Steinberg Cubase Lite and C-Lab Notator Alpha Sequencers
Cubase Light and Notator Alpha are both streamlined versions of their more costly counterparts, designed to make MIDI sequencing on the Atari ST more approachable.
Two streamlined MIDI sequencing packages for the Atari ST are put through their paces by our education specialists, Stephanie Sobey-Jones and Mike Simmons.
There is a distinct difference between a sequencer package for general music use and one designed for use in education. The problem is that many music educationalists are still less than comfortable when faced with anything that depends on a computer for its success, so for a system to appeal to them, it has to be logical, straightforward and approachable. This aim is at odds with many state-of-the-art sequencer software packages, which seem to breed new features with every software revision.
Ideally, all the essential features required for sequencer recording should be provided, with as few confusing additions as possible. In addition, the ability to work with conventional musical notation, and to be able to print it out afterwards is also of prime importance.
One of the 'joys' of being an educational music technology consultant is that you frequently get asked to recommend the definitive classroom sequencing package which — in addition to being relatively childproof — will have the following ideal features:
- It will be instinctive to use and can be mastered by an overworked teacher in a weekend, via an easy-to-read manual.
- It will allow easy input and editing of musical ideas, showing the on-screen result in standard musical notation.
- It can produce printed evidence of Year 7's first efforts, ready for Open Day.
- It is cheap, which in school budget terms usually means under £100!
Until now this has been something of a challenge, for the choice is not extensive. It seems to me that (in some cases), user-friendliness costs money, and the more you pay, the more intuitive the package becomes. You have more facilities at your disposal, of course, but in the average classroom situation, many of these may never see the light of day.
Very few teachers are going to be able to find enough time to work their way through the kind of manuals that accompany most heavyweight sequencers. Nor should they need to. Most top-flight programs are packed with all manner of bells and whistles which, though of great value to the dedicated techno-freak, have no place whatsoever in the classroom.
C-Lab's Notator Alpha sequencing package for the Atari ST has no superfluous bells and whistles. It would be easy to describe it as a cut-down version of the company's Notator sequencer, but this would be both unfair and inaccurate. It is aimed fairly and squarely at the classroom and provides pretty much everything that a music teacher might need — and nothing more.
So what does Alpha provide? First of all, a very well written manual. There are going to be people buying this program who aren't just new to sequencers but new to computers too, and the manual takes them step by step through the basics of disk formatting and mouse clicking in a way that Atari have never quite seemed to manage. There's nothing patronising about the tone, just straightforward information presented in an easily understood manner, and this approach is maintained throughout the manual. The only thing that could have improved on this would have been a series of Help screens available from within the program. This seems to be common practice in many fields of computing, but doesn't seem to have extended as far as music software yet. It would obviously be very useful in situations where the manual isn't close to hand.
"Notator Alpha is a well-featured basic sequencer with the ability to produce high-quality manuscript to a professional standard."
Like most of C-Lab's software, Alpha is copyright protected by a dongle, a small device which is plugged into the computer's cartridge port. The program looks for the dongle and as long as it's there, everything's fine. If it can't find the dongle, it refuses to run. I understand C-Lab's need to protect their intellectual property but I can't help wishing that they'd found some other way of doing it in this instance. Keeping track of dongles has always been something of a nightmare in the classroom, and this is just one more to add to the collection.
On loading up the software, we are presented with a reassuringly uncluttered main screen. Alpha adopts the well established convention of presenting a sequencer as a series of tape recorder controls, and all the familiar buttons are laid out on the right-hand side of the screen. Some sequencers demand that you stipulate the number of bars you are going to play before you start 'recording'.
Happily, this is not the case with any of C-Lab's offerings — you just keep playing until you finish, lose interest or make a mistake. Each performance is stored as a Track and up to 16 of these tracks may be included in any one pattern. All the tracks in a pattern are played simultaneously and the current pattern is displayed in the centre of the screen. Alpha allows for a maximum of 99 patterns and these can be arranged, unsurprisingly, in the Arrange Window to the left of the screen.
An arrangement consists of a number of patterns played one after another in whatever order the user requires, and most users tend to break their work up into musically meaningful patterns such as verses, choruses, link sections and so on. This could mean, for example, that Pattern One would be played at Bar One, and then again at Bar Nine, then Pattern Two at Bar Seventeen and then back to Pattern One again — or whatever. Notator Alpha imposes very few restrictions, other than that only one pattern may be played at any one time, and if a new pattern is started before the previous one has finished, the earlier pattern is terminated and the new one takes over.
Some sequencers allow specific tracks within a pattern to be muted or demuted, depending on where they occur within an arrangement. Sadly, this is not possible with Alpha, though the same effect can be obtained by copying a pattern to a new location and then recording a further track into the new pattern or deleting unwanted ones.
