The Multimedia Approach to PC Sequencing
Lowrie Woolf Seqwin V2/Multimedia
Is 'multimedia' the way forward for all sequencers? Lowrie Wolf think so...
The great orchestrator Ravel never said: "a bit of program 42, Bank 8, on MIDI channel 16 will suit this part". Rather, he might have said "some flute would suit this part". This is what SeqWin tries to offer you. Panicos Georghiades and Gabriel Jacobs check it out.
SeqWin is the first PC sequencing program originating from the UK that's actually made it to the market since these authors have been reviewing music computer products (and we began in 1987). In that time, we've seen a few programs in beta test versions, many with good and original ideas, but never the final product. The going seems to be tough.
It's certainly true that any new music product has to have some sort of unique selling point, and SeqWin has at least two.
• Firstly, it attempts to take the drudgery out of assigning instrument sounds to music parts, one of the unfriendly aspects of orchestrating with MIDI instruments. Because of this, its producers call it an 'intelligent sequencer', and in some respects it is.
• Secondly, it supports the Windows 3.1 multimedia extensions. For music applications the most important aspect of this is the ability to synchronise digital audio with MIDI, without the need for expensive external timecode hardware.
Let's begin by looking at SeqWin's instrument assignment technique. Ordinarily when you compose on a sequencer, you record each musical part on a separate track. Then you assign each track to a specific MIDI channel and a specific MIDI port — if your MIDI interface has more than one port.
At the receiving end of your MIDI setup, each one of your synthesizers has to be set to receive on one or more MIDI channels. To assign an instrument sound to a musical part, you insert a Program Change MIDI Event at the beginning of the track containing that music part. This Program Change number is the number of the sound you require, in a list of sounds stored in the particular synthesizer you have chosen to play that part. In other words, the synthesizer is tuned — something like a TV — to receive data on the same MIDI channel on which the musical part will be transmitted by the sequencer. What this means is that you end up having to remember, or continuously look up, instrument tables in the manuals of your synthesizers.
However, the great orchestrator of all time, Ravel, never said: "a bit of program 42, Bank 8, on MIDI channel 16 will suit this part". Rather, he might have said "some flute would suit this part". This is what SeqWin tries to offer you.
When you first install SeqWin, you tell it what synthesizers you have, and on which MIDI channels you've set them up to receive data. Provided that your synths are supported by SeqWin, from then on you don't have to worry about instrument program changes or channels again. You select the instrument you want to play, from a list compiled by SeqWin which includes all the instruments in your setup, and you then record a music phrase. Any recorded phrase can be kept or discarded. Each kept phrase takes up a new track, but you can move it or copy it anywhere you want, since phrases are portrayed visually as bars on the screen.
SeqWin has an unlimited number of tracks but you only have a limited number of instruments, so it monitors your setup to let you know when you run out of instruments. If your MIDI setup is simple, and you possess enough synthesizers supported by SeqWin, the process works well. But it's not quite as magical as some of the advertising might suggest. You still have to set up your synths to receive on certain MIDI channels and not on others, if you have more than one. And you have to edit SeqWin's Instrument Map and input entire banks of sounds if you're using an unsupported synth, or a supported synth but not its preset sounds.
Instrument definitions are carried out in the Instrument Map window and these are quite detailed. Apart from the instrument name, Program Change number and Bank, you also have to define which MIDI ports and channels the instrument can be used on, and whether different phrases can share the same MIDI channel.
In addition, you can set transposition and velocity intervals and a tick (time) offset value to ensure that phrases recorded using one instrument can be played on another, and still sound right. Apart from instrument definition parameters there are also instrument description parameters. These help the program with its intelligence, when it comes to assigning sounds for you. You can specify which instrument family(ies) an instrument belongs to (brass, strings, etc), a style (electric, acoustic, synth, ethnic, etc), effects (vibrato, panning, reverb, echo, etc), attributes (chorus, solo, bass, treble, soft, loud etc), and finally quality (low, standard and pro). These descriptions do not affect the sound. For example, 'chorus' does not add chorus, it simply describes the instrument as having chorus. The aim of this feature is purely to make the automatic selection process as accurate as possible; this, of course, depends on how accurate your instrument descriptions are.
