Following on from last month's preview, Paul Ireson provides a thorough rundown of this easy-to-use, 32-track, pattern-based sequencer for the Atari ST.
Following on from last month's preview, Paul Ireson provides a thorough rundown of this easy-to-use, 32-track, pattern-based sequencer for the Atari ST.
Few hi-tech product areas can be as confusing as the current sequencer market; the hardware/software debate rages on, and the software field is particularly baffling, as new programs or updates to old ones are being released all the time. The rate of such releases makes keeping up-to-date on what is currently available a full-time job, and one of the newest additions to the ever-growing software list is Trackman from Hollis Research, an Atari ST-based sequencer program.
With so many programs available, it's worth asking what musicians actually want all these sequencers for, and whether they do what they're supposed to. Broadly speaking, musicians employ sequencers to help in the composing and/or recording of music. The main advantage offered to the composer through the use of a sequencer is that it opens up a huge potential for the creation and control of music that is beyond his/her ability to play unaided. However, the main drawback with some of the current sequencers seems to be that, for many people, they can can get in the way of creating that music in the first place. Evidence? The most common musicians' complaint about sequencers is that they're just not sufficiently user-friendly, or rather musician-friendly, and it's no good dismissing these complaints as mere techno-fear.
Although any piece of technology takes a little getting used to before anything can be got out of it, a device involved so directly with the process of composition should be particularly straightforward to use. Creating music is a mysterious and delicate process: the less concentration is required on the mechanics of recording, the more easily the creative juices will flow, and those rare moments of true inspiration will be more effectively captured. I say all this because Trackman is a program clearly designed with this in mind, and which therefore aims to make recording music on a MIDI system as intuitive as possible, concentrating less on esoteric editing facilities and more on ease of use and real-time control.
Trackman achieves its extreme user-friendliness in several ways; firstly through the program's basic architecture. Music is recorded in 100 sequences, each of up to 999 bars in length. Each sequence has 32 tracks (arranged in two banks of 16), and recording on these tracks takes place as the sequence loops. You know how easy it is to get things together on a drum machine? This is the same. Secondly, a footswitch is used to initiate recording, and to toggle between recording and playback as the sequence loops. This is not quite the same as punching in and out on a tape recorder, as new data is overdubbed on to whatever else is on a track, rather than overwriting it. The addition of the footswitch is a simple idea, and a very good one, going a long way towards achieving Trackman's aims of ease of use on its own. As the sequence loops, you can rehearse a 'take', then record it for real without having to stop playback or lift your hands from your synth keyboard (or MIDI guitar fretboard, MIDI horn keys, MIDI ukelele strings).
Having thus made it easy to compose sequences, Trackman then allows you to develop these in whatever way suits you. A single sequence may be continuously extended and added to, or many short sequences chained together into a song, or a piece may be assembled by a mixture of these two methods depending on how you like to work. You can even forget about sequences entirely, and record on a single, very long sequence, treating it just like a piece of tape. In addition, many editing functions can be carried out in real time, as the sequence loops, allowing the effects of changes to be heard as they are made.
For your £199, Hollis Research will provide you with a program disk, excellent Tutorial and Reference manuals, a sturdy footswitch, a dongle, and an adaptor for the Atari's modem port which provides an additional 16 MIDI channels. The program will run on any ST, which is good news for 520 owners who often find that sequencer programs are too large to run on their computers. As a bonus, the program disk also contains a Roland D50 librarian, and 1000 DX voices supplied by Yamaha - pretty good freebies if you ask me.
The program uses only two screens, the Main and Screen Edit screens. The Main screen that greets you once you've loaded the program is refreshingly clear and uncluttered. Almost all of the screen buttons have keyboard command equivalents, and once I'd got used to where they all were (which takes about ten minutes), using these proved to be much quicker than the point-and-click routine, though die-hard mouse enthusiasts will probably stick to using the screen buttons. Along the top of the screen is the usual GEM menu bar, offering File, Edit, Options, MIDI, Click and Quantise menus.
Starting at the top left of the screen proper, the current sequence number and name (up to eight letters) are displayed, and below this is an indicator to show the number of the next sequence. During sequence playback, a new sequence can be selected by simply typing the desired two-digit number (eg. 08); playback and looping of that sequence starts once the end of the current sequence is reached. Below this display is the Transpose button, use of which allows temporary real-time transposition of the current sequence by playing a note on the controlling MIDI keyboard: middle C gives zero transposition.
