Passport Master Tracks Pro 4
Sequencer For Windows
Passport's proven Master Tracks Pro sequencer now runs under Windows on the PC. Brian Heywood puts the latest version through its paces.
Passport's Master Tracks Pro is a professional sequencing package that runs under Windows 3.0 or 3.1. It takes advantage of the multimedia MIDI extensions, if you have them, but provides a number of MIDI drivers if you don't. Priced at just under the £300 mark, Pro 4 is obviously aimed at the top end of the PC sequencer market, competing with the likes of Cakewalk for Windows and Cubase Windows.
Passport have been producing music software for both the PC and the Macintosh for some time — indeed Master Tracks has long been available on both platforms — and have naturally enough recently been releasing some of their software for Windows. As you might expect Pro 4 for Windows looks a lot like the Macintosh equivalent (Pro 5, reviewed in our July '92 issue). As well as the sequencers Master Tracks Pro and Trax, you can also get the notation packages Encore and MusicTime for the PC. There are certain advantages in using different software packages from the same company; for instance Encore can import Master Tracks sequencer files directly, rather than having to go through a MIDI file.
The software is supplied on both 3.5" and 5.25" disks and comes with a well written and comprehensive wire bound manual. The manual is very necessary as there in no help available in the application itself. This lack of a help menu is just one of the ways in which Pro 4 varies from a 'standard' Windows application. Incidentally — in common with a lot of recent packages — the disks are not copy protected. This means that you can, and should, make back-up copies of the master disks and install from these secondary masters.
The program is a breeze to install: simply run the set-up program on the installation floppy. The installation program allows you to select the destination directory, the files that you want to install, and whether a new Program Manager group is created. If you are upgrading from an earlier version you can add the new icons to an existing Pro 4 group. The installation ends with the README file being displayed, to show any late additions to the manual.
As you might guess from the name, Master Tracks is a track-based sequencer, with up to 64 separate tracks. It can access up to 32 MIDI channels, using one or two MIDI interfaces, and can use the Windows MIDI mapper if it's available. The program uses the tape recorder as a model for its user interface, with a tape transport to control playback, recording and positioning within the sequence. The transport controls also allow you to select the synchronization source (internal, external MIDI and MIDI Time Code) and the MIDI through setting, and to control the metronome.
As is usually the case with Windows software, most of the controls have accelerator keys that allow you to use the computer keyboard to direct the operation of the program. There are a number of functions which have two key combinations; I guess that this is to give a degree of compatibility with the Macintosh version of Master Tracks, as well as supporting the standard Windows keys (eg. Ctrl+Shft for Edit/Paste etc). A more unusual feature is the ability to use a MIDI keyboard to control the sequencer. This means that you can concentrate on playing, rather than having to shuttle your attention between the computer and your MIDI controller. The MIDI note/control allocation is fully configurable so you can set it up to suit your particular controller. The other situation where you might want to control the sequencer via MIDI is if you use your computer during live performance.
The basic user interface revolves around a number of windows which give you different views on the piece of music that you're currently working on. These windows are: Track Editor; Step Editor; Event List; and the MIDI Event window. You can only ever have one instance of each window at one time, so for instance you can only look at one MIDI controller using the MIDI Event window. On the other hand you can have the Step Editor and the MIDI Event editor open on the same track so that you can visually reference the MIDI controller against the notes they are affecting.
The tape transport and conductor panels are also treated as windows, although they behave differently; for instance you can't close the transport controls, although you can hide (or lose) them under one of the other windows. The conductor window displays the current time signature and tempo, depending on where you are in the sequence. There is also a slider — called the tempo offset — that allows you to experiment with the tempo whilst the sequencer is running. The offset tempo will maintain the same ratio to the underlying tempo regardless of any tempo changes you may place in the sequence.
This is the most generally useful window, displaying the track settings, track and program names, and giving you an overview of the sequence at the bar level. The left section of the window is the sequencer's equivalent to a track sheet, with a series of columns for each of track number, play status, record enable, solo, loop, track name, MIDI channel, program number/name and track volume setting.
