Want to write a masterpiece? Who doesn't, but will this 32-track sequencer software package from Sonus for the Atari ST, be helpful in any way? David Mellor puts away his quill pen and manuscript paper and attempts a quick concerto...
Want to write a masterpiece? Who doesn't, but will Masterpiece, the sequencer software package from Sonus for the Atari ST, be helpful in any way? David Mellor puts away his quill pen and manuscript paper and attempts a quick concerto...
As this is my first software review for Sound On Sound, I feel it would be only fair to give you my perspective on computers and related numerical devices. I did plenty of computing at school and college on IBM and ICL mainframes, using languages such as FORTRAN, ALGOL and COBOL. It may be giving away my age to say that home computers had not even been thought of, let alone invented, at this stage (and if you think about it, it wasn't so long ago).
There came a point where I decided that computing and other technical pursuits, interesting though they were, were not of prime importance to me. I wanted to be a musician. Opinions on my success in this aim are many and varied (I only repeat the nice comments), but the fact is that everything I do in my professional life is related to this. Music is the boss, the means of creating this music is secondary.
Having said this, I am highly involved in the technological aspects of the creation of music - from recording studios to MIDI and beyond. If you read any decent book about the history of musical instruments, you will find that all the great composers were in the habit of snapping up the latest technological developments as soon as they came along, from the piano to the saxophone - and now to MIDI. I don't put myself in the 'great composer' class yet, but one day...
A piece of computer software may not be a musical instrument, but it is a path towards the creation of new music which, thus, demands attention. If it works as a musical tool, then it gets the thumbs up. If it is just another way for computer junkies to get a few kicks, then it is unlikely to get the seal of approval in this magazine, certainly not in a review by yours truly.
One of the problems about software is the interface, not between the program and the computer but between the computer people who wrote the program and the musician who is going to use it. 'User-friendly' is a bit of a cliche, and often applied when it isn't deserved, but in the case of Sonus' Masterpiece, the moment you get your hands on the package you know it's going to be OK. Two 3.5" floppy disks and a thick, ring-bound manual are what you get, and you feel as though you have a professional product in your hands. (Unlike one sequencer I could mention which comes with a manual that looks like a local church newsletter!) Another 'user-friendly' feature is the fact that Masterpiece is not copyprotected, so you can make backups to your heart's content and not have to worry in the slightest about your disk drive getting a snack attack. I dream about the day when all software houses will be similarly enlightened. By the way, don't think you can make pirate copies and flog them on your market stall because Sonus supply a 'dongle' with the package that must be plugged into the cartridge slot in the ST. A small price to pay I would say.
There is, as a matter of interest, another system of piracy prevention which software companies might consider. This is the system of 'locked' software. In this case, when you first buy the software it will not work, but has to be 'unlocked' using a numerical key supplied by the software house over the telephone. Since you then become a registered user and the software house has a record of the serial number of the program registered in your name, piracy would be a rather foolish pastime to pursue. The advantage of this method is that there is no dongle to lose or break, and you can make any number of backup copies for your own use. After the minor hassle of the unlocking procedure, you never have to think about protection again.
Masterpiece is supplied on two disks, which for some people may be one disk too many, especially as each disk contains a completely separate program. Disk one, conveniently titled 'Masterpiece Program Disk' holds the main body of the sequencer. Disk two is the 'Event Editor' and also contains a few demonstration sequences. As moving from one program to another is, shall we say, just a little difficult, I think I ought to spell it out now.
Procedure: transferring a sequence from the Sequencer part of Masterpiece to the Event Editor.
1) save sequence to disk
2) quit Sequencer program
3) load Editor
4) reload sequence
How long does it take? Well, I took a sequence of moderate complexity and transferred it. My stopwatch, which is normally fairly reliable, timed it at two minutes and fifteen seconds. Would you find this inconvenient, considering that all detailed MIDI operations have to be done from the Editor program? I shall have more to say about this later, but let's now take a closer look at the basic Masterpiece operations.
As you can see from the screen display in Figure 1, visiting Masterpiece is like visiting friends - it makes you feel almost at home. None of that 'numerical environment' stuff, just clear simple graphics. The whole thing is mouse and menu driven and there are very few occasions where you have to resort to the computer's keyboard. However, when manufacturers of keyboard stands start to make little 'mouse shelves' available as optional extras, the world will truly be a better place.
