Syntech Studio 1
An eight-track program capable of holding up to 16 sequences, and offering comprehensive editing facilities. Trish McGrath waits impatiently for its arrival in the UK.
As a nation of musicians, Britain seems to be well-endowed with MIDI sequencing software based round the Commodore 64. But is the ultimate package an American design that's yet to see the light of day across the pond?
It's not often E&MM reviews software yet to be distributed this side of the Atlantic. After all, if you can't get at the product without travelling 5000 miles to see it, there isn't much point devoting three pages of a magazine to an article singing its praises. But it won't be long before Syntech's Studio I package becomes freely available in the UK. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if dealers end up fighting for it. Because it's really very, very good.
Although probably far from being a household name in the States, Syntech have been supplying MIDI cards to independent companies such as Mimetics, Decillionix and Music Data, as well as software to Hybrid Arts, for some time now. So, extending their operations to include a range of their own hardware and software packages makes not a little commercial and technological sense.
The company's disk-based software is available for three micros at present, the Commodore 64, Apple IIe/+ and IBM PC (with packages titled Studio I, II, III respectively), and although Syntech manufacture their own interfaces for all three machines, compatibility with Passport and Sequential MIDI cards is assured. The Syntech interface for the CBM64 used during review is a compact little number, featuring MIDI In, Out, and Clock DIN sockets, and with mini-jack connections for Tape Sync In and Out.
Hardware requirements span the usual computer, disk drive, monitor, interface, and MIDI synth (the more the merrier), and the program's loading time is a respectable 80 seconds. Studio I can record a stream of MIDI data in both real and step time, and has extensive editing facilities that include punch in and out, non-destructive bouncing (sounds fun - Ed.), autocorrection, transposition, shifting, and a host of disk options that allow your compositions to be floppily preserved for future reference.
Recording takes place in sequences (of which there are 16, labelled A-P), with each sequence comprising eight tracks (1-8). And as memory is dynamically assigned, you're free to use the complete 99 units of memory in one track, should you so wish.
From there, Sequences can be ordered into up to four Songs, with 24 steps or sequences in each. So much for whetting the appetite - let's turn to the rest of the menu...
Well, the Main Menu is where the action is, so to speak. As you'll see from the accompanying photo (if our photographer was sober and managed to focus properly, and you haven't already put a dripping coffee cup on it), this menu is quite a busy one. Not surprising, considering you encounter this screen during record, playback, and editing of sequences.
The centre displays the line of available Sequences (A-P) and Tracks (1-8) and the current sequence and track is always highlighted. Along the bottom of the screen is the list of 16 options available, these being selected by the Commodore's four function keys. Syntech have managed this feat by arranging the options in four levels accessed by depressing a combination of keys, ie. normal, shift, control, and shift+control. Clever stuff, and once you get the hang of it, it works a treat.
The first and most obvious options include moving forwards and backwards through Sequences and Tracks - and it was nice to find that the screen didn't redraw itself when a new sequence was selected. The Meter (or time signature) defaults to 4/4, but can be set for each sequence to anything between 1 and 24 beats to a measure, with a beat value of either a quarter, an eighth or a sixteenth note.
Tempo, meanwhile, relates to the internal clock speed, and is variable for each sequence from 44 to 240 quarter notes per minute, incremented in steps of four. If you're used to working at tempi not possible with this resolution, you may find an answer within the Set Clock options, of which there are four. The first is Internal Drum, where the computer controls the tempo while simultaneously emitting a Sync pulse code of 24, 48, or 96ppqn (including start/stop signals) over the Clock output socket; ideal for yer average Roland, Korg and Oberheim machines. However, the choice of pulse rate is made when loading up, and I can't imagine a way round changing the number without reloading — a nuisance if you like swapping between one drum machine and the next while composing. Internal Click is used when laying down a click-track to tape (determined by the internal clockspeed), and External Click allows you to use the click-track later as the master clock for recording, or for playback when committing tracks to tape. MIDI Click is selected when a MIDI drum machine or sequencer is to drive the program, but since this entails occupying the MIDI In socket, you're tied to using the facility for playback only. If you need to drive a MIDI drum machine, look no further than the toggling MIDI Drum. This is selectable in any clock mode, and causes the MIDI clock to be output along with key note data whenever a sequence is playing back; simply connect your drum machine or sequencer to the MIDI Thru on your synth, or to one of the MIDI Outs if you're using a MIDI Thru box.
Anyway, once I'd set the meter and tempo, it was time to record some music (that's debatable - Ed.). Selecting Track 1, Sequence A, and pressing the oblique sign and space bar sets the metronome rolling, and the centre line of Rec, Play, Reverse, and Forwards simulates the transport controls of a tape recorder. The top-right of the screen is occupied by the counter box, which indicates which part of the sequence is playing at any given moment, along with the length of the recorded sequence.
From top to bottom, the five counters comprise the main Counter, Cue/In/Out (which come into play when setting an autopunch) and End, all of which are divided usefully into Measure, Beat, and Pulse components. Moving backwards and forwards through a recorded sequence can be achieved in either whole beats or individual pulses (the number of pulses is determined by the ppqn number selected beforehand).