While this process of defining a new bank of sounds may take up to a couple of hours per synth (if your synth is not supported by SeqWin, that is), you only have to do it once, or at least only when you edit your sounds. So you still gain the advantage of not having to bother with Program Changes and assigning channels.
In fact, we very much liked this aspect of the program — it's certainly a direction other sequencers should take, though we should add that if you're already using a mainstream sequencer it will take you a while to adjust to this new method of working.
In all other respects, SeqWin behaves like a normal sequencer running under Windows, offering most of the features you would expect. Phrases have various attributes that you can edit, such as: name, quantisation (values range from 1/384 to 4/4, with a percentage probability factor), mute status, transposition interval and scaling of the MIDI Volume Controller data. Changing the volume of a phrase is affected also when you change the instrument assigned to that phrase, as we described earlier, in the Instrument Map definition. This handy feature, not available on any other PC sequencer, can save lots of time when re-assigning instruments to already recorded phrases.
To alter data inside a recorded phrase you use one of the program's phrase editors, and there are editors available for different types of data. That's because SeqWin phrases can contain data other than MIDI song data, such as WAVE samples, multimedia objects, or MIDI System Exclusive data.
For normal musical data (notes), there are the familiar piano-roll and staff editors, though — surprisingly — you won't see the now old-fashioned event list (a la Dr.T's); personally we never use an event list, but some users swear by it. Also, some users may not like some of the unusual presentation aspects of the program when it comes to the notation and piano-roll windows, but that's a matter of personal taste.
There are, however, good zoom options available — both horizontally and vertically; you can view the entire pitch spectrum if you wish! Additionally, there are options governing how much information you wish to view. You can eliminate labels, grids, there's a choice of big or small buttons, and a handy scroll-during-play option.
SeqWin is always in Record mode, so that at any time during playback you can play in a new MIDI performance, then decide whether you want to keep it or not. Most operations can be performed in real time (while the sequencer is playing). The program supports System Exclusive data, enabling you to store synthesizer sounds on your PC, and includes an integrated sound editor for the Roland D-series synths, with graphic control over envelopes, filters and suchlike. Instrument sound data can be stored within the program and automatically loaded on playback. The manufacturers, Lowrie Woolf, have told us that other synthesizer editors are planned. In addition, MIDI Exclusive messages can be input in step time from within the MIDI Exclusive phrase editor window.
SeqWin lets you import and export MIDI Files; in fact, this program is one of a few that will split a MIDI File, not only by MIDI channel but also by Program Change, so that you end up with a different instrument per sequencer track. This is very useful when you are working on someone else's material or on some of your old material, which you've recorded using synths that you no longer possess; in other words, when you need to re-orchestrate.
An autosave feature saves your work periodically for you, and you can recover it if your PC crashes for any reason. Unfortunately, the present version of SeqWin doesn't implement SPP (Song Position Pointers) or MTC (MIDI Time Code), so you can't use it to chase sync to a tape machine. You can, however, synchronise using simple MIDI sync — the program supports Start, Stop, and Continue MIDI messages.
SeqWin is well priced for what it offers — it's not top of the pops, but it's not a toy either. When it comes to comparing it with programs costing more than twice its price, SeqWin seems to be lacking in presentation rather than in features. In fact, its intelligent instrument assignment feature puts it ahead of many competing programs — a wonderful idea which cuts unnecessary work to about half. SeqWin is original in the way it reads in MIDI Files, and in its assignment of velocity scaling to patches. Its support for multimedia has certain limitations, but these will affect the business user who wants to set up a product demo rather than the musician who needs to synchronise digital audio with MIDI. Some features are easy to use, others need some getting used to, which is where the built-in Windows-style On Line Help has most benefit (it even has a search facility). In all, SeqWin is an impressive and original program.
SeqWin (standard) £99; SeqWin v2 Multimedia £129. Prices inc VAT.
Lowrie Woolf Associates Ltd, (Contact Details).
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!