page, for instance, it is then the currently selected edit Timbre), but not enough to avoid the necessity of shuttling back and forth to the menu bar.
After the comprehensiveness of the Patch and Edit pages, the Rhythm editing functions are disappointing: a single dialogue box, with a minimalistic approach. No decoding of the sounds is made from their bank and Timbre number, so unless you know that A24 is Celesta 2, you could easily get confused!
• ADVANTAGES The GEM standard interface is easy to learn and relatively quick to use in practice. The external MIDI keyboard can be re-channelised or Thru'd by using the computer's MIDI Out socket. The provision of separate editing buffers protects you from losing your work by accident. The library functions are many and comprehensive, and are fast to load and store on disk. The manual is professionally presented in a ring-binder and sleeve arrangement.
All three editors are capable of fulfilling their intended role - editing and controlling the MT32. The differences are mainly in the fine detail of comprehensiveness of parameters, the user interface, and the functionality in actual use.
Which did I prefer? I actually preferred bits of each program! I liked the page selection in Patchbox, despite the fact that it had the simplest interface and the troublesome sequencer. The ease of flicking through the pages from the main screen was wonderful. Dr.T had by far the best use of the mouse for both editing and playing notes, as well as the best graphical editing of the envelopes. Steinberg had the best librarian functions and the most sophisticated use of GEM.
But that approach avoids the question. If I was going to buy one of these I think my money would go on the Dr.T editor, swayed as I am by the comprehensive MIDI specification, the mouse play facility, and the nicely implemented graphic editing. The other programs are surprisingly difficult to separate into second place - Patchbox has the advantage of simplicity, whilst the Steinberg editor has the potential disadvantage of sophistication. The important thing to remember is that each of these is capable of doing a very good job of controlling and editing the MT32, and you should choose the one whose fine detail suits you - not whichever one I say I liked.
With the rapidly increasing trend to put remarkably complex musical instruments into ever smaller boxes, I have no doubt that the MT32 is going to look very simple in a couple of years time. For the present, I am quite glad that such editors are available to make using this sort of technology easier. The MT32 is a powerful and versatile collection of musical instruments in a deceptively small box, and you need an editor like the ones described here to exploit its full potential. Choose carefully!
Our thanks to Axe Music of Ipswich for the loan of the MT32.
- Dr.T's MT32 Editor/Librarian (versions available for Atari, Macintosh, Amiga). Contact MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).
- Patchbox 32 Contact Tigress Designs, (Contact Details).
- Steinberg Synthworks MT32 Contact Steinberg Digital Audio, (Contact Details).
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Review by Martin Russ