The Trackman Cometh
Dave Reed finds happiness in the Channel Islands thanks to the Trackman sequencer for the ST
The Channel Islands aren't just famous for Jim Bergerac — It's also the home of a rather nice sequencer package for the ST as David Reed discovers.
When asked by the Editor if I would review the Trackman Sequencer, I had to admit that I was somewhat dubious as to my capabilities of such a task as I am relatively new to sequencers, having been an AMPLE devote' since it's inception. However, he was not put off that easily and said, "Just what I want, you can review Trackman from a different angle without too many preconceived ideas". So, fool as ever I submitted and took the plunge.
Trackman comes boxed with two very clear and concise A5 manuals, a foot switch, dongle, modem port adapter and a single sided disk that will run on all of the Atari ST range.
The main specifications are as follows:-
- Pattern-based sequencer giving 100 sequences
- Up to 999 bars per sequence
- 32 tracks per channel
- 32 MIDI channels supported
- 80,000 note capacity on an Atari 1040ST
- Resolution: 96ppqn
- Tempo range 20-240 bpm with 0.1 bpm resolution
- Footswitch operation to control punch-in/out
- Storage and retrieval of System Exclusive data
- Editing functions: Copy Bars, Erase Bars, Delete Bars, Bounce Track, Extract Notes, Rotate Sequence, Work Loop, Make Song, Screen Edit.
Trackman uses just two screens. A main screen and a grid edit screen.
Operation of the screen can either be via the mouse or keyboard, pressing the Atari's help key displays a guide to the keyboard functions.
The GEM menu across the top of the screen gives File, Edit, Options, MIDI, Click, Quantise and Goodies!
Screen boxes display the major running information and consist of:- Current sequence, number and name. Next sequence number. Transpose, Screen, Bank, Patch, Undo, Erase and repeat. The main transport controls are tape recorder style with the addition of a Locate facility which allows instant location of a pre-defined bar.
Transpose allows temporary real time transposition in conjunction with the master keyboard. Screen allows you to toggle between main and grid edit screens. Bank is the toggle between the two banks containing 16 MIDI channels each.
Patch allows program changes to be sent from the computer. Undo allows recovery of inadvertent mouse droppings.
Erase is used during record mode to remove either controller data, patch changes or wrong notes.
Repeat selects during recording enables any incoming notes to be repeated at the currently set quantise rate.
Record can be controlled either by the mouse or the foot switch.
Play commences playing from the current bar.
The lower half of the screen contains the MIDI track selector with boxes numbered 1 to 16 or 17 to 32, if toggled by the Bank select button. Highlighting shows which track is currently selected. Solo and Mute switches allow individual tracks to be either silenced or played depending on what is highlighted.
Position and length along with Time signature are self explanatory.
Fader controls containing numbers directly below and track section boxer allow alteration of the velocity settings used on the individual tracks. These can be dragged up or down with the mouse or can be adjusted between zero and 200, the default setting being 100. This facility allows dynamics to be programmed into a sequence like a mixing desk.
The grid graphically displays from between one and four bars of a single MIDI channel at a time. Time is represented horizontally with vertical lines spaced on the quantisation interval. Pitch is shown on the vertical axis. Notes appear as horizontal bars on the grid. The darker the line the greater the velocity.
Notes can be edited by dragging them to new pitch positions. Length can be adjusted using the mouse, the length automatically adjusting to the nearest quantisation interval.
Modifying individual notes can also be achieved by double clicking the mouse on the desired note to bring up a dialogue box which will allow changes to the numerical values of the note, such as velocity, length, note number and MIDI channel.
By double clicking on the right-hand mouse button at the current pointer position it is possible to insert new notes, which will be copies of the last note edited with the mouse, so some dragging about may result.
The first 16 (standard) channels are fed from the MIDI port on the Atari as one would expect. If, however you need more channels a second bank of 16 known as the auxiliary MIDI output can be accessed via a plug in adaptor which can be connected to the Atari's modem port. When using the grid edit screen all 32 tracks are shown along the bottom of the screen. However when using the main screen only 16 tracks are shown at a time and the bank switch is then used to toggle between the two. This allows much greater flexibility when using multitimbre synthesizers or samplers.
Filters can be selected to exclude certain data that you may not wish to use such as; Aftertouch, Pitch bend, Patch change, Channel aftertouch and MIDI song select. The 7 and 14 bit controllers which include Pan and Volume can also be selectively filtered out.
System Exclusive data can be transmitted and received and allows voice bank data to be saved and loaded as disk files.
The foot switch is set to punch in and out of play mode by default, but can be re-configured using a pull down menu allowing you to select any one of the following:- Play, Record, Stop, Locate, Erase, Repeat.
