PC sequencing stalwarts Voyetra have finally ventured into the Windows sequencing market. Brian Heywood assesses whether their new £99 program was worth the wait.
The MIDI Orchestrator Plus application is the latest in a long line of MIDI sequencers designed to let you use the MIDI facilities built into Windows 3.1x. You might wonder whether the world really needs yet another 'entry‑level' Windows sequencer, but Voyetra have been in the music software game long enough to warrant a close look at their latest offering.
After being one of the first companies to produce a professional MIDI sequencer for the IBM PC, Voyetra have been pretty slow to bring out a Windows sequencer. I find this fairly surprising since they have been otherwise active in the Windows multimedia market, and their products have been bundled with a large number of MPC soundcards.
Voyetra's main claim to fame in the musical world is a MS‑DOS program called Sequencer Plus, which was arguably the first professional MIDI sequencing package for any personal computer, pre‑empting both the Apple Mac and the Atari ST by a couple of years. The Sequencer Plus user interface uses the now‑familiar multitrack tape machine model for its user interface. I use the present tense here as there are still a large number of professional music makers using Sequencer Plus, especially in the US.
The software comes on a single high‑density floppy disk, and has a 150‑page Users Guide as its only documentation. Usually, the first thing I do when I get a new product for review is search through the manual's index for a few key features, so that I can judge the level of the software. Since the User's Guide doesn't have an index, I couldn't do this, which I take to mean that Voyetra don't expect you to use the manual much after the initial learning period.
The software installs using a standard Windows Setup installation scheme which allows you to define where MIDI Orchestrator Plus will reside on your hard disk. The Setup program also creates a new program group in the Windows Program Manager to hold the application's icon, and a 'Readme' text file with some corrections and additions to the manual. The installation program sets the application to use the Windows MIDI mapper device as the main MIDI output port, meaning that first‑time users won't have too much trouble getting a sound out of the system.
The main window consists of a menu bar, a control/display area, a work area and a status/button bar. The menu bar controls file access, editing, options, window control and help, while the control/status bar holds the tape transport controls and the time displays, as well as a 'punch in' panel. This panel allows you to play back as well as record a range of bars — specified by the 'From' and 'To' range controls next to the transport bar at the top of the main window. The work area is used to display the various editing windows or their icons. The status area at the bottom of the main window shows the current tempo, any tempo offset, and the current state of the sequencer (ie. stopped, playing and so on).
The status bar also sports buttons for activating the various edit windows (the Mixer window, Track/View window, Piano Roll Editor window, Event List window, Conductor window, Notation window and Note window). Only one example of each window can exist at any one time, and the buttons make it a simple task to activate the one you want to use, since no window can be hidden by another. Likewise, the transport bar is always visible so you don't need to go hunting for it, like you have to in programs like Cubase.
Voyetra has organised the various editors in a hierarchy, to give precise control of a single MIDI event — the Mixer window is at the top, as it gives the broadest control of MIDI data, and the Event List window is at the bottom. The Mixer looks pretty familiar, with 16 channels arrayed horizontally, each channel having controls for level, MIDI program, pan, solo, mute, two assignable MIDI controllers (which default to controlling reverb and chorus), and a MIDI density display. There are actually three mixer pages, one for each MIDI port, but only one can be displayed at a time.
When the Track/View window is maximised, MIDI Orchestrator Plus bears more than a passing resemblance to its DOS‑based progenitor Sequencer Plus. The Track/View window can be considered as an electronic 'track sheet', showing the name of each sequencer track, along with its MIDI channel number, program number, port number and so on. There is a certain amount of duplication between this window and the Mixer controls, but changes in one cause the corresponding control in the other window to be updated. A number of columns can be displayed in two ways; for instance, the program number can be shown as a patch name, and the volume can be shown as either a number or a horizontal slider (or fader). The order of the columns can be changed by simply dragging them about.
