Personal Composer System/2
Jay Chapman sinks his teeth into one of the most complex and sophisticated scorewriting and sequencing programs on the market - Jim Miller's Personal Composer for PC compatible computers.
Jay Chapman sinks his teeth into one of the most complex and sophisticated scorewriting and sequencing programs on the market - Jim Miller's Personal Composer for PC compatible computers.
Version 2.0 of Personal Composer System/2 (henceforth referred to as PCS/2 in this review) is a very, very sophisticated set of integrated music software tools which can handle both score production and MIDI sequencing amongst other things. The main program features are given in the accompanying panel, and this review will attempt to expand upon and qualify some of these descriptions.
PCS/2 is a large and complex software system. To use it fully and efficiently will certainly require a considerable commitment of time and effort on the part of the new user. This means that the potential PCS/2 user has one outstanding characteristic: he or she needs to do the job that PCS/2 was designed for. Why? Well, as you will see, the product is powerful and complex because it is trying to perform a very difficult task (score production) to a high level of quality. If you don't have the need to produce high quality scores, then PCS/2 would probably be more hard work than it would be worth to you.
One consequence of the above is that it is very difficult to give a thorough review of a product like PCS/2. I hardly feel that we can do it full justice given the constraints imposed by reviewer's time and editorial space. And I suppose that is not really too surprising - PCS/2 is a professional product for professional users.
In order to discuss, at reasonable length, features most likely to be of interest to most readers, some of PCS/2's less central features are ignored in this article: the Music Feature/FB01 editor, the Performing capability, the Syntellect (Lisp based) programming language (which would need an article of its own, at least!) and the TX816 Controller program which can run on it.
PCS/2 has its foundations in Personal Composer (Version 1.0), which was one of the very first pieces of MIDI software ever produced for a computer. It was demonstrated by its author, Jim Miller, at the same NAMM show where MIDI was first introduced to the public. In those days (1983), the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mice, Pull down menus) type interface wasn't as well known as it is today and musicians had yet to become familiar with the sort of user interface that we take for granted on the Apple Macintosh and Atari ST.
Of course, the WIMP interface isn't the only - or even the best - type of interface to use (and it is often used badly), but it has advantages, particularly for first time users. PCS/2 uses a sort of hybrid interface which mixes a lot of command-driven interaction with some mouse-driven interaction. At first, the resulting interface can seem complex in use. It can be difficult to remember command 'names' when commands are used, and somewhat uncomfortable when the mouse is used. With familiarity (and the use of the keyboard macro facility - see below) the command side of things becomes less of a problem and the mouse side can be very helpful. But...
I get the impression that the command driven form has had the mouse control added as a sort of 'sweetening' rather than as part of an overall redesign. This has the major advantage (for current users) that Version 2.0 is backward compatible with all earlier versions of the program, but has the major disadvantage (in many ways for all users past and present) that the user interface does not take full advantage of modern interfacing techniques. In fact, the desire for 'backward compatibility' has probably over-constrained design in the area of the user interface even though it has allowed the software authors to throw almost nothing of the previous versions of the program away.
Having mentioned above that the WIMP interface is not the be all and end all of user interfaces, let's have a look at the command-driven interface that is at the heart of the central software module of PCS/2: the Score Editor.
Command type interfaces, where you have some form of prompt on the screen and type in a command that you somehow 'generate' in your head, have advantages and disadvantages and can be done well or badly. Advantages include the fact that their use takes up little screen space (perhaps one line) and yet a multiplicity of potential commands can be easily generated. This is obviously of interest in the case of score production, because most of the screen can be given over to displaying the score as you are creating it. Disadvantages include the fact that the user must somehow remember all possible command permutations, and the fact that it can be difficult to map application names on to easily remembered and typed command words.
