Siel 16-track Live Sequencer
Software for Commodore 64 and Spectrum
He was unimpressed by the same company's step-time MIDI package, but how does Steve Howell rate its real time equivalent?
The company's step-time MIDI software didn't exactly get a rousing reception when we looked at it last December, but does Siel's new real-time package render those criticisms invalid?
Hot on the heels of their MIDI Composer package comes some new Siel software which almost looks as though it's been introduced as a direct (and very rapid) reply to my comments on that earlier package, which obliged the user to enter each note, step time and gate time, numerically from the computer keyboard. Because while that method undoubtedly promises great programming precision, there's no denying it's a laborious and cumbersome way of inputting music data.
Anyway, the new Live Sequencer is a multitrack package capable of recording 4500 notes across 16 polyphonic tracks from your MIDI keyboard(s). Mind you, the mere fact that it employs real-time input means that it's very much a 'warts and all' system, which means it'll faithfully reproduce as many bum notes as your technique will permit you to play. And unfortunately, because the package offers nothing in the way of quantisation or editing facilities, the only way to rectify a slightly duff performance is to go back to the beginning and record the piece all over again.
To load the program, all you do is insert your disk or tape (either format is available) and type the required command. The screen remains blank for a few seconds, after which an ornate and highly colourful bit of graphics asks you to wait. Another minute or so and the main menu comes up on screen, and you're in business. Options listed include Record, Play, Edit Play, Song, Beats and Clock, as well as (on the disk-based review sample) a Disk option that allows you to save, load, erase and manage your files of recorded music.
This isn't the most awe-inspiring main menu in the software industry, so I'll be brief about what each option means. Not surprisingly, the Record page allows you to start recording while the Play one lets you hear your masterpiece once it's been stored. The Edit Play page is somewhat less useful than its title might suggest, because all it enables you to do is assign MIDI channel numbers to tracks and transpose the entire recorded work up or down. Moving on, Beat allows you to select your own time signature, Clock gives you a choice of internal or external clock with an option for selecting different trigger types, while Song allows you to combine and re-arrange tracks to make up songs. Situation normal, in other words.
Once you've selected Record and the corresponding page has come up on screen, you're asked which of the 16 tracks you want to record on and which sound you want to use. Obviously, answering the latter question entails entering some sort of number, and it's here that we encounter the somewhat eccentric numbering system employed throughout this package, and indeed on an awful lot of Siel gear. You see, instead of starting at 1 like the rest of the known Universe, Siel's software writers seem intent on starting at zero, which means voice number 12 on your synth has to be entered into the micro as number 11, otherwise you'll end up with a Hendrix soundalike guitar solo being played by a woodblock. Or something.
No, this is not an insurmountable problem, because after an hour or two, subtracting one digit from each number that comes into your head for the purpose of making it computer-digestible becomes an entirely natural process - but it's still a bizarre system, and one I'd like to see consigned to the Great Software House in the Sky.
But back to recording. The relevant screen display shows information pertaining to number of notes played and time (in minutes and seconds) elapsed, and once you've adjusted the tempo and volume of the system's built-in metronome, all you do is press f7 and you're away. You get a count-in of one bar (I'd have preferred two), after which everything you play is digitised and stored by the computer: there's no limit to note length because the system's resolution appears to be very good indeed. When you've finished, pressing f7 stop the recording and you're free to go back to the main menu (via the * key) so that you can replay your masterpiece.
You have to press f7 twice to get any action out of the Play page, once to set the metronome tempo and once to activate playback, which is executed once only. Actually a lot of the Play page's methods of operation are more than a little unsatisfactory. For one thing, having to adjust the metronome tempo every time you want to replay anything is not only daft but also, in view of the lack of a visual guide to tempo speed, uncomfortably imprecise. For another, there's the absurd system whereby once you've put a stop to the playback, you have to exit the page, go back to the main menu, reselect Play, answer the Play option, reset the tempo and press f7 yet again. And all to play a piece twice over instead of once.
Assuming you're satisfied with what you've recorded as your first track, you can overdub as many as 15 further parts, and the software makes things a little easier here by automatically incrementing the current track number by one. The procedure for recording a second part is the same as it was for the initial one, with the obvious exception that second time around, you hear your first track in the background so that you've got something audible to play along to. What you probably won't be prepared for is the fact that, when you've gone through the whole rigmarole of getting back into Play mode, you won't actually be able to hear the overdub you've just so lovingly recorded. Why? Because the software automatically assigns each newly-dubbed track to the next MIDI channel number, quite regardless of how many MIDI instruments are actually connected. Which means that if you're only using one MIDI keyboard, say, you've got to get into the Edit Play page and change the channel assignment to match the way things are in reality rather than the way Siel's software writers envisage an ideal MIDI world as being.
"The software will store data relating to keyboard velocity and after-touch, though there's no provision for remembering some of the other commonly-MIDI'd parameters such as pitch-bend and vibrato."
It's obvious not only from their current product range but also from what we know of their future plans that Siel are deadly serious about the subject of MIDI. No matter how silly the auto-incrementation of channel numbers on the Live Sequencer may be, the fact that the company clearly believes there will be a time when the average synth player has four or five MIDI keyboards and expanders to choose from has got to be good news for the pro-MIDI fraternity.
And that's only the start of this particular MIDI story, because not only is the Live Sequencer capable of storing patch changes (though watch those numbers), it stores them as just one MIDI event, so you're not going to have to sacrifice memory space for arrangement versatility. The software will also store data relating to keyboard velocity and after-touch (assuming your synth is up to it), though on the debit side, there's no provision for remembering some of the other commonly MIDI'd parameters such as pitch-bend and vibrato.
Moving away from MIDI, the system will also sync to an external clock provided by a drum machine or somesuch, but the wiring of the DIN socket fitted to the Siel computer interface (it's the same as the Jellinghaus one, remember) obliges you to use a one-shot trigger pulse such as that provided by the hi or lo tom on the Roland Drumatix, for example. Owners of Roland DIN-sync standard drum machines might be forgiven for thinking that the Siel will handle a multiple pulse per event system, usable via that DIN socket - it won't.
Overall, I have to confess to having mixed feelings about this particular software package. As a basic system aimed at musicians wanting an entirely digital equivalent to a multitrack tape machine - though with the additional timing and voicing versatility a MIDI-based system implies - it could be a winner, though the unbelievably laborious playback routine does diminish its appeal by no small amount.
Personally, I'd like to see a lot more in the way of editing facilities (in preference to the provision for connecting 16 MIDI instruments, say), though Siel defend the Live Sequencer's lack of these by saying it's intended for keyboardists who are already reasonably proficient at what they do and are therefore less likely to make the kind of performance cock-ups an editing system would be used to correct. They also say that the absence of such a system is the price you have to pay for such a high note storage maximum. Actually, I can't help thinking 4500 notes wouldn't go all that far if you spread them across 16 MIDI keyboards: just think of the damage a few eight-note chords on each would do...
In many ways, it seems Siel have put their software betting money on two extremes. On the one hand, they market a step-time package that's extremely versatile but makes high demands on the user's patience, while on the other, they've written a real-time program that's relatively easy to use but doesn't have anything like enough editing and composing functions to make it a universally worthwhile proposition. Still, I have a feeling they'll get there in the end.
RRP of the Live Sequencer as tested is £69.50 (disk) and £64.00 (cassette), both inclusive of VAT. The Siel MIDI Interface is £99.00 inclusive of VAT
Review by Steve Howell
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