RealTime Intelligent Sequencer
Offering 256 tracks, direct screen manipulation of events, and the facility to alter any type of data whilst your sequence keeps playing, RealTime looks set to make a big name for itself very quickly. Martin Russ took a real shine to it - will you?
Offering 256 tracks, direct screen manipulation of events, and the facility to alter any type of data whilst your sequence keeps playing, Realtime looks set to make a big name for itself very quickly. Martin Russ took a real shine to it - will you?
I have been using M, probably the most well-known piece of software from Intelligent Music, for some time and it is one of my personal favourite methods of trying out ideas for polyrhythms and orchestrations. However, using it to create conventionally structured songs is not easy, and I usually rough out my ideas in M and then use MIDI Files to transfer them to a more ordinary sequencer. Whilst this is a very effective way of using the compositional possibilities of M, it is not very convenient - it requires either switching between two programs (which is often problematical) or continually running and quitting them. M is so useful, though, that I persevere and hope that time will see a solution.
Last November, I received a Beta-test copy of the latest program for the Atari ST from Intelligent Music and was immediately disappointed to find that it was a real-time sequencer. You do not need me to tell you that the world of hi-tech music is already awash with numerous multitrack real-time sequencers, so this seemed to be a retrograde step by this normally very inventive New York based company. Luckily, I was completely wrong - RealTime is no ordinary sequencer. Its creators call it an 'intelligent' sequencer, and I would agree. This is probably the first sequencer designed for the composer or performer rather than for the recording engineer - it is definitely the first sequencer which comes close to providing the sort of features I have been requesting for years!
RealTime continues the process of abstraction away from the conventional tape recorder metaphor used by most sequencers. Instead, it tries to provide a structure similar to the way musicians conceive of music - so there are no fixed track numbers and no rewind or fast forward buttons. RealTime uses phrases or sections which can be assembled together in much the same way as most drum machines work. You record music into the sections by using devices - definitions of the instruments you are using - and so you always work in terms of the instruments you are using, there is no such thing as a track number for in a section. With up to 256 different instrument tracks available, the numbers would be unwieldy anyway! Once your sections are composed, you link them together into songs - it is as simple and obvious as that.
Everything in RealTime works in real time. You can save and load songs, sections or device definitions whilst the sequence is running; edit tracks or sections whilst playing them, and even do potentially disastrous things like altering the loop point of tracks without ever stopping playback. As you enter notes they are displayed in a special notation on the screen, and editing or entering of notes can then be carried out with the mouse by clicking and dragging in conjunction with the Control, Shift and Alternate keys on the ST. The difference between real-time and step-time recording/editing is thus blurred: the notes you enter in real time can be freely mixed with step-time additions, or an entire section could be entered by just clicking in notes with the mouse. When I am creating music I don't think in terms of real-or step-time entry, and this is the first program I have encountered which works the same way I do - it is the events I am concerned with, not the details of how to enter them.
As with all Intelligent Music programs, there is provision for a wide selection of compositional aids. M lets you manipulate pitch, rhythm and dynamics in a variety of ways, and RealTime provides a similar set of functions to let you introduce controlled randomness into your music. MIDI Files — or 'Movies' as they are called in RealTime and M - are also provided, so it is possible to import and export songs between RealTime and another MIDI sequencer for further editing or collaborations. There is more to RealTime than I could possibly cover in a single review, so what follows is a guided tour through some of the more interesting aspects.
RealTime uses GEM to provide the windowing system, but the design of the program is such that you are not aware of the usual problems associated with slow redrawing of windows, etc. The basic method of interacting with RealTime is direct manipulation - where you click and drag on something on the screen, thereby affecting its value directly. Almost everything you see on the screen can be altered in this way, so you get a very compact but also comprehensive display. One part of the screen is fixed - the Control Strip in the top right-hand corner, which has buttons for Play, Pause, Record and Movies. The rest of the screen is for the windows...
There are four main windows: the Section window has a section bar at the top which contains information about the setup of the controls, the left-hand side is a column containing the track names, and the rest of the window is given over to the event area, where notes and events are displayed; the Library window is a list of the sections and songs and is used to open sections for editing or further recording; the Song window is where sections are dragged from the Library window to be arranged and linked into a song; and the Device window is where you define instruments and drum machines into a novel and very flexible form.
Normally when I am recording an instrument, I set it to a MIDI channel and then use my master keyboard to enter the notes, which are then re-channelised to drive the required instrument. You need to keep a mental note of which channel you are controlling, as well as the track number on which you are recording. RealTime works differently: to record a Korg M1 track on MIDI channel 1, you define an instrument called 'M1' on MIDI channel 1 and then use this device definition whenever you want to use the M1. This sounds complicated in words - what you actually do is open a device window and drag a track definition name into a section window. This creates a new track called 'M1' in the section window, and you can then record on it.
You can define instruments as either synthesizers or drum machines - the drum machine type lets you define separate track definitions for each drum. The left-hand column holds the track names and the rest of the device window holds the definitions of the notes which will be played. A vertical keyboard shows the note pitch, and time is shown by a horizontally scrolling grid. For drums, you would generally create a track for each drum and then assign the notes which drive the individual drum sounds by either playing them or clicking with the mouse.
You may be wondering why there is a horizontal time axis. Well, this enables you to enter several drum sounds or notes which will be played in that order each time an event happens using the instrument definition. You could store several differently pitched toms as a track called 'Toms', and then every time you create an event in the Toms track of a section, it will select the next pitch in the cycle. For synthesizer devices, you can store chords so that a single event in a track will create chords - by choosing five chords and playing one chord per bar, you have a 20-bar repeating chord sequence with very little effort. You can also change the order in which the chords are selected anywhere between the predictable left-to-right time sequence and a completely random order. The possibilities this opens up are quite formidable: you can store lots of definitions like this in the device window, so another track definition might just be a single tom at a fixed pitch, or the same synthesizer sound without any defined chords.
It can take some time to define your instruments the first time you use RealTime, but once defined you can save them on disk and forget about them. It really is amazing how much easier working with a sequencer is if it always deals with your instruments in a fixed way. Having to think about defining a device can also be useful, because it forces you to thoroughly read the owner's manual to see what can be done with it. This can be very rewarding - my Kawai R50 drum machine can map different drum sounds to each key on a MIDI keyboard, and so the RealTime device definition for it is very large and comprehensive - there is no other way that I could cope with all the note assignments so comprehensively.
The Section window is where you spend almost all your time whilst using RealTime. In the top left-hand corner is an icon which activates a pop-down menu used to select the View of the events. The Main View shows all the musical events except MIDI continuous controllers. The Pitch View lets you set the transposition, note density and note ordering parameters. The note density is particularly interesting - it determines how often events actually trigger notes from a device. It is normally set to 100% for conventional usage, but is very useful for accenting with Slaved tracks, as we shall see later. The Velocity view lets you change the values of the symbols used to represent velocities in the events display by dragging them with the mouse, and is very useful for setting dynamics. The Velocity Percent View lets you set the probabilities with which the various velocities will occur.
The MIDI View gives control over the MIDI channel of a track, the patch number and the MIDI volume. The Time View lets you set the time delay and time deviation (random variation in the timing of the events - like shuffling or flamming). The Articulation View enables the definition of preset articulations - lengths of notes - and the corresponding Articulation Percent View lets you control how often these will occur. All the random velocities and articulations are selected by using a special symbol in the events section of the window.
The Fills View provides a powerful means to generate automatic fills - obviously useful for drums, but very effective on instrument sounds, too. Instead of defining all the events in a track, you can just enter some and let RealTime add extra notes to provide variation. Fill adds extra notes in between existing ones: density controls how often the extra events occur, and division controls the placement of the added events by dividing the time between the notes into equal intervals. You can also filter the length of the created events, fill with different sounds from other tracks, and even transpose the fill events. For unusual effects you can use track definitions to choose several events for fills, or even fill with different drums. It is easy to liven up a snare or hi-hat with the Fill feature, but on instrument sounds it can really make bass lines, chords, and even sequences sound as if they are being played live because of the randomness and polyrhythmic feel which can be introduced. I experimented with the fills for quite some time and only began to scratch the surface: the tutorial example in the manual is an excellent introduction to the creative use of the Fill function.
The Bond View is used to link tracks together for orchestration purposes, rhythmic emphasis, and for using the variation facilities. With track bondage you make one track a slave to another - the slave track can then be used to replay the contents of the master track. The slave track is a clone of the master track but can use another instrument with different fills, transpositions or time shift. This is where the note density and order parameters begin to show their power - you can use a bonded track to add all sorts of interest and variation to another track in a very flexible way.
Actually, recording events into tracks is straightforward. You select either Insert or Replace from the Control Strip and then play - you can use a MIDI keyboard, paint events with the mouse, or point with the mouse and play notes to enter at that position. The events are displayed with time along the horizontal axis, and a moving cursor shows the current position. A display pop-up menu lets you choose the format used to show the events, with four different graphical representations possible. As you play, the symbols will appear in the event part of the section window, giving immediate feedback on what you have played. The section will loop back after a number of bars, set by a click and drag box, but you can change the loop points for each individual track as well.
The Record Filter option from the Menu Bar lets you control exactly which MIDI messages are recorded, whilst two quantise boxes in the Section Bar let you control the record and display quantisation down to 1/768th of a whole note (192 pulses per quarter note).
Normally you will record onto the instrument track which you have selected from the Device window, but you can lock existing tracks so that extra events can be added as separate tracks. This is great for separating out melody from chords played on the same instrument. Multi-channel record lets you record without any re-channelising, from as many instruments or controllers as you want.
The right-hand mouse button is used to access the editing toolbox - a small pop-up menu which lets you paint and graphically edit musical events. There are eight tools in all: the Striker lets you paint in notes or drum strikes; the Wrench lets you alter pitches, durations, velocities and other parameters; the Eraser lets you delete events; the Rest tool lets you enter rests - very useful when controlling complex fills; the Loop tool lets you place loop points in tracks - with control over the probability of a loop occurring, so you could have a two-bar drum pattern with a 50% loop at the end of the first bar to give a resulting drum pattern which sometimes plays both bars but sometimes just plays the first bar on its own; the Sound tool allows you to paint in patch or program changes; the Selector tool lets you select areas of the section for further editing; and the Shifter tool lets you reposition events in time.
MIDI Controllers are edited using a graphical area below the track, which is controlled by another pop-up menu. Individual menu options give quick access to pitch bend, aftertouch, polyphonic aftertouch and the tempo map, whilst a separate controller number box lets you set any other controller. You edit the controller information by clicking with the left mouse button to draw onto the screen, and you use the eraser tool to erase information. The pop-up menu provides a useful indication of which controller is recorded on a particular track, in a prioritised hierarchy with pitch bend first. A special editing function allows you to Thin controller data so that it does not occupy as much room in memory - it erases subsequent controller messages within a certain range and a certain size range so that you can govern the amount of precision used for a controller. Pitch bend needs lots of resolution and is probably best left alone, but modulation wheel or foot pedal messages could probably be quite harshly thinned out.
For global or more sophisticated editing, RealTime provides Smart editing - a transformation-based dialogue box which lets you define a set of criteria to specify the events you want to alter, and then the transformation of those events into another event according to defined rules. Post-quantisation, velocity scaling, duration editing, conversion of notes to strikes for driving a drum machine, controller conversions, quantisations within length limits - so you could make all notes with a duration less than a specific value equal to a set value - quantising velocity to multiples of defined values and pitch bend scaling are all possible. There are plenty more applications for smart editing - it is one of the most powerful tools for editing MIDI data that I have seen.
The whole point of recording sections is to be able to piece them together into linked songs. With a phrase/section-based sequencer like RealTime, the flexibility of the linking is as important as the recording of the individual sections. Realtime uses two dedicated windows to deal with the assembling of sections into songs - the Library and the Song windows.
Sections appear in the Library window as you create them, and to create a song you drag them into the Song window in the order you want them to play. You can re-order them by dragging within the Song window as well, should you want to change the sequence. You can specify up to 99 repeats of a section and set its tempo in absolute beats per minute or as a percentage of its original tempo. Alternate dragging a section copies it, and this is useful for making several copies of sections which only play once - you can then record on top of the entire song and the events you play will be inserted automatically into the appropriate sections. If you had a repeating section then the solo would record over itself while the section repeated!
Another way to use the Song window involves MIDI Files (Movies). By making a Movie of the whole song you can then re import it into a section where it will be broken back down into its component tracks, but it will be a long single section rather than a lot of smaller sections. Extra tracks can then be recorded alongside these tracks - MIDI Files play along with the rest of the song as a parallel process.
Editing sections within a song is just a matter of double-clicking on the section name in the list. The Section window will then open and can be edited, providing you are not recording at the time (this is one of the few occasions when RealTime actually limits what you can do!). Similarly, starting the song playback from a section other than the first is accomplished by clicking on the entry type field (section or song) in the Library window. The Play button in the Control Strip or the spacebar on the Atari will start the song from the beginning as usual, provided that the Song window is active. Songs can be repeated in exactly the same way as sections by dragging the song name from the Library window into the Song window and setting the repeat number - RealTime treats songs and sections in very similar ways.
RealTime can be a master or a slave to MIDI Clock, or receive and echo MIDI Time Code. It will sync to SMPTE with the appropriate additional SMPTE-to-MTC hardware. RealTime uses an interpolated internal clock, so the 1/768th whole note resolution applies even when synchronised externally. Song Position messages can be used to indicate where RealTime is playing from within a section or song.
Realtime has a MIDI control system which is similar to that of System Exclusive's Iconix sequencer, but more limited in its scope. You can use program changes, specific notes and MIDI Controllers to control start, stop, continue, trigger the selection of sections or songs, and tap or set the tempo. The MIDI channel can be set to a specific number or Omni. Assigning devices is done via selectable parameters in a dialogue box instead of the much better method where you actually send the MIDI message you want as the Controller - one of the few areas where I can think of a way to improve RealTime !
