Steinberg Pro24 Software
Simon Trask looks at one of the first multitrack MIDI recording packages to be made available for the Atari ST series of computers. How does it compare to dedicated sequencers?
The computers have had the potential for some time, but only now are the Atari ST machines receiving the software support they need to get musicians interested. One of the first ST music packages to appear is Pro24, a multitrack MIDI recording system from Steinberg Research.
There's no doubt digital MIDI sequencing is having a profound effect on the way we record, and maybe even conceive our music. Nowadays it's possible to record extensively before even thinking of turning to tape, and it's a sobering thought that it'll soon be the physical limitations of tape that seem restrictive, as we judge everything against the capabilities of fully digital manipulation.
But that's not to say that there aren't enduring features of existing tape systems which most sequencers aim to emulate. Music being a time-based art, and being constructed of multiple parts which are (mostly!) coincident in time, that's understandable.
Steinberg Research have already made a good name for themselves with their Pro16 sequencer for the Commodore 64 (reviewed E&MM February '86), as much for its accessible design as for its capabilities. Their latest sequencing package, written for Atari's 16-bit 520ST and 1040ST computers, takes full advantage of those machines' increased memory, increased processing power and user-friendly icon-driven graphics environment, without losing any of Pro16's accessibility in a flood of new features.
Pro24 is organised in a manner more akin to tape than its predecessors. It retains a pattern-based format, but each track is organised individually (unlike Pro16 and the C-Lab SuperTrack), and contains its own patterns rather than drawing on a common pool (unlike UMI and 10 Systems). A pattern can last for as little as a fraction of a beat, or for as long as the whole track.
So, whereas previous pattern-based sequencers (Pro16 included) haven't been kind to musicians who want to record lengthy single performances, Pro24 accommodates this approach comfortably - yet still functions in a 'building-block' manner. And as you can copy any section of a track to any position on another track, you can retain that one brief but brilliant idea from an otherwise uninspired 15 minutes of keyboard doodling.
Each track can be up to 999 bars long. That's just over 30 minutes-worth of 4/4 bars at 120BPM - and with more than 80,000 notes to get through, you're unlikely to run out of steam.
Pro24 also includes a 'master track' which allows you to select tempi and/or time-signatures that control all 24 tracks, regardless of settings on those tracks. It's a useful means of controlling all the tracks simultaneously, and allows you to introduce multiple tempo changes. (Tempo as defined elsewhere applies for the duration of a track.)
Pro24 brings software closer than ever to the tape-recorder analogy with its Record, Play, Rewind and Fast Forward controls, and Steinberg have given the system added flexibility with two speeds for both Rewind and Forward. There's also a return-to-zero option, which is (as you might imagine) spot-on each time and virtually instantaneous.
In some ways it's useful to think of a 24-track tape when considering the way Pro24 functions, but no tape can move as fast as this sequencer. And for those of you still in the dark, it is MIDI data, not audio, that's being recorded here.
At all times, your current position is displayed below the controls in bar/beat/step format - the latter to a resolution of 96 steps per beat (that's 384 steps per 4/4 bar). Once you've selected your chosen track, you define the start and end positions within which you wish to record by means of the left and right locators in the lower left area of the main screen; these are defined in the same bar/beat/step format mentioned above. You can enter values for both locators directly from the ST's QWERTY keyboard, or via the fader-style up/down bar on the right-hand side of the display (QWERTY is usually quicker). You then set the current location to the position in the left or right locator by an appropriate single keypress on the QWERTY keyboard. Good to see Steinberg haven't completely foregone the keyboard option for the delights of mouse control.
The top bar of the display identifies seven menus which can be 'pulled down' using the mouse. Each menu offers options which, when selected (again using the mouse), call up windows of various sizes. These windows, if you aren't already familiar with the Atari's graphics, are displays that partially overlay - rather than replace - the main screen. It's a very quick method (all the more so because of its standardised access) of listing and calling up a large number of features without cluttering the main screen and having to remember a large number of commands.
Beneath the top bar is a display which shows the status of the sequencer's 24 tracks; it's here that you can select individual tracks for recording and editing, and mute any combination of tracks. As on Pro16, it's also possible to solo the currently selected track, a feature worth its weight in gold.
"Format: Partly because the controls are familiar, and partly because the mouse is so user-friendly, you can be recording multitracked parts on Pro24 very quickly."
