Through the Software Jungle
Nicholas Rowland guides us through the tricky process of choosing the best sequencer for our money
With so many good software packages around at the moment it's very difficult to choose the right one - Nicholas Rowland sheds some light on the matter
A lot of choice is a dangerous thing, as I'm sure somebody famous once quipped. And even if they didn't, then it's nevertheless still true, particularly in reference to the number of sequencing packages currently on the market.
It's bad enough agonising over the choice of hardware, weighing up the pros and cons of operating systems, sound architecture, MIDI variables, whether the mouse mat brings out the Regency motif in the Laura Ashley curtains... but losing sleepless nights over the software is enough to make women faint and strong men turn pale (sexist comment - Ed).
Just how do you cut through the hyperbole of the adverts and the slick patter of the salesman, sort the men from the goats and choose a sequencer from the bewildering variety on offer? You've already made a promising start by buying this magazine, but while a review of an individual package gives you a sense of how it all works out in practice, how do you know whether it's going to be suitable for your specific needs? What are the important facilities to look out for? What's going to be most useful as you get more gear or if you need to take your equipment into the studio? Just read on and with any luck you might be a little wiser by the time you get to the end of this article.
I'm assuming that you already know the basics of that musician's four letter word (MIDI, of course) and that you know what sequencers are and what they do. I'm also assuming that you've already got the computer, but are looking to add software in order to integrate it into an existing MIDI recording set-up which is likely to include a keyboard synth or sampler, a drum machine, possibly an expander or two, possibly even a multi-track tape machine. That means leaving aside any synthesis or sampling based around the computer itself or any packages which combine one of these functions with some sort of sequencing ability.
However, a few words about the hardware are in order, particularly if you envisage using your computer primarily for music applications or perhaps even considering an upgrade specifically for that purpose. In which case, you'll probably already know that it's the Atari ST which currently heads the pack in the music field. With its in-built MIDI ports, the ST was destined from launch to capture the hearts and wallets of musicians everywhere so it's not surprising that it now boasts the widest range of sequencing software. Packages such as the C-Lab's Notator and Steinberg's Pro-24 have become music industry standards, a point which is well worth keeping in mind if you have big ambitions in that direction.
The ST also has an established library of synth and sampler editing packages with software launched almost simultaneously with any significant new instruments which come along. Some of this software now allows you to keep a selection of patch and other programs in memory along with a sequencer and then flick back and forth between them. It's not quite multitasking, but with a certain amount of interaction between software possible, it's the next best thing.
Some would argue (mostly rich Americans) that the Apple Mac is the only serious choice for the musician, but despite being tagged "the computer for the rest of us", most of the rest of us just can't afford it. The software is however, consistently excellent, and often innovative. Programs like Intelligent Music's M and Jambox allow extensive real time interaction with your music allowing you to easily create lots of weird and wonderful variations. But as sure as eggs is eggs, if it's good, it'll get converted for use on other computers. (M mentioned above already has been for the ST and the Amiga).
For true multi-tasking, you'd have to turn to the Archimedes and Amiga, but there's no abundance of software as yet. If you can stand the wait, it's really question of watch this space. In the meantime, you can still make use of their venerable ancestors - the BBC/Master and C64 - which have some respectable packages available. The BBC's UMI has undergone several upgrades and is used by several big names in the Biz who swear by its user-friendliness. Steinberg's Pro-16 and C-Lab's Supertrack for the 64 were both highly regarded and still remain a good (second-hand) buy. However, compared to the 16-bit brigade, many users will soon run up against the limitations of memory and processing power.
The IBM PC and clones are becoming an increasingly viable alternative to either ST or Mac, particularly as American music software (of which there is a lot) begins to find its way over here. Voyetra's Sequencer Plus family and SDA's Pro-MIDI Studio System are the front runners here. But the up and coming contender for the professional musician's computer choice is the Yamaha C-1, a dedicated machine which borrows IBM PC architecture (see review in this ish - Ed). While some excellent software is already available, the C-1 is hellishly expensive. The software is not likely to work with any other machines either since it's built around the C-1's dedicated hardware features.
Naturally, your choice of machine is likely to be influenced by other factors, particularly price and the other applications you want it for. It really depends on what priority you place on making music, a priority which is also going to determine your choice when it comes to evaluating the software.
