sequencer for the PC
For many people, the definitive sequencing software for the PC has yet to be written. Could this be it?
Professional features and a budget price - but is this new PC sequencing package a real star? Nicholas Rowland gazes into the heavens...
PCs are often touted as the cheap way into computer sequencing, but while the price-to-power ratio of the hardware compares favourably with other platforms, the price of PC software has never been exactly cheap. Admittedly, most of the current generation of PC-based sequencers are aimed at the serious user, so you could argue you get a lot for your money. Nevertheless, newcomers to PC music-making will quickly discover a distinct lack of the kind of pocket-money MIDI packages (including sound editors and utility software) that have long been available to Atari and Amiga users.
The good news is that Goldstar have just released Procyon 1.0. This 32-track, pattern-based PC sequencer weighs in at an extremely modest £49, yet offers facilities which match (nay, often exceed) packages costing two, three and even four times as much. Don't, however, get too excited by the words 'Multimedia Control Application' embellishing the box - this really only refers to the fact that Procyon can be used to control compatible internal soundcards - such as Goldstar's own Soundtrack (to be reviewed next month) - in addition to external MIDI instruments.
Minimum requirements for Goldstar's sequencer for the masses, apart from Windows 3.1, are a 386 PC running at 16MHz, equipped with 2Mb of RAM, 1Mb of spare hard disc space and a mouse. You also need a pinch of salt for the bit in the manual which explains why Procyon has been named after the brightest star in the constellation Canis Minor. I won't repeat it here.
The program installs painlessly from a single disk, creating its own group menu complete with icons for several demo MIDIfiles provided by Words & Music up in Sunderland. Clicking on these will automatically open the sequencer package itself and load up various pieces for your edification and amusement.
Anyone familiar with computer sequencer users should have little problem finding their way around the screen. A tool bar along the top gives you the usual tape transport controls for play, record, etc, along buttons for to toggle external sync, metronome click, overdub/replace record mode, punch in recording and so on. The only problem was that my review copy gave me little black boxes where the time signature and tempo values should have been - just the first two of a number of gremlins which popped up (or rather failed to pop up) as time went on.
Icons on the toolbar also give you access to the various editors, namely the Track Window, Piano Roll, Event Editor and Mixer. There's also a pop-up Notepad - handy for jotting down pizza orders and, er... making notes. You can save and recall individual desktop configurations. When you boot up after the first time, you always get the desktop you were using when you last exited - both nice touches these.
Your main area of work is likely to be the track window - which as you can see from the piccies follows a trend first set by Cubase. It's extremely easy to use. When recording from scratch, simply draw in the desired number of bars in the appropriate track and hit record (always real-time in this window, though step recording is offered in the Piano Roll editor). Loop recording (and playback) is available at the press of a button as is automatic punch in and out, with loop/punch points controlled by left and right locators. Pattern lengths can also be specified from a pop-up menu and can be up to 9999 bars long.
You can select just how many columns of track information are displayed on the left hand side of each track. The more you have, the more parameters (such as program change, bank numbers, reverb levels, mute and solo) you can edit without going into other screens, although this in turn limits the amount of space left to see the arrangement.
For General MIDI users, Procyon offers the advantage of a GM instrument list allowing you to call up patches by name. For anything else, you'll have to do it using program change numbers as there's no facility to create custom instrument lists.
The other major omission is the lack of support for multiple tempos. If your music features rallentandos, you'd better forget it. For this kind of facility (plus lots more) you'll have to wait for the big daddy version of Procyon due out soon.
Once in the system, individual patterns can be transposed, quantized and micro time-shifted to your heart's content. You can also tweak the velocity and length of single notes or groups of notes.
Individual patterns are soon marshalled into complete songs. Armed with arrow, pencil, eraser, mute button, knife or tube of glue from the pop-up toolbox, you can quickly move patterns to different tracks or bars, delete whole or part patterns, chop them up, reassemble the bits and stick them back together in a different order. What's more, most editing can be done while the sequencer is playing, which means you can hear it take effect immediately.
