It is not always necessary to buy the big boys' top‑of‑the‑range, feature‑packed music software. Steven Helstrip compares seven budget PC sequencers, and proves that you don't have to sacrifice reliability or user‑friendliness if you're trying to save your pennies.
Windows 3.1 is now firmly established as a powerful and reliable platform for PC music sequencing, thanks to its multitasking capabilities and software support from big names like Steinberg, Passport and Emagic. This success has brought many new players into the market intent on gaining a slice of the cake, and has in turn increased competition and brought down the cost of software. In this article, we look at seven packages that cost you less than £150, and claim to offer clear and intuitive features that will save you time and increase your productivity. Sound familiar?
Many of the lower‑end packages are designed around the General MIDI specification, and deal with names of instruments rather than program and bank numbers, thus making them 'friendly' to the user, but few religiously follow the standard. Most of the packages support MME (MultiMedia Extensions), allowing the use of multiple MIDI interfaces, and several are supplied with specific device drivers — SeqWin, for example, is supplied with a serial interface driver and drivers allowing several applications to access your MIDI ports simultaneously.
For a sequencer to be a winner, it needs something special. Ease of use and a good set of features are often priority, but it is also important to take into account how the package will perform on your PC, and how reliable the software is. Early software releases often come with one or two unwanted extras — bugs. These often pop up just after you've spent the best part of an afternoon fine‑tuning your data and proceed to crash your machine. As a result, a feature which is slowly making its appearance is autosave and backup — an absolute 'must‑have'.
As its name suggests, Audition GS is a sequencer specifically designed for GS sound cards and modules, but which includes instrument maps for other popular synths, including Roland's MT32, LAPC1, and CM64P. Audition GS is limited to 16 tracks/channels, but does allow you to select which port should be used for MIDI input and output. The software is notation‑orientated, and has a percussion editor for drum tracks, but there is no piano roll editor, or list editor.
The main screen is unique — each of the 16 tracks is represented by a staff, and below each one are parameters to set volume, instrument, reverb, chorus and tone settings for GS‑compatible synths. The main screen scrolls as the song plays, and settings can be inserted and displayed graphically below each staff. To get the most out of this package, it is an advantage to have a monitor capable of displaying 1280x1024 pixels, as a lower resolution monitor restricts your view to three tracks at the most. At the top of the screen, there is a partition called the Conductor, which attempts to predict the key signature of a piece and displays tempo and master volume settings in a similar fashion to each staff setting.
Sequences can be recorded in either real time, step time or via the keyboard and mouse, though this package is by no means a notation package, and often displays incorrect data. There is also no print facility. A toolbox allows you to select note lengths and velocity values, and current note settings are displayed above the Conductor, along with the current song position and MIDI channel.
The GS editor can be called up for any track at any point within the song to edit time‑variant filter and time‑variant amplifier envelopes, and can be saved at a specified point in the song. The reverb and chorus settings can also be edited in this way.
The MIDI Analyser window is reminiscent of several Amiga packages — it mimics a spectrum analyser, but one where frequencies are exchanged for MIDI note numbers. It looks great, but doesn't serve any useful purpose. To the right‑hand side of the screen is a list of the 16 tracks, with a display box to indicate MIDI activity on each channel. This can show volume, pan, or other controller data settings for each track.
It didn't take long to become familiar with this package, as it only offers the basic tools for sequencing. Despite the lack of features, this is an good starter package for beginners, or those frightened by the prospect of list editors.
Audition GS £99prosCheap and reliable.Will run on almost any PC.Simple to use.GS Editor.consNo print facility.Unable to view more than three tracks simultaneously.summaryThis is an excellent starting point for those new to sequencing, and very attractive to the less demanding user on a budget.
In terms of appearance, Cakewalk Home Studio resembles several Big Noise products including Cadenza and SeqMax Presto (also featured elsewhere in this article). Cakewalk Home Studio is a 256‑track sequencer with many features you would find in a professional package, but at a fraction of the cost. Cakewalk Home Studio is currently available as version 2.01, and is far more stable in use than the previous releases.
The main track sheet is uncluttered, and displays track names on the left, and track parameters on the right. Patch names can be displayed either as a program number from 0‑127, or as instrument names. Cakewalk Home Studio has the widest range of patch maps available within the budget sequencing crop. There is, however, a flaw — you cannot edit patch names.
When you select 'New' from the file menu, you are presented with several templates to base your arrangement upon (for example 'Big Band', 'String Quartet' and 'Orchestral'). Each template sets up the instruments based on the patch maps you have installed, and also sets up your score settings — for example the clef and relevant key signature.
