Doctor in the Mac
Following on from our look at KCS last month - Clive updates us on the new version for the Mac
Just when you thought the Doctor had released KCS for every machine, he comes out with an extended version for the Mac - quite different in many ways to its predecessor - Clive Grace tinkles the ivories and reads War and Peace!
When reviewing Dr-T's KCS for the Amiga and the Atari ST, I was aware that they were working on an expanded version of the sequencer for the Macintosh but that it wasn't ready - imagine how surprised I was when I was told a few weeks later, "we've got the new Mac version here, wanna review it?".
Being as anxious to try out this version of the software as I was when the Amiga version landed on my desk, I must admit to being quite confused by the whole affair, you see, when one buys a Macintosh, one not only buys it for its great software and great hardware (and good styling if you are Jonathan Ross!), no, you are actually buying the interface, the great gran-daddy of all the WIMP interfaces that have cropped up since the Mac arrived.
So anyway, I get to page one of the manual and what does the doctor tell me?
"Let me tell you now, this isn't really a Macintosh program"
"That is, if you define a Macintosh program that relies entirely on those familiar dialogue boxes, pull down menus, buttons, icons, graphic objects, and multiple windows, then this isn't a Macintosh program"
Now, I know Salvador Dali has just died, but must we get all surreal? I mean, here I have my Macintosh, a disc marked KCS level II for the Macintosh and the first thing you guys are telling me is that I must expect to lose all those juicy icons and buttons I bought the damn machine for in the first place!!?
Okay, Okay, a good sequencer package doesn't need all that surplus window tomfoolery (and judging by Virtuoso for the Atari ST, neither do The Digital Muse - the company responsible for it's creation), and I must admit, I did enjoy the KCS on the Amiga - (call it more of a reminiscing of 8 bit days gone by), but I get the feeling that Dr-T's are not too sure how we Mac freaks are going to react when we see a decidedly non-Mac package running on their beloved hunks of plastic and high resolution screen.
The Mac KCS is more difficult to use than most sequencers I will admit, in the light of the Amiga review, I must admit to having read large chunks of the manual - and yes, it is a good manual - I even coloured in a few of the pictures, but with the Mac version of the KCS it was more or less back to square one again, there were no KCS expert options in 20 minute sections, no training videos, not a great deal of help outside the manual, just me, my Mac and a stonking great manual - a real War and Peace job I am afraid!
The problem is that Mac owners don't read manuals.
At least they don't if they don't want to use the KCS (ouch! double negative) - sorry gang, but if you want to use this, then it is back to IBM PC manuals and reference sheets. Again, with KCS, the advantage is that if you can read all of the manual (and in real terms it will take at least a week to do that!) then, you will be able to get on down with a reasonably powerful sequencer.
I agree with the doctor's manual that it is all "overwhelming", but not in the same way that the manual means it!
So, what's different? you are asking (because I sure as hell don't think I can "cut and paste" the original review past the Editor into here!). "Quite a bit" is the answer - the same old front record screen is there, as are the two modes (SONG and TRACK), but there are an awful lot of twiddly bits that I found quite pleasing (once I memorized the chapters), and if you are used to the KCS for the Amiga, forget it all again please, because the new facilities, such as the PVG (programmable variations generator) are all designed to integrate with the Track and Song modes of operation.
Briefly, the programmable Variations Generator is the Mac's answer to intelligent interface's M - whereby you can weight certain random functions to make subtle or stark changes to your music. Such changes can be in the form of a single note up or down in the chromatic scale, or they can be velocity changes and even effect levels! You have control over MIDI here, so the PVG will work on all aspects of the note between a note on or a note off.
The KCS can be used on a variety of levels - most people will use it as a simple equivalent for a tape recorder which is fine, that's what I use mine for most of the time! But more interestingly, you can use the KCS to rend, twist and generally mould your music into a plastic medium. The PVG enables you to modify all aspects of the music — sometimes you may feel that a piece of music is repeating itself too much, sometimes you just get plain annoyed at starting off with that annoying C sharp triad or the sub SAW bass line, well, the PVG can help you there because if you select the parameters properly, some interesting and musical variations can occur that may, hopefully make you look at alternative methods of part and song construction.
At a deeper level, the PVG is capable of generating music from nothingness - well, almost! Just a simple phrase is enough for a variation to work on accompaniment and harmony, and you'll soon start entering the world of indeterminate music also known as aleatoric music.
PVG works in a fairly straightforward way, in that you select a parameter from which to work in. Perhaps a specific pattern needs ornaments added to it in order to make it more interesting second time around - easily done, but I am afraid it's another chapter of War and Peace before you can really get to use it — it also helps knowing about how variations are created and improvised.
