Pandora Technologies !Inspiration
It's been a long time coming, and there have been problems along the way, but there's now a pro sequencer for Acorn's Archimedes. Ian Waugh opens Pandora's box.
It's been a long time coming, but the first serious sequencer for the Archimedes is here - was it worth the wait?
THE IDEAL COMPUTER for running music software is fast, multitasking, with lots of memory, good graphics, built-in GUI (Graphic User Interface) and MIDI interface. Sounds like the Archimedes - apart from the MIDI sockets.
The "Archie" may be the world's fastest micro but since its launch almost four years ago, music software for it has been rather thin on the ground - with the notable exception of that from the ubiquitous EMR. When Pandora announced the development of !Inspiration over two years ago there were cries of delight. But these turned to yelps of anguish when technical difficulties held up development. These were partly attributed to problems in getting MIDI to work with RISC.OS, the Archimedes' operating system, problems which, if rumour is to be believed, Acorn strenuously denied existed.
EVEN BEFORE IT hit the streets, !Inspiration had had a chequered career. It was finally announced at the beginning of 1990 - and advertised as available - but didn't appear until September/October.
Even when it was released, !Inspiration was plagued with problems. Early versions were filled with bugs and the program was all but unusable, certainly in a professional context, although Archimedes aficionados have been known to work around the bugs - and save their data frequently.
Hence the delay in reviewing !Inspiration in MT. The review version is v1.03. It's dated January 1991 and fixes nearly all the program-crashers and data-destroying bugs in that early release. However, it seems that Pandora have revised their program numbering policy as the early version was numbered v1.12 - take care that you get the latest version (v1.04 is rumoured to be on the way).
!Inspiration runs on any Archimedes including A3000 and it will run with only 1Meg of RAM, but I wouldn't recommend this as a serious consideration. And you'll need a MIDI interface: !Inspiration was designed to work with Acorn's interface (v3.14 or later) or a 100% compatible such as Pandora's own PM14. A multisync monitor will help, too, although it's not essential. More about this in a moment.
The software isn't protected and is easily installed on a hard disk but the program uses a dongle (they'll love this in schools) which plugs into the parallel port. It has a through socket so you can still use your printer (although mine didn't like running through it). Take care of your dongle - a replacement will cost you £175.
OPENING INSPIRATION FROM the menu bar reveals the main Control Panel from which all other functions originate. These take the form of windows, most of which can be opened, closed, resized and placed anywhere on the screen.
Here are the tape transport controls, Merge and Overdub toggles, Position and SMPTE indicators, Cue Start and Cue End Markers, Drop In and Out buttons and Tempo control (25bpm-250bpm in increments of .0001 of a beat). You get a warning when the number of free events drops below 500 (100K will store 128000 events). You can toggle the transmission of MIDI timing data on and off and set sync to internal or external. The remainder of the Control Panel contains icons which take you to the other sections of the program - Reel Editor, Sub Group Mixer, MIDI In and Out Patchbays, Cue list, Meters and the Toolbox.
Clicking the menu button over the panel produces a menu with the following headings - File, Windows, MIDI, Undo and Quit. Each of these has further submenus, many of which have more sub-menus and so on. The MIDI Menu controls the MIDI Thru function which re-transmits data arriving at the MIDI In socket back out the MIDI Out socket. There are three filters here, for MIDI Thru, Record and Playback which let you exclude data such as pitchbend, aftertouch, controller and SysEx messages from the operation.
There's a toggle for Running Status (although this shouldn't cause problems on current equipment) and Chase Controllers and Chase Notes toggles. These scan backwards from the position from which you're about to play to ensure that the correct controller and program change settings are in force.
You can filter out MIDI mode messages and an All Notes Off option does exactly that in case of the dreaded MIDI drone. Reset Controls will return MIDI controllers to their default settings (few instruments respond to this message) and you can transmit an Omni Off message which may be useful with equipment which powers up in Omni On mode.
The Quit option doesn't prompt you to save your work but you can save the current Setup data so you can continue your next session from where you left off. Nice.
BEFORE YOU START recording you have to open the Reel Editor. This window consists of two sections and it's really a squeeze to fit them both fully onto the screen - this is where a multisync monitor can help. Mode 16, however, gives reasonable results. But if you're still struggling, you can unlock the two sections to make sure the left one, the Track List, is always in view.
"!Inspiration's software isn't protected and is easily installed on a hard disk but the program uses a dongle - they'll love this in schools."
The Track List lists the tracks - all 256 of them. It's divided into 11 columns - Name, Play, Record, Solo, Loop, Delay, Transpose, Velocity, Patch, Group and Instrument. The nice thing is, you can select which columns are shown on the screen. Apart from saving precious screen space, it avoids clutter.
