The new version of Opcode's flagship sequencer/hard disk recording package almost extinguishes the differences between audio and MIDI recordings, allowing unprecedented control over your compositions. A hitherto MIDI‑only Martin Russ broadens his horizons...
I'll be honest. Until recently, I had thought that there were only two breeds of computer musician. Ordinary musicians with a basic complement of sequencers and MIDI equipment were the group that I felt happiest with. The 'power‑users', on the other hand, with their big, fast computers, DSP cards and hard‑disk recording habits made me feel slightly uneasy. Out of my league, I retreated to the security of my familiar MIDI sequencer, Vision v1.3.
But times change. As the power of affordable computer hardware has inexorably risen, it now seems to have got to the point where even the smallest home studio cannot afford to ignore the digital option. The event that opened my eyes was the news that the next version of Vision would have built‑in digital audio capability, provided your computer platform supports it — and the majority of Power Macs do.
The more I've looked at Studio Vision Pro 3.0, the more I've realised what a mistake it was to see it as just a more expensive, professional, studio version of a simple MIDI sequencing program. The trouble is, that having decided that multitrack tape was not for me, I now avoid tape, and especially audio. As a result, I am effectively locked into a cycle of doing 'MIDI‑only' music. This is where Studio Vision Pro comes into the picture — for it enables you to replace a mass of tape and audio editing processes with a single, unified combination of hardware and software that does everything digitally. The audio becomes software‑tweakable, and enters the world of MIDI surprisingly seamlessly.
So, this review is in part an exploration. Join me as I voyage beyond using plain old MIDI and start integrating audio...
The Vision Thing
Vision is a powerful, phrase‑based MIDI sequencer. Where some sequencers favour tape‑recording metaphors, Vision talks of 'sequences'; snippets of music that need not be linear in time. Vision is perfectly capable of taking a piece of music, and extracting events from it in real‑time, to produce new music based on the notes, feel, or rhythm only. I often use the Mac's keyboard to trigger the playback of sequences in a chain — so for the classical, 'A‑B‑A‑C‑A‑B' song structure, I might type those characters in that order, and the song would play back in that order. Sequences can be made up of smaller, shorter or simpler sequences, and can be recordings of that A‑B‑A‑C‑A‑B structure, a series of key changes, a complete multitrack phrase or bar, or automatic 'generators' of music based on another sequence. The possibilities are endless.
The MIDI‑processing capabilities are extensive. The usual transpositions, note modifications and event editing are provided, but there are some more unusual facilities too. It is possible to select notes or events using a variety of criteria, such as the highest note playing at any time, or notes with a specific velocity or range of values, or notes close to bar or beat divisions. Once selected, those notes or events can be substituted for other MIDI events — so a specific instance of a single note could be replaced by an arpeggio each time that it occurs.
Many of the arranging functions can be carried out in a window area, where the sequences can be seen as nameable blocks, rather like a piano roll display, with time running horizontally. Here, however the blocks are sequences, as opposed to individual notes, and the vertical direction is for 'tracks' (what instrument will play the block in that track). Dragging these blocks left and right moves them in time, and they can be copied to provide rapid duplication of a phrase, or doubled by moving the phrase to another 'track', where the phrase will be played by a different instrument. It's rather like an overview of a score, but a click on a sequence block can quickly show you the detail too — in piano roll or notation. There's more, of course, but this should give you the flavour. Look at the 'Practical Examples' box to see what some of the screen windows look like.
If I was a sampler or analogue multitrack manufacturer, I would be worried. If I was a producer, I would be ecstatic.
Studio Vision Pro 3.0 is the first Opcode product to include OMS 2.0. The changes to the bundled Galaxy librarian are mostly to cope with the changes to OMS. The Open Music System (OMS) still provides the bridge between MIDI application software and MIDI hardware, with hundreds of channels available if you require them. There is now a split between the studio setup facilities, where you keep a 'model' of how your MIDI equipment is connected together, and the naming of patches, notes and controllers — which are now shared between applications.
