Soundbits Voice Master
Software for the Atari ST
If you own an Atari ST computer and either a Yamaha DX100, 21 or 27, then you should be interested in what David Hughes has to say about this low-cost librarian/editor software from Syndromic Music.
If you own a DX21, DX27 or DX100 and an Atari ST computer, then this low-cost librarian/editor program from Soundbits Software may well help you create better synth patches. David Hughes investigates.
In looking at any voice editor package, whatever the brand of synth or host computer, what makes or breaks the program is how effectively it conveys the voice information to the user, how easy it is to learn and hence operate, and how well-structured it appears. The principal reason for the popularity of voice editor packages is the ability to present data graphically, broadening the scope of an instrument beyond the confines of the often all too small 'window' into the machine that the manufacturer provides.
Firstly, it has to be said that a voice editor for Yamaha's DX21 on any micro is something of a rarity, on a par with something like a successful rocket launch by NASA or an interesting guest appearing on Wogan. The 'Voice Master Librarian Editor' from Syndromic Music sets out to provide an editing and librarian facility specifically for owners of Yamaha's DX21 and, to a lesser extent, its close relatives the DX27 and DX100.
For those unfamiliar with the DX21 and its cousins, the instruments are similar to the now discontinued DX9, having eight algorithms and four operators. In terms of cost, the DX21 falls midway between the budget and professional camps and offers an improved programming environment over the (original) DX7 and the DX9, and an improved MIDI specification. The others adopt a similar approach but are aimed principally at the budget end of the market.
Now, the Atari ST range are rapidly establishing themselves as the most popular 16-bit micros for musicians, due principally to the inclusion of a MIDI interface within their specification. In short, the ST series are 16-bit machines coming with either half a megabyte or a full one megabyte of RAM as standard. One of the beauties of this range of machines is the inclusion of Digital Research's GEM operating system, GEM standing for 'Graphics Environment Manager'. GEM is designed as a simple-to-use working environment with no obscure commands to learn or complicated procedures to follow. Instead, the operation of the computer is performed by means of graphic images and text, instead of text alone. This helps to make using the machine an absolute doddle.
The first real test of any editor should be the way it presents the information to you, the already overworked user. Does it make the editing process any easier or does it instead keep you thumbing through the now dog-eared manual searching for a single line of text which tells you, for example, how to load the software in the first place? Furthermore, how easy is it to proceed from one section to another and does it allow edit data be transferred from patch to patch? How many compromises have the programmers made and in which areas? What degree of sophistication have they attempted to reach before the research budget or the dreaded release date threatens to swamp them?
To begin then, the Soundbits package itself comes in a fairly smart plastic folder. This folder contains the software itself on a 3.5" disk, a six-page instruction manual and a reply card to register the user with the suppliers, and thus enable a degree of feedback between producer and consumer.
The manual firstly lists the hardware required to run the program and then recommends that you back up the original disk straightaway, which is always a good idea. Shame other suppliers don't recommend or even allow you to do this. What follows is a brief description, often bordering on the minimal, of the various functions within the program. Easy enough to follow if you're a seasoned user, not so easy if you're a bit of a novice. Certain descriptions within the librarian sub-section would benefit from a little more explanation.
Having made the back-up copy, and also defined a library file on another disk, you can load up the actual voice editor program itself.
After a short wait, the main screen appears and a further prompt is made to remove the system disk from the Atari and insert the library disk. Once done, the user now has full access to the program functions.
Now, in view of the wealth of graphics facilities and the amount of RAM available to the programmer on the Atari, the program's main screen display comes as something of a disappointment. It consists of three columns: operator-specific parameters listed down the left-hand side of the screen; low frequency oscillator and algorithm data in the centre column; pitch envelope, pitch bend and chorus information in the right-hand column.
I found this rather difficult to comprehend with certain parameters illogically placed. For example, 'LFO Speed' and 'Feedback Level' were listed amongst the operator-specific information. Also, there is still too much use of mnemonics. I still found myself having to look up combinations like 'AME' to discover what they really meant. Rather clumsy, I thought.
The various features of the program are accessed from the GEM menu bar running along the top of the display. These are: 'Desktop', which gives a little info about the program; 'Voice', which handles data transfer between the synth and the edit screen; 'Randomize', a very useful feature previously seen on packages like Steinberg's Pro-Creator and Hybrid Arts' DX-Droid (both for the DX7).