The track name, program number and track volume have 3-dimensional 'buttons' for their titles, which indicate that they can be expanded to display more information. You can expand the MIDI program numbers into the actual program names, and display the track volume as a fader instead of a numerical value. Most of the controls behave as you'd expect, with the 'play status' taking on the function of a channel mute, and the solo buttons acting like a PFL (Pre-Fade Listen) allowing you to 'solo' a number of tracks simultaneously.
The track looping facility is very limited; it simply restarts the track when it reaches the end, so you can't allow for introductions etc. Unfortunately, if you start a sequence after the last bar of the looped track then it won't play (track 1 might contain a 4-bar part which loops indefinitely), which means that you can't use the loop facility for setting up a simple rhythm track. While this is not a major problem, I find it useful to be able to create an open ended drum track and then extemporise over it. To do this in Pro 4 you would have to create-your rhythm bar and then physically copy it an arbitrary number of times fill the rest of the track.
There are some neat tricks you can do with the track display. Re-ordering the tracks is simply a matter of clicking on the track number and dragging it with the mouse to a new location; the other tracks will be pushed out of the way. The program name display is worth a mention as well — double clicking on the program name allows you to select the program name from a list of instruments that relate the patch names of the MIDI device to the program number, making voice selection a breeze and the sequence much clearer.
The right hand section of the window is the song editor, which displays the sequence in terms of bars. A bar which contains MIDI data will appear as a filled-in rectangle, whilst an empty measure is represented as a hollow box. Bars which have not been recorded — for instance after the end of the track — are left completely blank. It is very simple to select a range of bars using the mouse and then to copy, delete, cut, or paste them elsewhere in the sequence. For instance you can sequence the first verse and chorus of a song and then copy them to give you one or more repeats. Constructing a song this way — rather than using a pattern based sequencer — lets you edit the copied data to give you some variation in the arrangement, improving the song considerably.
Along the top of the Song Edit window is the Measure Ruler which has several uses; it helps you keep track of where you are in the sequence by displaying the bar numbers, it holds the markers and allows you to easily select a range of bars across the entire 64 tracks and tempo track. The markers allow you to quickly move to 'marked' sections of the sequence using the Tab and shift-Tab keys. You can also set the 'tape counter' to a particular bar in the sequence by double clicking on the Measure Ruler.
One problem I found with the Track Edit/Song Edit window is that it is too small. If you have the track faders and program names displayed, as well as the full track names, you only see four bars of music. This is unavoidable if you have a screen of VGA resolution (or less) as this is all that you can fit on to the screen. If, on the other hand, you have a higher resolution screen (I use a 800x600 VGA) then you should be able to stretch the window to reveal more bars. For some unknown reason the window is limited to the width of a standard VGA display, a constraint that is not placed on any of the other editing windows.
Recording a track is straightforward — simply place the desired track into record enable, click on the record control, and start playing. You can set up a metronome and a count in either using MIDI or the PC's internal speaker. You can stop recording by hitting any PC key, clicking on the stop button, or using the MIDI note you've defined for the transport stop function. The last recording can be discarded using the undo function, and you can choose to record over only a specific range of bars using the punch-in function.
Master Tracks defaults to recording a single track at a time, but you can select the Multi-Track Record option to let you record a multi-timbral performance, or controller such as a guitar synthesizer. Pro 4 will also record multi-channel MIDI data on a single track, keeping the original channel information for playback or allowing you to force the output to a particular channel. Recording can commence at the start of any bar in the track, and will only overwrite the bars played during the performance. The data after the dropout point is untouched, which means you can drop in a performance 'by hand' if you want. Using the Auto option on the transport will automatically return to the start point so that you can replay or re-record the performance.
If you double click on a bar in the Song Edit screen you will open the Step Editor window. You can. also open it using the [F3] key or choosing Step Edit from the Windows menu. This window allows you to directly manipulate the note data in the selected track using a form of horizontal 'piano roll' notation. The left margin of the window has a diagram of a piano keyboard. Notes appear as horizontal bars, their length being proportional to the notes' duration. There are also various buttons that select the characteristics of inserted notes (eg. length, articulation and velocity) as well as displaying information about the selected note.
