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Offline chrisNova777

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Macintosh or Atari? (January 1988, article)
« on: June 24, 2017, 10:20:33 PM »
Over the last few years musicians have consistently been more excited over the latest MIDI hardware developments than they have over MIDI software. Whilst other micros have come and gone, the Atari ST and Macintosh micros have quietly become the established computers for making music with MIDI. Ed Jones reveals why with a look at Steinberg's Pro-24 (V2.1) and Mark Of The Unicorn's Performer (V2.2) programs.

Ed Jones investigates the wimps and gems of the micro jungle

Over the last few years musicians have consistently been more excited over the latest MIDI hardware developments than they have over MIDI software developments for microcomputers. Whilst the Apple II, Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64 and BBC B micros may have come and (almost) gone, the Atari ST and Macintosh micros have quietly become the established computers for making music with MIDI.

The first and probably the most important difference is the timing resolution of the two programs; Performer resolves to 480 ticks (pulses) per quarter note (ppqn) whilst Pro-24 goes to 96 ppqn. However, when syncing to an external time source this resolution comes down on Pro-24 to 24 per quarter note.

For this reason alone, Steinberg's add-on 19" rack-mounting SMP-24 unit [reviewed May '87] can be considered essential for professional use. Not only does it give you an extra MIDI input, four parallel, independent MIDI outputs (thus reducing any discernible MIDI delays), reading and writing of SMPTE timecodes, but it also returns the resolution to 96 ppqn and adds a mere £919 to the overall price! SMP-24 connects to the Atari via a parallel Centronics port at the rear of the computer, thus alleviating any possible burden on the MIDI chain of information that would otherwise have had to be squeezed down the built-in, single MIDI input/outputs.

** STOP PRESS: Steinberg have just released a new, budget SMPTE reader/generator unit called Time-Lock; it sells for £399 inc VAT and gives similar performance to the SMP-24 (keeping the original 96 ppqn resolution when synced to an external SMPTE code from tape). Steinberg are also promising a resolution update to allow Pro-24 to run with 384 ppqn accuracy. Both Time-Lock and SMP-24 will support this new, increased resolution. **

Figure 1. Performer's main screen showing extensive track comments (left) and SMPTE timecode readout (middle right).

Mark Of The Unicorn have added auto-stop, auto-rewind and memory shuttle 'tape recorder' controls to version 2.2 of Performer thus greatly improving the speed with which one can do a retake, or simply work around a specific portion of the track. Not surprisingly, these were the exact same controls that Fostex added to their original, grey A8/B16 multitrack recorders when they upgraded them to the newer, black A80/E16 models a couple of years back. Wouldn't it be useful to update your current tape recorder with a simple software upgrade? Unfortunately, no such luck!

The analogy of sequencer to tape recorder is valid though, as many users have them synced together using Performer or Pro-24's tracks to enhance their multitrack capability. The 'Markers' window (fully implemented in version 2.2 with SMPTE cue times) can be a useful cue sheet for your multitrack with written notes, measure/beat and SMPTE time information displayed on screen. Notice how some of the really useful concepts of SSL mixing desks and the Synclavier system are now filtering down to the level of us mere mortals?

Should you feel that Pro-24's 24 tracks are not enough then Performer's 200+ independent, unmerged tracks should keep you busy for a while. These can all be named individually, given comments and scrolled through quickly; you will find this kind of information feedback essential once you start using the full power of a 200-track sequencer. Not only is there room for details of all bank and patch numbers for each synthesizer/sampler used but there is also room to put info on its application in the song. If you're going to get involved with real-time MIDI control of effects (such as Lexicon's PCM70 or Korg's new DRV2000) then Performer's comment boxes will help keep you in control.

Whilst devotees of the Steinberg system will say that you can have more than 24 tracks by merging data, I feel that the concept of having all your MIDI data clearly marked and labelled on screen and on separate tracks is essential to the serious user. Pro-24 has an annoying habit of hiding away important track information like track names and MIDI routing, whilst Performer has a far superior system of displaying (a superb track info window) and comparing data (side-by-side track edit listings) - see Figure 1.

One area where Pro-24 really does score over Performer though, is the ability to treat a track either as one long sequence or as a series of shorter sequences (patterns) strung together like a drum machine. Some people prefer to compose in this way (in fact, System Exclusive's Iconix sequencer for the Atari ST takes this concept even further by subdividing patterns again); the UMI system for the BBC micro was also programmed in this way, like a drum machine, but all the patterns must follow the length of patterns on one master track - very similar to Steinberg's original Pro-16 program for the Commodore 64. Incidentally, let us not forget that the scrolling note and percussion displays on Pro-16 are still the closest to that of a Fairlight and Synclavier! I'm sure that out there in programming land there must be someone beavering away on a similar kind of scrolling display for the Apple Mac and Atari ST MIDI programs. We'll just have to wait and see...

