Software for Commodore 64
Ian Waugh examines a new starter sequencer package designed to lure Commodore 64 users into the MIDI software habit. Is it friendly enough?
Trackstar, Steinberg's new software package for the Commodore 64, is a simple, inexpensive sequencing system aimed at getting novices interested in the idea of MIDI recording. Is it friendly enough to whet the beginner's appetite?
This is not an in-depth interview with Steve Cram (Track Star, geddit?). It's a look at Steinberg's latest MIDI package for the family of Commodore 64-compatible computers.
Another Steinberg package? What on Earth can they add to their much-vaunted Pro16 and Pro24 to justify the release of another one? The answer is quite simply nothing, because, having produced pro-quality software for the pro and semi-pro musician, Steinberg are now aiming at the semi-pro, the amateur and the home musician.
Regression? Not at all. There are thousands of people out there just dying to get into computer music, but who lack the confidence, expertise - or money. If that sounds like you - come on now, own up - Trackstar could just be what you've been waiting for.
Since I've already written half my conclusion, I may as well continue in this retrogressive manner and mention the price - £70. For this, you get a small interface, the MMI, with a MIDI In and two MIDI Outs. You also get a bright-red floppy disk, a plastic covered 22-page manual, and a big box.
Trackstar is very much an introduction to MIDI, and the manual carefully explains what MIDI is and what Trackstar does in terms that even I can understand. It's been designed to operate like a tape recorder to bridge the gap between audio and full-blooded digital recording, a method which seems to work well but which has its drawbacks, as we'll see.
Trackstar is an eight-track sequencer, but you can only record music on the first four. Tracks 5 to 8 can only play one note per track, and are reserved for a drum machine. We'll get to this in a moment. It's mainly a real-time system, but you can enter notes in step-time, too.
The screen display - there is only one - is divided into four sections. The top left shows a tape recorder with play, record and fast forward and rewind controls. The spools actually revolve during tape operations, and slide off the screen when you select a disk option, which is a nice touch of animation. Contrary to rumour, though, a small pair of hands does not appear at regular intervals to clean the tape heads...
In between the two spools are the numbers 1 to 4, representing the first four tracks. A tape counter cleverly ticks off in crotchet increments, so it's fairly easy to work out where you are.
Under the tape machine is the track box, which lists the tracks 1 to 8. Under each track is a velocity indicator which shows the volume of each track during recording and playback. At the bottom of this display is a one-line text window into which you type filenames when saving and loading pieces. You can get a directory of the disk by pressing Shift-D.
The top right of the screen shows tracks 5 to 8. These are allocated to bass drum, snare, hi-hat and percussion (ie. anything else) respectively. There are play and record indicators here, too.
The lower right section is the parameter area. From here you can switch individual tracks on and off, alter their channel numbers, set quantisation, transposition and tempo. You can also adjust the velocity on each track by up to ±63. This allows you to balance track levels independently of the synth producing the sounds, providing it's velocity-sensitive. There is a double-speed facility called MLT (is it me, or are abbreviations and acronyms getting more obscure?). A track which plays twice as fast only lasts half as long (yes, that makes sense), so if it previously took eight bars to play, it'll be over in four bars with MLT. The other tracks will play at normal speed, so the feature's use needs to be well-planned. Very handy for the tricky bits. Finally, an Auto Repeat feature continuously plays a section of tape.
Using Trackstar is straightforward enough. You can record with or without an eight-beat count-in, and this is where the auto repeat can be especially useful. When this is selected, the program goes into a 'record on hold' mode, and plays through without wiping what's already there. It starts recording when you hit a note, and continues recording until the end of the section. If you stop playing before the repeat, it reverts again to 'record on hold'. So, to keep playing a piece until you get it right is simplicity itself.
To help you move quickly around the tape, the function keys can be programmed to make the counter jump to preselected tape positions.
Quantisation can be set to 4,6,8,12,16,24,64 and 0 - why no 32? It defaults to 16, and the 0 value is actually 192 which, as the manual points out, is probably near enough to no quantisation at all for most people.
Step-time input uses the quantisation value as the note duration, and you can tie notes by holding a key and pressing the space bar. Pressing the space bar alone enters a rest.
This system works fine, but you can't alter the quantisation value while recording, so you have to tie lots of small notes together. A missed chance for very easy step-time input.
As I've said, tracks 5 to 8 are reserved for creating drum parts. You can run a MIDI drum machine by plugging it into the second MIDI Out socket, and the program synchronises everything with a clock pulse. The program also produces its own drums from the SID chip, and plays them through your TV. In all honesty, these are pretty awful, but if you've no drum machine they're better than nothing. You can program patterns easily from the keyboard, as any note triggers the drum you've selected.
Compared with more upmarket packages, Trackstar has few frills. You can copy one part of the track to another, but you can't copy individual tracks or merge tracks. Copying actually does just that - copy - and uses an equivalent amount of memory, too: one of the drawbacks of a tape machine simulation. It's possible to lock up the machine if you try to copy more than the memory can hold, and you know it's locked up because you get a Record Buffer Full message. Tut, tut, Steinberg.
In total, there's enough memory for several minutes of music, though as usual, the amount you can store varies according to the number of notes you play. You're only told how much memory is free when you press R (to record without a count in), not Shift-R (for a count-in), something the manual doesn't tell you.
The program works a treat with Casio CZ synths, and it's easy to build up four mono tracks to make use of their multi-timbral facilities. You can switch this feature on from the program, and it'll even remember the voices (well, they have to be set initially from the Casio first), so you don't have to mess about with the MIDI and Solo buttons on the synth each time you play a piece. The program accepts voice-change and pitch-bend information, too, though the pitch-bend resolution depends on the quantisation setting. A value of 4, for example, just produces jumps, not a smooth transition.
It's important to remember that Trackstar is an introductory package, and we reviewers who have sampled the delights of mega programs could easily be tempted to put down a simpler program. When MIDI first arrived and I didn't know a track from a channel, I'd have given my eye teeth for something like Trackstar.
For all it's a simple package, Trackstar still has a few niggles, but if you're hesitant about taking the plunge into computer music because of the technicalities, then this package will get you going - without tears. And if you do decide you want all the bells and whistles, the Pro16 program will run quite happily with Trackstar's interface.
Trackstar is maybe not quite a nova, but it's certainly a star that should encourage more people to plug their keyboard into their computer. It's what your MIDI socket's for, innit?
Price £70 for software and interface
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