Incidentally, both Track Solo and Track Mute can be switched on and off while tracks are playing; this causes no problems when soloing a track, but mute leaves any notes that are playing at the time hanging - one for the update, chaps.
Partly because the controls are familiar (even if they are implemented in software rather than as physical controllers), and partly because the mouse is so user-friendly (maybe the mouse is man's best friend after all), you can be recording multitracked parts on Pro24 very quickly. And the on-screen friendliness of Pro24 - coupled with an excellent manual - leads you through all the sequencer's many facilities in a fairly painless way.
Each of the Steinberg's 24 tracks can be allocated to any one of MIDI channels 1-16. A spot of arithmetic will tell you that's fewer channels than tracks, which may or may not be a problem, depending on your requirements.
Usefully, Pro24 allows you to select a MIDI mode and a note-off command for each MIDI channel; this can be useful for, say, putting a multi-timbral instrument into Mono Mode, and for minimising the chance of your instruments being left with hanging notes when you suddenly stop playback or recording.
A further window titled 'MIDI Definitions' allows you to choose whether a MIDI Thru facility is active (this allows a part being recorded to be passed on via MIDI Out to other instruments along with existing sequencer tracks), whether MIDI clocks are to be sent on MIDI Out, whether you want the MIDI clock signal to be slightly delayed (useful for coping with any syncing problems which might just possibly occur), and whether you want patch-change, control-change, pitch-bend or note-event data to be filtered on input to save memory.
All of these MIDI settings are stored, together with other settings such as tempo, master track on/off and MIDI Thru on/off, in a setup file called Def.Sng - this is automatically loaded off the program disk each time you load the program itself. You can, of course, overwrite the existing file with your own setup data. This is a valuable feature, but it could usefully be extended to include initial instrument patches and a list of instrument/track allocations, specific to each song.
When you've selected the track on which you want to record, and the position and duration of your recording (default is the first 16 bars of 4/4), you click your mouse/pointer on the Record box. After a two-bar count-in (a metronome beep emanates from the monitor), you're straight into Record. When the right locator position is reached, recording stops. You then have to 'rewind' in order to be able to play back your recording. As with tape, subsequent recording on other tracks is accompanied by existing recorded tracks, unless you mute them first.
Your performances are recorded in all their natural glory, ie. without quantisation (auto-correction). However, you can quantise each pattern individually for playback, to any value from a crotchet to a 32nd-note (including triplets). The Steinberg auto-corrects things in a 'non-destructive' way, so the actual recorded data isn't altered. But it's also possible to make definitive changes in Pattern Edit mode (more on that later).
Steinberg have included a 'Cycle' mode, which has nothing to do with the Tour de France, but constantly repeats whatever has been recorded between the currently-selected left and right locations. So now you can listen to those bum notes as many times as you want.
"Facilities: You can quantise each pattern individually for playback, and the Steinberg auto-corrects things in a 'nondestructive' way, so the actual recorded data isn't altered."
Speaking of bum notes, it's possible to drop in on a track at any point by selecting Record while the track is playing back. But a much more precise way of organising drop-ins is to pre-define them, which is done by setting the left and right locators to the appropriate locations, selecting auto-record, and then playing back the track from any point before the drop-in. The sequencer automatically drops in and out of Record mode at the locations you've chosen. If you don't want to work out the drop points in figures, you can press selected QWERTY keys at the relevant points, and the sequencer will do the work for you. A vast improvement on Pro16's approach.
Pro24 also includes several features which help you to keep track of where you are and how your song is shaping up. You can list the patterns in each one of the 24 tracks, complete with start and end locations for each pattern, while the aptly-named 'Where Am I?' facility lists the patterns and their start/end locations across all 24 tracks at your current position.
You can also call up a 'Track Info' box which overlays the 24-track display. This box allows you to step through all the patterns for a particular track and set/read a number of pattern-specific parameters in the process. Thus you can name a pattern, turn it on or off, set a non-destructive quantise value, set a delay value (from a 64th-note to a minim), transpose a pattern up or down over four octaves, define a patch number and a MIDI volume level, shift velocity up or down or define a fixed velocity level, filter a maximum of six different types of MIDI information from the output, and set a MIDI channel split-point. Phew!
The split-point allows MIDI note data on a single track to be sent on two channels: the track channel and any other channel selected by you. And if you set the split-point appropriately, you can even have a different MIDI channel for each pattern in a track; this is a useful way of re-routing individual patterns.
