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Can't play an instrument but would love to create music? Your wish is granted! With the right software, the humble Atari ST computer can be turned into a very different MIDI instrument indeed. Martin Russ looks at two unusual graphical music programs with contrasting approaches: MIDIDraw and MIDIGrid.

Can't play an instrument but would love to create music? Your wish is granted! With the right software, the humble Atari ST computer can be turned into a very different MIDI instrument indeed. Martin Russ looks at two unusual graphical music programs with contrasting approaches: MIDIDraw and MIDIGrid.

Keyboards, guitars, wind instruments, and drums can all be regarded as 'natural' control interfaces between a performer and MIDI. The Atari ST is a useful computer to run a sequencer or voice editor on, but is an unlikely candidate for a MIDI information source. As music software becomes more sophisticated, several companies have begun to release the first programs which convert the ST from its passive role as a manipulator of MIDI data, into a source of MIDI data. In this article I will look at two very different implementations of a graphical musical instrument; one from the UK and one from the USA.

It is quite some time since a really 'new' instrument appeared in the music business; the piano caused a furore when it was first introduced some time ago as a more versatile replacement for the harpsichord, and the electric guitar met with a similar response in the '50s. The synthesizer hid itself very neatly behind a conventional keyboard, and the electronic drum revolution has been tidily incorporated into the acoustic repertoire of the drummer with little overt publicity. The arrival of MIDI promised much in the way of new instruments and new ways of controlling sounds but, apart from a handful of experimental devices like Laser Harps and Air Drums, has produced few widely successful innovations.

Therefore, we are indeed privileged to be present at the birth of a new class of instrument, based upon the all-encompassing digital computer: MIDIGrid and MIDIDraw. These are graphical musical instruments, which exploit the mouse-driven environment of the computer to produce a new way of generating music. Both programs produce MIDI notes, program changes etc, suitable for controlling just about any MIDI-equipped device. MIDIGrid is a complex program which offers great flexibility and power from the simple concept of placing notes inside boxes and then clicking the boxes with the mouse to play them; whereas MIDIDraw converts drawings into music with a mix of automatic and user-controlled options. Both programs offer ways for the user to transcend physical limitations by producing complex musical performances without the need for a completely real-time interactive performance.



MIDIGrid is the first mainstream music software product from the Composer's Desktop Project - a group of professional composers whose aim is to use the Atari ST to provide the sophisticated compositional and synthesis power which is normally found only in exclusive University computer music facilities. With the ST as the focus of such a system, a great deal of expertise has been gained in the inner workings of the operating system, with the result that more innovative use can be made of the computer in other ways. MIDIGrid looks completely unlike most ST applications and takes the interactive mouse/graphical interface to new heights.

The basic unit you work with is a box. Boxes can be laid out in a grid, up to 10 across by 10 high - moving the mouse moves a black cursor box around the screen as normal. Notes can be placed into boxes - they appear as smaller black squares, with one square per note.

The top of the screen is used for a menu bar - but with icons (pictures) instead of words. The main screen menu bar has five symbols representing the major activities: choosing notes to put into boxes; editing the contents of boxes; changing the patches on MIDI instruments; a treasure chest which accesses extra features; and a simple sequencer.

When selecting notes to place in boxes, the menu bar takes the form of a keyboard, with an exit door at one side. Moving the cursor to the exit door highlights it, and clicking either of the mouse buttons returns you to the main screen. Moving the cursor over the keyboard itself plays the note on whatever MIDI instrument is assigned to the chosen MIDI channel. Pressing the right mouse button selects the note to be placed in the box - moving the cursor to the box itself and clicking on the right button again places the note in the box. This use of the mouse buttons is consistent throughout the program - you use the right-hand button to select a function, and then try out some boxes with the left-hand button, with another press of the right button confirming the function.

The left mouse button always plays the contents of the boxes when you press the button. On the main screen, the right button allows you to play notes and move from box to box by moving the mouse, which can generate things like fast arpeggios and chord riffs. Boxes can contain notes on different MIDI channels, so a single mouse click can cause several things to happen. I particularly liked assigning drum sounds to boxes, and building up composite sounds from individual drums. Once assigned, these custom drum kits can be saved to disk and recalled later. Performing with such a drum kit involves moving the mouse within a space and hitting buttons - very similar in some ways to real drumming. I was surprised at how quickly my hands adapted to this use of the mouse, and especially the way in which I grasped the relationship between boxes on the screen and the sounds produced.

