Atari ST Software
Using a Roland MT32 or any Roland CM modules and looking to get into sequencing on an Atari? Ian Waugh reckons that there's a particular piece of software you should check out.
Using Roland's MT32 (or related CM modules), or looking for a comfortable introduction to sequencing? Tentrax combines ease of use, integration and affordability in a way that you should check out.
ONE OF THE quiet success stories of recent years must be Roland's MT32. While the gaze of the hi-tech musician has moved inevitably from one state-of-the-art synth to another, the MT32 was snapped up by countless musicians who knew a bargain when they saw one.
Soon after came the CM32L - an MT32 in a box - which was aimed squarely at the computer market. As it had no front panel controls you had to control it via software. This was joined by the CM32P - a U110 in a box - and the CM64M - a combined CM32L and CM32P (see reviews MT, January '90). Roland further developed its CM (Computer Music) concept with the addition of accessories such as the CN20 Music Entry Pad and CF10 Digital Fader (see reviews MT, October '90), the PC200 MIDI Keyboard Controller and the MA12C Micro Monitors. Put them together and you have the building blocks of a very neat Desktop Music System - DMS.
The popularity of the MT32 led to its instrument/MIDI channel allocation being adopted as a default by most programmers and musicians who produce song demo files. Even non-MT32 specific files often use channel 10 for the drum track.
While any CM module will work with any sequencer, Roland thought it a good idea to produce a program dedicated to the MT32/CM module concept. The result is Tentrax, which was developed by Steinberg, famous for the infamous Pro24 and state-of-the-art Cubase sequencers. The essence of DMS is that it be easy to use and Tentrax has been designed especially with that in mind.
Tentrax will run on any ST but requires a hi-res monitor. The recording resolution is a quite-respectable 192ppqn (pulses per quarter note). RAM, however, is not apparently allocated dynamically and each track can only hold 5330 events. This may seem like a lot but three tracks on one of the demos (which lasts for four minutes) each contain over 3000 events - it's easy to overrun your event budget if you like to tweak the pitchbend or mod wheels. The program ignores aftertouch completely - which is probably just as well, more so as the CM modules don't recognise it.
Tentrax doesn't run under GEM, which precludes the use of desk accessories but screen updates are almost instantaneous. Operation is very much mouse-based, however, and very graphic. Neat.
THE MAIN SCREEN is laid out like a ten-channel mixer, so let's run down a channel: at the top is the track number (which is also the MIDI channel): you can't alter this but using the MT32 you won't need to. Voices are allocated to MIDI channels (and thus tracks) rather than the other way around. It's one thing less for you to contend with.
Beneath the track number is a VU meter - and it moves. OK, it sounds trite but they're fun to watch during playback. They actually indicate MIDI velocity, not volume, which could confuse anyone expecting the meters to reduce their level as they pull back the faders. Next is the sound name box which shows which instrument is assigned to the track. This is followed by an info box; clicking here shows how many events the track contains and the percentage of free memory along with the track name, transpose, velocity shift and delay settings. The track name only appears on the Edit screen, not on the Main screen. Altering the values only affects the music on playback, not the original data - good. If you have a CM64 you can elect to use a sound from either the LA or PCM section of the module. Next is a button which switches reverb on and off; below this is a pan pot. Click here and drag the mouse to alter the setting. Use the right mouse button for greater sensitivity. Underneath is a mute button and below this the fader. These are definitely "long throw" and very comfortable. Again, the right mouse button gives greater Sensitivity.
MIDI channel ten is the drum track and doesn't have pan pot or sound name boxes. Channel one isn't used by the CM modules and lacks a reverb control. Clicking on the sound name box brings up a list of program change numbers so you could use this with a second expander (MIDI channel numbers are fixed, remember).
Bottom right of the screen are the tape transport controls - Play, Record, Stop, Fast Forward and Rewind. There's a song position counter, a tempo indicator, left and right locators and a record status indicator. This determines the way a track is recorded - with a count-in, no count-in, punch-in or wait until a note is played. There are a few more icons which we'll get to in a moment.
If you have a master controller with pan and volume controls (or a device such as the CF10), adjusting this moves the on-screen controls. This two-way interaction is encouraging. It's comforting to know everything is linked together (pass me my security blanket).
LET'S LAY DOWN a few tracks. You can record in realtime or step-time and select the data you want to record - all, volume, pan, modulation, pitchbend and notes. Each option will replace existing data of the same type on the track. This lets you fine-tune a recording by overdubbing volume data (using the faders), say, until you're happy with the result.
You can set the tempo from the Main screen but click on the tempo icon and you can also program sophisticated tempo changes. Stipulate the start and end bars, the start and end tempos, the number of steps (the "smoothness") per bar and whether the change is exponential (slow at the start, fast at the end), linear (regular) or logarithmic (fast at the beginning, slow at the end).
The reverb icon calls up the reverb settings (you want news, read The Observer). Select reverb type, time and level and click OK.
Snapshots provide a way of making volume and pan changes for a group of tracks. Select the position in the song at which you want the changes to occur (using Song Position Pointer), make the changes in the mixer panel, select the resolution (number of steps per bar) and select Instant or Fade In changes. These do as their names suggest - Instant makes the changes instantly and Fade In lets you specify a range of bars over which the changes will take place. Brilliant: you can perform similar functions on other sequencers, generally using some form of complex transform function. None have this ease or simplicity.
DOWN TO THE nitty gritty - editing. The track edit icon offers copy, erase, insert, quantise, save and load commands. These are block operations performed in increments of one bar.
"'Normal' sequencer users cannot know the joy of selecting a sound by name rather than by MIDI channel and instrument."
The quantise settings range from 1/64th notes to quarter notes and include triplets. You can quantise the position of the notes and/or their length. You can specify the range of bars which will be affected so you can quantise different parts of a track to different values. Each track has to be quantised separately and the effects are not reversible.
The save and load functions let you save parts of a track. Useful for storing favourite drum patterns, for example.
A drum kit icon takes you to the Drum Editor. This is a grid editor in traditional style. It can show one or two bars at a time and you can scroll to any position in the song. Only (!) 20 drums are shown at once. You can select which 20 will appear and also program the other drum sounds, although these won't appear on the grid. I suspect few people will want to use more than 20 sounds in a piece but if you do, it would be better to have a scrolling list of all the sounds. The CM modules include sound effects (the MT32 doesn't) which can also appear here. A soundtrack could well use all 20 slots.
You can play the song, loop the displayed section or solo the drum track. The track can be edited as it plays, which is especially useful in loop mode.
Pressing and holding the right mouse button displays a four-icon tool box (an idea incorporated into Cubase - or vice versa) offering pointer (normal mouse), eraser (rubber to you, mate), stick and magnifying glass tools.
The stick (or baton, as we say in The Phil) is used to insert hits on the grid. You can set default length and velocity values and alter the grid resolution. The magnifying glass plays the sound of any instrument you click on and shows its exact position in the grid, its length and velocity - all of which can be edited. The length function has little effect on drum sounds but is useful for controlling the duration of the effects. There's a useful copy function to help you build drum tracks but no cut or erase.
The MIDI In icon lets you change the velocity of a note selected with the magnifying glass by tapping a key on a MIDI keyboard. Unfortunately, it plays the sound of the key you press, not that of the selected note. You can enter notes in step-time this way, too. The notes you play are entered at the current position of the mouse marker. Fine, but you need to know which keys play which drum sound and these aren't shown on the screen.
You can also record a track in real-time from a MIDI keyboard. This is especially useful in loop mode.
TENTRAX HAS A score editor - one of the cheapest sequencer programs to be able to make such a boast. It is used with tracks one to nine. This can only display one track at a time and its facilities are fairly basic, but they work well and they are easy to use - the DMS concept again.
As in the Drum Editor, clicking the right mouse button produces a tool kit containing note, rest, eraser, magnifying glass and glue tube icons.
You can click notes and rests into the score with the mouse, choosing from a set of durations in the centre of the screen. Position indicators at the top of the screen show exactly where your click is going to place them but these default to the resolution of the selected note. This can be negated (in order to enter a quarter note on the second eighth position in a bar, for example) by holding down the Control key. It's a bit of a faff if you're entering lots of syncopated notes, otherwise it's brilliant. Sharps and flats are entered by pressing the Shift and Alternate key while entering notes. You can specify the split point between the treble and bass staves. An 8ve display option would have been welcome. The glue tube is used to "paste" two notes of the same pitch together - a tie, in other words.
Notes can be entered in step-time from a MIDI keyboard. This is the method I generally find the quickest and easiest.
Clicking on a note displays its start time, length, pitch and velocity in the note info box at the bottom right of the screen. You can edit these by clicking on them. Velocity can also be altered by dragging on a vertical bar. You can select a group of notes by dragging a box around them in order to perform block operations such as copy, erase, shift and quantise.
"The seasoned muso may regard some of Tentrax' moving graphics gimmicky but they do enhance the use of the program - I like them."
There's also an intriguing chord insert function. You can select one of 16 chord types which can be inserted as block chords or as ascending or descending arpeggios. You can also choose an inversion. Click on the keyboard at the bottom of the screen and the chord plays and appears in the correct inversion. Cute, very cute.
A right click in the note selection area determines the quantise value of the score display. No problem if you've entered a track in step-time but it can make some real-time entries look odd. This is a problem all scorewriters suffer from.
TENTRAX IS NOT GEM-based and has one menu. It contains file handling commands, MIDI Thru settings (so input is directed to the currently-selected track), MIDI click and chase events (which ensures that settings such as volume and pan are correct at whatever position you start playing the song).
There is no internal or external clock setting, which is understandable as Tentrax plus expander are intended to make a self-contained unit. Still, should you want to link to another sequencer or drum machine...
You can set any time signature for the song, ranging from 2/4 to 15/8 but you can't change time signature within a song. And while the faders normally control volume, they can also be set to control modulation or pitch. This is useful as it means you can record these after the notes, even if your master keyboard doesn't have the wheels.
If memory is running a little low you can try the Reduce Controller Data option.
TO SELECT A new sound, click on the sound name and up pops a screen full of sounds, LA or PCM depending on your module. In the lower left-hand corner is the song position counter. You can scroll through this with the mouse. When you reach a position at which you want a new sound you simply click on it to insert it into the track. These appear in the sound name slot as the track plays.
Previous and Next buttons offer a quick way of stepping from one sound change to another. The only limitation here is that if you have a CM64M you can't mix LA and PCM sounds on the same track.
THERE ARE TWO manuals supplied with Tentrax. The first takes you through the basics of setting up your DMS - plugging in the computer, making the connections and so on - and explains about TOS, GEM, menus and the mouse. It's a mini primer for using the ST, in fact, which makes sense as the DMS is available in various package combinations. The manual will help the complete novice who buys a DMS to "plug in and go".
The second manual is about Tentrax itself. It's well laid out and starts with a description of the Main screen. I usually hate manuals which tell you what everything does (that's for the reference section) before it tells you how to use it, but this is somehow forgivable with Tentrax - possibly because most functions and operations are fairly obvious.
AS WITH ANY budget program, I have a list of personal wishes and wants. To make the program a little more helpful, for example, I'd like to have been able to change and see the octave and velocity offset from the Main screen. An indicator to show when a track contained recorded data would be useful too, as would a clock to indicate the duration of a piece (although not all the big boys have this) - so simple yet so useful. Additionally, some of you sticklers for accuracy may like to see the pan positions and volume levels also shown as numbers. Some parameters have to be changed by typing in values. Total mouse control would have been better. And given the price, can I whinge about no score printing facility? No? All right then...
Then there's Tentrax' inability to dynamically allocate RAM: I didn't know they made sequencers like this any more - especially Steinberg.
While Tentrax can import MIDI Files, it can't save them. This means you can't give your files to another non-Tentrax user or load them into a scorewriter, or take them with you should you decide to upgrade. This may be the furthest thing from your mind but it does tie - and restrict - you to the program.
TENTRAX IS FUN. The seasoned muso may regard some of the moving graphics gimmicky but they do enhance the use of the program. I like them. "Normal" sequencer users cannot know the joy of selecting a sound by name rather than by MIDI channel and instrument. There's an important lesson here: the way forward for MIDI and software must be a greater integration of software and hardware. It's difficult to achieve given the disparate nature of the beast (MIDI, that is) but fairly easy using a dedicated piece of software.
Tentrax complements the MT32, CM32L and CM32P perfectly. If you have a CM64M, Tentrax would be under-using it somewhat; then again, perhaps this is only so if you regularly construct pieces containing more than nine parts. It's not as sophisticated as some other sequencers but if I had a MT32 or one of the CM modules I think I'd gladly forgo the intricacies of the others for the sheer integration offered by Tentrax - especially if this was my first venture into MIDI sequencing.
More from Roland UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Ian Waugh
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