Voyetra Technologies Sequencer Plus III
Software for the IBM PC
Turning his back on the Atari ST, Ian Waugh boots up a comprehensive sequencing package for the IBM PC (and compatibles). If you thought the Atari ST and Macintosh had it all their own way, read again.
If you're beginning to think the only computer worth making music on these days is the Atari ST, Voyetra's sophisticated IBM PC sequencing software will make you think again.
IF YOU WANT a computer purely for making music then you could be congratulated for going out and buying an Atari ST. But there are other computers you could consider - like the IBM PC.
PCs are currently very much in vogue in America and on the continent, and many UK studios are installing them for overseas clients. And, of course, with the launch of Amstrad's low-cost PC-compatible range, the PC "standard" has become a more financially attractive proposition.
All I'm saying is, as a music computer the PC is now a viable alternative to the ST - and the Mac. Whereas once upon a time, the PC may have been poorly supported with MIDI-ware, that's now no longer the case. There's a lot of American PC music software over there and a lot of it is beginning to find its way into the UK. One such program just happens to be Voyetra's Sequencer Plus.
You've got a PC; the next thing you need is a MIDI interface. You can use either the Voyetra OP4001 or the Roland MPU401 (versions later than 1.5). The MPU401 is virtually an industry standard but the Sequencer Plus manual obviously recommends the OP4001. It's worth pointing out the differences between the units - the MPU boasts two MIDI Outs over the OP's one and also uses the Roland sync 24 standard. The OP, meanwhile, will convert FSK sync code to clock pulses and vice versa. The OP will also sync to a 5V clock but doesn't have a built-in speaker for its metronome - the MPU, of course, does. Take your pick...
If you're on a tight budget, then there's a cheaper alternative in Voyetra's OP4000 which has no sync features and only MIDI In and Out sockets. The thinking behind this is that you're duplicating sync features if you already own a sync box, so why pay for them twice? Brownie points for consideration.
The OP4001 was supplied with the review unit so that is what I used. It takes a little more fitting than the MPU401 but nothing a boy scout couldn't handle.
The OP4001 package contains a demo program disk of the Sequencer Plus MkIII (let's call it the MkIII) which you can use to test the interface. It has limited memory capacity (1000 notes) and no loading or saving facilities but you're free to copy it and give it to friends. How's that for free advertising?
IS THERE AN unwritten law which says all IBM PC software must be accompanied by thick manuals? The MkIII's manual is big. It's divided into sections numbered 1-1, 1-2, right up to 7-56. I didn't count the pages but I measured them (MT investigates where other magazines fear to tread) - they're a full 3.5cm thick.
Fortunately, if that's the word, the manual was written by Freff, he of Micro File (BBC TV) fame. There might be a lot of it, but it's fairly easy reading sprinkled with humour and there's an extensive index in the back. The sections are marked by protruding plastic tabs, so all in all it's quite easy to find your way around. In fact it's probably the most comprehensive MIDI software sequencer manual I've ever seen.
I mention this because it'll take you a good few days to work your way through it and you wouldn't like a dull read, would you?
The body of the manual is arranged in four main sections and it's a good idea to work through them in the order presented, mainly so you don't miss anything, but you can dip, of course. Begin with the Start-up Tutorial which teaches you how to do the basics, move on to the Power Tutorial which introduces features such as editing. Then there's the Reference section which gives an in-depth explanation of the main menu screens and finally the Master Class section which is where you kick your shoes off, sit on the edge of your seat and go "Wow-ee".
In spite of the plethora of features, the program is a doddle to use. You boot up, press R for Record followed by Space and off you go. Press Space to stop recording and Space once again to playback. Simple.
There are two ways of selecting options in MkIII. You can press the first letter of the command or move the cursor onto it. Likewise parameters can be changed by typing in new values or incremented and decremented with the +/- keys. Sometimes you'll use one option, sometimes another. It's nice to have the choice.
Let's dig a little deeper. The MkIII is a 64-track linear sequencer. You use it like an enormous tape recorder, in other words. It's command driven from a number of menus by simple keystrokes.
