Yamaha C1 (Part 2)
In the second part of his review of the new Yamaha C1 music computer, Ian Gilby provides a rundown of the different types of music programs available for the C1 and explores the sequencing and MIDI utility program's that are bundled free with the computer.
Ian Gilby completes his review of Yamaha's new portable music computer with a look at the 'bundled' software and what other programs are available.
With its two MIDI Ins, eight independent MIDI Outs and intelligent interface controller, the C1 has got what it takes to be the nerve centre of a very sophisticated MIDI network. It is capable of simultaneously addressing up to 128 independent MIDI channels, which should be more than ample to service the needs of even the most demanding professional studio. In conjunction with Yamaha's Sequence program, you have the capacity to assign a unique MIDI channel to up to 128 tracks and dedicate each track to the control of a particular instrument or function.
You can use MIDI Monitor to assign any type of MIDI data to be transmitted by the real-time sliders. For example, you could configure Slider 1 to select which MIDI channel the C1 will transmit on, whilst using Slider 2 to control the MIDI Volume of any instrument or effects unit that happens to be listening to that channel. You could therefore make quick real-time adjustments to instrument volume levels across all 16 channels (and even record your level mix on a sequencer track perhaps). Extending this technique further, one slider could be set up to control the tempo of a sequence or master clock so that you could manually speed up or slow down a song.
With such power at your disposal you need an effective means of controlling it. This is provided by the MIDI Monitor program, which performs three main functions: it lets you visually monitor MIDI data coming into the C1 via any of the two MIDI Ins or the first RS232C serial port (the C1 has two of them); it lets you transmit MIDI data in real time directly from the C1 keyboard and sliders; and it controls how data is routed between the two Ins and eight Outs.
These facilities are accessed via pop-up windows that you call up with the C1's Function keys (F2-F8); the mouse is not used at all. A Function key menu appears along the bottom of the screen, but on-line help is available at all times if you forget how to do something - just press F1 and the Help window appears on-screen wth descriptions of various commands. For convenience, F9 and F10 are pre-programmed to transmit a MIDI Start or Stop/Continue command - for remote control of a hardware sequencer or drum machine.
MIDI data routing is controlled by MIDI Monitor's patchbay. The current patch is always displayed in the form of a grid matrix on the right-hand side of the screen, and a new patch can be set from within the patchbay window (accessed by the F2 key). You can route data from any combination of MIDI In 1 and 2, the first RS232C port, plus the two control sliders and QWERTY keyboard, to any combination of the eight MIDI Outs, the RS232C port (for transmission via a modem perhaps, or communicating with another computer that has no MIDI interface) and the C1's monitor display. The only routing limitation here is a minor one: the RS232C port must be used either as an input or an output, not both simultaneously (obviously). Access to RS232C control settings (baud rate, parity, etc) is provided by the F8 key. The C1's other RS232C port is reserved exclusively for standard computer applications, such as connection to a serial printer or modem.
The C1 automatically merges data when more than one input is assigned to a particular MIDI Out, with priority always being given to System Exclusive data. In addition, each input has its own filter that can be used to remove any selected type of MIDI information from each of the 16 MIDI channels. You can re-channelise data as well. Thankfully, the monitor display also has its own filter, which makes it very easy to view only those classes of MIDI data that you are interested in, eg. Program Changes, Note-Ons, etc.
MIDI Monitor provides several ways to view incoming MIDI data. It is usually displayed in long strings of two-digit hexadecimal numbers, with status bytes shown in reverse video; alternatively, you can view it as symbols with graphic characters for status bytes and data bytes converted into ASCII text. For example, a crotchet note symbol is used to indicate a Note-On (reversed for Note-Off), a pitch fork symbol for the Tune Request command, and open and closed square brackets for start and end of System Exclusive messages - all very neat and infinitely easier to comprehend than pure hex codes. For improved readability, I suggest you toggle the screen's line-feed function on so that each message will begin on a new line. The Dump function lets you view the previous 16K of received MIDI data, search for specified data strings, and print out a hard copy for reference purposes, whilst the essential File functions let you find, load, save and delete individual symbol files; find, create and delete subdirectories; and change the logged drive.
Provided the C1 keyboard is patched to one or more MIDI Outs, you can directly type MIDI messages in the form of hexadecimal or decimal numbers and transmit them instantly to connected instruments when you press the Enter key - most of us can only dream of such power! Better still (as it avoids potentially harmful typing mistakes!), you can create 'macros' (Yamaha call them 'symbols') by defining strings of MIDI messages of any length and giving each one a unique 12-character name. That way you could just type 'd50gabriel2' and it would load your favourite bank of Peter Gabriel sounds into your D50 synth. You can create as many symbols as you like and because they are all saved in a special file on the hard disk when you exit MIDI Monitor, the custom macros load automatically when you first run the program. You can also view and edit them at any stage by pressing F5 to access the symbol window, or load files into an ASCII word processing program for editing at a later date.