Next comes a group of four buttons, Screen, Undo, Bank and Patch. Screen selects Trackman's Screen Edit function, of which more later. Bank switches between the two banks of 16 tracks. Although both banks are active and may be used at the same time, only 16 tracks at a time may be shown in the Track Selector box. The Undo button is a particularly useful one, as it allows whatever procedure was last carried out on the current sequence to be reversed, whether it be recording new data, quantising a track, or erasing/deleting bars etc. Patch allows a patch (program) change message to be transmitted on any MIDI channel from the ST rather than from the MIDI controller.
Erase and Repeat, if selected while recording, respectively erase and record repeats of any held notes. The repeat rate is the same as the current quantise rate, and successive repeats may be set to decay in velocity to produce a fading echo effect. Using Repeat without the echo effect is a good way of programming hi-hat or other flat percussion instrument parts.
Next come the transport controls: Play, Stop, Record, Fast Forward, Rewind and Locate. Play, Stop and Record are self-explanatory, Fast Forward and Rewind shuttle through a sequence in single bar steps. Locate jumps to a programmable locate point within the current sequence. The Record button is made almost redundant by the footswitch, as they have the same function - I hardly ever used the screen button. Serious foot fetishists, or anyone with more than the regular complement of legs, will be glad to hear that with the addition of an expansion unit from Hinton Instruments (see 'Extra Hardware' box), up to three more footswitches can be used to control transport and recording functions, reducing still further the number of times your hands need to move from synth to computer keyboard.
The bottom half of the screen is taken up by the Track Selector box: at the top is a row of Track Selector buttons numbered 1-16 (or 17-32 if Bank Two is selected). The Selector button of the currently selected track is highlighted, and keyboard equivalents for the Track Selector buttons are provided by the Atari's ten function keys in conjunction with the
Trackman supports 32 MIDI channels: the 16 'regular' channels are sent to the Atari's MIDI Out socket, and a further 16 auxiliary MIDI channels are output via an adaptor connected to the Atari's modem port. All 100 sequences can record music on 32 tracks, each of which can simultaneously record 16 channels of MIDI data - however, with 32 tracks and 32 channels, the best way to arrange things is to record one channel per track. This helps to avoid confusion about what instruments are recorded on what tracks, and also makes control over each part easier.
Each track has a basic MIDI channel. When the program is first loaded, these are set to 1-16 for tracks 1-16, and auxiliary channels 1-16 for tracks 17-32 - sensible enough. Incoming data on channel 1 is 'bumped up' to the basic channel of the currently selected track, both as it is echoed to the Atari's MIDI Out and as it is recorded and played back on that track. The point of all this is that you can set your master keyboard to channel 1 and leave it there, connect the MIDI Out of the keyboard to the Atari's MIDI In, and control all your equipment via the Atari's two MIDI Outs.
In order to play different synth modules, and record the parts for them, all you need do is select the track which is assigned to the correct MIDI channel (or change the basic MIDI channel of the track that you wish to record on). If several channels of MIDI data are recorded simultaneously on a single track, all are bumped up by the same number of channels when echoed, recorded and played back. So, if a split keyboard puts out MIDI data on channels 1 and 2, and the data is being channeled through a track whose basic MIDI channel is 3, the performance will be output on channels 3 and 4 from the Atari as it is echoed in real time, and as the recorded performance is played back. This is not as complicated as it may sound: on the contrary, it makes life very simple. It just means that rather than having to change channels on your master keyboard when you record a new instrument on a new track, all you do is select the new track.
The first thing you need do when recording a new sequence is to define its length, time signature and tempo. A sequence may be up to 999 bars in length. Tempo can be specified with 0.1 beats-per-minute (bpm) resolution, between 40 and 240 bpm. Unless told otherwise, Trackman will assume that you're happiest recording two bars of 4/4 at 100 bpm. Remember, however, that a sequence need not stay at its initial length. It can subsequently be increased in length by copying blank bars, or bars from any sequence into it.
Let's say that we want to start by recording a two-bar drum and bass pattern, and then build on that. Our drum machine is set to MIDI channel 10, which is the basic channel for track 10. In order to record the rhythm part on track 10, simply click on the Track Selector button for track 10 (or press the Atari's F10 key), press the footswitch to initiate recording, and start playing along to the click provided from the Atari's internal speaker. If you'd rather rehearse what you're going to record before committing it to RAM, hit the footswitch a second time before you play anything - to punch out - and practice until you're ready to punch in and record. Another track can be selected for recording a second part (our bass line, perhaps) as the sequence is still looping and recording. In this way, building up short, though not necessarily simple, sequences is made very easy.
