Software For the Atari ST
High scoring on the ST
Helping you to put the music back into MIDI, this new sequencer from Desert Software should settle a few scores...
We seem to have got to the stage in reviews of ST sequencers, where opening remarks about the sheer number of currently available packages have become almost as tiresome as much of the software itself. So it may seem rather 'optimistic' for any company to decide to launch another. Unless, of course, it has something genuinely new and innovative to offer. Enter Vivace...
Pronounced 'Viv-atchy' from the Italian, rather than 'Vivace' from the, er... Anyway, it comes from Desert Software, it has been written 'by musicians for musicians' and it attempts to recreate, on screen, the process which a musician goes through when creating a score on manuscript paper.
But although music based rather than MIDI based, Vivace does have certain 'conventional' sequencer attributes. It has 32 tracks (staves, actually) which are used for the score - the notes, dynamics, key signature, and so on. A further 49 tracks are used for other types of data: there are two sets of tracks for each MIDI channel which look after controller information and pitchbend, 16 tracks to handle volume information and one track to take care of the tempo.
The main screen opens to show four staves marked off with bar lines. You can display up to five of these at once and reorder them so you can compare and edit noncontiguous staves. The program's operation tends to rely more on the ST's keyboard than the mouse, which, being a GUI type person, didn't altogether suit me, although I do admit that keyboard control is faster - once you know which keys do what.
A Status Bar at the top of the score window gives you lots of information about the music being entered (see 'Entering Data'). It is also used during editing. While entering notes it displays the stave and bar number (bar numbers also appear above the bars), the clocks per beat, the number of clocks from the start of the bar to the current cursor position, the type of event (note, rest, dynamic and so on), the default MIDI channel, and the pitch, duration, gate and velocity of the note to be entered.
The clocks per beat are calculated on a 24 clocks per quarter note basis which would seem to be the resolution of the program - no other resolution figure is mentioned. Diehard sequencer users and MIDI buffs may argue this should be higher (and perhaps it should) - it gives a resolution of one clock to a 1/64th note. But remember, we're working with music 'as she is written', not necessarily as it is played. And in practice - given the ethos of the program - it works well.
The gate time (for those not weaned on analogue synthesis) is the 'on' time or the period a note actually sounds for within its duration. A quarter note, for example, would have a duration of 24 clocks. A normal gate setting gives it an on time of 18 clocks, a legato setting 23 clocks and a staccato setting 12 clocks. You may alter the default gate time of these three articulations, selecting the settings from the Notes menu or from the keyboard. If the gate time goes into staccato territory, a dot appears above the note which is just one of the ways in which the score reflects the music data.
When a note is entered, it has a null velocity. You can apply dynamic markings ranging from ppp to fff (press D and adjust with + and - keys) to any note. Following notes will still have a null velocity setting, but will play at the velocity of the most recent dynamic. This means you can insert and adjust velocities throughout a piece of music without having to individually alter each note. The default velocity values of each of the dynamic markings can be set, too.
Similarly, crescendo and decrescendo 'hairpins' can be entered on the score and start and end velocities stipulated which will be assigned to the notes.
Editing is fairly comprehensive, but can take a little getting used to. You can delete the last note entered by pressing the backspace key, and cut, copy and paste notes by dragging a box around them and selecting the required function from the menu (keyboard shortcuts available, too, of course).
You can insert a note by pressing the Insert key - of course - but pressing it twice takes you to Super Edit mode.
Here you can step about the score and edit the parameters of individual notes (using the ST's keyboard, not the mouse). The Status Bar highlights the note parameters - MIDI Channel, Pitch, Duration, Gate and Velocity - and you can change them with the up and down cursor keys.
Block edits can be carried out on groups of notes by dragging a box around them. Grouped notes may be beamed and you can even beam across bar lines and beam irregular note groups - although all beams are straight; there are no slopes. It's possible to flip stems, tie notes (only of the same pitch, of course) and form notes into odd time groupings. These have to be entered as two figures - the number of notes in the group and number of notes they are to be played in the time of. For example, a triplet would be entered as 3/2 (although it is displayed as 3:2). Special keys are assigned to triplets, quintuplets and septuplets.
It is possible to enter nonsensical values such as beaming four notes and giving them a 7:5 grouping (well, it has no critical faculties) although you will be alerted to your folly by a horrendous scrunching up and evening out of notes at the end of the bar.
You can insert key changes and time signatures and also clefs - including a drum clef and a stave re-mapping function which lets you define the MIDI pitch that each actual pitch (on the stave) represents, although there is only one drum-notation note head.
Vivace can respace notes after a time change - in fact, it'll take care of note spacing automatically, which is superb. Not all scorewriters do this, yet to my mind it is one of the most basic and essential functions of a computer-based scorewriter. Why have a dog and bark yourself? - as they say.
There's a reasonable compliment of symbols - repeat bars, tempo marking, 8va octave signs, segno and coda signs - although not everything is covered. Trill and arpeggio aficionados, for example, will be disappointed.
