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Music System Software

A software package for the CBM64 sets out to utilise the SID chip but involves MIDI along the way. Simon Trask investigates the consequences, now that Island Logic have given way to Firebird.

The Commodore 64 version of Island Logic's Music System benefits from MIDI and a superior internal sound chip. But is it a sequencer for the serious musician, or an interesting toy for the computer buff?

Island Logic's first foray into the world of music software was a version of The Music System for the BBC Micro (reviewed in E&MM December '84), which used the Beeb's internal sound chip to produce all its musical cavortings. Nothing particularly new (or attractive) about that, you might think. But what was mildly wonderful about The Music System were the graphics techniques it employed - all the icon, window and pull-down menu paraphernalia that look like being de rigeur on the new generation of 16-bit micros, but programmed on an eight-bit micro. The only thing missing was a mouse.

There still aren't any mice in sight now that the package has been adapted for use with the Commodore 64, but the software writers have affirmed their ability to work wonders with an eight-bit micro. The 64 version follows its predecessor in making use of the host computer's internal sound chip, but this in itself is an improvement, as the 64 uses the superior SID chip. What makes the package much more attractive to pro and semi-pro users is its new-found compatibility with MIDI, though apart from this digital link with the outside musical world, the new system should be familiar to anyone who's encountered the BBC version.

The Music System (or TMS, as the manual calls it and as I shall call it from now on) consists of six software modules, all of which have to be called up from an icon-driven control screen. Whenever a new module is selected, it's loaded from disk with a typical loading time of about 25 seconds, though a further 10 seconds is taken up each time you return to the control screen. This isn't too much of an irritation, but what it does entail is a fair bit of disk-swapping once you've got a few music files saved on your own disk.

The six Commodore TMS modules are the Editor, Keyboard, Synthesiser, Linker, Printer and MIDI. The first five of these are dedicated to the internal sound chip, but the good news is that music files generated from MIDI input (ie. in the MIDI module) can be translated into internal TMS music files for use by the other modules in the system. Likewise, internal TMS music files can be translated into MIDI music files for performance on professional synths and that sort of thing.

Time to look at those modules individually. The Editor is a step-time sequencer which allows you to work within the context of a traditional music score display with treble and bass clefs, entering a maximum of three monophonic parts (the SID chip has three voices, remember). A vertical white band — which the manual calls the 'note cursor' — indicates the current step, and you enter your music by sliding a note up and down the staves to the correct position and selecting the required note value.

Just by way of a contrast, the Keyboard module is a real-time sequencer which presents you with an on-screen music keyboard diagram, and allows you to enter notes from the Commodore's QWERTY keyboard. In a fit of quite unprecedented honesty, the manual points out that this method of input is capable of handling only a limited resolution and speed. But once you've saved an internal TMS music file created in this module, you can transfer it to the Editor module for further, much more detailed work.

So, the Editor, Keyboard and MIDI modules represent the three possible ways of entering music into TMS. Of the remaining modules, the Synthesiser allows you to set up 'patches' for the SID chip which you can then use in the music-creation modules, the Printer allows you to print out your musical efforts - complete with lyrics if you're doing a Leiber as well as a Stoller - and the Linker lets you string together up to 26 different music files.

It's worth paying some attention to one particular feature that's common to all the modules: the command line. This is where the pop-up menu concept comes into its own. Four such menus (Files, Values, Commands and Info) may be selected from each screen by pressing one of the 64's function keys, and although the name and overall function of each menu remains the same, the actual content changes according to which module you're in. When you select one of the menus, a window 'pops up' on a portion of the screen, giving the relevant list of options. If the number of options exceeds the window's display capabilities, you can scroll through the menu. A second window overwrites the first if you select an appropriate option, to present further information and allow further action to be taken.

This method of operation applies to all the pop-up (or 'pull-down') menus, and it's both quick and easy. I found it particularly helpful for the way it gave the presentation some kind of visual continuity, instead of transporting me to a dedicated menu screen as is traditionally the case.