At the bottom of each screen is a list of the functions available from the current menu. Most options can be selected with a single keystroke and you can call up a one-line aide de memoire to remind you what the function does.
In addition, there is an enormous 90K's worth of help screens on the system disk, which you can call up by pressing a function key. They give you even more information about the current menu, and once you are familiar with the operation of the sequencer you'll find the help screens a ready substitute for the manual. And if you think you'll soon get to the point where you no longer need on-screen prompts, you can dispense with them altogether leaving more room to display music information.
So why does the program need a thick manual (there, I've said it again) and lots of help screens? Because it's packed with features, that's why. I must confess that in the time I've had this software for review, I haven't come close to trying them all. Just to give you a flavour, here's a whistle-stop tour of the system.
We'll take all the usual Record, Playback, Auto Punch-in, Solo, Mute, Track Offset, Transpose, Loop, Track Delete, Copy Tracks, MIDI Channel and Program Set functions for granted. You get a mammoth 20 characters with which to name a track, and boy is that useful.
Quantisation only takes place on playback so you never lose your original recordings, and values range from quarter-notes up to 64th-note triplets. You can quantise on the fly so you can put a track on loop and tweak it until it "feels" right. You can transpose on the fly, too.
SEQUENCER PLUS LETS you see what you've recorded - it hasn't got any scorewriting facilities but rather it uses a grid to display your music, a format quite popular now on many sequencers. The grid concept is simple. Notes are displayed as a series of bars: the longer the bar, the longer the note and the higher the bar, the higher the pitch.
There are four grid display screens. The View screen shows all the tracks in blocks of bars so you can see how the tracks and bars lie in relation to each other. The Edit screen displays the notes in a track in terms of their length and pitch. The Note Edit screen gives you detailed note-by-note information and the MIDI screen naturally enough shows MIDI data.
These four screens are at the heart of the program's editing facilities. In the View screen you can Copy, Delete, Move, Insert and Add bars. The program has six buffers and gives cut-and-paste a new meaning.
The Edit screen is the middle ground between the View and Notes screens. Here you can edit both tracks and notes (although not in so much detail as in Note Edit). There are quick move functions to take you to the next and previous notes and measures and to the start and end of the track. You can choose to have the note names or the MIDI pitch numbers shown down the left-hand side of the screen to check the note pitches against. Numbers are useful for programming drum patterns as each drum sound on a drum machine will correspond to a MIDI note number. A screen usually shows a bar's worth of information.
Within these four edit screens you can do anything to the notes - alter their pitch, length, start position; delete them, insert them, change their on velocity, their off velocity - anything. Power, that's what it gives you.
You can enter music in step-time using the grid, and certain keys have preset note values to help speed up note entry.
The MIDI screen uses the same grid-like display to show MIDI data. Here you can alter MIDI events such as pitch-bends, aftertouch and program changes.
There are powerful block editing commands and the manual warns you strongly to make backup copies before experimenting with these. Of course we always make backup copies of our work regularly, don't we?
ONE OF THE program's more intriguing features is the Transform menu. This can take a piece of music and reverse it, invert it, split it and change its harmonic structure. In fact there are 22 track-transforming commands covering the areas of time values, pitch, velocity data and structure. Quantisation actually comes under the Xforms menu.
I won't attempt to pass musical judgement over any of the transformations but I will say they are fun with a capital F. You can find Transpose here - straightforward enough - and also Harmonic Transpose which will retain the same key signature. Inversion is here, too, along with Harmonic Inversion. There's a Key Signature option which is necessary to inform the program what key the music is in so it can make intelligent transposing decisions. This can be used to transpose music into modes such as Dorian, Phrygian and Lydian, and so on.
It's all fascinating stuff and although other sequencers have similar features, I think MkIII has more variations on the theme than the rest. In your search for a new musical idea you never know what a transform may throw at you.
There are other more conventional track edit options such as Merge, Bounce and Split Tracks. You can offset them, delay them and produce echoes.
