SONUS Sequencer & Data Editors
Software for the Commodore 64
In an exclusive review, Rick Davies tests three Commodore-based packages from an American company whose programs are new to the UK. Do they stand up against stiff competition?
The C64 may not be the essential music computer it once was, but three programs new to the UK prove it still has a place in the musician's arsenal.
THERE'S NOTHING LIKE getting to know your system. Except, perhaps, getting to know your system all over again.
This is one of the things which passed through my mind as I got out the old Commodore 64, which I had put aside months ago following a move to a new neighbourhood. Like many people, I'd used the C64 for sequencing quite a bit over the past couple of years, so when three new programs appeared on my desk, along with the news that they would work with the sequence files I had created with Syntech's Studio 1 sequencer program, a new enthusiasm for the C64 swept over me. Why? Because the new programs were the MIDI Processor and MIDI Tech, both capable of editing sequence data down to the byte.
Also new to me, though not entirely, was the Super Sequencer 64, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Studio 1, mainly because the same man wrote both programs.
The company behind all three packages is Sonus, a Californian software house established by one Don Taylor, formerly of Syntech. It's due partly to Taylor's efforts that the company now has a UK outlet - called, imaginatively enough, Sonus UK - to distribute the programs and look after such things as marketing, development and after-sales service. This puts Sonus in something of an unusual (and perhaps advantageous) position, since most US software companies seem content to let their programs be handled by third-party distributors outside their homeland.
Anyway, with new MIDI tools in tow, the Commodore-based home sequencing environment returned to my living room.
ALTHOUGH A LOT of Sonus software is available for both the C64 and C128, I chose to review the 64-based version for a variety of reasons; not the least being the fact that I happen to own an SX64 (the portable version of the 64), the other being that the 64 programs can run on C128s operating in "64 mode".
For those unfamiliar with the Super Sequencer or the Studio 1, it should be enough to say that the Studio 1 was one of the first sequencer programs for the C64 which really made the computer a worthwhile tool for musicians. Of course, this program did come out a few years ago, but back then, everyone with a MIDI synthesiser was waiting for something - anything, really - to happen. The Studio 1 happened, and though it didn't do as much to further the cause of single-note editing as, say, the Dr T KCS, the Studio 1 was - and the Super Sequencer is - much easier to come to grips with, thus making the sequencing process more appealing to more musicians.
Set up much like a drum machine, in that it facilitates the recording of sequences which may be linked into songs, the Super Sequencer is basically a one-screen program. And once you understand how to work your way around that screen, the rest comes pretty naturally. The only things that change from operation to operation are the four options displayed at the bottom of the screen; these comprise names either of specific functions or of other function menus. Navigating the Super Sequencer's functions is a simple matter of using the four 'F' keys in conjunction with the Shift and Control keys on the Commodore's keyboard. These keys open what at first appear to be endless ranges of functions, though familiarity clarifies matters.
The Super Sequencer can hold up to 16 sequences in the 64's memory at any time, though the limited memory of the C64 enables only a few thousand notes of recording, so it's questionable how often you'd really need all 16 sequences. Each sequence has eight tracks, each of which can be recorded separately, then bounced down to any other track. Of course, all the computer is doing is bouncing down MIDI data, rather than actual audio, but the similarity between audio and MIDI recording ends there (for the time being, at least), since there is no sound degradation when you bounce down MIDI data - though it is possible to load tracks with too much data, making it difficult for the C64 to play the sequence without noticeable delays.
"Super Sequencer: It's easy to operate and doesn't get in the way of the music-making process - except when the C64 saves to or loads from disk, when you can take a short nap."
Actually, Sonus try to maintain the analogy between sequencing and audio recording wherever possible, hence the modelling the program's main recording controls after tape transport controls; four of the computer's keys correspond to play, record, fast forward, and rewind functions.
