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Opcode Vision 2.5

One of the Mac world's sequencing front‑runners, Vision has been ported to the PC, where it faces some stiff competition from the established packages. Paul Nagle goes all visionary...

The world of MIDI has perhaps been slow to realise it, but there's an awful lot of PCs out there (there's a lot of awful PCs too, but that's another story entirely!). Enter Apple Mac dudes Opcode, sensing the flow of serious money, and following in the wake of Cakewalk, Steinberg, Emagic, and MOTU. Have they allowed the competition to get too far ahead? Does Vision have anything fresh to offer when compared to products such as Cubase and Logic, which are now well bedded in? At first glance, the answer to the latter question seems to be 'no'. Vision isn't Windows 95 native, it doesn't have any audio capabilities or flashy MIDI delay lines/arpeggiators, and its management of patches will probably necessitate quite a bit of typing. But don't write it off yet — Vision has quite a few appealing aspects, not least its simplicity and understandability, plus one or two tricks up its sleeve.

Vision Views

Vision is supplied on just two 3.5‑inch, 1.4Mb disks, and its installation routine provides you with both the Vision sequencer and OMS — more about the latter in a moment. Thankfully, the program is not protected, so there are no dongles or cranky software keys to worry about. Neither are there any flashy demo or tutorial songs — instead, you're invited to follow the 'Getting Started' manual and actually record something yourself. Before doing that, though, you need to set up OMS — see 'OMS & the PC' box for more details on this MIDI studio configuration system. Once you've mapped out and tested your studio connections, and selected icons for each item in your studio setup, you're ready to run Vision for the first time.

The highest working level within Vision is a sequence, which may contain either MIDI tracks, other sequences, or a mixture of the two. The sequences window lists each sequence by name, and selecting each one activates its own track view. This, in keeping with current fashion, is a Cubase‑style arrange window with track details on the left, and musical parts represented as discrete chunks of coloured data (the colours being propagated from the instrument definitions). A number of view options are available, ranging from discrete musical patterns, to regular blocks or entire tracks with miniature representations of the MIDI data. In block view, I found busy screen redraws a little slow, and more zoom options wouldn't have gone amiss, as the track names weren't always clear to my ageing eyes.

Unlike most of its contemporaries, Vision works equally well with pattern‑based or the more conventional linear method of arrangement. Individual sequences can be created and edited, then assembled later into a new composite sequence. Since sequences can be triggered from the keyboard, you can play them manually, even down to recording the results into a new sequence when you're happy. This brought back fond memories of Dr T's KCS program on the Atari ST and, for me, is still the fastest and easiest way to work, although I'd like to be able to drag‑copy parts between different sequences. And the fun's not over yet, because you can generate new sequences based on material you've already recorded. Vision takes elements of note timing, duration, order, and so on, and creates new tracks based on a series of dialogues. The final results vary with the source material, but I found this to be surprisingly useful for shifting the perspective of a riff or bassline, whilst maintaining elements of the performance. Tracks can be looped individually, regardless of length, and entire sequences can also be looped — if triggered from the keyboard, they can even run at their own tempo — something to make smaller PCs sweat with the effort, I'm sure.

Vision has extensive online help, consisting of a series of black and white boxes of small text, which look decidedly un‑Windows‑like. If you didn't know this program was ported from the Mac, these panels and most of the dialogue boxes should give you the hint (quite a broad hint in the case of help for the MIDI Keys function, as it states that you can "generate any Macintosh keystroke..."). Context‑sensitive help is available with the messy key combination control‑alt‑shift‑mouse click for input fields, and control‑alt‑shift‑choose for menu items, as opposed to the more normal F1. (That said, the help is invaluable and means you're not constantly leafing through the manual.) The Windows menu isn't exactly as you might expect, either, having no tile or cascade options; instead there is a list of all the main windows which you can open. You can set default locations for many of these, which is handy, because you can very easily fill your screen with the little blighters.

Transport Options

Vision's large control bar is the central point for most routine operations:

  • The Record Mode box lets you set whether you wish to overdub or replace existing data, in either real or step time. Being able to step‑time record directly from a track window is a neat way of creating backing patterns and rhythms without having to enter an editor.
  • The Current Sequence box displays or selects a sequence for recording. Pick one from the pop‑up menu and its corresponding track view becomes active.
  • The Current Track pop‑up shows the record track within the sequence. I did find it strange at first that selecting a track didn't automatically make it the record track, but I soon got used to it. Only one track can be selected for recording at once, but as a track can handle multiple MIDI channels, this doesn't present any real problems.
  • The Thru Instrument box shows the instrument currently assigned to the record track, and features an additional set of trigger and transpose modes, which define the way that sequences can be triggered from keystrokes.
  • The Current Patch box completes the track/sequence controls and is a handy shortcut to the patch list for the instrument you're working with.

