Algorithmic music generators can produce unique and unexpected results, and now Atari users can try out a well‑programmed example, Charming Chaos from Electronic Cow, for just £15. Derek Johnson explains a little Chaos theory...
I've been hinting for the last couple of months at something interesting on the way from Atari software developers Electronic Cow — and it's here at last. Charming Chaos started life as a freeware, 2‑channel, MIDI‑based algorithmic composer/random music generator, but it looks as though the interest generated by the free software was enough to encourage the Cow crew to step up the program's development, and they've now released a full commercial version. It'll run on any variety of Atari ST, TT, Falcon or clone thereof, with any TOS version, in 640x400 or better resolution mono or colour, with at least 1Mb of RAM. You'll also need a MIDI‑equipped sound source.
Virtually everything about the program has changed since its freeware days, although the software design has the Cow family resemblance. Charming Chaos now offers four 4‑voice polyphonic tracks, and, most importantly, 10 completely user‑editable algorithms (the free version provided four switchable preset note‑generation algorithms). The new algorithms provide complete control over which notes will be generated, as well as their rhythm and response to velocity and MIDI controller data. The results you can obtain range from simple, predictable step‑sequencer and arpeggiator effects to extremely busy, rhythmic clusters, reminiscent of minimalist and aleatoric electronic music, that can be harmonious or dissonant, depending on your settings. You plant the seeds, and Charming grows the music. Charming can sync, or be sync'ed to, other MIDI equipment, its output can be saved as a Standard MIDI File, and it can also run as a desk accessory. Sounding good?
The software can almost be thought of as a 4‑track MIDI sequencer, albeit one where you don't record and edit notes per se; each track is assigned an algorithm which determines the notes to be played, and the MIDI channel they will be played on. The tracks can also transmit patch changes, and there is an option for enabling portamento. Two assignable MIDI controller knobs are provided for each track. Initially, these are preset to transmit pan and volume (MIDI controllers 10 and 7), but you can choose any others, to provide real‑time control over Charming. In addition, four cryptically labelled buttons allow you to override or modify the behaviour of each track's algorithm:
- TM (Time Modulation) applies an offset to the algorithm's assigned rhythm or Beat Template (of which more in a moment), according to one of seven choices selectable by a MIDI controller transmitted from your MIDI keyboard or sequencers.
- AM (Amplitude Modulation), when activated, causes incoming velocity information from your MIDI keyboard to alter the root velocity of the track's velocity response.
- PM (Pitch Modulation) of the algorithm can be achieved in two ways: with MIDI notes (whereby playing notes froman attached MIDI keyboard adds notes to, or removes them from, an algorithm's assigned set of notes), and with MIDI controller 56, which is used as a switch to select the playback order of the algorithm's notes, overriding the algorithm's own settings. Notes can be played at random; in an upward direction, lowest to highest; in a downward direction; or in both directions. The latter three choices actually produce arpeggio‑like figures.
- CM (Controller Modulation) simply determines whether MIDI controller data will modify the current algorithm's parameters, as set up in the algorithm's MIDI Controller Mapper.
A small tool panel to the right of Charming's track panels includes transport controls, disk tools, an 'All NoteOff' button, and a funky little four‑part activity bargraph that flashes when notes are being generated. All tools have (computer) keyboard equivalents. Amongst the transport controls, the record button is particularly interesting: it enables the rather handy MIDI File export routine, a real‑time function which writes nearly all of Charming's activity to a Type 0 MIDI file which can be loaded into any compatible MIDI sequencer. Perhaps the most important icon provides access to the algorithm editing window.
This window is the heart of Chaos; it's here that the algorithms controlling the behaviour of the program are created — although when the program is loaded it has a set of algorithms already in place, which can be overwritten.
When making a new algorithm, users have full control over how pitch, timing, velocity, and two assignable MIDI controllers will be treated. There's also a choice of monophonic or polyphonic operation; chords are generated with the latter option. If you enter harmonically related notes in the Key Mapper (which consists of a mini‑keyboard), the results should be harmonious, or at least not completely dissonant. The notes of a tune could also be mapped, with the algorithm producing new melodic material based on just those notes; this would be a way of generating new ideas around an existing song. Extending a key map's range, by the way, causes melodic and chord notes to be added above or below the notes in the basic map.
