Mark of the Unicorn have taken a brand‑new look at sequencing for their latest package, FreeStyle, which is aimed at entry‑level users as well as musicians who would rather avoid most of the complexities of MIDI. Mike Collins checks it out.
The latest MIDI sequencing software from Mark of the Unicorn, FreeStyle, offers a fairly radical departure from the established norms we've come to expect in this field. The program uses a so‑called 'trackless' approach to sequencing, one of the main advantages of which is that you can use both linear and pattern‑based recording and playback, and seamlessly switch between them. So, for example, a bass part made up of several different sections joined together in an arrangement will be visible in its entirety on the screen, and more importantly, on a notation printout.
Since MOTU's new sequencer is so different from the company's other high‑profile sequencing program, Performer, product specialist Simon Stock, from MOTU's European distributors Klemm Technology, came over to my house before I started the review, in order to take me through the main features of the program. Here's the gist of what he told me.
FreeStyle uses Mark of the Unicorn's FreeMIDI system as its basis for controlling your MIDI equipment. Most of the time you will not be aware that you are using it, as FreeMIDI deals with where to route MIDI data in your setup. When the program is first run, it scans your Mac's serial ports for MIDI interfaces; if it finds a standard MIDI interface it will take you into the 'Easy Setup' window; if it finds something like a MIDI Time Piece or Studio 4, it presumes you have a more complex system, and so takes you into 'FreeMIDI Setup'.
With FreeStyle you don't even need to worry about MIDI channels — the program dynamically allocates them, much as modern synths dynamically allocate polyphony. This is because FreeStyle employs a 'Player Library' — a list of instruments that you use in your music, together with preferences for them, such as which sound to use on which synth, and what clefs and staves the chosen instruments should have in the notation window. So if you select 'Piano' in FreeStyle, a patch change is generated on the first available (unused) channel for the synth it is going to trigger; FreeMIDI deals with where to send that message, as it knows what port and cable each synth is connected to.
When you create a new file in FreeStyle, the first thing it asks you to do is to select an 'Ensemble' to work with. Ensembles are different groups of Players (just like in real life), and FreeStyle includes some pre‑defined Ensembles, though you can edit and create your own Ensembles freely. So instead of being presented with a blank canvas of empty tracks, you have already made a conscious decision about what type of music you're going to write.
The first thing many sequencer users do when starting a new piece is to bang out a basic drum part on their keyboard, then quantise and loop it before adding the other parts. To save you the bother of doing this each time, FreeStyle has a built‑in 'Riff Metronome' as an alternative to the standard metronome. This contains a number of pre‑recorded drum beats that you can use as the basis for your track, and which can be played on any instrument in your system. You can customise and edit these later on, by using the 'Become Player' command, which creates a new Player with the actual notes in a loop.
General MIDI is an attempt to simplify things for musicians, and FreeStyle is another step along this path. The two work very well together.
Each Player can record any number of takes, which you can then switch between using a pop‑up menu. This is ideal if you are the sort of person who wants to try out half‑a‑dozen ways of playing an idea, and then sort out the most suitable one later. Although you could do this on a conventional sequencer, the trackless format means that takes are grouped with the player that recorded them, so you do not have to perform a lengthy sequence of mute‑unmutes to switch between three different versions of a bass line.
FreeStyle even deals transparently with the headache of music in the bars leading up to and just after a section. Every section includes 'Pick‑Up' and 'Overhang' measures that are part of that section, so you don't need to copy down‑beat cymbal crashes to the first bar of all your verses — the software takes care of this for you! Another useful feature, Auto‑Loop record, automatically senses when you stop playing — again helping you to put your music together, rather than forcing you to become a computer operator.
Having recorded a number of sections, you can choose to chain them together in the Arrangement Window, which is a standard graphical representation of blocks of music. FreeStyle allocates a letter of the alphabet to each section, so setting up a standard Verse‑Verse‑Chorus‑Verse‑Chorus arrangement is as simple as typing A‑A‑B‑A‑B. Sections can be layered on top of each other, and freely moved, lengthened and shortened in this window.
FreeStyle makes maximum use of the Mac's graphic and colour abilities. For instance, in the Grid Edit window, different players are distinguished by their colours, and higher velocities are represented by deeper shading of that colour. Notes that are 'original' and notes that are repetitions of a loop are distinguished by being round or square respectively. The volume and pan controls in the Ensemble window also have a very slick feel to them — another sign of the attention to detail which has gone into the interface design.