These tools go a long way to making analysis of MIDI data that bit easier to grasp, but I can't help thinking that the mere sight of hex codes will still be sufficient to deter most C1 owners from making effective day-to-day use of MIDI Monitor. If this is so it would be a real pity, for MIDI Monitor will reward those who are prepared to spend time experimenting.
If you have been following Martin Russ's excellent 'System Exclusive' series, you should be familiar with the concept of a 'bulk dump' (no smutty jokes please!). It is essentially a record of the internal memory data of a particular MIDI device that is stored in the form of System Exclusive messages. Most MIDI gear can send and receive bulk dumps (provided their memory protect function is turned off), making it possible to store the complete contents of a Kawai K1 synth, say, on disk and then re-load that data into another K1 or into the same K1 later on (bulk dumps remove the need for costly RAM storage cards, too). Many sequencers can record bulk dumps of instrument sounds used in a song, usually at the start of a sequence, so that on playback the sounds automatically load back into the appropriate machines in readiness for the music starting. In a nutshell, bulk dumps are a neat way of keeping all the elements of your song in one convenient place. What the Bulk Manager program does is to improve the ease with which a C1 user can send and receive dumps for all their MIDI equipment, as well as providing general housekeeping tools to keep track of where they are stored, etc.
Since some instruments must receive a 'dump request' message before they will transmit their bulk data, Bulk Manager offers the same macro creation facility as MIDI Manager to overcome this potential hurdle. Instead of manually typing a dump request message as hexadecimal numbers each time you want to save a bank of 32 voices from your DX7, say, you can define a macro 'symbol' (eg. dx7voice=f0 43 20 09 f7) and give it a unique name. Then you just type the symbol name ('dx7voice') to activate the dump request and wait for the DX7 to transmit.
Rather useful is the fact that Bulk Manager can share the same symbols you create in MIDI Manager, which saves re-typing and reduces the overhead on disk storage space. There really seems to be no restriction as to what clever 'tricks' you can perform with these symbols - you just need to know what data to enter to get them to do what you want. As a guide, Yamaha provide some predefined example symbols on disk for use with their own synths, and the associated help file explains what each one does. The 'System Exclusive' article in this issue (see p.74) will also give you some much needed tips.
A small set of commands (rather like those found in MSDOS batch files) are provided to let you define, edit, delete, load, save, sort, transmit and receive these symbols. You can also use the Pause and Beep commands to display a short message of your choice on-screen and audibly prompt you to do something - like changing a disk or even making the tea! Particularly useful is the Wait command, which can be inserted between symbol names in command files so that the C1 is made to wait a defined amount of time (between 10ms and 11 minutes) before executing the next symbol. Used appropriately, this feature can prevent data overload problems being caused when a MIDI instrument is unable to process the System Exclusive data it receives fast enough - usually because its input buffer is too small.
To summarise, Bulk Manager is a powerful tool that can be used to automate the saving and loading of every MIDI sequence, drum pattern, patchbay routing, synth voice, effects program, etc used on a session. The C1's internal 20 megabyte hard disk allows users to store vast libraries of bulk dumps in conveniently named subdirectories for quick and easy recall, though it's prudent to make regular backups on floppy disk for peace of mind or if there is likely to be a lengthy gap between successive sessions. As it stands, Bulk Manager is an excellent utility that would bring obvious benefits to any size MIDI studio but would prove especially useful wherever a large collection of MIDI equipment is in regular use.
The Japanese authors of Sequence have obviously studied the leading MIDI programs very, very carefully, for Sequence incorporates many of the good points of Mark Of The Unicorn's Performer, Passport's Master Tracks Pro, Steinberg's Pro24 and Dr. T's Keyboard Controlled Sequencer. As such. Sequence can be thought of as the embodiment of all that has gone before in MIDI sequencing software. That is not to decry the program as a mere imitator, for Sequence adds many of its own innovations - such as independent programmable tempo LFOs per track - though most have been born out of the need to handle the C1's sophisticated 2-In/8-Out MIDI interface and integral MIDI Time Code and SMPTE/EBU reader/generator.
Sequence has benefitted enormously from the fact that Yamaha are late entrants into the professional music software market and that the programmers have been able to design an integrated piece of software from the ground up that works beautifully with the C1 hardware.
