The Soft Parade
Muse & Steinberg software.
Computer software is one of the fastest developing areas in today's music. If you believe that computers have no place in music, that software has nothing to offer you, the chances are that some of the latest programmes can prove you wrong. But, with so many arriving on the market, which ones are worth trying? This month ITs Nick Graham begins a regular review of what's hot on the Soft Parade. First into line are the Roland Muse and the Steinberg Pro-16.
As promised in last month's IT, this review will be the first in a series exploring the complex world of music software for micro computers. To kick off, I'm going to look at two simple but effective MIDI/sequencer software/hardware packages, both of which can be had in versions suitable for either a Commodore 64 or an Apple II+/IIE. These are, in turn, the Muse system (MIDI Users Sequencer/Editor), marketed in the UK by Roland, and the Steinberg Pro-16, distributed over here by the Oxford Synthesiser company — yes, the very same people responsible for the Oscar synth. Each package has its good and bad points, but make no mistake, they're both at least the equal of any dedicated sequencer in the same price range, and this can include the cost of buying the computer itself!
Being purely a real-time recorder with no facility to record in step-time or edit individual notes, it helps if you are a keyboard player when using Muse. Indeed, Roland are keen to point out the fact that spontaneity in performance is not lost using this software, because it 'works the way people think musically'. Certainly the way it recorded revealed several 'musician friendly' features which I much appreciated, not least of which was the facility to select functions by using only cursor keys (the IJKM keys on my Apple II+). In fact, by using either these keys or a games paddle, it was possible to select every function without even touching the keyboard — just a case of 'point and click'. All the most frequently used functions are displayed on a command screen, and pop-up windows appear whenever more information is needed.
Muse is an 8-track recorder, but don't be deceived — the 'Merge' function allows two or more tracks to be bounced together, providing unlimited overdubbing with no loss of information. Recording itself is very easy; you just point to 'Record' and press the spacebar, at which point the programme then asks you 'which track?' and 'how many bars?'. Of course, you have to set a tempo (40-240) and a time signature 2/8-9/8 and 2/4-9/4) but the principle is simple. If you make a mistake or decide you want to change something, there are two options; either punch in/out, or record individual bars on another track and insert them into the original. Punching in and out with Muse is automated, and by selecting the start bar and the number of bars to be recorded, it will of its own accord roll back to a position two bars before the drop-in point, play these bars as a lead in, go into record and then come out again! This feature takes a lot of the strain out of one-man recording, leaving the brain and both hands free to concentrate on the music, the only limitation being that the drop-in/out must occur at the beginning or end of a complete bar.
Using Copy/Edit and Copy/Chain, any bar or group of bars can be inserted or deleted on any recorded track, or taken from any position and chained together on a new track in a new order. This flexibility in editing means that, as well as providing an editing alternative to punch in-out as I mentioned above, the creativity possible with the programme is enhanced. For example, I found it very productive, when writing, to set the Muse to record a long sequence (perhaps 150 bars) and then improvise until I struck something I liked. This was helped, incidentally, when the computer was synced to a good drum machine pattern. On playback any good bits, even single bars, could be lifted out of that track, copied onto another track, then used as the basis for a new section of music. Because Muse allows this kind of editing, music can be built up in a very free way (unusual for a sequencer!). Solos, for example, can be recorded over long sections and the best of several tracks combined.
Another nice feature of the Muse is the way its auto-correct capability is applied (if you want it) after the phrase is recorded. Thus phrases with 'feel' can be left uncorrected, and even if you did play out of time, Muse's 'phase coherent' correction tends to respect your articulation and phrasing. Resolution ranges from 1/4 notes to 32nd triplets, pitch bend and other control data is unchanged by auto-correction. If required, aftertouch, programme change and modulation data can be filtered from the incoming MIDI signal during recording, which obviously saves on memory space.
While we're on the subject of memory, Muse has a conservative 6,000 note capability, fairly low for a 64K computer. This is probably because all the features of the programme are loaded into the computer's RAM memory, only referring back to the disc when saving and loading files. Since it's a relatively 'intelligent' programme it takes up more memory space, leaving less for the actual music. It's a pity, because a programme like this needs masses of memory to fulfil its creative potential. This is an inevitable trade-off however, because unless the programme was to consult the disc every time you issued a new command (and this would be far too slow in operation) you're stuck with it.
Finally, I should mention that the Muse can do other things as well, including transpose any bar or track, loop any section of a track so that you can play along with it, or auto-locate in playback to any previously selected position in a song. The metronome can be switched off, and tracks can be muted at will Although Muse remembers the MIDI channel setting of each instrument and plays back on that channel, this can be changed using the 'Channelize' function. MIDI through allows any incoming data from the master keyboard to be mixed with sequence data emerging on MIDI out, whether in play, record or idling, but it can also be disabled if required.
In my view, Muse has only one serious shortcoming — just one time signature is possible in any one song, so even a simple 2/4 can't be programmed; the computer just plonking at the beginning of a new 4/4 bar, so that the next bar starts at beat 3. This can be quite limiting especially if you're trying to sync to a Roland SBX80 or other intelligent synchroniser. Since the sync capabilities of Muse are excellent; including MIDI clock, Time Base, Synch 24 and FSK, this problem should be a top priority for the next update, which should also, I feel, include the provision of MIDI song pointers. If these two items were implemented, it would convert Muse from a creative but limited package into a very flexible MIDI-recorder indeed.
RRP from £145
The Steinberg is a totally different concept in MIDI recording from Muse. Where Muse allows you to wander and experiment, with flexible choices available later, Steinberg is an organised and efficient system by means of which 'music will be composed'! It has to be the quickest sequencer to use that I've ever come across, but in its ruthless efficiency some of the creative aspects are sacrificed. However, if you know what you want, and you want it quickly, then this one may well be the package for you.
The Pro-16 is organised on the drum machine principle — it particularly reminds me of the way a Linn is programmed, although it's infinitely more flexible than that. Recording is done in sequences which may be anything from 1 to 64 bars long. Each sequence has 16 tracks on which separate parts of the music can be recorded. To form a song up to 64 different sequences are chained together in a 'song table', which is displayed clearly in a vertical column on the right of the screen, along with the position (1-256) the current sequence occupies in the song. Sequences can be inserted and deleted from the table and it's easy to see where you are at any given point. Although it is possible for each sequence to have a different tempo, an overall tempo for a song can be set before programming starts, and this way every new sequence automatically defaults to that tempo. This type of time saving device is typical of the Pro-16.
So what's the operating procedure? On the Apple version which I tested, all the parameters/functions are displayed on single pages. The Commodore version, on the other hand, has a second page on which MIDI filtering data, synchronising data and time delays of anything from a 32nd triplet to a semibreve can be set up. Unfortunately for Apple owners, only the sync data and the aftertouch filter have been incorporated on their version of the Pro-16, so I'm unable to comment on what look like very useful extra facilities. On both versions, though, parameters/functions are selected using the cursor keys to move a 'box' around the screen. Once the box is in position the values are changed using + and - keys, but there are a number of specific functions which are selected using other keys, and for speed of operation it's well worth learning these. If you do manage to get lost 'H' fetches help, which appears as a moving line of text below the main display, but the system doesn't pose any difficulties for musicians anxious to get on with the music.
Although the Steinberg system has elementary step-time programming, its true strength is as a real-time recorder. Once the length, tempo and time signature have been decided, then all that remains is to select Record, the track to record on, and press return. After a two bar count recording begins, and, just like a drum machine, playback is instantaneous, looping round and round till you stop it. Quantisation is applied during record, so it's important to select the correct value (there is a method for doing this afterwards, but this involves playing the whole sequence). It tends to be rather harsh but it's wonderful for creating those precise, robotic rhythms and, of course, quantisation can be turned off allowing your computer to record exactly what you play.