Next are the familiar transport controls, with two play buttons (one to play from the start, the other to play from the current position), record, pause, stop, and so on. Nipping smartly around your blossoming composition is facilitated by eight counter locations, or by the Previous and Next marker controls, which advance through the markers set in the Markers pop‑up. Finally, the shuttle bar moves the counter at variable speeds according to mouse position, either when stopped or during playback, functioning as an effective forward/backward audio scrub.

I found Vision to be one of the easiest programs of its kind to use, yet with enough power to accomplish any task with the minimum of fuss.

A quick short‑cut to the Sync menu reveals all the expected controls, including internal, external, SMPTE, MMC (MIDI Machine Control — for which there is a separate transport window) and Remote (where Vision waits for another OMS‑compatible application to tell it to start). Recording can be set after a count‑in, or with the 'wait for note' option favoured by those of us who resent a machine telling us when to start playing. Incidentally, there are extensive options provided for re‑clocking performances made independently of the metronome, and with a combination of re‑clocking and 'scale time' facilities, you can align rubato performances with Vision's bar divisions, for score printing or quantising. Tempo is normally set in a dedicated tempo track, but can be overriden on the control bar, and timing resolution is a healthy 480ppqn (pulses per quarter note). Punch in and out settings work as you'd expect, and these are used in loop mode to select the area which will cycle, either in record or playback; you can loop record in replace or overdub modes. Hitting 'Enter' as you record confirms that you wish to keep everything recorded up to that point, and 'Delete' erases all the notes that have been recorded either from the start or the previous Enter. Although you can use Control‑up/down arrow to move to the next track, there is no auto track increment facility to allow you to keep many individual takes of, for example, a solo part.

Finally, five icons allow quick access to the Sequence, Tracks, List Edit, Graphic Edit or Notation Edit windows. A comprehensive set of keyboard equivalents exist for most functions, and you can define practically any MIDI event or combination of events to trigger Vision keyboard commands, or even sequence playback. A small black dot, which flashes during recording, is the only visual indication that MIDI is being received. I'd like to see this improved, as a decent MIDI In/Out indicator is invaluable when you're scratching your head and wondering where the sound went.

Input Mapper

Now, this is cool. By setting up an input map to respond to different incoming channels, it is possible to route the outputs of two or more keyboards to different modules, complete with keyboard splits, if required. The serious stuff starts when you trigger sequences from incoming events, resulting in instant Wavestation‑type patterns. Since you aren't constrained by the type of data in a sequence, you can trigger not only notes, but MIDI controllers too. The number of applications for this feature are legion — it could perhaps be utilised to recreate vector synthesis by producing volume fades to blend a number of instruments at each keystroke, or to trigger special phrases, or even synth patch edits. Different triggering options allow you to re‑start the sequence each time a note is played or wait until it finishes before starting again. In gated mode, the sequence plays only while a note is held down. Simultaneously‑played notes start and transpose separate copies of the sequence, and since you can record the results into a track, you can create a layered cacophony of looping mayhem, recalling the power (if not the bulk) of sync'ed‑up analogue sequencers.

Custom layered instruments, featuring favourite combinations and/or transpositions, can be created. In overflow mode, a number of synths can be used together, by specifying the number of voices each can produce — you can create complex multi‑instrument chords or reduce a polyphonic synth to a single note in this way. Patch details are retrieved from OMS, but can be edited using the Name editor. While this is pretty good, it's no substitute for an integrated process that discovers your patch names and stores them along with the SysEx data needed to recreate them — as does Steinberg's Cubase Studio Module.

Quantise is well implemented, with strength, sensitivity, smear, shift, and swing settings mapped against either a grid or groove. Notes can also be quantised on input or on playback.

Faders (vertical sliders) and Consoles (horizontal sliders) are graphical mixer representations which can be configured to send out MIDI controllers to the instrument(s) of your choice. A great Vision feature allows you to automatically build a Console from currently‑selected tracks. With up to 32 Faders, and four Consoles of up to 24 channels each, basic mixing applications are unlikely to pose a problem, but I felt restricted by not being allowed to perform simple tasks such as label sliders, create a custom layout, or send SysEx strings to tweak my synths. Maybe this could be added in a future release? Each slider can be remotely controlled, and with tempo as an option, recording accelerandos and ritardandos with, say, a mod wheel, becomes far easier than dragging a mouse or using the keyboard.