In Sequence mode, you are given the choice of 24 possible sequences, each of which can consist of up to 32 tracks. You can select one sequence at a time, so if you were starting from scratch you would probably pick sequence number one. If you have a few different sequences on disk, then it's simple to load them into any of the 24 locations, as best suits you. As the meaning of 'sequence' differs according to which software dialect you are speaking, I ought to make it clear that Masterpiece is organised on a 'one sequence at a time' basis, although you will see how sequences can be tacked together later.
The 32 track icons are all displayed simultaneously, and you can record on the track of your choice simply by clicking the mouse on the appropriate icon, then clicking on the Record symbol. When a track has been recorded, you will see a circle in the centre of the track icon to tell you that it contains data. Similarly, any recorded sequence shows a square in its icon as a warning not to overwrite it. A counter window shows precisely where the sequencer is in the track in terms of bar, beat and clock pulse (1/192 of a beat resolution). It also tells you where the end of the track is, punch-in and punch-out points, and cue times.
A further window shows a refuse (dustbin) icon - no need to tell you what that's for! - a couple of flags (which I shall explain later), and a 'tracorder' symbol.
The tracorder is, in effect, another sequence which Sonus encourage the user to regard as a 'scratch-pad' location. You can't use it as part of a song, but you can copy data from it to any other track or sequence. You can, by the way, copy any track to a sequence location, but not the other way round. Now let's record a track...
An easy way to go about this is to select Track 1 in Sequence 1, by means of a couple of mouse clicks. Recording is initiated by clicking the Record icon (a triangle with a line underneath). It turns black, the metronome starts and you're off. A screen message tells you 'RECORD ON!' and that you have to press the spacebar to stop. I wish Sonus had included a Stop icon for the mouse because you can do almost everything you need in the track-laying process without touching the computer - except this. As I said, a circle appears in the Track 1 icon and a square in the Sequence 1 icon. To overdub, all you do is click on Track 2 and you are ready to start again. It's as simple as using a tape recorder so far, and you don't have to get any more complicated unless you want to. I think it's time to think of matters gastronomic and start exploring the menus...
DESK: Although the first menu item (the hors d'oeuvre?) is DESK, there isn't much to say about this apart from the fact that there is one, and a lovely teak finish it is too! If you want to use desk accessories, and have space in the memory for them, you can. Some sequencers won't let you do this.
FILE: You would be pretty surprised if you couldn't save and load files onto disk. Fortunately, there are no surprises here. As well as track and sequence data, you can also save your favourite Masterpiece configuration. As there are quite a few options yet to be mentioned, it is very handy not to have to enter your regular settings every time you boot up. You can have a number of different configurations saved away on the same disk if you like, perhaps if there will be more than one user.
EDIT: This menu is more action-packed. An interesting concept is the use of two flags, which are displayed on the main screen, to set the scope of any EDIT, BOUNCE or ERASE operation. The 'Full Range' flag, when set, allows you to act on the whole of the data in the track or sequence, from beginning to end. When switched off, you can only operate on data which falls between the two times set by the IN and OUT counters on the main screen. The 'All Events' flag, when set, means that editing operations such as QUANTIZE will be applied to every MIDI event in the track. When unset, the FILTERS menu can be employed to choose exactly which events you will change. For instance, you might want to transpose all notes in the fourth and fifth bars of a sequence which were more than two octaves above Middle C and had MIDI velocities of more than 100. With Masterpiece you can do this, where with other sequencers you might have no option but to go through reams and reams of note lists and MIDI data, changing each note separately. OK, let's explore the remaining EDIT options systematically, starting with the EDIT SEQUENCE options.
SET METER is Sonus-speak for 'set time signature'. Most sequencers are pretty comprehensive these days, so there is no problem with that tune you wrote in 15/32 time. 4/4 is catered for too, incidentally!
SET TEMPO gives you beats per minute values from 40 to 250.
SET BEGINNING allows you to remove unwanted bits from the start of a sequence and takes its position from the setting on the main screen's counter.