Recording can commence by playing the keyboard or, if you want silence at the beginning of your magnum opus, by pressing f7 and waiting the requisite time. The space bar stops record mode, and another jab at it activates playback, stopping and continuing it at your will. The sequence is always looped continuously, but pressing f1 persuades it to play back just once, while Return 'pauses' playback and continues it from the next whole beat when pressed again.
Track 1 should now be in reverse field on the monitor screen to show that it's been recorded. Any recorded track can be Muted simply by pressing the corresponding track number on the 64's keyboard, which has the effect of displaying the appropriate track in white on black. What's more, the End counter displays the length of the first track to the nearest whole beat, and more importantly, this length is adopted as the actual sequence length. A bit inflexible, this, but you can select a new end care of the Set End feature, and even chop the end off a sequence in the event that a new end turns out to be shorter than the original.
Overdubbing is carried out by moving to Track 2, selecting Countdown for a one-bar lead-in, and going into record mode again. If you think you can do better at any time, you can reselect any track and record over it. You don't have to begin recording from the start, either: just move to the required beat and enter record mode, remembering that anything previously recorded on the track you're working on will be erased.
One thing that begins to impress as you get to know Studio I, is that you can't erase anything from memory, or carry out a number of editing functions, without replying 'Yes' or 'No' to a prompt. Syntech's policy appears to be one of 'better to be safe than sorry', which is both wise and wonderful to those of us who consistently press first and think later.
And if real-time entry isn't your particular forte, you're free to switch to step-time input at any time. Pressing 'S' activates Step Mode, which then presents you with a window menu from which you select the size of step you wish to use. There are the usual 4/8/16/32 steps per measure options, along with their triplet counterparts. You can replay tracks manually step by step by advancing the clock by the step value selected, or at increments of whole beats or even individual pulses.
"Facilities - The Shift Track feature allows you to move a track forwards and backwards in time... and can create some stunning delay effects."
Step-time recording is carried out by holding down a note or chord, and pressing Return to advance to the next step. If you want a rest or two, just press Return on its own: or more than once if you want the note tied. Couldn't be much easier, and you can reselect a different step value for every track, or even mix and match within a track, if you need to.
So what if you record a track that's damn-near-perfect except for one small blunder? Fear not. Studio I allows for the punching-in of notes into a track in a couple of ways, either live or automatically.
Live punching consists of playing the track in either real or step mode and pressing 'P' both to punch in and later punch out, unless you reach the end of the sequence first. Designed to be 'quick and easy to use', this facility proved to be just that, and in step mode, often succeeded in homing-in on the exact pulse harbouring an errant note or chord. (I say 'often' because unless the track has been quantised, you may find a note on a pulse that isn't an exact division of a beat.) It also proved useful for inserting a program change in a track.
Autopunch, meanwhile, requires the setting of the Cue, In and Out counters. But it gives you the advantage of being able to play along to the track in real time, and letting the program switch to Record at the preset beat - which means you don't waste any time getting your hands into position over the keyboard. You can even rehearse the drop-in to your heart's content before actually recording it; pressing the '£' sign advances playback to the Cue position.
To be honest, setting the counters proved a bit tedious at times, but there's no doubt this method of autopunching works, and works well.
When you're building up tracks in a sequence, even during playback, the Mute feature allows for tracks to be muted individually, all tracks to be muted at the same time, or for one track to 'solo' with all the others muted.
Once you've got the bones of a sequence down, a number of possibilities are presented to you by the Edit Menu.
Most of these options, again arranged in four levels, affect just one track at a time. The first of these, Volume, is not a means of magically controlling the volume pot on your synth. It actually refers to the velocity-sensitivity of the sound, and will only work if your synth is of the velocity-sensitive breed.
In these days of multitimbral synths and complex MIDI synth systems, no self-respecting MIDI sequencer would be without a means of setting a channel number. The Syntech system automatically records a track on the channel number it was received on, and then lets you shift it up or down afterwards. Studio I also allows you to send out an Omni Off/Poly On message over all connected channels (ideal for synths that default to Omni On, like the JX3P). Another command allows for all pitch and mod wheels to be zeroed at one fell swoop, which also has the effect of releasing any sustain pedals.
The Edit Menu also allows for the bouncing-down of tracks, a task that encompasses both 'copying' (for backup before quantising) and 'merging'. Both operations are very straightforward, and the non-destructive nature of the bounce means that any Volume or Channel settings are preserved as part of the destination track - though if you've merged two or more tracks together, you won't be free to make any changes to one of the tracks later on.
The ubiquitous Autocorrect makes an entrance here too, and quantises the track according to a chosen step value (courtesy of a window boasting identical values to those offered in step mode). Bearing in mind that autocorrecting cannot be undone, it's not a bad idea to either save to disk beforehand, or bounce the part to a vacant track before quantising.
Transposing a track by a set number of intervals is also a piece of cake, thanks to a handy feature called Xpose Track. All you do is press a note whose interval relative to middle C is the amount by which you want the track to be transposed. In other words, select G above middle C to transpose up a perfect fifth. And if the cap doesn't fit, you're free to transpose again or revert to the original pitch.
