The Digital Muse Prodigy
Software for the Atari ST
Son of TDM's Virtuoso ST sequencing software, the budget Prodigy retains many of its parent's best features. Ian Waugh checks out the fastest little sequencer in the west.
Adopting its own operating system and multitasking made TDM's Virtuoso possibly the fastest sequencer currently available - these are just two of the facilities it has handed down to Prodigy.
LIFE GOES ON. And the search for the ultimate budget-priced software sequencer continues.
Ever since Steinberg set the "going rate" of pro sequencing software at £285 with the Pro24, it seems that any software wishing to be classed as pro has to have a price tag to match. Many cost more than the computer they run on, and Steinberg's Cubase has recently set a new standard - certainly in terms of price, which has just been hiked up to £550. But what about the little fellow, the dabbler, the home user and the semi-pro who can't afford or justify spending a month's wages on a disk, a dongle and a manual?
It took a while for the developers to wake up to the budget market but it has been exploited ruthlessly over the past year. I can now count over a dozen sequencers for the ST at under £130 and the competition here is even greater than in the professional arena. One of the latest combatants is Prodigy (review version v1.05), progeny of Virtuoso and the only budget-priced multitasking sequencer for the ST currently on the market. It comes in a cardboard box - no folder, sorry - and consists of two disks (one for colour and one for mono operation), a dongle and a ring-bound manual.
If you have already read MT's review of Virtuoso (see MT, October '89) and liked it but couldn't afford it, you'll find Prodigy very interesting. You'll also notice many similarities between it and Virtuoso - as you would expect between father and son.
PRODIGY DISPENSES WITH GEM altogether in favour of its own multitasking operating system - just as Virtuoso does. It has its own menu bar along the bottom of the screen and clicking on a button calls up a new screen or page. On the right-hand side is the control panel containing the record controls, left and right markers, tempo and so on. The control panel and menu bar are common to every page.
In the control panel, a clock shows the time elapsed during recording and playback, a counter shows the current position in the song in bars, beats and clicks and the markers define a section of music which the program calls a zone.
A set of four-way scrolling arrows (similar to those on Virtuoso) move you back and forth through the music and scroll up and down through the pages.
A panic button sends MIDI all notes off commands (this may cause an error message on some machines) and a centre pitchbend instruction. You can alter the time signature (which only affects the way the music is displayed) and select Cycle mode for recording and playback. Drop mode automatically drops you in and out of record between the left and right markers.
LIKE VIRTUOSO, THE basic working unit within Prodigy is the block, which is made up from 32 Tracks (Virtuoso has 99). These are listed in the block page and the scroll arrows scroll through them. Blocks can be linked together in the Arrange page. Unlike Virtuoso, Prodigy has no dedicated Zone page but I don't think too many users will miss this.
Tracks can be given a 16-character name, they can be copied, deleted and re-ordered on the track list. A status column is used to solo and mute the Tracks and a channel column sets the MIDI transmission channel although a Track can also transmit on its recorded channel(s).
A column to the right of the track list acts as a velocity indicator and doubles as a set of slider controls to adjust the values in the next column. This houses real-time processing parameters which include quantise, program change number, volume, pan position, loops and repeats. DDL (a Digital Delay Line which offsets the track to create chorus and echo effects), transpose, velocity offset and filter settings. These are 'soft" functions which only affect the track during playback and don't alter the actual data. Good.
TO RECORD ON a Track, you click on the record button, wait for the count-in then off you go.
There are three types of Cycle Record. Normal cycles through the zoned area continually replacing the contents of the track with each pass. In Drum Loop mode, each pass adds to the Track and in Auto+ mode the program automatically moves on to the next Track after each cycle - you need to be a quick worker/thinker to use this well.
The Blocks you create are shown in the Block Library page along with details of their length, number of events and memory used.
The Arrange page also lists the Blocks but here you can drag them into an arrange stream to create your final song. It's a very easy business to change the order of sections of music and even to change their time of entry. If the first Block say, is an eight-bar intro and you think it's too long, you can bring in Block 2 on the fifth bar instead of the ninth.
PRODIGY HAS THREE edit pages - Grid, Event and Process. The Grid page shows note data as now-familiar bars - the longer the bar, the longer the note. However, in this grid the bars lie vertically and scroll up the page rather like a piano roll. Far more logical than a horizontal layout, I reckon.
You can toggle a piano keyboard onto the grid and move it up and down and left and right across the grid. A dot shows the notes currently playing as they scroll over the keyboard and a ruler on the left shows the bars as they pass by.
In Edit mode, clicking on a note shows its details in an information box, and these can then be edited. Notes on the grid can be moved in time with the left-hand mouse button and their duration can be changed with the right. Using different on-screen buttons you can alter velocity and delete notes.
Notes can be entered in step time, too. First you select a duration by rough quantise values in a note length box, then you select a gate on time (as a percentage) for the articulation. You can use the gate time to insert notes longer or shorter than the specified value. If you click and hold a note on the grid, you can alter the pitch and its velocity by moving the mouse - neat. You can enter duration and velocity direct from a MIDI keyboard, too.
The system works well, although having to cycle through note durations - and gate times to further adjust the durations - can be frustrating. A row of note durations (as used in Virtuoso) would make the task easier and this is one area where the cut-backs are felt.
