Russ DX7 AI Editor
This low-cost program for the Atari ST uses Artificial Intelligence techniques to take all the hard work out of programming FM synths and allows you to create new ‘musical’ voices quickly and easily. David Hughes enters the edit zone...
To quote from that most intelligent and eloquent of deranged computers, HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey - 'Sorry to interrupt the festivities, Dave, but we have a problem.' Just how do I start yet another review of yet another voice editor for the DX7 on the Atari ST, when voice editors for the DX7 generally pass through the pages of Sound On Sound in greater numbers than editors of the Sicilian Times pass through the Naples sewerage system? But then this editor is something different, a definite jump away from the usual, somewhat hackneyed parameter editors that have become the norm. This DX voice editor, like the aforementioned psychotic mainframe, boasts artificial intelligence.
The DX7 AI Editor is the brainchild of one Martin Russ, whose name will be recognised by many as a regular and prolific contributor to this magazine. To give a full review of this product, it's probably a good idea to start with a few words of explanation.
Right, all those who find editing the DX7 a real breeze and who think FM synthesis is the 'bees knees', please stand up and leave the room. (Shuffle, shuffle, sound of shabby plimsoles and smelly anoraks scuffling across the floor, door slams.) Right, we've gotten rid of all the techno-freak button pushers and converted model railway enthusiasts. Next step, stand up all those who've bought a voice editor for their computer/DX7 and are completely happy with it. (Yet more shuffling of feet, scuff, scuff, door slams again.) That's rid us of the professional accordion players and Richard Clayderman fans. Most of those remaining should be fairly familiar with the notion behind the DX7. Those who think that the DX7 is Hotpoint's latest tumble-dryer have got the wrong magazine again and should have quietly left with the Richard Clayderman fans!
In the DX7 you have an instrument with sufficient computing power to embarrass an IBM 370, but which is slightly more fun to programme than a rubber duck. Thanks to the thoughtful inclusion of a voice dump facility in its MIDI specification (remember that when the DX7 first appeared in 1983, the MIDI standard was also in its infancy), computer-based voice editors for the beast appeared soon after the instrument's potential had been realised, but nearly all of these missed the boat entirely by presenting so much information to the user that, instead of easing the task of programming, they added to the confusion.
The problem with the Yamaha DX7 is, to borrow some computer jargon, its 'profoundly complicated user interface'. Think of it this way: some of you probably first learned to programme a computer using a high-level language, usually BASIC. That way, you began to talk to the box in its own language and got used to its rather simple way of looking at things, and this approach is suitable for a very large number of applications. The object of a high-level language is to restrict the number of facilities available in order to reduce the task of the user. However, there is a catch to this, because in restricting the options that are available to us we also limit the flexibility of the machine, and this is the fundamental compromise which reduces so many software designers and system analysts to quivering nervous wrecks.
The problem with the DX7 is that Yamaha adopted the reverse approach. They started at the 'machine end' of FM synthesis instead of at the 'friendly end', which can and does cause problems for those without a degree in higher mathematics. This is where the Russ AI Editor steps in to provide a more 'user friendly' front-end to the instrument. That's enough of the theory. The next step is to look at what the AI Editor does and how it does it.
On booting the 3.5" program disk, you are greeted with the standard GEM window which lists the files available on the disk. Simplest of all is a READ.ME document which Mr Russ has included as a prompt to all those who only read the manual when something goes wrong. Here he gives a few pointers as to the basic operation of the program.
The software is not copy-protected in any form, which will probably raise an elated cheer from those people whose main occupation in life is to rip off the efforts of starving, over-worked software programmers. Adding the possibility of future upgrades should help defeat the 'hackers' in our merry throng but I personally think that, even with the drastic compromise in the cost of this package, stripping away all forms of software protection is simply playing into the hands of those unscrupulous individuals who would hack their own grandmothers just for the fun of it.
The file notes also describe the provisions made to catch as many potential Yamaha users as possible. The program not only caters for the DX7 and the DX5, which I used for this review, but also the TX7 expander. To generate a sound from the expander without the aid of a keyboard, you simply hit either the ALT, CONTROL or SHIFT keys on the Atari. This is a clever feature and should prove to be a boon for the sequencer fans out there.
The program is loaded into the Atari by double-clicking the mouse on the AIEDITOR icon and, after a short wait whilst the program is dragged from disk, the first page of the program prompts you to make sure that system information is available from the DX7 and then to press the relevant voice selector button on the synth. When this is done, the data is downloaded to the Atari, which then tells you how many data bytes it received and prompts for another go if it didn't like what the synth sent.
