Dr.T'S KCS Amiga
Level II V3.5
Quality music software for the Commodore Amiga has been thin on the ground, but now there's at least one sequencer that can stand comparison to leading ST software. Paul Overaa checks out version 3.5 of Dr.T's KCS Level II.
It was not so long ago, whilst talking about MIDI and the Amiga, that I said that things were beginning to move on the 'serious Amiga MIDI' front. Dr. T's new Amiga KCS Level II sequencer is a good example of this trend. Not only has it been both upgraded and repackaged to include some additional, and quite impressive, MIDI software, but the upgrade has been clearly slanted towards the professional and serious-user marketplace which is currently dominated by Atari ST and Apple Mac offerings. Improved ease-of-use, looks, high-resolution timing and 'MIDI workstation' style power have become the name of the game.
To start with the new offering, KCS Level II v3.5 (to give it its full title), provides the upgraded sequencer itself and there are a number of areas where existing users will notice significant differences: firstly, although the sequencer is still immediately recognisable as KCS, it has been given a facelift (improved display layouts, new style gadgets etc.). Whilst this might seem to be relatively superficial purely from a musicians viewpoint, there's no doubt that with today's software, like most other products, looks do count.
Secondly, there have been many improvements which make the sequencer itself easier to use. One of the main growth areas here is the use of Amiga menus to support many operations which previously were only available from specific screen/mode pages. This in turn means that some of the minor irritations (like having to switch from the tape display to the track edit page just to clear track data) have disappeared.
As with earlier Level II releases, the sequencer package includes the Dr. T Programmable Variations Generator (PVG) program and the handy Master Editor but that is essentially where the similarities between earlier versions end, because bundled with this new release comes Tiger, Dr. T's graphic editor, the QuickScore notation program, and David Silver's clever AutoMix program. Furthermore all of these components are integrated into Dr. T's multiprogram environment (MPE), and a few words about this topic are clearly in order because it provides one of the main strengths of the new package.
The Amiga, as you will probably already know, can multi-task — it can run many programs at the same time. You can run a word-processor, talk to a modem, open windows for general operating system use, and do countless other things simultaneously, and the Amiga handles all the complex internal program-swapping operations transparently. Such multitasking is inherent in the nature of the Amiga's operating system. MPE adds another dimension to this environment because it provides the framework that allows suitable programs to communicate with one another, and to hook into, and use, a common set of sequencer data.
One of the big advantages of these MPE links, which users of programs like Dr. T's Copyist will appreciate, is that it eliminates the need for storing sequencer data in temporary files. If, for example, you read a standard MIDI file or a KCS file into the sequencer and then switch to the Tiger editing program, this second module instantly learns about the data present in the sequencer. Similarly when you activate QuickScore from the MPE sequencer menu, this module also learns about the current sequencer data without requiring the use of temporary files.
MPE is a major technical achievement for the Dr. T programming team. The problems (and the development costs) of producing such a system are enormous but, luckily, the benefits are equally great — MPE provides the magic that lets you combine sequencing, patch editing, scoring, SMPTE control and so on, from a single environment. This lets the Amiga become an 'integrated MIDI workstation' which is on a par with many of the heavyweight offerings available on other machines.
The basic idea of the tape deck display with Track mode, Open mode and Song mode operations remains, but several new facilities and menu options have been included. If you've not encountered earlier versions of the KCS then a few words about the general arrangements are probably in order. The Amiga version, which when it first appeared looked and performed very much like its ST counterpart, has continued to grow but the sequencer itself is still nevertheless based around its original three main modes of operation.
In Track mode the program mimics a 48-track MIDI tape recorder with the usual control over recording speed, quantising, re-channelling, mute/solo switching, multiple cues, multiple take loop recording, inversion, and a thousand and one other things. In terms of the effects they can produce, the track editing facilities are more than adequate: fully implemented mouse controlled cut and paste editing; transposition; re-channelling; track shifting; track splitting; note duration; real-time/step-time editing; and velocity correction functions.
Right from its early days KCS had many of the facilities that working MIDI musicians needed. In addition to normal MIDI data, KCS supported a set of non-MIDI event types which let you incorporate time delays, tempo changes, and control sequence playing in other ways. Even simple options, like the ability to protect the notes on a selected drum channel from transposition, made many of us feel that KCS had been designed to be used.