THE EVENT PAGE shows notes and events in a list - time, event type, MIDI channel, event data and so on. You can choose the types of event you don't want listed, making it easy to edit just notes, program changes or controller data. In Chord mode, notes and events which are supposed to occur together are shown grouped. Notes and events can be inserted here, too, although I found the grid far better for this.
The Process page is used to edit large amounts of data on selected Tracks or Zones. You can bounce tracks together and unmix them by MIDI channel (a MIDI channel filter in the Grid page can be used to show data on just one channel to help with the editing of mixed tracks).
"Prodigy is extremely powerful for a budget sequencing program - in fact, it's pretty powerful, full stop."
A copy function lets you copy the data between the zone markers to a track and steps on automatically to the end of the data ready for another copy. There are also insert, delete and clear commands.
There are three operations you can perform on a Track or a Zone of events - quantisation, volume change and transposition. These are "hard" operations and permanently alter the data.
Quantisation has a strength setting plus eight preset "feels" which move the quantise values away from the strict timing values. The volume operation can be used to create crescendos and diminuendos. Another neat facility.
There are very useful undo and restore buttons on all edit pages - a godsend when your edit finger gets a little over-zealous. The Grid and Event editors are linked, too, so you can select an event and flip from one editor to the other.
THE SETUP PAGE is where you set MIDI filters to prevent unwanted data being recorded. You can set a number of preferences, too, such as count in, super mouse (speeds it up - I like this), MIDI or internal metronome, MIDI echo and internal/external clock. You can enter your name here, too, which will be inserted in any arrangements you make. All these settings can be saved to a file which will be loaded automatically on booting.
Prodigy's file handling system supports individual Tracks, Blocks and Arrangements. You can save setups and the complete environment (Tracks, Blocks, Arrangements, Setups - the lot). Prodigy also supports the MIDI File format which it handles on a Block basis. Files can be given a 24-character name (although this doesn't appear - obviously - on the actual disk). Luxury.
I did, however, experience a couple of problems when using a hard disk, especially with MIDI Files. Prodigy seemed to have an aversion to certain files it had saved. This may be due to the way it handles long filenames on a hard disk. Anyway, TDM have been informed and the problem should soon be sorted out. No such problem with floppies, though. Oddly, the MIDI Files loaded perfectly into Notator.
Although the flexibility of the file handling is useful, it can be initially a little confusing. For example, loading a Block or an Arrangement doesn't automatically show the first Track or Block in the track list - it has to be selected from the Track library page first. An empty unnamed Track appears by default and heads the library list. That's one reason why you need to read the manual.
THE MANUAL IS one of the best I have seen for a program of this kind - it even has an index. At least TDM have taken note of many a reviewer's criticism about software manuals (but what about the use of the apostrophes, chaps - "its" and "it's", for example?).
The first four chapters include an ST, a MIDI and a Prodigy primer. Chapter five takes you through a hands-on session which uses most of the basic features you need to make a recording. All the input is your own, so start feeling creative - there are no demo files. I always think it's nice to see what a programmer can do with his own work but it's no big deal.
There are also extensive help pages within the program and you could probably suss out most of the operations using these alone, although you really should read the manual too (you know why). Prodigy will run on a 520ST and if memory is at a premium you can elect not to load the help facilities.
PRODIGY USES THE mouse extensively, although there are also many keyboard alternatives. However, in place of a GEM double click, you have to click both buttons. The manual says many people find this easier (but if you're used to GEM it only becomes more confusing). It also says the program supports both methods but it doesn't. Irksome.
To quit the program you click with both buttons on Quit in the menu bar. Now, you'd probably have to be a bit of a div to do this accidentally but a pop-up box requesting confirmation would be reassuring.
LACK OF A GEM interface means you can't run desk accessories such as voice editors and librarians (a link into GEM is rumoured to be on the way for Virtuoso and this may filter down to Prodigy). But how important this is depends on the user.
There are a few obvious omissions - no drum edit grid, for example, and no score edit facility. These are both also missing from Virtuoso so it's hardly surprising, and they are the kind of features traditionally reserved for pro programs. A score edit page is rumoured to be on the cards for Virtuoso, too.
There is a memory free indicator (double-click in the box where the four scroll arrows are) although there is no mention of this in the manual.
Prodigy is extremely powerful for a budget program. In fact it's powerful full stop, although if you compare it with Virtuoso you will end up with a considerable list of differences - Virtuoso is very well specified indeed.
Prodigy files should be upwardly compatible with Virtuoso, according to TDM (the dongles are different) but I couldn't load them into Virtuoso v1.07 (this will undoubtedly soon be fixed). You will want to do this if you upgrade to Virtuoso and TDM are tempting you with the offer of a full refund of the cost of Prodigy.
Perhaps because of its flexibility, the raw newcomer to software sequencing might find Prodigy a little daunting initially, especially in the way that Tracks, Blocks and Arrangements link together and the fact that the filing system handles them individually. If you're not afraid of a little work, however, it's well worth getting to know.
Prodigy's speed and multitasking make other GEM-based sequencers seem rather slow. The ability to flip - instantly - from page to page is a neglected luxury. One day all sequencers will be made this way.
If you want to check it out - heartily recommended - a demo is available from TDM for a fiver, or as one of the demos on MT's own Vkiller disk (see elsewhere in this issue).
Price £129.95 including VAT
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Review by Ian Waugh
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