APPEND SEQUENCE is for tacking one sequence onto the end of another, or onto itself if you prefer.
SHIFT SEQUENCE will move an entire sequence forwards or backwards in time in terms of bars, beats or pulses (1/192nd beats).
TRANSPOSE SEQUENCE sounds pretty straightforward, but is quite versatile. You are given the choice of 'all notes', 'note class' or 'single note'. 'All notes' and 'single note' do what they say; 'note class' is for shifting any particular note in all octaves (C1, C2, C3 etc) up or down by as much as you wish.
All of these functions are mouse operated, no messing about on the computer keys. The EDIT TRACK operations are as follows:
APPEND TRACK works like APPEND SEQUENCE.
DITTO TRACK is a cute name for the facility to copy the currently selected track onto itself a chosen number of times. Useful for creating drum patterns.
QUANTIZE - well you know what this does, but congratulations to Sonus for the clarity and comprehensive coverage of this important function. The Quantize window appears as Figure 2, with the detail difference that in the software version I reviewed, the 'Slop Allowance' is more prosaically named 'Tolerance'.
Quantize, thankfully, affects note values only. If you have ever accidentally quantised a load of aftertouch data, you will know what aggravation that can cause. The 'Value' section of the window is self-explanatory. The 'Tuplets' section is worth a mention in that it allows you to have, say, five notes in the time that four eighth-notes (quavers) would normally take. Or perhaps 57 notes in the time of four quarter-notes (crotchets)! Ideal for transcribing those awkward Beethoven sonatas.
'Alignment' introduces a negative or positive offset which would find a use, for instance, where you are using a sound with a slow attack. You want it quantised, but it needs to anticipate the beat by a fraction in order to come in on time. 'Lock' means that there is no offset.
'Tolerance' is absolutely terrifically bloody marvellous! If Masterpiece had no other special features worthy of note, it would be worth buying just for this. Early on in my sequencing experience, I found that quantisation sucked most of the life out of my music. It made it correct, but dull. My solution to this was to quantize note-by-note, the hard way. If a note was a long way out, I would pull it into line; if it was close, then I'd leave it where it was. Time consuming, but effective. But here we have a function which does it automatically, to any desired accuracy. Masterpiece isn't the only sequencer to have this useful function, but it's one of the few.
Also worth a mention is the fact that you can quantize Note On information, Note Off information or both. Quantising Note On data gives accuracy but preserves the 'played by hand' feel. Quantising both Note On and Note Off data gives a feeling of step-time programming to music that has been input in real time. Both options are very useful. Quantising Note Off only gives some interesting effects which might take diligent thought to find a use for.
SCALE VELOCITY is a handy way of creating a crescendo or decrescendo in a track.
FILTERS: This is the next menu of interest. It allows varying types of data to be included or ignored, either while recording or editing.
INPUT FILTERS is a window which asks you to choose which types of data you want to be recorded from the MIDI keyboard. Available options which you may wish to filter out are: pitch bend, controller, aftertouch, system exclusive, program change, and velocity messages. If you select any of these to be off, then Masterpiece will ignore them as you record.
EDIT FILTERS each have a window and are: note pitch, note velocity, channel, aftertouch, controllers, pitch wheel, and program change. The purpose of these filters is to set what range of data will be included in your EDIT, BOUNCE and ERASE operations. For instance, you could set it so that only notes between C2 and C3 would be affected. Each other option can similarly be filtered. These are the sort of things that you would probably want to set according to your personal style, and save in a configuration file. There's a lot to handle here and I doubt if you would reset for every piece of music you were working on, but you never know...
CLOCK offers the normal choice between internal and external sync (MIDI only). Step-time recording is also available as an option. Until now I have not been a fan of step-time, but I have to admit that Sonus have got this one pretty well sorted out. Selecting step-time means that on the main screen you are told what the size of the step currently selected is. Not just in conventional quarter-note and eighth-note steps, but to any resolution down to 1/192nd beat. You hear what the other tracks are doing as you input notes and for a rest, you just type in a backslash. Unfortunately, you have to reselect realtime mode to play back what you have just created. Perhaps step-time playback has a use, but I can't think of one just for the moment.