The right‑hand side of this window is the measure display area (or bar pane), which shows the bars in each track as small boxes or squares, the degree of shading indicating the amount of MIDI data in that particular bar. This is the area you use if you want to move chunks of tracks around, simply by highlighting the required bars and dragging them to the new location in the track sheet. Holding down the control key on the PC's keyboard will turn this operation into a copy.
Along the top of the bar pane is a time ruler, which shows the measure number of the bars below it. You can move the play point to any point in the song by clicking on the appropriate bar number with the right‑hand mouse button. You can also select all the bars in a certain range by dragging with the left mouse button along the time ruler.
Recording a track is simply a matter of placing a track into record mode, and then pressing the 'Record' button on the tape transport. The recording will commence from the start of the bar beneath the current time (or play) cursor, and will replace the data in the bars on the tracks that are record‑enabled — although you can 'undo' a recording using the undo option on the Edit menu. You can also use the 'Punch' facility to limit recording to a range of bars; only the tracks which are record‑enabled (using the appropriate column in the track control window) will be affected. If you'd like to tighten up what you've recorded, MIDI Orchestrator's post‑recording quantise options let you choose a note value to quantise to (16th note, 16th note triplet, and so on — all the common values are available), adjust the level of quantisation in percentage terms (so you could quantise to a 'strength' of 50%, for example), and choose whether you would like 'note‑off' quantise applied, or to leave the length of your notes unaffected. There are none of the sophisticated 'groove' quantise options offered by more expensive programs, but then again MIDI Orchestrator is aimed at the entry‑level user less likely to want these options and is priced accordingly.
There are two editors for altering the MIDI data in detail — the Piano Roll and Event List editors. The first of these is primarily designed for editing note information, and displays each note as a horizontal line within the bar — the left end of which indicates the note's starting point within the bar, and the length of which indicates the note's duration. The Event List editor represents the data as a list of MIDI events and thus can show all types of data, not just notes. This is, in fact, the only way that you can alter non‑note events such as controllers, program changes, aftertouch and so on.
The Piano Roll editor allows you to graphically move either the position of the note on the bar grid or its duration. There is a useful 'scrub' function which lets you drag the play cursor over the notes using the mouse. You can also insert notes using the mouse, and select various durations from a 'button bar'. The editor can also display the MIDI information as notes in standard music notation, but all editing then has to be done on the Piano Roll grid.
The final musical edit window is the Conductor window, which allows you to control the global characteristics of a song. Using this window, you can insert new tempos, or change the time and key signatures throughout the song. This window takes the same form as the Event List window but doesn't manipulate the MIDI data in any way; it simply controls how the data is interpreted by the sequencer. The changes defined in this edit window are stored on a pseudo‑track (the 'conductor' track) and affect all the other tracks. So inserting a new time signature on the conductor track will alter the time signature of all the tracks from the start of that bar.
Apart from the score display in the Piano Roll editor, there is a separate Score Display window that lets you see what a track will look like in traditional musical stave notation. You can add a title, the composer's name and copyright information, and also print out the score if you so wish. The transcription facilities are pretty basic, but you can print multiple parts, although you can't select different stave types for each part. I would imagine that this feature may be useful for printing out a particular part for use by a 'real' musician, but it's not really good enough to challenge even a basic notation package.
You cannot edit the notes using this window — you have to use either the Piano Roll or Event List editors to do this. This may be a good thing, since the notation displayed does not necessarily correspond to the MIDI data in the track it represents. This is because the stave display is a 'prettified' representation of your MIDI performance, quantised according to how the software thinks that you wanted to play. If you were then to edit using this version of the track, the program would have to replace the original data with this idealised performance, robbing it of all the nuances that make the music breathe. This is a problem with all score‑based editors, but unlike others, Voyetra have chosen to acknowledge it.