Pro24 also has a number of functions designed to manipulate patterns and tracks. Multicopy allows you to copy any section of a number of tracks to any position on the same or other tracks - obviously useful for copying a verse, say, to another position in your song. You can also copy any section of a single track to any number of other tracks, copy individual patterns to other tracks, erase whole tracks and delete any number of patterns within tracks.
Further functions allow you to repeat, append and extend individual patterns.
So far we've looked at what this sequencer can do in real time, but as you'd expect from such a package, Pro24 also allows you to work in step time - entering both single notes and chords as well as rests - and to edit your music down to very fine detail.
All this takes place in something known as the Grid Manipulation display. Essentially, this is a list of 15 note events per screen, with position, note, velocity and length displayed (and editable) for each event, and a two-bar grid display which graphically illustrates both the position and duration of each note as a black block. You can summon up a small on-screen hand to help you change the length of any note and to move notes around the display; more fun than dealing with figures.
Other note-editing facilities allow you to quantise either the beginning or the end of all notes in a pattern, edit MIDI controller data (pitch-bend, modulation, volume pedal and so on), set a fixed length for all notes in a pattern, set a minimum and a maximum size for all notes, and double the speed of a pattern. If you OK any of these changes, they are irreversible.
So, the Grid Manipulation mode gives you a very fine degree of editing control over your music. But it's not that easy to keep track of where you are, especially as the display is static while your music plays. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I'd have preferred a score-based display for editing and steptime input purposes - a kind of superior Scorewriter.
"Conclusions: Pro24 is a well put-together package and takes full advantage of the Atari's graphics... and it's flexible enough to let you work in the way you want to."
The good news, though, is that Steinberg are already at work on an extensive score-based Composer package which will be compatible with Pro24, and release is scheduled for the end of the year.
Ensuring your precious musical material is preserved for posterity is a simple affair: Pro24 allows you to transfer both complete songs and individual patterns between computer and disk. In the case of patterns, you can save and load a single pattern number as it occurs across any combination of tracks. You can also overwrite existing files and delete files, as well as catalogue a disk to find what's on it.
Synchronisation (MIDI only) may be set to off, internal or external. Pro24 responds to MIDI song pointers, which means it can be integrated into a SMPTE-controlled tape and sequencer system - so long as you have an appropriate SMPTE-to-MIDI converter.
In addition to the composer package just mentioned, Steinberg are also planning a SMPTE reader/generator unit, to be used either in conjunction with Pro24 or as a stand-alone machine. The module will also have two MIDI Ins (with Merge facility) and four MIDI Outs, together with non-MIDI sync facilities. It'll plug into the Atari's RS232 port - so much for built-in MIDI - and is scheduled for release this month.
The first update for Pro24 will include software allowing you access at SMPTE level - presumably for selecting things like autolocate points and SMPTE frame mode.
Pro24 can be bought separately (if you already have a suitable computer), or packaged with an Atari 520ST or 1040ST system, direct from your local music shop - a sign that Atari have realised the importance of music in their world domination plans.
Line the pockets of UK Steinberg importers OSC with the princely sum of £34.50, and you'll automatically receive any software updates that become available within a year of your purchase. And you won't find yourself having to send back existing disks. When you first buy the program you get a 'key' (otherwise known as a 'dongle') which you plug into your ST's cartridge port; this is effectively your sole copy of Pro24, allowing you to make as many backups of the program disk as you want.
Drawing conclusions on Steinberg's latest sequencer is an easy business. Pro24 is an exceptionally well put-together package which takes full advantage of the Atari's user-friendly graphics, and gives you extensive control over your recorded music. And it's flexible enough to let you work with it in the way you want to. Finally, the prospect of the composer software and SMPTE reader/generator should be enough to whet the appetite of anybody who remains undecided.
If you're in the market for a system as sophisticated as this, get down to your local music store immediately and ask for a demo. Afterwards, you'll be crying all the way to the bank.
Prices Pro24 £250; Atari 520ST + diskdrive £450 (TV monitoring); Atari 1040ST (disk drive built-in) + B/W monitor £919; Atari 1040ST + low res colour monitor £1034; Atari 1040ST + medium res colour monitor £1149; all prices include VAT
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For background information on the Atari ST and its graphics environment, see E&MM July '85 and January '86
Review by Simon Trask