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Dr T's Fingers

Atari ST Software

Article from Music Technology, October 1988

The latest sequencer from the Dr T's stable takes interactive composition by the horns. Ian Waugh examines the software and the merits of mathematical music making.

Fingers is the latest sequencer program to incorporate an interactive approach to composition, but can a mathematical approach to making music be a friendly prospect to the musician?

LETS BEGIN AT the beginning. What is Fingers' raison d'etre? From the manual we learn that the inimitable Emile Tobenfeld - to you - wrote Fingers because he wanted to produce "an interactive program, one that can be 'played' in the same sense as one plays a keyboard or guitar or a sax". He goes on to say that the program "allows people with no previous musical experience to create interesting music".

The resultant program can be used by itself or from Dr T's KCS (Keyboard Controlled Sequencer) with MPE (Multi Program Environment). It is geared towards use with MIDI instruments but it will also work quite happily with the STs internal sound chip.

How it Works

THE MUSIC OUTPUT consists of four monophonic Lines. Each line plays a note which is created from four note parameters - Time, Pitch, Velocity and Articulation. The Time of a note is the amount of time between the start of the previous note and the start of the current note. This is a sort of backwards way of looking at note duration because if you set up a rhythm such as crotchet, quaver, crotchet, quaver, you'll find the first duration would be that of a quaver.

Articulation controls the phrasing or length of each note. Note (sorry) the difference between the Time and Articulation parameters. Pitch and Velocity, I hope, are self-explanatory.

The parameters for each note in a line are selected from a set of Parameter Series, and there are four Series types which correspond to the four note parameters mentioned above - Tim, Pit, Vel and S/L (staccato/legato for the musicians or short/long for the rest of us). The Series is arranged in vertical columns in the upper part of the screen.

Each line has four red Line icons which step through the Parameter Series in time with the clock. These are digits: 1 for Line one, 2 for Line 2 and so on. The position of the Line icons determine which element in the Series will be used to set the parameters for the next note in that Line.

The movement of the Line icons is determined by the Series Control Elements (hang on in there) which are red letters to the left or right of the Series Elements. These are used to skip elements and perform loops. (If you're still with me you get 10/10 for perseverance and a Blue Peter badge. And there's more...). Not content with calling "<" and ">" Arithmetic icons (clicking on them raises or lowers the value of the parameter they bracket), the manual introduces us to the delights of "invisible Arithmetic icons" which "bracket", invisibly of course, the Note parameters.

Time out here for personal comment. Sorry, but I feel the program's operation has been made unnecessarily complex by the use of so much jargon. It may be fine for technocrats but these words aren't even in common use with computer-literate users, never mind musicians.

The manual was written by Jim Johnson who also contributed some of the (better) musical examples. I have come to the conclusion that he is extracting the Michael. I think I reached this opinion when I read - for the second time - the part about invisible arithmetic icons.

What's wrong with saying Time column and Pitch column instead of Parameter Series? Or Effects Selector instead of Series Control Element? At least these are terms which actually mean something.

Putting it All Together

ONCE YOU GET through the technocrap, the program is really not too difficult to understand. But initial comprehension - as you will now be aware - is obscured by the jargon. To quote more Emile: "if I made the interface simple enough, anyone who knew how to use a computer could sit down... and quickly start enjoying the results". Yes, quite.

So let's see how all this fits together. As explained, each note is a product of four parameters - Time, Pitch, Velocity and Articulation. The columns (the parameter series) contain a list of values which are selected by the Line icons (numerals 1 to 4) which move up and down the columns at a speed determined by the tempo setting. If they come to a Series Control Element such as Skip they will hop over a parameter or do whatever the Series Control Element tells them to do.

To give you an idea of what sort of output to expect, the Time series imposes a cycle of varying time lengths on the Pitch series - or vice versa if you want to look at it like that.

This, in a nutshell, is Fingers. But of course there's more to it than that. Directly beneath the columns is a single line called the Advance/Delay line which is used to adjust the timing of each Line relative to the others.

There are four identical sections, each consisting of three parts. A Delay setting delays the entry of a Line and with the Adjust function you can increase and decrease the delay while a piece is playing. Clicking on TPVS or A will move on the Line icon by one step in the relevant section (Tim, Pit, Vel, S or All).