This means that the pop‑up patch selection in Vision or Studio Vision provides access to the OMS Name Manager, which allows you to 'subscribe' to bundles of voices from the Galaxy librarian, and to use the grouping names that are used to group patches. The GM groups of 8 patches are one example; by using Galaxy you can define your own named groups. Being able to subscribe to a single bundle of patches for a complete song, and then have groups with names like 'bright' or 'EPs', simplifies using patches enormously. But most importantly, there is no longer any need to have Galaxy running when you are running Vision: you prepare your patches beforehand, and can then access any patch directly from the sequencer.
The only visible difference between Studio Vision and Vision is one menu: DSP. The Audio functions (but not the DSP processing) are also available in Vision, providing that you have a Mac which meets the right combination of processing power, hard disk performance, built‑in audio hardware, and Sound Manager 3.0 or higher (3.1 currently).
The first block of Audio menu functions are all audio‑processing. 'Retain' enables you to remove all but the selected portion of an audio track, which is great for trimming the start and finish of sounds. 'Separate' allows you to split audio tracks into sections, which is useful for splitting up notes or events and processing them separately. 'Strip silence' allows you to apply a 'noise gate'‑type of function to the audio. This can remove silence, split the audio into sections, and save hard disk space too. 'Mix Audio' takes several audio tracks and merges them into one. 'Import Audio' allows you to fly in audio from disk files.
The next block of functions are all editing‑specific. The Event information tells you the name, duration, file format and other parameters of the sound — you can change the name to something meaningful here. For more detailed editing, then the 'Edit Event Soundfile' allows you to edit the audio: CBX variants (see the 'System Requirements' box) and Sound Manager can use Audioshop, whilst Digidesign variants can use Sound Designer II. Linking and unlinking of stereo audio events were all quite intuitive, as were the muting operations.
The next section is all management‑orientated: defragmenting; converting from one sample rate to another, or stereo to mono; setting the size of the RAM buffer, which is used to hold the digital audio as it goes onto and comes off the hard disk; and much more.
The 'DSP' menu is where the fun really starts. Despite the name, the Digital Signal Processing can take place inside the Mac: you don't need any extra hardware (although you can use any additional DSP hardware for TDM plug‑ins in the Console windows). The first block of commands are straightforward: 'Normalise' scales the audio, so that it uses the full dynamic range of the audio track; 'Reverse' makes that audio track effectively play backwards; 'Invert Phase' can sometimes help in a mix. The EQ command allows simple low‑, high‑ or band‑pass filtering, with four slopes and Q control. The 'Fade In/Out' command allows timed linear or exponential fades across one (or many) audio track(s).
The serious stuff starts with the next section. 'Pitch Shift' performs the almost magical, changing the pitch without changing the timing. If you take a tape recorder and slow it down, then you change the pitch and the speed — but not here. Notes from a MIDI keyboard will select the interval, or it can be done by typing in the number of semitone steps, and fine‑tuning in +/‑ 50 cents. The 'Time Scale' command does the opposite: you can stretch or shrink time without altering the pitch, and it uses scalings (eg. 2.0 for twice as long), timings or bar/beat measures to set the amount of change. Wonderful for adjusting a drum loop to fit into the timing of an existing song.
The 'Adjust Audio Tempo' command does much the same thing, but this time it allows a tempo to control the time stretching or shrinking. This means that you can have tempo changes in MIDI and adjust the audio to follow them, or change the tempo of a song — instead of having the tempo fixed by the first audio track you record! This is much more useful than you might at first imagine. The audio quality of these time and pitch changes was excellent for small changes, less so for big changes. You need to experiment to find out what you can get away with in each context. Personally, I quite like the 'harmonisation' glitching that you get from big changes on some sounds.
But the best is at the bottom of the DSP menu, and it completely changes the scope of what you can do with audio and MIDI. The 'Audio‑to‑MIDI' function takes a monophonic audio signal and extracts MIDI Note events, with Velocity and Volume information, a measure of the brightness and MIDI Pitchbend. There are several preset ranges and options, which suit specific conversions: percussion, vocals, instruments and so on, and you can control which events are generated, when notes become new notes instead of pitch‑bent existing ones, and the conversion speed (from fast to slow). Or try adding your own presets: I created one for converting drums, using the slow conversion and all the extractions except note pitches and pitch bend. The obvious use of this is for controlling MIDI instruments with acoustic ones. Unfortunately, the monophonic conversion means that it is much better at adding feel and expression to existing performances — but for that, it's great. It can also be used for adding MIDI harmonisation and accompaniment to acoustic performances. I've spent weeks transcribing parts from audio tapes so that I could then add MIDI orchestration, and StudioVision Pro v3.0 did it in minutes.
