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What A Performer!

Performer 3.5

Following hot on the heels of their MIDI Time Piece, Mark of the Unicorn release a major upgrade to Performer, the world's first 'professional' computer MIDI sequencer. Kendall Wrightson looks at what's new in an old favourite.


Figure 1. Performer 3.5's new Tracks Overview, Consolidated Control Panel and Notation Editing


In most hi-tech industries, contemporary design and manufacturing techniques allow new products to be swiftly copied, refined and repackaged, with the result that competitors tend to offer pretty much the same thing, although each manufacturer may take its turn as the temporary market leader/innovator. With software, the whole process is accelerated enormously due to the speed with which source code can be written. Whether it be in the accounts, desktop publishing or MIDI sequencing, it is not uncommon for the major software houses to update their applications three times a year.

A LITTLE HISTORY



In the Atari world, the battle for the professional MIDI sequencer crown is currently being fought between Steinberg's Cubase and C-Lab's Creator/Notator. In the Mac world, a similar battle is being waged between Opcode's Vision and Mark of the Unicorn's Performer. Performer, being the world's first 'professional' computer based MIDI sequencer, held pole position for most of the 80s thanks to a regular series of updates, and Version 2.0 became recognised as the Mac sequencing standard.

In 1987 Passport produced a mid-priced sequencer called Master Tracks Pro (now known as Pro 4) which used the Mac's Graphical User Interface (GUI) to great effect. MOTU were clearly impressed, because when Performer 3.0 appeared soon afterwards, it incorporated Master Tracks-like graphical note and controller editing facilities. Performer 3.2 borrowed from the pro-standard Atari packages, adding the ability to define and independently save part of a sequence as a Chunk, plus event chasing and raw MIDI data editing.

Version 3.3 emerged only three months later, now offering the facility to define and create animated sliders and assign them to MIDI controllers (the equivalent of Creator/Notator's MIDI Manager page).

MIDI TIME PIECE



It is generally accepted that Opcode stole MOTU's crown in the Mac sequencer battle with the launch of Vision in 1989. Since then, MOTU have been fighting to regain their former position, their most recent weapon in the battle being a sophisticated bit of hardware called the MIDI Time Piece (reviewed in Sound On Sound September 1990). This is a MIDI interface/synchroniser that allows the Mac's serial ports to run at their maximum speed rather than the usual 1 MHz.

Through a multiplexed networking technique that MOTU call 'cabilization', up to two MTPs can be connected to each Mac port. Each MIDI Time Piece has eight independent MIDI In and eight Outs, and can therefore handle 128 MIDI channels — a maximum of four MIDI Time Pieces will thus give you control of 512 MIDI channels via 32 independent Ins and 32 Outs.

For those who can afford it, the MIDI Time Piece gives Performer a big operational advantage, since 32 MIDI channels at 1 MHz simply isn't enough for professional use these days, particularly with the increased use of MIDI controllers in automated mixing. In addition to supporting the MIDI Time Piece, Performer 3.4 provided a notation editing window, making Performer the first Mac-based MIDI sequencer to provide such facilities. Steinberg's recently launched Mac version of Cubase has since become the second.

INTEGRATION



Having addressed themselves to Master Tracks, and to some extent the various Atari packages, Performer 3.5 is really MOTU's answer to Opcode's Vision. In fact, 3.5 is one of the most significant upgrades Performer has ever had — and remember that since Version 1.0, MOTU have added literally hundreds of features to the program. An unfortunate side-effect of all this updating was that by Version 3.4, there were so many windows that the screen became very cluttered, making it difficult to find one's way around — the apparently random screen location of some functions bore witness to 3.4's piecemeal heritage.

Another serious problem with multiple windows is that only one can be active at any time, making it necessary to click in a window before its controls can be used. Performer 3.5 changes all this by integrating the three most important windows — the Transport, Metronome and Counter windows — into the new Consolidated Control Panel (see Figure 1). The integration of these three windows into one has the useful side effect of making the Mac screen far less cluttered, leaving a lot more room for other windows. Nevertheless, the original separate windows are still available as an alternative to the Consolidated Control Panel, to cater for Performer's more conservative aficionados.