Should you dislike what you've just recorded, three options are immediately available to put things right. Using the Erase function whilst recording ('dynamic erase') will erase any notes you hold down - ideal for removing a few errant notes, provided you know what they are. Using Erase at any other time will erase the whole or selected bars of the current track, or a group of tracks. The third and most interesting option is to use the Undo function to reverse whatever procedure was last applied to a track. So, if the last thing you did was to record a horribly out-of-time drum roll, Undo will take you back to the point before you recorded. It is important to note that the 'take' that Undo will conveniently forget for you is not the interval between your last two punch-in and punch-out points, but everything you recorded since you last pressed Stop!
This facility turned out to be a great time and effort saver - a single button-press beats hunting through a track to erase bum notes any day, and it also has the knock-on effect of making experimentation in a piece a far less risky business. Undo also epitomises the thoughtful design of Trackman, in that it is a feature that fits in well with the process of creating music. Composition tends to involve building up successive layers of sound or ideas - a couple of notes here, another couple there - and the ability to just unpeel the last layer is the kind of feature that you don't want to give up once you've tried it.
Trackman offers quantisation both during and after recording, via a pop-up dialogue box. The former is essential when recording any parts that require tight timing, such as drums: because the sequence loops back on itself as it records, lack of this facility would necessitate frequent breaks in recording to quantise whatever had last been entered. On the other hand, the post-record quantise leaves the option of recording a part without quantisation to retain a 'human feel', and then tidy up the timing later if necessary. Quantisation during recording commits you to a certain level of quantisation which might turn out to be too coarse for what you play. Post-record quantisation can be applied to whole tracks, or to specified bars within a track, and at a variable Quantisation Strength.
The Quantisation Strength factor determines how far each note is moved towards the nearest beat at the current quantisation level. Setting the level to less than 100% will tidy things up, but without making a track sound too mechanical and perfect. Quantisation levels available during recording range from 1/4 to 1/64th notes, with 1/4, 1/8th, 1/16th and 1/32nd note triplets. Post-record quantisation goes down further to 1/128th notes, equivalent to three clock pulses at Trackman's internal resolution of 96 ppqn. I'm not sure that many people need such high resolution quantisation, but it's good to have it available anyway.
A Shuffle option is available in both quantisation modes, which delays the placement of even-numbered beats. The amount of shuffle applied may be varied between 0 and 84%. If you've never heard the effect before, it's best described as 'instant jazz', injecting a little swing into your music. But beware, careless use of this kind of track processing is a very fast way of producing a serious mess - instant modern jazz anyone?
Unless you're into extreme minimalism, you'll probably want to do more than just record two-bar sequences. Having made recording short patterns a gratifyingly quick and easy process, Trackman then allows you to expand these into longer pieces of music in a variety of ways.
A sequence can be extended by copying bars, either from within the same or from a different sequence. As a sequence is lengthened in this way, new tracks can be recorded and existing tracks altered. One technique I used was to record a two-bar sequence, copy it over several times to produce, say, a 32-bar loop, then improvise on top of this loop on a free track, recording everything I played. I then deleted the inevitable bars of rubbish, and kept the few that were any good to use as the basis for further development, changing the earlier tracks to fit in with the new material.
Sequences can be chained together and copied to a blank sequence using the Make Song function. When several sequences are combined in this way, although they are merged into one, tempo changes and track Velocity Scaling changes (as determined by the track faders) from one section to the next are retained. The new song/sequence can then be recorded on and treated just like any other sequence. Up to 100 sequences can be chained together at a single time.
Editing of sequences can be carried out in three main ways: via the options available from the Edit and Options menus, using the Screen Edit function, or in real time. As Trackman's design philosophy is very much to make as many things as possible work in real time, I'll describe this latter option first.
Notes and other MIDI data can be erased from a track by clicking on Erase as the sequence is looping and recording. As long as the Erase button remains highlighted, any held notes will be removed from the current track, along with any MIDI controller data you might want to remove, such as Pitch Bend, Modulation, MIDI Volume etc. The types of MIDI data to be removed by this 'dynamic erase' procedure can be specified by setting the filters in the MIDI menu that also-specify what types of MIDI data are to be recognised and recorded (see 'MIDI' box). When Erase is de-selected, new note and controller data can be overdubbed.