The right half of the screen is reserved for the measure pane, which provides an overview of your arrangement in the form of a grid. Measures containing recorded data are indicated by a block, and areas of the grid can be 'block‑marked' and copied to any part within the song. A divide bar enables you to view more or less of each section. Cakewalk Home Studio uses markers to label parts of your arrangement, and these are displayed above the measure pane.
Clicking the right mouse button reveals a menu. From here, you can select one of four editors — score, list, piano roll and controller edit. The staff window is a clearly laid‑out notation editor with few features, but it does allow you to insert and delete notes, and move events around. The editor has useful error correction parameters to tidy up your score. This is often useful, as what sounds great can look awful when presented as a score.
The piano roll editor is also fairly elementary, and only permits the alteration of pitch, velocity and the positioning of each note. For finer editing, the event list displays all MIDI events, which can all be altered or deleted or inserted. The controller values window offers data entry by just drawing values on the screen, which makes this editor very legible and easy to use.
No sequencer is complete without a mixing console, and Cakewalk Home Studio is no exception. The Faders window, as it is called, has 16 tracks, with sliders for volume, pan and effect level. Instrument names are listed beneath each track, and your actions can be recorded in real time. It is also possible to take a snapshot of your current setup — the data is recorded directly into each track. However, to erase your actions within this editor, you have to edit each track individually and remove the controller data manually, which can be irritating.
Cakewalk Home Studio also has a tempo map similar to the controller editor, where changes in tempo can be drawn with the pencil tool. Other useful features include event filters, step record and loop points.
Overall, Cakewalk Home Studio is a powerful, well‑equipped sequencer, with an editing mode to suit everyone. Highly recommended.
Cakewalk Home Studio £139prosVery stable.A plethora of features.Cheap.Clear and simple to use.consNone at this price.summaryA reliable and cheap sequencing package with all the trimmings, although you may find the notation editor limiting.
Cubase Lite has been around for some time, and can be thought of as a baby version of Cubase Score. Its interface is identical, and both share the same song format, key commands and GM/GS editors. However, Lite is entirely notation‑based, and lacks some of Score's more upmarket features. Installing the software takes no more than a few minutes, and all MME drivers are addressed, with support for up to 16 MIDI interfaces. Lite is dongle‑free, and is supplied with a GM‑compatible song disk with 10 popular tunes to demonstrate its scoring ability.
Although Lite will support multiple ports, it is restricted to the use of 16 tracks. Part information is displayed to left of the screen, and only the basic parameters are shown. The transport bar is free‑floating, and displays left and right locator positions. Song position is presented in bars/beats rather than SMPTE time, as Lite has no sync facilities. The global MIDI activity lights are still present, but there are none on individual tracks.
The arrange window is what has made Cubase so popular over the years, and it has remained the same in this incarnation. The toolbox offers a splicing tool, a tube of glue to join parts together, and a magnifying glass to audition phrases. There is no groove quantise in this version, neither is there the logical editing facility or the ability to open more than one arrangement at the same time — this package offers only the bare essentials.
The notation editor is not as sophisticated as that on Cubase Score, but it is one of the most accurate of those included in this article. The score editor can display and print either the individual parts, or all of the 16 tracks on offer. By selecting several events, it is possible to impose an enharmonic shift and also flip note stems up or down. All musical clefs are available — soprano, alto, tenor, and bass — and tracks can be split for piano parts. Time and key signatures can be inserted at the beginning of the song only, so you have to try and write your music with no key changes or variations in time signature. It is also not possible to add lyrics, symbols or phrase marks to your arrangements.
If you compare them in terms of features per pound, Procyon puts Cubase Lite to shame. However, by the time you read this, Harman should have copies of Steinberg's Music Station, which supersedes Cubase Lite and incorporates Band‑in‑a‑Box‑style features such as auto‑accompaniment.
Cubase Lite £99prosVery easy to use.Compatible file format with other Cubase variants.consLimited features.No sync facilities.No facilities to insert lyrics and marks within score.summaryVery stable package with a pedigree, but lacking in features for the demanding user.
Installing microLogic gives the opportunity to use either Windows MME drivers, or Emagic's proprietary drivers — Emagic claim that theirs offer more accurate timing and are more reliable. MicroLogic is let down in that it only supports one MIDI port. That port must be used for both input and output, the idea being that at a later stage you will upgrade to the fully‑blown version.
The first remarkable aspect of microLogic is the user interface, which doesn't follow Microsoft's guidelines at all closely — it looks incredibly like the Mac interface, which maybe isn't such a bad thing. The second striking point is how closely the product is beginning to resemble Cubase — also not a bad thing. In this case, tracks are not named — symbols are used instead to represent the instrument playing. Individual parts, however, can be named. The transport bar offers several locator positions, and displays incoming and outgoing MIDI activity. All the usual cut, copy, paste, move and 'glue' facilities are available, and are fairly self‑explanatory.
