This unconventional sequencer program aims to let musicians work like musicians rather than computer programmers, and has already met with an enthusiastic response in its original Mac version. Paul Nagle hand‑picks his virtual musicians and gets jamming.
Formed in 1980, and specialising mostly in Mac software, Mark Of The Unicorn have only recently taken the plunge into the icy waters of the PC market. Their first Windows sequencer, FreeStyle, already has an excellent reputation on the Mac (see review in SOS January '95) and in many ways mirrors the philosophy of that computer: it takes care of all the complicated stuff in the background, letting you concentrate on the business in hand. FreeStyle differs from most of its competition by being a 'trackless' sequencer — well, sort of. Music is composed using 'Ensembles' — hand‑picked collections of musicians who each record their efforts into 'Takes'. It is these Takes which roughly correspond to the tracks of other programs.
Typically with FreeStyle, music is created in sections which are assembled into a finished composition using the graphic Arrange window. You can, however, record in a linear fashion within the Arrange window, or mix and match both methods. Personally, I like this kind of freedom, and found assembling the bare bones of a composition incredibly fast and intuitive. If you're expecting just another software emulation of a multitrack tape recorder, FreeStyle might be a bit of a surprise, its feel being more 'musician' than 'sound engineer'.
The program is supplied on three high‑density 3.5‑inch disks, with a handy set of keyboard stickers included for labelling remote control keys. The manual is clear and warrants a thorough read, despite the program's simplicity. Installation was only hampered by the baffling way in which FreeStyle chooses to refer to MIDI ports. Oddly, it has specific, built‑in knowledge about some interfaces (none of mine, alas), or you may choose the more traditional options of Multimedia Windows drivers. MOTU take the liberty of writing loads of stuff to the Windows directory under the sub‑directory FREEMIDI — this contains information about many popular synths, and can be customised to communicate with FreeStyle about instruments it does not recognise, or for user patch lists. If you have more than one MIDI port, you need to work out which is which by trial and error, since FreeStyle refers to them only as Windows MIDI Output 1, Windows MIDI Output 2, and so on. At this point you realise that FreeStyle is not designed for a large MIDI rig. If you're setting up a single General MIDI synth, it's a piece of cake; and other configurations are possible, they just take a little longer. It would be a useful future enhancement if FreeStyle could be made to work in tandem with MOTU's own Unisyn universal editor/librarian program and take all patch and instrument definitions from there.
Having selected your virtual Ensemble, either from the supplied list or by creating a new band from scratch, you record your music in sections which loop round, drum machine‑style. Notes played in pickup or overhang measures are recognised and handled automatically by the program, so that loops run smoothly even when you play 'grace' notes. Each musician in the Ensemble can record multiple Takes, making it easy to put down several different solos and pick the best later.
Once several sections have been recorded, they can be dragged into position on the Arrange window. From here you can play the full song, overdub new Takes or, by double‑clicking on a section, get down to some detailed editing. As a section can be referenced multiple times, any changes made to it will be reflected in each occurrence. A handy Copy Section command allows for easy creation of variations.
FreeStyle provides two ways of graphically editing your music. The 'piano roll' features as many or as few of your musicians as you wish to see, with coloured representations of controller events displayed alongside the notes they affect. You can quickly zoom in and out of selected areas by holding down the control key as you drag over notes, and all the usual move, copy and delete actions are available. If you need to edit down to individual note level, a double click takes you to 'note detail'.
Whilst not attempting to compete with full‑blown scoring programs, FreeStyle's score editor provides acceptable notation editing and printing for most everyday uses, allowing text to be placed anywhere on the page, clefs and transposition to be defined for each Player in the Ensemble, and new notes to be painted in or scrubbed out. Notation screen updates were pretty slow, and I tried to keep the number of Players displayed to a minimum to overcome this.
Overall, I'd say there were enough editing options here to keep any but a dedicated technophile happy, and I only really missed a MIDI event list because I've become used to having one.
FreeStyle's Quantise menu, with its time offset and swing options, offers sufficient flexibility for most uses, my own included, whilst the Transpose menu speaks in familiar musical terms, such as "transpose up a minor third" — no need to count semitones here.
The metronome is wonderful. It can be a drum riff, selected from those supplied or one of your own. This banishes the 'tap tap tap' blues and is something every sequencer should have. It doesn't have to be a drum riff, either — it could be anything from a bassline to a sequence or arpeggio.
Using the Remote control feature, entire compositions can be created without needing to constantly touch the computer keyboard. Activated by a given controller or 'Key Clump' of notes (which you would never normally play), this feature lets you record multiple Takes, switch Players, turn on loops, and so on. Great stuff.
Finally, communication with the outside world is possible using the synchronisation menu. FreeStyle will accept or transmit MIDI clock information, and since it currently lacks any form of tempo map, you may find it more convenient to drive it from a drum machine. The program reads and writes standard MIDI files, with the restriction that only the first tempo event is recognised on import.
Priced at £149, FreeStyle has some tough competition from Mastertracks Pro, Micrologic and Cubasis, yet it has enough individuality to set it apart from these. The 'trackless' approach may be appreciated by those musicians without a studio background, and the neat way FreeStyle manages Players and Ensembles would be of benefit to anyone trying to get the most out of a General MIDI module. I'm told a tempo map facility is high on the list of future enhancements, but in the meantime the only way of including accelerandos or ritardandos is to play them manually, ignoring the program's tempo (and bar lines). If your music usually hammers along relentlessly at the same speed, this won't be a problem, but I found it quite frustrating. My only other complaint relates to the sluggish rate at which the screen updates — especially in notation view. My 486 DX2‑66 machine has 16Mb of RAM and handles other screen‑intensive programs such as Cubase Score very well, but FreeStyle, at times, seemed to go into a time warp...
Glib summing‑up time: I'd say that FreeStyle was designed for musicians who don't want or need to get deeply involved with the fiddly bits of MIDI, but just want to make music. Well‑suited to a small studio, it would also be an ideal 'scratch pad' in a larger system.
- 486 or better processor
- 8Mb RAM
- Windows 3.1 or Windows 95
Version reviewed: 1.03
If you have a World Wide Web browser, check out MOTU's site at www.motu.com/
This has a FreeStyle Hot Tips section and a demo version of the program to download. There are also lots of other goodies to grab (such as the latest Unisyn drivers), so get your surfin' kit on...
- The friendly face of MIDI recording.
- Designed for musicians, not technicians.
- Probably the easiest way to knock up those General MIDI ditties.
- No tempo map.
- Screen updates can be slow.
With a heavy bias towards General MIDI, FreeStyle manages to keep the musician in touch with the business of recording music without (almost) all that techie stuff. An elegant interface with some nice features means that this could be far more than just a beginners' sequencer.