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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's main screen. Every bar shows a musical phrase.


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.

ASSIGNING INSTRUMENTS



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.

SeqWin playing a MIDI sequence and four Video for Windows movies on the four corners of the screen.

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.

When you configure SeqWin, you specify the instruments in your MIDI setup and the channels they are set to receive on, and SeqWin compiles a list of all their sounds for you.


INSTRUMENT DEFINITIONS



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.

SeqWin's Instrument Map definition gives the program its intelligence, assigning instruments for you.


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.

FEATURES



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.

The notation window offers good zoom facilities and editing features.


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.

VERDICT



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.

Further Information

SeqWin (standard) £99; SeqWin v2 Multimedia £129. Prices inc VAT.

Lowrie Woolf Associates Ltd, (Contact Details).

SEQWIN V2/MULTIMEDIA £129

PROS
Well priced for what it offers.
Intelligent instrument assignment saves much unnecessary work.
Multimedia support, albeit with certain limitations.

CONS
Some unusual presentation which can take some getting used to.
No event list editor, which some people may miss.

SUMMARY
An impressive and original program, reasonably priced, with unique selling points; the first sequencer to address the coming multimedia 'revolution'.


PC REQUIREMENTS

MINIMUM: 286 or higher with 2Mb RAM and at least 2Mb free disk space; VGA display and mouse, and Windows 3.1.

RECOMMENDED: 386 or higher with 8Mb RAM, and an SVGA display for viewing more tracks and 256 colours. For digital audio and Video for Windows, we recommend a fast 486 with as much RAM as you can afford, and a fast access hard disk (at least 150Mb). A top of the range PC costs just over £1,000 today and a saving of £200-300 for a lesser machine is just not worth the hassle, if you want to record digital audio or video.

EXTRA HARDWARE: any Windows supported sound card (16-bit, 44.1kHz cards start at about £130) and some will include a MIDI interface — if you don't have one already. To play CD-audio you need a CD-ROM drive (prices start at £150). To capture digital video you will need a real-time frame grabber board (prices start at about £250). You do not need extra hardware for video playback.


THE MULTIMEDIA ADVANTAGE

SeqWin is one of a new generation of PC programs that takes advantage of the multimedia capabilities built into Windows 3.1, thus enabling you to play CD-audio, digital audio and video (stored on your hard disk), in sync with your MIDI music sequences. It manages this thanks to phrase extension modules. In other words, a SeqWin phrase is not restricted to MIDI data, but can include multimedia objects. There are two multimedia type phrases offered by this program: SeqMCI and SeqWAV.

SeqMCI

MCI stands for Media Control Interface — a Windows protocol that supports CD players, video overlay boards, video disc players, VCRs, and other media related hardware. All this hardware has to be installed in Windows, using drivers which are supplied either by Microsoft Windows itself or by the hardware manufacturer. Once such hardware is properly installed, using the Driver's program in the Windows Control Panel, then this hardware can be accessed via a set of MCI commands.

Through MCI, SeqWin supports various Media Clips such as CD-audio, Digital Video and Animation. CD-audio can be accessed at specific tracks, but not at a predefined time position inside a CD track. This can be a problem when accessing material on certain CDs where, for example, numerous sound effects are classified and stored on a single CD track, or if you are trying to access a specific line in a song, or symphony. We've been told this function will be available soon.

Similar limitations exist with SeqWin's handling of Video for Windows and Autodesk animations — you can only start at the beginning of a video sequence and not at a specific frame within. However, with this type of material you can edit your video or animation files, externally, and cut them down to what is relevant. Another limitation with incorporating Media Clips is their positioning on the screen. You can only use the four corners of the screen, as opposed to anywhere you may wish to position them. With a single Clip you can, however, switch to full-screen mode, and thus avoid having the SeqWin screen as your background. Yet another limitation, is the lack of a facility for displaying a series of still pictures while playing MIDI, or other audio — as you would need to do in a slideshow presentation. We've been told that this is "in the pipeline" for release 2.1.

As this is only the first release of the Multimedia version of this program we can't expect support for every little detail and multimedia applications are quite demanding, both on the programming side and on the hardware requirements of the machine that runs them.

SeqWAV

What has been implemented with greater care in SeqWin is digital audio. This is managed by the program's SeqWAV phrase extension. WAVE is the Windows digital audio file format. Digital audio hardware can be accessed via MCI commands, but SeqWin provides a special interface to enable you to access digital audio functions easily. The SeqWAV phrase editor enables recording and playback, and also manages to squeeze in a few editing functions, such as adding echoes and removing noise and clicks. Of course there's a lot more to editing digital audio, if you are producing vocals for your next CD or even your next demo. You definitely need to have a specialist digital audio editing package; something like Digital Soup (reviewed SOS September 1993), to produce a stereo WAVE file, which you can then simply play in sync with your MIDI sequence using SeqWin.

Like Cakewalk, and a number of other similar Windows programs, to maintain perfect synchronisation SeqWin uses physical Random Access Memory to store 'the current' Media Clip. We tried playing both full CD quality audio and Video for Windows files (on a Dan 486, 66MHz machine with 16Mb of RAM) and encountered no problems.


Also featuring gear in this article



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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Dec 1993

Donated by: Rob Hodder

Gear in this article:

Software: Sequencer/DAW > LWA > SeqWin


Gear Tags:

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Previous article in this issue:

> Soft Options

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