Jim Spriggs gives us a more comprehensive look at the first package to come from the Digital Muse
The Atari ST is currently well supported with sequencers, some of which are very complex with price tags to match. For some time the most professional sequencer packages have come from such companies as Steinberg, C-Lab and Dr T. In such a climate, companies wishing to swell the ranks with a new product must either boast that special something that the others haven't got, or claim that they are faster, easier to use, or lower priced and so on. Enter, Virtuoso!
It's been advertised for some time, but until relatively recently had not been generally available. Now it's arrived, lets have a look at what this 99 track sequencer has to offer and what you get for your money.
The package contains a comprehensive well written and produced A5 size manual, a single sided disk and the inevitable protection dongle which plugs into the Atari's cartridge port. Virtuoso will only run on a hi-res monitor. It will run on a 520ST but the actual work space you are left with is rather limited. There is a very useful on line help facility that can be made to load as a default. Unfortunately this must be dispensed with if you are using an 520 ST due to the lack of memory.
The software does not use GEM as it was considered too slow. Instead a multitasking format has been conceived which gives a smooth fast re-draw and allows some operations such as Disk operations to proceed while you are getting on with programming. Virtuoso's clock rate compared with some of it's competitors is very high at 480 ticks per quarter note. This obviously gives greater accuracy for quantising, recording and play-back. Virtuoso takes about a minute to load and having done so, presents a page in what is called block mode. The term block refers to a group of tracks containing music data. These can be named for reference with up to 24 characters. On the left of this page of information are the 99 tracks running from top to bottom, these can be scrolled up and down to access the desired track number. The right hand side of the screen contains the main panel which houses all of the major functions, this remains on screen irrespective of which mode you subsequently select.
In the review version v.1.09 there is an extra button marked unlock. This unlocks the grid and event page displays. It effectively allows separation of data from the time position in indicators and allows freedom to scroll through grid and event pages and edit while playing. The panel contains tape recorder style transport controls along with indicators for real time clock, current song position, label and Cue boxes for track, block, song name and zones. Tempo and time signatures are also shown within the panel, as is an icon depicting 4 direction scroll arrows which allows transportation of the pseudo tape.
As with most sequencers, starting up for the first time involves making some decisions such as the assignment of MIDI input and output channels as well as voice selection. This is accomplished by using a set-up page, where the various permutations are given. When you've got them all sorted out the disk page can be selected and the defaults saved for the next time you boot up.
To record, you first have to select a track and an instrument by clicking on the track field. Once both are selected simply press the record button within the main control panel and away you go.
Pressing the stop button twice will auto re-wind the recording back to the beginning. If adventure is what you crave for then select another track and instrument and record again (preferably in time and tune with the first track). The manual contains a tutorial which leads you through recording of multiple tracks and makes it all quite easy to understand.
Having completed recordings on say four tracks each of ten bars duration you now have the your first block of music data which should be named to prevent confusion later on when you have masses of em. If you now go on to create a further 10 bars (11 to 21) this would be your second block and so on. Once you have completed all of the necessary blocks (with names) these can then be assembled into the correct order using the arrange page, (more of which later).
A zone is used for processing recorded events and is used to create marked sections within blocks. Once a track is marked, there is the ability to drop into the selected zone for over dubbing etc.
Cue labels can be created within the Cue list and inserted into a block for use when organising your masterpiece. On version 1.07 onwards the zone page now includes a MIDI de-merge function which allows data to be re-routed from the source track to other tracks.
Selecting the disk page gives a menu of six different choices, viz, Track, Block, Arrange, Set-up, Environment and MIDI file.
All are self-explanatory with the exception of Environment which if selected saves all data in memory including set-ups to one file with a .ENV file extension. This is a new facility is not covered in the current manual.
Three different methods of editing are available within Virtuoso. There's the Grid page, the Event List page and the Zone page.
The main Grid editing is somewhat different from most sequencers in that it utilises a vertical scrolling technique which, for those old enough to remember, looks like a pianola roll. Recorded notes are laid out on a scrolling grid as white bars, the intervals of the grid corresponding to the quantise and time signature values selected.
The notes appear at the bottom of the screen and scroll upwards. A removable keyboard is located across the top of the grid to indicate pitch. The keyboard may be moved both horizontally and vertically by dragging it to the desired position with the mouse. Initially the keyboard shows a range of 5 octaves, but with the aid of the Full button this can be increased to 10.5 octaves which equates to the full MIDI range. A play-line is located directly beneath the keyboards front edge and this corresponds to the current marker time. When notes reach the play-line they are sent via MIDI and the corresponding notes on the keyboard icon are highlighted by either a black or white dot for the appropriate time duration. To indicate where you are, a timing ruler is situated to the left of the grid. Movement within the grid page is achieved using the direction icon within the main panel situated to the right.
