The Synclavier Story (Part 2)
PART 2: SEQUENCING AND NOTATION
In the second part of MT's look at the powerful Synclavier system, Dan Rue and Scott Wilkinson embark on their very own fantastic journey into the heart of the beast to consider its sequencing and notation abilities.
The Synclavier's ability to record and notate music lies at the heart of the world's most expensive workstation. Sequencing text by Dan Rue, Notation text by Scott Wilkinson.
YOU MIGHT BE tempted to think that the marriage of the Synclavier and Macintosh II would give rise to some sort of hi-tech monster. At the very least, you'd be forgiven for assuming that the world's most comprehensive "workstation" would include the world's most comprehensive sequencer and notation software. Alas, the reality falls short of these expectations - in some respects. The Synclavier's sequencer is certainly powerful, but it's debatable as to whether or not it is pleasurable to use. In short, the Synclavier's sequencing and notation software is not extraordinarily intuitive.
In fairness, the Mac II is a very new addition to the system and, as suggested last month, "obsolescence" is the dirtiest word in New England Digital's book. As a result, developing a comfortable user-interface without alienating veteran users is going to take some time. The Macintosh is, at this point, used only as a dumb terminal that displays the user interface, leaving all the work to the Synclavier itself. NED's general plan is to transfer the user-interface and much of the housekeeping and control chores to the Mac, freeing the Synclavier to do more of what it does best - namely making music. Additionally, plans for compatibility with third-party Mac software are on the drawing board. Now that we've got the complaints out of the way, let's fly inside the Synclavier and get a feel for what it's like composing with the most powerful workstation/sampler on the market.
WHILE SIGNIFICANT HARDWARE differences exist between the Synclavier 3200 and 9600 systems, the software is essentially the same, so the following descriptions apply to both. The amount of memory allocated to the sequencer is intimidating: 200 tracks on which to record, with as many notes as will fit in RAM (the best "guestimate" falls somewhere around eight million notes in a full system). There are eight separate buffers for storing sequence data before committing it to the Winchester drives (greatly increasing the access time and allowing you to try different versions of a sequence).
Needless to say, you are almost never short of memory. Pointers to all the timbres you use in your sequences are stored with the sequence files and these call up the sounds you need along with the note data. While loading a sequence file takes a bit longer than you might expect, the time you save in searching for sounds more than compensates for this extra time at loading.
Once you've loaded a sequence into RAM (or, if you're starting from scratch, chosen and loaded the timbres), there are a couple of ways to record new sequence data. You can control the sequencer from the Synclavier's keyboard front panel (or, for 3200 owners, the software representation of the front panel described last month), or from the Sequence Editor page, called up from the Synclavier's main menu. Two additional pages, the Audio Event List and the Recorder Display, are used for micro-surgery-type editing, but we'll ignore these for the moment. Since all the front panel recording controls are duplicated on the Sequence Editor page (in addition to some further functions), we'll approach the sequencer from there.
WHEN YOU OPEN the Sequence Editor (see Figure 1), you see the motion transport buttons and time display across the top, editing functions at the right, and 200 buttons (the Track Manager Display, numbered 1-200) to enable/disable tracks to record or play. Above the Track Manager are the Locator (Start and End points) and assignable Markers (M1-M8).
Finally, above that is the Dialog box in which you perform the various editing functions (Cut/Paste is displayed in Figure 1). At the right-hand side of the screen are three buttons: at the top is the exit button, followed by a "?" button (which calls up the online Help manual), while a "U" button lets you Undo your last edit.
To record tracks in real time, you simply highlight the Tracks (1-200) to be recorded and press "Recd". Recording takes place to a click track. Step-time entry is possible (from the Recorder Display page). This involves dealing with event lists rather than any sort of graphic representation of the notes.
The time display can be shown in several different formats: seconds, minutes, beats (clicks), measures and beats, SMPTE timecode, or feet and frames. To place markers you simply set the correct time to be marked in the window labelled Mark, and drag the inverted triangle to any one of the eight buttons M1-M8. Actually, you can assign up to 20 markers throughout your music, but only eight buttons are displayed on this page. To assign and access the others you must be in the Audio Event List.
Once your Tracks are laid down and your markers placed, you're ready to edit. To do so, highlight the Track numbers you want to work with, and then click on the appropriate function in the right-hand column. Let's take a quick inventory of your options.
THE SEQUENCER'S EDITING functions will be familiar to anyone who has worked with other high-powered computer sequencers - the options are fairly comprehensive, albeit more or less standard at this point in the development of music technology.
