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Hybrid Arts MIDITrack ST

Article from Music Technology, June 1987

In the maze of MIDI software now available for the Atari ST, this sequencer stands out for offering two entirely different recording systems.


Most sequencers restrict you to using either tracks or patterns to record your music. Here's one that lets you use both.


THE ATARI ST has been finding its way into more and more musicians' studios and homes lately. It's hard to pass up a computer that offers the features of the ST plus MIDI compatibility for less than £1000, after all, and prices look like tumbling down even further in the months to come.

So when Hybrid Arts began developing their flagship sequencer for the ST more than a year ago, people began looking at spending a lot less for a high-powered music sequencing system than they previously had. Comparable 68000-based computers, the Macintosh or Amiga, both cost hundreds more than the ST, plus they required you to buy an extra MIDI interface. Tack on the cost of a good sequencer program and we're talking an easy £2000, probably more.

Unfortunately, it's been a long wait for Hybrid Arts' entry to arrive, but it's finally here. I know it's a cliche to say it's been worth the wait, but phrases become cliches because they state the truth eloquently. And the truth is, it has been worth it.

Format



MIDITRACK ST (MTST) is a 60-track sequencer that comes in two versions: SMPTEtrack ST and Synctrack ST. They are identical programs, the only difference lying in their synchronising options. With each package you get a hardware extension called the SyncBox (initial versions of this were dubbed the STync Box, but that didn't go down too well with the marketing people at Hybrid), which handles all the sync pulse output (more on that later) and functions as a key lock for the MTST. In other words, the disks themselves are not copy protected, so you can make backups to your heart's content, but the program won't function unless it's hooked up to the SyncBox (either SMPTE or Sync, depending on your version of the program). Since it connects to one of the joystick ports and the RS232 port, you just leave it hooked up; a nice solution to piracy that doesn't penalise legitimate users.

When you boot the program up you're presented with a split screen; the left half is the track display, the right the control display. Across the top of the screen are headings for the main functions, which are accessed with the mouse or, in most cases, through direct keyboard input. You can see 20 tracks at any given time. To view or use further tracks you scroll down the screen, or use the scroll bar to move more than one track at a time. It's a very neat layout, and not too cluttered.

The program allows you to be up and running very quickly. Recording is simply a matter of pressing the space bar (or clicking on the Play "button" with the mouse) to start the sequencer, playing some music into it, and then clicking the Keep button in the control display when you've finished. Your music will be stored on whichever track you had selected. You don't have to decide which track you want to store it on first, though; you can play, stop the recorder, choose your track and then store it. To listen back, simply press the Play button or the space bar.

Overdubbing works in exactly the same way - just place your overdubbed parts on different tracks. As you can see, the layout of MTST is analogous to that of a multitrack tape recorder, and thus seems to favour the linear method of sequencing. It is not limited to that type of operation, though, because it can also use a very flexible pattern method à la drum machines.

Each track can be named, assigned a MIDI channel, and protected from accidental erasure. The current state of every track is always on display, and you can easily see whether or not you've made changes since the last time you saved your work, when something is occurring on any given track, and how much memory a particular track takes up. Tracks can be muted or unmuted by clicking the arrow indicators next to the tracks on or off, and solo'd in a similar fashion.

MIDI channel assignments are changed in the same way: go over to the MIDI channel indicator with the mouse and click the button to either raise or lower the channel number. (Bear in mind that the majority of commands are duplicated on the ST keyboard, so if you find it faster to work with single or double strike commands than with the mouse, or simply prefer it that way, it's just as easy to do. Personally, I find myself using a combination of both keyboard and mouse.)

MTST is a very visual system, making it easy to keep tabs on just how you are laying out the structure of your work.

At the control panel, familiar tape recorder buttons are used to start, stop or pause the sequencer's operation. There is no Record button per se, as everything played is automatically stored in a buffer; if you want to save it, you use the method described above. If not, just start the sequencer again and record the part over and over again until you're satisfied with it.

In addition to a counter that keeps track of where you are (beat-wise), there are four additional counters which are used for punch-in/out and cueing up to a location in the track. This last function is what negates the need for a Rewind button; you can instantaneously move to any point in your music. By setting the location in beats and accessing the autolocate function (again by direct clicks of the mouse), you cue up to this point immediately. Whether it's 20 beats in or 2000, you are moved to that point as if it were a start point. This makes linear-type sequencing as quick as, if not faster than, pattern layout, because you can keep moving your start points down the track as you build up your music.

The punch-in/out feature works the same as with most sequencers. You set your punch-in and punch-out points, point to the track you want affected, and play. Save the result to another track, or the same one if you want. MTST automatically places the appropriate note-off command at your punch points, so you won't get the dreaded MIDI drone notes hanging over if you punch in during the middle of a note, or if a legato passage really has no open spaces to punch into.