The Atari's use of windows, icons, mouse and pull-down menus has been described as "mere imitation" of the Mac's window environment (albeit developed originally by Xerox), however they have cleverly incorporated a set of function keys (a la IBM) to overcome any inadequacies in that department. Having owned a Mac for three years now I have got used to certain Mac traits but am still surprised at how efficient the Atari/Steinberg combination can be.

Both programs now feature multichannel record (Performer gives up to 32 tracks via the Mac's twin MIDI input option using both the printer and modem ports). This can be very useful for downloading from one sequencer to another, recording each string independently from a guitar synth controller (such as Roland's GM70 or the Stepp DGX), simultaneously recording both sides of a keyboard split or jamming, say, using an Octapad to play MIDI-controlled drums whilst a keyboard player plays along at the same time. Unfortunately, Pro-24 records all data onto one track of the sequencer which then has to be de-merged: still, at least all the MIDI data on the 16 channels can get through, albeit in a somewhat longwinded wav!


Working to cue points on film or video used to be a matter of manually working out beats, bars and a tempo for the time elapsed, however. Performer now gives exact, simultaneous readouts on screen of real-time elapsed, SMPTE (with offset) and bars/beats. Gradual tempo changes can be calculated over a set time period to coincide exactly with mood changes and cue points. In 'Indirect Time Lock' mode (whereby an external SMPTE-to-MIDI convertor unit sends Performer a regular MIDI clock) you can have tempo and meter changes wherever you want in relation to the film since Performer does all the calculations necessary from a constant, external MIDI clock (with MIDI song position pointers) synced to SMPTE. Mysteriously, there is currently no option for drop-frame SMPTE in version 2.2 of Performer, however 24, 25 and 30 frame rates are supported in the 'Choose Frame Rate' option window.

Due to the limitations of MIDI song position messages, this system can only be guaranteed to lock up to a maximum 45-minute duration piece. Performer's new manual also has this to say about MIDI song position pointers:

"The position is specified in multiples of six timing clocks (16th notes). The position value is only 14 bits long. In 4/4 time, this limits the range to 1024 measures."

Alternatively, in 'Direct Time Lock' mode, Performer will sync exactly to any tempo 'map' that has been created by an external SMPTE-to-MIDI convertor. When Performer is synced to an external source it can also echo the incoming MIDI clock, albeit with a very slight delay. If Performer is used as a master (during the writing process, for instance) it can generate and transmit a MIDI clock code and song position pointers to sync another instrument to the chain, even distinguishing between newer MIDI clocks that can receive 24 clocks per variable metronome click and older units that have only 24 clocks per quarter note. The advantage of this will be apparent if you regularly use time signatures (3/8, 5/16) that do not correspond to standard quarter note (crotchet) beat units.

Performer also distinguishes between newer MIDI instruments (that send the first time clock signal [time 0] after the start command for the sequence) and older ones (that assume the start command to be the first signal). This option is called 'First Clock Is Time 1 (Not 0)'. This sort of invaluable information is the kind you really need when you're tearing your hair out with a deadline approaching. Performer's superb 262-page manual gives many such tips and shows the real quality of the programming genius behind it. Southworth's Jam Box interface (an intelligent, multiple input MIDI interface and SMPTE/MIDI convertor) is also recognised as an optional interface.

Steinberg's Pro-24 (with SMP-24) will read/write and lock up to SMPTE with quite a few other features: SMPTE-time to time signature conversion, tap tempo facility, built-in metronome, variable clock in/out, etc. As the SMP-24 is an 'intelligent' hardware add-on (it connects via the Atari's Centronics interface) to the Pro-24 program it can almost be considered 'invisible'. Offsets and cue points (together with tempo data) can be stored in Pro-24 as song data. Whilst it falls into the same price bracket as the Roland SBX-80, Bokse SM-9 and the Fostex 4050 synchroniser, the SMP-24 does have the advantage of being fully integrated with the Pro-24 program.

Should you wish to sync either Pro-24 or Performer to and from tape, then a simple MIDI-to-FSK convertor unit is all that you require. Unlike dedicated hardware sequencers, this all-important unit is not part of either system. Luckily, Yamaha make a very simple box that will do the trick for only £99 (ask your local dealer for a YMC-10). You might also check out the new Nomad SMC 1.0 (reviewed May '87) and Bokse SM-1 SMPTE-to-MIDI convertors that are bringing the cost of SMPTE right down to a sensible level. If, however, you want to record into Pro-24 whilst syncing from tape, then you will require a MIDI merger; this is another one of the functions of the SMP-24 and just goes to show how invaluable a part of the Atari/Steinberg system it is. Without it you'll have to pay £99 for a YMM-2 from... yes, you guessed it: Yamaha; or £199 for a 360 Systems Professional MIDI merger with data filtering.