The top of the screen is dominated by the bar ruler. Dragging the mouse across the time axis marks loop points, and a single click on any point moves you to that point in the song. Many of the sections within the main screen have a hide feature, making it possible to view more of the arrange window. A zoom facility lets you reduce the size of the parts in the arrange window, and increasing the size produces musical symbols to represent what each track is doing. MicroLogic will sync to MIDI clock from an external generator, but does not respond to MIDI Time Code (MTC), although this feature is present in the full version.
The notation editor is the most comprehensive of all the packages reviewed here, and one of the easiest to use. There are sufficient symbols and marks to create professional‑looking scores, and the print facility allows you to print either all or individual parts.
The Matrix editor is a basic piano roll‑style editor and can be opened for one or more parts to make changes to note lengths and position. Notes can be inserted or deleted with ease, and for fine tuning, there is a list editor, where any type of MIDI data can be inserted or amended. Once again, several of these editors can be opened simultaneously.
The 16‑track mixer has become a standard feature amid low‑cost sequencers, and like others, is laid out for GM instruments. It is possible to set program change values within the mixer; numbers are replaced by instrument names. Real time recording of actions in this editor is not possible, and settings are transmitted at the start of the song.
MicroLogic is priced very competitively, and has many advanced features usually only found in more professional packages. The notation and arrange facilities are the best of the programs featured in the selection here, and all in all, this is a polished product for the intermediate user. Well worth checking out.
Micrologic £99prosExcellent value for money.Very manageable arrange window.Assignable key commands.Hide facility.consNon‑standard graphical interface.Support for only 16 MIDI channels.Limited sync facilities.summaryIf you're not too worried about being restricted to 16 channels, and don't need to sync to MTC, this package has all the clout of a top product without being too tech‑y.
Procyon re‑defines the concept of low‑cost software — at £49, it's the cheapest sequencer I have come across. Despite its cost, it is not lacking in features — it provides 32 tracks for recording, and will support all the MIDI ports that you have. The design of the track window/arrange area has obviously been inspired by Cubase, and offers many identical features, including the toolbox, which appears at the click of the right mouse button. There are 18 track columns, which display playback parameters including the GM instrument and reverb/chorus settings, and a column to show MIDI activity. Any column can be hidden to make room for the measure pane.
The transport bar is 'fixed' at the top right of the screen and has buttons to toggle loop, record drop‑in, metronome and sync. Procyon will sync to incoming MTC at 24, 25, 30 drop and 30 non‑drop frames per second, and is able to route MTC and MIDI clock to any MIDI port. The drop‑down MIDI menu presents several dialogue boxes, which allow you to set up your MIDI ports and filters and select the timebase. Selecting Patch Maps displays the message 'Upgrading to Procyon Pro will allow you to use this feature'. This also goes for the scoring, the drum editor and conductor track. At the time of going to press, the upgrade price was unavailable.
Floating in the arrange window is the Fast Menu. By selecting a part, you can quickly alter various parameters, including velocity, transpose, note lengths and quantise. Selecting a parameter calls up a dialogue box, and you select your values from here. One useful feature is the ability to alter notes within a given key range — only possible in Cubase by means of a complex logical edit. However, not everything is easier — the standard Windows key short cuts for cut, copy and paste are not implemented, and you have to learn new, more awkward combinations instead. The Procedures menu has functions for merging tracks, deleting identical events within a part, and reversing notes. Continuous data thinners are also at hand, with the option to set strength and the controllers to be affected.
The piano roll editor is also similar to Cubase, and uses an almost identical toolbox. Editing in this window caused my machine to crash on several occasions, and caused me to edit elsewhere. However, the list editor was only prepared to work intermittently as well. Because Procyon is currently on version 1.0, these kind of bugs have to be anticipated.
The Mixer Page is a colourful array of knobs and sliders to control volume and pan settings for up to 16 channels. A further two user‑definable rows are available for each channel, along with solo and mute.
All in all, Procyon is full‑featured for its price, but it's a shame that the bugs weren't ironed out before its release. However, it won't be long until we see version 2.
Procyon £49prosGive‑away price.Familiar interface.Many comprehensive features.User‑definable mixer.Easy to use.consUnreliable editors.Non‑floating transport bar.Awkward short‑cut keys.summaryOffers more features than Cubase Lite at a tempting price. When V2 becomes available, check it out.
