From a new British company comes a new Atari ST software sequencer that looks set to rival Notator and Cubase for power and versatility. The virtuous Nigel Lord boots it up.
Who needs another software sequencer? Well, what if it multitasks, has a fast music-orientated operating system and a higher resolution than anything else on the market?
"GOOD SHOW?" "YEAH, great... tremendous response." Like the platitudes expressed at most industry gatherings, the standard exchange of pleasantries on music fair trade days may be regarded as socially useful (one might even say, necessary), but ultimately of little value in estimating the level of interest surrounding a particular new product. The fact is, the music business as a whole is grossly over-subscribed; and just as a large percentage of new bands entering the arena can be expected to fall by the wayside, so too will many new companies producing the equipment on which they depend.
Nowhere is this excess capacity more apparent than in the sequencing software market - particularly that written for the Atari. There are currently some 30 different packages for the ST, all of varying degrees of sophistication (and price), but all providing a broadly similar means of recording and editing MIDI data. Clearly, for a new company to get a foothold in this market, new standards have to be set in terms of performance or price (or both) - and to achieve this, some pretty innovative design work would seem to be essential.
Not having had the pleasure (?) of attending this year's BMF, I'm not sure just what sort of response was elicited by Virtuoso - a new MIDI sequencing package from London-based company, The Digital Muse - but having recently been seduced by the elegant sophistication of Steinberg's Cubase package, I'd have to admit to a certain raising of standards in my expectations of new software designs.
So what does Virtuoso offer? We'll let the software writers have the first word...
"Virtuoso has been designed and programmed by working musicians who are also computer programmers. While using Atari music software we were frustrated by the poor software specification: while the number of features offered by the leading packages was impressive, we were constantly being told by engineers, producers and musicians that the quality of these programs was not professional enough to be used alongside their other studio equipment. For this reason many of them were still using hardware sequencers, despite their being slower and less flexible in use... We were able to provide a resolution of 480 clocks-per-quarter-note, which is much higher than any existing package."
Quite. But a resolution of 192 clocks-per-quarter-note is eight times as high as the MIDI clock rate, and a higher resolution wouldn't make much sense in applications like this since MIDI doesn't handle parallel data. So who's zoomin' who? Well, if it were single events we were dealing with, having so high a timing resolution would make sense, but given the amount of data a sequencer usually has to send (in relation to MIDI clock rate), a certain amount of byte queueing at the MIDI port is inevitable. So any benefits of this kind of resolution would be hard to detect in practice. Not only that, but the response time of individual MIDI instruments would also need to be taken into consideration at these speeds, and most would be incapable of doing Virtuoso justice.
Whatever the facts of the matter, it's perhaps curious that it should be the resolution of the program which TOM decided to first draw our attention to, since the program's other claim to fame is its extensive multitasking facilities made possible by the adoption of a new operating system (replacing the GEM-based routines of most sequencing packages). And though Cubase is capable of some pretty extensive multitasking, having been released at just about the same time, Virtuoso can, by rights, lay equal claim to introducing this particular innovation in the world of ST software.
This means that functions such as page changing and disk access may be carried out without interrupting playback and that you can move between tasks virtually instantaneously.
The ST's familiar GEM-based graphics have been discarded in favour of something TDM consider more appropriate to a music-based software system. It has to be said that the overall effect of this is most attractive, and certainly gives Virtuoso the appearance of a program worth getting to know.
COMMON TO ALL pages within Virtuoso is the Main Panel, and here may be found all the transport controls, tempo and timing displays, position markers, name boxes, various function switches and the scroll icons. Being consistent throughout the program, it lends a degree of continuity to the proceedings, as well as packing a huge amount of information into a few square inches of screen space. Not only that, but it's perfectly legible too, and despite any initial fears I may have had, quite easily accessed by mouse.
Individual sections of music recorded on Virtuoso are known as blocks, and data relating to these is displayed within the Block Page, which is automatically selected after the program has loaded. A total of 99 tracks is available for recording, and together with a series of playback parameter options, these are listed in one of six sub-pages which may be accessed from the main Block Page - using either the mouse or the F1 to F6 keys.
Not all 99 tracks can be displayed simultaneously, but Virtuoso does manage to squeeze a respectable 25 into the Track List at any one time - scrolling being carried out on the right-hand side of the Main Panel. Tracks may be moved around within the list or copied using the left and right mouse buttons and dragged in the (now) standard way. Besides the name and number of each Track, the current on or off status is also displayed, and so too is the note-on velocity via a graphic meter bridge spanning the 25 visible tracks.