Sequence employs a graphic user interface based on a little-used operating environment called Metawindows, which manages to create a high resolution Macintosh-like front end for the Yamaha program (Bacchus editors use the same system). Functionally, Metawindows is similar to GEM on an Atari ST or Microsoft Windows on a PC, making full use of pop-up dialogue boxes, pull-down menus and scroll bars.
Sequence has one main display, the Recorder window, and three editing windows: Master Track, Bar Graph and Numeric. You can record and play back from within the Recorder window using the transport buttons, as well as globally edit a whole track or all tracks within a section of the song. Time signature, tempo changes and rehearsal markers can all be specified and edited within the Master Track window, which governs all 400 tracks (a limitation?); whilst the Bar Graph window utilises the familiar piano-roll display with notes represented by horizontal bars of varying length, one track at a time. Using the mouse, you can draw notes directly on-screen, alter durations by dragging individual notes, or highlight groups of notes and perform global actions like cut, copy, paste, etc - all the usual stuff.
There are some very clever design touches in Sequence, one of the most useful appearing in the Recorder window. With 400 tracks available, scrolling from one region to another could easily become a chore were it not for the fact that you can split the track list in two, whereupon a second set of vertical/horizontal scroll bars appears, and work on different sets of tracks simultaneously. Track number, name, and record and mute enable/disable functions are always shown down the left side of the Recorder window, along with the MIDI In port and channel in use, and the MIDI Out port and channel. To the right is displayed four different types of data, dependent upon your selection. Clicking on the small arrows either side of the word 'track data' causes this area of the window to switch between displaying track data (where note activity is shown as small dots, chords as vertical clusters of dots), velocity data (a moving horizontal bargraph meter indicates the relative velocity of the current note in each track, just like Steinberg Pro24), track comments (a 32-character message can be entered for each track) or track attributes (where you can define individual track offsets of between -100 and +1000 milliseconds; tempo LFO rate and depth; a pitch transposition of +/— 24 semitones; maximum polyphony; initial MIDI Program Change, Volume and Pan values; and an initial MIDI Macro number, if used).
Tempo LFO is a brilliant innovation! To help simulate ensemble effects and add extra rhythmic freedom to drum tracks and the like, Yamaha have provided 200 independent low frequency oscillators (in software) with precision control of modulation depth (0-127) and rate of change (0-127 in 0.1 Hz steps) and these are designed to modulate the tempo data within individual tracks. Why nobody thought of this before on a sequencer is beyond me, for it works a treat. Used with subtlety, it really can add a new 'human' dimension to otherwise mechanical sequences.
Equally useful are the MIDI Macros - strings of System Exclusive messages, of any length and type, that can be defined and inserted as often as you like - just like notes - wherever you wish within a track. The sky's the limit when it comes to Macro applications, but you can define up to 128 of them to do anything - from centring a Pitch Bend wheel to switching off a memory protect function before sending a bulk dump of a new bank of voices.
To overcome the restriction of all Sequence tracks being the same length, Yamaha have implemented the idea of 'floating tracks' (Patterns) of any length that can be 'called' from within and played by any number of tracks simultaneously. 1024 Patterns can be recorded in the same manner as normal tracks, and can utilise all the usual track attribute features. The idea is that you use them to store often played musical phrases or rhythm patterns that are likely to be repeated over and over throughout a song (which helps conserve note memory). Any existing track can be turned into a Pattern by highlighting it in the Recorder window and choosing 'Define' from the Pattern menu. Likewise, Patterns can be 'fixed' - copied into a track permanently and converted into actual track data (the original Pattern remains unchanged). Each Pattern is numbered, can be given a short descriptive tag such as 'fast 4/4beat' or 'intro fill', and can be independently saved to disk (as can MIDI Macros and Rhythm Note Assign Tables) to create vast libraries.
So what is a Rhythm Note Assign Table? Well, it's common knowledge that drum machines don't all produce the same percussion sound when they receive a particular note. This table lets you remap note pitches so that whenever a D#3 note is played in a rhythm track, for example, an F3 note sounds instead. This saves you having to individually adjust rhythm track notes if you change drum machines. Any Sequence tracks can function as rhythm tracks, you simply assign them by clicking on the 'Rhy' column in the Recorder window - this also prevents them from being transposed. Although a great idea, you are limited to one Rhythm Table in a song, so those of you who like to pick and mix drum sounds from more than one machine will still need to make some adjustments - like remapping note numbers on your various drum boxes so that no duplicate notes are used.
