Roland MPS & MUSE
Roland's first serious venture into software takes the form of composing packages for Commodore, Apple and IBM computers. Annabel Scott checks them out.
It's taken Roland a while, but now they've come up with some competitive-looking music software for host computers musicians are likely to own. We preview the company's MUSE and MPS composer packages.
No doubt about it, Roland have taken a fair while to get involved in the software business. Until now, they've been content to allow Sequential, SIEL and others to develop sequencing, sound-editing and similar software packages, and stuck to their guns in improving dedicated, standalone bits of hardware like the MSQ range of sequencers. Some would say Roland have been wise to hold back, as some of software's earliest supporters have had their fingers burnt trying to market awkward, under-developed packages to a music business too conservative to look any deeper than the first menu.
But now, a couple of years after MIDI software packages started to appear, and with the benefit of experience gained by others, Roland are taking their first tentative steps into the minefield that is the software market. Most of the impetus for the move seems to have come from the States. Certainly the MUSE (MIDI Users Sequencer/Editor) and MPS (Music Processing System) packages have a definite stateside bias, developed as they've been by Roland DG in America, and running as they do on Apple, Commodore and IBM PC home computers.
To be precise, you can MUSE along on an Apple II+ or IIe (64K) with an MIF-APL card and Roland MPU401 interface, or MPU-APL internal interface. Alternatively, you can do the same with a C64 and a Roland MPU-C64 interface. Disk drive and monitor are compulsory, as are MIDI-equipped instruments of some description. Joysticks, however, are optional.
MUSE is an eight-track real-time composing package with a capacity of around 6000 notes per song. You can of course store finished songs to disk, and you can edit any measure of any track with a 'cut-and-paste' function. As with many recent packages, MUSE is designed to simulate a multitrack tape machine in some ways, with facilities labelled Auto-Locate, Punch-in, Overdub and Track Mute. Unlike a tape machine, though, the system also offers Time Correct, Merge, Insert/Delete/Move/Copy per measure, Looping by track or song, Track Transposition, Filtering of aftertouch, program change or mod wheel data to save memory, optional Metronome, and Tempo Save. But if you do want to combine MUSE with tape, note that there's no tape sync facility on either the MPU-APL or MPU-C64 interfaces, so you'll need another black box somewhere along the line.
The MPU401 interface has been around for a while. It's a paperback-sized unit with MIDI In, two MIDI Outs, Sync, Tape and Metronome Out, Tape In and a multipin connector to the computer card. It's an intelligent unit which usually takes over some of the handling routines from the computer, allowing it to get on with the business of recording and playing.
The computer card to the MPU401 can be inserted into any of the Apple's rear panel slots; after the title page, the MUSE software asks you which slot is in use. After this you come to the Command Screen (Screen 1).
It's handy to use a joystick to move around from one function to another, and usefully, the present tempo, time signature, measure number and other parameters are all displayed along the bottom of the screen.
Once the cursor is placed over a function, you click the joystick fire button or push the space bar to activate it. If you want to enter new numbers you can use the joystick, L/J/K/M keys or number keys, and selecting Record takes you to a new window (Screen 2), with the bottom half of the display being as per the Command Window. Point to a track number, click the joystick, and then either set up the number of measures to be recorded, or just start recording and stop by hitting the space bar. If a pattern has already been recorded, your new first measure can start at some point in the middle of that pattern. In either case you get a two-bar count-in, and MUSE drops out of record mode after the requisite number of measures.
Tempo, as we mentioned, is programmable from 20 to 240 BPM, and the selected tempo is saved to disk with the other song information. Up-Tempo and down-Tempo features allow you to alter the speed by 1 BPM, and the Metronome function allows the metronome to sound during Record only, Record and Play, or neither.
Time signature, again, is stored to disk, but you can't mix time signatures within a song, which seems slightly limiting - all those old Yes songs you wanted to cover go straight out of the window. Still, you can console yourself by playing around with Auto-Correct, another window for which the top half looks pretty much like the example in Screen 3.
"It takes longer to set up all the plugs, leads and interfaces than it does to get your first sequence to play back on the MUSE system."
Logically enough, this display refers to timings from quarter-notes, through eighth-note triplets to 32nd-note triplets, but as with most other packages, the auto-correct is a little on the irrevocable side, so it's best to copy a track before attempting any auto-correction.
When tracks are recorded with MUSE, they play back on whatever MIDI channel they were entered on. 'Channelize' allows you to change these MIDI channels, and the independence of channels is preserved even after you've merged tracks, which is good to know.
Auto Locate starts the music from any measure number you enter, while the disk saving routines are pretty routine.
Going through the 'extras' section briefly, you can remove aftertouch, patch-change and even modulation information by switching on the appropriate filters in the interests of saving memory, and can select either a Song Loop (based on the longest track) or a Track Loop (in which all tracks loop independently regardless of length, good for creating Terry Riley-style systems music). You can transpose a track up or down by 12 semitones, but since this function can be repeated, the range is effectively limitless.