Several of the functions affect all of the selected Track: Bounce allows you to copy all the notes from one Track to another, Settings allows you to control the audio and MIDI channel routing for Tracks (you can record on all 16 MIDI channels at once), and merging occurs automatically if you're using more than one Track per MIDI channel. SMT copies a new timbre to a selected Track and SKT does the opposite - it calls a timbre from a Track up to the keyboard. Track Volume sets the audio volume for each Track and Unwrap Loops converts a loop's specified repetitions into one long stream of actual data.
The remaining functions work within a specified edit region. Since there's no graphic display of the song, you must select this region with the Locator - quite a long-winded process if you're accustomed to some sort of point-and-click selection method. Needless to say, here's where those markers really become handy (almost necessary).
Cut/Paste allows you to copy, paste, move, insert, delete, or merge notes and other data to one of the eight "clipboards" or just about any point within the sequence.
Fit To Time allows you to compress or expand the time taken for the selected region of the sequence to run. You have several options here, including Fit Instantly (the new tempo takes full effect immediately at your assigned starting point) or Fit Gradually (which scales the note-on messages, but not durations). Also, you can choose to scale the durations to coincide with the new note-on times, and decide whether or not the new tempo should be maintained for the rest of the sequence.
Justify is NED's term for quantisation (sounds like word processing to me). Justification is set by assigning a "click multiplier" from 4 to 48 per click (remember, things don't necessarily have to be in beats and measures with the Synclavier). From there you specify the percentage to justify (1-100%), the size of the justification window, or "range" (-100% to +100%), and the grid offset (-1000msec to +1000msec). As you can see, there's plenty of control here over how much your music is mechanised. I should mention that the Synclavier does not have anything like a "humanise" function, whereby you assign a certain amount of randomness to the notes' timing, velocity, or whatever. But, by carefully specifying the justification percentage, window and grid offset, you can partially quantise and achieve the same effect.
The Edit Filter lets you record, ignore or edit any type of data within a specified range. For example, you could split notes on the same Track from each other based on definable criteria or enable/disable the recording of Real Time Effects.
Change Duration, Change RTE (Real Time Effects - aftertouch, pitchbend, and so on), and Change Velocity all do what you'd expect, allowing you to assign flat values, Add to the values by a specified amount, Scale values by any percent, or Slope values gradually.
IN THE DAYS before the Synclavier came in one size and shape and a Mac II was nowhere to be seen, recording was handled exclusively from the keyboard and the Recording Display. This page displays a single list of events (notes, velocities, durations and so on) for three tracks at a time. While this page still exists on the system for those faithful veteran users, it has to all practical purposes been replaced by the new Audio Event Editor page.
This is where you perform all your musical microsurgery. All recorded data can be listed for each Track in the Audio Event Editor. Because the Synclavier records in real time with a one millisecond resolution, edit parameters are likewise definable to within a millisecond. I'm not going to go into the details of this page because essentially no additional functions are offered here. Suffice it to say that everything recorded in the Sequence Editor can be altered minutely here, including note values, start times, velocities, and durations.
AS COMPLETE AND comprehensive as the sequencer is, the new Synclaviers could not justify their reputation as being the ultimate of music workstations without offering music transcription and printing capabilities. This software has been developed for several years under the direction of Alan Talbot at New England Digital.
You might expect this software to have a very impressive list of features. And you'd be right. Aside from the quality of the output (which is superb), the system offers a wide range of control over the printed page of music. Unusual or unique capabilities include scores of up to 64 parts and 32000 pages, transcription of music with tempo changes and irregular tuplets, user-definable notation of syncopation, and justification of the display without affecting the sequence data if you so choose.
Originally designed for the Digital Equipment Corp VT1OO graphics terminal, the software is now displayed on the Mac II screen. As with the sequencing software, the Mac II is used only as a user interface. The software itself runs on NED's custom computer. In fact, the Mac's mouse is used only to select parameters on the screen. It is not used to place musical symbols in the score or even for score cursor control. The user interface is command driven, although there are some menu-driven parameters, particularly in the Edit mode.
MUSIC CAN BE entered into the notation software by playing on the Synclavier keyboard (or the digital guitar controller) or issuing commands from the computer keyboard. In addition, sequencer files can be transcribed. All of these input methods can be used within a single file.
To enter music from the Synclavier keyboard, you must first bring up the Music Notation display. This screen can accommodate up to eight staves at once. The notes you play on the keyboard appear on the screen shortly after you play them. Actually, this is no mean feat - Coda's Finale is the only other notation program I know of that even tries to notate a peformance in real time. The graphic representation is actually quite crude, but then again, the computer doesn't have much time to draw perfect symbols while trying to notate a real-time performance. This screen is used for realtime entry and rough editing.