You must set a track to Record before you can record, although the program still goes through the record motions even if there's nowhere to put the data. Group routes a track to the Sub-Group Mixer (more in a moment) and the Instrument column lets you set the output buss. If you have Pandora's PM14 you have access to four output busses - 64 separate MIDI channels.
You can swap and merge (but not copy - this must be done from a menu) tracks by clicking and dragging and demix a track by channel (probably the most useful), note (for use with drum tracks, perhaps) or controller. The Tidy button will lift all tracks containing data to the top of the Track List.
A collection of tracks forms a Reel and there can be ten Reels in memory at once. Furthermore, all can play back at the same time. An intriguing prospect, but I expect most users will be happy with one-Reelers.
ON THE RIGHT is the Bar Editor which displays the music as blocks of bars. You can alter the scale of the display to suit the range of bars you're working with. You can perform cut, copy and paste functions on the bars, highlighting the areas of interest by clicking and dragging.
Above the bar display are a couple of areas in which you can place time signature changes (which appear as little flags) and Cue names. Cues are for labelling sections of the song and when you add a Cue it is automatically put in the Cue Points List. Cues can apply to the whole Reel or to individual tracks. The whole Cue system is very well implemented.
For more detailed edit functions, use the Track Editor. Each track has its own edit window and up to four can be open at once. It's a version of the now-familiar grid editor in which notes are shown as bars on a grid - the higher up the grid, the higher the pitch of the note and the longer the bar, the longer the note. There are a number of sections to this window. The total size, again, is too large for a normal screen although you'd rarely need all the sections on view simultaneously.
Above the grid is a position indicator which shows which note or note slot on the grid the arrow is pointing to. Below this is an event list, although you can't edit events here directly, which is a shame.
Below the grid are several screens for the graphic display and editing of controller data. These include Mod and Pitch Bend Wheel, and Aftertouch. To save scrolling to reach these, you can change the order in which the sections appear in the window using an order list to the left of the window. Cute.
The grid editor has many edit features. A Snap function acts as a sort of quantise to ensure notes sit on certain divisions of the beat. Notes can be selected for editing by rubber banding, from the keyboard display or from a menu. They can be dragged, stretched, contracted, deleted and inserted.
This, in fact, is how notes are entered in step time, durations being selected from a pop-up menu. It works well, except that the menu disappears after each selection and continuous reselection is a nuisance.
The graphic controller editors let you create and edit controller data using the mouse. Again, this works fairly well although the "freehand drawing" approach is ultimately not as accurate as editing the events themselves.
"!Inspiration is potentially a very powerful program, with dozens of nice touches and interesting features, although operation can be involved."
While the plethora of edit functions provide a powerful editor, the varied and various combinations of keypresses required to access them all are far from instinctive.
ONE OF !INSPIRATION'S most powerful and interesting features is the Toolbox. This contains seven data-altering functions - Compress, Invert, Quantise, Scaling, Change, Timestretch and Delete. Operation can be quite involved (it's not greatly aided by sparse coverage in the manual). Basically, you set the range of the event(s) to be modified and the track(s) to be affected. Some functions can act on several types of data so this must also be set. For example, Quantise can affect just notes or all data. Change and Delete include mathematical and logical operations in their setup.
Here's a quick run through the functions: Compress averages data values; Invert can reverse the note (and event) order of a track (so it plays backwards) and pivot the notes around a central pitch; Scaling scales data by varying its value from a start value to an end value (useful for fades and glissandi); Change can convert one type of data to another and add or merge the result; Timestretch can stretch or compress a section into a longer or shorter space of time, effectively speeding up or slowing down notes; Delete deletes selected events.
The Quantise operation includes some sophisticated functions. For example, using the Pre and Post settings you can limit the quantise effect to data which should fall on the specified beat division enabling you, say, to quantise just quarter notes and leaving those in between - eighth notes - alone. There are Intensity and Randomise settings, too, which are drawn onto small graphs. As you can specify the range of data which the Tools will affect, you can apply different quantise effects to different parts of the music.
Having created the ultimate data manipulation device you can save a single Tool or the complete Toolbox - a collection of ten Tool settings. The latest release includes a ten-piece Toolbox containing pre-defined tools such as Velocity Increase, Aftertouch Delete, Fade Out, Half Volume and Velocity Invert.
THE SUB GROUP Mixer looks like an eight-channel mixer with faders, MIDI channel indicators and solo buttons. The Group column on the Track List in the Reel Editor (got that?) links a track to one of these faders.
The Mixer is used to generate MIDI Controller data in real time which can be routed to a track and recorded. You can use it to create mod wheel or breath controller data, for example, even if your master keyboard doesn't have these items. An even more useful function is to link it to MIDI volume to create fade-ins and outs.