Because the mouse buttons are not velocity sensitive, you get a default velocity value for the MIDI output from MIDIGrid, but by using keyboard mapping (see below) you can overcome this with an external velocity sensitive keyboard.

The editing facilities provide you with a different menu bar. The options let you edit the contents of an individual box, with each note treated separately, as well as delete boxes and move, copy or swap their contents. The Change Instruments menu bar allows you to choose the voice patch on the MIDI instrument: instead of numbers or names, you are given a horizontal set of grey boxes similar to the keyboard for the Choose Notes menu bar, and selecting one of these places a different pattern into the exit door on the left. The tones of the presets are thus represented by the pattern.

On the far right of the main menu bar is a picture representing two tape reels, and this is the entry point to MIDIGrid's real-time recording section. Once you have allocated your notes to boxes, you can then use the real-time recording facilities to store a performance. Movements and presses of the mouse are memorised as you make them - the boxes themselves play exactly as normal. Pressing any key on the ST's QWERTY keyboard, or moving the mouse back into the menu bar area, stops the recording. Tapping a mouse button will return you to the main screen, where you can then store the sequence in a box - it will appear as a horizontal bar when you click the mouse in the chosen box.

Replaying a sequence is just a matter of clicking the left mouse button within a box that contains a sequence bar. Clicking again will start a second playback of the same sequence, creating instant musical 'canon' and echo effects. To stop any sequence you just press the right mouse button. By clicking with the right mouse button in boxes that contain sequences, you can arrange for them all to play in sync whenever you start them with a left button click. If this recording and playback method seems simple, remember that each box can contain notes on more than one MIDI channel. So MIDIGrid is one of the few programs available which allows multitimbral recording!

The treasure chest icon provides access to additional features: in version 1.1 these are keyboard mapping and step-time recording. Keyboard mapping lets you assign notes on an external keyboard (or other MIDI controller) to boxes on the screen. Since each box can contain chords, sequences, multitimbral composite sounds, or even several drum samples, this offers you a lot of creative possibilities that are quick to set up and change - unlike the keyboard mapping on certain other instruments. The flexibility that this provides for controlling complex musical events is quite remarkable - the program is almost worth buying for this one feature!

Step-time recording works in a similar way to real-time, except that you can record the notes first, followed by the timing or rhythm. Editing of sequences (in Version 1.1) is limited to changing the transposition, the playback speed and MIDI channels of any parts. Later versions of MIDIGrid will include more sophisticated editing.

The treasure chest produces a horizontal bar with three pictures on the screen - moving the mouse highlights each of these in turn. Clicking on the exit door produces another horizontal selection bar - the first with text! It has options to Save or Load grids of boxes, to Quit, to Update the global controls of the program, or to sending an All Notes Off message (the Atari spacebar does this as well; in fact, keyboard short cuts also exist for other options).

Global controls let you customise the grids and playing to your own preferences. You choose options from two horizontal bars. These allow you to set the size of the grid you see on the screen, the sensitivity and orientation of the mouse, the appearance of the keyboard bar, access to the menu bar, the extent of the note selection keyboard bar, sequencer options, and the range of MIDI channels. These are all stored as part of a grid when you save it to floppy disk.

MIDIGrid comes on a single 3½" disk, with a 45-page A4 manual. The program will run in high resolution monochrome mode only, but a 'mono emulator' utility program is also provided to enable users with colour monitor systems to use the program. The manual contains a quick tutorial section to get you started, and a reference section which describes all the functions in detail. When faced with an unfamiliar user interface, a clear tutorial is very helpful in guiding you through the basic functions. The program powers up to a title screen and will go into demonstration mode if you do not press one of the mouse buttons - several example grids are provided and these will be automatically played until you are ready to use the program (this is like the demo mode which most games software reverts to when you stop playing).



MIDIDraw hails from the Intelligent Music stable - the same people who produce M, UpBeat, Jam Factory, and the excellent new RealTime "sequencer with extras". MIDIDraw also uses a graphical interface, although it is completely different from MIDIGrid - it is a GEM-based program with controls similar in many ways to those used in M. A single main screen is used, with simple menu bar options to control a few additional functions.