The MIDI Graph editor is our old friend the grid or piano roll editor renamed for Vivace. It pops up below the stave and shows you one bar's worth of data at a time. You can drag notes around and alter their parameters in boxes on the left but, alas, the notes on the stave don't change until you quit the editor and you've an excellent chance of botching the display. In fact, if the quantise setting is really too severe for the score it is possible to inadvertently quantise a bar simply by entering and exiting the editor.
The Controller Graph editor - as you might imagine - lets you edit controller information such as aftertouch, modulation, pitchbend and so on. Of the two tracks allocated to each MIDI channel, the first can have up to 30 sets of controller information in it plus pitchbend. The second, however, can only store one type.
Data appears as vertical lines below the on-stave bars so you can see exactly which notes the data applies to. It's easily edited and you can draw the data into the editor with the mouse - ideal if your synth lacks a pitchbend or modulation wheel. You basically have to work on a bar at a time, but the way the data is displayed makes editing very precise.
As well as clicking and tapping notes into the score, you can record them from a MIDI keyboard in realtime (but not in step-time). Vivace can record a score on up to 16 instruments or from all 16 MIDI channels simultaneously.
Before doing so, it's necessary to call up the Transcribe Where? window in which you stipulate which MIDI channels should go to which staves. You do this by dragging from a set of numbered MIDI 'plugs' to one of the 32 displayed staves - cute. You can also split the transcription across two staves and define the split point.
From this window it's possible to copy a stave to another stave, append a stave to itself (not as painful as it sounds), change the order of the staves and clear a stave. During recording, you must select the MIDI channels which will be recorded (allowing you to filter out any which are not required). You can set a record quantise value, although this is in clicks and rather 'numeric' (a setting of six, for example, is 1/16th notes).
After recording, the music is transcribed and appears on the staves along with dynamic changes, staccato and legato signs. It's an excellent system, although if you've dabbled with sequencers you'll know that what you see on the stave is rarely what you think you played. Steadily, evenly and carefully is the way to do it and you'll probably find it easier to record in sections, checking each one as you go. Having said that, because Vivace is linear based, working this way means you will have a certain amount of copying to do afterwards to put a complete score together.
It's possible to filter out controller information during recording if you wish and you can also remap controllers, allowing you to control volume, for example, with a modulation wheel.
The Control screen which pops up above the play and record window contains a set of sliders used to control volume, pitchbend, modulation and tempo. You can record any changes you make into the score in real time and there's a velocity overdub function for changing velocities. Individual tracks may be muted and there are indicators to show incoming MIDI data.
I don't know about you, but I'm always fascinated by these mixer screens and I love to see the sliders move during playback (...still a kid at heart). Anyway, you can switch to play from within the Play and Record window using familiar tape transport controls, muting and soloing any of the tracks as you wish.
There are also playback options from the main stave window where you can select the range of notes which are to play and loop them. Internal or external clock synchronisation may be selected and this, of course, means that you can use Vivace with an external drum machine or sequencer.
The manual is well illustrated and includes a tutorial section. Although it could be better ordered, it is still reasonably easy to follow. That said, it endeavours to explain MIDI using hex, which for a program aimed at the musician rather than the computer buff seems a bit odd, especially as most sequencers shield the user from hex anyway. Vivace does, too, so why worry the user with it in the manual? Could do with an index, too.
The full title of the program is actually Vivace Module 1. Module 2 will be a printout option and will probably cost around £90, while Module 3, a MIDI file converter will be about £15-20. Both should be available by the time you read this. However, if you want to print out your score and/or handle MIDI files, it does mean a considerable additional outlay which pushes the overall cost of the program over that of most dedicated scorewriters (of which there are already around 10 on the ST) and dangerously close to that of sequencers with built-in scorewriting facilities. Plus, as it stands, the program doesn't support phrase marks and music symbols such as trills and fermatas (although these may be in Module 2).
As one who has waded through the vagaries of many sequencer and music programs, I would have also preferred operation to have been more mouse-based than keyboard-based, with more numeric adjustments and edits possible using the rodent. After all, that's one of the reasons you use an ST and not a PC. However, as with all things, a little use breeds familiarity and the mouse is employed quite effectively in certain areas.
Even so, occasionally you get the feeling that some areas of implementation could be a bit more consistent. A small example: the drum map box is controlled entirely from the keyboard and you have to exit by pressing Return. By contrast, most other parameter edit boxes have an OK box you can click on. Similarly, when alterations are made to the screen, it redraws completely rather than just updating the area under change. It's nit-picking perhaps, but all these things contribute to the 'feel' of the program.
Where Vivace really scores (no pun intended) is in taking a musical approach to sequencing as opposed to the usual MIDI-based, numeric one. As such, it breathes a refreshing breath of air into the sequencer market without completely forsaking at least some of the MIDI conventions many hi-tech musicians are used to.
Particularly impressive is the way it allows you to create a score from scratch, directly onto the screen, complete with many of the musical nuances you find on printed music - plus a few you don't.
If you are first and foremost a musician who likes to work with the dots and who has studiously avoided sequencers because of their (real or imaginary) numeric and computerate bias, this could well be the sequencer for you. You can try before you buy by investing £3 in a demo disc.
Price: Vivace £199 inc. VAT and £2.50 p&p
More from: Desert Software (Contact Details)
Gear in this article:
Review by Ian Waugh
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue: