Opcode Vision 1.4
Opcode's new release of their award-winning Mac sequencer comes with a 15-page computer file describing just the enhancements. Martin Russ explains why his Vision has improved so much...
I'm learning to use Vision. After nine months with the program, this may seem like quite an extraordinary thing to say, but then Vision is no ordinary sequencer. It offers depths comparable to (and perhaps even beyond) any other sequencer on any computer platform, and so although you can get 'up and running' very quickly, it takes rather longer to learn all the nuances, short-cuts and special keys. But just as I am reaching a position where I can begin to criticise it, along comes the next version...
What you may see advertised as Vision Pro is really Vision 1.4, the fourth major incremental update of Opcode's flagship sequencer, and as usual, the release occurs simultaneously on Studio Vision (Vision with added direct-to-disk audio facilities). The original Vision was reviewed in SOS quite some time ago, and so this seems like a good time to take a second look.
Vision looks deceptively simple. At first sight, there appear to be only 26 Sequences (named A to Z), and the Tracks within a Sequence seem to only provide control over simple selections like Record, Mute and Solo, in addition to setting the Loop Length and Instrument choice.
What's actually available is rather different. Vision approaches sequencing in a unique way, and all of the familiar features of other programs are present, but not as you might expect. The 26 'Sequences' turn out to be more like storage for sections of songs rather than simple patterns, and so an Intro, Verse, Chorus, Break and Outro format is easily going to fit into 26 chunks. You can play back a sequence just by typing its letter on the QWERTY keyboard, and using the Queue function you can chain them together for playback by simply typing letters in the appropriate order — ABACD, or whatever. This is just about the fastest way of chaining patterns together of any sequencer. You can also record such a chain as 'sub-sequences' in one track of a fresh sequence, and then record performance data as usual on that sequence's remaining tracks. The Tracks (up to 99) within a sequence don't have the transpose, MIDI channel and other settings that you might expect, because these are all displayed in a separate 'Instruments' window, where anything that globally affects the MIDI instrumentation is controlled.
Program and Note Names are also dealt with for all the instruments. Patch names can be set up so that they interact with the bundled Galaxy generic librarian software, with the result that you use Patch names and not numbers. Drum sounds come out with names instead of note numbers, too. Change your patches with Galaxy, and the changes are reflected in Vision — it frees you to make music instead of organising patches.
Vision's graphical editing window is highly developed. You can select notes in many ways, from simple mouse lassooing through to selecting by rule, which lets you specify exactly which notes you want, via a dialogue box, using rules based on criteria such as pitch, location, and proximity to other events. Once selected, you can drag the notes up or down the screen to transpose them, whilst dragging to the left or right moves them in time. You can change the length, quantise, cut, paste and replace existing notes, merge with existing notes, scale, reverse and even substitute them in place of other notes. A strip chart provides similarly comprehensive facilities for dealing with velocity, program changes, MIDI Controllers and Tempo.
Generated Sequences provide a way of algorithmically producing music, and they can also be used to recycle the pitch or rhythmic elements of existing tracks into something new. Once you get the hang of them, you find that they can be used for all sorts of purposes — this is a subject which could form an entire article!
Vision's strong point is its depth of features. If you can think of it, then Vision can probably do it, and then the pop-up help is very useful for reminding you of some of the facilities that you might have temporarily forgotten.
Probably the most important new feature of Vision 1.4 is the real-time editing, which virtually frees you from the constant hitting of the space bar that used to accompany any editing. Whereas previous versions stopped playback when you edited anything, you can now perform any edit operation whilst recording or playing back. At a stroke, the major niggle with Vision is gone — there is no need to keep re-starting playback.
Some minor edit-related functions can't be changed whilst playing, however. For example, when you are in a loop you can't change the length. But you can save whilst recording or playing, preferably to a hard disk, since saving to a floppy disk may well upset the timing of the playback.
Drum machine-style loops are the second major addition. The new Loop button allows you to build up music from events played singly in the way popularised for drum patterns, but you can use the loop points to set the loop anywhere, not just at the beginning.
This means that you can block out the basis of a song with some chords, and then go back and fill out the sections by experimenting with different arpeggios, melodies or ornamentation. This gives you tape recorder, linear simplicity, but with phrase-based sophistication if you need it. If you like recording patterns and then chaining them together, but then hate having to run through the whole chain just to listen to the change from one pattern to another, then you need Vision 1.4. Each time you like something, you can press the 'Enter' key to keep it, but still remove any subsequent mistakes by using the 'Delete' key, all whilst loop recording.
The drum machine analogy goes deeper — you can also use the MIDIKeys feature to let you define a note plus footpedal or footswitch combination so that it will let you spot erase notes by holding them down as the loop goes round. The auto-repeat facilities that you find on some drum machines, where you can repeat a note just by holding it down, is also provided, especially with the handy way that aftertouch can be mapped to velocity. Normally in a loop record mode, the sustain pedal causes problems, since you can't just play as normal whilst looping — you fill the loop up with sustain pedal events, and it sounds awful when you play it back. By mapping your sustain pedal to the 'Extend' MIDIKey, however, you can lengthen notes without recording lots of sustain pedal events into the loop. Definitely the best of both worlds: linear and pattern.