With the Macintosh and Performer you have the option of using a two-input MIDI interface (such as Argent's MIDI Communicator or Opcode's Studio Plus 2); this enables the external sync MIDI clock to be merged automatically with your keyboard MIDI data, thus allowing you to record into the sequencer whilst listening back in-sync to your pre-recorded tracks on tape. The need for a MIDI merger is thereby obviated for Mac users.

Figure 2. Steinberg Pro-24's Edit display shows notes as horizontal bars on a grid and individually lists their length, velocity, note name, etc on the right.


Southworth's Total Music program for the Apple Macintosh (now discontinued and replaced with MIDIPaint) was, I believe, the first MIDI sequencing package to use a 'grid system' for editing individual notes; this excellent system has been utilised very effectively by Steinberg in Pro-24's Edit page (in conjunction with its unique Score Edit display and the more common numeric Event Edit list) and completely ignored, unfortunately, by Mark Of The Unicorn. Notes in a sequence can be graphically displayed as horizontal bars on the grid system and can be simply manipulated using the mouse-simply point at a note, grab it by clicking the mouse button and then just drag it to the left or right to extend or shorten the duration of a note. A nice touch is included whereby the MIDI note you have edited is also sent out automatically for you to hear the result of your changes. What could be simpler?

Steinberg's new 'Logical Edit' addition to Pro-24 can also simplify edit operations. Let us say that you want to transfer a snare sound playing in a sequence on your drum machine to a sampled snare playing on your sampler; this might involve extracting a specific note, increasing its overall velocity, changing its MIDI channel and lengthening its duration to let it 'speak' better. 'Logical Edit' cuts down the amount of editing operations you would have to go through to obtain the above result and, in itself, can be a real time-saver and creative tool.

Performer uses the standard event Edit List method in the numerical bar/beat/ tick format: 34/3/428 - more precise maybe than Pro-24 (due to the 480 tick resolution) but not as easy to use as the visual comparison given on Steinberg's grid system. It does, however, have an optional 'View Filter' that gives you the choice of deciding what is displayed in the Event Edit list: should you require a complete, one-window listing of exactly where and when patch changes, note on and off velocities, pitch bends, meter changes, loops, etc occur, then the selection is yours in Performer. Pro-24 uses two separate screen pages to display notes (with velocities and timings) and events (all other MIDI 'happenings').

I noticed at the recent BMF at Olympia that Passport's new 64-track Master Tracks Pro program for the Mac uses the grid system, as does Southworth's MIDIPaint - who knows, maybe Mark Of The Unicorn might incorporate it in Performer at a later date? Incidentally, Passport have also implemented a Song Structure Overview page and a very musical MIDI Controller display page, which even has the ubiquitous pencil and rubber for drawing graphic representation of pitch bends, aftertouch and modulation changes on screen. As you are probably fast discovering, no one computer or software program is likely to cater for all your musical needs; they all have they idiosyncrasies that need to be carefully investigated before you shell out your hard-earned pictures of the Queen.

(for full article see link above)


Whilst Steinberg's Pro-24 is a good reason to buy an Atari ST 1040 (now the minimum requirement - it won't run on a 520 ST due to the size of the program), Mark Of The Unicorn's Performer is a very good reason to buy an Apple Macintosh! Even ignoring the wide range of other programs currently available for both machines, Pro-24 (V2.1) and Performer (V2.2) are so good as to warrant the purchase of a computer-based system on their own.

For existing micro owners you can be confident that these two programs are currently the market leaders and, whilst others will leapfrog at the earliest opportunity (C-Lab appear to have done just that for the Atari), it is refreshing to know that here are two serious programs worth every penny; and, with such a head start, it is likely that both Steinberg and Mark Of The Unicorn will stay ahead of the field.

As for me, a long-term Mac owner, I can only lament that the Atari software is always so cheap when compared to that for the Mac. If it wasn't quite so good it might make me feel better. However, I am quietly confident that I have backed a long-term winner (especially with regard to any graphic manipulation of MIDI data and scorewriting).

Your budget will more than likely determine your eventual purchase and, since a Macintosh set-up will cost you twice the price of the Atari set-up (don't forget the cost of the essential SMP-24 synchroniser for serious studio use), it is an easy choice if you can't afford the Mac. However, if you can, don't hesitate: a whole world of other uses will open up before your very fingertips. My Macintosh not only produces a quarterly newsletter and information display signs, but also acts as a word processor and client database, edits my Prophet 2000 samples and FB-01 patches, stores my 5,000+ DX7 patch library, and sequences to the early hours... The concept of a truly 'personal computer' is here.