If you feel that the average sequencer makes you take off your musician's head and put on your computer programmer's head, take a look at FreeStyle. Derek Johnson is not a number, he's a free man...
Sometimes, computers and music — or should that be musicians? — just don't mix. No matter how sophisticated the software, some players have a mental block towards, or no desire to interact with, computers. Athough they can see that computers, allied with MIDI‑equipped synths, might have something to offer, the tyranny of the metronome bleep, the reliance on a glorified typewriter keyboard, and the general pain in the mouse weigh against making the move. If only software could be written to work the way musicians work...
Mark Of The Unicorn's FreeStyle sequencer set out to address this very situation. This essentially trackless sequencer software has been reviewed in these pages before (Mac version January 1995, PC version January 1996), but has undergone a number of revisions since then. FreeStyle's environment offers a choice — or mix — of linear and pattern‑based sequencing. And rather than presenting you with a track list, as other software does, FreeStyle uses the concepts of Players and Ensembles. A Player can be thought of as a member of a virtual musical band or group, which is itself dubbed an Ensemble. The software comes equipped with a large collection of Players, cyber equivalents of guitarists, violinists, drummers and so on, each with instructions for which instrument (patch) they'll be playing, on which synth attached to your MIDI interface. Likewise, FreeStyle has a preset collection of Ensembles, such as Big Band, Orchestra, and so on, which bring together Players of instruments suited to the Ensemble. The collection of Players in an Ensemble does look a little like a traditional track list, but there is no MIDI channel to worry about: MIDI resources are assigned dynamically.
You have the freedom to define your own Players and Ensembles, and you don't have to stick with 'traditional' instrumentalists: a Player could easily be a virtuoso fat squelchy bass soloist, for example, assigned to play a fat squelchy bass sound on a physical modelling synth, and your Ensemble could include several fat squelchy bass Players, along with a Player assigned to a TR808 drum kit. Players aren't even restricted to single voices, but can be complex layers of several patches from several synths.
The software also allows you to record performances without a metronome (it senses the tempo of your playing, and generates a sophisticated tempo map) and comprehensively edit and manipulate your performance. It performs virtually real‑time transcription of your playing and has plenty of score‑printing options. And FreeStyle's remote‑control features allow you, as the manual says, to record an entire song without ever touching your computer.
MOTU's software has always benefited from the company's approach to layout and appearance, and FreeStyle is no exception. The main page might look superficially similar to other sequencers, but each section is doing its job slightly differently.
There are four main Palettes (MOTU's term) and windows:
- The Control Palette: Apart from standard sequencer transport controls and counter display, this window contains metronome and tempo controls. It's here that you get the first clues to how FreeStyle is going to behave: a Record Mode pop‑up menu offers three choices: Play to Metronome, Sense Tempo and Sense Tempo Swing. The second option lets you record a rubato performance — ie. free of the metronome — that will both play back accurately and, along with the help of one or two other parameters, display cleanly in the score window. The third option should be used if you're likely to play with swing (if you're a jazz player, for example).
- The Ensemble Palette: This palette is central to FreeStyle's 'tracklessness'. Rather than presenting the horizontal track list found on nearly every other sequencer, FreeStyle here allows you to assemble your Ensemble of Players, each with their own instrument, level and pan‑position controls, and mute and solo buttons. A Player is defined in the Player Library, and consists of a name, a sound (a pointer to the synth and patch used by the Player) and sundry parameters such as actual and display transpose values and clef. As I mentioned earlier, you don't need to give a Player his/her own MIDI channel, as FreeStyle actually allocates MIDI resources dynamically. You can, of course, fix a MIDI channel to a Player, but you only need to bother with this if your MIDI equipment can't cope with the dynamic assignment. Also critical to the Ensemble Palette is the concept of Takes, which are rather like sequence tracks. You can record an unlimited number of Takes for each Player (subject to your computer's RAM, of course), but only one can be played at a time. The current Take is selected by a pop‑up menu next to the Player's name.
- The Document Window: This display actually does double duty: it shows either the Graphic Editor (the familiar piano‑roll display) or the Notation Window. As with other MIDI sequencing software, individual notes can be edited, moved or inserted in either window. You can also choose to select a MIDI controller window in the Graphic Editor, which allows pitch‑bend, pan, aftertouch and other controller data to be easily edited with the mouse; the tempo map can also be displayed here. Notes can be double‑clicked, to reveal a dialogue box with a full list of parameters (location, velocity, length, and so on), which is great for precise editing; double‑clicking on a note in the keyboard display running down the left of this window highlights all the notes in your song or 'Section' (part of a Song — more on this shortly). One thing that might take some getting used to is the way all the data for all currently selected Players is shown at once; luckily, both notes and controller data are colour‑coded in the Graphic Editor, and parts are organised in a logical score format in the Notation Editor. And, of course, you can choose to examine just one Player's performance.