This is a very pretty piece of software, and bears all the hallmark's of Voyetra's other MPC products. However, it is also definitely entry‑level sequencing software. With no synchronisation options, no 'bulk' MIDI editing tools and no way of graphically editing MIDI controllers (such as volume, pan and so on), this program will be of limited use to anyone who needs to do really serious sequencing. This is very much the feel of the whole package, with the User Manual taking great pains to describe the difference between 'basic' and 'extended' MPC sound sets, but not even mentioning synchronisation. MIDI Orchestrator is definitely a package aimed at the beginner, or the PC owner who wants to dabble in MIDI without getting too deeply into the subject. Sequencer Plus users waiting to get into Windows with a familiar user interface and compatibility with their existing sequence files will have to keep waiting or bite the bullet and move to another sequencer altogether (see the 'Further Information for Sequencer Plus Users' box).
A couple of reservations I have about the program in normal use include some compatibility issues with a number of MPC soundcards, and the replay of commercially available GM (General MIDI) song files (see the 'MPC MIDI' box for more details). In this area, the program could experience some problems, since it 'throws away' any SysEx bulk data present, which some GM composers/arrangers use to set up the GM (or GS) sound module prior to sending the actual song data.
Nevertheless, having defined MIDI Orchestrator Plus's terms of reference, it performs its brief very well. It has a nice 'intuitive' user interface, no doubt built on the experience of Voyetra's Sequencer Plus, and can be recommended for sequencing beginners or those who don't want to get too deeply into MIDI.
Despite Voyetra's self‑proclaimed title of 'Multimedia Sound Specialists', MIDI Orchestrator Plus doesn't do so well in terms of MPC Windows facilities. The first problem I came across was that the software does not support 'patch caching'. This is a Windows mechanism whereby soundcards (like the Gravis UltraSound installed in my PC) can have their patch data downloaded by a sequencer before playback commences. Unfortunately MIDI Orchestrator Plus doesn't implement this feature, meaning that you must use a patch manager utility — usually supplied with this type of soundcard — to pre‑load the sounds before commencing playback. Failure to pre‑load the patches caused my PC to completely lock up (ie. go into a 'halt' state), and I had to reboot.
If you want to use MIDI Orchestrator Plus to author Windows‑compatible sound files, then you're also out of luck. Although the program does support the Windows MIDI file format (.RMI) it doesn't mark the resulting file as MPC‑compatible. This means you must either put up with the possibility of MPC users getting a warning message when they play the MIDI file, or try and get your hands on an elusive Microsoft utility called Markmidi.exe that will do the job for you. To be fair to Voyetra, this part of the MPC authoring guidelines won't be implemented in future versions of Windows (eg. Windows95), but Windows 3.1x will be around for quite a while yet.
MIDI Orchestrator Plus can read .SNG files created by Sequencer Plus, but cannot save the files back to that format. MIDI Orchestrator Plus has no external MIDI or timecode synchronisation facilities, and lacks any of the 'Transform' macros that make Sequencer Plus such a powerful sequencing tool.
As a Sequencer Plus user myself, the only use I can think of for MIDI Orchestrator Plus is that it provides a way of auditioning .SNG files inside Windows, and a means of converting the files to standard MIDI file format (ie. .MID) to simplify the importation of the song data into another package, such as Cakewalk for Windows.
Luke Meri at Voyetra has stated publicly (October 1994) that Voyetra have no plans to produce either a 'professional' version of MIDI Orchestrator Plus or a Windows version of Sequencer Plus. Since the DOS version of Sequencer Plus is only on maintenance support now (ie. no new development, just 'bug' fixes), Sequencer Plus users waiting for Voyetra to come out with something for them will probably wait in vain.
- Consistent and intuitive user interface.
- Graphically attractive.
- Tape transport control buttons and status displays can't be acidentally hidden by the edit windows.
- Music printable as a score.
- No external synchronisation options.
- No bulk MIDI or post‑processing tools.
- No support for MIDI SysEx data or Windows MCI (eg. playback of .WAV files).
MIDI Orchestrator Plus is an excellent 'entry level' MIDI sequencer, well‑suited to teaching the basics of MIDI sequencing, and obviously benefiting from Voyetra's long experience in the field of software‑based sequencing. However, musicians with more professional ambitions may find that MIDI Orchestrator Plus will run out of steam as their skills and demands increase, and (since there is no upgrade path) will have to consider changing to another sequencer.