Hybrid Arts SmpteTrack
The SmpteTrack software for the Atari ST is one of the most expensive ST sequencers around, but is it one of the best? David Mellor dons his pith helmet and hacks his way through the computer jungle to find out.
Sometimes it's fun to spend money, sometimes the parting of the ways between grasping hand and grubby fiver is more troublesome than getting the top off an old tube of superglue. For example, buying a pair of furry dice to dangle in the car may be a pleasurable purchase; having a new exhaust fitted is certainly not.
It's a bit like that in the musical world. To add a new synthesizer to one's set-up is something most of us do with a glad heart. Finding a MIDI synchroniser to link the sequencer to the multitrack is not a conventionally accepted source of amusement. To put it bluntly, it's a pain in the neck. The problem has been that the sequencer comes in one black box, the MIDI synchroniser in another. However well these components fulfill their destiny in life, there is always the problem that you have to actively deal with two separate command centres. The desirability of having the two in one unit will be obvious to anyone who has been doing the synchro two-step for any length of time.
One of the highlights of my MIDI synchroniser reviewing career - long may it continue! - was the J.L Cooper PPS-1 [reviewed Nov 87], 'PPS' was taken by some to stand for Poor Person's SMPTE. It provides a method of linking a sequencer to multitrack tape without the hassle of setting tempo changes and meter changes on the synchroniser - it takes all its information from the MIDI clocks it is provided with. Unlike other non-SMPTE sync boxes, the PPS-1 can chase — ie. it is possible to move the tape to any position, start it, and the sequencer will come in at the correct point. None of that 'take it from the top, lads', which is a phrase which should remain the copyright of live musicians.
So, if you wanted to chase - and who doesn't? - there was the choice between SMPTE proper, which was not too convenient, and the PPS-1. The advantage of SMPTE timecode is that it is a standard. If you want to exchange tapes with timecode on, it's essential. Keep nonstandard code to the privacy of your own establishment. Thankfully, there seems to be a trickle of combined sequencer-SMPTE packages coming onto the market. Soon it will be a flood.
In the first wave of this deluge is the Hybrid Arts SmpteTrack package for the Atari ST (requiring at least one megabyte of memory if you want to fit notes in as well as the program!). It comes in the form of two 3.5" floppy disks, a manual and the all-important SMPTE unit. I must confess that I wasn't exactly inspired by the flimsy appearance of the SMPTE box, but the Atari isn't exactly built like a battleship either, so pack it well when you're on the road.
The SMPTE unit plugs into a 'D' connector at the back of the computer, and also into the joystick port at the front. This makes for an untidy cabling arrangement, but I'm sure there must be a good reason for it. Also, the two cables really should have been longer than the one metre provided. There are no controls on the box so you want to be able to tuck it away somewhere. After all, there is enough equipment already jostling for a position in the 'near zone'.
The Hybrid Arts SmpteTrack is a big program and is getting bigger by the minute. Not that you can judge quality by the number of bytes of course, but you will find that the package comes on two single-sided disks. If you are in the fortunate position of having a double-sided disk drive (like on the 1040ST), then you can make one combined boot/program disk from them. Happily, the program is not copy-protected so you can back up heartily. Would-be hackers will get their come-uppance when they find that the program will not load without the SMPTE box connected.
The boot disk contains a number of desk accessories, which can be prodded into action from the Desk menu. Among these are 'GenPatch', which is used in conjunction with Hybrid Arts' separate GenPatch ST program to send and receive System Exclusive data from your MIDI synthesizers [reviewed March 88]. There isn't much joy to be had if you don't already have this program, but if you are a keen GenPatch ST user, then it means not having to leave SmpteTrack to set up an instrument using System Exclusive. There is also the possibility of automatically setting synth patches on loading a song. This is called 'Auto GenPatch' would you believe?
Also among the accessories is 'SMPTE Mate', which is destined to receive the most use. I shall be giving this a thorough going over in due course.
Most of the work with SmpteTrack is done on one screen with pull-down menus. The screen is split into two windows, one showing track information, the other showing a control display. There are 60 separate tracks available, which sounds like a lot, but if the way I used this software is the way a typical user would, then 60 tracks is probably just right. You can mix MIDI channels onto any track, so if things are becoming congested then you just double bunk a few instruments and off you go again...
If your eye has drifted over to the photo of the main screen, then you will see the sequenced version of my Unfinished Symphony. Actually, it's my Unstarted Symphony too - I didn't want to get too carried away. As you can see, tracks can be named, and given long names too - up to 16 letters. The control display on the right shows counters, registers, sections - it seems fairly basic at first glance, but let me assure you that it all works out in practice. Let's dive straight in and go through the recording procedure...