Pulling down the Edit menu provides several options for dealing with track data on a larger scale: Copy, Erase and Delete bars, Bounce Track, Extract Notes, Rotate Sequence, Work Loop, Make Song and Screen Edit. Bars may be copied across or within sequences, and sections of sequences deleted. A track can be bounced to any other track, within the same or a different sequence, the new data either replacing or merging with the data on the destination track. This process leaves the data on the source track unchanged. Notes can also be extracted from one track to another within a sequence, the notes to be extracted being specified by note range and MIDI channel.
Due to Trackman's method of continuously looping as you record, it's quite possible to lose track of where you are in a sequence and consequently find that the start of a wonderful bass riff, or indeed of the drum pattern you've just recorded, is not actually at the start of the sequence. If so, Rotate Sequence will put things right, enabling a whole sequence to be shifted backwards or forwards in time by between 1/2 and 1/128th note. The function can also be used to make adjustments to the timing of elements of a sequence, rather than the whole thing. For example, in order to shift the snare part of a sequence forwards in time, I extracted the snare notes from the drum track to an empty track, and bounced that track to an empty sequence. I then rotated the new sequence to bring the snare notes forwards by a couple of clock pulses, and bounced and merged the shifted snare part back to the drum track of my original sequence. This trick can be used to create 'feel' in a drum track [see 'Programming Feel', SOS Oct 87], or to compensate for the slow triggering of certain samplers.
Work Loop allows a section of the current sequence to be copied over to create a new sequence. This section can then be tweaked (or even torn apart and rebuilt) until you're happy with it, and then copied back into its original location. Alternatively, if you decide that the changes you've just made don't improve things, you can just as easily return to the original sequence unchanged.
The Options menu provides a few more ways of modifying sequences. Pitch Transpose is fairly self-explanatory, allowing sections of any or all tracks of the current sequence to be transposed up or down in pitch. Any track or group of tracks may be specified to be exempt from transposition, to prevent rhythm tracks being shifted to play different voices. Velocity Rescale allows the velocity values of all notes in any section of any track(s) to be permanently rescaled. The default scaling factor (given as a percentage) is set by the track fader of the currently selected track. New Sequence erases everything from the current sequence, and lets you start all over again. All options on the Edit and Options menus can be selected with
For detailed editing of a sequence, a Screen Edit function is available. From one to four bars of a single track can be graphically represented onscreen, and edited as that section of the sequence loops and plays. The current track can be soloed, and either heard in isolation or in the context of the rest of the music in that section of the sequence. Pitch is shown on the vertical axis, and time on the horizontal, so notes appear as horizontal bars on the resultant grid. Vertical bars are drawn at the current quantisation intervals, down to 1/16th notes. At finer resolutions, 16th note lines are still drawn.
At the bottom of this screen is the Control box: 32 Track Selector buttons allow a new track to be selected without leaving Screen Edit, the display width may be changed, and Solo and Mute buttons are provided as on the Main screen.
By dragging and clicking with the mouse, notes can be moved around the grid, changed in length, copied and deleted. When notes are moved or copied/created, they will 'snap' to the nearest quantisation interval. Double-clicking on a note calls up a dialogue box that allows the note to be edited by changing the numerical values for note number, length, velocity and MIDI channel. New notes can be created very quickly at the current pointer position by clicking on the right-hand mouse button. Notes created in this way are copies of the last note edited with the left-hand mouse button.
I have to say that I liked Trackman a lot - it is quick and easy to use, intelligently designed and reliable. Creating short, though not necessarily simple, sequences is a rapid and intuitive process, and it is equally easy to develop these short sequences in a number of ways to produce whole songs.
If I was nitpicking, I could maybe complain that there's no way of selectively erasing controller data other than in real time - so if you need to erase the MIDI Volume data from one track of a six-minute song, you might as well go and make a cup of tea while the program does its stuff. Nevertheless, this is not a major worry, and it does after all point to Trackman's great strength, which is that it is a powerful sequencer program for those who want to go ahead and create music without being sidetracked by the technical details of a sequencer as 'a machine'. If you really feel the need to be able to shift every third note below middle C on MIDI channel 1 backwards four clocks, then Trackman (in its present version) will not meet your requirements, but for anyone else I'd say it was definitely worth checking out.
£199 inc VAT.
First Rate (Guernsey) Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Review by Paul Ireson