You can end up with some interesting effects by careful use of the Shift Track feature, which basically allows you to move a track forwards and backwards in time by individual pulses, bearing in mind the limitations imposed by the start and end of the track. For instance, by copying the lead line to a vacant track, shifting it backwards a number of pulses, lowering the volume slightly, and possibly even allocating the shifted track a different sound, you end up with some quite stunning delay effects on your hands.
And provided you've enough spare tracks and memory, you can repeat this procedure to your heart's content, merging the results when you're good and ready.
Given Syntech's mastery of specifics, though, I was surprised to find that if I went to shift a previously shifted track, it didn't remind me how much it was already shifted. As it was, I found it useful for reference purposes to use the Name Track feature to indicate the number of pulses the track had been shifted, at least until I was ready to merge.
"In Use - You can't erase anything from memory, or carry out a number of editing functions, without replying to a prompt — better safe than sorry."
Name Track, as you may have guessed, is really intended for denoting the instrument each track is assigned to, and you can use up to three characters for a name (not enough for Fairlight, but PPG would seem to fit nicely). The remaining editing options allow provision for erasing tracks, naming the actual sequence, and appending one sequence onto the end of another (though the second sequence automatically adopts the tempo and meter of the first, so beware).
I was a bit surprised to find no means of looping a track within a sequence - though by appending a sequence to itself, you can manage to double the recorded tracks and can continue to carry out this procedure till you run out of memory, if you're determined enough. But that's the crunch: appending uses up memory, and memory is one thing Studio I doesn't have in abundance, especially if you tend to use aftertouch, pitchbend or modulation to any degree. Blocks of aftertouched chords can actually eat into memory in front of your very eyes - which is why an Aftertouch Filter is provided as an option. In fact, there were times when I ran out of memory while still recording my first sequence. Luckily, syncing to tape is possible, and this also allows the one-synth owner to compose using different sounds, so this shortcoming can be overcome.
If you run out of memory due to the overuse of performance effects, you can resort to the Track Mods Menu. This allows for the individual removal of program-change, aftertouch, pitchbend or modulation data from a track, thus releasing more memory for use.
Copying a sequence to another can be carried out indirectly by saving, say, Seq A to disk and loading it back to Seq B, courtesy of the Disk Menu (Sequences). And apart from loading and saving sequences using their given names, you can also display the disk directory, format disks, and delete sequence files from this menu. As usual, the software prompts you fully along the way, just to confirm your intentions.
Of course, being able to compose various sequences would be a fat lot of good without some means of stringing them along in a given order. In answer to this obvious need, the Song screen allows you to construct up to four Songs (called a Song Set) by chaining up to 24 sections (or sequences) together. Which, in effect, allows you to compile four different versions of a song using the same 16 sequences. Options are again presented in four levels along the bottom of the screen, and building up a song really couldn't be more straightforward. If you've assigned different tempos to sequences, these are automatically acted upon-though the program doesn't aspire to more elaborate accelerandos or ritardandos. Playback is activated by the space bar, and can commence from the beginning of any section.
If you've given a sequence a name, you'll find it's displayed as you enter arrangements, along with any information from the Track. Volume and Channel lines as displayed by the Sequence screen. You can go back and Insert or Delete a section to a song, transpose a section just like you would a track (so key-changes are no problem), Name Song, Name Song Set, Erase Song, or advance to Next Song.
When it comes to saving everything to disk, the Disk Menu (Songs) has all the answers. This allows for Song Sets to be saved and loaded (complete with the 16 sequences from which they're compiled), and accesses the directory, deletes song sets, and formats new disks.
A few commands not yet covered relate to erasing all sequences and songs from memory, along with a feature called Play Thru. This lets you record from a master keyboard whilst hearing the sound from an expander or another synth. Quite a neat feature, this, since if you intend to use a particular sound from an expander for, say, a lead line, it's essential that your performance is tailored exactly to its sound contour.
Incidentally, testing was carried out with a Yamaha DX7, Roland JX8P, Korg DW8000, and Chase Bit 99, and with no incompatibility problems right across the board; apart, of course, from the Bit's quirk of denoting Program Change Transmit On with 00, and Receive On with a 01. So much for Italian design...
Like all good sequencing packages, Studio I takes a while to get thoroughly familiar with — the excellent user's manual is essential reading. It's easily one of the most comprehensive and easy-to-use sequencing programs I've yet encountered for the CBM64. The Joreth Music Composer System is arguably more facility-laden, but not quite as user-friendly. My only reservation relates to the speed with which the available memory depletes as soon as you introduce performance controls to your recording, but to a greater or lesser extent, that's true of all MIDI programs.
It's refreshing to find a package that serves to stimulate, not frustrate, the musician's creative flow. And whilst Studio I may not be the everyman's sequencing package for the CBM64, it's a darn sight better than most of the current competition.
Here's hoping UK distribution won't be too far away.
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Review by Trish McGrath
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