AUTO ZERO, when on, forces the sequence back to the beginning of the track every time you stop. When off, it restarts from the place where you paused.
CLOCK WITH START allows you to choose whether or not to send a MIDI start command either before the first timing signal or with it. It depends on which drum machine you are using, but it could be important and it's nice to have the choice.
METRONOME is not as versatile as in some sequencers because you only get the choice of 'on' or 'off'. It would be nice in some cases to be able to set other than quarter-note clicks. Perhaps Sonus can be persuaded to do a rethink on this one and give us another window.
PLAY LOOP lets you choose to go back to the beginning of a sequence automatically on reaching the end, or only by reselecting PLAY.
CLOCK HOLD and COUNT OFF refer to the way in which recording is initiated. Without going into too much detail, you can choose to have a metronome count in, first note start or several other options.
EXIT DATA is another feature that all sequencers should have control over. Here, it allows you to choose what data will be sent when you exit from playback of a sequence or song. For example, you might want to set the pitch wheel back to its centre position, or send a sustain pedal off message. Data for these, and other options, is sent for all 16 MIDI channels.
SEAM MANAGER has to do with the way Masterpiece handles the join between two sequences played consecutively. Some sequencers - in fact, probably all sequencers - send Note Off information slightly early at the end of a sequence so that the next sequence can be made ready to play in time. The SEAM MANAGER window makes it possible to decide just how early this has to be, so that you can achieve the best compromise between early Note Offs and an accurate start time for the next sequence.
OPTIONS: This menu is for functions that couldn't be grouped together under a meaningful heading! It contains the following:
SEND SET-UPS can be made to send a program change and MIDI volume setting via each of the 16 MIDI channels to your synthesizers. It can be done manually, or as part of a sequence or song.
NAME CUE POINT lets you give a snappy little name to each of the 25 available cue points you have set from the main screen. Examples might be '1st bit' or 'Middle 8', if you see what I mean.
MUTE TRACK and SOLO TRACK are two of the few things I don't like about this piece of software. You should be able to mute or solo tracks very quickly, that's why mixing desks always have these buttons very handily positioned. With Masterpiece, you have to select the track you want to mute or solo, pull down the menu then click on the appropriate function. Then you need to de-click the menu. It's far too complicated, especially when other sequencers make it so easy.
QUIET!/ALL CHANNELS sends a Note Off event for every key on all 16 MIDI channels. There are times when you are glad of something like this, it may take over 10 seconds but it's better than reaching for the power switch in an emergency.
TRACK INFO displays, in very small characters, interesting information about all 32 tracks, all on one screen.
SYSTEM: This is the last menu on the main sequence screen and provides the following options:
AUTO PUNCH will initiate punch-ins (drop-ins) for you without your hands ever leaving your wrists! It uses the time values set on the IN and OUT counters for its information.
LIVE PUNCH lets you mark punch points 'on the fly' by hitting SHIFT P on the Atari's keyboard for both in and out points while the track is playing. Then you go back and actually do it. One interesting point is that this function can work even in step-time, so if you had a track with one bum note, then you could fix it without having to go over to the Edit program.
PLAY THROUGH is Masterpiece's name for MIDI echo. It's the usual system where you can set the input MIDI data to be re-channelised and sent out to your other synths as you record. However, PLAY THROUGH only works when Masterpiece is recording or playing back, not while the sequence is stopped. I have to believe that the Sonus chief programmer let his apprentice handle this bit because he thought it was so easy. Well son, all I can say is that I hope you are good at doing something else, because you sure made a mess of this! If I am not making myself quite clear, let me say this: At no time, running or stopped, on any screen - sequence, song or edit - should you not be able to hear what you are playing.
CAPTIVE PLAY THROUGH is Masterpiece's get-out for the above mistake. You shouldn't have to pull down a menu to be able to have a doodle on the keyboard. Any MIDI data coming in should always be re-channelised as necessary and transmitted, unless deliberately selected otherwise.
CONTROLLER MAPPING is a translator which lets you change any incoming MIDI controller into any other; for example, pitch bend to breath controller. You can even include aftertouch and velocity in your map, which are not MIDI controllers, strictly speaking. You can use this to change data which your master keyboard is incapable of putting out, into data which an expander you have can receive.
