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Clash of the Titans

Two multi-tasking packages, Virtuoso and Cubase, meet in the ring. Jim Spriggs plays referee

IN THE BLUE CORNER. From London 'VIRTUOSO'. Trained by The Digital Muse Ltd.
Venue: One Meg of Atari RAM
Referee: Jim Spriggs


Digital Muse Ltd. call Virtuoso - "Multi Concurrent Task Processing." Steinberg call Cubase - "Midi Realtime Operating System" (MROS). To you and I it means 'multi-tasking'. In other words, both packages can perform more than one function at a time, a task that, until now has been an alien concept on the Atari.

Both packages have dispensed with the Atari TOS (Tramiel Operating System) and written their own. This enables functions like Loading, Saving and the Formatting of disks to be carried out as a 'background task' and leaves you free to get on with your music.

Both packages according to the adverts are the ultimate, and here am I, in-between as the ref without so much as a protection dongle! Let the battle commence.

Weighing in at 300 pounds (heavy) is 'Virtuoso'. In the opposite corner limbering up is 'Cubase' at 500 pounds (very heavy).

Now, which ever way you look at it there's a bit of a mismatch here. However it's too late now, the bell's gone.

Both step forward wearing their protection dongles and present an A5 size boxed manual. Virtuoso has a single program disk, Cubase has two, the program and a tutorial. Virtuoso counters with an on line help page.

Let's take a closer look at the formats, albeit a brief overview.


The Digital Muse programmers appeared to have started from scratch and opted for a somewhat different approach to other sequencers currently on the market. It gives you 99 tracks to play with and gives you all the vital ingredients you would expect from a third generation MIDI recorder, with the exception of a scorewriting facility and dedicated drum edit page(s). However, I am reliably informed that a score package will be one of the modules released at a later date, as will other goodies such as Generic patch Librarian which will run within the main framework of Virtuoso.

There are a lot of very nice ideas in this package which presents the various facilities as screens of information. The package is cleverly put together and looks very smart. The quality of the manual is excellent and is logical in it's progression throughout each individual topic.


On booting up a Block Page is presented. This is used to set up your own definitions of instruments and details of MIDI output assignments, channels and various other parameters. At the bottom of the page are oblong screen buttons which give access to further pages of information and facilities.

On the right hand side of this screen is the Main Panel which contains all of the main controls for the sequencer. It is divided into six main categories. Buttons, Markers, Labels, Transport buttons, Scroll Icon and Tempo slider.

Buttons - allow various functions to be switched on or off (logical eh!). Markers, define points in digital display format such as clock intervals, quantize and real time clock etc,.

Labels - are boxes that allow the naming of tracks,

Transport Controls - move you around the sequence, PLAY/REC/Re-wind/F-Forward controls are obvious. Scroll Icon allows vertical and horizontal movement and... Tempo adjustment - Self explanatory.

There are real time/session counters and current position markers. Zone markers - indicating parts of a sequence within a block and allow naming using the label block. Rather small buttons allow such parameters as Cycle, Copy, Wipe, Chop, Insert and Internal/External MIDI Sync to be controlled. There's even a PANIC button for use when you are left with notes hanging and pitch halfway round the bend. Press, PANIC and peace is restored by Note off and reset commands being sent on all channels.

The Grid Page

I must admit that at first I went scurrying about trying to find a whole host of editing pages, being used such things as drum edit not to mention score! But no, there is the only one! A pianola style grid has been adopted for this main editing display which in the case of Virtuoso scrolls very smoothly. It graphically displays the current track with note data appearing as vertical white lines on a scrolling grid that moves from bottom to top.

Text Page

This is a very useful mini text editor which allows you to type in notes about a composition, even lyrics. Each block has it's own page which is saved to disk with the music data. The big question about Virtuoso is:-

Will those already into sequencing packages want to transfer to this style? Will this style come to be preferred? Will newcomers be cajoled into parting with their cash purely by reading reviews or listening to sweet talking sales-people?

As sequencing packages go, I admit that I could easily be hooked on Virtuoso, as it has tremendous possibilities. However, I feel that some areas could cause some people problems. The amount of information carried on some screens is very densely packed. If your monitor is not up to scratch you could have difficulty reading some of the smaller print and legends. The current positions of the REC and PLAY buttons on the main screen (PLAY being above RECORD) can lead to inadvertently clicking on the wrong one (yes, I did it) losing the previous hours work down the plughole without so much as a wash.


Steinberg are well known for their Pro-24 sequencer being referred to by many as the 'industry standards'. Obviously wishing to capitalise on the current following and to gain new users they have taken what is obviously the next step by releasing Cubase. A package based on windows rather than pages. For those who, either already have Pro-24 or know its layout, Cubase is a logical progression. It has a lot of the former facilities upgraded, refined and generally made easier to use but, there are some exceptions (more about them later).

A piano style keyboard (which can be removed if required) is displayed across the top of the screen, this can be dragged both vertically and horizontally so that the keyboard encompasses the appropriate range and work area of the grid. The keyboard's leading edge is the play line. When playing the notes scroll up and pass underneath the keyboard, the appropriate keys being highlighted with a black or white dots. A removable ruler is positioned to the left of the grid and indicates the timing of notes with bar numbers. The longer the white line, the longer the note etc.