"The Feel Table can be used to establish a 'map' for quantising other zones - the feel of a drum track may be imprinted over a bass part, for example."
Playback parameters which may be controlled from here include real-time quantisation, MIDI program change number, MIDI volume and pan position, transpose, velocity processing and MIDI filtering. Additionally, a local loop may be defined (within a cycle set up in the Main Panel, if required), and a shadow facility allows you to process the data of one track with the parameters of another. Creative use of MIDI delays may be explored using the DDL Coarse and Fine parameters, whilst the Time Offset allows you to compensate for the unintentional delays often encountered when using several MIDI devices or introduce deliberate offsets into a Block.
Various other functions populate the Block Page, among them the well-conceived cycle recording modes which work in conjunction with the left and right zone markers included in the Main Panel. Of the three, Layer Cycle is perhaps the most conventional: it works (like most sequencers or drum machines) by adding recorded data to the Track on each pass, allowing you to assemble a composite whole. Auto+Cycle, on the other hand, records data from each pass onto successive blank Tracks (providing these have been "created" in advance). Thus (to quote the manual), "you can start with drums and a bass line, add some chords, play a lead line and build up a whole arrangement without once stopping the music or losing a beat".
Somewhat similar to Auto+Cycle, Multi-take Cycle provides you with a convenient means (for example) of recording several versions of a piece of music onto successive blank Tracks in order to chose the one you like best. This is possible because in this mode the playback of previous tracks is muted during recording of the current one. Not only that, but Virtuoso actually numbers each take for you to make subsequent identification that much easier.
LIKE MANY OF the more up-market sequencing packages released over the last couple of years, Virtuoso comes equipped with some pretty extensive facilities for the manipulation of individual notes. The most useful of these, from a musical point of view, at least, are contained within the Grid page, where you will find a graphic representation of a ten-octave keyboard and a display of white bars scrolling vertically in real time across a grid. A highly useful, if not entirely unique system, its chief attraction lies in its ability to display data in a very musical way, whilst remaining easy to understand by those unfamiliar with the complexities of standard notation.
With the refined graphics of Virtuoso to give it a new lease of life, this is certainly the best implementation of the system I've ever seen. Unlike some sequencers, it functions in true real-time and has the advantage of small black and white dots which appear on the relevant notes of the keyboard to make it that bit easier to follow. I particularly welcome the facility for shifting the keyboard down the grid so that the bars flow across it and remain visible after they have played. This comes in handy during editing when comparing the notes about to be played with those which already have been.
Selecting the Grid Page reveals a full complement of editing facilities, with note position, pitch, length and velocity all easily adjusted. Clicking the left-hand mouse button over the desired note immediately relays its vital statistics to the Note Info box at the bottom left of the screen, and editing is simply a matter of clicking left and right mouse buttons to increment/decrement the value in the appropriate field within the box. Alternatively, certain editing functions like length, position and pitch may be carried out on the grid itself - the latter being monitored audibly as the note moves up or down the scale.
Notes may be deleted altogether and added via MIDI or in association with the step-time entry system using the icons in the Note Length box at the bottom of the display. To the right of this is the Gate Select box where it's possible to determine the length of notes as they appear on the grid during step-time entry. Though only four percentage values are shown, these can be adjusted using the left and right mouse buttons to cover a range of O-2OO%.
There are various functions for improving the legibility of the grid display, among them the Channel FiIter, which removes all parts from the screen except those of the selected MIDI channel. It's like a visual solo button really, but the data on the other channels is not muted, it's only removed from the display. Full muting of tracks is possible using a conventional Solo function, however, and this works independently of the Track status set in the Block Page.
To increase the size of the grid, the keyboard may be removed altogether, as may the ruler down the left-hand side of the screen. There is a vertical zoom function with levels of x2, x4 and Max (producing a display corresponding to Virtuoso's full resolution), but this facility is not available during playback. Finally, the Full switch toggles between a ten- and five-octave grid display - the default being five octaves.
NOTE EDITING ON Virtuoso may also be carried out in the Event List, which, like the Grid Page, is selected from the main menu. Here events are listed in text form in four columns - Event Time, Event Type, MIDI Channel and Data - with a black line and reversed text highlighting the event currently being played/edited. Though the sheer quantity of information in serial form looks a little daunting at first, the Event List does in fact provide a very straightforward method of editing.
"It's worth remembering that disk operations may be carried out without interrupting the music - so there's no reason not to save as often as possible."
