Intelligent Music M
Software for the Atari ST
Previously exclusive to Mac owners, Intelligent Music's M compositional software is now available for the Atari ST. Intelligent Ian Waugh investigates its application to a variety of musical styles.
A sequencer package so flexible it's been called "esoteric", has recently become available for the Atari ST - how musically useful is M?
IT'S COMING OUT the walls, falling out of cupboards, being thrown off buses and it's quite likely to waylay you if you stroll down a dark alley late at night - Atari ST MIDI software, that is. In spite of the sheer number of programs, it was only in the November issue of MT that I was bemoaning the lack of "intelligent" software. Well, as if by magic here's M, the first in a series of interactive program conversions for the ST by the thinking person's software house: Intelligent Music.
UK distributors, MCM, reckon that Jam Factory and Upbeat will be ported to the ST in coming months to join some new interactive packages. They're keeping details quiet but the whispers sound interesting.
STOP DROOLING AND get back to M. We reviewed the Mac version a year ago (MT, March '87) and rather than go over the list of features again, I'll refer you to that review for details and try to explain what M does and how you may go about using it - or at least how I went about using it - to make music. That's what we're all here for, after all.
First, the differences between the ST and Mac versions. Actually they're very small. The screen displays are different but the functions are essentially the same. Apart from subtle differences in operation here and there the two programs can be considered identical.
In case you can't recall the review or (worse) don't have that issue (go immediately to our back issues dept, do not collect £200), I'll let the manual explain what it's about: "M is an intelligent musical instrument, a composing and performing program which stimulates your imagination, magnifies your skills, and lets you explore your ideas in an extraordinary artistic environment." In fact, M is subtitled, "The Interactive Composing and Performing System".
But what does it actually do? Simply, it lets you record sequences (called Patterns) of notes or chords and apply various "processes" to them. For example, you can give each Pattern a different Time Base. The default is 1/4; a Time Base of 1/8 will play twice as quickly and 2/4 or 1/2 will play at half the speed. It's easy to set a riff in 4/4 time against one in 5/4, for example.
Using the Cyclic Editor you can program repeating cycles of Durations, Accents and Articulations (legato vs staccato). A Cycle can have up to 16 steps and you could give a Pattern with eight steps, for instance, Cycles of longer or shorter steps to produce offset effects.
There are various ways to manipulate the notes themselves. You can give a Pattern a percentage chance of playing backwards and you can introduce a controllable randomness to the note selection. Note Density is adjustable, too. Using percentages again, it determines the chance of a note sounding or not. With a setting of 50%, notes will sound only 50% of the time.
There are six sets of Patterns, Cycles, Note Density, Direction settings and so on, each known as a Setup and you can take Snapshots of complete screen settings, which makes real-time changes easy.
LETS SEE WHAT we can do with it. You work in three stages. First you put music in. Then you determine the way this music data will be altered and store this in the relevant Setups. Finally, you perform or "conduct" the music either with the mouse or from a MIDI keyboard.
The first thing I did was to bung in a series of notes and chords and set up various cyclic patterns in the Cyclic Editor. I messed around with the Note Direction and the Note Distribution controls and threw in a few random settings from the Note Manipulation window and I got - you've guessed - one helluva mess.
After experimenting along these lines for a few days (you can really lose yourself in M), I thought I'd try a systematic approach. When all else fails, they said at reviewer school, try a little logic.
THE FIRST COMPOSITIONAL method I devised I called the Tangerine Dream Sequencing Method. Sorry.
In principle it's quite simple: record a bassline in Pattern 1 but don't apply any modifications to it. Then fill the other Patterns with notes or chords which will fit over the bassline - it's not difficult, listen to any Tangs record and you'll see what I mean.
Alter the Time Bases of the improvising Patterns to create slow string-like chords and fast runs of percussive notes. You can throw in a few key changes using the Transposition selectors - these are very effective - and with a bit of tweaking there's your very own Froese/M/Franke composition.
ALTERNATIVELY, TRY TREX - the Terry Riley Effect. Select an organ-type sound. Start with a bassline, say the notes in an A minor chord with a B thrown in. Let the Note Direction vary a little so it doesn't repeat exactly. In Pattern 2 put slow notes or chords based on the root key, A minor in this case, and the major chord a tone below it, G Major. Using Pitch Distribution Input, enter notes in Patterns 3 and 4 which fit with A minor and G Major and add random Note Order to taste. Keep things fairly slow at the start. Take a Snapshot.