The familiar transport controls are supplemented by a Skip button, which steps from one Chunk to another. (The Skip control was actually introduced in Version 3.2 but was only available by accessing a Controls window mini-menu.) The Consolidated Control Panel also adds some new and useful icons that provide quick access to the most commonly used windows. Reading from left to right, under the tempo slider, these are: Chunks; Song; Slider; Markers; MIDI Configuration. Similarly, clicking on the new icons underneath the bar/SMPTE counters will call up the Tracks, Overview, Event, Graphic, Notation and Set Loop windows.

TRACKS OVERVIEW



Another notable feature of 3.5 is the addition of a Master Tracks-style Overview window, attached to the original Track List window. This is a much-needed addition, since prior to its appearance the only way to check whether any track contained MIDI data was to interrogate it by opening Note, Graphic or Notation windows track by track.

The Overview window divides a sequence (or part of it) into sections of equal length, and represents MIDI data on each track with black or grey boxes in those sections. You can zoom in and out to change the scale of the Track Overview — the period represented by each box can vary between 30 ticks and 16 bars, and it can be calibrated in bars, real time or SMPTE time (hours/minutes/seconds/frames). Figure 1 shows a calibration in bars with each box equal to one bar. You can see at a glance whether there is any data on any of the tracks, and also where the data is located within the song. The significance of the box colour (grey or black) is that it shows how much data that section of a track holds, the default threshold being 10 MIDI events. Black indicates 10 or more MIDI events, grey indicates less than 10.

As with Master Tracks, double clicking on a box immediately opens that track's editing window at the exact point that the cursor was clicked. With Performer, a normal double click produces the Note Edit window, Command/double click opens the Graphic Editing window, and Option/double click opens the Notation Editing window.

The Tracks window differs from previous versions of Performer in providing a new Patch field which, when clicked, transmits the patch number it contains. A patch name and a SysEx event can also be entered (and transmitted) through 3.5's new Patch List facility (see below). A by-product of the new Overview window is that any combination of track/bar boxes can be highlighted for editing. You can also save a highlighted section as a Chunk, and the Chunk can then be used in the Song window in the usual way to create alternative Song arrangements.

Defining Chunks in previous versions of Performer was always a rather lengthy process, as was the creation of MIDI sliders for volume or modulation control of a particular track (or group of tracks). On 3.5 a new Create Sliders window simplifies and speeds up the whole procedure and, as in 3.4, user-defined slider configurations can be saved so that they can be imported into other sequences.

The MIDI configuration window — which allows MIDI channels (or 'cables' when using the MIDI Time Piece) to be defined as named devices, or groups of devices called instruments — has been expanded in 3.5 to include a new Patch List window. Not only can a device be defined as 'MIDI channel 5, printer port', but now its patches can also be defined, and these are then available for reference in the Tracks Overview window. MOTU even go so far as to provide factory default patch lists for several popular instruments.

The Patch List window can also be used to define and transmit system exclusive messages, which could a bulk dump for one voice, or an entire global set up.

RECORD BEATS



For a sequencer's editing facilities to mean anything musically useful, a sequence must be recorded with reference to a metronome of some kind. The problem is that if you want to do anything other than keep a steady tempo, you have to programme the metronome to take account of any tempo changes, which limits your room for improvisation. As a solution to this problem, Coda's Finale transcription software introduced the ability to define beats and bar lines after a sequence is recorded, thereby freeing the musician from the tyrant metronome.

Performer 3.5 offers a similar facility, called Record Beats, in which the user taps in beats after a performance, realigning the bar lines (and creating a tempo map), while retaining any rubato and feel in the original performance. Record Beats can also be used when slaved to external sync, as can Tap Tempo (a new facility which 'captures' the SMPTE time every time a key is pressed).

