Designed by musicians for musicians, The Digital Muse’s long-awaited MIDI sequencer for the Atari ST offers 99 tracks, real-time multitasking operation, ultra-fast screen redraws, and a host of comprehensive features with which to make music. So does it live up to expectation? David Hughes finds out...
Virtuoso is the first product to appear from the fledgling British software house The Digital Muse. This 99-track MIDI sequencer enters the fray at a time when the music software scene appears to be somewhat awash with ST-based sequencer programs. Already, I can sense a number of readers attempting to stifle a yawn. Does Virtuoso have anything new to offer? All I can say is 'Yes!' - so read on and discover more...
On paper at least, Virtuoso appears to be quite conventional. Operationally, it follows the almost traditional tape recorder approach used by most sequencer packages these days - Creator/Notator, Cubase, Pro24, Master Tracks etc. So what makes it different?
Well, the first feature that sets Virtuoso apart from most of the field is its high clock resolution on playback and record, which is given as 480 clocks per quarter note. As a comparison, Steinberg's Pro24 runs at 96 clock pulses per quarter note. Virtuoso also boasts a specially written multitasking operating system, which means that 'non time-critical' operations such as loading and saving to disk can all be performed as a background task without stopping the sequence (like on C-Lab Creator/Notator), leaving you to get on with the more important business of making music. Another weapon in the Virtuoso armoury is the graphics library. The program's designers have abandoned the ST's resident GEM user interface in favour of their own, which is considerably faster than the WIMP approach beloved of GEM.
Presentation is everything these days. The review package was supplied in a fairly pleasant white plastic box file with a matching ring-bound manual. It contains the software itself on a 3.5" single-sided floppy disk, and a copy-protection dongle (which plugs into the Atari's cartridge port). The manual is fairly bright and cheerful, and well-written in a style that most users will find entertaining.
Virtuoso will happily run on any Atari ST, although owners of conventional (512K) unexpanded 520STs will probably be a bit pushed for space. Sadly, Virtuoso does not support a colour monitor - which is a shame since it immediately limits its potential market. Oh well, you can't have everything. On to the program itself...
Once Virtuoso has loaded - this takes about a minute - you start up in 'block' mode with the track allocation page as the first screen shown. All of the main sequencer functions are grouped together at the right-hand side of the screen, and these are always available no matter which mode you're in. These include the tempo slider, real-time clock, current song position and the tape transport functions, all of which are standard features on a sequencer of this type.
However, the main panel also contains a number of extra goodies. Firstly, there's the scroll icon, which is a useful tool for getting around the program. It consists of four arrows pointing up, down, left and right. The left and right arrows function as rewind and fast-forward respectively, which follows on from the tape recorder analogy, and the up and down arrows scroll you through the main part of (say) the track list. If you click and hold the mouse pointer over the up or down arrows the scrolling starts at a slowish pace and subsequently speeds up, which is very helpful if you're in the habit of filling up the track list display like there was no tomorrow. In addition to the scroll icon there are a series of features which help you keep track of where you are in the current composition. These are the block name label, the track name label and the zone label.
Virtuoso structures itself around the concept of a 'block' of musical data, a block being a collection of tracks with musical data recorded in them. These blocks may then be assembled to form a complete piece of music termed, you guessed it, an 'arrangement'. Since blocks are of such great importance, it is possible to assign an extended name to any block, which can be anything up to 24 characters long. This extended label is also used when the file is saved to disk.
The track name label is self-explanatory and so doesn't need much in the way of discussion, whilst the zone marker does require a bit of explanation. A 'zone' in Virtuoso terms is basically a region within a block delimited by two end markers. I used this feature mainly for dropping in new sections within existing blocks, though they are used extensively in the zone edit aspect of Virtuoso. I almost forgot to mention the cue label facility, which allows you to assign a song cue position to a given point in a block. A series of cue labels can then be created to form a cue list. I found this to be very useful. It makes life very much easier when it comes to laying out a song!
The first time you use the program, before you can commence recording, you must tell Virtuoso about the MIDI instruments you have connected to the computer. This is accomplished with the aid of the Set Up page. Once selected, it's then a matter of entering the Output Assignments option and subsequently entering the name and associated MIDI channel of each instrument in your set-up. Once you've described your set-up you should then save the data to disk. If saved under the filename 'default', your set-up will be automatically loaded next time you load Virtuoso. In a multiuser environment such as a commercial studio, where equipment can change from session to session, various set-up configurations could be saved to disk and the appropriate one loaded before each new session, as required. After that, you're ready to start recording...
Constructing a piece of music with Virtuoso is simplicity itself. The fundamental element of any arrangement is the 'block' and a collection of blocks may be assembled into a complete arrangement using, logically, the Arrange page. But first, you have to create a block!
So, commencing with the Track Display option in the Block page, you begin by selecting the required track on which to record, followed by an appropriate instrument. After that it's just a case of clicking on the Record button, waiting for the (optional) two-bar count in and then rattling away on your chosen MIDI input device. When you've finished your bit of random data entry, a single click on the Stop button rounds the block off nicely. If you want to hear the results of your efforts - which is a fairly reasonable thing to want to do - just click on the Play button. (Somehow, I think you might have guessed that!) All that remains is to give the block a name, using the Block Name window described above. Easy, eh?
There's also a programmable drop-in function which, when selected, starts the sequencer from the current song position and subsequently begins recording as soon as the song position pointer hits the first of the zone markers, and then stops once you're past the second zone marker. Playback continues until you hit the Stop button. All pretty standard stuff.
Block data, along with arrange data, can also be saved in the standard MIDI File format so that passages may be transferred between Virtuoso and any other program which supports this standard (most 'pro' packages do).
On a more subjective note I'd like to point out that, on a scale of 0 to 10, the metronome 'bleep' used by Virtuoso scores an 11 on the irritation factor. It's very difficult to describe in meaningful terms, except that it sounds something like a tin can being hit with a pitch fork. I sincerely wish there was some way to change it. By comparison, I much prefer the gentle 'beep' that Steinberg Pro24 emits.
As you might expect, blocks can be manipulated in a number of ways. It is possible to copy, delete and wipe a block, quantise the information in a block, delay the block output, and so on. It's important to point out that most of these parameters can be modified in real time, as the sequence plays, without permanently changing the musical content of a block. If you're not happy with the content of a block but feel that you'd rather not go through the recording process again, then a block can be permanently modified using the Grid Edit and Zone Edit pages.
The Grid page scrolls as the sequence plays and is Virtuoso's main editing screen. It essentially consists of a piano-style keyboard which extends horizontally across the grid (and may be dragged to a new location as desired). As a block plays the notes scroll vertically up the grid, instead of from right-to-left, and the appropriate note on the keyboard is highlighted for its duration, with the song position being shown down the left side of the grid. You can also zip up and down the block using the scroll icon on the main display panel, at the right. Notes can be picked up, inserted, dragged and replaced using the mouse. The facilities available within this page are pretty versatile. I obviously can't go into each individual facet in such a short space but the operations available cover just about any musical action that most users are ever likely to need. I enjoyed using this page a lot. I found it easy to use because you can readily see what's going on at a given point in time.
Another facility that's available for editing blocks is the Event page, which presents all of the MIDI events (Note-On/Off, Program Change etc) as a list of text/number-based messages that can be edited in the usual manner. To simplify the editing task, you can select precisely which types of MIDI events you want displayed.
I have to admit that I didn't really make much use of the Event page, largely because I found the Grid page so easy to use for adjusting the timing and velocity of note data. However, it is a useful facility which makes it easier to identify what's going on in a sequence in terms of Controller data, for instance. It's also very simple to add, say, a Program Change from this option simply by inserting an extra event in the list.
