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How To Become An Atari ST Power User (Part 3)

Musical Environments

Part 3: Musical environments. The final part of a short series in which Martin Russ expands, exploits and explores the Atari ST computer.

This series is aimed at helping you learn some of what you need to know in order to turn your ST into a powerful, personalised tool for creating music. This final part covers the last of the major aspects — we've already looked at software and hardware; this month it's musical environments, and there are also some hints and tips for getting the most out of your computer.


A 'musical environment' is my way of describing the flexible, multi-function aid to making music that a combination ot sequencer, orchestrator, editor, librarian and score printer can be. Instead of running only one program on your computer, you can jump between several as you need their special functions, and often you can transfer information between them as well. Whilst working with a sequencer, you could use a librarian program to change one of the sounds, then edit it with an editor, return to the sequencer and hear the new sound playing in context, and finally print out a score of the finished piece of music. Loading and running separate programs to achieve this would be very slow and tedious in comparison.

The down-side of such ease of use is the extra RAM required to hold all the programs at once, and the limitations caused by compatibility between the various ways of doing the switching.

Musical environments are often described as 'multi-tasking', which implies that they can do more than one thing at once. In fact, most of the time, what you actually want is the ability to choose between several different programs, to switch quickly between them — I'm not sure if I could cope with two or more sequencers simultaneously. So musical environments allow you to switch from one program to another, but more importantly, they deal with the routing of the MIDI data so that conflicts do not occur when you have a sequencer running whilst an editor is also sending out MIDI messages, and some environments go much further. Because most major software packages for the ST need at least one megabyte of RAM, you will need two (or better still four) megabytes if you want to make the most of any of these environments.

The three environments which are in most common use on the ST are Steinberg's M.ROS, C-Lab's Softlink and Dr.T's MPE, and there are several others which are usually similar to one of these examples.


M.ROS looks like just a switcher, enabling two or more programs to co-exist in memory at once (RAM permitting). But there is rather more to M.ROS than merely rapid jumping between a sequencer and an editor, because M.ROS also enables synchronisation of programs in real time to a single system clock, virtual MIDI routing (rather like MIDI Manager on the Mac) and message passing. This means that programs that require timing data (say, a mixer automation program and a sequencer) can use a common clock and will therefore stay in time, as well as actually being able to run at the same time on the same computer. You can also arrange for the MIDI output of one program to feed the input of another and that programs resident in the computer can exchange information.

Some of these facilities are well-demonstrated when you use the Satellite desk accessory with Cubase — you can send a sound to a synth using Satellite without stopping the sequencer, and without any MIDI hiccups. The same sort of interaction between separate parts of programs can be seen when you use the Cubase MIDI Manager to act as a generic editor — the parameter change messages are combined with the MIDI Note messages without any external merging. For specific editing of instruments, the Synthworks series provides M.ROS-compatible editing with an emphasis on graphics and excellent librarian facilities.


Softlink has the same sort of switching basis, but with added bi-directional communication between programs. It does not have the same timing management as M.ROS, and is more dependent on using Creator or Notator as the centrepiece of a system. The inter-program communication allows the flexible use of Explorer editors or Polyframe generic editor modules whilst simultaneously running the sequencer, and the Realtime MIDI Generator provides detailed MIDI parameter message capabilities.


Dr. T's MPE (Multi-Program Environment) is a switcher which is integrated into the company's programs, rather than existing as a separate switcher program. The basic (ie. host) MPE program uses a menu bar entry system which allows you to load other modules into that menu and then use them as if they were part of the same program. Editors, scoring programs and the T-Basic programming language are just a few of the many add-ons which can be used. As with M.ROS and Softlink, programs can exchange information, so that you can use a graphic editor like Tiger to polish up sequences you recorded using the KCS sequencer, or even process the sequences using your own Basic routines. Omega, Dr. T's fully-featured 'power user' system, is a configured set of program modules brought together via the MPE. Dr. T has arguably the largest range of modules which can be used within a musical environment.


Not all musical environments need masses of memory and sophisticated programs: Hollis Research's Trackman sequencer and MIDIman desk accessory are designed to work together to produce a versatile and powerful combination which allows quick editing and processing of MIDI equipment, in a similar way to the MIDI Manager or Realtime MIDI Generator of the larger systems — and it works with only one megabyte of RAM. This sort of integrated working is usually restricted to products from the same manufacturer, although sometimes third party software companies deliberately make their products compatible with several environments: Frohlich's Freestyle is a notable example of a 'composer's tool' program which can work with both Softlink and M.ROS. Some companies also make their environments open to other programmers: Dr.T will supply the necessary details of MPE to any program developer who wants them (an offer of which I myself took advantage).

