Martin Russ is your guide to the world of music on the Atari ST, in this new monthly column...
The MIDI Music Show in April promises to be the most important gathering of like-minded ST musicians in the UK this year. Judging by previous years, it should be an excellent chance to sample foreign software that is looking for distribution in this country. Last year I saw several excellent German offerings, and I suspect that this year may belong to the French — if MPI's Feeling Partner is anything to go by.
By the time you read this, the flurry of news from the huge Frankfurt Musik Messe exhibition should be coming your way. In contrast to the MIDI Music show, this is a broadly based (= all music, not just hi-tech) extravaganza that can stun the unwary and give them seriously blistered feet. The tone seems to be one of consolidation and enhancement this year, with C-Lab releasing Notator Logic, a Notator derivative rewritten for the Apple Macintosh (an ST version will follow), and offering the same sort of sophisticated total environment that is offered by programs like Steinberg's Cubase, Opcode's Vision and Mark of the Unicorn's Performer.
Computer programmers have obviously been cutting their teeth on object-oriented programming languages like C++ in the last year, because the major additions clearly show an increasing bias towards treating musical work environments in an object-rich way. This can only be good, because it is much more like the way that real people approach music making — anything that removes the artificiality and barriers of computers for music-making has to be welcomed. And on this topic, it is also refreshing to see that software and hardware are increasingly offered for the three major computing platforms: ST, Mac and PC. Approaches differ, however: the Plasmec ADAS hard disk recorder makes a positive feature of the cross-platform support in its advertising; on the other hand although I knew about Passport's Master Tracks for the ST, the virtually identical Mac and PC versions came as a surprise.
Of course, automatically providing the same program across all popular platforms shows a throughly professional attitude, it is just that you get so used to only having a program on one machine. Let's hope that Cubase and Notator Logic are the start of a new way of producing music software.
The major event of the computing year is the CeBit exhibition, held every March in Hanover, Germany. Because the German ST market is the strongest in Europe, the CeBit show is the logical forum for important ST releases. This makes it all the more surprising that the persistent rumours about a new Atari computer did not translate into a release at the show. The rumours on the ST network seemed to talk about a low cost 68030 machine (perhaps even a 68040, but this may be wishful thinking) running at 16MHz, and offering compatibility with, and all the video modes of, the ST and the TT, but at a price well below £1,000.
You only need to look at Apple's Macintosh LC computer to see how a 68020-based machine running at 16MHz can be made attractive in the same sort of price bracket; the recent release of a 68030 LC prompts one to wonder whether Atari may be poised to join Apple with a computer family centred around 68030-based machines.
As a change from the reviews of commercial software for the ST that you find in the rest of SOS, this page will sometimes feature a short look at some of the particularly outstanding pieces of work that can be found in the public domain or shareware areas. The featured item will usually be available from the SOS Software pages.
This month we'll look at two disks for Dr. T's KCS Omega from Chas Stoddard. It isn't often that a hardened reviewer receives something which really, really grabs them — the software world seems to be full of increasingly complex and capable sequencers, and rather too many generic editors. So it was a very pleasant surprise to be sent these two excellent disks of support material for Dr T's KCS Omega Level II Version 4.0 (one of those complex and capable sequencers I mentioned). Support material? How could that be interesting? Read on!
One thing that hi-tech music encourages is constant learning. The ability to read standard music notation has become, if not more important, at least more popular since most sequencers started to offer transcription facilities. Being able to play some music and then see what you played in score form is a great encouragement. One of Chas Stoddard's two disks had the same effect on me. The whole subject of microtuning and alternative scalings had always left me cold, but the text accompanying the examples on the disk was fascinating and intriguing, which is what encouraged me to read on. The text covers history first, then the techniques of using microtonal tunings in detail — I recommend printing it out.
The history of microtonality and scales starts with the ancient Greeks, and the text on disk reads rather like a mathematical Raiders of the Lost Ark. The story of the development of the sophisticated compromise we use as the default tuning on most electronic musical instruments is quite compelling — and some of it could be very useful in trivia quizzes. I just love finding out about obscure and unusual facts, and this was just up my street.
The technique described by Chas for exploring microtonality involves separating music into monophonic lines, and then using the Programmable Variations Generator feature of KCS Omega to provide the necessary pitch changes. This is probably one of those times when transferring techniques to another sequencer will be difficult and time-consuming — but perhaps Cubase and Notator owners will prove me wrong. I will now be able to approach the micro-tuning on my Yamaha equipment with much more certainty, now that I have some idea of what to do.
In these days of hypermedia, it was quite topical to also find a database of the information about the scales supplied on the disks. TCOS is a sort of Atari version of the Mac's justly famous HyperCard, and it has a completely mouse-driven user interface which allows you to browse through the information and view only what you want to see.
The second Stoddard disk is a toolbox of rhythms from the Indian sub-continent which works with the SongEdit module within KCS Omega. Since many of the microtonal scales are of similar origins, it makes a neat companion to the first disk. All of the files are compressed, so you need to have space on a hard disk or some formatted floppies when you click on the self-extracting program icon.
One "excellent", a "compelling" and a "fascinating" in one short review? Perhaps this reviewer is not as cynical as he thought he was. It is refreshing to find some free software that is severely under-priced. Well recommended — if it was commercial I would definitely advise you to buy it.
Chas Stoddard's work is available through the SOS Software pages. The two disks described have been combined into one double-sided disk which contains both the Microtonal Scales and the Decitala Rhythms.
Feature by Martin Russ
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