To get things moving, double the Time Base of Patterns 3 and/or 4 and reduce the Note Distribution percentage. Change the instrument sound to something more percussive and throw in a key change if you wish. Take a Snapshot.
Put lots of notes in Pattern 2 to replace the slow chords and use the Cyclic Editor to enter a Duration Cycle consisting of lots of fast notes followed by lots of slow notes, say eight of each. Adjust random factors in the Note Order window. Alter instrument sounds to taste.
Play for a while then ease off the fast bits or cut out some altogether. Revert to main bassline with occasional simple note punctuation. Add very slow chords, reduce tempo and fade to end. Et Voila, your very own Rainbow in Curved Ammonia.
"The first thing I did was to bung in a series of notes and chords and set up various patterns in the Cyclic Editor - and I got one helluva mess."
YOU CAN TRY your hand at "In C" - TREX 2 - by entering four Patterns exactly the same (you can copy from one to another) and offsetting them in relation to each other. Try only one note at first - C? - then add a G then perhaps another C.
The offset can be applied in several ways. You can keep the Patterns the same length and alter the Accent Cycles, you can alter the Durations and/or Articulation in the Cyclic Editor and you can offset the Time Bases to, say, 1/8, 1/9, 1/10 and 1/11 or any other combination.
Of course you can add more notes to increase the complexity of the Patterns and you may reach a point where the cross rhythms and notes are beginning to turn into a tune.
ANOTHER POSSIBILITY IS one I experimented with on the Hybrid Music System and for which Chris Jordan of Hybrid coined the term Computered Music. It can take a variety of forms - according to the system being used - but the principles are the same. It consists of applying computer processes to music. For example, running music lines through loops and incrementing music variables.
This is easy to do on M. For example: put a simple sequence into all the Patterns and select different instruments for each. Set the Time Base of Pattern 2 to half that of Pattern 1, that of Pattern 3 to twice that of 1 and that of 4 to a quarter that of 1. Mute Patterns 2 to 4 and play Pattern 1 by itself. Gradually introduce the other Patterns. Fade them in if you wish.
Swap instruments, change key, alter octaves, double and half the Time Base of the Patterns and reverse the direction of the notes. It should still sound cohesive. You can apply random note selections, too, but then it may lose some of its togetherness.
YOU KNOW THOSE films which feature massed African tribes playing seemingly complex, ever-varying but insistent drum rhythms? Well, you can produce something similar with M.
The Drum Machine Pattern Input loops through a cycle of rests - initially 16 beats long - which you fill with notes as it plays. You can, of course, channel notes entered with any of the other input methods to a drum machine.
Put a basic beat in Pattern 1, say a rock four with bass drum and snare, with the default Time Base setting of 1/4. This will help you keep track of the beat should you lose it, but unless you program very complex cross rhythms you shouldn't. Use Step-Time Record to insert a collection of Conga drums in Pattern 2. Use the Direction control to give it a 50/50 chance of playing forwards or backwards and set the Time Base to 1/16. That should sound effective without being repetitive.
To add to the effect put more drums in Pattern 3, say Toms, Cowbells and Rimshots. Put anything else you fancy in Pattern 4. Experiment with different Time Bases for these Patterns and randomise the Note Order and Note Density so they only appear occasionally to sound like fills.
You can then experiment with accents and note velocity. And if you're really in the mood, use offsets and different Time Bases to produce even more complex cross rhythms.
THESE FORMS OF music are not too difficult to produce with M and are great fun. A consequence of its modus operandi, however, means that mainstream rock and pop with their highly structured form is very difficult if not impossible to create. As a source of ideas, however, you could enter note patterns or chord sequences and see if semi-random processing comes up with anything interesting.
NOT ONE TO let a challenge go unanswered, however, I experimented with a 12-bar blues format. The chord sequence went in Pattern 1 and the notes you would likely play if you were improvising over a 12-bar went in Pattern 2. Notes to accompany the C chord included C, D, D#, E, G, A and A# with a bias towards C, E, G and A#. Get the idea?
The main problem was to ensure that the length of the notes played fitted exactly with the length of the particular chord they were designed for, and to ensure they didn't overlap into another chord.
The original, unmodified set-up was fairly easy to create but, of course, it played the same thing over and over. You can't reverse the direction of the notes or scramble their playback order because notes intended for one chord would play when the other chords were playing.