The main screen is dominated by the drawing field, which is surrounded by four similar panels. The drawing field is where you produce the pictures which are converted to MIDI notes, and the four panels control how the program reacts to your mouse movements. The top left panel is used for drawing with the mouse; clicking on the pen icon selects it and any movements within the drawing field will produce music when you press the left mouse button - as well as drawing in the field. The default setting has low pitched notes on the left and high notes on the right, with velocity up and down the screen, but the mapping of notes can be easily altered with the two octave numericals at the top of the drawing field.

Numericals are used in most Intelligent Music programs. They appear as numbers or letters inside boxes - clicking and holding the mouse button whilst pointing at a numerical lets you change the value by moving the mouse backwards and forwards. Single clicks of the left and right buttons will also decrease and increase the value shown. Numericals like these keep the screen simple and uncluttered whilst providing a means to quick editing - you get used to the system in a very short time. Because numericals are interactive, they seem much more natural to use - you can home in on the value you want.

Below the pen icon is the drawing control panel, the top half being common to all four control boxes. The upper section contains a control box with three numericals for MIDI Channel, Program Change number and MIDI Volume. Underneath are two horizontal sliders for setting the duration (staccato on the left, legato on the right) and velocity (low on the left, high on the right) of the MIDI notes transmitted by the program. The lower section of each of the control boxes is specific to its particular function.

The drawing control box has four icons and one numerical. The icons control: the repeating of notes, when you hold the button down or when you move the mouse around; the drawing colour (black and white for monochrome, blue-grey and orange for colour monitors); the sustain on or off; and the clearing of the screen (pressing the asterisk '*' key on the ST's QWERTY keyboard clears the screen to black instead of white). The numerical sets the repeat rate for the notes that are produced.

The other major panel on the left-hand side of the drawing field is the delay control. This sets the time and type of repeats of the notes drawn by the pen tool. The clock numerical sets the delay amount from 200 milliseconds to two seconds, whilst the transpose numerical enables the repeats of the notes to be transposed up or down from the original. The sustain icon, again, turns the sustain on and off. Because the pen and delay panels have separate MIDI channel controls, you can arrange for the delayed version of the notes you draw with the mouse to come from a different instrument - very useful, especially since the basic drawing only produces monophonic notes (polyphonic notes are selected by using the sustain function).

The top panel on the right-hand side of the drawing field is a step-time/real-time recorder for mouse movements, and is activated by clicking on the recorder icon. The circle, triangle, and square icons activate record, play and stop functions respectively. The sustain icon works in the same way as in the other panels, turning the sustain on and off, thereby holding or releasing chords. The note icon on the right toggles between the default step-time and the real-time mode (shown by a clock face icon). Step-time mode only provides notes of fixed length - the rhythmic variation is achieved by using the duration and SNP controls, and so does not have the same control as the more complete step-time sequences available in MIDIGrid.

Below these controls are four additional icons: the 'V' toggle is the Velocity Offset, which allows mouse movements up and down the screen to control the velocity of recorded sequences as they play back. The tempo numerical sets the playback speed in step-time. The cryptically named SNP numerical sets the Skip Time Percentage - the percentage of time in which notes will be ignored - thus producing random rhythmic variation in the sequences. The 'O' toggle changes the note order, selecting pitches at random from those recorded, instead of in the recorded order. Some special effects can be achieved by using the duration slider (to the far right) in real-time mode - it time-stretches the sequence, altering the rhythm of the playback.

The final panel is called the Interpreter. When selected, it scans the picture in the drawing field producing notes; it erases as it does so. The sustain, tempo and SNP controls work as before - the Sync toggle locks the tempo of the interpreter to the tempo of the recorder. By using the '*' key to black out the whole drawing area and then activating the interpreter, the 'starry night sky' effect produces automatic music as it gradually erases the drawing field. The four panels may be used in combination, selecting and changing their settings as you draw with the mouse - this is a performance instrument, after all.

Above the drawing field are the ten Tonality boxes. Box 0 is the default, and it produces chromatic scales as the output. The other tonalities can be defined to your own preferences. There are two types: tonalities 1 to 6 enable the selection of notes over an octave - in other words, the key or scale; tonalities 7 to 9 give more interesting possibilities by allowing you to freely choose notes from different octaves (choosing just C0, C1 and C2 would restrict the note output from the program to just those notes). You can choose tonalities as you are drawing with the mouse by pressing a number key on the Atari's numeric keypad. (Intelligent Music provide a useful warning here - the ST's operating system will only read these keys when you aren't pressing the left mouse button).