Recording basic sequence tracks is as simple as you could hope for, though if you're accustomed to working with drum machines, having to auto-correct after recording each part may come as a surprise. This is in keeping with the rest of the program's individual track editing functions, so it's worth the compromise for consistency's sake, if not for that of actual usability.
On the editing front, the Super Sequencer allows for some pretty clever track edits, such as shifting one track's contents forward or backward in time by any number of clock pulses, scaling all note velocities on that track, or changing all the MIDI channels. Since the sequencer usually records MIDI data on whatever MIDI channel it appears on, this last feature is particularly useful for creating multi-part arrangements in multi-synth systems. In fact, if you combine all three of these editing functions, a simple melody line can be transformed into a multi-instrument cannon without any overdubbing whatsoever.
To put the final touches on compositions, several sequences can be linked together into songs, which can then play back the entire arrangement. Now, Sonus found early on that there were occasional noticeable glitches in the sequenced material at the transition points between sequences in song playback, so they added a "seam manager'' which, unlike audio recorders, enables the sequencer to anticipate any approaching sequence "seams" and tidy up the transitions.
To top all of this off, the Super Sequencer features individual sequence track muting, a built-in System Exclusive recorder (for storing other instrument programs), and an echo feature so that you don't need a MIDI merger to ensure that your synth receives both what you play and what the sequencer plays back. A host of other commands allows the sequencer to drive or be driven by most varieties of drum machine, provided the appropriate interface cartridge is on hand for the computer.
Overall, the Super Sequencer is easy to operate, and for the most part doesn't get in the way of the music-making process - except when the 64 saves to or loads from disk, in which case you can take a short nap. The three- to four-thousand note capacity diminishes quickly if you choose to record modulation, pitch wheel information, or aftertouch, and I also found that using a guitar synth as a controller tends to eat up a lot of notes in a short time space, especially if you strum the thing on every eighth note, as you might do with an acoustic.
So the key is, as with all sequencers, economise wherever possible. Record shorter sequences, but more of them.
"MIDI Processor: It can list all recorded events, and you can then edit them byte by byte; if you have one bum note, you can get in there and get it to see things your way."
THE MAIN DRAWBACK of the Super Sequencer is its lack of individual note-editing facilities. Once you've recorded a sequence, you can punch in and out of a sequence to get rid of specific notes, but there's not much more beyond that.
Enter the MIDI Processor. The MP runs separately from the sequencer, but can load and save Super Sequencer (or Studio 1) pieces. Once sequences have been loaded into the C64's memory, the MP can list all the recorded events, complete with note numbers, velocities, durations and channel numbers, and you can then edit any of the displayed data, byte by byte. So if you have just one bum note, you can get right in there and get it to see things your way.
The MP also features a stripped-down sequencer, so you can, if necessary, record additional tracks and add them to existing sequence material - though the main purpose of the sequencer section is to test the results of the edits you've performed. The program's displays are so similar to those of the Super Sequencer that all the program really requires of you is a working knowledge of the sequencer program, and the rest of the MP's operations become easy.
That is, until you try to sync the sequencer to a drum machine. For some reason, Sonus have retained the initial drum machine setup screen (in which you inform the sequencer of the number of clocks per quarter-note transmitted by the drum machine in use) from the Super Sequencer, even though the MIDI Processor has no way of enabling the external clock. So instead, you have to hope your drum machine accepts MIDI clocks, and transmit MIDI clocks in time with the sequencer's own internal clock. A bit inconvenient, to say the least.
At one point, however, the MIDI Processor came in handy while I was trying to figure out whether or not a certain MIDI controller was generating unsolicited mod-wheel data, or whether it was another one of those unknown hidden functions buried somewhere in the darkest recesses of my MIDI system. I simply ran the MIDI Thru from the offending synthesiser into the sequencer (using the Sonus interface cartridge - more on that later), started recording a sequence, and before I knew it, displayed there before me on the screen was the evidence I needed: mod wheel messages, pure and simple, and altogether wrong. I won't go into what followed.