The Meters window contains 16 LED meters which indicate activity on each of the 16 MIDI channels. You can monitor any one of the four busses and select VU or PPM display - it works, too. When problems occur, it's useful to know whether what you're playing is actually getting to the sequencer.
The Input and Output Patchbays allow you to map one buss and MIDI channel onto another. Even if you only have one buss this can be useful: say you have a piano sound on Channel 3 in several parts of your music and you want to try a different sound on Channel 4, instead of changing all references to Channel 3 wherever they occur, simply map Channel 3 onto 4.
!Inspiration's Undo goes several stages further than your average undo function. It doesn't simply reverse your last edit operation - you can Undo all the way back to the start of a session, memory permitting. You can turn off the Undo feature (primarily to save memory) and you can limit the number of undos to one, again to save memory. You can save a history of your undos which is a text file of all your edit operations (could be useful in case of an emergency). Of course, if you save regularly you shouldn't need this.
THE FILE MENU can save several file types including Tool, Toolkit, Setup (file paths and editor settings) and Network which saves the names of the instruments in the Track List and their MIDI assignments.
But the main file is the Reel which saves all the music. This is Inspiration's "natural" music file type and uses the MIDI File format. It's worth noting that the early version of !Inspiration didn't save MIDI files with the correct file type, which could greatly confuse the non-technical user, although the problem could easily be resolved by typing the correct file type at the command line.
"You can use the Mixer to create mod wheel or breath controller data, for example, even if your master keyboard doesn't have these items."
You can load a Maestro file into !Inspiration and you should be able to save an !Inspiration track as a Maestro file, but this still hasn't been implemented. Instead, the program prompted me to get a 2Meg machine in spite of the fact that it was running in 4Meg of RAM!
I don't know why you would want to save music in Maestro format other than to view the track as music notation. !Inspiration has no notation facilities and Maestro has no printout facility, although you could be devious and load it into Rhapsody and print it out. ButtThat said, Rhapsody can load MIDI Files directly (although it can take a while).
THE DOCUMENTATION IS well produced although it hasn't yet been updated with the program. More diagrams are needed - often it isn't clear which part of the screen is being described. As a manual, however, it does little more than list functions, although the introduction to setting up is quite thorough.
The program is certainly feature-packed and there are many menus to link the sections - all the more reason why a good manual is essential. There's no attempt at a tutorial and there are many forward references which only serve to frustrate. You won't be surprised to learn that there's no index, although the contents pages are very helpful.
FEATURE-WISE !Inspiration scores highly indeed. It's potentially a very powerful program with dozens of nice touches and interesting features, although operation can be involved. Its two main omissions are a drum grid editor and notation facilities, which will disappoint some people more than others.
My major quibble is the lack of cohesion between operations. Some sections of the screens, for example, are brightly coloured for no apparent reason and it's not always obvious if something in a box is for information only or if it is a value which can be changed by clicking on it.
The three mouse buttons produce different results depending on where you click them; on some screens the middle button produces a pop-up menu, on others it alters a value, sometimes it does nothing. Likewise the right (adjust) button may alter a value or open a window.
The latest release is far more stable than the first (which crashed constantly) although a few bugs still remain (I managed to quit the program from the Toolbox and during editing) and it continues to throw up the odd error message which, while not disastrous, is disconcerting. Work on eliminating bugs continues and updates are free - so they should be.
!INSPIRATION WAS RELEASED last year under pressure from several sources. The latest release fixes most of the early bugs and it's now a usable program. However, the existing bugs still need to be fixed and it could really do with decent documentation. A new manual - or at least a tutorial - is reputedly under development.
In the intervening period between announcement and production, the price of !Inspiration has been reduced. It was originally intended to be an amazing £399 + VAT. Now it's down to a more respectable £299 including VAT.
Latest news is that a Junior version of !Inspiration is under consideration which should sell for between £100 and £150, although I suspect that will be some time away as the first priority is to get !Inspiration Senior sorted.
Pandora can be an elusive company to contact so all enquires should be directed to Beebug, or to Sound Proposition who also run a technical helpline - very helpful they are, too. Sound Prop are also developing addon modules for !Inspiration which will include an Arpeggiator and a Track Save routine...
For a demo copy of !Inspiration send a formatted disk plus return postage and packing to Sound Proposition. Existing !Inspiration owners will receive the latest update in return for the same - make sure you register/have registered.
If you are an Archimedes person looking for a sequencer then - at last - !Inspiration is worth considering.
Price £299 including VAT
More from Sound Proposition Ltd, (Contact Details).
Beebug Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Ian Waugh
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