Not much has changed as far as the basic software is concerned, although the Macintosh pull down menus apply - and of great importance are the last two pull downs: the Environment window and the Track Functions option.
The Environment pull down menu allows you to set a number of important parameters used by the program. For example, you can have access to either a full environment (which returns an editor window with loads of options about generally setting up the ins and outs of your MIDI set-up), down to configuring the MIDI port. This is ideal if you are using a MIDI interface, such as Argent's superb Communicator which uses both the Printer port and the Serial port for MIDI operations - almost a patch bay, but without the real time immediacy of similar patch bay packages for the Atari ST.
On the Environment menu is a useful memory bar which can be altered as and when you start running out of memory for your compositions - which is more or less never on a 1 Megabyte Macintosh unless you go and have an epileptic fit whilst holding the pitch controller.
KCS will work with multi-finder by the way, so if you find you need more applications, rest assured that when the multi-finder compatible caged artist modules for the Mac and the KCS become available, you will not have to resort to the switcher to get things multi tasking.
MIDI information can now be controlled via a whole host of different operations - for example, MIDI SLOW is an option I haven't really ever needed, but it is useful should you have particularly old MIDI equipment. For example, MIDI SLOW adds a slight delay after each byte sent out of the interface over MIDI, as some MIDI instruments cannot respond to MIDI data when it is transmitted at normal speeds (for example, early DX synths had some problems associated with timing) - and some drumulators MIDI-ed.
Of course, some MIDI instruments can also get overflow errors due to bad buffer clearing, and this is again where MIDI SLOW is necessary (or setting the MIDI channel only to MIDI RECEIVE). Cutting out mod wheels also cures this problem, again, all controllable from this menu.
Clocking and generating time codes for other MIDI and non-MIDI instruments to latch on to is an ideal way of making the KCS fit into the synch to tape fraternity who like to get sequencers tied down to MIDI information on tape (say, for a drum machine that will go through a live sub-mix during the mix down process).
With MIDI you have to start at the beginning in order for all of the correct patch changes to occur. Because the KCS can memorize all of the patch changes, it is also possible to have KCS remember all of the most important track and patch information for a piece of music. You can start halfway through a song without having to start at the beginning and whacking up the BPM count to 450 for a few seconds - a song pointer sets up the sequencer so that all of the necessary information reaches your MIDI net at the same time - a bit like SMPTE, but worse!
Of the other options, Drum channel is the most useful if you are an abject beginner with an MT-32. Setting the Drum channel to 10 (the MT-32's channel allocated for drum sounds via MIDI), any pitch changes and global transpositions will not change the drum track - so a change in thirds up from a middle C sequence will not change the snare and the hi hats for a whistle and a bongo! Believe me, that has happened quite a bit in the past!
The KCS for the Macintosh is not really as great an upgrade as I was led to believe, actually it is more than level II on the Amiga and Atari ST, but less than a complete version change - a sort of halfway house between the ideal "nuts and bolts MIDI sequencer which will keep the 8 bitters on 16 bit machines happy" and the "I'm a friendly and easy to use sequencer" approach.
Mac KCS is more of the former and less of the latter - a shame because with packages like Mark Of the Unicorn's Performer and Creator giving Mac users a taste of what they want, a lot of people will go "ugh - a tacky port over job" and fail to appreciate the subtle elements of the PVG and the rather like it or leave it approach to the window interface.
If you are looking for a Steinberg Pro-24 approach to sequencing on the Mac, you won't find it in KCS level II software - if, on the other hand, you have moved from the Steinberg Commodore 64 sequencers of yesteryear or the UMI 2B approach for the BBC B then I think you will get on like a house on fire.
If you are a Mac fan - gawping over those pretty looking hyper-card patch librarians and windows and icons, please remember that not everybody likes the Mac interface - that's why GEM was created, and as a piece of software it does that job with no hassles and very few bumpy rides on the way - but you do have to read the map so to speak, you will have to get through the huge stonking great manual that literally scared the willies out of me!
Musicians haven't the time to read these manuals, engineers haven't the patience and the KCS isn't an industry standard even though it is on more machines than any other sequencer package - no, the Mac KCS user will more than likely be either a home computer user with time to read and learn the KCS, or someone who already owns a Mac and wants to get into computer music and sequencing. Either way have a look at KCS and you won't be disappointed - if you are a pro, look for the features other than the usual KCS fayre. If you find features like the PVG are of any use to you as a creative tool then fine, few sequencers in the pro field utilize this facility and KCS is more or less the first attempt I have seen of making use of the sequencer as a random composer (such as M).
BASICally, if you fancied the 8 bit approach to sequencing software, but need the memory for bigger things, then I would recommend that you look at Mac KCS level II, otherwise strike it off your list.
Gear in this article:
Review by Clive Grace
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