As you might expect, Files is responsible for disk access, and allows you to Catalogue, Load, Save, Delete and Rename files. Values presents you with a list of parameters such as key signature, time signature, tempo and resolution. Commands presents a set of macro-level operations which allow you to manipulate the material currently being accessed - the music you've input in the Editor or the sound parameters in the Synthesiser module, for instance. Last of all, Info provides some general hints on things like available note storage space, current note allocation for each voice, and other global voice information.

TMS uses six file types. There are music files, sound files, MIDI files, Linker files, Notepad files and Text files. The first four are pretty self-explanatory, and of the other two, Notepad files store sections of music in the internal (non-MIDI) data format which can then be used in 'cut and paste' operations on music in the Editor, while Text files are used to store lyrics, and are created and used by the Printer module.

Now that we've got an overview of the system, let's look at the constituent modules in more detail, starting with the Editor, as this is where most of the work gets done (and don't I know it - Ed). The facilities it offers can seem a bit overwhelming at first, but this is a sure sign that the module gives you a fair degree of flexibility when it comes to manipulating notes. And what you don't have to do is memorise a set of commands before you can do anything. Why? Because nowhere is TMS' emphasis on good visuals more apparent than in the Editor. Before you know where you are, you're putting notes on the Voice Monitor window display of treble and bass clefs, inserting and deleting to your heart's content. As mentioned earlier, you move a note up and down a vertical 'note cursor' bar, and you can listen to the note at any stage before choosing a note value and moving to the next step. Thus each step is a note, rather than a duration.

The attributes of a step are note pitch, duration and envelope. The envelope can be any one of a set of 15, which you define in the Synthesiser module and save to disk as a sound file. So you can easily have an envelope (and in TMS, an 'envelope' includes waveform and filter definitions as well as the standard ADSR) for each note, should you wish.

A note sequence can be stepped through in either direction at any time, and once an entered note has been arrived at in this scrolling fashion, it can be altered just as if you were entering a new note - and needless to say, steps can be inserted and deleted at will.

The Voice Monitor window can display only one voice at a time, but you can flip instantly between the three voices at any time, and the voices are always aligned. The display is commendably clear, but the lack of any beaming of notes might make things less clear if you've got a lot of smaller note values flying around.

Key signature, time signature and tempo are global parameters entered via the Values menu. Key signature can be any available key, while the time signature can range from 2/16 to 16/2, and the tempo from grove to prestissimo. Any note can be redefined across the complete range from double flat to double sharp, and notes can be tied and given triplet status. It's also possible to define repeat sections and first- and second-time repeat sections for each voice.

A further feature is the 'loop section', of which there can be up to 20 in each voice, with each section selectable from the Values menu. A loop section repeats for the duration of the longest voice (or indefinitely if it's the only voice or if all the voices are loop sections), which makes it rather handy if you want a repeating bass line to improvise over, say.

And there's still more. You can set two markers in each voice to define what are called 'macros'. Put simply, these are functions which can act over many notes in a voice instead of one note. Thus, you can transpose by a fixed amount all the notes in a section (this is like a key change, though there's effectively only one key signature per voice), assign the same envelope number to all the notes, or even delete whole sections at a stroke.

There's yet more flexibility to be found if you delve into the workings of the notepad files. Again, you use the markers to define a section of an individual voice to be acted on. In this case, you can copy or move any section of between 1-999 notes to a spare area of memory, whence it can be saved to disk as a notepad file, or copied, or moved into another voice. There can only be one notepad file in memory at a time, but this doesn't pose any particular problems as long as you remember that the limitation is there.

What's really nice about the 'notepad' approach is that it's so open-ended - you can use it in the way that best suits you. One possible use is to append whole music files to one another, so that you can 'build up' files created in the MIDI module which can't in themselves be added to.

I've dwelt on the Editor module because it really is the 'nerve centre' of TMS - even though the MIDI module can be used successfully in a stand-alone capacity.