As you would expect from a program aimed at the professional, Sequence offers comprehensive quantisation features (seven different types with percentage offset and sensitivity 'note window' adjustment); edit and record filters (why no playback filter Yamaha?) for removing unwanted MIDI data such as Aftertouch, Poly Pressure, SysEx, Pitch Bend; track merging; compression, expansion and limiting of Note-On velocity and gate time; intervallic or diatonic transposition of notes; a facility to load and transmit bulk dumps without quitting the program; and plenty more!
Hidden away in the Operation menu are several of Sequence's more esoteric features that deserve a quick mention for their originality: Trill instantly creates a two-note trill in place of a selected note, with a definable pitch interval of one octave above or below the original note and selectable repeats (great for Liberace-style piano solos!); Tremolo replaces a chosen note with a programmable number of rapidly repeating notes (absolutely fantastic on fast attack string sounds!); Bounce provides easy creation of 'shuffle' rhythms; and Arpeggio operates on chords only, with a choice of up/down, start/end, and inter-note timing (1-480 clocks). All very good stuff.
Although a commendable first effort by Yamaha that comes close to blowing away all existing PC sequencers, Sequence is not all 'sweetness and light' - very few Version 1 releases ever are! But surprisingly, in the two month's I have been using this program, I have developed only two major criticisms: Firstly, in their effort to include every sequencing-related function imaginable in a single product, Yamaha's programmers have overlooked one vital feature that I personally make great use of in my music - independent track looping. As it stands, you cannot record a two-bar phrase on one track and a five-bar phrase on a different track and have them both loop continually, thus creating polyrhythms. My current PC music sequencing program, Voyetra's Sequencer Plus MkIII (now also available for the C1), will let you independently loop all 64 of its tracks no problem. Not so Sequence; it takes a very linear approach, modelling itself firmly on a tape recorder. You can record anywhere you like on its 400 parallel tracks but all tracks are of the same length. You can loop the whole song between any two points you wish, but instead of allowing you to loop tracks individually, Yamaha expect you to copy over patterns on each track as many times as they are required to play (tedious). You might not find this inconvenient, as many budget Atari programs force you to work in this same manner, but unfortunately I do. It is a restricting way to work, requires you to know how long your song is in advance, and creates aggravation if you change your mind. I would therefore urge Yamaha to implement independent track looping in the next software update - it would make Sequence unassailable.
Secondly, the C1's LCD screen causes a problem with the mouse pointer - if you move the mouse too fast, the on-screen pointer disappears before your very eyes, only to reappear when you stop moving the mouse. This has the undesirable side-effect of slowing down your work rate, as your eyes are constantly glancing around the screen trying to locate the mouse pointer. I found myself deliberately moving the mouse more slowly to compensate for this deficiency. As far as I can judge there are two possible workarounds to this problem: either you connect a monochrome or CGA colour monitor to the external CRT socket on the rear of the C1 and view that instead (there will be no more sightings of the ghostly mouse pointer if you do - it works fine); or you stick with the LCD screen, set the mouse tracking preference to 'slow' (accessed from the Yamaha menu) and use the mouse as little as possible, relying instead on keyboard commands - this is often a faster way to work anyhow, because Sequence makes good use of both keyboard shortcuts (specified on the pulldown menus) and the C1's Function keys for most major operations.
Yamaha's Sequence is presently unique, as it is the only music software program to fully utilise all of the C1's attractive features (not surprisingly). I'm sure this situation will change very soon, as other software houses will want to capitalise on the C1's existence - either by releasing completely new programs that make use of the C1's real-time sliders and step-time input music keys (as found on the QX1/QX3) or by updating their existing products to at least take advantage of the extra MIDI ports. Leading the way are Voyetra Technologies, who have already released a C1 version of Sequencer Plus MkIII (Version 2.1) which fully supports the eight MIDI Outs (but not both MIDI Ins) and provides windows for MIDI Thru re-channelisation and timecode offset selection, to name but two of the newly added features. But as someone who owns and regularly uses Sequencer Plus, I have to say that the program is starting to look a bit too long in the tooth when compared with Sequence (SP3 still can't record System Exclusive data - but it does have independent track looping!).
If the music you create is primarily pop-based or you have only ever worked with hardware sequencers before, then you should have no trouble using Sequence. If not, then you may find the program's emulation of a 400-track tape recorder too much of a creative restriction. Version 1 of Sequence is a highly professional, well-polished program that stands head and shoulders above its peers in many powerful respects but falls some way behind them in others. If it didn't come 'free' with the C1 I'd still pay good money for it. So all we want to know now is when Yamaha are going to release a modified version of Sequence for standard PC users?
The C1 is available exclusively from the following outlets:
Soho Soundhouse, (Contact Details).
Yamaha Music Pulse, (Contact Details).
Part 1 | Part 2 (Viewing)
Review by Ian Gilby
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