Various screen buttons located below the grid give access to the edit modes including the facility to magnify the grid. Once you are used to this, editing is very simple. Initially the keyboard displays 6 octaves, (with the ruler in situ) but on pressing the FULL screen button the range is increased to the full 128 MIDI note capacity. (Have your Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass ready!)

The Quantize Page permits four types of quantization:- Snap, Start, Deflam and Humanize.

Snap - pulls the whole of the note onto the nearest quantize interval.

Start - pulls only the note ON and leaves the end where it was thus changing the overall length.

DEFLAM - removes any double notes.

HUMANIZE - is the opposite of quantize. It can add a random shift according to a strength setting and makes for less mechanical music!

The Event List

When selected this gives a list of all the current events arranged in four columns showing Time, Event Type, Channel and Data. Buttons at the bottom of the screen allow manipulation of event filters.

The Zone Page

This can be used to edit events and notes in certain zones providing they comply with the criteria that you have previously set up. The page is split into zones, tracks and event options and has screen buttons along the bottom of the screen.

The Arrange Page

As you might imagine this takes care of the cut and paste side of things and allows manipulation of sequences into a song arrangement.

The Disk Page

Data can be load and saved as a Track, Block, Arrangement, MIDIfile and Default setups.

The primary window is the Arrange Window which displays tracks and arrangements. There are a maximum of 16 such windows each of which can accomodate 64 tracks, arranging parts is now much more simple. Once you have set up channels and instruments as a basis with which to work you can save them as 'DEF.ARR'.

Key Edit

Like the grid edit of Virtuoso, Key Edit displays notes passing under a piano keyboard which contains seven and a half octaves. However they travel from right to left with the keyboard positioned on the left hand side of the screen. So on that score you take your pick, it's either up and down with Virtuoso or side to side with Cubase! There is also the ability to use the bottom section of screen to show and edit controller data graphically such as pitch, velocity and so on. The key edit worked very well and is for me, a more than welcome addition.

Drum Edit

A total of 64 different percussion instruments can be defined for use on various channels. The edit screen is split into two sections. The left hand shows the Sound, Quantise Value, Note, Length, Channel, and Velocity. The right hand is the actual grid on which you can lay down a pattern either in real or step time. Below both of these boxes is a control data display panel akin to that used in Key Edit.

Score Edit

This looks very impressive, but when trying to write in notes from a score manuscript on the premis that the Cubase score edit had to be better than Pro-24 (which I use regularly) it sent me looking for the aspirin bottle. I don't think they intended it as a writing facility, but purely for editing.

All 16 tracks of MIDI data can be shown within Score Edit in standard music notation and can be edited while playing. The manual says that step input is possible, either using the mouse or direct from the MIDI keyboard! Score has what is called "Intelligent quantize" to optimise the graphic display. This can be rather irritating at times especially if one were not used to it. Like Pro-24, Score Edit does not always show notes in the way that you think it will, and can leading you to think that you've made an error. However, overall the score edit is very good, the problems I had may just have been me trying to be too clever.

Grid Edit

For Pro-24 users this is a snip, being much the same as the former only more lavish. For those new to the grid concept the screen is in two parts, the left hand side shows a list of the events, the right shows a graphical representation. The events i.e. Notes, Length, Velocity and MIDI data etc, can be edited in either dimension.

Loading and Saving

Steinberg have not forgotten about Pro-24 users upgrading to Cubase. Pro-24 songs can be downloaded to Cubase but with some parameters being lost. However, it is not possible to go the other way.

Final Score

As a humble referee the task of deciding who has won this contest is difficult. This is partly due to the price difference of £200. If, like me you read music and want to thrash crotchets around a score then Cubase could be the answer, providing you have the money. I do appreciate that many talented musicians don't read music at all, so the lack of a score facility may not be a problem, unless of course you need to send copy to a publisher. Conversely you could look at the extra £200 cost of Cubase as giving you the score facility, but that's not really fair as a reasonable scorewriting package could be purchased separately with greater flexibility.

Both performed well and have a lot to offer. To get the best from each requires constant reference to the manual as one would expect with complex packages. The difference in price may of course be the deciding factor for some people. Virtuoso is a good starting point for those new to sequencing but still require professional flexibility and certainly offers much more than the comparably priced Pro-24. If however you are already on the Pro-24 track, Cubase is probably a better bet, as Steinberg's current offer of a trade in for Cubase is quite attractive. So, how much can YOU afford? If it's about the £300 mark and you don't want scoring then Virtuoso wins. If spending £500 doesn't reduce you to driving a Skoda (that's a joke!) then Cubase wins and scores on points. In short - you get what you pay for.

Product: Virtuoso
Format: Atari ST (1 meg)
Price: £299
Supplier: The Digital Muse Ltd. (Contact Details)

Product: Cubase
Format: Atari ST (1 meg)
Price: £499
Supplier: Evenlode Soundworks, (Contact Details)

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Micro Music - Copyright: Argus Specialist Publications


Micro Music - Oct/Nov 1989

Scanned by: Mike Gorman

Review by Jim Spriggs

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