One shortcoming that I found less easy to accept was Alpha's inability to loop tracks, or parts of tracks, and then let them run indefinitely. This is a pretty standard feature on most sequencers and I find it surprising that C-Lab have decided to omit it. It may be a reflection on the way I work, but I would find not being able to knock out a couple of bars of percussion and then loop that while worked out the rest of the song something of a limitation. On the other hand, I admit that if I was going to play each track from end to end then would probably introduce more variation into my performance than would otherwise be the case — and this sad admission may be behind C-Lab's decision to leave out looping!
If sequencers were just like tape recorders, then we'd probably still all be using tape recorders. The real strength of a sequencer — besides higher fidelity at mixdown — is its ability to edit notes after they've been recorded. In many ways one can think of the sequencer as a kind of musical word processor — only more so. Having entered our 'words', we can manipulate them in a variety of ways until the finished piece of music sounds exactly as we want it to. This means that we are no longer restricted by our skills as a performer, nor by the limitations of our creativity at the moment of performance.
In the case of Alpha, the edit options are split between the main screen and a separate Edit page. The main screen tends to deal with tracks rather than notes, and from here individual tracks can be transposed through a range of 96 semitones and the velocity of the notes within that track can be altered. If the timing isn't quite up to scratch then the notes can be nudged into place by means of the quantise option, which operates to an accuracy of 768 pulses to the bar. This is all non-destructive editing — if the results aren't as expected we can simply return to the original performance and try again. Less easy to reverse — though not impossible — is the facility to cut or copy segments of tracks and then paste them back onto themselves or to another track. This is a pretty good substitute of the aforementioned looping, though much more time consuming.
Turning to the Edit page, the music can be displayed and edited in two quite distinct ways. Firstly, there is an event editor, which itemises each MIDI event in the order in which it occurs. Specific information — the pitch, velocity and length of each note, for example — is listed in alphanumeric form and can be edited by mouse click, or from the computer keyboard. Each event is also represented by a horizontal bar which may be dragged to the right or left to change its duration.
This is not the most intuitive way of editing music, though if my memory serves me right it's all that was available on the first release of Creator/Notator back in the dark ages of 1987. The event editor's real strength lies in the fact that it will display any MIDI event, and not just notes: Pitch Bend, Program Change, Control Wheel information — anything that reaches the Atari MIDI In port will be shown on the screen. This includes SysEx (System Exclusive) data, though in this case only the header and footer messages are displayed, which means that, although data dumps are possible, Alpha users won't be getting into any heavy-duty SysEx editing. If you're not sure what SysEx is, don't worry — it's not something you have to use!
The second edit option — and the one that's likely to be used far more within the classroom — is the display of each track as notes upon a stave. Individual notes and rests can be dragged back and forth by means of the mouse, extra notes can be inserted from an on-screen toolbox, and the whole performance generally tinkered with until perfect playback is achieved.
Alpha seems to default to displaying the score in the key of C, which means that playing, for example, in E results in a score that's absolutely bristling with accidentals. This can quickly be remedied by clicking the mouse between the time and key signatures and then selecting the key you were actually playing in.
The edit page can be toggled between a display of one track or an entire score, though in the latter case only three staves will appear on the screen at any one time. The data from any one track is displayed on just one stave and this will inevitably cause difficulties when it comes to instruments with a wide range, such as the piano. Pressing the 'S' key while in edit mode splits the display between a bass and treble clef, defaulting to the usual split point of middle C, though this may be altered if that is your wish.
All the commonly used clefs are available and clicking repeatedly on the one currently on display allows the user to cycle through those on offer and select the one most appropriate for a given piece of music. Needless to say, the note positions sort themselves out for each clef.
Working from the score is likely to be a good deal more intuitive for most users, but it's worth pointing out that the event editor is a good deal more precise than notation can ever be. As we have seen, the smallest measurement of time in the event editor is a pulse lasting one 768th of a bar. In 4/4 time that would mean there are 92 pulses to a crochet — I'm not sure how you'd write that into a score, and I'd certainly prefer not to have to read it! So far I've only spoken about the editors in terms of editing work which has already been played in from a keyboard. In fact there's nothing stopping the user starting from scratch — a blank stave or event list — and dragging each note into place, one by one, from the partbox. I've always felt that this was one of the most tedious ways of producing music since the invention of hand-cut pianola rolls, but if that's how you'd like to spend your time, Alpha will oblige.