Beneath the main display is a sub-menu listing seven options (in addition to the Edit on/off selector) used in the processing of note information. Of these, Delete, Quantise and Restore are self-explanatory, whilst Chord is used to group together notes with the same start time to make it easier to distinguish chords. Selecting Default opens a small dialogue box in which you can set the default values for notes, MIDI controllers and Mode messages when these are input in step time. And finally, the Hex/Dec buttons are used to determine whether certain parts of the data in the list are displayed in Hex or Decimal format.
Inputting data is done in association with the Event FiIter list at the bottom of the page. Clicking the righthand mouse button over an event type enters it in the display at a point corresponding to the current position marker (in the Main Panel). Thus, note on, note off, pitchbend and mod wheel events may all be input directly onto the screen - their initial values being determined by the selected default settings. So why is it called the Event FiIter List? Well, clicking the left-hand mouse button over the relevant event type effectively removes it from the display, leaving only the desired information in the list.
When editing data, it's frequently necessary to be able to restrict its application to notes or events which occur within certain sections of the music, or which can be identified as having particular characteristics. The Zone Page was included for just this purpose. There are two main processing options - Track and Event - and these are selected from a sub-menu immediately below the main display. The Track options include Wipe Inside, which clears data from selected zones, and Wipe Outside which clears data from all unselected zones. Remove not only clears data from selected zones, it also removes the zone itself and moves the other zones along to take up the space.
Merge is used to mix data from zones on selected Tracks to a single Track, whereas Overwrite transfers the data from a selected zone on one Track to a corresponding zone on another Track. Copy/Append is another transfer mode; this time, selected zones from one Track are copied to a destination Track in order to lose any unselected zones in between. The same operation may be performed using Move/Append, but the source Track is deleted during the process. Finally, after completing any zoning operations, Clean Up may be called on to remove any overlapping notes or unmatched note-off messages.
Selecting the Event button from the Zone sub-menu replaces the list of Track/Zone options with a list of Event options. This is divided roughly in half: the top half for the four main processes available - Quantise, Note Processing, Velocity Rescaling and Controller Processing - the bottom half for the Note Selection box used to specify which events are to be included in the processing. Here, criteria such as Note Number, Velocity and Length and so on, may be used to determine the extent of the processing - leaving these parameters at their default settings automatically includes all events.
Selection of any of the four processing options is carried out using the left-hand mouse button - clicking the right-hand button automatically opens a window for that option in which its parameters may be defined. Quantise calls up the main Quantise window (though the quantisation chosen only applies to the events within the selected zones). Note Processing offers such functions as transposition, deletion, replacement and randomisation of notes, velocity, length and start times and so on, and there are also facilities for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of certain values. So, for example, all note lengths in a selected zone might be increased by a fixed value, or multiplied by a predetermined factor.
The third Event processing option, Velocity Rescaling, also has its own window and here it is possible to edit MIDI Note-on velocities in order to control dynamics within selected zones. The process is very straightforward and programming crescendos or diminuendos, for example, is simply a matter of inserting a start and an end velocity. A further option allows you to choose a linear or an exponential curve for the programmed increase/decrease. Selecting Invert effectively reverses the dynamics of the notes within a selected zone (so that loud notes become quiet and vice versa), and compression and expansion are also possible, though only in fixed 2:1 or 1:2 ratios.
Completing the four, the Controller Processing option and its associated window provides us with facilities for deleting MIDI Controller data from a zone, or for thinning it out (to prevent large amounts of data clogging the Atari's MIDI buffer or eating up memory), or for remapping it for use with another controller. All the standard MIDI Controllers are catered for - including the more esoteric ones like Balance, Pan and Expression - and there are three undefined spaces in the list in anticipation of any future developments.
I'VE MADE REFERENCE to the Quantise window on several occasions, but what facilities are actually available? With the Editing pages out of the way, it seems like a good time to take a look. In the way of most good software sequencers these days, quantisation on Virtuoso goes well beyond the purely corrective purpose it was originally designed for.
Of the four principal quantise modes available, Snap is used to move whole notes to the nearest quantise position, whereas Start moves the beginning of a note to the quantise position, leaving the rest of the note as it was originally played. Deflam is a utility quantise function used for the deletion of any double notes which may have occurred, whilst Humanise actually introduces an element of random shift into the music after it has been quantised in the normal way.
"With the refined graphics of Virtuoso to give it a new lease of life, the Grid Page is certainly the best implementation of the system I've ever seen."
Two further modes, Chord and Feel, though not actually quantise functions in themselves, are used to determine the way in which quantise is applied using the other four options. Thus, Chord (as its name suggests), detects the start and finish points of notes intended to be played as chords and aligns them accordingly. Feel, on the other hand, is used to "colour" the quantisation according to parameters loaded into the Feel Table occupying the right-hand side of the Quantise window. Setting up the Feel Table involves entering an offset value alongside the absolute quantise intervals in the left-hand column, and setting the length of the table according to the number of entries made. It's rather a complex process, but if my somewhat limited experiments are anything to go by, the results can be quite impressive.