If you like tap dancing and feel that you could handle more than one foot switch at a time Hinton Instruments make an extension unit. This connects into the modem and joy-stick ports and allows four standard foot switches to be used. It also allows in and out expansion of the Atari's MIDI ports.
The introduction in the tutorial manual tries to prevent the common syndrome of, 'If all else fails, try reading the manual' by indicating that page 38 "Quick start guide to recording" can get you up and running PDQ. That is, of course if you're already conversant with sequencers. Fine, but don't forget to pursue the preceding pages later as they can save hair, roots 'an all!
The criteria required to commence recording are to define the length of the sequence (999 bars max). Set the tempo if required (default is 4/4 time at 100 bpm.) Select a MIDI track by clicking on the chosen number with the mouse. Press the foot switch to start recording. You can then play your drum pattern or music part. Alternatively you can press the foot switch twice before playing on the master keyboard, this will put you in play mode and allow you to practice a piece before committing it to memory. Once you're happy with it press the foot switch again and play, this time it will be written to RAM. The foot switch I found to be a great advantage as it makes for less distraction when practice is perfect! Since the first sequence will be looping round you can select another track and input another sequence if you wish, thus building up the song.
What happens if I fumble and get it wrong? I hear you say. Well there appears to be three options that you can pursue. 1: Use the dynamic erase facility while still in record mode. This is achieved by selecting erase and pressing the wrong notes again on the keyboard. This I found could get confusing! 2: Using Erase to delete a bar at a time. 3: Enter the Undo command, which effectively reverses the last command. Simple! But, use with care, as it can take you back to square one if you have been track hopping while playing without hitting the stop button.
Quantisation can be performed both during recording and playback modes and is augmented by the use of a dialogue box allowing you to set the level in percentage. Having recently come from using the AMPLE system which, when using bar markers automatically quantises and can subsequently produce a very computer music sound without feeling or finesse, unless you work on it. I would tend to keep the quantisation percentages pretty small to allow the human element to show in the music. This of course can be said about any sequencer.
Once you have a number of sequences constructed you can manipulate them in a number of different ways, either extending them by copying to make a longer sequence, or doing a cut and paste type job even taking bits from other tracks if you so desire. The limit being 100 all chained together.
The current package utilises a strange file format when saving it's data to disk. However John Hollis the creator of Trackman informs me that there will be an update to the software which will then allow you to save and load data in MIDI File Format thus making data compatible with certain other sequencing packages.
The demo package priced at £10.00 gives a good overall view of the package and allows you to try out most of the Trackman functions with the exception of saving your masterpiece and altering the default MIDI configuration. There is also a reasonable time limit which you can roam about trying things after which you have to re-boot and start again. An added bonus is that you also get DX7 voices, D50 librarian and System Exclusive data dump and recall program. The actual demo shows how sequences can be put together and modified and gives a good overall view of the package and is a cheap way of deciding weather it will suit your needs.
One problem was encountered, when using a master keyboard for both input and output. If the keyboard being used does not allow incoming MIDI sync signals to be ignored there can be some strange side effects. The Yamaha PSR 60 and 70 keyboards fall into this category as I discovered! These home entertainment keyboards have rhythm units and single finger chord capabilities and cause problems when trying to record using either the foot switch or the mouse on the screen button. When either is pressed Trackman will jump into, then out of record mode unless the foot switch or button is depressed for the completion of one bar. This appears to happen because with both in and out MIDI leads connected Trackman issues a MIDI sync command and this starts the rhythm unit which in turn signals back to Trackman.
The 'Auto Clock Select' appears to partially solve this problem although two stabs at the record button are still required. Further glitches can occur when listening to a bar of music on the grid edit screen while making alterations at the same time. It appears that some actions during editing can silence the music output although still in the play mode. These problems were only found when using a PSR 60/70 as the MIDI input/output device and do not happen if another synth or module is used for the output device as per the set up shown in the manuals.
An alternative to this is by using the Trackman's Auxiliary MIDI output port (toggled to channels 17-32). This can be used to feed MIDI from Trackman to the keyboard etc, as this output port does not carry any MIDI synch signals. The input to Trackman can be fed from the keyboard to the standard Atari MIDI port in the normal way and all should be well. These problems are possibly peculiar only to the PSR range of similar spec instruments.
These points have been passed to Hollis Research who are looking into the anomalies, and I would surmise that updates to give greater instant compatibility will be forthcoming.
Once all of these minor hiccups had been iron out, the package performed well and allowed quick sequence and song construction with the minimum of fuss.
Trackman is a clean professional tidy package with excellent tutorial and reference manuals. It scores heavily on it's ease to use, with clear uncluttered layout and is above all, user friendly. Like all new toys it takes a bit of getting use to, but it's flexibility soon allows rapid development of sequences and the subsequent song production. It certainly was easier to use than certain comparably priced packages.
Format: Atari ST
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Review by Dave Reed