As soon as the data load is successful, the program jumps to the main screen which is the guts of the program (see diagram). Here, you get some flashy line graphics which form a sort of logo for the product, followed by a 5 x 3 rectangular grid within which are various 'keywords' defining an activity on the Editor. Now, in order to reduce the confusion which most people associate with programming the DX7, the Russ AI Editor limits the number of variables to a rather meagre 13. Obviously some pretty heavy pruning has gone on to replace over 200 parameters with just 13. But there is a logic behind it.
The keywords presented on the grid immediately made me think back to the good old (bad old?) days of synthesis when, instead of a filter cut-off frequency pot, a synth had a switch labelled 'Brightness' or 'Wow'.
The opening screen proudly states 'Welcome to Intelligent Editing' and the 'intelligent editing' refers to a 'model' of FM synthesis which the computer has within its memory, and these keywords assist in the creation of new sounds from old.
To edit a sound you simply move the mouse around the required parameter box. The vertices of each box define a set of rectangular axes, with the origin set in the top left-hand corner. The position of the mouse pointer with respect to these axes defines the new parameter for the voice data. So, to modify an existing DX7 voice, you move the pointer about an imaginary diagonal line running from the top left to the bottom right of each box and click once on the left-hand mouse button.
This, at first, may seem a rather complicated process but in practice is wonderfully simple and much easier than flicking through a multiplicity of different modes, operator numbers and frequency ratios.
The complex algorithm diagrams which litter the front panel of the DX7 are replaced on-screen with the aforementioned keywords such as 'Brightness', 'Wow', 'Overdrive', 'Colour' and 'Natural'. To me, some of these rather flowery terms failed to convey any sort of useful description of the process at work. I accept that this is a personal feeling but I have to say that I didn't like these keywords at all.
Mr Russ suggests that the 'Brightness' box is a useful starting point, which it actually is. Moving the mouse to the top left of the box produces a more mellow sound, bottom right produces a rather harsher sound. As the notes point out, there is a more-or-less linear relationship between the two. Moving away from the main diagonal produces more colourful variations on the same theme. Incidentally, all edits are sent instantly to your synth so that you can hear the changes as they occur.
Another target for playful clicking was the envelope generator, which seems to affect all of the DX operators collectively, with minor variations around a basic theme to make the end result more usable. The 'Colour' and 'Natural' boxes affect the timbre (tone) of the sound, often in a highly dramatic and unpredictable manner, sometimes quite satisfying, sometimes not. On several occasions I managed to wreck a carefully 'tweaked' sound by careless clicking of the mouse near to these boxes. However, there is an escape capsule in the form of an 'UNDO' box which literally 'undoes' the last edit. The AI Editor does not retain old data but instead re-computes the voice data from its FM model, which proved to be another avenue for playful clicking.
Other options include 'Touch Tone' and 'Touch Volume', which both affect the touch response of the instrument. An excellent feature is the 'Analysis' box (see 'Parameter Display' diagram), which doesn't give you a detailed psychological assessment (though there are packages available for the Atari if you think you need one!) but, instead, gives you a breakdown of the actual DX parameters themselves, including detailed drawings of the algorithms, envelope shapes (both pitch and amplitude) and LFO waveforms, that a voice is using. This is presented in a very professional and helpful manner and shows that quite some effort has gone into producing the program. Finally, there is a facility to change the name of the sound you're editing from the Atari keyboard, which stops you having to hunt around the DX front panel for little green letters - not much fun when you're almost colour blind!
On the whole then, the Russ AI Editor gets a positive 'thumbs up'. I enjoyed using this program a lot. I started off with a collection of patches that were beginning to sound a little too close to Five Star presets for comfort and which now sound a little too close to Tangerine Dream for comfort! The package isn't truly intelligent but it is clever, to say the least. And I've seen editors which cost considerably more than the asking price of this package which do only half as much.
On the slightly negative side, I did have the odd problem with a somewhat manic box which wouldn't stop 'pinging' until I'd moved the mouse, and there really should be a facility to store edits on disk instead of in the DX7 (next software update perhaps?). After all, disk space is very cheap and I'm rapidly running out of RAM. There is also the question of those keywords, but I suspect I'll get used to them in time.
If you're thinking about buying a computer-based editor for your DX7/Atari or if you've already got one and you don't get on well with it, then I suggest you look at this package. It's a lot of fun to use and at a price which won't exactly force you into the bankruptcy courts. Try it and see. You never know, you might actually end up looking forward to a programming session on your DX!
Price A limited facility version is available for £7 inc VAT; the full-featured version costs £29.95 inc VAT.
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