Passport Music Shop
Ian Waugh examines Passport's new scorewriting program for the Commodore 64, and likes what he sees. If only he could write music...
The Music Shop for MIDI is Passport's latest step-time composing software package. It works on the Commodore 64, it costs less than you expect, and it's pretty good.
'There are two sides to every coin', my father would say with monotonous regularity when I was a lad. It was true, of course, but he obviously hadn't calculated the odds of it falling on its edge — or, if it was my coin, vanishing down a hole in the road. He also never considered the topological coin, which falls both sides down (or up, if you want to be optimistic), and which is probably the same thing as having your cake and eating it.
OK, so the above is hardly the last bastion of philosophical argument. But similar discussions are rife among MIDI software users at the moment. The only difference is that here the arguments rage over whether real-time note entry is better than step-time — and vice versa. Now, we looked at Passport's MIDI/4 Plus and MIDI/8 Plus real-time software packages in E&MM July, so it seems only right that we flip the coin over to look at the same company's step-time package, rather inelegantly titled The Music Shop for MIDI. So without further ado, let's open up the box and peer at the goodies.
It transpires that there are only two of these goodies: a software disk and an accompanying user manual. Of course, you need Passport's MIDI interface, too, which will put you the wrong side of £110. As we've mentioned in these pages before, several other manufacturers have adopted (or copied) Passport's interface, so you may be able to use one of these. Looming deadlines precluded practical tests of any of them, though, so try before you buy.
The program is designed around the Commodore 64 home computer, which must now be familiar ground to an awful lot of people. It supports Commodore's VIC1525 and MPS801 printers, as well as most other makes when used with one of those awfully clever interfaces which emulate Commodore graphics. There are actually two programs on the disk, and you must load the correct one for your printer. Once loaded, the program automatically plays through the demo files on the disk. These range from a decent 1812 Overture to the worst arrangement of 'Popeye' (the sailor man, toot, toot) I've ever heard.
Loading takes a couple of minutes, and a quick glance at the manual while the drive is whirling reveals what appear to be photocopied sheets, some a little faint, and written entirely in upper case. However, all 42 pages are well-written and a couple of reference pages at the back summarise all the commands. A professionally-produced manual would have been nice; after all, apart from the nebulous disk, this is all you see for your money.
Anyway, let's skip the demo and make some music.
The program has one main screen, which contains the staves on which you enter the music. Above the staves are three menu boxes — Tools, Title and Edit - and two status boxes. Menus and their options are selected by moving an arrow around the screen with a joystick (if you have one), the keyboard, or a combination of both. The joystick is initially the easier to use, but since many commands can be selected with a single key press (this bypasses the menus and selects options directly), key-pressing becomes the quickest and easiest option once a little familiarity has set in. Until then, point the arrow at a menu box, press the fire button and down pops the menu. Further movement of the joystick highlights each option, and pressing the fire button selects it.
The Tools menu contains the following options: Setup Screen, Get Notes, Setup MIDI, Verify Timing, MIDI On/Off and Single/Double Spacing. Setup Screen is what you use to select the type of stave you want to see displayed: Single Stave, Grand Stave (a double stave such as you might use for piano music) and Quartet (four staves). Music is entered in a series of Pages - a Page being as much as you can cram onto a single screen.
You can write up to 96 pages using a Quartet Stave, 48 pages in Grand Stave mode, and 32 with a Single Stave. The initial key signature is selected from Setup Screen, too, along with the foreground and background colours. 'Just imagine,' says the manual, '"Greensleeves" in green, or "The Yellow Rose of Texas" in Yellow...' Alright, so it isn't exactly mind-boggling, but it does help find the best contrast to suit your eyes and TV/monitor. In fact, I often find myself wishing all computer programs had adjustable colour. Brilliant white text on a black background smudges all over my set.
