Hybrid Arts Ludwig Software
Software for the Atari ST
This program could clear a few creative cobwebs and give your music a bit of a boost.
An interesting concept in interactive songwriting, but just how accessible is it?
At first sight this might appear to be just the kind of software that gives music technology a bad name with the 'Keep music human' brigade. With a manual whose front cover bears the picture of a robot standing at a keyboard, it looks for all the world like a program that allows your computer to write music for you. Having spent my adult years believing that I have a talent for writing music, this is not a cheery thought. 'Think of it,' said our esteemed editor, pressing the package into my somewhat reluctant hands, 'as a sort of songwriting partner. One who has lots of good ideas, who never turns up late, drunk or stoned and always defers to you when it comes to making the final decision.' Hmmm. He has a way with words, our editor.
When it comes to it Ludwig is not really a songwriting partner. Nor does it write music for you. It is, in fact, an interactive real time compositional tool that can be used in the studio, or even live if you're of an adventurous disposition. None the wiser? Well, how about this - you play a simple sequence of notes through MIDI into your Atari ST and then, with the aid of Ludwig, start to manipulate it. Manipulate and transform the pitch, the rhythm, the velocity - introduce random factors and specify exactly how random those factors are going to be. Save the result. And, if you've got a Hybrid Arts sequencer, transfer that result to the sequencer and use it as part of another piece. Interested? Perhaps you should be.
On the down side, I found this a pretty unfriendly piece of software - its unfriendliness only matched by the absolute hostility of its manual. But once you start to recognise its potential there's no escaping just what this kind of thing could mean for the future of music. It may not be that future, but it's most certainly a part of it.
First, the manual. Those interested in the finer details of this work are recommended to my seven-volume epic 'The Ludwig Manual, and what's wrong with it', but publication has been delayed pending the necessary number of protected rain-forests needed to print the trial sample! Everything that I have learnt about Ludwig has been despite the manual rather than because of it. Suffice it to say that it lies, misleads, patronises and confuses. That it introduces phrases and procedures in one chapter and neglects to define those phrases and procedures until several chapters later; that there are typographical errors; that diagrams are missing. It is as if random factors have been introduced into the arrangement of the manual itself - possibly by the writer feeding the text files through Ludwig itself prior to release. Quite clearly a rough draft was never shown to anyone unfamiliar with Ludwig's workings, to see if it made any sense to the first time user - and with a program as sophisticated as this such a precaution is absolutely vital. To be fair, there are other manuals that are less than perfect in the field of musical software.
A manual, however, is really only an important factor during the learning process. The most significant thing has to be the program itself - is it any good? How do we use it? These are questions to be asked, and they will be answered in the fulness of time.
Ludwig has eight tracks and can be thought of as a kind of sequencer. Can be, but shouldn't be, because this is the kind of approach that makes Ludwig so difficult to understand. It can in fact work like a sequencer, but the way data is dealt with after entry really makes it something quite different.
Each of the eight tracks is made up of up to 1,024 'cells' and each of these cells consists of up to 32 'events' - an event consisting of either a chord, a single note or a rest. Each track, however, really represents a composite of three different tracks, one for the rhythm, one for the pitch and one for velocity. These factors are handled quite separately, and though rhythm and pitch may be entered linked together, it is generally only after entry that they start to relate to each other.
Information can be entered in one of two ways - real time or non-real time. Non-real time is pretty much like working on the edit page of a sequencer, simply involving clicking on the notes and note values that you want. Real time is what you'd expect, and means sitting down at a keyboard or whatever and entering data over MIDI. But, as we've just seen, Ludwig deals with rhythm, pitch and velocity quite separately - so if you're dealing with notes, play the notes, and forget about the timing. If you're working on rhythm then that's what you concentrate on - you don't need to worry about the notes. It certainly feels a bit strange to be working this way, but that's how it's done.
The manual emphasises the need for playing precisely and cleanly, and this is something of an understatement. Anything remotely like sloppy playing and it's just not interested. No Legato here, please, and no triplets either - Ludwig won't accept them. Nor will it accept notes longer than a semibreve or chords with a span greater than a minor 10th, so you'd better not try playing with both hands. It's at this stage, with pretty much everything you play being either rejected or twisted out of all recognition, that musicianship - all those years spent practicing scales and five-finger exercises - seem to be an absolute handicap. Just keep it simple - the creativity occurs once the information is in the computer, and not before. We have to face the fact that a musician is going to find it no easier to work with Ludwig than anyone else would. It may be that with a program like this on the market we have to start thinking about redefining the word 'Musician'.
With the notes safely entered you begin to see what Ludwig is all about. What you've just recorded is a 'User Defined Pattern'. Each of the cells in Ludwig's rhythm or pitch tracks could, in theory, contain a User Defined Pattern. But only in theory - if that's all you wanted to do you'd be using a sequencer. In practice there are other things to put into the cells. (And not just the person responsible for the manual.)
Each cell comprises an 'operator' and an 'operand'. The operator consists of letters or symbols which indicate particular events taking place within that cell, while the operator specifies a particular numerical value associated with the operand. Thus, for example, the operator 'A' indicates 'repeat the previous pitch pattern' while the operand '03' specifies that this should be done three times.