Notes may be edited in the usual ways: there's the List editor, which shows individual events in text format; a Graphic piano‑roll editor, which you use to move notes around, paint in new notes, and so on; and a Notation editor, which does its job well enough without threatening the dedicated scoring packages. For most uses, this editor functions very well, and I found its printed output more than adequate for my own needs.

Multiple instruments can be edited at once, and a handy selection box allows you to decide which ones to work on at any time. The Notation and Graphic editors have a strip controller window at the bottom, where you can draw or edit a wide variety of MIDI data, including note duration and velocity, tempo, and data generated by the Faders and Console windows. This is superb for graphically tweaking a mix without having to go back to the sliders and re‑record it. The only omission is a drum grid editor, although the piano roll will handle this job at a pinch.

Individual notes may be selected using sophisticated filters; duplicates or near duplicates can be found and removed, and events may be processed according to their position within the bar or relative to other events. In most cases, you can enter note values directly by clicking on a field and hitting a note on your MIDI keyboard. Controller data can be reduced by a user‑defined percentage, or increased (to smooth out a stepped curve, for example). In Exact mode, all changes performed graphically bring up a dialogue box, so you can fine‑tune your edits using numbers. Transpose is a very musical affair, as it includes modal (major, minor, melodic minor, harmonic minor, Dorian, Lydian) operations, as well as the more familiar semitone shifts. Transpose Maps allow any MIDI note to be translated to any other — and as with many Vision options (faders, input maps, MIDI keys, sequences, and so on), these can be saved and loaded separately.


Vision appears to have no frivolous or superfluous features; no dark corners for you to explore on a rainy day. I felt the Faders and Consoles were a little basic, and I missed an automatic way to grab patch names, although when OMS becomes widely established this should be less of an irritation. If you like to assemble music in small snapshots, or to experiment with looping patterns of unequal lengths, Vision looks very attractive. With audio being included in most other Windows sequencers, perhaps a lower price would have reflected this omission, but nevertheless, I found Vision to be one of the easiest programs of its kind to use, yet with enough power to accomplish any task with the minimum of fuss. In fact, by concentrating on only the most important facilities, you can better see the wood for the trees, and the extra frills that are provided are well chosen. Naturally, I managed to crash it hideously several times (saying a not very fond farewell to Windows 95 in the process), but setting this and the ugly dialogue boxes aside, Vision is a very creditable first attempt at a Windows program. If you haven't decided on what's best for you, and don't need the audio facilities offered by the competitors, take a long hard look at Vision.

Visions Of The Future: OMS & The PC

Opcode's Open MIDI System was devised on the Mac as a central point for all MIDI‑related interface and device information, and now Opcode have made a deal with Microsoft to incorporate OMS into a future release of Windows 9x. Certainly, this should be an improvement on Windows 95's half‑baked way of handling audio and MIDI, though such facilities will only be really beneficial if everyone joins in. OMS 2.0, as supplied with the PC version of Vision, is a basic affair; it sniffs out all installed MIDI interfaces and represents them graphically. From its main screen, you define which synths, controllers, drum machines, and so on, are connected to each port, specifying their channels and transmit/receive requirements. A warning message tells you if you add instruments whose channels overlap. Opcode provide a (far from exhaustive) list of instruments, but thankfully there is provision for adding unknowns. Those that are known are supplied with an initial bank of factory patch names, which can be edited if required. This is an area which has great potential, since any OMS‑aware application will have common access to the studio file, so that patch‑bank updates made in editors and librarians will be reflected in the current studio settings which, in turn, will be known throughout the system. I wouldn't like to speculate on how long this may take to become established, though, as there is currently no release information for a Windows version of Galaxy (Opcode's own universal librarian). With Microsoft's backing, things look hopeful. Eventually.

System Requirements

  • IBM (or compatible) PC,486/66Mhz or faster.
  • Windows 3.1 or Windows 95.
  • 12Mb RAM (16Mb recommended).
  • 8Mb free hard disk space.
  • Windows‑compatible MIDI interface.

Vision In SOS

The Mac version of Vision has been reviewed several times in SOS:

  • Vision (original version): October 1989.
  • Studio Vision: February 1991.
  • Vision 1.4: January 1993.
  • Studio Vision Pro 3.0: part of four audio sequencers overview, December 1995; full review in March 1996.


  • A program with no wasted features.
  • Option of working in a pattern‑based way is a welcome change.
  • Powerful input mapper.


  • A little expensive for what's on offer.
  • No audio facility.
  • No drum grid editor.
  • On‑screen sliders inflexible.


A sequencer that's a delight to work with. Unlike its competitors, you'll probably use all Vision's features at some time, and it has several unique aspects that are truly inspiring. The inclusion of the Open MIDI System predicts happier days for Windows users, although we're not there yet.