UMI-4M MIDI Composition System
Are 8 bits still viable? Martin Russ temporarily abandons his Atari ST for a look at the latest version of this music sequencer package for the BBC micro.
Are 8 bits still viable? Martin Russ temporarily abandons his Atari ST for a look at the latest version of this music sequencer package for the BBC micro.
What seems like eons ago, in the very first issue of Sound On Sound, there was a review of an evolving sequencer system for the BBC micro. Then at the height of its appeal, the BBC B has since been succeeded by the ill-fated Acorn 128 and ABC workstations, the Master Series, the cut-down Compact, and finally the Archimedes, with its impressive specification, 'go-faster stripes' and university market orientation. As a home computer the humble BBC was amazingly popular, and there are a large number still in use both in the home and in education.
Surprisingly, MIDI sequencing and the like never seemed to be very popular on the BBC, with the Spectrum and Commodore 64 receiving most of the attention of the music software writers. Instead, the BBC has enjoyed considerable success in the education market, with Hybrid Technology's Music 5000 peripheral being an immensely popular means of composing music in schools. However, of the MIDI-based systems that did use the BBC, only the strongest have survived through to this day - so are they still worth looking at in the context of the current obsession with 16-bit processors, graphic environments, and huge amounts of RAM? In order to find out I looked at one of the classic sequencers for the BBC micro - UMI.
This is a text-book example of a user being unable to find what he wanted from existing software and deciding to programme it himself. Lynton Naiff was an arranger working with a diverse range of artists like Lulu, the Associates and Blancmange, and he needed a means of arranging songs at home. At that time nothing available for the BBC micro was suitable, and so he taught himself 6502 machine code and wrote the software for UMI (frankly, I'm impressed with his tenacity!). As a result, UMI displays all the hallmarks of a musician's sequencing system, instead of a programmer's masterpiece. As it has developed over the years, UMI has become associated with names like Vince Clarke and Mike Rutherford from Genesis, and has evolved into a high specification system with the bugs ironed out - unlike the 'hot off the press' software so often released for the more fashionable computers, where we are often assured that the bugs will be "fixed in the next version..."
There is no MIDI interface on ordinary BBC Bs or Masters, and so the first thing we need is an interface. There are two schools of thought for providing MIDI interfaces for computers - minimalist and pragmatist. The minimal approach uses either the built-in MIDI interface if there is one (as with the non-standard version on the Atari ST, for example), or tries to utilise the computer's serial port (not easy on the BBC, but possible by misusing/cleverly exploiting the Econet interface!), with real hardware as a last resort - and then a single simple MIDI Out is usually the case. The pragmatic approach either tries to free the host computer from most of the hard work, by providing an intelligent interface (as in the Roland MPU401 for IBM PCs and compatibles), or seeks to avoid the data bottleneck which can be caused by a single MIDI Out, by providing several Outs.
UMI takes the more pragmatic approach. When you are trying to produce complex multi-part orchestrated arrangements it is quite easy to exceed the data capacity of a single MIDI Out socket, and so UMI provides some autonomy from the host by using four ACIAs to run four separate MIDI Outs. Thus, instead of the usual data bandwidth of 31.25 Kbits/s, UMI provides an effective bandwidth of 125 kbits/s, and the ACIAs take care of most of the hard work associated with the MIDI aspects, leaving the BBC free to concentrate on the music.
This approach also gives you flexibility, since you can run small groups of instruments from separate outputs. This gives you, in effect, a MIDI patchbox, since you can now assign parts on a channel basis and on an ACIA basis, with a total address capability of 64 separate instruments. So you are unlikely ever to need to upgrade the hardware even with the largest MIDI network, a rather different scenario than with most single Out MIDI sequencers!
UMI is a complete hardware and software system which enables you to turn your BBC computer into a dedicated MIDI sequencer and controller (but still play games/word-process/programme afterwards!).
A small, neat, 'BBC colour' metal box acts as the interface between the BBC's 1 MHz and User ports and the 5-pin DIN sockets of the MIDI world, and the UMI system software, which is supplied in the form of a plug-in ROM chip. It sports one MIDI In, four MIDI Outs and two I/O sockets, which cover things like synchronisation (both to and from tape) using the standard Frequency Shift Keying (FSK) system. External Clock In and a Footswitch complete the first of the two 'Multi' sockets. The second socket contains access to click and clock outs, as well as a momentary and continuous start signal for triggering drum machines. You can even replace one of the ACIAs with a small PCB which converts MIDI data to CV/Gate information, suitable for driving monophonic analogue synthesizers!
Once the two ribbon cables are connected to the appropriate ports on the underside of the BBC, and the ROMs are installed in the ROM sockets inside the computer (a simple operation), all it needs is a typed *UMI command to get going. Instead of a long wait for the program to load, the ROM means that it springs immediately into life. This brings us nicely to the software side of UMI.