- The Notation Window is simple and straightforward. You can view, and print out, the performance recorded by one, any or all Players. There are options for displaying transposing instruments (such as saxophones and trumpets) while retaining playback at the correct pitch, and for inputting text. A mini word‑processor lets you add titles, composer's notes and lyrics, with a choice of fonts, size, justification and type style; you don't have to worry about track names, since these are automatically derived from the Players in the current Ensemble.
- The Arrangement Window: It's here that you can create a song, one Section at a time. Of course, FreeStyle will let you record all your Players' performances in a linear fashion, but the use of Sections, especially in music of a pop nature, makes assembling the finished work that much easier, and quicker. A Section can be a 1‑bar drum loop, the verses and choruses of a song, or a complete symphonic movement scored for full orchestra — whatever suits your purposes. A pop‑up menu in the upper left of the Document Window provides a list of current Sections in a song, allowing you to easily move from one to another. In the Arrangement Window itself, these Sections are chained (or layered) to create the finished song. The Sections can be dragged from the list in the left of the window, and placed on the Arrangement grid. But Sections are also automatically assigned a letter (A to Z) or number (1 upwards), and simply pressing the corresponding key on your Mac keyboard places Sections automatically and sequentially on the grid. Couldn't be easier.
That, in a nutshell, is FreeStyle's front end. To start a new Song, you select an Ensemble, or create one from scratch, choose a Player (with no worries about program changes or bank select commands), choose a time signature and so on, hit the Record button and start recording.
If you want to play to a metronome, you're not restricted to a beep: you can also use a riff (a library is supplied, and you can create your own too). A riff can be a drum pattern, a bassline, or anything you think you might be able to play along with; this riff can be made to 'become' a Player at a later stage if you'd really like it to be part of your song. Even if you choose not to use the metronome, it'll still click (if you want it to) during the pick‑up bar that cycles before you start recording.
To record a part without the metronome, use FreeStyle's Sense Tempo function for best results (though you can record without it if you wish). This clever bit of programming tracks your performance, working out beats and bar locations as it goes. The result is a pretty much accurate representation of your performance in the Notation Window. FreeStyle manages this by generating a very precise tempo map as you play. And because the notes of your performance are lined up to beats and bars, features that depend on this alignment, such as quantisation, are available. It won't necessarily be that easy to start with: a Sense Tempo setting box is available to let you customise the software to the way you play. For example, FreeStyle needs to know how drastically your tempo might vary.
Once you've finished your performance, especially if you've recorded a performance without Sense Tempo enabled, you might find that the score looks a bit odd. Now it's time to start cleaning it up. You can change time signatures or key signatures at any bar you like, so if your performance includes some bar lengths that deviate from the norm (say, the odd 5/4 or 6/4 bar in a 4/4 piece), you can accommodate them. If this doesn't tidy up the screen, perhaps it's time to start thinking of using FreeStyle's Beat Adjustment features.
The ability to play parts without the constraints of a metronome is a liberating experience.
Let's say you recorded a rubato performance without Sense Tempo, or have imported a MIDI file recorded, without reference to a metronome, on another sequencer. The notes of your performance aren't necessarily going to line up with the bar lines. The result of playing at around 80bpm, for example, while the sequencer is recording at 120bpm could look rather strange. Beat Adjustment lets you move beats or bar lines to the notes — sort of the opposite to quantisation, which normally moves sloppily played notes to the nearest beat. During the process of moving beats, FreeStyle generates a new tempo map, so that once you've got the notes lined up the way you want them, the performance still plays back in exactly the way it was recorded. Besides actually moving beats and bar lines, you have the option of tapping a new tempo along with a performance. The result is a tidy score with no compromise in the performance, and the performance can be quantised if you like.
FreeStyle worked well when it was released a couple of years ago, but features have been continuously added and tweaks made, so that v2.01 has many extra bits that some people found lacking in earlier versions. For example, earlier versions of the software didn't allow you to change time or key signatures mid‑song; as mentioned earlier, this feature is now very much available, having been introduced in v2.0. Other new features include the Sense Tempo and Beat Adjustment features discussed earlier.
Significant enhancements have been provided in the synchronisation department: the software now offers full SMPTE and MIDI TIme Code support, at all frame rates, so FreeStyle can sync, or be sync'ed to, just about anything. The ability to freely draw tempo changes (in the MIDI Controller section of the Graphic Editor window) is also new. Tempo maps can be imported from standard MIDI files, and you can also easily vary the overall tempo of a piece with even the most complicated tempo map. Use '% Variable', and a percentage offset is applied to the whole tempo map.
A MIDI Monitor was introduced with v2.0; this allows you to keep track of MIDI In and Out activity and is a fair diagnostic tool for studios with lots of MIDI gear. Two nifty new editing functions are Tweak Notes and Choose Notes. The first lets you apply certain functions — fixing the length of, or adding a decrescendo to — a group of highlighted notes. Choose Notes allows you to be very specific about which notes you're going to edit, choosing a range of notes with a certain velocity value or duration, and quantising or transposing them.