The Grid Edit window allows conventional manipulation of notes by dragging them up and down to change pitch, sideways to change their time position, or dragging the right end to lengthen or shorten the note. You can zoom in and out on both axes, and the display shifts its zoom setting as you move the mouse. And the 'Zoom‑to‑Fit' feature allows you to option‑select a group of notes, while the zoom setting changes so that the selected notes fill the whole window, for the most efficient view of them.
You can also display a Controller Edit window at the bottom of the Grid Edit window, and this can show any MIDI controller data, colour‑coded for the different players. Here, the pencil, line, and curve tools allow for easy creation or editing of controllers or velocity, and the scale automatically changes to suit the type of controller being edited; so, for example, if you select MIDI Volume, you get a 0‑127 scale, and if you select Pitch Bend, you get a scale with positive and negative values. This feature offers an easier way to create a velocity fade across multiple parts than in most other MIDI sequencers.
Music notation in FreeStyle is generated by MOTU's own QuickScribe TrueType font, so there is no need for any extra utilities in order to get accurate print‑out on non‑Postscript printers. The notation page shows the music in a page view that scrolls as you play back. Here you can view or print as many Players as you like, and two page layouts are offered — one for individual parts, and one for full scores. Transposing instruments are pre‑defined in the Player Library, so every time you use a Saxaphone, the notation part is shown in B flat — you don't have to set this each time. Yet another musician‑friendly feature.
FreeStyle encourages you to use MIDI remote controls to operate it, by devoting a colourful graphic window to setting up of these remote controls, rather than the usual list of events and commands. Most sequencers offer some kind of MIDI remote control facility, which is extremely useful in setups where space prevents the MIDI keyboard and the computer from being right next to each other. The usual problems here are that you forget which key is mapped to which control, and keys that are mapped to a control cannot then be used for recording MIDI notes. FreeStyle gets around these problems, firstly by shipping with a strip of sticky labels to affix to your keys, and secondly by using 'trigger' keys to activate the remote controls. The default trigger is a 'clump' of the bottom three notes on the MIDI keyboard, which have to be held down, much as an option or shift key on a computer keyboard, whilst pressing the remote key.
Finally, if you want to import MIDI files, FreeStyle will let you read Type 1 MIDI Files, although at the moment only the initial tempo is supported. Balloon Help and graphic on‑line help are also included, and a one‑hour tutorial video is supplied with the software, which is great for anyone who hates manuals.
I tried to be ambitious at first, and set FreeStyle up in my main programming room, with my Opcode Studio 4 linked to my MOTU MIDI TimePiece I — with both feeding my synth rack. Most of the synths I have in my rack are neither General MIDI, nor do they dynamically allocate polyphony. This immediately made things difficult to sort out, but I struggled bravely with the FreeMIDI Setup and the PatchList Manager for a couple of hours before deciding to give up on this particular route.
Luckily, I had a General MIDI synth module rigged up in the next room with a Macintosh Quadra 950, so I installed FreeStyle, plugged everything up, set up a basic FreeMidi document with one keyboard and the General MIDI module, then loaded up one of the demo files which came with the package. All I had to do was press play. The software had automatically configured everything correctly to play back on the synth module, without me having to set up anything in FreeStyle.
I started to see what FreeStyle was all about — taking the 'sweat' out of sequencers for entry‑level/musician users with General MIDI modules.
Now I could choose from a pop‑up list of the actual sounds in the module for every Player in the Ensemble window, to try out different sounds. This was more like it! I started to see what FreeStyle was all about — taking the 'sweat' out of sequencers for entry‑level/musician users with General MIDI modules.
Keen to try out recording, I chose a Jazz Band setup of Tenor Sax, Vibes, Piano, Bass and Drums, and started to improvise right away, while I switched between Players in the Ensemble Window. This was inspiring in its simplicity, and I found myself getting much more creative — through not having to think about the computer as much as I usually do. The Graphic Edit Window showed the notes on‑screen as I played them, so I switched to the Notation window to try this out. Unfortunately, the Notation window would not update and redraw quickly enough to display the notes in real‑time like the other window.
Then my friend Keith O'Connell, a professional musician and programmer, dropped by and decided to try out the Remote Controls. After spending just a few minutes customising a set of these to suit himself, Keith printed out the Remote Controls window and put this printout near the Yamaha DX5 he was using as the MIDI master keyboard. Suddenly, comments like "This is brilliant!", and "You can do everything from the keyboard!" started to emerge as I typed this review in the next room. Then the music started happening as Keith pounded away crazily at the keyboard, barely pausing for a breath between swapping Players! And this is how another masterpiece was born — sounding like a whole jazz band in action, where a solitary click had been playing just a few minutes beforehand.
