Still struggling to programme your drum machine? Wish you could see what your rhythms looked like? Martin Russ thinks this ST program could banish those drum box blues for good.
Bit-By-Bit Software's MIDIDrummer is a GEM-based generic graphic drum pattern editor and librarian which runs on the Atari ST. (The world seems about to be invaded by general purpose MIDI editor/librarian programs for synthesizers-like Hollis Research's MIDIMan and Dr. T's X-Or. In fact, 'generic' looks like becoming this year's buzz-word.) Version 2.11 is the latest release of the second generation of a program which first saw the light of day a year or so ago. Usually, the second major rethink of a program often has most of the annoying little bugs and deficiencies of its forbears ironed out - so our expectations should be high. Will they be fulfilled?
MIDIDrummer comes on a single 3.5" undongled floppy disk, and uses the same analogy for drum programming as almost all existing drum machines - it assembles a series of patterns into a song. If my memory serves me correctly, Roland were the first company to introduce a graphical grid-based display into affordable drum machines, and this still seems to be the most immediate and readily grasped way of showing what is happening. Not all drum machines use this system - one of the main reasons why my own rhythm programming is so unpracticed may have something to do with the lack of any useful feedback as to what my drum machine patterns look like.
MIDIDrummer has one significant advantage over most drum machines: whereas a large LCD can contribute both to the cost and size of a stand-alone unit, with a computer-based system a large screen comes as standard. MIDIDrummer can run in both high resolution monochrome and medium resolution 4-colour screen modes.
MIDIDrummer's main screen consists of four different sized windows, the largest of which is the Pattern Grid where editing of patterns takes place. You can control up to 32 drum sounds or voices, and 16 of these are listed down the left-hand side along with their A-P/a-p QWERTY keyboard equivalents. The scroll bar on the right-hand side switches between the two sets of 16 voices, so the effective size of the window is twice the area shown at any one time. The current pattern selection (A0-J9 = 100 patterns in an Atari 1040, 50 patterns in a 520) and the time signature are displayed in the top left corner.
The rest of the window is occupied by a direct manipulation area where mouse clicks control the placing of drum beats on the horizontal time axis; a number moves across from left to right to visually indicate the passage of time across the grid. Clicking the left mouse button places beats on the grid, whilst the right mouse button removes them, with velocity entered either by using the assignable values selected by the Atari keypad ('1'-'9' mapped to velocity 1-127, with '0' producing a Note-Off message for use with synthesizer-based voices) or by pressing both mouse buttons at once and typing in a specific value. Apart from mouse entry, keyboard entry (using the alphabet keys) and MIDI entry are also possible, giving a flexible range of options to suit a wide base of users.
Editing on a larger scale is accomplished with more mouse clicks: clicking on a voice name greys the text and mutes that particular sound - clicking again unmutes it. Double-clicking selects a voice's horizontal line for copying to another voice line, whilst Shift-clicking (holding down the Atari's Shift key and clicking the mouse button) clears a voice line and Control-clicking copies voices from one pattern to another. I would have liked a quick reference guide to all of these combinations of clicks and modifier keys, as they are detailed in separate sections in the manual. However, the manual I received was supplied on floppy disk (earlier program versions had on-screen access to the manual, but this has now been removed to make more space and to retain 520ST compatibility) so I can't comment on the finished item.
The next largest window is the Pattern Selector. This consists of 100 selection boxes, arranged in a 10x10 matrix like a spreadsheet, and clicking in a box selects the pattern shown by the labels on the two axes - AO, F7, etc. The double-click copying procedure used in the Pattern window works here as well to copy patterns to new locations for further editing.
Below this box is the Transport window, which has two major control buttons: Play and Pause. These are mapped to the Atari's Return/Enter key and the space bar, with the assignment being user-definable to suit individual preferences or to match standard sequencers. Two toggle switches indicate status: Pattern Play or Song Play Mode, and Song Edit/Protect. Echo/Flam and Metronome can be turned on or off with another two indicator buttons. There is also an indicator for the measure number (eg. M: 57) and another for tempo, which can be increased/decreased with the left and right mouse buttons or tapped in with the asterisk '*' key.