MIDIKeys? Well, Vision lets you use your master keyboard as a replacement for the Mac's QWERTY keyboard, which you would normally use to stop, rewind, record. Pressing a note and a MIDI Controller (usually a high note and a footswitch other than the sustain pedal) lets you control the sequencer without moving your hands from where you are making the music. Setting up MIDIKeys is easy, and once learned, can make working with Vision considerably faster. You aren't restricted to just Start/Stop and Continue type commands, either, as the drum machine example above shows.
The Setup Quantise dialogue box has now been promoted to a full window, which means that you can leave it open and change it at any time; another time-saving tweak.
Interestingly, the instant availability seems to encourage experimentation. I found myself exploring the possibilities of quantisation much more in Vision Pro, whereas with the previous version I just used the graphical edit window's quantisation settings to help place notes, and then did the swinging and smearing by hand. Changing the quantise settings whilst recording is useful for players with hands as imprecise as mine at timing. You can also quantise as you play, rather than afterwards, which can be either dehumanising or helpful depending on the application.
The other main screen change has its good and bad side. You are no longer restricted to only having four Sequence, List or Graphic windows open at once. This means that the screen gets more crowded and untidy, but it certainly stops windows closing on you ail the time. Some of the small additions are useful too. The Solo checkbox (that Man From UNCLE gets everywhere...) is now joined by Mute and Record checkboxes, which means that you no longer need to continually shuttle between the Sequence and Graphic windows. It really does look like many of these changes are the result of real-world user feedback.
The one time that you just sit down and play, totally ignoring the metronome, is of course the cue for a great tune to appear at your fingertips. Trying to organise rubato recordings so as to make some sort of timing sense is the kind of nightmare that becomes all too real early in the morning, just as your recording session comes to an end. Vision Pro's Reclock facility makes putting tempo into 'timeless' playing almost easy.
You record a new 'click track' and then use that to reclock the errant track. You can use almost any event as the 'click' — so a note, controller or even an audio click (with the appropriate MIDI Interface: Opcode's Studio 5 for example) will do. The clicks can be every bar, every beat, or both for tracks where the tempo and time signature are changing. Neat, and very useful in the studio.
Version 1.3 merely added a supplement to the existing V1.2 manual. Vision Pro has a completely rewritten manual, complete with the all-too-rare Table of Contents (16 pages!), that helps you find what you want quickly, and a detailed Index (15 pages) that helps you find the answers to your questions. The two tutorials go a long way towards getting you familiar with the way that you should work with Vision. Although the basics are reasonably intuitive, there's no substitute for the Opcoders giving you a few hints and tips on how they envisaged it being used. The pop-up help has all been revised too, so non-manual readers can go straight into the program and yet still have help available in an instant.
The downside of adding new features is that new shortcut keys are required, which can mean trouble in a mature program with many shortcuts already defined. Opcode have minimised the changes (only a couple of the old shortcut key have been re-assigned) and tidied up some of the older ones: you can now use the plus and minus keys without using the shift keys in some circumstances: and the Thru Instrument selection shortcuts are no longer restricted to the initial 10 places: you can now easily choose any of the first 20. The Players have been relegated slightly because the number keys are now allocated to the Locator buttons — this makes the players slightly less accessible, which is probably a wise decision, given the small number of users requiring independent simultaneous sequence playback.
The number of available Instruments seems to increase with each version of Vision — you can now have 512 of them. This offers plenty of scope for exploiting the huge polyphony and multi-timbrality which are now becoming commonplace. Being able to create your own custom 'instruments' from stacked, split and doubled ranges of notes means that you don't really need to define complex multi-timbral setups in your hardware — Vision's Instruments let you do it all in software, and the scope increases still further if you have one of Opcode's Studio series MIDI Interfaces that allows further processing.
Studio Vision 1.4 has improved SMPTE sync for more accurate timing, as well as audio duration editing that's just like changing the length of a note in the graphic window — you drag it. You can also append to existing audio files and name audio events in the graphic editing window.
Vision Pro's additions and enhancements improve the usability quite markedly. The manual is much more readable and informative, and the Reclock command could be a session-saver. The real-time editing is worth the upgrade price on its own, whilst the drum machine type loop recording is a dream. If you have Vision, then upgrade now. If you haven't got Vision, then you ought to seriously consider taking a good, long look. Highly recommended.
SOS Software Disk S089 contains a demo version of V1.1 of Vision and costs £7.
Vision 1.4 (bundled with Galaxy universal librarian) £399.95.
Studio Vision 1.4 £849.95 inc VAT.
Upgrade to v1.4 from previous versions of Vision £49.95 inc VAT.
MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).
Review by Martin Russ
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