From a non-musical viewpoint, there is one extra feature of all the switching environments described above — they all allow you to run properly programmed ('well behaved' is the standard computing term) GEM programs. This means that you can use drawing programs, word processing and any other personal productivity tools whilst 'inside' a sequencer. You can even take advantage of stand alone switching systems like Steinberg's Switcher exclusively to run GEM programs which have no musical applications at all.


A musical environment offers more than just the ability to move quickly from one program to another. When working with sounds it is often the context rather than the fine detail that matters, and therefore the facility to edit sounds and then hear them in use can be very important. This mix of programming and arranging can help you to make the most of resources, especially in instruments with limited polyphony for complex sounds, when simpler sounds can do the same job in a mix. Being able to use a librarian program to sort through large numbers of sounds and listen to them playing a track can speed up the process of assigning sounds to tracks, and often produces unexpectedly good results by sheer chance.

Sounds are not alone in benefitting from the possibilities opened up by using a musical environment. The music itself can be improved by using extra facilities which may be lacking in your normal sequencer — randomisers, algorithmic composers, variation generators and auto-accompaniment programs can all be used to enhance your music. The secret of using all such computer-aided composition tools is to make them part of your music, to integrate them into your way of working. If you are using several different programs which do not all have the ability to share sequence information, don't forget that you can use MIDI files on disk as an easy way to exchange bits of music between programs. In fact some editors, like Dr.T's Tiger, are specially designed to provide sophisticated editing for other programs by using MIDI files to exchange data.


If you were creating a hi-tech music composition suite, you would put together several different types of synthesizer so that you had both analogue and digital synthesis available, with perhaps some sample playback capability and a drum machine. Hi-fi systems can be built up out of separate units rather than bought as homogenised all-in-one pieces of furniture. A musical environment on the ST can provide the same customisation and personalisation possibilities. A good Power User should try to be aware of all the expansion areas — make the most of your environment, be it M.ROS, Softlink or MPE.


The Atari ST has a rich diversity of programs written to cope with a wide range of musical applications. Exploiting these to their full potential requires familiarity with the programs and their interworking — creating a few test pieces of music to try out a system will identify any problem areas and can often provide useful ideas for further exploration. The ST is a powerful tool, especially in the hands of someone who has invested the time in learning it thoroughly. Just as you have to learn how to play a traditional instrument, so you have to learn how to use a computer — perhaps a Power User can be best defined as a computer virtuoso who practises for several hours every day!


Zone Distribution (Dr.T, Freestyle, Band-in-a-Box etc.), (Contact Details)
Evenlode Soundworks (Steinberg), (Contact Details)
Sound Technology plc (C-Lab), (Contact Details)
Hollis Research (Trackman, MIDIman) (Contact Details)


An explanation of printers ought perhaps to belong in the first part of this series, along with the hardware add-ons. But because software can determine which printer you can use, it makes more practical sense to look at printers after talking about the major software you will be using. Music printing or scoring software can be especially finicky when it comes to printers.

There are three major printer types: dot matrix, ink-jet and laser/LED (there are also a few alternatives and variations which just complicate descriptions - like thermal, hot wax, piezoelectric and impact printers)


Dot matrix printers are based on a sort of super typewriter idea. Small rods strike an ink-covered ribbon and press it against the paper, producing dots. The rods are small, pin-sized in fact, and thus they are classified according to the number of rods or pins which are present vertically: usually either 9-pin or 24-pin. The single row of pins is controlled electronically to form the characters out of a matrix of dots, hence the name. The more dots which are used to make up the printed characters, the better the quality of the image — so 24 pins are better than 9 pins. Until recently, dot matrix printers were just about the cheapest plain-paper printers.


Ink-jet printers are a wonderful example of the subtle complexity which is often hidden inside everyday modern objects. They use small heating elements to boil ink inside tiny chambers — the vapourised ink expands and is ejected from the chamber towards the paper, at the same time sucking in more ink for the next shot. Because the chambers are heated directly by electric currents, the print head has no moving parts and can be a part of the ink cartridge, so you get a new one every time you fit a new cartridge. The dots produced by the firing of the tiny chambers can give a quality which is comparable to the best dot matrix or even laser printers, at a very reasonable price.


