Author Topic: Soft Options Steinberg Cubase Lite and C-Lab Notator Alpha Sequencers  (Read 223 times)

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Offline chrisNova777

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Cubase Light and Notator Alpha are both streamlined versions of their more costly counterparts, designed to make MIDI sequencing on the Atari ST more approachable.

Two streamlined MIDI sequencing packages for the Atari ST are put through their paces by our education specialists, Stephanie Sobey-Jones and Mike Simmons.

There is a distinct difference between a sequencer package for general music use and one designed for use in education. The problem is that many music educationalists are still less than comfortable when faced with anything that depends on a computer for its success, so for a system to appeal to them, it has to be logical, straightforward and approachable. This aim is at odds with many state-of-the-art sequencer software packages, which seem to breed new features with every software revision.

Ideally, all the essential features required for sequencer recording should be provided, with as few confusing additions as possible. In addition, the ability to work with conventional musical notation, and to be able to print it out afterwards is also of prime importance.

One of the 'joys' of being an educational music technology consultant is that you frequently get asked to recommend the definitive classroom sequencing package which — in addition to being relatively childproof — will have the following ideal features:

- It will be instinctive to use and can be mastered by an overworked teacher in a weekend, via an easy-to-read manual.

- It will allow easy input and editing of musical ideas, showing the on-screen result in standard musical notation.

- It can produce printed evidence of Year 7's first efforts, ready for Open Day.

- It is cheap, which in school budget terms usually means under £100!

Until now this has been something of a challenge, for the choice is not extensive. It seems to me that (in some cases), user-friendliness costs money, and the more you pay, the more intuitive the package becomes. You have more facilities at your disposal, of course, but in the average classroom situation, many of these may never see the light of day.

Very few teachers are going to be able to find enough time to work their way through the kind of manuals that accompany most heavyweight sequencers. Nor should they need to. Most top-flight programs are packed with all manner of bells and whistles which, though of great value to the dedicated techno-freak, have no place whatsoever in the classroom.


C-Lab's Notator Alpha sequencing package for the Atari ST has no superfluous bells and whistles. It would be easy to describe it as a cut-down version of the company's Notator sequencer, but this would be both unfair and inaccurate. It is aimed fairly and squarely at the classroom and provides pretty much everything that a music teacher might need — and nothing more.

So what does Alpha provide? First of all, a very well written manual. There are going to be people buying this program who aren't just new to sequencers but new to computers too, and the manual takes them step by step through the basics of disk formatting and mouse clicking in a way that Atari have never quite seemed to manage. There's nothing patronising about the tone, just straightforward information presented in an easily understood manner, and this approach is maintained throughout the manual. The only thing that could have improved on this would have been a series of Help screens available from within the program. This seems to be common practice in many fields of computing, but doesn't seem to have extended as far as music software yet. It would obviously be very useful in situations where the manual isn't close to hand.

"Notator Alpha is a well-featured basic sequencer with the ability to produce high-quality manuscript to a professional standard."

Like most of C-Lab's software, Alpha is copyright protected by a dongle, a small device which is plugged into the computer's cartridge port. The program looks for the dongle and as long as it's there, everything's fine. If it can't find the dongle, it refuses to run. I understand C-Lab's need to protect their intellectual property but I can't help wishing that they'd found some other way of doing it in this instance. Keeping track of dongles has always been something of a nightmare in the classroom, and this is just one more to add to the collection.

On loading up the software, we are presented with a reassuringly uncluttered main screen. Alpha adopts the well established convention of presenting a sequencer as a series of tape recorder controls, and all the familiar buttons are laid out on the right-hand side of the screen. Some sequencers demand that you stipulate the number of bars you are going to play before you start 'recording'.

Happily, this is not the case with any of C-Lab's offerings — you just keep playing until you finish, lose interest or make a mistake. Each performance is stored as a Track and up to 16 of these tracks may be included in any one pattern. All the tracks in a pattern are played simultaneously and the current pattern is displayed in the centre of the screen. Alpha allows for a maximum of 99 patterns and these can be arranged, unsurprisingly, in the Arrange Window to the left of the screen.

An arrangement consists of a number of patterns played one after another in whatever order the user requires, and most users tend to break their work up into musically meaningful patterns such as verses, choruses, link sections and so on. This could mean, for example, that Pattern One would be played at Bar One, and then again at Bar Nine, then Pattern Two at Bar Seventeen and then back to Pattern One again — or whatever. Notator Alpha imposes very few restrictions, other than that only one pattern may be played at any one time, and if a new pattern is started before the previous one has finished, the earlier pattern is terminated and the new one takes over.

Some sequencers allow specific tracks within a pattern to be muted or demuted, depending on where they occur within an arrangement. Sadly, this is not possible with Alpha, though the same effect can be obtained by copying a pattern to a new location and then recording a further track into the new pattern or deleting unwanted ones.

One shortcoming that I found less easy to accept was Alpha's inability to loop tracks, or parts of tracks, and then let them run indefinitely. This is a pretty standard feature on most sequencers and I find it surprising that C-Lab have decided to omit it. It may be a reflection on the way I work, but I would find not being able to knock out a couple of bars of percussion and then loop that while worked out the rest of the song something of a limitation. On the other hand, I admit that if I was going to play each track from end to end then would probably introduce more variation into my performance than would otherwise be the case — and this sad admission may be behind C-Lab's decision to leave out looping!


If sequencers were just like tape recorders, then we'd probably still all be using tape recorders. The real strength of a sequencer — besides higher fidelity at mixdown — is its ability to edit notes after they've been recorded. In many ways one can think of the sequencer as a kind of musical word processor — only more so. Having entered our 'words', we can manipulate them in a variety of ways until the finished piece of music sounds exactly as we want it to. This means that we are no longer restricted by our skills as a performer, nor by the limitations of our creativity at the moment of performance.

In the case of Alpha, the edit options are split between the main screen and a separate Edit page. The main screen tends to deal with tracks rather than notes, and from here individual tracks can be transposed through a range of 96 semitones and the velocity of the notes within that track can be altered. If the timing isn't quite up to scratch then the notes can be nudged into place by means of the quantise option, which operates to an accuracy of 768 pulses to the bar. This is all non-destructive editing — if the results aren't as expected we can simply return to the original performance and try again. Less easy to reverse — though not impossible — is the facility to cut or copy segments of tracks and then paste them back onto themselves or to another track. This is a pretty good substitute of the aforementioned looping, though much more time consuming.