Used in conjunction with Feel Capture, the Feel Table can be automatically filled and set to the required length by data from a selected zone in order to establish a "map" for quantising other zones. Thus, the feel of a drum track may be imprinted over a bass part, for example. Feel Analyse takes this one step further by averaging out the data from a complete track and loading the resulting parameters into the Feel Table for use with other tracks.
MANIPULATION OF DATA to the extent it is possible on Virtuoso would only make sense if the facilities for arranging a piece of music were equally comprehensive. And I'm happy to say this is the case. The key to the Arrange Page lies in understanding the system of Streams into which Blocks are placed. There are eight Streams for each arrangement and these are selected individually (or collectively) by the buttons above the main display. All the recorded Blocks are listed in the Library column over on the right of the page, and from here they may be selected and placed in the Block Name column to their left. Placing a Block in this way automatically loads its Start and End positions into the relevant columns in the display and also gives it a number to identify the Stream in which it belongs.
Any Block may be placed in any Stream as part of an Arrangement - selecting All displays every Stream with Blocks currently loaded. Placing a Block between two others is carried out by simply dragging and releasing it at that position on screen; overlapping Blocks, however, have to be placed in different Streams. Both Blocks and Streams may be deleted/cleared in the Arrange Page, and so too can the Arrangement itself by dragging the All button to the Main Panel and releasing.
In addition to listing Blocks within an Arrangement, the display is also used to detail Tempo Events (providing the Tempo Map button is selected). There are two types of Tempo Event, absolute and relative. Absolute events, as their name suggests, carry with them an exact tempo, whereas Relative events reflect a change in tempo from a previous level. Using both types allows you to maintain the relationship between the tempi of various sections of an Arrangement whilst raising or lowering the overall tempo of the music.
Recording Tempo Events into the Tempo Map is carried out by playing an Arrangement and simply adjusting the tempo slider on the Main Panel as required. Alternatively, an individual Tempo Event may be inserted at a given position in the Arrangement, by setting the tempo slider and clicking with the left mouse button for an absolute value, or the right-hand button for a relative one.
Before saving any Arrangement, you have to give it a title, and a box at the top of the page is included for just this purpose. For those who also like to see their names up in lights (or pixels), this can be entered too, and interestingly, once saved to disk, it cannot be altered by anyone trying to load the song into their own program. Any potential plagiarist will at least have the trouble of copying it track by track if the name of the rightful composer isn't to stare him in the face for all eternity.
ON THE SUBJECT of entering text on screen, Virtuoso comes replete with a full Text Editing page where information pertaining to a particular Block may be entered and stored with it on disk. Selecting the Txt button from the sub-menu puts the whole Atari keyboard at your disposal, and like many tasks on Virtuoso, entry of text can take place while the music is playing. So if the lyrics for a song suddenly occur to you whilst listening to your latest magnum opus, you needn't spend the next ten minutes desperately trying to find a pen and paper.
So extensive are the disk saving and loading facilities on Virtuoso, that a separate page has been devoted to them. And again, being multitasked it's worth remembering that disk operations may be carried out without interrupting the music - so there's no reason not to save as often as possible. Saving and loading of individual Tracks, Blocks, Arrangements, Set-Ups and MIDI files is possible these being selected from the File Format menu to the right of the display. Because Virtuoso runs under its own operating system files can be given names consisting of 24 characters as opposed to the eight of GEM-based programs, so it is possible to be far more descriptive when naming each item.
One rather useful feature is the facility for creating Folders into which related items may be stored. So. even if you're the type that doesn't spend time thinking of imaginative titles for individual parts of a song, the problem of having to sort through a dozen "Verse One"s and umpteen "Chorus"es should be a thing of the past.
I must confess, I didn't get the opportunity to try loading MIDI files from other sequencers during my time with the program. However, the manual insists that Virtuoso supports the MIDI standard so there should be no problems.
"Recording Tempo Events into the Tempo Map is carried out by playing an Arrangement and simply adjusting the tempo slider on the Main Panel as required."
Finally, we come to the Set-Up page where we're confronted with a series of options for customising the MIDI operation of the sequencer to suit individual systems. Facilities for assigning output channels and MIDI controllers are extensive, to say the least, and so are the MIDI FiIter options which allow up to six filters to be assigned to each track. And it's all well laid out and quite logical too, which certainly makes a change: messing around with MIDI parameters is a potential source of confusion for many people. Too many software writers seem to assume everyone is as familiar with the intricacies of MIDI data as they are.