Musical symbols can be individually entered into the score from the Music Notation screen or the Edit mode screen (more on Edit mode in a moment). The cursor is placed at the desired location and the appropriate command is typed on the computer keyboard.
The transcribed music is visually quantised, or justified with a specified resolution. This resolution determines the number of "edit blocks" into which each bar is divided. For example, if the justification is set to quavers (eighth notes), there will be eight edit blocks in a bar of 4/4 time. These blocks are used in Edit mode to isolate and identify individual musical elements.
ONCE MUSIC HAS been entered into the notation system, the fine editing is performed in Edit mode (see Figure 2). In this mode, the display looks excellent. The symbols are accurately represented on the screen, although you can see only two or three bars at a time.
Many of the commands in Edit mode are available as single keystrokes on the numeric keypad of the Mac keyboard. The 4, 5, 6, -, 7, 8, 9, and + keys can each invoke six different commands depending on which set of keypad commands is active at the time. The different maps of the commands invoked by these keys are displayed in the lower right portion of the screen by pressing 1, 2, 3, .1, .2, or your own tastes.
Because the score can get a bit crowded at any particular point, it can be difficult to place the cursor at exactly the desired location by sight. The Synclavier solves this problem by providing Edit Lists for each part as well as a Master Edit List. These lists include the names of all symbols located at each edit block and appear in the lower left portion of the Edit mode screen, replacing the standard parameters normally found there. This makes it easy to place the cursor anywhere in an edit block and select the symbol you wish to edit in the edit list.
While the system includes all the common musical symbols, you can also design your own with the Symbol Editor. This screen presents a large grid representing the pixels of which each symbol is comprised. A smaller window shows you how your symbol looks at its actual size. To create a symbol, you position the drawing cursor with the keypad (which now controls the movement of the drawing cursor up, down, right, left and diagonally) and activate the pixel by pressing keypad 5. Symbols can be stored in a User Symbol Library for use in the rest of the Music Printing system.
I must say that I'm quite impressed with the symbol libraries provided with the system. For example, guitar frames (those little representations that appear over the staff on pop sheet music) can be designed in many ways to accommodate any type of fingering or chord. Unlike many other notation programs, the shape and position of slurs can be controlled to a fine degree. There are even symbols specifically for handbell music.
THE FORMAT OF the score is specified in the Score menu. This is where you set up the instrument names, bracketing, staff spacing, number of staves per page, and so on. These parameters are represented by rather cryptic symbols, but the degree of control over things like staff spacing, note spacing and part groupings is excellent.
The Part menu provides more detailed specifications for each individual part. These specifications include clef, transposition and key of the instrument, and the visual resolution. In addition, you can specify whether or not pitchbend information will be displayed and select one of the three notation modes: Classical, Jazz or Modern. Basically, these notation modes determine how the Synclavier will notate syncopated notes.
The Page menu is used to specify the overall size of the printed score, how measure numbers will be printed, the number of measures per line, global note spacing and the title and other text that appears on the first page - it even includes a reserved copyright line at the bottom of the first page. This menu also allows you to specify block rests in parts. If you have five measures of rest in a part, it is much easier to read the part if the section of
rests is notated with a thick horizontal line and the number 5 above it rather than five individual measures with whole rests in each one.
ONE OF THE most attractive features of this system is the quality of the output.
The Synclavier outputs PostScript files, so any PostScript device from an Apple LaserWriter to a Linotronic 300 can accept print files from the Music Printing system. The quality of the output from these devices and the excellent formation of the characters and symbols puts this system in the big league.
In fact, there is at least one major music publisher in America currently using the Synclavier to do most of their music engraving. This includes orchestra, band, choral and lead sheet formats. Believe it or not, this system actually saves them significant money in production costs. Not only that, several of the artists whose music they print have provided Synclavier sequence files to be transcribed directly. How's that for hi-tech?
IT IS UNFORTUNATE that the Mac II is used only as a front end for the Synclavier at present, because it's so good at graphics and could take this burden from the Synclavier's CPU. The Music Printing system in particular will benefit from the planned transfer of duties. Being highly graphic in nature, it would fit easily into the Mac environment. Besides which, I personally find a mouse to be well-suited to working with notation programs.
Basically, the Music Printing system provides high quality output and exceptional control over all aspects of music notation. However, like the sequencer, the user interface is not particularly intuitive and the learning curve is steep. Once this aspect of the software is brought up to date, it will unquestionably become the Godfather of music notation systems.
Next month, we'll look into the Direct-to-Disk recording and synthesis capabilities of the new Synclaviers. Until then, May the Force...
Gear in this article: