Power To The PC!
Power Chords PC Sequencer
This low-cost PC package provides a unique sequencing environment based around the fretboard rather than the keyboard — and it's fun to use. Brian Heywood puts on his guitarist's head...
Every now and then a piece of software comes along that makes you look afresh at the rest of the computer music scene. One such program is Power Chords from Howling Dog Systems in Canada. What makes Power Chords so special? Something which — on the face of it — is very simple and yet fundamental; the Power Chords user interface is based on a guitar fretboard rather than the traditional piano keyboard. It's surprising that we're not awash with software designed for guitarists: as Ian Gilby mentioned in last month's Leader, almost a third of all music instrument sales are various types of guitar, outnumbering synthesizer sales by almost 20:1!
This lack of fretful software isn't specific to any particular type of computer either. A quick straw poll of Macintosh and Atari gurus showed that these platforms also display a similar lack of guitar-friendly software. It seems surprising that, after 10 years of MIDI sequencers, there isn't a wider variety of user interfaces, especially on the platforms that have had graphic user interfaces for a while.
Despite being a relatively low-cost piece of software, Power Chords displays a number of features that make it worthy of a more comprehensive look. The 'big idea' behind Power Chords is that it uses a stringed instrument — it defaults to a guitar — as its input model, allowing you to enter notes on a fretboard to make chords. However, it's more than just a way of quickly entering guitar chords; you can also use it as a 'construction set' for putting together songs, using a 'chart' layout.
Although Power Chords does have some fairly powerful sequencing facilities, I wouldn't class the program as a full-blown professional sequencer since it has none of the tools you would usually expect — such as quantisation and synchronisation. It does, however, make a very useful compositional notebook or 'entry level' sequencer. I bought my copy to use as a tool for roughing out sequences before importing them into my production sequencer.
All the elements of Power Chords are based around patterns in some respect — chord patterns, strum patterns, drum patterns, and so on. Even the final song arrangement is constructed as a pattern, rather like a spreadsheet where each 'cell' represents a bar and contains elements that describe the chord, the picking pattern, bass line...
As you create each element of your sequence, you can place it in a 'palette' which acts as a memory to hold the different parts. For instance, you can create a number of chord shapes and place them in the 'chord palette' ready for when you start stringing them together.
Each type of pattern has its own editor, some of which will import data from standard MIDI files. The drum, bass and melody editors are essentially step editors with a variable step size, and although you can capture a MIDI performance, they are not really ideal for this type of operation. It is far easier to set the editor looping and use the mouse to build up the pattern you require one note at a time.
The program makes a good job of hiding the nuts and bolts of MIDI — most of the time you don't need to think about it at all — but there are ways of adding MIDI controller and program data to a sequence if you need to. Power Chords is not ideal for complicated MIDI manipulation, but that is not its purpose; it would be like trying to smash a boulder with a tack hammer.
As is common with Windows software, installation is a doddle, with the files being decompressed and copied onto your hard drive automatically.
The program is Windows 3.1 compliant but will only address a single MIDI device, although you can split the basic 16 channels across multiple interfaces by using the Windows MIDI Mapper. The first time you run the software it informs you that there is no MIDI device selected and presents you with the MIDI Configuration dialogue box to allow you to select the required MIDI port/device.
You can use any MIDI port that is available to Windows, and select between the Roland GS, General MIDI or Windows MIDI Mapper patch sets. Using the Windows Mapper actually allows you to set up your own instrument drum and patch mappings, which is handy if you don't happen to have a sound module that implements the GM or GS sound sets. The MIDI Configuration dialogue also lets you test your instrument sounds and drum kit, making it very easy to test your MIDI setup (nice one guys!).
Clicking on the OK button now drops you into the main window, which looks a bit like the Windows Program Manager. Each of the editing tools will appear as either a Window or as an icon on the Power Chords desktop. The tools consist of the editors (chord, song and rhythm), the palettes (chord, melody, bass, drums and controls) and a number of general tools (staff, tempo and waste paper basket).