MTC



MOTU have tended to be slow to adopt universal standards — Performer was the last Mac sequencer to support the MIDI File standard, and it seemed that MOTU were determined not to embrace MIDI Time Code (MTC) either, sticking instead to their own Direct Time Lock. MTC support was never a high priority Stateside, since DTL is well catered for by third party synchronisers, but this is not the case in the UK. None of the popular UK synchronisers support DTL, with the notable exception of RTL's excellent Event (which is sadly no longer in production), making MTC support an even more vital requirement. Fortunately, Version 3.5 finally pulls MOTU into line.

In retrospect, MTC support seemed even more unlikely when the MIDI Time Piece arrived, since the unit incorporated DTLe, an enhanced version of DTL which offers faster lock-up and higher data integrity. However, the adoption of MTC and the quick provision of support for Apple's MIDI Manager (see box), clearly demonstrates that MOTU is moving away from its previous isolationist stance. DTLe is faster at locking up than MTC (as any MIDI Time Piece owner will tell you), but for better or worse, MTC is the recognised standard.

A SMARTER TRANSPOSITION



Performer's Transpose dialogue box has undergone a radical face-lift in 3.5. Having checked out the Atari packages, MOTU have adopted facilities to transpose diatonically (to create harmonics) as well as by interval, plus a new key change option which caters for both root and modal changes. New custom key/scale maps can be created and saved along with transpose maps which cater for drum machine mapping by allowing the pitch of each note to be mapped to any other.

Finally, Performer 3.5 provides support for a new MOTU black box called the Video Time Piece. Designed for film and TV applications, the VTP can 'burn in' time code on video, generate streamers (on-screen markers that indicate the beginning of a cue) and read, convert and generate VITC (Vertical Interval Time Code). The VTP is a fraction of the cost of comparable devices and, along with the Tap Tempo feature, indicates that MOTU see great potential in developing Performer's film and TV applications.

Future upgrades might offer the facility to read Edit Decision Lists (EDLs) or calculate the necessary tempi to achieve the maximum number of 'hits' in a scene, facilities which are currently the preserve of programs like Opcode's Cue.

CONCLUSION



As far as facilities are concerned, 3.5 now compares very favourably with all its competitors in both the Mac and Atari worlds. The only really serious omissions are instant loop recording and 'live' editing — ie. editing while a sequence is running. It might also benefit from a drum edit page (similar to Upbeat/Page R) as found on several Atari packages, although as with loop recording, live editing is essential to get the best out of such a facility.

Increasingly, the art of MIDI sequencer design lies not only in the provision of sophisticated manipulative facilities, but also in the ability to offer them within a fast, intuitive and friendly interface, and this is an area in which MOTU's efforts will clearly benefit the user. The integration of several windows and the addition of on-line help demonstrates MOTU's commitment here.

Taking a broader view, MOTU are working hard to stay at the cutting edge. This has been a busy year, with the company announcing or releasing products which open up new and exciting areas to the Performer user. In addition to Performer 3.5 and the VTP, they recently released a 3 x 15 Video Distribution Amplifier, and announced the forthcoming release of Digital Performer, a hard disk digital recording version of Performer which will support Digidesign's new Sound Accelerator card, "plus several other systems". Your move, Opcode.

FURTHER INFORMATION

£395 Inc VAT.

MCMXCIX. (Contact Details).

PERFORMER 3.5 ENHANCEMENTS

  • New overview window added to tracks window
  • New consolidated controls window
  • Support for MIDI Manager
  • Support for MIDI Time Code
  • Create Chunk command
  • Create Slider Console command
  • Smart Transpose
  • MIDI configuration & Patch List windows
  • Record Beats command
  • Tap Tempo while slaved to tape
  • Support for Video Time Piece
  • On-line help


HARDWARE REQUIREMENTS

Performer 3.5 is a big program and, like many other professional Mac programs, it requires a minimum of two megabytes of RAM. It will still run on a Mac Plus or SE (with enough memory), but the screen drawing is painfully slow on these machines. The processing overheads caused by INITs like Adobe's Type Manager and Apple's MIDI Manager mean that the poor old 68000 based machines are always several steps behind the user.