A time signature is selected from Get Notes. You won't find anything as exotic as 5/4 or 7/4, but seeing as bar lines are purely arbitrary anyway, this probably won't worry you if you're advanced enough to use exotic time signatures. Get Notes also contains the notes, rests and accidentals, double bar and repeat bar lines, 8va, triplets and first and second time bar indicators. Items are selected by pointing the arrow and pressing the fire button. It's not necessary to select this menu for each new note, as these can be selected from the computer keyboard using 1 for a whole note (semibreve), 2 for a half note (minim), and so on.
Notes and symbols can also be 'picked up' from the screen by positioning the arrow (or currently-held symbol) over them and pressing the fire button. As soon as a symbol has been selected, a 'shadow' version of it appears above the arrow head. There are two or three ways of doing most things, so you can pick the method which suits you best. And although it might sound unlikely, the choice actually simplifies matters rather than confusing them, and the excellent reference page at the back is an instant answer to any queries.
You can place notes on the stave with the joystick, or you can just select the required horizontal position and press the required note or notes on a MIDI keyboard. The arrow then moves automatically to the next position.
This is where the Spacing option comes in. Single spacing places each note as close to its neighbours as possible, while double spacing leaves a note's gap in between. You can enter only one note at a time manually, but this figure increases to eight if you're inputting from a synthesiser. Using a synth in single spacing mode, accidentals print on top of a previous note if the notes are close together, like C and C#. And the spacing takes no account of note values so, for example, four quavers occupy the same space as four semiquavers. This is important, because in order for the software to synchronise the piece correctly, notes that are to sound together have to be aligned vertically. If you want two lines of demisemiquavers (one above the other) to play together, you must keep an eye on the extra spaces between notes caused by accidentals - or plonk accidentals over the previous note, which makes for a very messy score.
Rests are obtained from the Get Notes menu or by pressing R. It would be nice if they automatically centred on the stave, but they don't. To erase a note or symbol, you place the shadow symbol over the error and press the fire button twice or the E key.
"At the Start - The demo pieces range from a decent 1812 Overture to the worst arrangement of "Popeye" I've ever heard."
Spaces can be inserted and deleted easily, but as soon as you insert a space, everything to the right of the space is shifted right. If you insert too many spaces, they push notes off the end of the stave, never to return - each stave is thus a little island unto itself. Notes don't automatically fall off the top stave and onto the bottom one, nor do they flow from one page to the next. Each new page must be purposely selected, as must movement from one stave to the next.
You'll find your piece of compositional genius builds up a screen or page at a time, and the page number is displayed in the top right status box. While you can insert spaces within a stave, you can't insert extra pages. That might sound like an important editing omission, but in practice it should only prove a nuisance if you're careless and accidentally miss out a whole chunk of music. Even then, chances are you'll find a means of editing your way around the problem.
Bar lines, if you want them, have to be inserted manually, and the accidentals rule (affecting a note only for the duration of the bar) is obeyed. The Verify Timing option checks to see if each bar has the correct number of beats in it. This can be a great help in some situations, but during testing, it took a dislike to some of my wilder musical extravagances, and reported errors where none existed - on screen, at least; who knows what was going on in the software?
The Edit Menu is used to handle large blocks of music, as opposed to little note-by-note melody sections. Its first option is Capture, which puts you in control of a rubber-band box that you use to surround your target. With the box in position, you can select Cut to remove what it contains from your score, or Copy if you want to copy it somewhere else. Clear erases the entire section and leaves an empty abyss in its place, while Cut moves up the remaining notes on the stave. Finally, Paste lets you stick a Captured section elsewhere in your score.
The Title menu offers the following; Load Score, Save Score, Enter Title, Format Disc, Delete File, Print Page, Print Score, Clear Score and Quit. The Load option lists the available files so you don't have to break out of the program to catalogue a disk. The Format option is an especially welcome facility, and one that should be included in all utility programs (journalist gets down off soapbox).
Print Page does what its name suggests it might, but it only prints your music, not the title you've given it. An MPS801 printer took about two minutes to print a page, which is OK. Print Score prints from the currently-selected page to the last page it finds notes in.