What 'Randomize' does is fairly self-evident: it takes the voice data for a particular synth patch and 'tweaks' various parameters by small random amounts, the idea being to generate interesting new timbres around a general theme. Two options are available, one more random than the other. I really liked this feature.
Next up was the 'Library' option and after this a 'Graphs' option (more on this later). And finally, the printer dump or 'Hardcopy' option.
The first thing to do is to load some actual voice data using the 'Voice' menu. This option lists three possible voice data sources: the DX21 itself, the data library and the 'Init Voice' program for starting from scratch.
Data may be downloaded from the synth, via MIDI, by clicking once on the 'from DX' option, upon which the screen goes into a kind of reverse video pattern waiting for you to press the required voice memory button on the synth. This is necessary because data transfer via MIDI cannot be requested remotely and must be initiated from the DX21 synthesizer itself. (This is a sad omission on the part of Yamaha and is in no way a reflection of the software's abilities).
Here, I found the odd bug in the software. I did as the manual described, pushed the relevant voice selector on the synth and noted that the voice name appeared in the correct box and that data had indeed been downloaded from the synth, but the computer then insisted that no MIDI data had been received. On replying to the prompt, I discovered that the voice data had indeed been received in its entirety and apparently error free.
Also, the program would occasionally demand that there was a 'MIDI i/o' error, but I could find nothing wrong with the link. I even went to the lengths of changing the cables, but still couldn't find a possible cause.
Once received, data can be manipulated by moving the mouse pointer to the relevant parameter box and modified by clicking either of the mouse buttons: left button to decrement, right button to increment. Here, the response was a little on the sluggish side, though still perfectly acceptable.
The next option is the library feature, which I found very confusing to use. Firstly, the manual notes are rather brief. Secondly, the on-screen prompts aren't really much help. However, everything does work very much as you would expect. There is one glaring omission: there is no facility to allow you to dump all 32 of the RAM memories straight into the computer from the synth. Each voice must be dumped independently. Somewhat irritating!
On activating the 'Graphs' menu, I was quietly hoping for some kind of stunning graphical conversion to take place on-screen. Sadly, one graphic window indicating the amplitude transient for the currently selected operator was all I found. Since this was all in monochrome, I plugged the output into the family TV to take advantage of the Atari's colour output. (I haven't got a colour monitor yet and they were watching Wogan anyway.) Colour has been used quite well with the boxes tastefully presented. However, I was still faced with a single line drawing of the operator output. It wouldn't have taken too much effort to add colour to this part of the display, one colour for each operator perhaps, with the currently selected operator profile highlighted for clarity. A bit of a disappointment I'm afraid.
The last remaining option was a facility to dump voice data to an Epson compatible printer. A thoughtful addition.
To conclude then, this is a pretty specialised product, with those likely to purchase such a package restricted to that subset of the musical populace who own both a DX21 and an Atari ST. The package may also be used with the DX27 and DX100 which is a good idea and broadens the scope considerably, but somehow I can't help feeling that these particular users have been left somewhat in the lurch because the program does not make allowances for those instances where differences in the functions available on the DX27/100 are not fully compatible with the DX21. Perhaps a change of screen format could have been implemented. Also, since the DX21, 27 and 100 are voice compatible on a basic level with Yamaha's recently introduced TX81Z expander, I tried to read data from the TX expander into the Soundbits editor.
It wouldn't do this in the time I had available, which was unfortunate because if any module needed an editor program, the TX81Z needs one urgently. [Editor's note: Syndromic Music have just launched a Soundbits TX81Z editor for the ST. (Contact Details)] Obviously, with a product of this type, there has to be a compromise with performance against cost, sophistication versus a more rudimentary approach. I was basically disappointed with the overall appearance of the program in light of the graphic capabilities of the host micro. It would surely not have taken much effort to add features like algorithm charts or LFO waveform icons. I couldn't see why the main screen should not have been broken down into a number of separate pages, each accessed independently. This would have considerably improved the clarity of edit data.
When considering what is available at a roughly comparable price for other instruments, I couldn't help but feel that this program would benefit from a little more development.
If you feel that your DX21 needs a voice editor and you are prepared to put up with a few shortcomings, then this package should suit you. And since editors for the DX21 are not exactly thick on the ground, this program will serve as a useful back-up to the onboard RAM.
On the whole then, a pretty good attempt. Voice Master is not brilliantly sophisticated but then it doesn't pretend to be. It does its job and does it rather well, and you can't say fairer than that, can you?
Price £49.95 inc VAT.
Distributed by Syndromic Music, (Contact Details).
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Review by David Hughes
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