As an alternative, the Keyboard module isn't exactly my favourite way of entering music, but it does provide anyone who doesn't go the MIDI route with the opportunity to play in something approximating real time. As with the Editor, you can enter three voices monophonically over a four-octave range, and a rough guide to space used/available is provided by three horizontal bars on the screen. The currently-selected voice can be displayed in the Voice Monitor window in both Record and Playback modes, while a third mode with the unfortunate name of Tinkle allows you to play the keyboard without having to record or playback anything at all. Music and sound files can be loaded into the Keyboard module, but only music files can be saved, and your real-time doodlings can't be saved as notepad files - you have to load them into the Editor as music files and then save them into the notepad area first.

The Printer allows your parts to be printed out in a format identical to the onscreen stave arrangement. There are limitations, of course - a music file with more than 255 bars in Voice 1 won't get printed, while bars must be aligned across the voices and all non-empty voices selected if you want to see your lyrics. It would have been nice if the module had allowed you to 'tidy up' the score a bit - put in beams for notes where applicable, and add performance indications.

The main point to bear in mind here is that the Printer module is designed down to the limitations of the SID chip. If you're only dealing with SID, that's hardly a problem. But if you're thinking of using the MIDI module, it's worth remembering that the Printer isn't going to be very co-operative if you ask it to print out your glorious six-track polyphonic ramblings.

The Linker module is a handy way of including tempo, key and time signature changes in to a piece. Internal music files can be loaded in any order and then chained together in any order as a sequence. Up to 26 music files can be loaded at any one time (depending on memory available), and sequences can have up to 100 links. The loaded music files can be saved as a Linker file together with the performance sequence, so that the complete file effectively becomes a single composition. What a pity, then, that Linker files can't be transferred to the MIDI module for performance...

The Synthesiser module is where you get to play around with the parameters of the SID chip and create sets of sound patches. These Island Logic people never seem to do things by halves, so the Synthesiser ends up being the most sophisticated editor available for the SID chip. It even manages, through some cunning software manipulation, to include features which aren't normally available from the chip itself.

You can either load a music file and alter envelope parameters in real time as the sequence plays, or try out your sounds with reference to a single pitch which you can determine. In the former case you can, obviously, hear a particular sound in context and take full advantage of the aforementioned loop sections for isolating particular parts of a sequence - though you can't actually set up loops in the Synthesiser module itself, which is a pity.

A 'circuit' of windows provides ready access to the various SID chip parameters, and a graphic approach is used wherever possible, hence the display of ADSR parameters as a block graph which reshapes itself as you alter the parameters. Various macro-type commands are provided for broader control of variables, and as well as SID's standard parameters, Island Logic have implemented a couple of extra features in software. These are two dynamic response envelopes, one of which is a three-stage pitch envelope with a pulse-width sweep option, while the other is a filter sweep which takes the currently-assigned filter type and varies the filter cutoff according to a user-defined sweep 'envelope'.

So for anyone wanting to grapple with the SID chip, this module should provide more than enough in the way of facilities.

But as I've said, what's going to matter most to the pro or semi-pro user is TMS' newly-realised MIDI capability. Before going on to discuss this in detail, there's the small matter of a MIDI interface, without which you won't get very far. Island Logic don't actually market their own interface, which in itself is no bad thing - there are already plenty of the things in existence, all of them incompatible with each other. TMS is compatible with Passport and SIEL CBM64 interfaces, and the makers don't guarantee the package will work with any other MIDI interfaces (and you thought MIDI was supposed to be a standard?). So if you want to hook up your Jellinghaus or Joreth interface to TMS, you're out on your own.

To the software. Basically, what you get is a real-time sequencer with six polyphonic tracks and a total storage capacity approaching 3000 events. It records most standard MIDI performance information: patch changes, sustain on/off, mod wheel, attack velocity, pressure and so on. Pitch-bend information wouldn't reproduce on our test copy, it also cut off all subsequent recorded data (a bug in the software, perhaps). Facilities you don't get are MIDI channel assignment (hard luck if your inputting keyboard is a DX7 or Poly 800), sequence looping, data filtering or edit punch n/out. That sounds like a long list, but remember there are a few dedicated sequencers - costing four times as much as this software and interface combined - that don't offer these facilities, either.