A command interface is badly designed when the user is given no help with remembering commands and parameters, and no help with typing the commands in. Fortunately, PCS/2 comes to the user's aid by implementing the command line interface in a reasonably helpful way. For example, to produce a G major triad, in the key of G, in the treble clef on a single staff needs the following sequence of keystrokes (where
(which translates into:) move to far left, give 'staff' command, move to far right, complete command: staff is drawn
move to far left, move two columns right, give 'clef treble' command: treble clef is drawn
move two columns to the right and then four notes up from B to F, give 'sharp' command: a sharp is drawn on the F line
move two columns to the right and then two notes down from F to D, give 'note, quarter, stem up' command: crotchet note on D line is drawn
move two notes down from D to B, and give the '.' command to draw the same note as last time: crotchet note on B line is drawn
move two notes down from B to G, and give the '.' command to draw the same note as last time: crotchet note on G line is drawn
This sequence of 33 keystrokes becomes far less puzzling if the computer's onscreen responses are considered. The 'staff' command dialogue then looks like this:
PCS/2: > a=save c=scroll h=# l=slur p=split t=staff u=sustain
PCS/2: move cursor to end of staff & type
Don't forget that the on-screen feedback actually includes the notes and staff being drawn, which helps considerably!
So, as you can see, PCS/2 helps as much as possible by prompting the user with the second letter of what are, in effect, two-letter mnemonic commands. Perhaps this user interface is fairly usable after all?! In fact, it's a case of practice makes perfect - after a while the keystrokes come to mind and fingers more easily. Before resorting to the manual for those commands which aren't used every day, one can also consult the on-line help, which acts as a memory jogger.
Using the mouse can be quite efficient in many cases. A window pops on to the screen containing a multitude of symbols, including the staff, notes, bar lines, repeat signs, clefs and so on. The commands and responses still follow the dialogue outlined above but often feel more natural. If the mouse is used, then the 33 keystrokes required to perform the above operation reduces to some 15 mouse clicks (including making selections from the pop-up symbol menu window).
The left mouse button calls up the symbol window mentioned above but the right button is used - as it is elsewhere in the package - as the 'action' button. I have to admit that I found this disconcerting, because every other mouse-driven package I use seems to default to the left button being the action button.
The interaction of the mouse and the positioning cursor in the Screen Editor has been carefully thought out in PCS/2, such that the cursor usually ends up where you need it. It is possible to store cursor positions and recall them later - this is a very powerful aid.
Occasionally in the Screen Editor, and particularly in the Recorder, one has the impression that the mouse is an afterthought as its positional feedback becomes somewhat jerky or impractical. For example, in the Event Editor (discussed below), it is possible for a mouse movement to take control away from the user for many tens of seconds, which is silly; mouse acceleration programming techniques could have been used to solve this problem.
Another strange effect of the addition of the mouse selection of symbols mentioned above is that the window that pops up is very wide and not very high, with the symbols small and cramped up against each other. Also, the mouse motion is again not optimised for the selection process. Whilst this method of approach (the size and shape of the window) leaves the maximum amount of screen visible, the use of a pop-up menu (which is what the window is) could have been better implemented.
You get four 360 Kbyte floppy disks full of program and support files. That's right: over one million bytes to play with. In a nutshell, folks, we are talking hard disk here. There is the possibility of running PCS/2 off a high density floppy disk but who are we trying to kid? If you aren't in the hard disk league then I doubt you are in the PCS/2 league either, sorry.
The 600+ page manual is big, very informative, well written and totally necessary. It is also perfect bound (not spiral or ring bound), which means that the pages are glued to the spine of the book and will probably fall out after some period of constant use. This is a real pity, because this manual is choc-a-bloc full of information and demands to be made use of. There tend to be both explanatory and reference sections for each of the major topics covered, which is good news.
The manual excels in other areas, too. There is a full listing of system messages with one paragraph explanations. We all make mistakes from time to time, or misunderstand things, or end up on a different wavelength to the author(s) of the software. Between the on-line help (list of commands with one line explanations), the comprehensive prompt dialogues described above, the quick reference command pages in the manual, and the tutorial and reference sections and moderately comprehensive index, there is usually hope for the user.