Having analysed the audio into MIDI and edited the MIDI, the final icing on the cake is the 'MIDI‑to‑audio' conversion. This takes the edited MIDI information and applies it to the audio. That one note that was out of tune or which the guitarist forgot can now be corrected or pitch‑bent, plus a million other 'impossible‑to‑do' tweaks. As with the time and pitch‑shifting, small changes work best, but in most cases, it is only a minor change that is needed. The conversion from audio to MIDI and back is not the lengthy process that you might imagine — it takes slightly longer the first time, but after that, subsequent conversions are noticeably faster. The processing time depends on your machine: the more powerful the machine, the faster the processing.
Almost everything that I played around with would not be possible or practical using just a multitrack.
The Faders window, with its horizontal slider controls for altering MIDI volume or other controllers is still present, but it is now joined by the Consoles window. The Consoles offers much more 'mixing desk'‑like facilities, with four different console setups available, and wide and narrow displays with up to 256 channels. The wide displays show a volume bargraph and more detailed channel information, whilst the narrow displays allow you to view more channels at once on the screen. There are faders for volume and pan (although the Yamaha CBX units ignore pan events), mute and solo buttons, and with a TDM‑equipped Digidesign hardware system you can use up to four TDM plug‑ins — Dynamics processors, EQ and delay, for example. You can 'build' a console automatically, from either selected tracks or from just the audio tracks, which speeds up making a console. These can then be edited to your own preference.
In line with all the other changes brought about by the move to OMS 2.0, the manuals have been reorganised too. The OMS manual (42 pages) now only describes the studio setup facilities, because all the naming of patches is now dealt with inside the sequencer or librarian program. There is a common MIDI reference manual (350 pages) which covers the MIDI sequencer parts of Vision and Studio Vision, whilst all the audio aspects are dealt with in a separate 302‑page audio reference manual — again, for Vision and Studio Vision. There's also a 'Getting Started' manual (64 pages) for both programs: this takes you through the basic operations and gives some tutorials on using the MIDI facilities effectively.
If all this sounds as though Vision and Studio Vision are converging, it's not far from the truth. The major difference now seems to be the ability of Studio Vision to deal with the additional audio hardware offered by Yamaha's CBX or Digidesign. A Vision owner can now look in the manuals and discover what extras are in the upgrade. Quite a neat idea.
The manuals have lots of screen shots, are very readable, and take a 'how to do it' approach, with lots of little tips scattered through the text, and decent indexes. The manuals are 'perfect bound' (like this magazine) paperbacks, in a square A5‑sized format. I'm normally not very happy with the quality of manuals, but these were an impressive exception.
I liked Studio Vision Pro v3.0. As a deliberate non‑user until recently, I've been watching all of the 'MIDI and audio/hard disk recording' programs quite closely, because they seem to be the way ahead — and because people ask me about them all the time. Having the opportunity to try one out properly has changed my opinion: this could be a useful tool for anyone who wants to work with audio and MIDI. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that there's no longer any need to think about investing in a sampler and a multitrack — going digital is now a viable alternative.
As to using Studio Vision Pro, I have to admit that I quickly forgot that I was dealing with audio samples, and started working interchangeably with snippets of MIDI and audio. As you can see from the 'Practical Examples' box, I had no difficulty substituting MIDI events with audio samples, extracting groove information, replacing audio events with MIDI and other audio events from drum loops. I ran out of time before I ran out of ideas for using the software. Almost everything that I played around with would not be possible or practical using just a multitrack. The combination of a sampler and a digital multitrack would be able to do most of what I did, but at the cost of time and complexity. I enjoyed being able to rework audio in much the same way that I manipulate MIDI information, and the sense of liberation was quite intoxicating at times. The bottom line is that I could use this to make music — and money too!
Many thanks to Lars at MCM for his extensive help and knowledge, and to MCM for the loan of equipment for this review.
The new features in Studio Vision Pro 3.0 include:
- Customisable mixer consoles (up to 256 channels).
