MIDI song files have come a long way from just being copies of famous hits, as Vic Lennard discovers...
If you need convincing, just take a quick look in the Classified Adverts at the back of this issue of Sound On Sound. Yes, MIDI song files are big business. There are over a dozen libraries in this country alone, each boasting hundreds if not thousands of files encompassing almost every style of music: pop, rock, country, classical — the lot.
Some of the libraries have taken this a step further, and created stimulating disks that contain MIDI Files but not MIDI song files. Is there a difference? Yes. Take the example of loading a file with interesting guitar riffs. While it has been saved in MIDI File format, you would hardly call it a MIDI song file disk — and yes, the capital "F" in File is intentional to show that we are talking about the standardised format. But enough of the technicalities — let's see what's new in the Atari world of three and a half inch disks...
There are times when you really want to cut loose on your particular instrument and simply need a decent backing track to let rip on. Hands On's Groove Machine fits the bill nicely, offering five full‑length tracks in differing styles such as AcidJazz, Dixie and the excellent 70sFunk. You get drums, bass and one or two other instruments, which leaves plenty of space for guitar, lead synth or any acoustic offering. The only drawback is a lack of embedded Program Changes, but this is a minor gripe; the tracks have excellent feel and are eminently jammable. Put it this way — there was no way that I could listen to a couple of these without picking up a guitar and hitting the overdrive pedal.
If rave happens to be your particular cup of tea, then look no further than Heavenly Music's Dr Rave — a selection of a dozen files, each with varied percussion, bass and a couple of instruments. Set up for a Roland GS synth such as Sound Canvas or the DS330 Dr Synth, the variation of sound is most impressive — start playing one of these tracks and you're likely to stick your sequencer into record and immediately overdub. Even better, the similarity in feel makes all 12 files perfect for copying and pasting between.
If you were to write down a list of the most difficult instruments to recreate via MIDI in a studio without a class player, rhythm guitar and rock drums would be near the top of the list. No two people strum guitar in the same way, and creating a rock drum track which doesn't sound like a docile drum machine is not easy. Station Records have made a name for themselves with the rather natty MIDI Busker series of disks. Following hot on the heels of the Acoustic and Electric versions is Latin Busker — and value for money it certainly is, with 56 four‑bar patterns. Ten Latin‑style rhythms are catered for, including the popular Samba and Bossa Nova along with the more exotic Farruca, Colombiana and Rumba Guajira. No, I haven't heard of these either, but they certainly sound good! Each file has two patterns with 17 and 18 chord shapes respectively, embracing the obvious majors and minors plus the likes of 7#9 and minor 7b5, and an extra track called 'Timeline' that offers very basic backing percussion. While the playing has been quantised, chorded notes have been spaced out a little to give the effect of a strum. Just think — there are nearly 1,000 chords on this disk...
Backbeats is a new series of drum disks from Hands On with RockBeats being first past the post. If you've heard any of the Hands On song files, you'll appreciate the attention to detail that goes into each of their disks, and RockBeats takes this care a step further. Sixteen different patterns are on offer, with the various percussion instruments stored on individual tracks. Of real interest is the fact that you get 120 bars of each pattern, including some excellent fills, a matching information file giving the drum note allocations, and the necessary System Exclusive data for Roland's GS. And perhaps as a taster of things to come, there are single House and Jazz files, the latter of which has some of the best brush kit programming I've ever heard.
How have manufacturers reacted to the general complaint of poor manuals? By giving us so many pages that we tend to give up before reaching the good bits! The main problem with today's sequencing packages is that they tend to offer every conceivable facility bar making the morning cup of tea. And do they offer on‑screen help? Unfortunately not. With the notable exception of the Calligrapher document processor, very few programs on the ST support this useful facility. Even Cubase, arguably the most popular current sequencer, suffers from this syndrome. While The Complete Cubase Handbook and The Cubase Video Training Manual go some way towards offering practical examples, there is still space for something a little more user‑friendly.
Heavenly Music's Cubase On‑line Tutorial Disk may be in the right place at the right time. This comprises 35 arrangements‑worth of data, each with the notepad used to the full as a kind of on‑line help file, although the lack of word processor‑style editing has made this a labour of love, according to Joe Ortiz of Heavenly. Track data is viewed with the List Editor, and on‑screen examples explain many aspects of Cubase, including the Logical Editor, locators, legato and the like — nearly 640kB of data. While it's a shame that this isn't truly interactive, it's as close as Cubase users on the ST are going to get.
Few MIDI song file libraries offer classical pieces, and most of the ones I've heard leave much to be desired. If you treat, say, a piano concerto to the typical quantising treatment used on pop songs, the result is... yuk! A piano piece needs to breathe, both in terms of note velocities and timing. On the other hand, lack of quantising makes it very difficult to view such a recording on a score editor. The best way is to record a decent player and loosely quantise the timing, but leave the note lengths and velocities as played.
With the Classic Ivories disk, Station Records offer seven works by Chopin, including five preludes, the Polonaise in A and the Minute Waltz (which, by the way, happens to time in at about a minute and a half) in both format 0 and 1. The recordings are excellent, with just sufficient quantising to ensure a decent score view. Select your best piano sound, add a little hall reverb, turn down the lights and enjoy!
While writing this month's Atari Notes, I was reminded of how much I rely upon a certain utility. Let 'em Fly adds keyboard shortcuts to most on‑screen dialogue boxes, meaning that you don't need to use the mouse to send the cursor hacking across the screen. Take the example of a typical 'Yes/No' dialogue box; one of the two options will be in a thick‑lined box and so can be automatically selected by hitting the 'Return' key. But how do you select the other one? With Let 'em Fly, each dialogue box option has one of its letters underlined; hitting that letter on the keyboard auto‑selects the option. Best of all, it's a shareware program and available from Floppyshop for £2.50. Call them on 0224 586208 and tell 'em that Vic sent you...
Groove Machine: £9.95 from Hands On MIDI Software (0705 783100).
Dr Rave: £16.95 from Heavenly Music (0255 434217).
Latin Busker: £14.95 from Station Records (0787 311500).
RockBeats: £9.95 from Hands On MIDI Software (0705 783100).
Cubase On‑line Tutorial Disk: £10.99 from Heavenly Music (0255 434217).
Classic Ivories: £9.95 from Station Records (0787 311500).