In those rare (Ho! Ho! —Ed) situations where what you play isn't what you meant to play, the Steinberg's punch in/out facilities will let you correct it. Unfortunately, if it's a two-handed keyboard part that you wish to repair then you might as well forget it, as you'll need to grow a third hand before you can operate the computer. Unlike the Muse, there is no facility for automated punch-in/out — not even a footswitch to help you do the job. In fact, editing on the Pro-16 isn't brilliant; neither individual notes nor individual bars can be edited independently, and only complete tracks and sequences can be moved around and copied. This can be creatively limiting, and the problem is compounded when you find you can't join two sequences to make a new one ih order to be able to continuously overdub.
So, just as Roland's Muse has its limitations, so does the Steinberg Pro-16, and I would strongly suggest that the next Steinberg update includes an 'Append' (ie, the joining of two sequences) command along with a footswitch input to the interface, enabling foot-controlled punch-ins.
Having said all this, the Steinberg Pro-16 is so relentlessly logical that it forces you to work in a very efficient way. It also has an 8,000 note capacity (quite a bit more than the Muse) and each sequence can have its own different tempo and time signature, making possible some very complex song structure. All the usual sync facilities and a few more besides (e,g., selectable 24/48/96 sync out!) are available, as are transposition by song, sequence or track. I loved the feature which, when the letter A on the QWERTY keyboard was pressed, played an A on all the synths hooked up — the instant half speed/double speed key was pretty useful too. Finally, I found the facility to change speed, switch tracks on and off, solo a track, transpose, adjust velocity, change MIDI channel etc. etc. during playback extremely useful for both experimentation and live performance!
As a direct replacement for any dedicated sequencer, Steinberg have here a good, if not yet perfect package.
Both of these software packages have their merits, both are quite adequate for professional use, and I was able to use them very successfully on professional recording sessions in top studios. However, I did find that the Steinberg package tended to crash much more often on my Apple, although I was usually able to rescue programmes by using the 'reset' facility.
Ultimately, I feel that price will be the deciding factor here, and although (thanks to the sophisticated MPU401 interface) Muse runs smoothly on both Apple II and Commodore computers, the package price of £440 and £445 (MPU401/Card/Software) will appear rather high. Steinberg prices, on the other hand, start out at only £145, which includes the software (£100) and a basic interface for the Commodore (£45). For £150, a much more sophisticated interface is also available, but even this keeps prices below the Muse system. Apple users, though, have to pay a bit more, with the software costing £120 and the interface selling at RRP £130.
Fortunately, both Roland and the Oxford Synthesiser Co. provide backup and update services for nominal charges and, although Roland is by far the better established of these two companies, neither Steinberg nor OSC are cottage industries and should be around for some time to come.
My parting shot is this. Before you decide on either of these two packages, try to seem them in action. Furthermore, by the time you're reading this updates could well be available which allow you to take advantage of the increased memory of the Commodore 128. Didn't I say that computer software was a fast-moving world?!
Just as this issue went to press we received news from the Oxford Synthesiser Co. of four new Steinberg products — the Pro-24 and Pro-Creator, both for the fabulous Atari 520/1040 ST; plus the Edit Kit and Track Star, both for the Commodore 64. Particularly important in the context of Nick's review of the Pro-16 is the Steinberg Edit Kit which enables quantise and velocity values to be assigned to individual notes. There is also a second page for editing drum patterns on a MIDI drum machine. The edited result is recorded on only 1 track of the Pro-16. There'll be further news of these latest Steinberg additions next month!
Meanwhile, more info on MUSE from Roland (UK) Ltd., (Contact Details). Details of all STEINBERG packages from The Oxford Synthesiser Co. Ltd., (Contact Details).
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Review by Nick Graham
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