Each time you copy a pattern on Procyon, you can decide whether to make it a 'child' pattern or a proper independent copy. Child patterns have no events of their own, they simply play the events of their parent (who they also share the name of). Make any changes to the parent and all the children will automatically follow suit. This can be very handy when you've copied lots of patterns to create a song and then you want to change the main riff. Double clicking on a child pattern brings up a Pattern Setting box, which allows you to play around with the child's individual settings - including program, channel, volume, pan, reverb, chorus, transpose and timing. A child can be placed on the same or a different track from the parent. If the parent is deleted, the child becomes a parent itself (rather than an orphan!)
In operation, Procyon is very slick indeed... most of the time anyway. I have to say that at least one in three of my review sessions had to be terminated with a general machine reset, thereby losing any edits made since I last saved. Had I been working on anything really serious at the time I would have thcweamed and thcweamed until I wath thick.
A call to Procyon's technical helpline found them mystified as to what the cause was likely to be as no one else had reported problems of this nature. In the end we put it down to a Windows file which may have been corrupted by the deinstalling of another piece of review software.
I encountered fewer problems with the Piano Roll and MIDI Event editors, although I used them less frequently. Like the pattern/track window, both these editors follow a style set by other sequencers - although once again the implementation is slicker than most packages. The Piano Roll editor also includes a window for graphical editing/creation of existing controller data. Unlike some packages, Procyon offers support for all MIDI controllers, not just the most commonly used ones.
The other main window is the pop-up 32-channel mixing desk, which gives you cursor control over MIDI pan and volume as well as two other parameters chosen from a menu of 14. The Procyon mixer also offers the convenience of solo and mute buttons as well as instant flattening of controls on either individual channels or across the whole mixer. However, like many sequencers, the movements of this visual (virtual?) desk cannot be recorded as part of the performance.
In terms of general housekeeping, Procyon saves either complete songs or individual patterns (in its native '.sng' or '.pat' format) as well as reading and writing standard MIDI files. There's also a facility to load songs and MIDI files from disc and merge them with the composition you're currently working on.
Interestingly, while Procyon doesn't support multiple tempos, it will follow tempo changes in MIDI files, if you select the conductor button from the tool bar.
On the MIDI side there are plenty of options for filtering out individual controllers, thinning MIDI data and customising the MIDI thru setup. Other features worthy of mention include the ability to take a pattern containing events on more than one MIDI channel and separate them into individual patterns, each containing a single MIDI channel. The new patterns are allocated their own specially-created tracks, without changing the original pattern.
Despite the wrinkles I encountered, this really is a first class package - quite frankly it should sell itself just on price. I must also mention that the package comes with a well-written and very user-friendly manual (take a bow, MT's very own Ian Waugh) which is aimed at getting the first-time user up and running with the minimum of mucking about. The downside is that details of the more advanced functions are fairly sketchy, although you'll find plenty of extra information in the extensive online help menu (which is also well thought out).
I hope the overall ease of use and flexibility (not to mention the competitive price) is maintained when Goldstar release the pro version of Procyon. Apart from the conductor track already mentioned, this will offer 128 tracks, full patch list system, score display, editing and printout, a grid-based pattern drum pattern editor, and a 'motorised' MIDI mixer. This should see the light of day at Frankfurt and I'll be first in the queue.
In the meantime, to paraphrase an old Bette Davis line "Why wish for the moon, when you've got the brightest star in Canis Major".
|Ease of use||Good beginner's tool, but the twiddly bits are also there when you need them.|
|Originality||Slick implementation is refreshing.|
|Value for money||Five star.|
|Star Quality||It's got Canis Major written all over it.|
|Price||RRP is £49.00 including VAT|
|More from||Sound Technology plc, (Contact Details)|
Review by Nicholas Rowland
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