In use, FreeStyle couldn't be easier. From setting up your MIDI studio and recording your first rubato performance, to editing note data and arranging your final Song, this software is accessible and fun. There is little of the initial frustration that more sophisticated packages can cause. Newcomers will especially appreciate this, though they should keep the excellent manual to hand; the 'Picture Book Tour' chapter is essential reading.
FreeStyle isn't direct competition for other sequencers, or the first step towards something better, but a totally different way of sequencing.
The use of Ensembles and Players, rather than tracks and patch changes, helps to bring the whole operation into perspective for the musical technophobe. The average MIDI sequencing session consists of too much time scrolling through sounds trying to find something that works. If, however, you spend a little time in advance with FreeStyle, defining Ensembles that suit your working style, you'll be able to start sequencing much more quickly on a new project. Similar templates could be set up in other sequencer packages, but how many of us actually do this?
The only thing that might let FreeStyle down for some users is the lack of sophisticated editing, and perhaps the lack of an event editor. Cubase's Logical Edit, though rather cryptic, has a lot of fans, as do the groove‑based quantisation functions of many leading sequencing packages, and even MOTU's other software (Performer and Digital Performer) give you more control over raw MIDI data. However, in the same way that FreeStyle forces you to make choices with its Ensembles, so it forces you to fine‑tune your work with a limited, and more manageable, set of tools. I found that there was a way to accomplish most desired tasks.
It would be easy to think of FreeStyle as an entry‑level package, and the retail price of under £150 does seem to place it in the same market as Emagic's Logic Audio Discovery and Steinberg's Cubasis. But that would be to miss the point: FreeStyle isn't direct competition for other sequencers, or the first step towards something better, but a totally different way of sequencing. Certainly, its ease of use and the way it insulates the user from his or her computer makes FreeStyle ideal for the newcomer or MIDI‑phobe, but experienced — or jaded — MIDI and computer users will find something worthwhile here too. The ability to play parts without the constraints of a metronome, while the software tracks your tempo, is a liberating experience which FreeStyle handles brilliantly.
And the actual experience of just sitting at your MIDI keyboard, playing in a relaxed manner, as if you were at a piano, and seeing a reasonable representation of your performance instantly appearing on your computer screen, is hard to describe: I think I've been waiting for this software since I started using sequencers!
Many sequencers have remote control options, but few go as far as FreeStyle in freeing the musician from his or her computer keyboard. All transport controls and recording features can be accessed from your MIDI keyboard. This is done by hitting a user‑definable clump of keys (to activate remote control mode), followed by some other key which has a function assigned to it. To make it easy to keep track of which functions are assigned to which keys, MOTU even supply a sheet of sticky labels for you to put on the keys used as remote controls.
The menu bar doesn't hide anything too extraordinary, but let's have a look.
- The File menu is self‑explanatory, with Save and Load options for files in FreeStyle and standard MIDI format; an 'Import to Section' option loads a MIDI file into a Section of a song, and when you're loading MIDI files a dialogue box opens that lets you map individual tracks to FreeStyle Players.
- The Edit menu is also standard Mac fare: Cut, Copy, Paste, Clear, Select All and Undo are all here. The Preferences dialogue box lives in this menu, and apart from customising how FreeStyle boots up, it's here that you 'Lock Player Channels' if you want the program's dynamic MIDI channel assignment to be over‑ridden.
- Under the Region menu, you'll find parameters such as Quantise, Transpose and Move, plus the more esoteric Choose Notes, Tweak Notes, and Identify Beats functions. Switch Staff moves highlighted notes from one staff to another in a two‑staff part (such as a piano), and Save As Metronome lets you turn any selected note data into a metronome riff. The last two Region items are Create and Override Playback Loop. A Playback Loop is a region of material that is looped until the end of a section; a 1‑bar drum part, say, could be looped for an 8‑bar section, and Override lets you make changes to a measure within a Playback Loop without affecting the other repeats — for example, adding a few fills to the loop drum part I just mentioned.
- The Record menu contains the Take management parameters (for naming, deleting, renaming Takes and so on), as well as those used for setting up Record Loops and working with the Sense Tempo functions which are so important to the accurate transcription of metronome‑free performances. On the Record Loop front, you can define a Record Loop before recording (two bars, eight bars or whatever), but if you use Auto Loop Record, FreeStyle will automatically loop to the beginning of a performance two bars after you've stopped playing.
- The Song menu offers a similar set of management functions for Songs and Sections of Songs. It also includes change meter and key functions, and those for adjusting and recording beats.
- Your studio setup (how the software interacts with your MIDI interface and attached equipment), PatchList library, Player and Ensemble Libraries are all managed under the Setup menu. This menu also features metronome, sync and remote control functions.
- The Windows menu, not surprisingly, governs the appearance — or non‑appearance — of FreeStyle's Palettes and Windows, and offers plenty of control over how windows appear.
- Musician‑friendly interface.
- Trackless sequencing is fun sequencing!
- Spookily accurate score transcription.
- Good sync options.
- Editing might be a bit limited for some.
There's nothing else quite like FreeStyle on the market. It feels like software designed by musicians, for musicians.