You can program various Cycles of Note Durations, however, but even here you must ensure that the overall length of the note sequence for a chord remains the same. So if you increase the length of one note, you must compensate by decreasing the length of another. You can safely vary the Note Density.
Careful tweaking produced average results - sounding something like a computer playing a 12-bar blues - but, considering the restrictions I was fairly happy.
"A consequence of M's modus operandi is that highly-structured mainstream rock and pop are very difficult, if not impossible, to create."
An alternative method I dabbled with involved programming a sequence based on only one chord and using the Transposition functions to create a 12-bar sequence. You can cram more variety into a riff this way. Instigate key changes with Snapshots and play it "live".
I'VE ALWAYS BEEN impressed with the brass line-up in Fusion/Funk bands, playing all those syncopated notes in between the beats. So...
Program Pattern 1 with a suitably funky bass riff. Use Pitch Distribution Mode to enter a sequence of notes into Pattern 2 which fits over it, and increase the Time Base to 1/16. To create the funky bits set the Note Density to a low level (between 20 and 50 per cent) and add a few random selections.
Select a funky instrument for the bassline and transmit Pattern 2 to three different brass instrument sounds simultaneously (multitimbral synths are. ideal). You can experiment further by copying Pattern 2 to Patterns 3 and 4, adjusting their parameters, octave settings and so on, and sending them out to different instruments. It won't be quite EW&F but the results are interesting and you'll probably get a few brilliant riffs filtering through.
You can play through a whole set of chord changes in real-time to create the backing for a whole song.
M HAS BEEN called esoteric by many people - in other words it's not another (yawn) real-time sequencer - but it's only as esoteric as a MIDI processor, for example. If you want one, fine, if you don't, that's fine, too.
"Intelligent" is a word I tend to use for software which uses rules or heuristics to achieve its purpose. M has no such rules; rather it uses a degree of programmable randomness and gives you an almost infinite choice of variable parameters. The trouble with music, however, is that it must be presented in a highly structured form if our ears are to make any sense of it, and letting M go full belt will only produce cacophony. It must be controlled - that's where you come in.
I USED M regularly over a few weeks and managed to crash it several times - a little too often, really - and for no apparent reason. My advice: save often until updates appear.
The manual includes a short tutorial section but the tutorial file on disc loads a weird set of Cycles and the program doesn't do what you expect. Bad for a tutorial. Otherwise the manual is generally excellent.
The Startup file contains weird settings, too. I spent ages setting all six sets of everything to sensible values - and that was one of the times the program crashed and my VDU nearly got a fist through it
Loading the Startup file doesn't reset the filename. You can only do this by saving a file or by selecting New from the File menu. You must be careful not to load the Startup file, create a new piece and save it with the same name as your last piece. Yes, spot the wally. Bang went TREX1. A bit more work here would make the program safer, more friendly and reviewer resistant. It nearly went in the bin at that stage. Just when I was getting used to the "standard" GEM file system, whereby a Save offers you the existing filenames on disc and warns if you're about to save over an existing file. Far better, I think.
The screen takes about five seconds to update when you select new Snapshots or clear windows. A minor niggle but one I'd rather not have.
When using the Conductor, you can't specify a limit on the Setups you will conduct. In many cases you may want to use only three of the six Setups but the Conductor will cycle through them all. I found I could get better results by programming lots of Snapshots.
I would've liked to have been able to copy the contents of one Cyclic Editor window to another, and one Setup to another. And I wish some sample pieces had been included - it's always nice to see what a company can do with its own program.
THE PROGRAM DISC is protected but runs, thankfully, without a dongle. It does contain, however, a demo version of M which you can copy and give to friends. A session with the demo program will only last 10-20 minutes and it won't save files, but what an excellent way to promote a program. Have you ever bought a piece of software only to find it didn't do exactly what you expected? Well done Intelligent.
You can perform and record a piece using the Movie icon and save it in the much-heralded MIDI standard file format. Well done again. It's about time all MIDI software supported standard file format.
I hope this has given you a flavour of some of the things M can do. I've by no means exhausted all the possibilities and there are many, many features I didn't use in any of my pieces, so go read the Mac review again.
I can say, if you're interested in making this kind of music there's never been a compositional aid like M.
Price £135 including VAT
Gear in this article:
Review by Ian Waugh
Previous 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!