You can change time signatures at any measure within a track and if you think that's hairy, fear not, for a Check Bar Sync feature will check that the time signatures do in fact match up across all the tracks. The ability to use different time signatures, however, opens up the possibilities for polytonal rhythms with one track playing against another.
There is actually a 65th track which can be used as a Master Tempo Track. In it you can program any number of tempo changes you wish. The restriction is that each tempo change can only occur at the beginning of a bar - but then you can create measures as small as 1/16 so that's unlikely to be too much of a problem.
If you only want to hear a part of a song, say listen to the same passage over and over again, you can use the Play Range feature to set the starting bar number.
Another option in the program is the Librarian, which is a stripped-down version of Voyetra's Patch Master. The Librarian feature lets you assign and set up parameters for 32 different instruments. These can be transmitted to the connected instruments at the press of a key and the parameters are saved to disk with the Song files. If you have a couple or more MIDI instruments, it's probably worth considering getting hold of Patch Master, too, as you need it to actually upload and store the voices to disk.
File handling is comprehensive. You can save a complete Song or individual tracks - this can be very useful indeed. The program cannot format disks, though - so it pays to keep a few handy - although it can delete and rename files, and it will tell you how much free space is on a disk.
Well, that's just the tip of the iceberg. As an example of the program's depth and the thoughtfulness with which it's been written, it even allows you to alter the screen colours and brightness of the display.
As a confirmed mouse-o-phile I was surprised at just how easy the program was to operate from the keyboard, thanks mainly to those help screens and single keystroke commands.
I know I've mentioned the manual before, but I'll mention it again. Appendix seven contains a handy guide to computers and DOS basics - very useful if you're a music bore rather than a computer bore. Here, too, you'll find some tips about MIDI timing problems, chokes and glitches.
There are also tips about using all 64 tracks (I've yet to hear of anyone who has), creating default track settings and just generally being a good girl (or boy) in the studio.
Interfacing is obviously very important, and a whole chapter is devoted to MIDI clock, Song Position Pointers, syncing to tape, drum machines and sequencers. The OP4001 manual (also written by Freff) is also full of tips.
A special version of MkIII is available to hard disk owners. The program takes up 250K of memory and uses whatever RAM is left over for storing sequences. 320K will give you approximately 6000 notes, 640K will give you around 60,000 notes.
I was a little disappointed to find there were no sample songs on the system disk - it's always nice to see what a company can do with their own equipment - and a demo file or two would have helped the newcomer work through the tutorial sections of the manual.
There's one helluva lot of work gone into the planning and design of Sequencer Plus. It has been around for over a year but the latest version has had some revision and consolidation work done on it. It's altogether very impressive.
IF SEQUENCER PLUS MkIII sounds like a good thing (and it is) but £368 seems a little high (which it does) then take a look at Voyetra's Sequencer Plus MkI and MkII. Yes, there's a whole family of Sequencer Plus programs. The thinking behind this is similar to that behind the two MIDI interfaces. The MkII and MkI are progressively more slimmed-down versions of the MkIII - you pay for what you want or can afford - but the essential features remain the same (there's a song in there somewhere).
The MkII has 32 tracks and the MkI has 16 tracks and they both lack some of MkIII's editing features. The MkI also lacks a good many sync facilities so if this is important to you, I'm afraid that's one to cross off your list straight away. The MkII has them, though, so that's certainly worth checking out.
Sequencer Plus MkIII is a very powerful and flexible sequencer. It's already made a name for itself in America and it could well do the same over here. As a last word, though, it is considerably more expensive than yer average MIDI sequencing program especially if you compare it with some of those available for the (yes, I'm afraid to say) Atari ST.
There are cheaper PC programs, too, and you really have to weigh up the features and balance them against the weight of your wallet. If you're already a PC owner then I'd say go and take a good hard look at it. After all, what's a few quid if you get a program that'll do all this?
Prices Sequencer Plus MkI £96; MkII, £227; MkIII, £368; OP4001, £227, OP4000, £198. All prices including VAT
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Review by Ian Waugh
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