If you are used to paying £200 plus for good quality MIDI software for your Atari ST then you are going to be awfully surprised at how good Microdeal's sequencing package is for only £49.95. Ian Waugh was! Read his review...
Ian Waugh waves his baton in time with Super Conductor - a super-cheap MIDI sequencing program for the Atari ST from Microdeal.
There's more than one way to skin a cat my Gran used to say (which is probably one reason why my little brother would never eat her meat pies), although what sort of cat she was referring to and why anyone would want to risk the wrath of the RSPCA in such a dubious venture I was never quite sure. Had she been reviewing Super Conductor, I think she may have trotted out her favourite phrase again.
Let me explain. Most MIDI sequencing software tries to pretend that it's a tape recorder. It's generally a very good way of doing things, too, not least of all because most users are familiar with tape recorder operations and the mental adjustment to digital music storage and manipulation is not too great.
But that's not the only way to do it and a few programs have adopted a different approach. The main reason for doing so can be summed up in one word - flexibility. Data inside a computer is far more accessible and easier to manipulate than audio information on a tape, so why impose tape restrictions on a computer program? Just so. Super Conductor is one of these other programs. It takes just a little longer to become familiar with but the payoff is an increase in flexibility.
Let's start at the very beginning and look at the computer Super Conductor was written for: the Atari ST. Atari had the foresight (or just plain good fortune) to include MIDI sockets on their range of ST computers and coupled with 16-bit processing and all that memory - up to a megabyte - many music software developers decided that the ST was the music computer. They do have a jolly good case, too. In a little less than a year over 30 MIDI programs for the ST have appeared.
Most ST programs use the standard GEM (Graphics Environment Manager) operating system, too, which makes them very easy to control. All your options are shown on-screen as a word or small drawing (icon). You roll a 'mouse' around the table top to position a pointer on a word or icon and press a button on top of the mouse. This is called 'clicking'. The option will then be activated or a sub menu will appear on-screen in a drop-down window. It makes for powerful, friendly, easy-to-use programs. Let's face it, not everyone is a computer buff; many musicians just want to get on with the business of making music and don't want to get involved with the problems and restrictions of computers. Software on the ST range is generally very easy to use.
But good graphics and lots of memory do not a good MIDI program make. That is down to good software design and this takes time to write, hence the relatively high cost of most music software - usually in excess of £200. Super Conductor, therefore, comes as something of a welcome surprise when you realise that it is not only a powerful program but also the cheapest dedicated MIDI program currently available for the ST. So let's see what it offers.
Super Conductor can store up to 10 songs in memory at once. Each song has its own screen and you can flip from song to song at the press of a function key. A song screen lists 16 tracks down the left side followed by their status - on or off - followed by the MIDI channel they are set to transmit on. After this are 16 horizontal bars which show the contents of each track. This is where Super Conductor starts to depart from tape simulation software.
The basic recording unit in Super Conductor is called a Block and the program can store up to 255 Blocks per song. Note and event positions within a Block are defined in terms of Bars, Beats and Clicks (BBC). There are 96 Clicks per Beat and from 1 to 99 Beats per Bar (one for the experimentalists). To bring you back to earth, however, all count-ins are four beats only.
A Block can be manipulated and edited in almost any conceivable way. The first step is to select Record Block from the Block menu. You are prompted to enter a name for the Block and the length in BBC format. You don't have to enter a length but if you do the recording will automatically be trimmed to that length. The program receives and records in Omni On/Poly mode. For playback, the transmit channels are assigned by track.
The next step is to arrange the Block(s) on the tracks. If you click on a track (using the mouse), you are prompted for the name of a Block. This can be inserted in the track or used to replace an existing Block. As Blocks are entered they are displayed in the horizontal track display, and if they are long enough the name of the Block - or part of the name - is shown, too. This means you can see how all the Blocks fit together across all the tracks from the beginning of the song to the end.
It is incredibly easy to build up a song using this method and no matter how many times a Block is used in a song, it is only stored in memory once. A look at Super Conductor's editing facilities will show how powerful this song construction process is.
You can list all the Blocks so far recorded - there can be up to 255 remember - and delete unwanted ones, of course. You can copy one Block to another, useful for preserving the old Block before beginning to edit it.
Two Blocks can be mixed. This is useful not only for combining two lines of the same part (the left and right hands of a piano part, for example) but also for mixing patch changes, pitch bend or other control effects into a single Block. You record the notes first and put them on one track. Then you can experiment by recording different effects in another Block on a second track and mix the results when you're happy with them. You can even use exactly the same set of control parameters on several tracks. Very handy.