What Performer really needs is a 68030-based machine. Fortunately, such a Mac will no longer set you back the £3,000 or more that it once would. The $3000 Mac si unveiled to developers at the August Mac World fair in Boston finally brings professional level Macintosh computing down to a realistic price range. The machine is a 68030-based 8-bit colour modular Mac with a single NuBus slot. On all Macs apart from the ci, one NuBus slot is permanently occupied by a video card. However, like the ci, the si has all the necessary video hardware on the mother board, which means that the NuBus slot is free for a digital audio card such as Digidesign's Sound Accelerator.


MIDI PATCHBAY

Figure 2. The five files that comprise Apple's MIDI Manager


The MIDI Manager software consists of five files (see Figure 2). Two of them, the MIDI Manager INIT file and a document called the Apple MIDI Driver, need to be dragged into the System Folder. The MIDI PatchBay is provided in both application and desk accessory formats, and it includes a small Help file which contains information on the MIDI Manager in general.

Figure 3. The MIDI Manager PatchBay window.


On running the MIDI PatchBay application or selecting it as a DA, the dialogue box shown in Figure 3 appears. The small modem, printer and MIDI socket icons are in fact one large icon which represent the Macintosh Apple MIDI Driver, which controls access to the outside world via the Mac's Modem and Printer ports. Each MIDI Manager-compatible application has its own unique driver which, like the Apple MIDI Driver, can be positioned on either side of the PatchBay window. Double clicking on an application's PatchBay icon selects a driver control panel which is unique for each application. The Apple MIDI Driver control panel (Figure 4) is used to control the Mac's MIDI Interface.

Figure 4. Apple MIDI Driver Settings dialogue box.


Like the Mac itself, each MIDI Manager-compatible application contains a number of ports to allow MIDI data to flow in or out of the application. This means that as well as connecting an application to the Mac's MIDI interface ports, it's also possible to connect an application to another application so that the two can run simultaneously and share data in Multifinder — as if they were running on two Macs each with their own individual MIDI interface. There are three types of port for this kind of connection: Input; Output; Clock. A Clock-to-Clock connection synchronises the second application to the first. You make the connections between ports in the PatchBay window by clicking on the source port and dragging a 'wire' to the destination port.

The PatchBay includes menu items which allow connection settings to be saved as Patch Configuration Files. When a Patch Configuration File is loaded, all the connections that were saved are remade, and any application that was used in the configuration is automatically loaded into MultiFinder.

Connections can be broken by clicking on a wire and selecting Break from the Edit menu or by pressing the delete key. Alternatively, you can just click near a wire, which turns the cursor into a knife which can then be used to cut it.

Being a Multifinder application, MIDI Manager's PatchBay requires a minimum of two megabytes. It also makes heavy demands on the Mac's processor, so a fast Mac is essential. However, both these criteria are true of Performer 3.5, and the new Mac si should make everything much easier.


MIDI MANAGER

A significant addition to Performer 3.5 is support for Apple's MIDI Manager. Essentially, MIDI Manager provides a way for several MIDI programs running in Multifinder — or the upcoming System 7.0 which integrates the Multifinder environment completely — to communicate and work together. MIDI Manager is also the communication method used by Digidesign's new MacProteus NuBus board and Passport's Sound Exciter, making any MIDI Manager-compatible sequencer capable of playing samples or ROM-based sounds without recourse to an external device. Opcode's Galaxy universal patch librarian is also MIDI Manager-compatible, and by the time you read this most everything else will be too.


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

Tascam MTS1000 MIDIizer

Next article in this issue

Light Fantastic


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Oct 1990

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Previous article in this issue:

> Tascam MTS1000 MIDIizer

Next article in this issue:

> Light Fantastic


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