The most impressive aspect of this page is the smooth scrolling. A good deal less jerky than any other sequencer I've come across. Grid can be locked or unlocked to the playing music for full, real time on screen editing.
Editing notes on the grid is performed by selecting the type of edit option that you require, by clicking on one of the six edit function buttons located below the screen on the right. Notes are selected by clicking on them with the mouse, once selected the note's parameters are displayed in a box under the grid on the left. It is also possible to edit parameters within this box. Notes can be picked up and dragged to a new position, additional notes added, deleted, velocity settings altered in conjunction with the edit function buttons. An extra Gate button was added in v.1.08 which when selected allows the current gate time to be applied to any note selected with the mouse.
Step time input is achieved using the note length box under the grid. It is possible to select any of the common time intervals as well as being able to shave and increase note lengths as required. Rests can be inserted with the small up/down arrows below the grid. A gate box can be used for selecting what percentage of a notes chosen value will sound, again this is totally editable.
Whatever quantise value you are using there is provision to magnify the grid in three steps x2, x4 and max. At maximum magnification a single pixel on the screen represents one clock resolution, but the off mode is automatically selected while play-back is in operation. However full magnification is achievable during playback.
The all important restore button is placed on the left below the grid and will undo edits and other wrong button pushes, returning your original notes in tact. A point not mentioned in the manual is that it is also possible to undo a restore by pressing restore again!
Virtuoso's Zone page provides a wealth of bulk editing functions. What sets it apart from the rest is its ability to several things at once. Editing can be performed on multiple Zones and tracks. So, you can select tracks 1, 3 and 5 for editing but only on verses 2 and 3. Having defined the areas of the song, conditions can be set. You may, for instance want to make changes to notes that are too quiet (scaling velocity) whilst keeping the higher notes the same.
Once that process is mastered you can happily alter velocities, pitch, durations and start times all at once.
Quantising can be performed in either one of two ways when in grid edit mode. Either by use of the left mouse button which opens up a quantise box and allows you to experiment with all of the many different permutations which it has to offer. Conversely clicking with the right button will initiate the current quantise value within the current zone (if marked).
Once I got used to the abundance of features offered within grid edit page, it proved to be relatively easy to use, and has editing facilities which are too numerous to mention here, but, I believe it will cater for most users.
I found this page bliss compared to other sequencers I have used. The event page actually scrolls in real time and shows all of the MIDI events laid out with event time, event type, channel, note velocity and length. You simply have to locate where you want to change, add or delete an event and make your modification, after all the restore button can get you out of trouble if it all goes badly wrong. For the adventurous Hex can be used if so desired!
The Library page contains a list of all of the current blocks in memory. The page allows new blocks to be created, copied or deleted.
The arrange page allows you to drag blocks of music from the library column situated on the right, to one of the eight streams indicated near the top of the page.
Three main columns underneath indicate the start, end/tempo and block name. When all of the blocks of music have been arranged as required, pressing the arrange button on the main control panel will let you hear the result. Blocks can be placed in any, or all of the streams. All eight can play in parallel and may be viewed simultaneously by pressing the all button when not actually playing.
There is useful text page facility which acts as an on line note pad.
Although not yet implemented, there is provision for a Jukebox facility which will allow chaining of programmes together.
When writing my previous article Clash of the Titans (MM Oct/Nov89) where I compared Virtuoso and Cubase, I started out with v.1.04 of Virtuoso. During this article's gestation period The Digital Muse have kindly updated the software to version 1.06 and then, again to v.1.09 which, as I complete this review is still current. I suspect that there will be at least one more, as a glance at the Read Me file is rather like a Who's Who of bugs and modifications. It indicates that a considerable amount of effort has been going into improving the package.
I understand that we can look forward to additional modules being added in the future. These will run within the shell of Virtuoso and it is believed that among these will be an SMPTE interface and possibly a score writing/editing package. Who knows they may beat Steinberg's long awaited version 2 of Masterscore!
I found Virtuoso a very interesting package to use as there are so many different facets to it. The design team and programmers have obviously spent a lot of time and effort to produce this complex British package.
Priced at £299 it will probably put some people in a dilemma as there are alternatives in the same price range. I feel that a lower price would have been beneficial for the launch as the competition is quite strong. Whether it can lure people away from their current loyalty remains to be seen.
However, Virtuoso is written in 100% machine code. This means that it is a good deal faster than many such programs and has obviously been designed with the musician in mind. In short it has to be near the top of your must see list.
Format: Atari ST 520, Mono monitor
Supplier: The Digital Muse, (Contact Details)
Gear in this article:
Feature by Jim Spriggs