Could something this good really be this cheap? Derek Johnson looks at a 16‑track sequencer package which is perfectly priced for the beginner but provides ample room for growth.
Although Sweet Sixteen is also compatible with Atari's new flagship Falcon, the majority of potential customers for this new Swedish package will probably be newcomers looking for an affordable grounding in MIDI sequencing on the Atari ST/STe. What makes Sweet Sixteen especially attractive to this market, apart from its price, is its unashamed similarity to Emagic's Creator/Notator range of sequencers. I'll say right now that you aren't getting Creator for under £50, but you are getting a very usable and solid piece of 16‑track, 32‑channel sequencing software which shares much of the approach and feel of Notator/Creator.
Sweet Sixteen comes on a copy‑protected disk; you can make a working copy or install the program on a hard drive, but you will still need to use the master disk as a 'key' when launching the program, which is a chore if you're using a hard disk drive. It's a pattern‑based sequencer offering 16 Patterns (each of which could be a song in itself), which can be chained together in a Song. And 520 ST owners with just a half meg of RAM aren't left out in the cold, since Sweet Sixteen provides a capacity of around 40,000 events; while running on my 4Mb ST it handles over 600,000 events. It will also work with high or medium res monitors, and internal timing resolution is a creditable 192 pulses per quarter note (ppqn), which compares very well with other budget to mid‑range sequencing programs.
Apart from a name and a mute switch, each of the 16 tracks within a Pattern has its own set of parameters: transpose; loop length; track delay; compression; velocity level; quantise value; MIDI output (more later); and MIDI channel number. The first six options are non‑destructive and can be switched off at any time; if you want to permanently alter track data (quantise, transpose, change velocity and so on) then check out the Modify Events option under Functions on the menu bar.
Precise editing is available on the Event List and Grid Edit pages, where events can be inserted, deleted, moved and altered, even while a sequence is playing. In addition, there is a simple Transform page, something like that found in Creator, which lets you change events and values into other events and values. Copying, deleting and merging tracks is simply a matter of using your mouse (click on a track and drag it: to the left to erase it; to a blank track to copy it; over an occupied track to merge it with that track), and moving tracks between patterns, and inserting or deleting bars isn't much harder. Sweet Sixteen even provides you with both a tempo track and a time signature track.
Track features particularly worth noting include the ability to loop tracks individually — and a loop can be as short as one beat. Setting up a one‑bar (four‑beat) drum pattern, a two‑bar (eight‑beat) bassline, and eight bars (32 beats) of funky organ chords is possible within one pattern, for example, giving you an instant backing track. You could leave those tracks to loop and jam over the top on another track for as long as you like. Of course, you can loop the overall pattern as well, if you're feeling conventional, and have 7, 13 and 49‑beat tracks if you're not. Other notable features include the facility to change time signatures at any time, even after you've recorded something (it could be useful), and being able to record over the count‑in; the material is played back by using a 'pre start' function.
Although you only get 16 tracks per pattern, this need not be a drawback: Sixteen supports an optional MIDI Out (called B by the software). Plugging suitable hardware into the modem port opens up this feature; Hands On (Sweet Sixteen's UK distributor) can supply the suitable MIDI 16+ Cartridge for £32.50 and Hollis Trackman II users probably already have the right device. In case you're now thinking: "It's only a 16‑track sequencer, so how can I make full use of the extra MIDI output?" the answer is that it is possible to merge tracks with MIDI channel assignments remaining intact. So in order to have access to the full 32 MIDI channels, each sequencer track needs to have only two parts merged onto it, eight tracks assigned to the main MIDI Out (A) and the other eight tracks assigned to Out B.
Note that individual parts on a merged track can still be Modified (quantised, transposed and so) on a per MIDI channel basis, but full editing is a little trickier: if you edit a track with multiple MIDI channels on it, the grid or edit list will show all selected events on all MIDI channels on that track — inconvenient to edit, though not impossible.