A laser printer works in much the same way as a photocopier: a rotating drum is electrostatically charged, and then some of the charge is removed from patches of the drum with sharply focussed light from a laser or an LED (taking advantage of the photo-electric effect). The end result of this real-life application of quantum physics is a drum where the pattern of charge is that of the image to be printed. Plastic 'toner' is then electrostatically attracted to the parts of the drum which will generate the black image, and the drum is passed over the paper, which is also charged so that the toner is transferred from the drum. The toner is then melted so that it fuses with the paper to produce a fixed image. The resolution of a laser printer can be very high, anything from 300 to 1200 dots per inch, or sometimes more. Disadvantages? Cost - about twice that of an ink-jet printer.


Two pieces of software are commonly associated with printers: printer drivers and printer spoolers. Printer drivers provide the low-level interface between the computer software and the printer hardware. Although standardisation exists for some of the communication between the computer and printer, printers are rarely exactly alike, and so a translator is often needed. Some printer drivers just change a few commands to suit the printer's own control language, whilst others actually process images of entire pages. You should always ensure that you use the correct printer driver for the printer you will be using, which usually means that you should stick to popular models of printer.

Printer spoolers are designed to make printing easier and faster by storing the information which needs to be sent to the printer, and then automatically sending it when it is needed, thereby releasing the computer for more important tasks. The spooler works in the background, and most will temporarily borrow some RAM for storage, although some 'spool' to a file on disk and then read it out later. Some printers have similar storage on-board, in which case it is usually called a printer buffer rather than a spooler.


The process of learning how to use a computer may be eased by having a graphical user interface, but there are still many short-cuts and tricks of the trade which can make things even easier. Here are some of the ST's less well known features.

The Escape Key can be used to reread the disk when you are using the File Selector or the Desktop. Whenever you insert a new disk, just press the Escape key and the ST will read and update the file information shown on the screen.

The Escape key can also be used to clear entire text lines in the file selector — instead of backspacing in the path or file fields you can clear the whole line by pressing the escape key. This also moves the cursor to the left of the field, ready to type in the replacement text.

You can select more than one file at once by dragging the mouse across the files you want to choose. Start at the top left file and press the left mouse button down, then move (drag) the mouse down and to the right to the last file you want to select. A dotted 'rubber-band' line will be displayed around the files you have chosen. If you now release the mouse button all the enclosed files will be selected.

If you want to select more than one file and they are not in the same area of the window, then you can shift-click them. Hold the Shift key down and then click on the files you want to select — each new file you click on will be added to those already selected. This is very useful for copying a selection of files across to another disk. You can unselect a file by shift-clicking on it again. Shift-clicking is also useful when you have used the rubber band dragging technique, but want to unselect some of the files.

If you want to select a file in a window other than that which is currently active (the active window has a striped title bar), you don't have to click in the inactive window and then click again to select a file or program. If you can see the file or program you want to select, hold the Right mouse button down and then click with the usual Left mouse button whilst pointing at the file. You can also shift-click in inactive windows by using both mouse buttons.

The ST normally copies a file when you drag it from one window (or disk icon) to another, but if you press the Control key when you select and drag the file then the ST will move it - ie. copy it across first, then delete the original. This only works with TOS 1.4 or later.

The 8-character limit for file names can cause problems when you concatenate words or try to abbreviate them — just what did I mean when I called that file "PHRONECM"? One useful way to provide extra symbols is to use the numbers at the beginning of file names instead of at the end, so that a set of phrases for a song come out in order, leaving room for extra information: 1CINTRO, 1GTHEME. Alternatively, '£' can be used as the first character of a file name to mark files which you want to access frequently — the ST's sorting order puts the character before 'A'. (I use either '£' or a '0' in front of program names to ensure that they always appear near the top of windows on the ST's Desktop. You may have to be careful with some symbols on some early STs — on pre-TOS 1.09 machines the underscore symbol ('_') can cause sudden crashes if you use it in a filename or pathname. You can also use the overscore symbol, next to the Backspace key, but this can cause problems with files not being read properly by some programs.

Wildcards can also speed up the selecting of files of a particular kind in the file selector. A 'wildcard' is a special character which the computer interprets as either 'any characters' or 'any character'. So, by typing *.MID into the pathname and clicking on the file list window in the file selector dialogue box, the ST will display only those files which end with the .MID suffix (usually MIDI files) because the wildcard matches any filename with any number of characters. The '?' wildcard is more specific: it only allows the substitution of single characters, so typing 'M?.MID' into the pathname will find files which begin with an M, followed by any one other character: MM.MID, M1.MID, MZ.MID, but not MID.MID, which would be found by '?I?.MID'. The most general purpose wildcard is which will match to any file! You can use wildcards in suffixes too — '*.RT?' will match to any of several RealTime file types: .RTW, .RTS or .RTD.