- Audio‑to‑MIDI conversion (monophonic).
- MIDI‑to‑Audio conversion (monophonic).
- DSP utilities for digital audio (Time Compression/Expansion, Pitch Shift).
- Constrain Audio Tempo for digital audio.
- Adjust audio tempo.
- Yamaha CBX compatibility.
- Digidesign Pro Tools III compatibility.
- Digidesign TDM compatibility.
Sound On Sound last looked at Vision in January 1993, and Studio Vision in February '91. Mike Collins' series on TDM and Pro Tools is also recommended: Part 1 was in February 1996. A comparison of the four leading MIDI & Audio sequencers was also produced by Mike for the 10th Anniversary December 1995 issue.
Sequencers: How Do You Choose?
Okay, so we all know there's only a few sequencers, and they all have broadly similar facilities, despite the hype that the manufacturers tell us. Sometimes one program gets a lead and leapfrogs ahead of the competition, but sooner or later they all catch up. The problem is that most of us mere mortals can't afford to keep changing sequencer every few months, just to keep up. So how do you choose a sequencer?
I reckon there are two main things to consider: how it feels and what it stops you doing. If you are going to be spending several hours a day in front of a computer screen with a mouse in your hand, then you had better feel comfortable with it. So you should try to find one that has the same approach as you have; the same metaphors, the same way of thinking. I like Vision because its roots lie in pattern‑based sequencing, which is a dead giveaway that I was raised on little banks of LEDs chasing across 8 or 16 pots to provide simple, repetitive sequences on analogue synthesizers. Other people prefer programs that emulate tape recorders. Try them out and see which feels right.
But the other consideration is harder to deal with. Sequencers can literally stop you from using parts of them. It can be what you can't do with a sequencer that matters more than what you can. In my case, I hadn't used audio for so long that I had started to forget that anything other than MIDI existed. Using Studio Vision woke me up, and reminded me very forcefully that my existing sequencer had a major area where it fell down: audio.
Using audio in a digital environment is not just a case of adding on a plug‑in converter card to a MIDI sequencer, because the way that the sequencer deals with the audio needs to be carefully considered. Surprisingly, this makes the job of the prospective purchaser easier. Simple add‑ons should set the alarm bells ringing if you intend any serious professional work. You should look for an integrated system, where the hardware and software are interconnected. The difference is ably demonstrated by Vision and Studio Vision. Vision can provide audio with a suitable Power Mac by using the built‑in audio hardware — but it is very much 'guide track' usage, with limited polyphony and no DSP facilities. In contrast, Studio Vision is at its best when used with additional dedicated hardware (although it can use the built‑in hardware if necessary), and it provides more polyphony and all those DSP facilities. Make sure you find out exactly what you get for your money when you audition sequencers with audio capability.
Some Practical Examples
The proof of the pudding with a piece of software is what you can do with it. Here's two examples of what I used it for.
- ANALOGUE (SYNTH) TO DIGITAL (SEQUENCE)
Since my analogue synthesizers don't always behave 100% correctly, I decided to play around with using a sample of one instead. The screenshot shows an excerpt from a bass pedal line called 'Counterpoint', and underneath it, an audio track recording of an analogue synth playing the first note of each bar. I selected one of these notes, and topped and tailed it to produce the 'Bass Note' muted track — which I then selected and copied to the Clipboard (much easier to do than say!). I then created a copy of the MIDI track 'Counterpoint', and, as an experiment, used the Substitute function to replace the MIDI data in the copied track with the Clipboard contents. To my amazement, I found that Studio Vision Pro automatically converted the resulting track into an audio track made up of the bass sample! I then selected some of the newly substituted bass notes and applied a band‑pass filter to them, to simulate tweaking the VCF. Finally, I transposed some of the bass notes down an octave to add a bit of variety.
Apart from the initial recording of four notes from the analogue synth producing two detuned sawtooth waveforms, everything else was carried out in the digital domain — and yet the bass line sounds wonderfully live and improvised! Notice that the Audio‑to‑MIDI has extracted the velocities of the original bass line 'Counterpoint', and has superimposed this onto the substituted audio samples.
