Voyetra Sequencer Plus
Brian Heywood evaluates the latest update to Voyetra's powerful PC-based sequencing program.
It's been a couple of years since SOS last looked at this piece of professional MIDI software for the IBM PC family of computers. In the meantime there have been two major software upgrades and a constant stream of additional features, and since the new version has only just hit the streets perhaps it's time to take another look.
The latest version of Sequencer Plus incorporates some substantial enhancements to the previous version, mainly with respect to the MIDI interface. The original version required an MPU401-type, but the software now supports most of the current commercially available MIDI interfaces, plus several PC sound cards (see box) and of course Voyetra's new range of interfaces as well.
The philosophy behind the Sequencer Plus user interface is dictated by three factors: the IBM PC video hardware; the age of the package; a desire to make its operation as transparent as possible to experienced users.
To take the last point first: ideally, in any application the software should not create artificial barriers between the user and the task they wish to perform. Voyetra has achieved this by using single keystrokes to access the sequencer's functions. Also, the software must run on any type of PC, regardless of its display type, and finally, the original software was developed before the Mac style graphical interface became popular. The compatibility requirement is fulfilled by using the IBM's text mode, which gives the software a rather dated look.
Version 3 saw the the addition of mouse support, which allows you to access any feature of the software using pop-up menus, as well as navigating through the various screens. However, I must admit that I have stuck with the key interface as it is quicker for the experienced user.
The only other point that ought to be covered before we get down to the nitty gritty is Voyetra's pricing policy. They have obviously realised that there is quite a diverse market out there in the world of sequencing, from the person who simply has a synthesizer and some spare time to the high-powered producer or composer who makes a living from their art. The upshot of this is that there are three versions of Sequencer Plus. These give a range of facilities at a range of prices, from the solid, basic Sequencer Plus Junior, through the midrange Sequencer Plus which will suit most professional users, to the top of the range Sequencer Plus Gold for more demanding professional users. If a feature appears in Sequencer Plus, it will also appear in Sequencer Plus Gold, but not the other way round.
Sequencer Plus is a track-based or linear sequencer, working in a similar way to a multitrack tape machine. Each note or MIDI event in the sequence leads a separate existence and can be individually edited. This means that making global changes — moving every third hi-hat beat in every bar back three clicks — is more time consuming than on a pattern-based sequencer. The upside is that you can create more variance (or feel) throughout the track. Sequencer Plus helps by providing transform functions that allow you to selectively randomise (Sequencer Plus Gold) and quantise (Sequencer Plus) one or more tracks.
So what is a track in this context? A track contains the MIDI data for a single instrument (or channel) excluding any Sys Ex messages. You can also assign multiple tracks to one channel, perhaps in order to split up the verses from the chorus for clarity when editing, or to split the drum kit across several tracks so that each drum/cymbal can be manipulated separately; you can then use the velocity scaling to balance the kit.
You needn't be afraid of running out of tracks; you have a limit of 64, 500 or 2,000 tracks, depending on the version of the software. I can't really see any use for 2,000 tracks on any sequencer — even using a Yamaha C1 with eight independent MIDI outputs you can only control up to 128 separate instruments, which allows almost 16 tracks per instrument.
Sequencer Plus does not allow you to record Sys Ex data in tracks, thereby avoiding the timing problems that this can create. However, the Gold version does have a Network Organiser page which is essentially a patch librarian. This means that you can associate a set of patches with each synthesizer in your studio setup, allowing you to pre-load the voices appropriate to a particular song. You can then save the set-up with the sequence, thus keeping everything in one place.
Although the organiser solves most of the problems involved with handling Sys Ex messages, it means that you can't do certain things. For example the Sys Ex support in standard MIDI files can't be used when transferring sequences between Sequencer Plus and other sequencers. It also causes problems with some synth modules, such as the Yamaha FB01, that can only be effectively controlled using Sys Ex messages.
Control of Sequencer Plus operates at three levels, manifest as the three major screens (or pages): Main; View; Edit. There are also a number of pop-up control panels that allow you to alter such controls as sync source, default options and the screen colours (Sequencer Plus).
The Main Screen is the first you see after the Voyetra logo disappears when you activate Sequencer Plus. This, like the View and Edit screens, is divided into three areas. The top two lines of the screen contain status information about the sequencer and your location within the piece. The song title, tempo, clock source, run state and free memory are displayed, as well as the current track details, bar number and timecode display (Sequencer Plus). The bar number, tempo and timecode displays are updated as the sequence plays, so you can see where you are in the sequence.
The bottom two lines of the display show the currently active menu options. These options can be selected by simply typing the first letter of the option. The options can also be selected using the mouse; clicking both mouse buttons (or the centre button on a three button mouse) causes a menu to pop-up. The options can then be selected by highlighting the desired function and double clicking with the left mouse button.
The middle part of the screen is the work area, and displays one track per line. You can only see 16 tracks at a time on a simple display, or up to 43 tracks on an EGA or VGA monitor. This 'window' can be moved using the PC's [Pg Up] and [Pg Dn] keys, and an individual track parameter can be selected using either the arrow keys or the mouse.