KCS editing was, however, based around the scrolling and manipulating of numerical data lists. When compared with the more graphic (eg. piano roll) schemes used by other sequencers, this did put KCS at a disadvantage as far as non-technical users were concerned. Dr. T have solved this particular shortcoming by bundling their MPE-compatible Tiger piano-roll graphic sequence editor with the new KCS package. Tiger, as many of you will doubtless know, is excellent, and includes many facilities which function in real time (as a sequence is playing or looping).
The same applies to non-note data alterations: controller changes, tempo changes, velocity changes etc. Usually it is simply a matter of opening the appropriate window, using the mouse to sketch a suitable graph curve, and listening to the effect produced as Tiger immediately adds the appropriate MIDI control data to the sequence.
Tiger offers event and group cut/paste editing, and provides zoom options for editing at different detail levels. It also has its own quantising facilities, and you can transpose, time-shift and reverse patterns. The real power comes from the fact that Tiger knows about your track edit operations. Record using KCS, switch to Tiger for a spot of graphic editing (perhaps sketching in a crescendo or adding a pitch bend curve), switch back to KCS and bingo — the sequencer instantly knows about the edit changes that you've made! It is this fact, that MPE modules effectively work with a common data set, that gives the package its 'workstation' style power.
KCS's Track mode is normally used for the initial recording of sequences, but once the individual tracks of a piece have been created they can be combined and edited in much the same way that track data itself is handled. One of the main purposes of KCS's Open mode is to prepare sequences for linking into full arrangements, and by specifying these using the Song mode you have a conceptually simple way of linking sets of sequences together.
Song mode not only lets you provide a list of sequences to be played, but it also allows you to define tempo and transpose the various song segments. One of the earliest acknowledged strengths of the KCS package was that you could hold 16 separately named songs in memory at the same time, loading and saving them as a group. This makes KCS very useful for live work (it is in fact the only Amiga sequencer that I feel comfortable gigging with).
With the latest version of KCS many additional editing functions have been added and a great many existing ones improved. Some commonly used options which used only to be available from particular KCS modes have now been duplicated within the menu system, so it is no longer necessary to switch modes to access them. New functions include track rearrangement, multiple cue points, measure-location, and some useful note and controller splitting facilities. An automatic 'new track muting' facility has been provided which allows you to suppress earlier takes when grabbing multiple takes in loop-record mode.
Another small, but useful, change is that the count-in can now be switched on and off (previously it had to be disabled by specifying a zero count-in value). One point worth mentioning is that KCS's use of track 1 has been moved much closer to the ideal of a 'conductor track'. In fact certain events (namely the tempo and other events governing how a sequence plays back) are now only recognized when on track 1.
"KCS not only offers the best MIDI/music environment available for the Amiga at the present time, but provides workstation potential which is powerful enough to challenge some of the established heavyweights of the ST world."
The KCS start/stop and metronome functions have also grown of late. The new arrangement includes MIDI note metronome transmission and remote MIDI control of start/stop/record functions. The entire Transpose/Auto section of earlier versions has been replaced by a Transform menu offering things like controller processing and powerful scaling facilities.
The sequencer also offers full MIDI file support in addition to its own comprehensive file formats, and it provides controller chasing, SPP (song position pointer) support, a timing resolution of 384 ppqn, and an overall timing accuracy of better than 7 parts per 100,000!
On a more specialised note it is worth pointing out that KCS provides support for both the Phantom SMPTE interface and the Fostex R8 tape machine. Looking into the future, Dr. T are known to be working on the software upgrades and associated hardware add-ons which are going to provide multiple assignable MIDI Out support for the KCS environment that will effectively provide KCS users with 64 MIDI channels.
Nowadays KCS sports an internal sounds window which allows you to use the Amiga's sampled sound system. Memory permitting, up to 16 different sampled sounds can be loaded at once, and each can have its own MIDI channel, volume setting, transposition value and keyboard range (samples can, incidentally, be loaded and saved either individually or in banks).
Now all this may sound good, but remember that the sample standard used on the Amiga is 8-bit so the quality does not compare to that available from dedicated musical samplers. That said, there are many situations where IFF sample quality will be sufficient for limited professional use (special effects, layering etc.) so some details are obviously in order...
In short, KCS treats the Amiga's 4-channel sound generating chip as if it were a 'tone rack' attached to the computer's MIDI output. You can therefore even play the internal sounds directly from an external keyboard if you wish. One of the benefits of using the IFF facilities is that not only is there a massive collection of public domain sound samples to choose from, but there are many reasonably priced digitizers and sound sample editing programs available (and a reasonable collection of IFF samples is in fact provided with the KCS package.)