On the plus side, you can pause recording simply by pressing the space bar, alter the tempo of your recordings, delete either specific tracks or the whole lot of them at once, record to a metronome pulse generated by the 64's sound chip (remember, SID takes a break while you give your synth a workout) and select tracks for playback individually. And as with the other input modules, you can call up the Voice Monitor window for a display of the currently-selected voice (here in Record and Playback modes).

The MIDI module doesn't provide you with any editing facilities, but you have to balance this against the facility to convert MIDI files to internal music files for subsequent use in the other modules (followed by conversion back to MIDI files, if you so wish). There are some sacrifices, though, mainly connected with the fact that the rest of TMS' modules were designed to work purely with the SID chip, not for MIDI applications. So for instance, any file you transfer across to the internal system has to be not more than three-voice polyphonic. The system allows you to assign up to three MIDI tracks to a file for conversion, and these should all be monophonic, even though the MIDI tracks can in themselves be polyphonic. Actually, if you assign polyphonic tracks for conversion the system will go ahead and convert them anyway, but any chords will be resolved into rapid staccato arpeggios - so rapid that you can hardly hear them, in fact.

But once you've got over the disappointment of your multi-keyboard sonic attack being reduced to a mere three-part whimper, it's also worth bearing in mind that any MIDI performance parameters apart from patch changes are irretrievably lost in the conversion process. Patch changes are exempt from this torture because as long as they're in the range 0-15, they're converted to corresponding SID chip envelope changes (and reconverted to the original MIDI patch changes on conversion back).

Potentially more serious than these transfer limitations is the fact that you can't use the facilities within TMS as an add-on for a dedicated MIDI sequencer. The MIDI module doesn't respond to MIDI Start, Stop and Continue codes (or, presumably, MIDI timing bytes), which means you can't synchronise it with another sequencer of any description. A lost opportunity, I'd say, though there's nothing to stop you copying parts manually from another sequencer if you want to do some detailed editing or print out your music, for example.

On the whole, the system struck me as being quite robust, and any operator errors (including those involving disk access) are trapped with informative error messages. The 90-page user manual is as clear and as thorough as its length would suggest, with plenty of diagrams relating to what you actually see on the screen. But like any good book, it would benefit from a detailed contents page and an index - seeing as ours was a draft copy, maybe the final version will include these.

The Music System's wealth of facilities and astonishing ease of use make it an odds-on bet for anyone looking for an introductory music package that doesn't have to be dedicated to MIDI. If you fit into that category, TMS is the package to go for; no ifs, no buts.

On the other hand, there can't be too many computer-oriented musicians nowadays who are willing to make do with music software based around a computer's internal sound-chip - the proliferation of MIDI-dedicated software has put paid to that. So even with its MIDI capability (and don't forget you'll need to purchase the requisite interface, at maybe three times the cost of the software itself), TMS may not be such an attractive proposition to pro players who value voicing flexibility above all else. In fact, the MIDI module is usable as a stand-alone feature, but any interaction with the rest of the system is designed within the limitations of the SID chip, which, as we've discovered, are really quite serious. The reason that's been done is simply that the poor Commodore doesn't have enough memory to cope with presenting this sort of visual display and processing 16-odd channels of MIDI data simultaneously. A pity, but there you go.

But remember this: The Music System is undoubtedly a model for the next generation of music software written for 16-bit machines such as the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga. Its price is low enough for anybody interested in music software development to go and get it, just for the sake of seeing how it presents its options - regardless of whether they fit into the muso or the micro buff categories.

Release of The Music System is scheduled for October. RRP of the complete system is £39.95 (disk only). The Editor and Synthesiser modules are available together on disk for £17.95 and on cassette for £14.95.

While this review was being written, distribution of The Music System switched from Island Logic to Firebird Software, the games software arm of British Telecom. More from Firebird, (Contact Details).

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Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Oct 1985

Scanned by: Stewart Lawler

Review by Simon Trask

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