Mr Lawson's policies being what they are, price is likely to be the primary consideration. Take a look at packages available for the Atari and you'll see figures ranging from £50 to £500. (Don't forget, with other machines, you may have to add on the cost of a MIDI interface as well). As a general rule of thumb, the more you pay, the more facilities you'll get. And more facilities usually means more tracks to play with, more flexibility in terms of input and manipulation of data, and usually, but not always, more interaction between all the various parts of the program. In other words, expensive software gives you a much more open structure for creating music: budget programs tend to mean having to fit your ideas within an often quite rigid structure which once defined is difficult to change.
Of course, the drawback with sophisticated packages (if it can be called a drawback) is that they take a while to get completely familiar with. However, you'll find that the best of them should enable you to get simple results very quickly as an incentive to go on and explore their more intricate features.
Whatever the sequencer, the main criterion for evaluation must be how easy is it to use. After all it's no good having a wealth of features if they can only be accessed by hours of complicated mouse clicking and button pushing. In an ideal world, you'd be able to walk into a music or computer shop, play with any sequencer you liked for a couple of hours and then make your choice on the basis of hands-on experience. Sometimes the best you can hope for is a demo by a shop assistant who either knows the program back to front so it looks deceptively simple or knows nothing about it, in which case you're left wondering whether you really have seen everything. Unfortunately, shop demos are often confined only to the expensive programs anyway.
Where you have to evaluate a product only by looking and listening rather than tapping the buttons yourself, follow your intuition. Would the various screens make any sort of visual sense even if you knew nothing about sequencers? For example, many programs are laid out like a tape recorder which makes coming to grips with what sequences do extremely easy. Some others set out the track editing functions similar to a mixer. Looking at the manual also helps give you an insight into how easy the package might be to use and can also give you a quick guide to some of the features which may not be immediately obvious just from a view of the screens or a short demo. Good, thoughtfully written manuals often mean good thoughtfully written software. So ask yourself, is the manual well laid out? Is it friendly? Has it got an index?
But when it comes to the software, what kind of features should you be looking out for? One of the first vital statistics you should have a look at is the number of tracks on offer. Again, this is relative to the kind of music you are making and the amount of hardware at the other end of the MIDI cable - after all, 128 tracks may seem a bit of an overkill when you're making minimalist statements using only a drum machine and a monophonic synth. But it's as well to keep future expansion in mind, especially as yet more multi-timbral instruments continue to pour out of the manufacturers' R&D departments at prices which even I can afford.
Remember also that while that dream of a bedroom full of gleaming synths may be a long way off, if you ever take your sequencer into the local studio, many of which offer extra MIDI instruments as part of the basic package, those seemingly redundant tracks will suddenly become a necessity.
It's not just instruments you might need to handle either. The number of MIDI controllable effects units has also grown apace: the Alesis MIDIverb II, for example, which allows you to change to different reverb presets using patch change information. It is possible to chain these together with your other gear, but can involve extra programming to match up the various patch numbers of the various units. It's much simpler to assign each FX unit to a separate track on the sequencer to give you much more flexibility in the addressing of all your gear and also means that everything is much clearer when it comes to editing.
But hang on a minute. While the sequencer may offer you zillions of tracks to play with, aren't you still limited in the number of instruments you can control by the fact that there are only 16 MIDI channels? This is indeed true, and what we're seeing at the moment is a number of manufacturers coming out with add-on boxes which offer two separately addressable MIDI OUT sockets effectively doubling the number of MIDI channels. For example, the recently introduced Trackman for the ST offers a second separately addressable MIDI out as part of the package (again, see the review in this ish — Ed).
Even so, you'll find that more tracks means more flexibility whatever you're up to. For example, when you're trying to overdub that tricky Herbie Hancock solo, it's useful to be able to record several takes on different tracks then run the whole sequence back again and see which one is worth keeping. For that matter, some sequencers will allow you to chop different bits out of each version and then merge them together to make one breathtakingly faultless performance.
Where the number of tracks is limited, sophisticated track merge functions become increasingly crucial. If you've filled up your tracks, but want to try something else out, you'll be able to make room for new material. If the new idea isn't a success, it's even more crucial you can separate them back out again when you've finished. In order to achieve this, the sequencer has to be able to store more than one MIDI channel on a track, since this is the only way it will know how to differentiate between the merged parts.
In any case, being able to record multiple MIDI channels can come in handy for inputting data as well. For example, some MIDI keyboards are splittable, meaning that different parts of the keyboards send out MIDI information on different channels so that you can, say, have a bass sound on the left hand and a piano on the right. Since most sequencers only record one track at a time, if you could only store one MIDI channel per track, you'd have to input each hand separately - which is not always good for getting the right feel of the music. Being able to store multiple MIDI channels means not only being able to perform duets with yourself, but given a MIDI merge box at the front end of the computer you can also perform with other musicians as well. Great news if the whole band is MIDI-fied.
But if you going to get your friends in and start laying down complete tracks in one take, you need to make sure that the sequencers allows you to record in this way. Some require you to record everything in terms of patterns, fairly short ones at that, which are then chained together to form complete songs (similar to the structure most drum machines use). This is going to prove restricting not only to the bedroom band, but to anyone who prefers just to hit record and then start vamping. However, many sequencers offer a happy compromise since although pattern based, they allow you to define extremely long patterns (say, 999 bars).
The thing to watch out for is how patterns can be edited once they've been recorded. Some budget sequencers won't allow you to change a pattern length once you've recorded something into it - you have to redefine the pattern and start all over again. Others only allow you to record everything in terms of initially defined units. So, for example, if you start out with a 4/4 rhythm you can't then create a 3/4 sequence which will run alongside it.
Lawson's Law means that the more expensive packages tend to allow much more flexibility not just in the way information is input but the way it is displayed and edited. Display usually takes the form of music notation, a grid system or a MIDI event listing. Music notation is most useful if you can read music, because you can usually also write directly onto the screen staves just as you would if writing sheet music normally. Even primitive grid displays tend to be much more immediate since you can see the relationship of notes and durations much more clearly. MIDI event listings can be a bit obtuse, even though they are usually interpreted for you in the sense that they will tell you which information represents Note Duration or MIDI channel rather than just leaving you to figure it all out for yourself.
Another type of display comes with a recent development in top of the range sequencers like latest package from Steinberg - Cubase. This is the drum editor, which allows you to record rhythm tracks as you would on a drum machine — ie, loop in overdub. The same effect can be achieved on other packages where you can set up start and end markers at specific points and set the sequencer to loop in between, overdubbing each time, but often the deletion of single voices is difficult. Cubase's Drum Edit page display uses a simple grid format to show the position of all drum voices and allow easy insertion and deletion. There are standalone packages which follow the same format as well, such as the MIDIDrummer.
If you use a drum machine in your music, then the advantage of being able to easily incorporate drum parts within the overall sequence should not be overlooked. Since the rhythm is an integral part of the song it means that every time you want to move sections of the song around, you won't need to reorganise the song chain in the drum machine.
Try and get a feel of how easy it is to handle things at track level since the art of song writing is not just about a good melody, it's about getting all the different sections in the light order. How easy is it to delete, copy or transpose tracks? What changes can be made while the sequencer is running? Can you run tracks solo? Can you mute individual tracks? Can you choose to mute only certain parts of tracks if you wish? Can you program the sequencer to change tempos during a song?
There's also the question of how much the package communicates with the outside world. For example, if your sequencer can read and store system exclusive dumps, you can store all the synth patches for a particular song as along with sequence, sending out all the information to set up your system before the song begins. If the sequencer has the ability to record your songs as MIDI files then you will be able to transfer sequences to other packages which do. That widens your options for future upgrades. It also means you can run different packages on your computer and transfer the information easily between them. So for example, you can create rhythms with the MIDIDrummer software mentioned above then load it into a package such as Creator which doesn't have a separate drum editor. Or you can take a sequences generated by programs such as M or Jam Factory and then put them into more conventional sequencers.
Syncing to tape may also be required, in which case your sequencer should have at the very least song position pointers which means that whenever you wind the tape backwards or forwards and restart it, the sequencer will also start at the appropriate point in the song.
There are of course many other features we could have a look at, seeing what they do and whether they are worth having. The answer is usually yes. After all, many of those industry standard packages have gone through several versions, with updates made in response to what musicians ask for, rather than dreamed up by some backroom computer programmer.
Obviously, though, not everyone can afford the luxury of £500, particularly if they're not sure just how committed to computer music they are. But that shouldn't stop you taking a closer look at the packages on offer, deciding whether if the bug does bite, they will be able to serve your future needs. On the whole, though, it's better to go for a package which seem immediately understandable, rather than one where functions appear buried within it.
Sequencers shouldn't be obscure and unapproachable - leave all that for your music.
Feature by Nicholas Rowland
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