Sync mode determines whether you're clocked from tape (FSK 24ppqn), MIDI or Internal, while Merge allows you to combine two tracks to any other, taking a few seconds in the process. Similarly you can copy a track to an empty space, or append it to an existing track or series of tracks (Copy/Chain) or append it from certain bar numbers only (Copy/Edit). Copying and editing uses up memory because it duplicates patterns rather than just setting up pointers to repeat them the way the MSQ700 does, so you may find yourself having to wipe out the originals to save memory once they've been copied.
'Anybody can learn to use MUSE in just a few minutes', claims the handbook, and it's certainly true that it takes longer to set up all the plugs, leads and interfaces than it does to get your first sequence to play back on the system. And as the handbook points out, you don't have to limit your creative flow to a certain number of measures at first - you can play along and just hit the space bar to drop out of Record mode.
Of course, ease of use isn't enough to make you want to buy a sequencing system. But some of the MUSE's other fine points include the Channelize function, the ability to alter the MIDI playback channel (which most hardware sequencers lack), and the fact that you can record MUSE files into an MSQ700 or similar hardware sequencer for live performance when you're happy with them.
And it wouldn't be fair to say that MUSE has any serious bad points. It's easy to learn, it performs reliably (a little more slowly when you're nearing the memory capacity), and it has a good selection of user facilities such as Auto Correct, Looping, Chaining and so on.
On the whole though, MUSE is short of a few fashionable bells and whistles, and gives the impression of being a couple of years old. If you're buying from scratch it doesn't compare favourably with the Steinberg Pro 16 package running on the Commodore 64, though if you already have an Apple II, MUSE is a good bet.
MPS, MUSE's big brother, is based on the IBM PC, a computer found in many front-rooms in the United States. Now, the USA is a country in which two-and-a-half-thousand pounds is a reasonable amount to spend on a computer music system, and in which the Kray Supercomputer is presumably regarded as a small business system.
"With MPS, very few keys are called into action, and tracks can be selected, overdubbed, merged, temporarily muted and auto-corrected with commendable speed."
Sarcasm apart, it must be said that the IBM PC is far from being a home micro in the UK - it's very much a business machine, albeit a successful one. So successful, in fact, that IBM happily allow other companies to bring out 'compatibles' (copies) because they know that every copy serves to establish their original design more firmly.
So it's possible to save money by buying an IBM copy such as the Qubie machine mentioned below, the Compaq or the Olivetti M24.
The cost of using MPS is still pretty substantial, though. To run the system you need something like a Qubie PC (£1517) or the real McCoy (around £3000), plus a Roland MPU401 interface (£149), a Roland MIF IPC card (£75), and the software itself (£595). You'll also need one or (ideally) two disk drives, a monitor, and an IBM-compatible dot-matrix printer if you need it. And even if you use a mono monitor, the computer needs a colour output card (the whole display can be set to any of 16 colours). A 640K computer will give you 65,500 notes' capacity - the minimum requirements 256K, though you need 320K for cut-and-paste editing of the high-resolution printouts.
So how does MPS work? Basically it's an eight-track polyphonic composition, editing and printing system, recording in real time and offering enormous cursor-driven editing potential, all via the eighth wonder of the musical world: MIDI. As on many other packages, lengthy pieces can be recorded and chained in a Song mode and edited in Score mode, while the Print option is a relatively simple one that allows you to transfer individual phrases (but not entire songs) to paper.
In Song mode, MPS gives a display of eight tracks (each of which can contain polyphonic MIDI information on all 16 channels) and a ninth Conductor track which holds tempo and time signature changes. Many simpler MIDI packages don't allow you to change tempo during the course of a piece, but MPS is more versatile - a phrase which could be used time and again as we examine the package.
Any bars with music recorded are reversed out on the display, but it's necessary to go to another function to find out which MIDI channels have been used.
Each section recorded is played in real time from a synth keyboard connected via the MPU401. The IBM's Function keys are used to call up various, er, functions - F10, for example, allows you to alter the Auto Correct value from eighth-notes and eighth-note triplets up to 32nd-note triplet resolution.
Any music recorded goes into a Phrase Buffer which allows you to store, recall and transpose individual phrases to and from disk, and to copy and edit them independently. You can change the MIDI channels of a phrase or apply a general MIDI channel offset from the original values to clear a few working channels. It's also possible to insert a phrase (newly recorded or lifted from disk or from Score mode) at any point in any track.
In the unlikely event that you feel you need to save memory, you can strip incoming notes of velocity or pitchbend information, and it's recommended that if you intend to do any auto-correction, the pitchbend information be recorded separately and merged later - simply because pitchbends are often applied just before a note is played and tend to get confused if any auto-correct changes are made. Similarly, you're advised to auto-correct phrases to clean up their beginnings and ends if you want to append anything to them.