To run Personal Composer System/2, you need the following:
• IBM PC, XT, AT or compatible computer or an IBM PS/2 model 25 or 30.
• A 360K floppy disk drive (a hard disk is strongly recommended) and DOS version 2.0 or higher - except for the PS/2 computers, which need DOS 3.3 or higher.
• A minimum of 640K of RAM - more if possible for a RAM disk.
• Hercules, EGA or equivalent graphics (8512 or 8513 graphics on the PS/2 models) adaptor.
• A mouse would be nice, but is optional. However, if you are going to be using this product a lot, I suggest that you at least borrow a mouse for a while to find out whether this method of access is more efficient for you.
We haven't finished yet: a Roland MPU401 (or compatible) MIDI interface or an IBM Music Feature card.
Oh yes, if you have any change left you might remember to get a suitable dot-matrix printer (eg. Epson FX80) and/or arrange access to Postscript-driven laser printing machines that start at a few thousand pounds and head off into the stratosphere.
If this is all starting to sound a bit expensive, let me remind you that you are not taking this business seriously enough. I'm assuming you already have the MIDI keyboard, guitar controller, WX7 or whatever to input material for transcription, as well as some MIDI-controlled sound modules so that you can aurally review the results of your efforts. If you are comfortable (and connected up), we can now consider the different modules that make up the PCS/2 package.
Otherwise known as the centre of the PCS/2 universe. This is where you start on booting the program up, and you return here after playing about in the other modules.
In essence, you have a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) graphical representation of part of the score you are building on the screen - you can scroll the screen to see other parts of the current page and, indeed, other pages. You can add most of the symbolic musical paraphernalia associated with score production (including text and lyrics) with no real problems given time and dedication on the user's part.
One of the main benefits of PCS/2 is the fact that the score that is up on the screen can be heard at a moment's notice by giving the Play command. The score is actually converted into MIDI format in the Recorder module for playback. (Note: this is the case provided you have 'zapped', ie. deleted, all the current contents of the Recorder module - I couldn't find this information in the manual). This means that you can skip back and forth between the Score Editor, the Recorder, and the Event Editor modifying the music in the most convenient and appropriate manner of your choosing! Now that is hot!
The sort of limits you might eventually bump up against may or may not give rise to sleepless nights. The 'no' (note) command lets you specify down to 1/32nd notes but no further; rests come in the same flavours. By the way, note stem direction can be used to select which MIDI channel a note will be played on, so that a great stave with four harmony lines can be played on four different channels with ease.
If I try hard to be picky, I can't find evidence of some of the symbolic ornaments being dealt with (such as the acciaccatura and appoggiatura, although upper and inverted mordents are available). As far as I am aware, ornaments and performance marks (such as accents) are purely for the graphical score representation and don't affect playback over MIDI. In some cases this wouldn't make much sense anyway, eg. bowing or breath marks, so I'm not too worried. Interestingly, an accelerando on the score has no effect on playback but it is possible to incorporate hidden MIDI tempo changes to keep score and MIDI in step.
Other minor inconveniences for some might be the fact that there can only be four ledger lines above or below a staff, and that the only tuples that can be used are triplets and quintuplets. You also have to keep graphical additions quite close to a staff, which can be a little frustrating at times.
To be fair to PCS/2, I had to try hard to unearth these problems. If you don't wish to score stuff that is avant garde, you should be OK. See also the section on MIDI graphics below if you are worried that unusual symbols you might need are not likely to be included in the package.
Whilst I am not completely happy with some aspects of the user interface, it is obvious that various additions to the basic functionality of the program have been prompted by real use of the system. In fact, I get the impression that Jim Miller really is interested in the views of the people who buy his software and will include improvements and new features when there is sufficient evidence of demand.