The printout is basically nothing more elaborate than a screen dump, but it produces excellent results. The legibility of the music still depends on you, though.
The Setup MIDI option allows you to set MIDI channels and program which of the connected instrument's sounds you want to hear. The software controls only four Voices, but each of these can be assigned a MIDI channel from 1 to 16. Each Voice is allocated a Preset number from 0 to 99, which selects the voice to be played by whatever's connected to that channel. A drum clock rate can be set to 24 or 48ppqn, and an overall tempo control runs from 40 to 200 beats per minute. These settings are saved together as a group number, and you can program up to eight such groups. While you're messing about - or finely tuning the system, whichever way you want to look at it - you can put the music into a continuous loop so you can hear how the various voice settings affect it. The eight groupings are programmed onto the music score by pressing the CMDR key and the group number — this prints the number inside a small box.
The program assigns voices to channels according to the Stave in use, so that on a Grand Stave, for instance, notes on the top stave with their stems up are assigned to Voice 1, those with their stems down are assigned to Voice 2. The lower stave is assigned Voices 3 and 4. There's no provision for storing pitchbend, modulation or velocity data, which some will see as a more important omission than others. Presumably, Passport's software writers don't feel people interested in a 'composing' package like this one are going to be too worried about 'performance' features such as those above. I'm not so sure about that. After all, there's no reason why users of step-time software shouldn't want access to keyboard dynamics in much the same way as they want access to keyboard pitch information - or so I'd have thought.
Conclusions? Well, let's face it, real-time programming isn't for everyone. It's particularly useless for those less deft of finger than nimble of brain (that probably lets me out on both counts), and step-time programming overcomes a lot of real-time's problems without introducing too many of its own. It allows you to program lines which are physically impossible to play, and it makes sure any arrangement is note-perfect in a way few real-time systems, even those with quantisation, can equal.
All in all, it proved quite easy to enter a piece of music using Passport's route to step-time happiness. I was averaging three to four minutes per bar, one of which could contain upwards of 30 notes. That is a long time by comparison with real-time recording, but this is the price you pay for the versatility step-time writing gives you - and I was trying to keep my scores as tidy as possible.
The program is easy to understand and therefore easy to use, and if you're reasonably familiar with traditional musical notation, it's a fine introduction to how that notation can play a part (no pun intended) in the world of MIDI sequencing.
Still, a couple of things did start to niggle me after I'd been using The Music Shop for a while. The first revolved around the editing facilities. I should confess that, having used a good many music editors in the past, I tend to look for my favourite features on each new one - which is why I eventually found fault with what Passport have and have not provided on this package.
"At the End - It proved quite easy to enter a piece of music using The Music Shop... I was averaging three to four minutes per bar."
For instance, why not scroll the staves across the screen the way Island Logic's Music System does? I missed auto bar line insertion, too, and occasionally hungered for correct spacing of notes and positioning of rests to appear automatically. Also missing are a simple way of block-erasing a cluster of notes and a facility for stopping the arrow moving on automatically after each note entry.
MIDI-wise, channels and voicings are a doddle to set up, but as I've said, quite a few MIDI options are just not included, which is a shame.
The ideal, of course, is the topological software package that incorporates real- and step-time note entry. Only trouble is, it's not very often a coin lands both sides up, so there aren't too many topological packages that do more than show a hint of what real- and step-time writing can achieve without really offering the best of either. If you ore keen to have the best of both worlds, you can always buy The Music Shop for your step-time composing and another package for real-time recording. Which is OK in theory, but likely to cost a lot of money, and leave you with the unfortunate impossibility of not being able to transfer music from one package to another.
The blurb on the case claims The Music Shop for MIDI '...is to a musician what a word processor is to a writer'. If that's the case, its way of doing things is more Alastair Maclean than Franz Kafka — quick, neat and properly sorted, but not quite as sophisticated as it might be.
Thanks to Steve Currie and Alan Maughan of Currie and Maughan for use of their MPS801 printer.
Gear in this article:
Review by Ian Waugh
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