There are a whole load of options involved in moving and combining phrases. You can merge phrases, but this destroys the source track, so you need to save it to disk if it's likely to be needed again. It's possible to separate information on different MIDI channels even after you've merged tracks, though this involves re-plugging the MIDI Out to the MIDI In of the MPU401.
More than many 'user-friendly' systems, MPS is quite an approachable beast. Very few keys are called into action in day-to-day operation, and tracks can be selected, overdubbed, merged, temporarily muted and auto-corrected into a finished piece with commendable speed.
"Ever created a 32,000-bar composition? This could be your chance, though MPS only allows you to see 80 of those 32,000 bars at any one time."
As on an analogue tape machine, you can punch in and punch out of a recording, choosing the length of your count-in and your starting bar. Tempo can be altered with the +/- keys or typed in numerically, and tracks can be transposed individually or together. Transpositions aren't permanent until they're stored to disk, unless you're in Score Mode.
The velocity (volume) level of each track can be set at any value from 0-255, and a recent update allows you to switch the MIDI Song Pointer function on or off. This allows the package to tell external devices which point in a score it has reached, so MPS is capable of synchronising to SMPTE equipment via a Roland SBX80 or something similar. This means, of course, that in a lengthy composition using several tape machines or sequencers, you don't have to start at the start of the piece on each overdub if you want to keep the machines in synchronisation. MPS can also be synchronised to tape or MIDI, so it's far from a 'professionals only' package in that respect.
Other recent changes include the sending of All Notes Off (Poly) data at appropriate times to cure the tendency of some synths to drone on after the end of a piece.
Before you make a master tape of your composition, you might want to have it scored on paper. You have to format the Score Mode resolution - to 16th-notes, say - and define the time signature, and I can foresee this process causing a few unwanted changes if people don't auto-correct everything properly. This is where the Edit and Clean functions come in - it's possible to pick up and change any note with the cursor, then Clean the phrase to close up any gaps you've left (these may not necessarily sound over MIDI, but they do mess up your lovely neat score).
Actually, the Score mode has several clever functions, like Assume, which looks at the length, MIDI channel and velocity value of a note you've edited and 'assumes' that subsequent notes have similar values. This sort of function is invaluable on a system as powerful as MPS, because if you had to take care of all its possibilities individually, you'd be up all night.
You can add ties and other notation, change the gate length of notes for added expression (particularly good for bass passages), alter the stems on notes (though the automatic assignment of stem directions is already very clever), move notes slightly to clarify big chords (this doesn't sound over MIDI), insert accidentals and even lyrics. An update to MPS (usually available at a nominal charge to registered users) adds an icon designer for coda, repeat and other signs.
The Print mode places as many as four staves of up to six bars on one sheet of paper, carefully avoiding cutting bars in half. As is the norm with scorewriting systems of this kind, printing is pretty slow, and as mentioned above, can only cope with one 'phrase' (which admittedly can be very long) at a time. But by the time you've finished a 32,000-bar composition, you'll probably be ready for a cup of tea while it prints out.
So, MPS is an enormously powerful software package that's also speedy in use. It's also expensive, no question about that. But look at the opposition. Most of the dedicated alternatives (QX1, MSQ700 and so on) are nothing like as powerful. There are other computer-based composition systems, but those for cheaper micros like the Commodore 64 and Apple are slower and less accessible, while those for the IBM PC, Apple Mac and Atari ST are (or will be) unlikely to cost much less than MPS.
Where MPS falls down slightly is its lack of a good demo piece on disk to show off its capabilities. With luck, MusiCalc (who are distributing MPS) will make one available soon; until then, the system's only demo is a score printed in the handbook.
To accompany MPS, Roland have launched the SJE, an IBM editing/library software package for the Super Jupiter module which comes with a huge number of factory sounds, plus the ability to store sets of two sound banks to cartridge and one to the synth. If you can get hold of DesqView from Quarterdeck, you can use it to make MPS and SJE reside in the computer simultaneously, thereby creating an enormously powerful sound creation/composition system.
Another possible way forward is to get a good IBM emulator package for a cheaper computer such as the Atari 520ST. It's not clear whether such a package will allow other computers to run MPS or SJE, or indeed how you'd load the software from a 5.25-inch disk into a machine that uses the 3.5-inch variety. Worth thinking about, though.
In the meantime, Roland will be pleased to give a comprehensive demo of MPS and SJE to any interested parties, and to advise on which computer to pick, which accessories are vital, and so on. Evidently, MPS has a lot of potential for expansion and the sort of external interfacing denied to other systems, as well as being a damn clever system in its own right. If your studio is in this league, you can't afford not to consider it.
Prices MUSE £180; MPS £595; both RRPs including VAT
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