I just had to tear myself away from frantically trying to finish this review before the looming deadline and take a look at what was going on. It seems that once you've set up your remote keyboard controls the way you like, you can then simply sit down and do whatever you want to do from the keyboard. For instance, you can jump between Players while you're recording, and decide whether to keep or undo a take while you're building your arrangement up. This lets you concentrate on the business of putting your music together, without getting embroiled in all the fiddly stuff with the mouse and keyboard, as you can often do with other sequencers.
Keith explained that, for him, the tie‑ups between General MIDI, FreeMIDI, the Players and the Remote Controls definitely removed many of the things which can get in the way of your creativity while working out musical ideas. He added: "I could see myself quickly getting a new arrangement sketched out using this setup, and then transferring to Performer running a large MIDI rig, so I could use the more advanced editing features on Performer to work on the finer details of the arrangement and production." This was a useful piece of feedback from a busy professional, who regularly works on TV sessions.
To get another different perspective, I asked my girlfriend Sia, who is doing a module on Digital Audio at Middlesex University, to try FreeStyle. Sia can play a little guitar, but is neither a keyboard player nor a schooled musician. She represents an absolutely entry‑level user getting started with computer sequencers for the first time. Sia recorded a short piece using simple bass and snare drum, bass guitar, organ chords, and piano melody, and was amazed at how easy it was to quantise everything to correct for timing slips, and move a wrong note to the correct pitch by pointing, clicking and dragging it in the Graphic Editor. She had thought that it would be impossible for her to get it right with her limited keyboard skills, and couldn't believe how perfect it sounded when it was all corrected with just a few simple edits. She commented: "It's so simple you just can't fail with it! You can put stuff together just seconds after you boot up the program. I could never feel happy working with numbers in an event list, but I just loved being able to grab the notes, move them around in time or up and down in pitch graphically on the screen." So, there you have it — a pretty good endorsement of FreeStyle from two people at opposite ends of the spectrum of musical skills.
General MIDI is an attempt to simplify things for musicians, and FreeStyle is another step along this path. The two work very well together. If you have a small setup with one or two General MIDI synths, a sampler, a drum machine, and a MIDI‑controllable effects unit and mixer, FreeStyle is the perfect complement at beginner to intermediate level. For professional work, it is not really a choice I could recommend at present, as it lacks SMPTE sync, Event List editing, and many other features which are essential for power users. And the Dynamic MIDI Allocation system can be a real pain if you have any older synth modules which do not support General MIDI or dynamic polyphony allocation. FreeStyle expects these things as the norm, and can make life pretty difficult for you if you are using synths which do not comply.
The idea of preset collections or Ensembles of Players appealed very much, though. And I particularly liked the idea of pickup and overhang bars. I also liked the musical metronomes, as I am definitely one of those people who prefer something more musically stimulating than a metronome click to play along to when I'm putting ideas together. The Controller Edit window is similar to the one in Opcode's Vision. It's one of the neatest features for me, and one which I really miss when I'm working with other sequencers; I must also mention that the implementation of the Controller Edit window is every bit as good as the one in the much more expensive Vision software. The manual also deserves a special mention, as it is exceptionally good, and makes great use of pictorial explanations with notes.
All‑in‑all, I found FreeStyle very appealing, both visually and functionally, and can definitely recommend it as an excellent alternative to competitors such as Opcode's MusicShop or Cubase Lite for entry‑level users or those who don't want to concern themselves with the more technical aspects of MIDI sequencing.
MOTU product specialist Simon Stock explains the approach of FreeStyle in his own words:
"FreeStyle is a new way of sequencing. Instead of presenting the musician with an analogy of a recording studio, as most sequencing software does, with Tracks and Channels, FreeStyle uses musical terms such as Player, Ensemble, Take and Arrangement. The key to this is that FreeStyle is a 'trackless' sequencer. By getting tracks and channels 'out of your face', FreeStyle acts as a creative tool, rather than a production tool like Performer. There is no event list editing, no MIDI Machine control, and no SMPTE sync — although you can sync to MIDI clock. Instead, you get a very slick program geared for writing your music."
- Innovative new approach to sequencing.
- Visually appealing.
- Works well with General MIDI synths.
- No Event List Editor.
- Problems when using older, non‑GM synths.
A very novel and reasonably‑priced take on the computer sequencer, FreeStyle is an excellent tool for those who want the power of a computer sequencer but don't wish to be bogged down with the finer points of MIDI.