Once you have configured MIDIDrawas you like it, you can use the Snapshot panel at the bottom of the screen to store the screen settings in the boxes indicated by single letters of the alphabet. The ST's QWERTY keyboard can be used to select snapshots whilst you are drawing; and because you can store your own tonalities, sustain settings and MIDI channels, etc, in the snapshots, this is where the real power of MIDIDraw begins to become apparent. The setups can also be stored on disk.

MIDIDraw, like M, Pro24 III, Dr T's KCS and Passport's Master Tracks Pro (amongst others), all implement MIDI Files. These are data recordings of what you are doing, where everything that you create with the program is stored in a file on disk. MIDIDraw calls these MIDI Files 'Movies' - a very apt description. You can take these MIDI Files and load them into other programs - they are stored in type 0 format, which looks like a single multi-channel track of music.

MIDIDraw comes on a single copyprotected 3½" floppy with a beautifully produced 60-page, A5 manual. This covers all the functions in a clear and easily understandable way, with lots of illustrations in the text. There were no stored Movies on the supplied disk and, unfortunately, you cannot load or save your own drawings for later re-use. MIDIDraw will run in both high and medium screen resolutions. The program uses the mouse and its buttons less intensively than MIDIGrid, but does use the ST's QWERTY keyboard and numeric keypad extensively, making it very fast and flexible in live performance.


Despite the obvious graphical differences, these two programs actually offer very similar functions in some respects. At their simplest level, both provide a means of converting mouse movements into MIDI notes. The two programs also provide limited sequencing capabilities, although MIDIGrid's ability to undertake both step-time and real-time sequencing - combined with parallel playing of the same sequence - gives it the creative edge for me. MIDIDraw seems to be more interpretative in its function, with less direct and immediate control over the music it produces.

The two programs reflect, in a new way, the differences which make real instruments so rich and varied. Normally, uniqueness of tone is the major result of the various constructions used in instruments. With MIDI providing a wide range of possible sounds, it is the individual characteristics of the controlling software that affect the structure of the music instead. After spending some time listening to the results of each of these programs, you would probably be able to make a reasonably successful guess as to which was producing a particular piece of music. In the hands of a skilled performer though, these two programs are capable of producing music which sounds like and, in all respects, is a live performance, and so they can truly be regarded as instruments in their own right.


Both programs succeed remarkably well in their immediate aim - to provide a graphical interface to music. Unfortunately, I felt that too much was automatic in MIDIDraw, with the result that the element of randomisation felt too high - I did not seem to be in control. In my view this tends to put MIDIDraw into the category of interesting and diverting, for a while, but more probably a toy for occasional fun rather than a real tool for serious work. Prolonged use may well modify my attitude. Of course, if you are looking to create New Age or Ambient music then MIDIDraw's randomness could be exactly what you need.

MIDIGrid, in contrast, has no random content at all; in fact, although it looks like a toy at first, it is really a powerful aid to composition and performance, whether used on its own or in conjunction with a conventional MIDI controller. The keyboard mapping, in particular, begins to show the power of software to extend the live performance capability of a single person. The mark of a genuine instrument, as opposed to a toy, often seems to lie in the difference that longterm use can make to the musicality of the end product, and both these programs should repay careful study well.

So, if you want something to show people how pictures can be used to control MIDI instruments, then MIDIDraw is what you should buy. Alternatively, if you would like to control many multitimbral instruments from a central controller, then MIDIGrid offers you a flexible friend (without a credit limit!).

For music education or work with handicapped people, MIDIGrid offers the sort of computer interface which anyone can use and understand, transcending musical, language and ability barriers - and very few programs can offer that! MIDIGrid stretched me and forced me to think about what I was doing, whereas I quickly seemed to have reached the full extent of MIDIDraw's rather more limited capabilities. MIDIGrid gets a 10 for keeping me up well into the small hours; the first program after M to do so!


The Composers' Desktop Project Ltd, (Contact Details).
MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).

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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 - May 1989

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Review by Martin Russ

Previous article in this issue:

> Kitaro

Next article in this issue:

> Making the Most of your Akai...

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