Beneath the Advance/Delay line are four Line Display lines. Reading from left to right we have Pause; Mute; direction arrows (to reverse the direction of movement of the Line icons) for Time, Pitch, Velocity and Articulation (marked S on the screen); MIDI channel; Program number; Pitch Transposition; Velocity Transposition; and Time Adjust (to adjust the time base).

The last three items on the line affect the status. S stands for Save Starting Points and makes the current position of the Line icon its starting position. P makes Fingers play the next note in the Line (should it get held up by a very long note, for example), and Re stands for reset and causes the Line to immediately start over again.

Let's see what you can do with these controls. Many applications will be obvious - reversing the direction of the note pitches and durations and altering the sounds. The Time Adjust can be used to double or half the speed at which a Line plays but you can also select values in between so lines drift out of phase with each other.

"An interesting experiment is to give a tonal sequence a small probability of randomising - I said it was interesting, not necessarily musical."

There are plenty of options to 'play' pieces on the fly.

Series Control

THERE ARE EIGHT Series Control elements, so let's look at them in more detail. An End of Series element lets you split a column into two parts, the column Link element lets you join two adjacent columns so the Line icon moves between them. Skip we've mentioned. Loop will loop a section of a column (no surprises there) up to 999 times. There are two types of rest - "Rest" and "rest" whose effects are subtly different but which basically introduce a pause to a line.

There are two types of Auto-randomise (represented by "?" and an inverted question mark) which are set from the Options screen. Randomisation is determined by two factors: Amount and Type. This is pure Dr T's, so listen closely. If Type is greater than zero then the random changes will always be a multiple of the Amount less than or equal to Type. For example, if Amount is 4 and Type is 3, the value could be 4x1, 4x2 or 4x3, positive or negative.

If Type is zero then the change is based on a Gaussian or normal distribution, a bell-shaped curve. In this case, small changes are more likely to occur than large ones and the average value will be roughly equal to the value of Amount.

Two additional columns set the probability that an element will be randomised. Pit and Tim limits are used to restrict the values created by randomisation.

Who says you need a PhD in Statistics to be a musician?

Master Controls

THE BOTTOM LINE houses the Master Controls. There's a tempo control and an Undo function which undoes the last change made to the score. A box marked <> activates and deactivates the invisible Arithmetic icons in the Line series. Shift is used to preserve the overall length of a Series. With this on, if you reduce a Tim value, the following Tim will be increased accordingly to compensate.

And then there are the easy bits - Start, Continue, Stop and the Menu.

The Menu

THE MENU HOLDS Load and Save options. You can also save a Fingers performance in a file which an be loaded into the KCS or MIDI Recording Studio. The manual says has a utility to convert this into standard MIDI file format.

Fingers records the last nine performances and you can then save any or all of them. If it is running with the KCS, performances are automatically saved to the KCS. You can copy KCS sequences into Fingers' series.

The Config/Clear window lets you customise the configuration of the columns (Parameter series). These are normally five characters wide and separated by lines to give a three-character space for the data and two one-character spaces on either side for the series control elements, Line icons, invisible Arithmetic icons and little green men.

You can remove the lines to increase the number of columns to 16. You can also set up the Series types to suite your application. It defaults to four Tim, four Pit and four Vel columns followed by one S column. You may prefer to set up consecutive columns for each line - Tim, Pit, Vel, S and so on.

The Options screen sets a number of global operating conditions and determines how Fingers' performances will be recorded. Here's a flavour: you can synchronise with external sequencers or drum machines, add a delay between each MIDI data byte (to help clear up reception problems experienced by some instruments), use Running Status, and elect to send Program Changes each time Start is selected.

Copy and Swap move entire columns of data around the score. The Program Change Table can be used to set up a complete program change for all four Lines activated by pressing a single key on the STs keyboard. You can alter the colours and make a backup (internally) of a selected set of series.

The final option lets you allocate the STs internal voices to different MIDI channels. The voices have been programmed to produce a lead, bass and drum sound. You can load your own sounds if you have the GIST sound editor (American).

"Fingers'operation has been made unnecessarily complex by the use of jargon unfamiliar to computer-literate users, let alone musicians."

In Use

PARAMETERS ARE ENTERED and edited using a combination of the mouse, the STs keyboard and, occasionally, a MIDI controller. Some operations seem inconsistent. For example, you can cycle through and cancel rests by repeated clicking on an element. End of Series markers must be removed by clicking while holding down Control, and Loops can only be removed by deleting the element to which it is attached with Clr Home.

Part of the problem in getting to grips with Fingers, apart from the jargon, is the wealth of possibilities it offers. There are certain elements you can simply switch on and off, but many settings have a myriad of options associated with them. Unfortunately there's not enough room here to mention them all.

It some ways Fingers reminds me of a modern equivalent of the mammoth analogue sequencers used by groups such as Tangerine Dream which could only play a dozen notes but whose sliders you could slide and whose knobs you could tweak and which gave you a real sense of user interaction.

Fingers is capable of producing melodic material, as some of the demos (not those by Dr T himself) prove but remember, Garbage In = Garbage Out.

The program can also create some fascinating rhythmic textures - one of the demos produced an excellent Latin rhythm section on the TR505 - with or without a drum machine. It's also a dab hand at atonal music. In fact an interesting experiment is to begin with a tonal sequence but give each note a small probability of randomising. As you listen to the piece it will gradually drift out of tune. I said it was interesting, not necessarily musical.

You can do the same thing for rhythm by starting with a rigid rhythmic pattern, although it's easier to lose the pulse of the rhythm than the flow of a melodic line.

And yes, it can produce absolute rubbish, too. Unfortunately it's easier to produce the bad stuff than the good but then that's the way it is with all music, isn't it?

We mustn't forget that although music has strong links with mathematics, an interesting (to a mathematician, perhaps) sequence of numbers is not guaranteed to produce a correspondingly interesting piece of music. And as soon as you introduce a random element you introduce the possibility of unmusical events. Some of the best (read melodic) demos of interactive programs I've heard either didn't use random factors at all or else used them very sparingly.

The program is quite heavily numerically based and I would like to have seen some musical bias. For example, the ability to maintain musical relationships among the timing (half, quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes and so on) during randomisations. Also, perhaps, a harmonic bias to keep a series mainly within a defined tonal framework rather than letting it spurt out chromatically all over the place. The manual includes a chapter of hints about using Fingers which is well worth reading.

The most obvious comparison to make is between Fingers and Intelligent Music's M (reviewed in MT, March '88). Both are interactive programs which let you alter the music on the fly and they both apply similar kinds of processing to musical elements.

Intrinsically, Fingers is more flexible with more variable options. I personally prefer M's graphic approach although I know lots of people are very happy working with number-based programs. A piece must be played on the fly in Fingers, although you can pause it while you make large changes, whereas with M you can produce a number of setups and use the snapshot facility to move quickly from one to another.

Fingers landed on my desk at an opportune moment, as I had just been asked to produce some "floating" music suitable for hypnotherapy/relaxation. Something to send people to sleep, in other words. Fingers is capable of producing such music; although in this instance I found M's polyphonic capacity more suitable than Fingers' four-note limitation and I found it easier to maintain a tonal centre with M while using random factors.


THIS IS CERTAINLY a boffin's program. If you enjoy wallowing in the depths and intricacies of numeric relationships, if you like exploring the link between maths and music and if you like technical jargon for its own sake, this is for you.

Having said that, Fingers was definitely designed to be played. You can set up series with various control elements such as Loops and End of Series markers to introduce more - or less - music gradually into a piece. However, unlike playing a traditional instrument, the results of your actions are not always obvious.

If you don't have any MIDI equipment but would like to explore the world of algorithmic, interactive composition, then Fingers is, as far as I am aware, the only program which lets you do this with the STs sound chip. However, you're restricted to three music lines and you certainly won't be tapping all of the program's potential.

But is it a musician's program? Well, I'm not really sure. It depends upon what sort of musician you are, what sort of music you like to create and whether you allow yourself to be put off by the Fingers' initial complexity. I doubt if you'll be producing anything for Top of the Pops but if you like serialism, minimalism, atonalism, experimentalism or any other kind of ism it could be just your bag of interactive series control elements.

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Publisher: Music Technology - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Music Technology - Oct 1988

Gear in this article:

Software: Algorythmic > Dr. T > Fingers

Gear Tags:

Atari ST Platform

Review by Ian Waugh

Previous article in this issue:

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