- STEALING THE FEEL
Drum loops are one of my least favourite things, to misquote Julie Andrews. In this case, I took a drum loop and adjusted its tempo to fit into two bars, and then EQ'd some of the drum sounds until I found one that I liked: a bass drum hi. This was all held in the 'Processed' track, so that I retained both the original and the processed audio. This bass drum was then extracted, and I ran the drum loop through the Audio‑to‑MIDI function. On the Fast/Percussion setting, the conversion missed a few of the drum hits, and the timing was poor, so I tried again using the Slow setting. This time, the conversion was spot‑on, and so I substituted the processed bass drum for the extracted MIDI events. This gave a track with my processed bass drum instead of the original events in the drum loop, plus a set of velocities and note events for the drum hits in the loop — all ready for re‑voicing and mixing with other drum sounds from my drum machines.
Again, this was all digital, and very fast and easy. Okay, I could have used a sampler to do the substitution, but I would have had to re‑enter the hits by hand, and I would still have had to do the drum processing in the sampler, and then saved that sound. But I can't think of any way that I could have also extracted the velocity (and timing) information from the drum loop. Anyone want to make a few groove templates?
System Requirements & Additional Hardware
The bare minimum computer platform which Opcode recommend for using Studio Vision Pro 3.0 is a Mac IIci with 12Mb of RAM, running System 7.01 (or higher), with a hard disk with 18 milliseconds (or better) access time — plus a MIDI interface and some MIDI sound sources, of course.
Using Apple's Sound Manager 3.1 on an AV Mac or a PowerMac is going to over‑burden the processor because it is running everything: OS, program and audio. A fast machine will definitely help to keep things moving quickly, while a slow machine can only get slower. Sound Manager audio I/O is also limited by the available output sockets on your Mac: stereo minijacks in most cases.
Using additional hardware like Yamaha's CBX audio processors, or Digidesign's Audiomedia II card, Pro Tools or Pro Tools III is going to spread the processing load between the Mac and the extra hardware, which means that a slower machine is not as important. If you can afford the additional hardware, then not having a decent Mac to run it on seems like a false economy.
If you decide to go for additional hardware, there are two major choices: Yamaha's CBX series audio processors, or the Digidesign range. Yamaha's CBX‑D5 or D3 offer four‑channel playback and two‑channel record, while monitoring using the other two channels.
Digidesign offer a range of options, from the basic Audiomedia II card (just over £1000) through the mid‑range Session 8 (about £2500), to the full Monty — Pro Tools with TDM, at a little over £6000. Session 8 will soon be superseded by Pro Tools Project at £2175. The 882 I/O for Session 8 and Pro Tools comes in at an extra £1000, while the 888 I/O is £2600. All of these include NuBus cards, with PCI bus versions coming on‑stream during 1996. There is also an Apple AV NuBus card, which can be used to provide AV features for some of the non‑AV Power Macs, and this then enables the use of the Apple Sound Manager features.
|How many audio tracks can you expect when you have just a Macintosh with System 7.5 and Sound Manager 3.1 installed? As usual with digital audio direct‑to‑disk systems, there is no simple answer — it depends on the access time and fragmentation of your hard disk, the number and type of System Extensions that you are using (the fewer the better), and several other criteria. What follows are Opcode's guidelines for typical numbers of audio tracks.|
|COMPUTER TYPE||PLAYBACK @ 44.1kHz||<font face="arial,helvetica">SIMULTANEOUS |
RECORD/PLAYBACK @ 44.1kHz</font>
|PowerMac 7500 *||12||8|
|PowerMac 7200 *||8||4|
|PowerMac 6100 *||6||4|
* Opcode do not recommend the PowerMac 7500, 7200 and 6100 for professional audio use.
- Versatile, powerful and easy‑to‑use audio and MIDI sequencer.
- Some unique audio processing features, including built‑in DSP functions and links to audio waveform editors.
- Can use built‑in Mac audio hardware and Sound Manager for minimal facilities, provided your Mac is up to it.
- Requires a reasonably powerful computer.
- Needs a large, external hard disk designed for audio, and some sort of backup medium.
- Needs additional audio hardware for maximum flexibility.
Desktop digital audio comes of age. If I was a sampler or analogue multitrack manufacturer, I would be worried. If I was a producer, I would be ecstatic.