You can also enter your punch-in and punch-out points on the fly, as it were. This convenient feature allows you to avoid the meticulous searching for the exact start or end points that makes sequencer punching such a pain. If you do want to get an exact punch point, though, you can step through a 96-dock resolution for each beat and find the precise moment when the MIDI datastream starts or ends.

Features



GLOBAL TRANSPOSITION, TEMPO, MIDI Thru channel selection, sync type selection (Internal, MIDI or Sync Box/SMPTE), metronome, patch changes and an overall memory usage bar are also accessed on the control display. In addition, there is memory set aside to store 27 register settings. These will recall which tracks are turned on, the tempo, and start/stop times (for autolocating). This comes in very handy while you're building up your tracks, as you can preset your locate points, or do an A/B comparison between two or more performances with an easy click of the register.



"It can get involved but the fact that you can run different loops concurrently with real-time recorded tracks makes this the most flexible sequencer I have ever worked with."


Section definition commands are also accessed at the control display. These parameters allow you to define your patterns if you want to use the drum machine method of sequencing. For example, let's say you want to segment a part of a track that is currently 50 beats long, but you only want to make a pattern out of beats 8-24. Click on the section icon, select the start point (8), the end point (24), and point to the track affected. Voila, beats 8-24 are now defined as section (or pattern) 1.

You have the ability to define 100 sections in this way, and you can create sections from as many tracks as you like. So if you want one section to comprise five tracks that include drums, bass, keyboards, horns and lead, it's done exactly the same way.

You can also define multiple sections using the same tracks. In other words, any tracks can be combined, segmented or redefined in any way you want for as many times as you like (well, 100 anyway). Sections can now be linked together by using the Assemble Chain command.

This makes for a very flexible sequencing package: you can record and play back either as a pattern-type sequencer, or a linear recorder, or both ot the same time. That's right - you can have a drum loop or an entire song laid out as a series of chained sections, and then overdub parts as you normally would on a multitrack recorder, without paying the slightest attention to patterns.

The remaining functions are all easily accessed from dropdown menus at the top of the screen. Normal sequencer features (such as copying and mixing of tracks) have become pretty much standard, but a helpful feature included here is the ability to unmix previously combined tracks. Providing that the mixed tracks had different MIDI channel assignments, you can separate them out again to the track(s) of your choice.

Quantising tracks is accomplished after the fact, and the results are saved either to the same track or to a different one (so that you can preserve your original performance). You can quantise to the nine values already provided (half-notes to 32nd-triplets), or use any value you wish. The duration of the notes can be set the same way, which is useful for those short sequenced passages.

You can adjust the velocity of the notes in several ways: shift the velocity values by a constant amount to make the entire track louder or softer; scale the track to expand or compress the velocity range; or set all the notes to the same velocity level.

Chain assembly is accessed from these menus, as is section review. When you link patterns together, a different screen replaces the normal MTST display. Four columns of two pieces of information are provided, the first being the time the pattern you want played is to start playing, the second being the number of the section. The fact that you can see 40 patterns laid out at once, plus the beat at which each pattern starts, makes song assembly a doddle. If you need more than 40 link points, there are nine more pages available (for a total of 400 link points) so just scroll down to the next one.

Once you've assembled your song, you are asked to save this information to a track of your choice. The reason for this is that you can have more than one chain functioning at once. Put your drum loops together in one chain, your bass/keyboards or whatever on another, or add just a chain of tom fills. If you forget which tracks are assigned to which sections, use the section review function, which tells you the current state of all your sections.

It can get pretty involved, if that's the way you like to do things, but the fact that you can run different loops concurrently with real-time recorded tracks makes MTST the most flexible sequencer I have ever worked with, bar none.

Tempo changes can be programmed in a similar fashion. A separate screen comes up and you enter the time you want the change to occur and the new tempo, and at that time the tempo changes. It would have been nice to see an easy method to accelerate or ritard the tempo (like a scale function from one point to another) rather than having to enter in each minute change for every beat, but still, this section does give you complete control over any tempo changes you care to make.

A Glue feature lets you cut and paste portions of any track anywhere you want. Simply pick your start and end points, select the track to be cut, select the track and time you want the section pasted to, and it's there. So if you don't want to autolocate to that point and play some section of music all over again, just drop it in this way.

Events



AND THEN WE get to the micro-editing screen, which gets you down to the event and byte level of your music. One note out of 20 bars of music was played too loudly? You could punch in and out to repair this one note, but let's say the sustain pedal was on during the note and you liked the natural flow of the music. Or you just didn't want to bother finding your punch-in/out points. With the editing screen, you have complete control over all aspects of your performance, so you can go into that track, quickly locate that one note, lower its velocity by 20 or 30, and have it repaired within seconds.



"The fact that you can do both kinds of sequencing (pattern and linear) in one package is great; that you can do them both simultaneously is simply incredible."