UMI is page-based, with the major pages accessed from the red Function keys on the BBC's QWERTY keyboard. Other pages may be reached by using the Shift and Control keys in combination with the Function keys. This gives quick access to 40 different pages(!), not all of which are used - the opening page is used as a guide to the Function keys. As you would expect, the less important pages (used to set defaults, etc) are on the Function + Shift keys, and anything dangerous (like clearing the memory) is a finger manipulation-testing Control + Shift + Function keypress away. In fact, I almost prefer this system to the 'Are you sure?' dialogue boxes which often infest Atari ST programs!
The Main Menu page is the 'home' page, from which you make all your page selections, and it is surprising how quickly your fingers become used to the key presses required for the frequently used pages. In these days of menu bars, mice and dialogue boxes, this alternative system worked remarkably efficiently! Anyone who doubts the ease of use of this system has only to watch Vince Clarke using UMI - you did see him on BBC TV's Rockschool programme, didn't you?
UMI keeps each page simple and straightforward, carefully using the colour capabilities of the BBC's mode 7 teletext-type display (since this display mode only uses 1K of memory, it maximises the amount of RAM available for storing music - very important in a 32K BBC). The pages are organised around UMI's method of sequencing, which employs the 'standard' drum machine emulation where you record patterns first and then build up chains of these patterns. You can record up to 127 patterns, and these can be of any length from 1 to 255 beats each. You can choose 48, 96 or 192 pulses per quarter note internal clock resolution - UMI interpolates between MIDI clocks (24 ppqn) if this is the sync source. If UMI is the clock source, then 192 ppqn at 120 beats per minute (bpm) represents a timing resolution of around 2.5 milliseconds!
The first thing you will normally want to do is record a pattern. UMI lets you record in either Step-time or Real-time, and there are separate (and different) screen pages for each of these functions. Real-time record is simple, quick and efficient to use - you select a pattern number to record, and then play! If you want quantisation, auto-start, spacebar to start, one-shot or looping (or any other of the available options), then you just use the cursor keys to select and modify the list on the left of the screen. UMI can be set to record only the Note-On events, ignoring the Note-Offs, and this is very useful with drum machines. Monitoring previously recorded tracks is merely a question of typing in the track numbers. About the only thing I missed here was being able to name the track with a meaningful name - numbers are a bit formless for my taste.
To stop recording, you hit the computer's spacebar. The screen then displays the Pattern Edit page, which actually looks very similar to the Record page. The difference lies in the available commands, of which there are many. Re-recording is a single keypress, as are all the commands like quantise, erase bend, overdub drop-in, pack controller data, compress velocity, and many more. If you thought that comprehensive options for editing, filtering, post-processing and modifying were the province of 16-bit machines, then you are in for quite a surprise. The only possible problem you might come across is the assignment of the QWERTY keys; because the functions have developed and been added over time, their arrangement is not very ordered and so you need to spend time learning their effects.
UMI's Step-time recording is novel and very useful. You first select the number of beats per bar and the length of the bar, together with the pattern number. The Record page shows a rising set of notes in five octaves on the left-hand side of the screen. When you play a note it inverts colour on the display - but playing it again causes it to revert back to the original colour and switch off. This provides immediate visual feedback to the notes you are playing at any step, and makes step editing easy and quick. Single notes or chords can be entered in this way, so it is very useful for block chord pads as well as 'unplayable' sequences. The QWERTY keyboard is again used to select note lengths and rests and, once learned, is remarkably fast. Velocity information can be entered from either the keyboard or from the data entry slider of a MIDI keyboard. As usual, the spacebar starts and stops the playback of the sequence. The Step-time page thus provides an efficient and effective method of inputting complex sequences.
I mentioned that you could select the tracks that you wanted to monitor whilst recording. The same scheme operates for playback; you select the tracks and press the spacebar to start and stop. This re-use of the same routines is common to the whole design philosophy of UMI - once you have learned how to use something, it remains the same throughout the program.
You would expect any sequencing program to be able to record and play back simple phrases - the power of UMI as an orchestrating and arranging tool only becomes apparent when you begin to assemble the patterns together into chains. By specifying the order in which the patterns are to be played, you can begin to structure the phrases into larger blocks. If you are familiar with written music then you are probably familiar with the wealth of symbolism for controlling bar repeats and jumping from one section to another in a score. UMI provides a comprehensive set of similar commands, which allow you to play the patterns in a complex way but with a concise and versatile representation on the screen. Transposition of patterns is also facilitated by adding a comma and a transpose value in semitones.
All this song-structuring is carried out on the first of the 16 available tracks, Track A. The remaining tracks follow the same sequence of playing as Track A, but can have any patterns within them. The 16 MIDI channels can be freely assigned to any track from A to P. Copying from track to track is possible, and you can add an offset to the links so that sections can be time independent, as in verses and chorus, where the same patterns repeat an earlier order. To emphasise the structure that this copying can introduce, you can change the colour of the pattern numbers on the Chain page display to reflect the sections. Tracks can also be delayed relative to each other by increments of clock pulses. This enables double-tracking and other 'thickening' effects to be added to tracks with almost no effort, the only restriction being the polyphony of the instrument playing the music.