The final window occupying the bottom of the screen is where songs are arranged. Clicking with the right mouse button in the Pattern Selector inserts the appropriately selected pattern into the horizontally scrolling song window. You use the cursor keys to move the insert point around (it is shown by bold instead of plain characters) and every fourth bar is indicated on the ruler line. Clicking above the ruler markings lets you label groups of bars with text to help show the overall song structure. Clicking and dragging with the mouse allows you to cut, copy and paste blocks of patterns with the aid of the Atari function keys. Not yet shown on the ruler (a hint for the next version, perhaps) are the 12 tempo changes which can be assigned to each song. An alternative way to enter songs is to record a live performance from drum pads (or the MIDI Out from a drum machine), directly into a song's worth of patterns. Up to eight songs can be stored (dependent upon your ST's memory capacity, of course) and these are selected and named using a pop-up dialogue box.
With the Pattern window devoted to direct manipulation of the beats, most of the simpler functions like placing, erasing and copying of beats are achieved with the mouse in combination with another key. Additional editing commands are accessed from the menus. The Pattern and Quantise menus deal with the main Pattern window, whilst the Song menu covers things like cutting and copying of blocks of patterns - with a handy reminder of the function key equivalents.
Quantise acts directly on the grid, influencing the positions in which you can place beats or moving existing beats with the 'correct line' menu selection; values range from 1/8 to 1/96, including 8th, 16th and 32nd note triplet options. The Pattern menu's Rotate option can be used to slide a chosen voice forwards or backwards in time, but looped around so that no beats are lost. The Hit Generator and Humanise functions operate at the 1/96 quantise level, adding beats or moving beats to remove some of the rigid timing feel that working to a tightly quantised grid can produce.
The clock source for MIDIDrummer can be set to internal, or it can sync to an external MIDI clock - the program responds to Song Position Pointers. The MIDI Out can be set to produce Triggers (On and Off messages sent with Running Status); On and Off messages separated by one MIDI clock; On messages only, for use with most drum machines; and Sustain, which can be used to turn MIDIDrummer into a simple pattern-based keyboard sequencer. Pressing the Atari's Help key sends an All Notes Off message, followed by individual Off messages for all MIDI note numbers to stop droning sounds - a very useful panic button! Output MIDI filters provide control over outgoing MIDI clocks, Start and Stop messages. Similarly, an input MIDI filter lets you filter out incoming Off messages, and you can arrange to receive on all MIDI channels as well as activate a 'soft' MIDI Thru option, as found on most sequencers, where incoming MIDI data is echoed by the MIDI Out.
MIDIDrummer can save various types of information onto disk, ranging from all of the current songs, patterns etc, to individual patterns or drum configurations. Naturally, you can load the information back off disk again, but with one exception: songs can only be exported as Standard MIDI Files for subsequent importing into compatible sequencers. Comprehensive file handling facilities are provided to ensure that you do not need to return to the desktop to perform everyday management of files - so you can create folders as well as rename and delete files, all without quitting from MIDIDrummer. In common with sophisticated but expensive programs like C-Lab's Creator, MIDIDrummer can load patterns from disk whilst the program is running - the change-over to a new pattern sounded perfectly in tempo to my ears.
MIDIDrummer adds much needed software support to any MIDI drum machine by providing a consistent and easy-to-use method of generating rhythms. For owners of drum machines with restricted programming capabilities (and drum expanders with none) this program is well worth investigating.
Comparisons with other similar programs are not so easily drawn, mainly because the concept of making programs configurable for a wide range of equipment has only recently appeared. I can think of just two other programs worth looking at with similar features, and both are from Intelligent Music in New York. Intelligent Music are most famous for their Jam Factory and M (one of my favourites) compositional aid programs, but they also have a similar rhythm programmer called UpBeat, and RealTime, their excellent new sequencer, incorporates many of the features of MIDIDrummer (and adds lots more - at a price) in an advanced sequencing environment. Of all these programs, MIDIDrummer is the cheapest and it originates from the UK.
Never one to miss an opportunity to encourage home-grown programming talent, I recommend MIDIDrummer to anyone who wants a no nonsense, stand-alone rhythm programmer. It really does look as if more software houses should collaborate with hi-tech music retailers, because the combination of Sam Griffiths of Bit-By-Bit Software and Square Dance Audio has produced a very nice, interactive rhythm programming aid. Best of all, it actually got me programming my drum machine, and discovering how much better it sounded when I did not have to try and work out how many demi-semiquavers were left in the bar in order to enter a beat. The software still has a few rough edges that need a bit of tidying up here and there, but I expect the next update will cure that. Overall, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. If you want a graphic rhythm programmer - try MIDIDrummer.
£85 inc VAT.
Square Dance Audio, (Contact Details).
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Review by Martin Russ
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