The editing screen is neatly laid out, showing the time the event occurs, the hex information of that particular note or MIDI event, a representation of the note (which you can actually play from the editor by clicking it; very helpful in finding which note you're looking for), the actual note itself (A5, C3 and so on - a much easier form for musicians to understand than a MIDI note number), which MIDI channel the event is assigned to, and what the event is (eg. note-on/off, control change, and so forth).

You can change pretty much anything you want at this level: insert or delete events, extend notes, add sustain pedal activity where none exists, change timings... you name it, you can edit it. You can even get your tracks hocketing if you want to take the time to do it: assign every other note or event to a different MIDI channel and have the different channels playing different instruments. Yes, a solo line really is something to hear when the timbre changes with every note.

In short, then, MTST gives you control over almost every facet of your music. That's no mean feat in itself, but to implement it in such a way that it is easily achieved, and make it almost intuitive, is a major programming accomplishment.

MIDI



THERE ARE ALSO MIDI options which include input filters (so you can selectively record aftertouch or controller changes), a screen which lets you transmit a variety of MIDI messages (all notes off, tune request, and so on), MIDI output choices (song position pointers, echo MIDI events and the like) and patch limits (so that you can set MTST to accommodate your synth's patch format).

There is also an extremely handy command which lets you offset every track individually up to 96 clocks either early or late. This lets you adjust in detail the sync of tracks internally and with each other, so if the bass drum on track 5 seems to be a little ahead of the bass on track 4, you can lay it back slightly until that elusive, crucially important "feel" begins to make itself felt in the rhythm track. You see the relationship of all 60 tracks on one screen, so it's easy to figure out which needs to be adjusted forward or delayed.

There are safety features (which you can leave on or turn off) which alert you before making certain actions, like deleting or replacing tracks. You can also make the program create backup files automatically.

And to top it all off, this sequencer locks directly to SMPTE. A desk accessory, SMPTEmate, enables you to read and write SMPTE in any of the four accepted standards (30, 25 or 24 frames per second or Drop Frame). You can also dub timecode, so instead of just re-recording timecode from your video copy over to your 24-track (or 16-track) master, you can regenerate fresh code. Not only that, but user bits are also made available for you to add various forms of identification (eg. date, numbering reels or takes, and so on) along with the normal timecode that is generated.

To lock up to SMPTE, just set MTST to synchronise to it. You can select your start point to any time you want, then as soon as the timecode reaches that point, your sequencer starts. But one of the best points is that it is no longer necessary to start at the beginning of the tape to record your music. Because you're locked up to SMPTE, your music will follow timecode to where it belongs.

So if you want to punch in at the end of your song, you don't have to start your tape and sequencer rolling from the top. Or if you are writing music for film or video, you can have your music sync up directly to picture while you compose, without additional synchronisers. Just take the SMPTE output which would have been previously recorded on your video (normally on track 2, or control track if your VTR has one accessible) and connect it to the input of the Syncbox. Set your offset point, cue MTST to SMPTE lock, and you're synchronised to video. Now you can see immediately if your music is going to hit right, and touch it up if it doesn't. And even if you are not working with video, SMPTE is the most stable sync pulse you're going to find in this day and age.

I will mention that other synchronising pulses and methods are also available; Type O and R FSK, 24, 48 and 96ppqn TTL, DIN-gated TTL, a special sync tone called Hybrisync, and click. But if at all possible, just get the SMPTE version, as you'll never want to go back to using any other kind of sync.

Verdict



EVERYONE DEVELOPS THEIR own sequencer of choice, and after working with SMPTEMate for some months, putting it through some very demanding and gruelling projects, I have made this sequencer the centrepiece of my own music production setup. It is easy to use and learn, and packs so many features in that it becomes a standard to which other systems are compared.

That you can do both kinds of sequencing (pattern and linear) in one package is great; that you can do them both simultaneously is incredible. The fact that the package includes its own SMPTE reader/writer is tremendous in itself, that it also synchronises to SMPTE makes it one of the first of its kind.

In summary, then, MIDItrack ST is state-of-the-art sequencing at its best. The fact that anyone can get themselves a complete SMPTE-based sequencer like this one for less than a grand including the entire computer package, with no hidden expenditure, makes it, in my view, the best value system available in its price bracket.

Seriously, this amount of power in the hands of musicians is what computer-based music has been heading towards for years. It's finally arrived.

Prices Synctrack (including hardware), £349.95: SMPTE track (including hardware), £539.95. Both prices include VAT.

More from Syndromic Music, (Contact Details)



Previous Article in this issue

Mission Impossible

Next article in this issue

Strike That Chord


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

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...

 

Music Technology - Jun 1987

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Gear in this article:

Software: Sequencer/DAW > Hybrid Arts > MIDITrack


Gear Tags:

Atari ST Platform

Review by Chris Many

Previous article in this issue:

> Mission Impossible

Next article in this issue:

> Strike That Chord


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