The ST's 'View' menu is often overlooked as a way of organising the layout of the Desktop. The Icons view is good for moving files, and locating programs instead of data files, but the Text view is better for finding out about the size and date of a file (and by the way, that diamond in a black box' symbol means that that 'file' is actually a folder). By using the 'Sort by' options you can determine the order in which files appear in the windows: By Name works alphabetically on the file name, so 'A' comes before 'B', etc, and numbers come before letters; By Date assumes that you have fitted a real-time clock (as recommended in the first part of this series), because otherwise you'll have lots of files dated the 11th of November 1985, sorted into alphabetical order (the ST defaults to alphabetic sorting after the selected method); By Size can be very useful for finding out which files are occupying the most room on a disk (or locating the programs or big MIDI Files!); and By Type sorts using the file suffix, so ASC files will come before .SNG files — which is useful when you are looking for a particular type of file. These settings can be saved to a DESKTOP.INF file (on the boot drive) so that they can automatically be reloaded by the ST when you next reboot.

Copying files to another location on the same disk can be confusing, especially if you need to move through several folders. But there is a cheat's method: open two different windows from the same disk. You can then copy from anywhere to anywhere. This is often a wonderful time saver on a hard disk, where you tend to nest folders much deeper than on floppies.

Copying files from one disk to another can be confusing: why does the ST desktop show icons for two disk drives (A: and B:) when you only have an A: drive? In fact the B: drive is shown is to make copying disks easier — you just drag the A: drive icon across to the B: drive icon. The ST knows that you only have one drive and will ask you to place "Disk B into Drive A", thereby using drive A: as if it were drive B:. When it needs to reread part of the source disk (in Drive A:), it asks you to put Disk A: in Drive A: and so on.


The Auto Folder can be a life-saver for making sure that the ST returns to your personal favourite preferences after a re-boot or power-up (see Part 2). It may take some time and organisation to get a boot disk organised properly, but it is well worth it.

Desk Accessories can make the ST much more usable, but they take up precious RAM. You can get around this by using a DA loader like the PD Chameleon or one of the many commercial versions. They enable you to load DAs only when you need them — and there is no messing around with putting the DAs onto boot disks!

It's a good idea to 'install' programs, especially on a twin floppy or hard drive-based ST system. The installation process enables you to set up the ST so that double-clicking on, for example, a .RTW file will automatically load the RealTime sequencer and the .RTW file, ready for work. To install a program, you first select it and then choose the 'Install Application' menu option from the Options menu. Type the suffix of the file after the 'Document Type:' label and then choose the application type (for most music programs, this will be 'GEM') and then click OK. You will need to 'Save the Desktop' in order to make this a permanent addition to your ST's features, and ensure that the DESKTOP.INF file is on the boot disk.

Saving the desktop to a DESKTOP.INF file saves your preferences about sorting, the position of all the windows and the way that files are associated with programs. Keep the file up to date!

Buy a set of disk labels in various colours and devise a colour code to help distinguish types of files. Colour coded disks can make searching for particular files or projects much easier. Putting a catalogue of the contents on a disk label can take a while, but can also save a lot of time when you are searching...

Power Users always have a clearly marked disk box which contains several pre-formatted disks ready for use. The one time you run out of space on a disk will be the time you have no formatted disks to hand, and are using a program which will not let you format disks from within! (Assuming that you have the Chameleon DA loader installed, you can of course use a DA to format the disk. The Power User should have an answer to almost any potential problem at his or her fingertips!).

Don't be afraid to re-name files, using the 'Get Info...' option in the File menu. It is all too easy to lose hours of work by saving a file as 'SONG.SNG' and over-writing another 'Song'. Use meaningful names and make sure a file has the same suffix it started with — the ST has a habit of losing suffixes when you rename files.

Try to use folders — divide your work into projects. I have folders for MIDI Files, separate music files for each sequencer I use, utilities, DAs etc.

Series - "How To Become An Atari ST Power User"

This is the last part in this series. The first article in this series is:

All parts in this series:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 (Viewing)

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Previous Article in this issue

William Orbit

Next article in this issue

Dr.T'S KCS Amiga

Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Oct 1991

Donated by: Bert Jansch / Adam Jansch




How To Become An Atari ST Power User

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 (Viewing)

Feature by Martin Russ

Previous article in this issue:

> William Orbit

Next article in this issue:

> Dr.T'S KCS Amiga

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