There are thirty pitch operators, unhelpfully displayed in no apparently logical order on the pitch operator page - and between them they perform just about every function you could wish for. Ludwig works its way from cell to cell reading its instructions, so it might be something like 'Play User Defined Pattern 01 / Play it again three semitones higher / Play it again introducing chords in place of some of the notes'... and so on. Listening to the changes each new cell makes can be an absolute delight, and introducing new operators takes only a matter of moments - you simply click on that operator position to gain access to the page and then click on one of the operators displayed for it to be transferred to the cell. Operands are changed by right clicking on the operand itself and then left clicking away from the operand in order to confirm the edit - all familiar stuff to ST users.
"As soon as random features are introduced into a piece it's inevitable that Ludwig is not going to play it back the same way twice, new random factors being generated and replacing those previously selected."
Rhythm tracks are treated in the same way, some of the operators performing identical functions to pitch operators, others being unique to themselves. Notes in particular patterns can be dropped, replaced with rests, changed in value, repeated and so it goes on - the list is not endless, but when considered in conjunction with the pitch operators, it might just as well be.
Nevertheless, it is not the introduction of specific changes which makes Ludwig so interesting, but the use of random changes. This is the point at which the machine appears to be writing music, when new ideas are put forward for your consideration. Some of the opportunities for introducing random changes are so coarse in their implementation as to seem fairly pointless - others are incredibly subtle, allowing the finest of variations to your work. In many ways it's back to monkeys and typewriters again, but here you can weigh the odds in your favour by ensuring that none of the hairy little creatures ever attempt to use the words 'avocado' or 'Neirsteiner' while typing out Hamlet.
Random factors are introduced by many operands in both pitch and rhythm tracks. An example (taken at random!) would be the operator SR which replaces a given note in a cell with a rest. The identity of this note is specified by the operand which ranges between 1 and 32 - 32 events in a cell, you'll remember. If the operand is 00, however, then the note is chosen at random. This is pretty much the pattern throughout - if the operand is going to introduce a random factor, it will do so with the figures 00.
Random notes may be introduced on the pitch editor page, but since they are chosen entirely at random, not relating to any particular key, it's hard to see this feature being very useful. Even more horrifying was the opportunity to add more and more random notes to an existing user defined pattern, inevitably leading to an atonal cacophony. Of far more interest to me were the features where either a random note or notes from a predefined key are introduced into a specific cell. This occurs in two ways, either by means of one of the operators described above, or by using the randomiser function in which events from two user defined patterns are mixed together.
Manipulation of velocity is rather more restricted than it is for rhythm or pitch but nevertheless seems sufficient for the job. The velocity display consists of 32 velocity levels which correspond to the 32 events within a cell. This doesn't mean a different series of velocities for every cell, but one series which is applied to every cell in that track. But there are a number of features which makes this rather less of a problem than it might at first seem. Even so, it's while working with velocities that real limitations to Ludwig become apparent - there are some things that you simply can't do.
As soon as random features are introduced into a piece it's inevitable that Ludwig is not going to play them back the same way twice, new random factors being generated and replacing those previously selected. So what if you like what you've just heard and want to hear it again? Simply turn to the 'Play Again' key instead of 'play' and you'll find exactly what you've just heard still waiting for you, all the random factors frozen. As soon as you press 'Play', however, all the information will be lost, so if you want to save what you've just heard, this is the time to do so.
A point comes in every review - usually the point that we all turn to first - when the reviewer has to stop describing what a particular product does and come down off the fence long enough to answer that old eternal question - 'Would I buy one?' The answer for me has to be I don't think so, but then we don't all want the same thing from our software do we? By the standards of the world in which I live this is an expensive program, and if I was spending this kind of money it would have to be because I found the program to be either useful or fun - preferably both. The fact that the results aren't available as compatible MIDI data files for loading into sequencers other than Hybrid Arts products is an immense disadvantage. The manufacturers claim this is the only program of its type that will deign to talk to anything at all, but that's small consolation for the vast majority of sequencer users who don't use and don't intend to swap their pet system for one of the Hybrid Arts range.
This may not be a problem for the live performer, but the studio user would be left with the prospect of using Ludwig itself as a sequencer and though this is theoretically possible (with the major limitations mentioned), in reality life is too short.
But did I enjoy it? Learning to use Ludwig was hard work, but you do occasionally come up with some very satisfying musical ideas that you wouldn't have thought up on your own. It's at this stage that you get frustrated at not being able to transfer them to your dedicated sequencer for further refinement.
This is undoubtedly a very clever program and its apparent complexity is really a manifestation of its flexibility and almost infinite options - the real culprit is the manual. The Ludwig way of working isn't for everyone but I feel that interactive programs of this kind will eventually become very popular even if just to throw a few ideas at you when you write yourself into a musical dead end. Ludwig probably isn't the ultimate program in this respect but it's still early days and I'm expecting to see a lot of exciting innovations in this area over the next year or two.
Hybrid Arts' Ludwig costs £129.95 inc VAT.
Review by Mike Simmons
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