The timing element of the algorithm is generated by the Beat Template (which behaves like a 16‑step sequencer, albeit for note triggers alone) and a Velocity Mapper offers a choice of seven velocity‑response 'curves'. In addition to the two real‑time MIDI controllers in the main track window, each algorithm offers two further MIDI controllers, which can be set in the MIDI Controller Mapper, and these can actually be made to change while the algorithm is running, for dynamic, moving effects such as filter sweeps.
The controls offered by Charming Chaos appear quite simple but the program is capable of generating quite complex results. Working with it requires a little practice: initially, it can seem baffling, and it's all too easy to produce a cacophony. But I found that by taking it slowly and creating very simple algorithms, with one or two notes in the Key Map and just a few stepactivated in the Beat Template, played at a slow tempo, I soon got a feel for what the software is capable of. In fact, slow tempos and evolving synth sounds with long decays work as well as short percussive or drum sounds and fast tempos. I'd also advise you to have the software regularly write MIDI files for you — if there is any element of randomness in your settings, something good that you hear in passing may not come around again in exactly the same form. If it has been written to a MIDI file, you'll be able to extract it and exploit it elsewhere.
Charming Chaos behaves like almost nothing else that's available commercially. Although open‑ended music operating systems such as C‑Sound can be coaxed into creating similarly bizarre, algorithmic effects, they require much more setting up than this bargain tool, and for £15 Electronic Cow have done the hard work for you. The nearest example on the Atari scene may well be Gareth Jones' shareware Schoenberg 12‑tone algorithmic composer (see this column back in August and September 1997). Schoenberg is perhaps a little more controllable, but Charming Chaos may produce more surprises.
Operationally, I experienced few problems — the software never crashed on me — but some parameters didn't always seem to work predictably. Useful musical or rhythmic material was still produced, but it wasn't always what I was expecting.
If you enjoy using Schoenberg, or Datamusic's Fractal Music (see SOS June 1992 and November 1997), or want to explore an unusual, fun and stimulating way of generating new musical material, your £15 should be on its way to Electronic Cow.
Titan Designs, one of the mainstays of the Atari world, have changed their name and are now called Core Design. The company remains the same in most other respects — same address, phone number and personnel, though with slightly different email and Internet details. Strangely, the latter still refer to Titan!
News from Core includes good progress with several products in the F Max range, which Core are developing in collaboration with Swedish company Istari Software. These include the Eclipse PCI adaptor for Falcons, mainly aimed at allowing PCI graphics cards to be plugged into Falcons; the Tempest Power PC accelerator for Falcon (offering processor speeds of up to 266MHz, and support for up to 256Mb of SDRAM); and the DesTTiny add‑on, which will allow Falcon expansion cards such as Eclipse and Tempest to be fitted inside an Atari TT computer.
Tempest and DesTTiny are still under development, but Eclipse is now available, priced at £179, or £199 with ATI Charger 3D graphics card. Incidentally, there is still time for interested parties to influence the final shape of DesTTiny, at least as I write. The card could be made to fit either in the TT's RAM expansion port or its VME slot. The latter option would apparently limit DesTTiny to accommodating Eclipse only, but would allow Mega STE owners to use DesTTiny too, and hence Eclipse. If you'd like to influence the outcome, visit Core's web site and cast your vote!
French company Softjee have announced the availability of Audiomid, a Falcon utility which manages the seemingly impossible trick of converting an 8‑ or 16‑bit audio file — presumably a mono audio file containing just a single voice? — into a Standard MIDI File. I suspect that this is the first time such a facility (which may be similar to the audio‑to‑MIDI conversion routines in some PC and Mac sequencer software) has become available on the Falcon. Audiomid also incorporates a MIDI File player. I don't have full details of the program's operation at the moment, but watch this space for more information.
Easy Beat is altogether more comprehensible: it brings the virtual drum machine concept that's been so popular on other platforms to the Falcon, offering a TR909 sound bank or the facility to use your own sampled sounds. The software offers eight drum/sample tracks and is pattern‑based: 16 patterns, each up to 16 bars in length, are available. Each track features control over volume, pan, mute and solo settings, and there are effects too — distortion, reverb and echo. Edit functions include insert, track copy, bar copy, and paste.
Though Softjee are French, you'll be happy to learn that documentation for both products is in English! Contact distributors Core Design (see 'Core Blimey!' box for details), or visit Softjee's web site (www.softjee.com/english.htm), for more information.