The 16 available patterns are chained in Song Mode (click on Song Mode at the top of the Song column). A song has 32 sections, each section can be named (for labelling verses and choruses for example), and each can have its own transpose value and a separate mute setup to the main pattern. For example, if a pattern with a synth solo in it is used as a verse section in the song, it's possible to mute the solo during the verse, and unmute it during the break when you want to hear the solo. Simple pop tracks (intro, couple of verses, several choruses, middle eight and so) are a piece of cake, and even quite sophisticated compositions could be put together with a little forethought, especially since a single pattern could be a song in its own right.
Using Sweet Sixteen is relatively straightforward — it lets you put together a basic track in no time. The edit list is perfectly clear, with plenty of options for filtering MIDI data that you may not want to edit: you can look at just notes or just controllers or just aftertouch if you like. The piano roll grid editor also works well, in spite of the small size of some of its on‑screen elements — short notes close together sometimes appear as one note. Stability‑wise, Sixteen seems to be rock solid. In spite of trying, I found it impossible to make it crash.
There are a few negative points, most of which can be countered by Sweet Sixteen's low cost and otherwise comprehensive collection of features. The manual (a translation from Swedish) is a disappointment: the price of Sweet Sixteen is going to make it very attractive to the newcomer or relative novice, and a manual with more in the way of detail, help and comprehensible descriptions is called for. However, distributors Hands On have recently announced that they are to provide a new manual which should eliminate this gripe altogether. I could complain about features that are lacking: there is no dedicated step‑time recording facility as such (though notes can be inserted with the mouse on the Grid and Event edit pages), and there is no score edit — but no‑one would reasonably expect score editing for £49.95, would they? I'd also like to be able to choose a count‑in with more than one bar, and it would be nice if the metronome had an accented downbeat (the first problem can be got around by just starting to record when you like and deleting any unwanted blank space afterwards).
At this price and with these facilities, it's difficult not to recommend Sweet Sixteen. The market may be crowded, but I can see this program finding itself a niche. Falcon compatibility may give it a bit more selling potential too. Manual aside, Sweet Sixteen is ideal for the beginner: it's cheap and easy to use and it should take a while to outgrow the facilities on offer. When the time comes to upgrade, you'll feel right at home if you move into a package such as Emagic's Creator or Notator.
At this price and with these facilities, it's difficult not to recommend Sweet Sixteen. The market may be crowded, but I can see this program finding itself a niche.
The seasoned sequencist (especially the Creator user) has less reason to look at Sweet Sixteen, but as a Cubase and Trackman user, I found aspects of the software so refreshing that I was coming up with new ideas simply as a response to the new environment. The ability to loop tracks individually and with different loop lengths within a pattern was especially welcome, and is a lot of fun. I refer you back to Martin Russ' words regarding 'Generator Tracks' in previous issues of SOS (February 1993, SOS On‑Line letter answer and October 1993 'Garbage In, Music Out: creative recycling for sequencer users' article), where he describes how it is possible to emulate algorithmic composers and analogue sequencers using track loops of differing lengths within the same pattern. This very trick is simplicity itself for Sweet Sixteen.
If you're looking for an easy way into sequencing with your ST, then Sweet Sixteen won't disappoint; once the manual is sorted, the only bases that aren't covered in some way are score editing and real step‑time recording. The only way you'll get a much cheaper sequencer is on the Public Domain, but as Sweet Sixteen is a surprisingly competent sequencer at a very attractive price, why bother?
- 16 Tracks.
- 16 Patterns.
- 32 MIDI channels (with optional cartridge).
- 192ppqn resolution.
- Real‑time processing with full Undo.
- Handles all MIDI events including SysEx.
- Interpolation MIDI sync – retains 192ppqn when synced externally.
- Real‑time scrolling graphic editor.
- MIDI File compatible.
- Programmable tempo and time signature tracks.
- Cycle recording.
- Looping per track.
- Economical memory – 40,000+ events on 520ST.
- Surprisingly capable.
- Tempo track.
- Editing on‑the‑fly.
- Current translated manual isn't very good.
- 32 MIDI channels only available by merging tracks and spending an extra £30 on a MIDI port expansion.
Perhaps not the most original software ever released for the ST/Falcon, but it's a doddle to use, stable and great value to boot.