In the Preferences menu there are options to enable/disable MIDI Thru, together with a loop filter which can break the MIDI Thru link on any selected channel. Assigning the loop filter to the receive channel of the synth prevents doubled notes occurring, yet allows other equipment to make use of the Atari's MIDI thru in the normal way.
The Count In preferences are also controlled from this menu, and besides being able to determine the number of bars required, it's possible to choose between a conventional count-in or the First Event facility, where recording starts after receiving an event tngger via MIDI. An internal tick (through the Atari monitor) or MIDI note number can be specified for the metronome, and it is also possible to set up separate sounds for the down beat and the other beats - the Tick and the Tock (!) as they are known on Virtuoso.
Before concluding, I must mention Virtuoso's comprehensive Help facilities which may be accessed at any time by pressing the Atari's Help key and selecting the required page from the menu. And it's worth pointing out the extensive use made of the Atari's keyboard to duplicate mouse functions throughout the program. Though a dedicated mouser myself, I know some people prefer using the keyboard wherever possib!e, and if this is the case, Virtuoso should suit you to the ground.
BUT ENOUGH OF what's on offer; what does it all add up to? Well, I have to say that in nearly five years reviewing equipment, Virtuoso has provided me with the most difficult summing-up task I have yet encountered. The problem stems from the rather crowded market place I spoke of earlier. With established sequencer packages surrounding it on all sides, it's too easy to look around and list the features Virtuoso doesn't have... but reviewing another new software package in a couple of months or so, I'll probably find myself using Virtuoso as an example of certain features that doesn't have.
Clearly, every piece of equipment has its plus and minus points. There are, however, certain omissions on Virtuoso which are particularly difficult to understand. For example, the absence of a drum edit or score edit page on a sequencer of this complexity is rather hard to justify. Putting together rhythm tracks using the Grid page or the Event list leaves a lot to be desired. Writing patterns is essentially a step-time operation for many musicians and leaving you to visualise rhythms as notes on a piano keyboard or as lines in a data list, isn't what I'd have expected from a company who make great play of the fact that they themselves are musicians.
Score editing, though perhaps not quite so important an omission in view of the excellent Grid edit system, nevertheless has its devotees who will be disappointed by its exclusion. And as a tool in commercial studios where scoring parts for session players is often called for, its absence could well tip the balance in favour of rival packages.
The human sync facility now finding its way into a number of software sequencers would also have given Virtuoso a badly-needed edge on some of its competitors, as would a more imaginative use of MIDI delay sound processing. The manual too, though lucid and very well written, would have benefited enormously from the inclusion of an index. I would have thought the attention given to this subject in MT and other magazines over the years would have given manufacturers the message about the indispensability of a comprehensive indexing facility for this sort of equipment - perhaps not.
I must also say that the emphasis TDM give to the question of timing resolution seems somewhat exaggerated. Having been using software sequencers for the past two or three years now, I can't honestly say clock resolution has given me any timing problems whatsoever. Make no mistake, I wholeheartedly welcome TDM's efforts to raise the standard of accuracy in MIDI software, but I can't honestly subscribe to their belief in this being "the main area for concern".
What do we have? Omissions, missed opportunities and contradictions - clearly I'm not very impressed with Virtuoso... Well er, yes, as a matter of fact I am. I think it's excellent. Despite the criticisms I've made, this is a superbly designed sequencer with enormous appeal. Apart from anything else, it's so accessible. Someone has obviously decided it was time to make the tedious aspects of MIDI sequencing rather more edifying - and Virtuoso goes a long way to accomplishing just that.
A joy to use - its multitasking facilities reduce the amount of time you have to spend thinking about the sequencer, and therefore give you more time to think about the music you are writing on it. Visually, the redesigned graphics count for a lot, and apart from any practical considerations, help to give the program an element of individualism which definitely makes it stand out from the crowd. As with all software-based sequencers, there's the opportunity to add new facilities in future updates, and TDM have a lot up their sleeves for the months to come. Even in the course of this review, updates came thick and fast, ironing out bugs and adding new features continually.
I cannot say that Virtuoso is presently as comprehensive a system as Cubase, but there's that £200 price difference to take into consideration, however, if TDM's intention was to adopt a new approach to sequencer design, Virtuoso has to be considered a success and certainly worthy of your attention. It's the kind of program that makes MIDI sequencing less of a science and more of an art.
Price £299 including VAT
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Review by Nigel Lord
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