Although entering notes requires quite a few keystrokes, this is only for the first of a run of identical notes as the '.' dot command places the previous note at the current cursor position (as does the right mouse button if using the mouse). If it takes 20 or 30 keystrokes to set up a suitably end bracketed, braced, bar lined and repeat lined great stave which is to be repeated 40 times over 10 pages, don't despair! There is a very handy 'keyboard macro' facility in which you can record and give a command name to the original set of keystrokes that got the first such great stave on screen. You then position the cursor and call up the macro by its name, and you can duplicate those staves all over the place!
I'm going to group the Recorder and the Event Editor together because they combine to give a 32-track real-time sequencer with step editing facilities. As usual with PCS/2, there is no real problem with the power of these tools but sometimes the user interface is just that bit stilted, which I find disappointing.
Recording is done direct-to-disk rather than into memory, which is a little unusual but has the advantage that you'll have to fill your hard disk before you run out of space. During playback, a series of buffers in memory allows the music to be pulled back off disk whilst an earlier buffer is actually being replayed. This means that you shouldn't get any sudden glitches when the playback information hasn't quite been retrieved off the disk in time (I have heard that this may be a problem with very dense music but you can always play this back off a RAM disk, which should be fast enough for anything!).
Facilities that you would expect, such as the bouncing, moving, deleting, channelising, muting (etc) of tracks, are all available. Count-in, metronome, input filtering, looping, tempo changes, echoing of MIDI In to MIDI Out during recording (or not, as required) and so on are all there, too. Quantisation is possible, and there will be a useful 'sliding note' quantise (probably in version 2.1) which preserves the length of notes by moving the Note-Off as the Note-On is brought on to the beat.
It is possible to edit all manner of events, right down to their placement in time to 1/120th of a quarter note, with six levels of Zoom available to help view the terrain in an appropriate manner. Again, this is one of the places where I found the detail of the interface (and particularly the grafting on of the mouse interface) to be a little inadequate.
One of the true joys of PCS/2! To be honest, this feature is the main reason I wanted to evaluate this package. It takes just one command from within the Recorder ('Score') to have the masterpiece you just played in, or laboriously event edited, appear on the Screen Editor in all its glory! If you played the piece in realtime, you will probably need to head off to the Quantise facilities before displaying your score, to avoid having hundreds of tiny rests and swathes of ties all over the place showing off how human your playing was. (The 'sliding' quantise mentioned above should be particularly useful in this context.)
Just to be malicious, I entered a semiquaver G# minor melodic scale (up and down) using the Event Editor and used the 'Score' command in the Recorder to work the necessary magic. After a couple of attempts in which I managed to get only a staff with the correct key signature (5 sharps) - which you have to specify as part of the Score dialogue - an almost correct score representation popped up. I should point out that the score had both rhythm and the use of key signature, sharps, double sharp and natural sign all correct, which was most pleasing.
The only problem here was that the upper staff of a great stave is preferred for a note that could be placed on either, which was the case with the C# in this scale, which started at the A below middle C. Because the rest of the notes forming the first and last groupings of four semiquavers were in the lower staff, PCS/2 had made something of a weird decision and had added a semiquaver rest at the appropriate end of the two groups that had lost their C# notes to the other staff.
Having said that, it took me less time to edit the score, amend the groupings and throw away the rests than it did to write about it! It is a pity that beaming cannot join notes across staves, however.
This is a very nice feature, which I am sure will be taken up (if it hasn't been already) by most other sequencers and scorewriting packages. You design a graphic symbol, representing some event, using a bitmap editor. This is quite simple to do with the tools provided. You then associate text and some MIDI codes with this symbol, as required.
For example, if you have a sample of a gun being fired, you might draw a gun with the bitmap editor and then associate the relevant MIDI Note-On on the appropriate MIDI channel with the gun symbol. The symbol is then placed on the score at the correct point in score 'time', in the same way as any other performance mark, and the gunshot sample is automatically triggered during playback. Very nice indeed!