For the non-musically literate, notes can be input, one at a time, from the keyboard in step time. You have to activate step time via the Edit menu when you are on the Score Edit page. It doesn't actually have the enable button which you see on the Score Edit page of Notator and so it was some time before discovered the facility was there!
Notator Alpha is a useful sequencer with an edit facility which will make perfect sense to anyone learning a musical instrument by means of classical notation — in other words, just about anyone learning music in a classroom. However, it has one more trick up its sleeve which makes it an even more attractive proposition. Besides displaying a performance as notes upon a stave, it's also able to print out that performance to a standard which, depending on your printer, ranges from the useable to the breathtakingly professional.
If you just want a score to quickly pass round a classroom, the process is pretty painless. The program defaults will seldom let you down and hard copy becomes available in a matter of minutes. If you want something a little more elaborate, Alpha will amply repay the time you spend on it. Besides the part box of notes and rests, there is a whole range of symbols and ornaments to be dragged into place. Slurs, trills, guitar chord diagrams — there's even a set of alternate note heads available. The piece can be titled, text can be dragged onto the score and the notation will automatically adjust itself to the position of your lyrics. If the manual has any shortcomings, it's probably in the section covering printout, since getting the initial setup right can be a fairly intricate process. A little careful reading, and experimentation, will generally sort things out, however.
Though not the cheapest educational package around, Alpha is a well-featured basic sequencer with the ability to produce high-quality manuscript to a professional standard. Its greatest strength, however, is its simplicity of use. Its uncluttered main screen, intuitive controls and sheer friendliness mean that that this is a sequencer that's going to be used, rather than stuck away somewhere in a cupboard. Couple the strength of the program with the clarity of its well written manual (I wish Will Mowat had written all the manuals that I've had to read in the last five years), and C-Lab would seem to have got it pretty much right.
About the only thing it doesn't do is sync to external MIDI clock, which means it can't be used with a MIDI tape sync unit. Though the program is significantly more costly than Cubase Lite, I've given it a high value rating purely on the basis that the music notation side of the program is so much more advanced than anything else in this price range, and for educational use, this can be vitally important. Music in the classroom should be about creativity and about exploration; Alpha can only assist in this process — as long as no-one pinches the dongle!
Notator Alpha £225 including VAT.
Sound Technology plc, (Contact Details).
Earlier this year, Steinberg launched their contribution to the quest for a definitive entry-level sequencer in the form of Cubase Lite. The package is designed to run on an Atari ST or STE with a minimum of 1 MB of memory (plus a high-resolution monitor), and it is based on the same industry-standard, user-friendly graphic environment as its 'big brother' Cubase. Although not overtly marketed as an 'educational package', I think this is one area where it is destined to become very popular, for it provides all the basic features you would expect from a sequencer, presented in an easy-to-use program which is absolutely ideal for classroom composition.
One of the major features of the package must be Steinberg's decision to dispense with that dreaded dongle (the most common copyright protection device used on Atari music software), and to any teacher who has been a victim of that 'let's hide the dongle' craze, currently rife in some of our schools, this must be a positive relief! Another immediately encouraging feature is the economically written manual — a relatively concise 100 pages which take you through a basic tutorial on setting up your instruments and computer, loading the program and making an initial recording before getting into any of the more complex stuff. It does, however, assume some prior knowledge of basic computer operations such as mouse clicking and disk handling, which the first-time sequencer user (and possibly first-time computer user) may or may not have. Also an index would be nice — but you can't have everything!
After several years of music technology teaching, I have come to the conclusion that most people seem to subconsciously decide whether or not they will be able to use a particular sequencing package within the first few minutes of their first encounter. The main screen, or window, and its presentation of information is actually a vital factor in either encouraging a potential user, or creating an instant mental block. Therefore, one of the first things I would look for, in an entry-level package at any rate, is a main window which is intuitive (and uncluttered!) enough to get the user past this initial hurdle. In this respect, Cubase Lite gets high marks. The program is essentially based around two main windows; the main Arrange window, which handles the recording functions, arrangement of material and some editing options, and the Score window, which deals with different aspects of editing.
The Arrange window is definitely one of the most intuitive I have seen, leaving very little to actual guesswork. Sixteen tracks are available for the recording of material, and these are arranged down one side of the screen as a Track List.
"As an entry-level, value-for-money sequencer, I feel Cubase Lite takes some beating. It offers essential basic recording and editing facilities, and also includes some more advanced features found in Cubase 3.0."
Recording is accomplished via a set of familiar-looking transport controls at the bottom, where there are also facilities to easily change parameters such as tempo and time signature by clicking on the values. Cycle and Solo buttons are also conveniently situated, as is a button to turn the Click track on and off, which is a handy feature, as it saves you diving about in menus trying to turn it off! Next to the Track List are columns containing MIDI channel numbers and program changes for each track, which again can be set by mouse clicking.