Among the MIDI Processor's finer points are its Range Edit menu of functions which enable you to work on just a range of recorded events, rather than on the entire sequence or track. A couple of the most unusual features are MIDI channel editing functions which allow you to erase or extract any events recorded on a specific MIDI channel. These are particularly useful for separating tracks which had previously been bounced down together onto the same track. I also found them handy for editing sequences which had been recorded with a guitar-to-MIDI converter: each of the guitar's strings corresponded to a different MIDI channel, so after recording a live track, I was able to extract each string's notes, reassign them to other MIDI channels, transpose them, and so on.
The MIDI Processor does what it claims to do, though I wonder if perhaps some of the code that went into the sequencer section could have gone instead towards some additional search-and-replace or cut-and-paste style editing features, particularly in the event edit section.
"MIDI Tech: It displays MIDI data in hex only, but its no-nonsense, 'let's get down to the raw data' approach means you can find out exactly what is going on in your MIDI system."
THIS ONE IS an unusual program, mainly because it is the sort of thing you'd expect to find in an engineering department rather than in a musician's collection of MIDI tools.
It's basically a very simple MIDI data recorder which merely displays exactly what it receives over MIDI without any pretence of bringing meaning to any of it. If that's what you want, then you'd best learn to read and write in hexadecimal, because the MIDI Tech displays MIDI data in hex only. I don't mean to make this sound like a bad thing, but this fact will narrow down the range of potential users somewhat.
MIDI Tech's no-nonsense, "let's get down to the raw data'' approach means you can find out exactly what is going on in your MIDI system. At one stage, I needed to know the range of data transmitted by the DX7IIFD's CSq and CS2 sliders. I just cleared the MIDI Tech's buffer, and put it in receive mode. Moving one of the Yamaha's sliders, I watched the C64's screen as the data appeared instantly, leaving nothing to the imagination. And had I wanted to store these findings, I could have saved them to disk.
MIDI Tech also has a transmit buffer which can be loaded either manually or from a disk. And like the MIDI Processor, the program accepts Super Sequencer files, so it's possible to fill the transmit buffer with sequence data, and then examine it, modify it, save to disk again, or whatever the situation calls for.
In a way, it's a pity the MIDI Tech is aimed mainly at technical applications, since it also has a clever Prefix buffer for handling various System Exclusive handshaking protocols, making the program an open-ended SysEx librarian for virtually any instrument. (Sample dumps would certainly overflow the 64's memory, though.)
Similarly, there is a Trigger buffer into which you can load a string of data which the MIDI Tech waits for before beginning to put incoming data into the receive buffer - useful if you want to have a look at some pitch-bend information in a sequence. By loading the Trigger buffer with a pitch-bend message, MIDI Tech ignores all incoming data until a pitch-bend message is received. Not quite the sort of thing every musician can't live without, but certainly useful for some.
SONUS SEEM INTENT on filling virtually every niche in the market for Commodore 64 music software, and though their programs may not cater for the same applications as say, Dr T's KCS, they have maintained the ease of use which made the Super Sequencer and Studio 1 programs so popular, without giving up some clever editing tricks of their own. And it's well worth mentioning that Sonus have also released a MIDI interface cartridge for the C64 which features two MIDI outputs, in addition to a tape interface for sync-to-tape applications.
The company will also soon be selling music packages for bigger, more sophisticated computers like the Atari ST, and we'll be examining these in due course. Yet curiously, now that I've dusted off my old C64, I don't plan on putting it away, even though I have access to a clutch of more capable computers and a fair deal of software for them. The Commodore fits nicely on an Ultimate Support stand, and there are still hundreds of nonmusical programs available for it, too.
After all, it would be a pity not to take advantage of the computer that sold me on the idea of music software in the first place.
Price Super Sequencer 64, £143-95 (C128 version, £174-95); MIDI Processor, £95-95; MIDI Tech, £63-95; MIDI Interface with tape sync, £111.95 (without tape sync, £48.00)
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