PCS/2 provides a reasonable librarian program for storing synthesizer System Exclusive information. It can cope specifically with DX7 and TX7 (and therefore TX816) patch data, as well as having a universal mode where it can be set up to act as an archiver for almost any System Exclusive data stream. This might include patches for non-DX/TX modules as well as dumps of drum sequences or MIDI-controlled effects programs, and so on.
The Librarian also includes a voice editor for the DX and TX modules, which is incomplete (it doesn't handle Function memory data) and is yet another example of the somewhat 'stilted' type of user interface rearing its head again. In this case, the implementation is inferior to other such programs that have been available for many years. Specifically, you have to dump all 32 voices from a DX/TX synth into the program, pick one (its parameters then appear in a multitude of well-organised labelled boxes), edit parameters and then dump the whole bank of 32 voices back into your synth before you can hear the effect of the changes you have made! In other words, there is no realistic way of tweaking a parameter in real time and listening to the results on-the-fly.
So, it's nice to have this Graphic Editor sort of 'free' with the rest of the package and the Librarian aspects seem fine, but the DX/TX editing program doesn't get anywhere near full marks in my book.
As you can probably imagine, output on a dot-matrix printer is not ultra-brilliant but it's not too bad either. In fact, it's going to be very usable in a lot of real life situations. Also, you are talking minutes of easy work rather than hours with pen and manuscript paper...
Using a laser printer that can understand Postscript (a page description language) and can have the Adobe Sonata font loaded into it (about £80 extra), very high quality output is possible. If you are into large print runs and even higher quality, you can even output scores to any of the phototypesetting machines that can understand Postscript (eg. Linotronic 100, 200/P, 300).
It's fair to say that printing the score you produce with PCS/2 at whatever quality level and in whatever quantity you require should not pose problems. The Desktop Publishing revolution, which is well started and on-going at this very moment, guarantees you that the very print services you require will be available from some local typesetting bureau at reasonable prices (£5-10 per A4 page is about average).
As I worked with PCS/2, an obvious comparison with the computer operating system called Unix kept cropping up. Why? Well, Unix is an operating system written by experts essentially for their own use (in the first instance). It is expert friendly (think about it) and has a difficult to approach but immensely powerful command language interface.
Both Unix and PCS/2 are like having the power of a Space Shuttle rocket booster at your fingertips, with you apparently riding bareback and working the controls on the booster rather than in a comfortable cockpit. OK, I exaggerate slightly, but you get the feeling! In fact, Unix and other command-driven programs are often provided with more usable user interfaces by following the route that PCS/2 has followed, ie. extensive context-sensitive prompting as command sequences are input.
So, what is my personal conclusion after exploring PCS/2? My major impression is that the power is there - with very few restrictions - and the command interface is very usable, although that 'stilted' word keeps coming to mind. The working environment made available by cycling between the Score Editor, MIDI Recorder and Event Editor as you translate music to score is wonderful. The MIDI Graphic Editor facility lets you move outside the world of standard music notation but gives the same visual/notation type control of the MIDI world - very nice indeed. The combination of just these features should be more than enough to interest a lot of musicians in this product.
Having said that, I wouldn't use the Recorder as my first choice of sequencer. The Librarian is nice because its free, but there are many better such programs available. The DX/TX patch editing capability is a throwback to earlier versions and not worthy of the rest of the package.
There can only be one or two programs that challenge PCS/2 (Passport Design's Score program is one that I'm aware of) and each will have its own strengths and weaknesses; if any of them improve on the standard of user interface presented by PCS/2, then Jim Miller will have to pull his socks up. In the meantime, PCS/2 is a very strong contender.
£425.50 inc VAT.
Imported by System Support Associates Ltd, (Contact Details).
Available from: Computer Music Systems Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Review by Jay Chapman
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