The rest of the screen will be taken up by the recorded material, which appears in the form of blocks on each track. Each time you record something on a track, it appears as a new block (or Part), whose length is measured in terms of the bar numbers displayed across the top of this section. This way, you get to see instantly where you are in the song. Since this is one of those packages where you do not have to decide on the number of bars you want to record in advance, you can just start playing and when you finish recording, a block of the appropriate length will appear on the relevant track.
The various blocks, or Parts, which make up the different tracks can be moved around, merged, 'ghosted', and copied to other places or other tracks simply by dragging with the mouse or by clicking on the basic editing directions found in the pull-down menus at the top of the screen. A 'Repeat' feature also gives you instant copies of either a single track or a whole section, which can be handy if you want to instantly have your four-bar drum pattern repeated 10 times while you try out other ideas.
Parts can also be cut and joined together by use of editing tools (virtual scissors and glue!) which are mouse controlled, and which make manipulation of material very simple and intuitive. Recorded material which is rhythmically ragged can be tidied up or quantised to the nearest 64th note, not as exact as the facilities on some sequencers, which go down to a minuscule number of clock pulses, but adequate for most musical purposes. You can also undo your quantise if the end result is not as planned, as this is a non-destructive feature.
For those interested in the technicalities, Cubase Lite records all types of MIDI information except System Common and System Real Time messages. Program changes and continuous controllers (pitch bend and modulation, for example) can be recorded on separate tracks from the notes they belong to. Physical editing of this information is not possible — you can hear the result but it does not seem to appear anywhere in numerical format.
The Score window shows the actual material which has been recorded in each part, displayed as standard musical notation, which for teaching purposes is excellent. This can be viewed either Part or track at a time, or in a score format, with the title of each track displayed at the top of the stave for easy reference. An interesting feature is that the Score and Arrange windows can be viewed simultaneously by sizing down the Score window; this way you can edit the notes and keep an eye on the overall arrangement at the same time. Clicking on a window activates it, so toggling between the Arrange and Score windows is made relatively easy. However, I did discover that when you are recording in the Arrange window, it seems a bit reluctant to work if it thinks the Score window is still open.
Note editing is a pretty intuitive business. Wrong notes can be corrected by dragging up and down with the mouse, and a note tool allows for insertion of additional notes. Individual note information — pitch, length, velocity, MIDI channels — is displayed on an Info Line at the top of the window and precise editing can be carried out here, using the mouse to alter the values. With some sequencers, recorded material will invariably show up as treble clef notation in the key of C, with thousands of accidentals.
This package contains a handy Auto Clef function which (when enabled) determines whether the notes in a particular part will end up displayed in the treble or bass clef, depending on their range. Alternatively, a variety of clefs, and also key signatures, can be easily selected by clicking. Interestingly enough, the key signature of C major is given two options to cope with the question of accidentals, which can be selected to appear either all as sharps, or as flats.
In order to cope with the mass of notes which end up on a single track when a piano part is recorded, a Split function is available to turn a single stave into two, with a pre-defined split point. Transposition is another feature handled from this window, and a part can be transposed anywhere within the 127-note MIDI range, instrument permitting.
The Score window also handles step time recording, where notes can be played in one at a time from the keyboard, which can also be used to edit note information via MIDI, as an alternative to using the mouse. Another interesting feature belonging to the Score window is a Loop button, which allows tracks displayed in that window to 'cycle' independently from the others. This can be used at the same time as the normal Cycle mode, thus creating two independent loops.
In addition to its general user-friendliness, the package has an additional plus in its real-time capabilities, which allow material to be moved around and edited without actually stopping recording or playback — you can even switch tracks whilst recording.
A real bonus — which the program has in common with the C-lab Notator Alpha package — is the ability to print out what has been recorded. One slight grumble I would have here, however, is the inability to add even simple marks of expression to the printed music, which could be a drawback where scores are being submitted for exam work.
As an entry-level, value-for-money sequencer, I feel this package takes some beating. Not only does it offer the essential basic recording and editing facilities, but it also includes some of the more advanced features found in the larger Cubase 3.0. In this respect, it is rather more than your average educational/entry-level package, and of course your song files can be transferred to Cubeat or Cubase 3.0 for more detailed work. In addition, Cubase Lite will both read and generate standard MIDI files, allowing exchange of songs with other sequencers. Best of all, the package retails at less than £100 — a realistic purchase for most school music departments, or for anyone new to sequencing. I await the forthcoming Macintosh and PC versions with anticipation!
Cubase Lite £99 including VAT.
Harman Audio, (Contact Details).
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