Have you got your mouse handy? Then we'll begin. To start recording, click on the forward arrow symbol. It seems strange at first that there isn't a separate record icon, but you soon discover that SmpteTrack is always in record mode, so it isn't necessary. When you have played something you want to keep, click on KEEP and the track is stored. I lost a few masterpieces, forgetting to click KEEP, but I soon got used to the process. You can either name your tracks before you start recording, or after, as you please. To overdub, you click on another track and the process begins again. When you have a few tracks, you might want to turn some off. The upward arrow, to the right of the track name, can be clicked into a downward arrow, which does just that.
The channelising system on SmpteTrack is a little unusual to me, so it warrants a few words of explanation, particularly as the otherwise excellent manual is not too clear on this point. There are two channelising routes one could follow. The first is to set the master keyboard to transmit on the required MIDI channel. Tracks always record on the MIDI channel they receive. MIDI Thru is of course provided, which can be set to the required reception channel on the MIDI expander. By following this procedure, then, all tracks will be like track 1, 'piccolo', in the screen photo. There will be no MIDI channel number shown. This means that the track plays back on the channel on which it was recorded.
The disadvantage of this is that if your master keyboard always receives and transmits on the same channel, as my Roland Juno 2 does, then whatever synth you want to hear, the master synth will play along at the same time - even if it has a Local Off facility. This is obviously not good. If you have a dedicated master keyboard with no sound generator of its own, then this method is acceptable.
The other way to record is to lay down everything on MIDI channel 1, and adjust the Thru setting to hear the required instrument as you play. This time, change the MIDI channel setting in the track, as I have done for all the other instruments in my 'symphony' (see screen photo). This does not change the MIDI channel of the data recorded in the track, but whatever the track's channel, it now comes out on the channel indicated. So far so good. Did I mention that you can mix tracks, and that you can unmix them later by MIDI channel? Well you can, but hang on a minute, if all the tracks have been recorded on channel 1, you won't be able to unmix them later, surely? I'll tell you a secret, you can. It seems a little odd at first, but I can assure you that it all comes right in the end - even if you have to spend a little time puzzling over it.
So now I have the first 16-bar segment of my symphony, how do I go about chaining it together with other segments? It is the case with other sequencers that you have to plan to record in sections of a certain length, whether it's 8 bars, 16 bars or whatever. Usually, you can go through a procedure to trim the length afterwards if you need to. This is really where SmpteTrack scores - you don't have to have any notion about how long your segments are going to be, you just record away as the muse takes you. Then you define your segments.
In connection with this, there seems to be a glaring omission in SmpteTrack's facilities when you first start to use it - there is no Delete function. Oh no, I thought, I'm always changing my mind (ie. making mistakes!) and need to delete the odd bar or two. I certainly didn't fancy having to enter the Edit page to delete notes one by one.
The thing about the Delete function on SmpteTrack is that you don't need it! I was amazed when I used the sequencer for a whole day on an album project and didn't have to delete anything. I still can't quite figure out why, but it's true. Let's probe more deeply...
As many as 100 segments can be defined, which Hybrid Arts sensibly call 'sections'. The thing is that you record first, and define the section later. Do you see the five numerical counters on the control panel diagram? Well the first and fourth are the autolocate counters, which can be used to define the start and end of a section. By doing this, and clicking the mouse on the tracks you want to include in the section, it's done. It's very quick, and since each section is in 'continuous update' mode, you don't have to post it in the ledger or anything tedious like that.
When you have recorded a few sections, you can make a chain. By selecting the 'Assemble Chain' option, the sections that have been defined can be strung together in a suitable order. It's quite easy to chop and change, so it's not necessary to be too precise. Back on the main screen, any tracks which have a circular arrow by them indicates that they are being used in the chain track. Hit Go and the chain will play. Note that it is still possible to have conventional tracks playing at the same time as the chained track.
When things are coming to a state of completion, it's possible to 'flatten' the chain and turn it into a conventionally recorded track. You don't have to do this, but I'll tell you why it's essential. Suppose you have some MIDI instruments that are slower to respond than others, because of slow processing or just plain slow envelope attack. Naturally, to correct this you will shift these tracks forwards in time relative to the others - you can, of course, do this on SmpteTrack. Unfortunately, if you shift a track earlier in time, then you might push the first note beyond the time limits of the section. On playing the chain, this note will not be heard. This is not a fault of this particular sequencer, the only options are to lose this note or to have it play right on the first beat of the section, which will make it out of time once more. It would take quite a bit of internal accounting to remedy this, and if any sequencer manufacturer thinks they have the answer, then I would like to know.
Still, as I was saying, if you flatten the chain, then you effectively only have one section and you can shift tracks as much as you like. The only problem I encountered here is that it's a lengthy process to delete tracks, which you would probably want to do having flattened the chain. Next update perhaps?