As you might expect, given the simple nature of the previous operations, arranging a piece of music is equally easy to accomplish. It's basically a case of selecting the Arrange page (by clicking on the relevant menu button along the bottom of the screen) and dragging the required block from the block library over to the chosen position within the currently selected 'stream'. There are eight such streams in an arrangement, and each of the streams plays in parallel with its neighbours. Thus, it's possible to create very complex pieces from the simplest of building blocks.
Virtuoso currently only allows one arrangement to reside in memory at any one instant, which a number of users might find to bean immediate restriction. I did encounter the odd problem with this page: most notably I found that, having inserted a block in the wrong place, I was subsequently unable to delete the offending block using the process described in the manual. Strange? No doubt this problem will be remedied in a forthcoming free update...
I must admit to being quietly impressed by Virtuoso as a program, although I have some serious reservations about the version supplied for review (V1.06). At the time of writing, it seems that Virtuoso is very dependant upon future updates, which - from the end user's point of view - is a potentially unpleasant situation to be in. From past experience, it's not easy to recommend a product on the basis of an incomplete or buggy review copy [although the likelihood is that things will have been ironed out by the time this review is published -Ed.]. Certain areas of the program are simply not implemented in this release - eg. Keyboard and MIDI tokens, and the ability to modify the time signature in mid-block. OK, so perhaps these are not glaring omissions and the majority of potential users could get along quite merrily without them, but the overall impression is that, as a program, Virtuoso just isn't complete.
There are a few areas of the program that I feel require a minor re-think. As a 'for instance', the Disk page can be a major source of irritation since the first thing that the program attempts to do when you select this page is to read the directory of the floppy disk in the currently selected drive. 'So what?' says a voice from the gathered throng. Well, you've basically got to sit and wait for the computer to finish reading the disk before you can specify the action required. To make matters worse, it uses the file format option that was set the last time you accessed the Disk page, which is a pain if you're attempting to operate on a block and the Disk page is still dealing with arrangements! You don't really notice this if you're using a hard disk, because the speed of these devices disguises the process at work. It only really becomes obvious if you use floppies, since it generally slows you down. I would prefer it if the computer waited for me to specify the action to be performed, before it goes off into the wild blue yonder in search of the disk directory.
I don't want to make too much of these gripes because, once The Digital Muse's programmers are aware of them, I'm sure they'll be fixed in future releases of the software. But that shouldn't disguise the fact that the review copy (Version 1.06) contained bugs.
On the plus side, when I spoke to the program's authors they revealed that there are a number of additional 'modules' in the pipeline. These range from a series of additional MIDI Outs to a score-printing/writing option and a SMPTE interface. A facility to run GEM-based desktop accessories (not currently possible because of the custom graphics) was also discussed. The theory behind this logic is that it lets you customise the program as you and your pocket see fit. The downside of this is that you are at the mercy of future updates, of course. Mind you, the same is true of a number of other programs I could mention!
The question of the high clock resolution is an interesting one. Some would argue that it's simply not justified because the average musician cannot play to that sort of accuracy. My feeling is that it's a very valuable feature if you want to exactly reproduce every aspect of a performance.
All in all, Virtuoso is a clever program with a number of attractive features and a lot of depth. I'm sure that it will appeal to many musicians either as a first time buy or as an alternative to an existing sequencer. However, at £299 it does face stiff competition from established programs like C-Lab Creator, Steinberg Pro24, Dr.T's Keyboard Controlled Sequencer and Passport Master Tracks.
Initially, I found it a bit hard to get to grips with Virtuoso, but quickly realised that this was probably attributable to my brain-washing at the hands of Pro24 (which I use on a regular basis). After a brief honeymoon period, however, I found myself nipping around the various pages of Virtuoso with very little reference to the user manual. This welcome turn of speed is immediately attributable to the custom graphics operations, which are one of Virtuoso's strongest points. The screen redraws of standard GEM-based sequencer programs run at a snail's pace in comparison. Consequently, it's very easy and quick to get from a basic idea to the realisation of that idea in a small(ish) number of steps - and for that reason alone Virtuoso is worthy of serious inspection.
£299 inc VAT.
The Digital Muse, (Contact Details).
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Review by David Hughes
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