There are two main units of storage in UMI: patterns and songs. Both the DFS and ADFS filing systems are catered for, so you should have no compatibility problems. It is surprising how much music can be saved on a 5 1/4-inch floppy disk when you have constructed it out of much smaller parts. The disk can also be used to make live performance easier by automatically preparing to load in the next song when the first one finishes.
The systems aspect of UMI also appears here; you can use the disk as a voice librarian for storing sounds from certain synthesizers. Currently supported instruments include the Yamaha DX7 and the Roland D50, JX10 and MKS80, and Lynton Naiff is developing support for other instruments.
Remember that UMI is in ROM, so the disk in the drive is purely a data disk. There is no need for disk-swapping, and no need to load in a voice librarian program or access a Desk Accessory. Whilst learning to use UMI, you can use the Disk Prompt facility to access context-sensitive Help screens by pressing the Escape key - and this is probably the only time you would need to exchange disks. Everything also works extremely quickly - I never had to wait for a screen to redraw, for example, and the file size is usually so small that disk filing functions are almost invisible. Overall, UMI certainly made me reappraise my Atari ST's functionality and speed!
I have already mentioned one of UMI's two editors, which is automatically entered when you have recorded a pattern. This allows versatile and wide-ranging filtering and modifying of MIDI and controller data, but is restricted in its power for making detailed changes to individual notes. The optional Micro-Editor provides a much more comprehensive means of fine adjustment over the information, in a list format. As with most UMI functions, the cursor keys are used to move around between the available options and to alter the values, and the spacebar is used to start and stop playback.
The combination of the two editors - one mostly acting on a whole pattern at a time, with versatile filtering and modifying commands, and the other a highly detailed, event-level fine tuning device - works very well. Too many editors provide too much precision too early and not enough high-level adjustment. I particularly liked the Expand and Compress Velocity function, and the quantisation of pitch bend data had some rather nice and useful side-effects, enabling a glissando effect on a synth without the facility. In the time I have been using UMI I feel that I have barely scratched the surface of the pattern editor possibilities, and have lots to learn about the Micro-Editor. The important thing is that I could do everything I wanted to (and more!), and judging by the high level of user support from Umusic (the manufacturer), I doubt if it would be a problem for long if I did find something missing.
Entering and editing notes on a graphical stave representation is fashionable these days, and Lynton told me that he was working on an extension to UMI to provide this. As UMI depends so intimately on the interaction between the user and the music, one of the reasons that you don't need complex displays of the notes, I for one am inclined to think that this would dilute the system rather than enhance. But this is a personal impression, and I am sure that many others would welcome some visual rather than audio feedback.
UMI is a very comprehensive and well thought out way of producing MIDI-based music to the highest standards. It is a powerful, easy and quick to use tool which goes far beyond what I thought could be done with a BBC computer. UMI is a 'mature' product, with all the advantages of freedom from major bugs, experienced support, and an established user base. The UMI 4M version is the latest in the continuing development, with the 3S representing a lower priced entry-level alternative with a restricted range of functions.
Rather than labelling UMI as a sequencer, it is better to think of it as a complete music composition environment. Recording and playback of patterns, assembling them into chains and then into larger pieces of music, as well as coping with voice libraries, can all be done without any need to leave UMI. Putting the program in ROM is not only an act of faith in the robustness of the software, but it makes the program very fast in operation. In fact, speed and ease-of-use have received a great deal of attention during the design of UMI. Re-recording a pattern is a single keypress away, and you select between editing an existing pattern or recording a new one by pressing the red function keys in staccato or legato fashion respectively - just two of the short cuts for experienced users. I really did begin to question my use of mouse-driven software as a result of using a system as integrated and complete as UMI is.
Using ROM for the program leaves the BBC's limited RAM open for maximum utilisation. The Teletext-style graphics leave the screen pages clear and uncluttered, and since the end product you are working with is music, which needs listening to rather than looking at, this is actually an advantage. UMI manages to present the relevant information without any need for a high resolution display, leaving the really important part, the music, to the full attention of your ears!
It really does look as if the 8-bit BBC computer can still give the 16-bit machines a run for their money. I was very impressed with the functionality and comprehensiveness of UMI - many of the intricate facilities that I had always associated with the ST or the Mac were present here as well. I recommend that everyone seriously considers UMI as a possible contender for their sequencing needs. With some products I do not really miss their return at the end of the review period, but with UMI there may be some very hard decisions on my part - should I buy it? I am certainly very tempted!
Price There are two versions of UMI. The full version is called UMI-4M and costs £322 inc VAT for the basic package. The Micro Editor is available as an additional ROM for £138 inc VAT. A simpler version, the UMI-3S, is available with a slightly reduced specification in some areas (most notably it records in one-shot mode only, and has less functions). The basic 3S package costs £230 with the extra Micro Editor ROM costing £110.40.
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Review by Martin Russ