As well as chain tracks, there are such things as tempo tracks and meter tracks. It's not hard to figure out what these are, but some sequencers seem to be ignorant of them still. The tempo track is simply a map of where you want all your tempo changes to occur, with respect to bars and beats - yes, you can set tempo changes to beat accuracy. The meter track is a map of the various time signatures throughout a piece. I'm the sort of person who will use these facilities so I'm very glad to see them well implemented here. I'm dying to try out a piece in 60/32 time! Tempo, by the way, goes from 0.5 BPM to 480 BPM (to a resolution of about a quarter of a BPM in the central region) and I thoroughly intend to explore this to its extremes. The days of restrictive 40 BPM to 200 BPM tempo ranges should by now be over.
One curiosity I found with the chain track was that you could update a section but the chain would play as if there had been no change. The answer I found was to enter the Assemble Chain page, do nothing, then exit back to the main screen. Evidently this bit of mouse shuffling is necessary, although it shouldn't be.
Before I leave the subject of the main screen, I should mention that, as well as sections, there are such things as 'registers' - as indicated by a cash register icon! I A register is pretty much like a section but you can't chain them together. Think of it as an advanced autolocator that can handle Start time, Stop time, Punch In and Out times, the current tempo setting and the current track on/off settings. There are 27 registers available.
I should also mention that if you're really into step-time recording, look elsewhere. With SmpteTrack, you're limited to entering beats, 1/16th notes or 1/96th note ticks. It's slow.
The editing facilities can be the make or break of a sequencer. There must be a thousand ways to complicate the process, but very few ways to 'simplicate' it. It may be somewhat damaging to my street credibility, but I'll admit it - I read music. And that's what I would like to see on my screen rather than note lists or grid displays. More than that, I'd like to be able to hear my composition while I'm editing it - either the whole lot or track by track, in tempo and slowed down. Then when I heard a bum note, I could home in on it - probably using the mouse to scroll actively through the music - and fix it. And I mean fix it by playing the right note on my MIDI keyboard, not by changing a hexadecimal value, or manipulating the graphic display. When can we have this please?
Moan over, SmpteTrack's event list is nevertheless very clear - clearer than others I have seen. It's a bit awkward to have Note On and Note Off (actually it's Note On: Velocity Off) displayed separately instead of Note On and Duration, but one can learn to cope. Some sequencers' event lists overwhelm you with information, bringing about a mental 'buffer overload'. This one doesn't. There is the choice between Note, Patch, System and Other (control change, pitch bend etc) in any combination, so you don't have to wade thigh-deep through information you don't want to see.
It's possible to play notes from the event list by clicking on the quarter-note icon near each Note On event. You don't actually hear the correct duration of the note, but it's a start.
A completely different kettle of fish is the Graphics screen. If you're at all aware of grid manipulation techniques then you'll know what they can do for you (confuse you no end in my experience). In the top half of the screen, however, is something much more useful. As you can see from the photo, it's a quick editor for, among other things, attack velocity. Parameters that can be altered here include Attack Velocity, Release Velocity, Pitch Bend, Control Change, Common Aftertouch and Polyphonic Aftertouch (handy if you own an Ensoniq EPS or SQ80, etc). Is that enough? There are two methods of editing, both of which involve using the Atari's mouse.
The first is to examine the data you have, and then redraw it using straight line segments. The second, more convenient, way is to hold the left mouse button down, wait for the pointer to disappear, then as you move the mouse from left to right you will draw out a fairly smooth curve. The MIDI data will follow this curve precisely.
It is possible to buy this sequencer as a stand-alone floppy disk to slot into your Atari without the sync box (version known as MidiTrack). You would save around £300 by doing this, and then be able to use a cheap sync box such as the Yamaha YMC10. So what do you gain by opting for the SMPTE version?
The answer is that this is probably the cheapest and easiest SMPTE device going, and although I didn't have the unit for long, it worked reliably while I had it, and it talked the same language as other SMPTE boxes I have around. As far as simplicity goes, you have all your tempo and meter changes in the sequence, so SMPTE itself is a doddle. To write code, you pull down SMPTE Mate from the Desk accessories menu (at the top of the screen). You can read and write all four timecode standards, and also dub from one tape to another, regenerating the code as you go.
To read code, you can either have SMPTE Mate do this, as a quick check, or return to the program and click on the Sync icon. When the pulse waveshape appears on screen you're ready. Click on pause and SmpteTrack begins chasing away merrily. There are no problems in recording while synced to tape either. A check of the event list revealed that all was going down in 1/96th beat clocks as per normal. Quite honestly, there isn't any more to say. It works.
As you may have gathered, I'm impressed with the Hybrid Arts SmpteTrack. It is quite simply the most straightforward sequencer, soft or hard, I have used to date - although I haven't tried them all yet - and it does things in such a way as to make life easy instead of difficult. It often seems to me that computer software is designed for people who like things to be excessively complicated. I don't, and this program isn't. OK, so it's not perfect. I'm still waiting for a sensible editing facility for instance, but maybe if I keep shouting loud enough, some software house will deliver-maybe Hybrid Arts will. So far, they're doing all right - but we still want more.
Price £499.95 inc VAT.
Contact Syndromic Music, (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
Review by David Mellor
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!