You can append Blocks - that should be straightforward enough - but you can split them, too. This requires you to enter the split point in BBC format (Bars, Beats, Clicks) and allocate a new Block name. A Block can be split indefinitely - up to the 255 Block limit.
When you perform an operation on a Block which permanently changes it, a Block is automatically saved in memory with the filename 'UNDO'. If you do something really drastic, and regret it, you may be able to salvage the original Block. This is just a temporary storage area, not to be relied too heavily upon, but very thoughtful and a most welcome addition.
Already you can see that Super Conductor gives you a remarkable amount of control over your recording. And there's more. That's just the Block menu. The Edit menu has more options...
You can quantise (ie. auto-correct the notes) a Block and values are given for common note lengths. If a certain quantise value is not suitable for all the notes in a particular Block, you can split the Block, quantise the sections and join them up again. There is also a Tone Length option here to set the gate-on time of the notes (from one to nine) but this didn't seem to work on my version, defaulting and staying at eight whatever I set it to.
Next option up is Transpose Block. Here you can not only transpose notes but change the velocity, too, raising or lowering the velocity values by the transposition amount. You can also equalise the velocity by setting all values to the same amount.
Then there's Filter Block. This can be used to selectively remove unwanted effects such as polyphonic aftertouch, program change, channel aftertouch and pitch bend. All or selected controllers can be removed and auto-filtering can be set during record, too. Even more interesting, although I'm still trying to think of a practical application, is the ability to selectively remove notes within a defined pitch range or with a certain velocity level.
Finally, there is Edit Block. This really puts you down among the bits and bytes but without getting you too involved in MIDI codes. The Edit screen lists all the MIDI events down the left side and the notes are shown in BBC format. Any event can be edited by clicking it. You can add an event by clicking the required option on the right of the screen. You just fill in the parameter (eg. patch change number 6) and the BBC (Bar, Beat, Click) count where it is to occur and the program inserts it for you.
If you like, you can enter notes using this method, although it's far from an ideal method of step-time input. You must enter the on and off velocity values and the BBC on and off positions for each note. Well, perhaps you have the time and patience but a more friendly step-time method of input would not be difficult to devise. As an editing system for tidying up patch changes and control effects, etc, it's quite fast enough, easy and thorough.
Depending upon how you work and what equipment you have, it's quite possible that you won't use a good deal of the editing facilities Super Conductor has to offer. Every now and again, though, you may be glad of them. For example, you may have a Block containing pitch bend information which you decide you would rather not have. It is easily removed in the Edit Block screen. Likewise you can add a patch change or controller operation at any point.
MIDI is well catered for. From the MIDI menu you can switch the MIDI clock and active sensing on and off. Song number and song position information can also be sent, which is good news for drum machine owners.
Behind the MIDI menu there also lurks some commands to turn all the notes off (thus avoiding the dreaded 'MIDI drone'). You can send either an All Notes Off command or individual note off commands in case your instrument does not respond to the All Notes Off command. Let's hope you never need it. You can also send a Release Pedal (sustain) command (controller 64) to all channels, send a Tune Request and a System Reset code.
If you move to the main screen and click the Mode menu you will see three more options. Echo Back will send all data received by the MIDI In to the MIDI Out port. The System Exclusive mode lets you save and load system exclusive messages which can be edited in a word processor, so you can write instructions and load them into the system. You can't do this from within the program.
The main menu lists all 10 songs currently in memory and the program can play them one after the other with no delay between them (if that's what you want), with a delay between them, or after waiting for a keypress. On to the manual, which is really quite good (are MIDI manuals getting better or am I just starting to get the hang of the system?). All the diagrams were missing from it, however, and it needs updating as some of the sections didn't quite tie up with my version (1.3) of the software. Also, good though it may be, a plea for more MIDI information please - this goes for all MIDI software manuals, too - as users need all the help here that they can get. Microdeal have informed me that a new manual is in production, though, so don't let that put you off at all.
I normally follow instructions as much as I can - it generally saves time - but I crashed the program a couple of times for a number of obscure reasons which I could not duplicate. It crashed regularly, however, when trying to save a file to a read-only disk - probably serves me right but, still, it shouldn't happen. Perhaps the software is being updated, too.
Nevertheless, Super Conductor really must get the thumbs up as it is a very powerful music program at quite a remarkably low price. If you prefer real-time input when composing then it is truly amazing value for money. However, if you are likely to do much step-time recording, it may pay you in the long term to look elsewhere for a program with better step-time facilities.
Super Conductor costs £49.95 inc VAT from Microdeal Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Review by Ian Waugh
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