This window has a tool bar with three tools that allow you to erase, draw, and select notes that are in the current display. You can examine the intimate details of each note by double clicking on the note using the 'arrow' tool, as well as performing the usual cut and paste operations. One neat trick is to click on a 'key' on the piano keyboard diagram to select notes of that pitch throughout the entire track and then move them to a new pitch — very handy if you want to re-map a drum sound on a percussion track. If you hold the control key down during this operation, the notes are copied instead of being moved, which is useful for doubling up on drum hits.
My only complaints about this window are that on a couple of occasions, spurious notes were displayed during editing. These disappeared when I refreshed the window. Also the size of the each note on my high resolution display was too small for comfort — it was too easy to miss the note I wanted to select, and insert a note instead. Passport are going to have to address the issue of high resolution displays in future versions of Pro 4, as these will undoubtedly become more common as time goes by.
You can display and edit non-pitched MIDI data and tempo using the MIDI Controller Window. This displays the data in a graphical form allowing you to draw in ranges of data using the mouse. The tempo map window behaves slightly differently; new tempos are entered (by a mouse click) as a single new tempo value, which makes entering a ritardando somewhat tedious. It would be better if you could 'draw' in changes. Also, normal cut and paste operations don't work on the tempo track window, making editing the aforementioned ritardando extremely tedious.
Finally, for the unreconstructed traditionalist, there is the Event Editor, which can display all the data on a track in a tabular format. Each entry in the table is marked by an icon to show the type of the event (ie. note, program change etc.) and you can set up a filter to show only the events you want to see. Unlike some event editors, Pro 4 displays the notes as distinct entities, rather than as separate 'note on' and 'note off' events, which makes editing easier, but also makes it more difficult to see where a note off occurs in the context of the rest of the MIDI data on a track.
Master Tracks has a wide range of filters available from the Change menu that allow you to manipulate the MIDI performance once you've recorded it. The Quantize function is particularly comprehensive, allowing you a great deal of control over how the notes in the selected region are modified. The other options allow you to 'humanise', thin, or strip MIDI data, and generally modify the track data over selected regions. If you work with video then you will find the Fit Time and Scale Time options useful. Thankfully, you can also always 'undo' the last operation if you're not happy with the results, which is a useful safety net.
One neat feature is the ability to define which controllers are 'chased' during playback, often a weak point in sequencers. Controller chasing is where the sequencer will ensure that all the controllers (program changes, pitch bend, modulation wheel etc.) are set correctly when you start playback from the middle of the sequence. The software does this by 'looking' back along the track and sending the last controller event of each type that it finds before starting the sequence, which can be time consuming especially on a slow PC. The ability to select which controllers are chased means that you can optimise the performance of your computer by ignoring ones that you don't use.
Another feature probably aimed at live work is the ability to open a number of sequences and play them back using a song list. You can open as many sequences as you have memory for — although only one is ever displayed — and then use the Songs menu to create or edit the list of songs. You can also set up a 'wait' condition to pause between each song — this can be a time delay, a computer key stroke, or a MIDI note or controller message Apart from live applications, you might want to use this feature when you're working on a longer piece, with a song file for each 'movement'. You could then open the entire work for editing by loading the appropriate song file.
Master Tracks Pro 4 is a robust, professional sequencing package that probably has all-the features you'll every need in the course of making computer music. It doesn't seem to have any major problems and you can certainly live with the minor niggles; they really come down to personal taste more than anything else. It is limited to only 32 MIDI channels, which is a bit of a shame considering the ability of Windows to support any number of MIDI channels. I have no problems with the lack of any scoring facilities, since notation editors inside sequencers tends to be more of a gimmick than of any practical use. If you want notation then you can always get one of the Windows notation packages such as Encore or QuickTime and do it properly. As a sequencer, Pro 4 can hold its own when compared with the best that's on offer, and is above all a eminently usable music tool.
Passport Master Tracks Pro 4.5 for Windows £285 inc VAT.
Bundled with Encore £649.95 inc VAT.
MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
Review by Brian Heywood
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!