DRUM CHANNEL: I still remember the horror of the first time I transposed a drum channel by accident. Of course, when you want to change the key of your music, you want note numbers on your drum machine channel to stay the same. So this function lets you designate a MIDI drum channel (or channels) which will not be transposed when you pitch shift all the others.
So that's Sequence mode, more or less. Next on the agenda is Song mode, where you chain together all your '1st bits' and 'Middle Eights'. Changing to Song mode involves the Atari ST in clearing the sequence screen and setting up a new one which looks hardly any different. If you look closely, you can see that instead of 32 tracks you have 32 elements. All you have to do, assuming that you have recorded all the sequences that will go to make up your song, is to drag the icons - using the mouse - down towards the appropriate elements. Masterpiece will then play for you all the elements in numerical order.
Double-clicking on any element will open a window, giving you information on various options. You can set the REPEAT option to any number of times. There is also a TRANSPOSE option. AUTO MUTE sounds like fun because it lets you mute any of the 32 tracks which make up the sequence you have assigned to that element. This means that from one fully orchestrated sequence you could have a number of 'break down' versions. Useful for those 12" mixes.
Moving up to the Song mode menus, the options are so similar to those in Sequence mode that there would be little point in going through them. You are given a choice of DESK, FILE, CLOCK, OPTIONS and SYSTEM menus.
Although Sequence mode is the main theatre of operations as far as recording goes, it is possible to record an extra track over the top of a song while still in Song mode. Unfortunately, you can't restructure your song after you have recorded this as it would no longer match up. It's just for that little 'extra'. It's a pity Sonus couldn't have taken this a little further and made it possible to transfer a song in its entirety back onto the Sequence page for further work. If this were possible, you could lay down some backing tracks, structure them into a song, then go back and do as many overdubs as you wanted. You can do this in Song mode, but it's not easy.
According to Sonus, the Event Editor is for the final polishing up of tracks recorded using the main program. This is where you at last get to look at the MIDI data in numerical form. The main screen is shown in Figure 3. You can view the data one track at a time and play through, listening to any or all of the tracks as selected by a MUTE window. The TRANSPORT box in the lower right corner does a pretty good job of getting you around the track. You can set markers in the tracks and find them again easily using the appropriate icons. A PLAY WINDOW icon lets you play through the data currently displayed on the screen.
Down in the lower left of the screen is the DATA ADJUSTERS box. The display gives you Note On timing, MIDI channel, note number, velocity and duration. You can easily adjust any or all of these by clicking the mouse on the adjusters. It is also possible to insert events. Whether you are inserting or editing the note number or velocity, you can do it either manually or via the MIDI keyboard. Using the keyboard is great. It's very quick and easy, and you can have as many goes as you like until you get it right - note is easy, velocity takes a few more attempts. What a pity you can't hear what you are doing though. If you know you have a duff note in the track, how much easier it would be if you could play a key and hear what the correct one should be. Maybe some manufacturer will bring out 'perfect pitch' as a retrofit for the human ear, but until then...
It's hard to find very much to say about the Event Editor. There are a lot of numbers and it's reasonably easy to find your way about. I can't help thinking that graphics of some sort would be more helpful than all those numbers. After all, you don't really need to know what the velocity is, you can hear whether it's right or not, and a graphic display to confirm how you were changing it - from the MIDI keyboard, of course - ought to be enough. The same goes for other types of data. I'm not criticising Sonus for not doing things that other software companies don't do either, just trying to make helpful suggestions.
I was a bit sceptical about Masterpiece when I first started using it, because its faults are only too apparent and its good points need time to reveal themselves in their full glory.
This is a serious package and it will probably do all that you want it too, without excessive complication. The two major let-downs are the limitations of the MIDI echo facility, and having the Sequencer and Editor on separate disks. If you can live with these, you will probably be very happy. Personally, I can't - so I shall have to go back to my regular sequencer and live with the limitations it has. I shall miss a lot of the Sonus features however.
[The program versions reviewed were 1.64 for the Masterpiece main program disk and 1.6 for the Event Editor.]
Price £199 inc VAT.
Contact Sonus International Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by David Mellor
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