Now you have a working system, it's time to start making music. The first thing you'll need to do is to generate some chord voicings. Double clicking on the Instrument icon activates a window containing a guitar fretboard. Clicking on a string will place a fingering at that fret and you can also define a hammer on — both up and down the string — if you want. The chord can be auditioned by clicking with the right mouse button or the strings can be plucked; you can even bend the string if required. Clicking on the string where it crosses the nut allows you to toggle the string between open and damped so that you can define chords which don't use all the strings.
As you enter chords, the program tries to guess the chord name. Alternatively, you can ask it to create chords to your specification, allowing you to cycle through different inversions while auditioning the chords. This feature is actually quite handy if you want to look up different inversions of a guitar chord whilst arranging, and the chord naming helps you to document any non-standard chord voicings that you might create. As you create each chord you can pick it up and drop it into the chord palette ready for when you start arranging the song. The program in general has a very good Windows interface, with extensive and effective use of 'drag and drop' — dropping the chord into the score window, for instance, will show what it looks like in standard music notation.
Before you can start putting the song together, you have to develop some picking patterns with the rhythm editor. The editor has a number of modes depending on whether you are creating a picking pattern or a bass, melody or drum part.
The chord rhythm mode shows you up to 16 bars of music with the guitar strings ranged vertically and the beats and bars across the page. The strings sound the chord that is currently loaded into the instrument window, so that you can hear the results for a particular chord as you add or remove notes. The notes appear as three-dimensional buttons which are shaded according to their velocity.
At this point you will probably want to start stringing chords together into a sequence to produce your basic song sheet. First you need to 'drop' the chords into the chart. You can subdivide each bar into up to four sections; if a bar is left blank, then the previous chord is repeated. Each bar of the piece can have a different picking pattern to simulate the right hand technique of a guitarist and, like the chord voicing, the previous value is repeated if no new picking pattern is defined. Repeats can be added and bars can be copied or moved around with the mouse. When you are satisfied with the basic structure of the piece, you then add the drums, bass and melody lines. At any time, a chord fingering or picking pattern can be 'dropped' into the appropriate editor to tweak the arrangement.
The drums, bass and melody parts can be constructed using a pattern-based rhythm editor or performed in real time from your MIDI input device. Each type of pattern can be stored in its own palette or exported directly from the editor into the song sheet by dragging the pattern icon. The song is constructed by simply picking chords and patterns from the various palettes and dropping into the required bar on the song sheet. The patterns will automatically repeat until replaced by another pattern. You can export and import MIDI files, to enable you to use the song data in other sequencers.
Can a piece of software be this perfect? Well, there are a few things that I would like to see added to the program. For instance, it would be nice if you could select a number of notes in the chord rhythm editor and offset the start times slightly to give a strum effect. The addition of tempo and time signature changes would be a worthwhile addition as well. One final feature that needs some work is the way Power Chords handles MIDI controller messages. It seems a shame that, after hiding all the details of MIDI from the user, he or she should have to delve into the MIDI specification to add, say, a sustain pedal control.
As a sequencer, Power Chords is somewhat limited, with nothing in the way of synchronisation, quantisation or filtering options. However, to judge it purely as a sequencer rather misses the point, which is to give you a simple way of accessing the harmonic characteristics of a stringed instrument. It becomes a very powerful tool when used in conjunction with a dedicated music sequencer like Cubase, helping you out of the 'keyboard rut' and adding sparkle and depth to your MIDI arrangements. If you are a guitarist it gives you an ideal writing tool for quickly roughing out songs using a musical language with which you are familiar. The Windows support is also very good, both in terms of supporting soundcards which use patch caching (like the Gravis Ultrasound) and the open-ended scripting feature. Finally, this is an incredibly fun program to use; add Power Chords to your armoury of musical tools and go out and have a ball!
Power Chords £69 inc VAT.
Digital Music, (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!