Another shortcoming of the original KCS was the total lack of transcription/notation facilities. Users could opt for using Dr. T's Copyist, but this often involved file translation operations which, whilst easy enough to do, were something of an annoyance to say the least. This gap has been plugged by another MPE module called QuickScore which automatically analyses the data held in KCS and displays it in notation form.
Unlike the heavyweight Copyist DTP program (which, incidentally, is also MPE-compatible), the QuickScore module provides only basic score/transcription and printing facilities. However, it is reasonably adequate for general use and includes a limited, but still useful, range of options for changing the final display (altering the number of bars per line, joining and directing stems, clef transposition, note quantisation etc.)
AutoMix is a clever, very well designed program which provides a window containing a set of 32 software sliders that display the status of any two continuous controllers on all 16 MIDI channels. These sliders can be connected to the Amiga's MIDI input and output, or to the input and output of the sequencer. As you move the sliders, so the appropriate control messages are generated. AutoMix can directly edit controller data in the sequencer, thus providing automated mixdown facilities. In the current KCS Level II release you get the original AutoMix version and a newer release which includes colour-coded group fader locking (this allows user-selected subgroups of fader controls to be locked together and moved as a single unit).
PVG stands for Programmable Variations Generator, a tool for creating sequence variations. Notes can be selected for variation at random, by pitch, duration, velocity, or qualities of other notes etc., and PVG will use the parameters you supply to guide its 'inventiveness'. PVG can time-shift, copy, re-channelise, search for patterns and use them as the basis for variations, and do plenty of other clever things besides. The PVG is undoubtedly good, but it must be said that it is a program which takes quite a while to learn.
PVG settings can be stored as presets for later use, and these presets can be combined to produce even more powerful macros. It is therefore possible to build libraries of useful settings to simplify parameter creation. PVG is one of those programs that you never learn everything about, but having said that even a little experience will go a long way.
The Master Editor contains a number of tools for performing changes on large sections of music, including controller filtering and track manipulation, pitch mapping and sequence blending, and other day-to-day global editing operations. I use it for things like controller thinning, arpeggiation, note sorting and, most importantly, for drum part remapping via its 'pitchmap' page.
The improvements to KCS seem to have concentrated on the type of ease-of-use, rock steady timing accuracy and editing power that are expected for day-to-day professional use. The good news is that not only have Dr. T succeeded in this respect, but they've managed to do it within a reasonable pricing framework. Comparing previous prices of individual components the current KCS Level II package bundles up over £500-worth of some of the best MIDI software seen on the Amiga to date. The new KCS Level II v3.5 sequencer with PVG and the Master Editor, with Tiger, QuickScore and both AutoMix programs (all of which run under MPE) costs just £279. The only minor disadvantage is that KCS, when running as intended (ie. as a multiple-module workstation), now needs a minimum of 2 Meg to run.
This aggressively priced package clearly aims to attract both existing Amiga MIDI users, and bring new users into the Amiga fold; there is a very good chance that it is going to succeed. To speed things along UK agents Zone Distribution are prepared to let owners of any version of Music X, Master Tracks Pro or Bars & Pipes upgrade to the new KCS package for just £149. Registered owners of Gajits' Sequencer One, or of Dr. T's MRS or Tiger Cub programs can upgrade for £179. Sparks are liable to fly over an end-user deal like, this but the fact remains that this offer, for a great many users, is simply going to be too good to miss!
Dr. T have an enviable reputation in the MIDI/music world, and the KCS package was the first — also for a long time the only — Amiga sequencer that was powerful and robust enough for serious use. This latest release not only offers the best MIDI/music environment available for the Amiga at the present time, but provides workstation potential which is powerful enough to challenge some of the established heavyweights of the ST world.
Equally important is the fact that Dr. T are well established in the MIDI world. They have been around a long time and have clearly demonstrated their ability to support the software they produce. Packages like KCS started life on the 8-bit Commodore 64. It was then ported to the Atari ST and then to the Amiga platform. This sort of long term commitment has obvious benefits to the serious user and I for one feel very comfortable about using, and recommending, MIDI software of this quality and stability.
Dr. T's KCS Level II v3.5 £279 inc VAT.
Zone Distribution, (Contact Details).
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Review by Paul Overaa
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