Some options such as track Mute and Solo can be activated anywhere on the line by typing the option letter, whereas parameters like transpose and quantise need to have values entered, and so must be highlighted before you can change them. Values can be altered either by using the [+] and [-] keys, or by typing in a new value directly.
As well as defining the MIDI channel and output, each track has controls for transposition, quantisation, track looping, muting, soloing, time offset (Sequencer Plus), track pan and volume, plus room for a 20 letter track label. The screen looks a bit like a track sheet, and shows you the overall configuration of the sequence. The track controls have no permanent effect on the MIDI data recorded on the tracks — they only modify it as it is played back. All the features — bar the track offset and the actual MIDI channel number — can be switched whilst the sequencer is playing.
From the Main screen, selecting the 'V' option or double clicking the left mouse button gets you into the View screen. This overlays the main screen (to the left of program number column) with a graphic display of track contents. As on the Main screen, there is one track displayed per line. Each bar in a track is represented according to its contents — a block indicates a bar with MIDI data in it, a dash indicates that the track has been recorded but it is empty, and a dot means that the bar has not been recorded. This section can be expanded to fill the entire width of the screen, but you then lose the track names.
You can cut and paste, copy or remove bars in either a track or group of tracks (Sequencer Plus). This is where you sort out the structure of the song, using the track and block edit functions to repeat sections, add or remove bars.
The View screen is also where you can use the track transforms in Sequencer Plus and Sequencer Plus Gold. The track transforms allow you to manipulate the MIDI data over a range of tracks and bars; you can quantise, scale and generally manipulate the MIDI data as well as split or merge data between individual tracks. Sequencer Plus Gold also allows you to randomise various elements of the MIDI data to humanise a track/sequence.
You can record a MIDI performance in either the Main or the View screens. I find that the View screen gives the most flexibility, since you can record from any bar, whereas in the Main screen recording always starts from the first bar of the track. In Sequencer Plus and Sequencer Plus Gold the track MIDI channel can be set automatically to match the instrument you are recording.
In Sequencer Plus and Sequencer Plus Gold you can also record multiple MIDI channels across several tracks using the H_MULTI feature. This is good for recording the output from MIDI guitars and the like when you have each string assigned to a separate channel.
One of the more interesting new features in version 4 is the ability to record without a metronome (ie. in free time) and then align the bars and beats later. To do this you first record your free-time track, and then record a reference track - which simply contains the basic tempo of the song (ie. quarter notes), just as if you were tapping your foot to the rhythm. You can then use the Tap Tempo function on the Transform menu to align the bars to the first track, and the software inserts tempo changes.
Having recorded a performance you will probably want to edit it at the note level, and on the Edit screen you can alter any note or MIDI event (apart from Sys Ex messages). The Edit screen displays one bar of music in familiar 'piano roll'. No other display format — such as stave notation or event list — is available, however the piano roll notation is probably the most concise and easily understood format.
Using the cursor keys, mouse, or [Tab] key, you can select a note and then edit any note parameter. In a similar manner you can also edit controller data using the MIDI edit screen. One feature that is very useful if you are working with timecode (say for video) is that each note or MIDI event has its timecode displayed, allowing you to accurately associate a MIDI event with a hit point. Another interesting Edit feature that is new to version 4 is the addition of a step-time input mode.
Apart from the three major screens, there a number of other pop-up screens that allow you to control and configure the sequencer to your taste. The most important of these is the Files screen that lets you save your sequence in a variety of different file formats, including MIDI file formats 0 and 1. Another useful screen is the notepad page, which allows you to store up to a page of text with a sequence.
A few of these screens are a bit gimmicky, for instance the QWERTY Synth window that allows you to turn the PC into a very limited MIDI master keyboard. Some of the screens you would probably use very rarely, such as the large bar display and the DDL (Digital Delay Line) Calculator. Note that some of these screens will only work if your system has particular hardware attached, such as a timecode interface or a Sound Blaster card.
An article of this length cannot hope to give an in-depth insight into the features and foibles of a software package of the complexity of Sequencer Plus. What I have tried to do is give an inkling of Sequencer Plus's strengths and weaknesses.
In my opinion the Sequencer Plus family of software provides a powerful set of music construction tools that cover the whole gamut of MIDI music applications, from the Junior model for musicians who want a taste of computer music, to the Gold version for high powered professionals who want a package that can do everything. The ability to upgrade to a more powerful package without having to start from scratch or lose your previous work is a definite plus, as is the high level of support available from Voyetra through their dealer network.
So if you need a power sequencing tool for your PC, take a long, hard look at Sequencer Plus; it may be just what you're looking for.
Sequencer Plus Junior £55 inc VAT.
Sequencer Plus £165 inc VAT.
Sequencer Plus Gold £295 inc VAT.
Sequencer Plus Junior with V22 MIDI interface £139 inc VAT.
Sequencer Plus with V22 MIDI interface £229 inc VAT.
Computer Music Systems, (Contact Details).
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Review by Brian Heywood
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