Paul Ireson previews this new British 32-track MIDI sequencer for the Atari ST.
Paul Ireson previews this new 'home-grown' 32-track MIDI sequencer for the Atari ST.
Wonderful though sequencers undoubtedly are, like other technological advances they sometimes seem to create as many problems as they solve. Surely the most common musician's complaint about sequencers is that they're just not sufficiently user-friendly. If a sequencer is a compositional tool, then it should be as transparent as possible in the process of writing music, rather than occupy the musician with too much function-accessing and button-pushing.
This is the philosophy behind Trackman, a new ST-based sequencer from Hollis Research, which has been designed to present the musician with the best possible user interface.
A demo version of the full program, fully working apart from the Save function, and providing a generous but finite time limit for recording and playback, is available for only £10. This provides an excellent opportunity for potential users to find out whether the program suits them or not. The demo disk also contains 1000 free DX voices and a free D50 patch librarian program! Unusually, a full Tutorial manual is included with the demo; the full program comes with an excellent Reference manual as well, a sturdy footswitch for hands-free punch-in/out, and an adaptor that enables the Atari's modem port to provide an additional 16 MIDI channels (32 in total). A full review of Trackman will appear in our next issue, but until then here's a preview to keep you going.
Trackman is a pattern-based recorder, assembling songs out of chains of 32-track sequences. If you're happier working on a purely track-by-track basis, all you need do is work on a single, very long sequence. In order to take full advantage of the 32 tracks, Trackman supports 32 MIDI channels, and up to 100 sequences may be employed.
Trackman's main point of interest is its ease of use when recording and building up sequences. This is achieved in two principal ways; firstly, by continuously looping each sequence and employing overdub recording, as on a drum machine; and secondly, by using a footswitch to punch in and out when recording. Having loaded the program, all it takes is one press on the footswitch to initiate recording on track 1. A metronome click is provided from the Atari's internal speaker. As the sequence loops, subsequent presses on the footswitch toggle between Play and Record, allowing you to practise 'takes' before dubbing them on top of the existing data. Notes can also be erased without interrupting the loop, by clicking on Erase and holding down the offending note(s) on your keyboard.
Once you're happy with one track, recording on a second takes no more than clicking on the new destination track for your data, again without interrupting the loop. Quantisation can be applied as you record, in values from 1/4 to 1/64th notes - often a good procedure to follow when recording in a continuous loop - but if you prefer to leave quantisation until after recording, that too is possible. Post-record quantisation offers levels from 1/4 to 1/128th note (the internal resolution of Trackman is 96 clocks per quarter note). Should you 'over-quantise' a track, the Undo function will restore the track to its former sloppy glory. (Undo also works on all editing functions, reversing the last procedure carried out). Two further quantise-related functions, also operating during or post-record, are Repeat and Shuffle. When Repeat is selected, a held note will repeat at the current quantise rate - which certainly takes the effort out of programming hi-hat patterns - and Shuffle delays the quantisation on alternate beats, producing an effect which is best described as 'instant swing'.
Once you've begun to assemble a sequence, a variety of editing functions are available to enable you to chop and change it. Bars can be Copied within or across sequences, Erased or Deleted. Whole tracks can be bounced from one sequence to another, and a specified range of notes and MIDI channels extracted from one track to another with in a sequence. This latter function is particularly useful should you ever record more than one MIDI channel on a single track and wish to separate them again, for although the most sensible way to use Trackman's 32 tracks is to allocate one channel per track, each track can record 16 channels of MIDI data simultaneously if necessary. Rotate sequence moves the entire sequence backwards or forwards in time by anything between 1/2 and 1/128th note.
The important thing to stress about all this is that no matter how long it takes to explain in print, doing it in practice is much faster and easier, helping you to construct music with the minimum of fuss yet without sacrificing anything in terms of versatility.
More detailed editing is available through Screen Edit, which presents you with a graphical representation of up to four bars of a single track. Notes are represented as horizontal bars on a grid, with pitch on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal. Whilst the displayed section loops and plays, notes may be moved in time and pitch, changed, copied and deleted by using the mouse. During record and playback, each track may be muted or soloed (muting every other track), and a mouse-controlled fader allows the velocity values on each track to be scaled up or down instantly, providing a kind of volume control.
On the MIDI front, Trackman can be set to record or filter out Pitch Bend, Patch Change, Polyphonic/Channel Aftertouch, and all Controllers (volume, pan etc). A very welcome feature is the ability to store and recall MIDI System Exclusive data, enabling synth voices to be stored along with the songs in which they are used. If required, Trackman can be driven by an external MIDI clock.
As sequencer reviews in these pages have pointed out before, what suits one user may be quite unacceptable to another, so to pass a subjective judgement on such a product is of limited value. Nevertheless, there can be no arguing that the creators of Trackman have managed to produce a package that is both versatile and extremely easy to use, and for both these reasons it could turn out to be a very popular program.
Hollis Research, (Contact Details)
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