You can save a performance of a RealTime song or section by using the Movie button in the Control Strip. Realtime stores everything that happens during playback as a Format 0 MIDI File - a single multi-channel track of data, the same format that M uses. RealTime will accept both Format 0 and Format 1 MIDI Files (multiple linear tracks) when importing sequences. Songs, sections and device definitions can be saved to disk individually as well.
Actually using RealTime is a joy to anyone who likes direct manipulation - you click and drag on almost anything on the screen and thereby alter it! Once you have learned your way around, Realtime becomes very fast in operation - very much the same sort of power-user's interface as C-Lab's Creator/Notator program: this is a musical tool for the serious composer who wants state-of-the-art performance. With complexity of this order, you must expect to invest time into becoming familiar with the operation in order to fully exploit the vast potential RealTime has to offer.
You can run another program from within Realtime just as if it had been launched from the ST's Desktop. Obviously, auto-booting programs or those that make extensive use of timers (like some MIDI programs) will not work in conjunction with RealTime, but many graphics or word processor type programs - even well behaved MIDI utilities like voice editors - should be OK. I tried Degas Elite and ST Writer with no problems, and loaded and edited files in both whilst a sequence was running. In fact, I wrote this article on the Atari whilst RealTime played away merrily.
As Sound On Sound reviewers are noted for trying everything, I decided to run several programs in order to try and upset RealTime: I loaded in HiSoft Basic and compiled a program successfully, but ran out of memory when I tried to run it and returned to Realtime with no ill effects (the sequence was still running, by the way); then I tried loading another sequencer and succeeded in locking up the MIDI - but still Realtime did not crash! Once or twice I have encountered the odd funny note, especially when using fills, but the program has not crashed on me. It looks like Version 1.11 is relatively free from bugs.
By returning your registration card you will receive a backup copy of the copy protected master disk, as well as a utility program to install a copy of RealTime onto a hard disk - so that you do not need to insert the master floppy disk every time you use RealTime. I wish more companies would provide support for hard disk users in this way. RealTime always expects the master disk to be in drive A:, which is a downgrade from M, which searches any drives connected to the ST.
There are lots of QWERTY key equivalents for common commands, especially in the Section window. As you become familiar with these, your speed of using RealTime should increase because you will be able to combine mouse movements and command key presses.
A whole section of the manual is devoted to describing the available short-cuts. A Desk Accessory supplied with RealTime enables you to use RealTime's command keys whilst you are running another manufacturer's program.
In common with all Intelligent Music products, Realtime comes on a single 3.5" disk in a sturdy ring-binder containing a 24-page introduction and a 144-page main manual, complete with an index. The introduction is an essential entree to what might be a daunting first session with RealTime - the 'problem' with software as sophisticated as this is that it may appear overcomplex at first. But it is definitely worth investing the necessary time to learn it.
The main manual is well written, profusely illustrated with screen shots, and guides you through all the major functions of the program. It is clear and precise, offering useful hints and examples of real world applications. The index is often neglected in manuals, and its inclusion here is much appreciated. The review program was Version 1.11, whilst the manual only covered Version 1.0. I discovered only one minor difference between the manual and the program, apart from the extra features noted in a README.TXT file on the RealTime disk - the references in the Fill section to 'Str' (Strength) have been replaced by 'Vel' (Velocity).
Realtime runs in both high and medium resolution - but you obtain the largest display area on a screen in high resolution monochrome, and almost no use is made of the colours in medium resolution. Although RealTime will run on a standard (512K) Atari 520 ST, the amount of memory left is very small. From my testing of the 'Run Other...' multitasking feature, it would seem that a 1040, Mega ST2 or ST4 is recommended if you want to run multiple programs.
Realtime is a beautiful program. It was love at first sight for me, I'm afraid. The combination of direct manipulation of events, completely realtime operation, powerful visual editing, flexible device definitions, and the freedom from track numbers make this my all-time favourite sequencer. The liberation from a rigid real- or step-time recording choice and the interactive editing, combined with virtually modeless operation, make this a difficult program to beat.
I even prefer it to M, my previous first choice. It really does look as if the people at Intelligent Music in New York think in much the same way as I do.
If you want a superb, out of the ordinary, immensely usable sequencer with lots of scope for interactive algorithmic composition and random variation, then RealTime is for you. It will provide just about everything you could possibly want and stretch your creativity to the limit - it is almost exactly what I have always wanted!
I have not attempted to detail every available function in this review - there is simply too much to cover (the manual takes 144 pages!). Instead, I hope I have conveyed some of the scope and versatility of this innovative piece of software. Considering that sequencers with much less immediacy and versatility can cost twice the price of RealTime, this has to be the bargain of the century. This is one review copy which is not going back to the distributor!
£249 inc VAT.
MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).
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Review by Martin Russ
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