Brian Heywood studio tests PC scoring/sequencing package Musicator, which has just gone audio, as well as handing out a few PC Notes Awards for '96...
I had a play with Musicator Audio, from the Norwegian company Musicator AS, last month. Musicator GS has been with us a while now, as a MIDI sequencing package that can also print high‑quality scores, but the new version adds the ability to record and play back audio, if your PC has a suitable soundcard. While I have reservations about mixing scoring and sequencing — since the two processes have such differing requirements — I can see that musicians who are used to working with staff notation may feel more at home with a sequencer that uses traditional notation rather than 'piano roll' or event‑based displays.
The new version of the application has integrated MPC audio facilities into the sequencer — along the lines of Cakewalk and Cubase Audio — to allow vocals or acoustic instruments to be added to your pieces. It took me about a day to realise what an odd concept this was for a scoring program. As far as I can see, the only advantage that Musicator has over its competition is that you can produce high‑quality scores without leaving the cosy environment of your production sequencer. And the only operation you can't perform on an audio track — unless the software is extremely clever (which Musicator isn't) — is to display it in staff notation. Still, if you are already a Musicator user and you want to take advantage of the PC audio revolution (or should that be evolution?) you may find it worthwhile upgrading to the audio variant of the program.
I won't go into too much detail about the MIDI and scoring aspects of the program, except to say that it seems to have most of the features you'd expect to find in a decent sequencer, though the sequencer side is limited to 32 tracks, which means that no more than two MIDI ports are supported. If you think of each track as being equivalent to a musical stave, this seems a pretty reasonable limitation, but it does mean that you can't use some of the organisational tricks that make life easier when using a professional, track‑based sequencer. At a number of places in the software, I felt that the basic sequencer user interface had to be bent a bit to make it fit in with the scoring aspects of the application.
Other features include standard music notation functions that allow you to produce a professional‑looking score; piano‑roll editing; measure/track overview; MIDI controller windows with graphical editing of all controllers, such as aftertouch, pitch‑bend, tempo and modulation; automated instrument mixer; drum mixer with individual pan positions, tuning, reverb, and volume, plus control of any GS effects. One missing feature on the scoring side is the lack of some way of inserting guitar chord symbols, although you can insert text chord symbols that will transpose with the notes when the transpose command is applied to that track. One nice feature is the ability to save the open windows and their locations, and then quickly switch between different setups with a single 'hot key'.
On the audio side, Musicator Audio can support up to eight independent mono or stereo audio tracks, using one or more standard MPC soundcards, although how many tracks you can use will depend on the power of your PC and the speed of your hard disk sub‑system. The software allows the user to manipulate MIDI and audio data side by side in all of the edit views — notation, overview, mixer, and so on. Musicator Audio can take advantage of multiple soundcards, and allows you to record multiple audio tracks. I tried the software on two systems — a Pentium running Windows 3.1 and a 486DX2 running Windows 95 — and found that both systems crashed on occasion. On the Windows 95 system, the software refused to acknowledge the existence of my AWE‑32's audio input, so I was unable to test the recording performance. I had no problems with Cakewalk Audio on the same system.
I did get a chance to record some MIDI performances, and found this task to be simple enough, though the lack of a 'play' pointer in both the score and the piano‑roll windows was slightly off‑putting. I did notice that some strange chord effects sometimes occurred, as if the interface was buffering up the notes played between recording sessions and then dumping them into the track when record mode was enabled — though this may be due to the AWE‑32's MIDI driver. You can also record in step time, which can be a more reliable way of getting a clean score, but of course this doesn't do anything for the feel of the track.
The manual actually recommends that you use a sample rate of 22.05kHz for all your audio tracks — other than percussion tracks — on the grounds that you won't notice the difference. I don't know if this is a comment on the quality of most MPC soundcards or the ears of the users of this software, but it firmly rules out any consideration of 'professional' results from this program. Use of lower sample rates does save a lot of disk space, but what the heck — disk drives are getting pretty cheap these days, so I'm not sure this is a particularly good reason for reducing the quality of the music you make. The audio can be displayed as part of the score, with audio clips appearing as empty boxes; again, this is only really useful if you only feel comfortable with working in an environment that uses traditional music notation.
The mixer section handles both MIDI and audio data, giving fully automated and real‑time control over the volume and pan of both MIDI and audio tracks. The mixer also allows you to control GS and GM reverb and GS chorus effects on each track, as well as playing about with the attack and decay parameters on GS voices. In a similar way to many professional programs, audio tracks can be non‑destructively edited, giving control of cross‑fades, track gain and mixdown, and there are also 'fit to time' and sample‑rate conversion functions. The audio can either be recorded or imported from standard Windows WAV files. The program does have extensive external synchronisation capabilities, but I didn't get the chance to test it sync'ed to an external timecode source.
This brief encounter with Musicator hasn't inclined me to change my mind about the basic incompatibility of sequencing and scoring applications. On the whole, I'd have to say that Musicator Audio is best suited to existing users who want to start using digital audio in their sequences. Musicator Audio retails for £299.95 including VAT and is distributed by Arbiter (0181 202 1199).
This my traditional opinionated look back at products and services I have used over the past year.
- The Someone Saved my Life Tonight award goes to the Turtle Beach web site, for letting me download updated drivers for my TBS‑2000, thus allowing one of my Windows 95 systems to work (www.tbeach.com/).
- The Now for Something Completely Different award goes to SSEYO's Koan Pro, for making a new way of creating music. Brian Eno agrees with me (or is it the other way around?), as he used it to create his Generative Music One project (01344 712017 or www.sseyo.com).
- The It Works First Time Out of the Box award goes to Cakewalk Pro Audio v5. I recorded my first audio track approximately 10 minutes after I had finished installing the software (Et Cetera Distribution: 01706 228039).
- The Didn't Crash (Even Once) award goes jointly to my Soundscape SSHDR and SADiE hard disk recorders, for working perfectly all year without a single glitch, despite running in tandem on the same 486 DX/33 PC (Soundscape: 01222 450120; Studio Audio & Video: 01353 648888).
- The Most Useful Piece of Plastic in the Studio award goes to the NeatO CD labelling system from MicroPatent UK, for producing professional looking CD‑Rs (0181 932 0540).
- The I Can't Believe it's a Soundcard award goes to the Yamaha MU10XG external tone generator, essentially a DB50XG in an external box, which not only gives superior audio quality but allows you to use reverb and chorus on the external analogue inputs.
EASY TUTOR — LEARN INTERNET97
Much has been said about the Internet, and you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. If you've never used a modem before (or even if you have!) it can be terribly confusing to work out whether it's worthwhile getting involved with the Internet. If you are a Windows 95 (or Windows NT) user, one way to get a very basic understanding of the Internet and communications in general is to get the Easy Tutor — learn Internet97 CD‑ROM. This provides a multimedia tutorial on how to connect your PC to a modem, and thence to the world via the Internet. The CD‑ROM costs £29.99, and is available from WSmith, Virgin Megastores, and various computer outlets, such as Software Warehouse.