According to the user manual, 'installing SeqMax Presto is a pretty quick process'. Someone's definition of 'quick' appears to have gone severely awry here. I was so surprised at the length of time it took to install that I repeated the process and timed it. One hour and 23 minutes precisely. The reason behind this is that the install program copies 370 patterns to your hard disk, having to decompress the files as it goes — there is no option to skip these files. However, installation is a once‑only procedure, and you do get all those free patterns.
Once installed, the usual program manager group is set up, and you finally get to see what you have just spent £129 on. SeqMax Presto is derived from Big Noise's Cadenza (now discontinued) and MaxPak, which is available for £235. Although SeqMax Presto omits several features found within MaxPak, the sequencer itself has more features, and includes pattern‑based recording, 64 MIDI tracks, scoring facilities, and support for embedding MCI samples.
SeqMax's demo song is based on the popular nursery rhyme 'Mary Had A Little Lamb', and demonstrates transformations in tempo and meter. Loading the song with a screen resolution of 1024x768 forced the main window to default to 800x600, leaving me unable to view the majority of the screen, so I loaded one of my own MIDI files. All was well, but I was unable to adjust simple parameters such as program change and pan settings, so I decided to start from scratch.
The main screen resembles a spreadsheet, and displays the track name to the left and track parameters to the right. Values are altered by double‑clicking in the relevant area and typing in a value at the dialogue box. Alternatively, values can be changed using the +/‑ keys on the keypad. The right mouse button is used to call up a selection of editors, including list, piano roll and pattern.
The piano roll editor has some useful tools for editing note and controller data. Controller events are displayed vertically at the bottom of the screen, and can be drawn in manually. Global functions can be carried out, and the piano roll editor can be transformed into a drum editor — the MIDI keyboard is then replaced by instrument names, and the note lengths on the grid by dots.
The arrange window provides a bird's‑eye view of your song, and there are bookmarks to indicate song structure. Areas of the song can be 'block‑marked' and copied or erased with ease, but areas are limited to whole measures. The pattern editor harks back to the era of Pro24 and allows you to structure your song as you would with a drum machine. As mentioned earlier, 370 patterns are supplied to start you off.
The conductor is quite comprehensive, displaying current meter and key signature, and smooth rits can be easily created with it. The score editor, however, is basic and quite unstable — it caused my machine to crash on several occasions. When it is working happily, it predicts the key signature of the piece and allows notes to be edited and lyrics to be added. There's also a print facility.
I was a little disappointed by the overall stability of this package. If it becomes more stable in later versions, however, it will be worth considering for its large feature set.
Seqmax Presto £129prosExtensive feature set.370 free MIDI patterns.consTendency to instability.Long installation time.summarySeqMax is big on features but currently marred for me by a tendency to instability.
The installation process for SeqWin is unique, in that it sets up all your MIDI devices and allows you to assign ports for each. The package has instrument maps for many popular synths, and lets you deal with instrument names rather than program change and MIDI ports — instrument maps can be updated as new sounds appear in your preset banks.
The user interface for this package is rather unconventional, and takes some time to come to terms with. The main track sheet is quite bare until you actually get some work down — all usual parameters are hidden behind drop‑down menus and dialogue boxes. On‑line help is always at hand — a text box at the bottom right of the screen describes each function, or button, as the mouse pointer hovers over it.
Recording a part is simple — set the sequencer rolling and start to play. The program is always in record mode, and drops‑in automatically should you play anything. You'll never have to kick yourself again trying to remember what you have just played. Once your part is recovered, you can select an instrument and edit in several windows. Recorded parts are displayed as blocks to the right of each track, and can be assigned to display several parameters, including instrument name and output port.
SeqWin MultiMedia is more than just a sequencer, and is capable of playing any type of media clip, including samples, video, and CD‑audio. In the past, it has been tricky to sync media clips, but SeqWin makes it less demanding once you've mastered its logic. A sample editor is included in the package, and this lets you treat wave files in similar ways to MIDI data, in that you can copy parts around, alter levels and select your output device.
Loading one of the many demo songs automatically assigns tracks to an appropriate sound, by looking at what synths you have and matching timbres. Clicking the right mouse button on any phrase allows you to select a new sound, change the volume, and transpose the selected part. Note, however, that there are no global parameters.
The main editor is of the typical piano roll kind, but unusually, velocity values are represented as vertical sticks at the start of each event and appear as 'L's on the time grid. The window can be zoomed into or expanded both vertically and horizontally for greater accuracy when editing note values. Clicking a button turns the piano roll editor into a score editor, though not the best one I've seen. The package has no custom fonts, and displays notes as graphics with appalling inaccuracies, making it rather difficult to edit and read. A universal toolbox allows you to insert bars, amend controller data, insert and delete notes, but I found using SeqWin's editors initially difficult.
Supplied with SeqWin are a number of MME drivers to enhance the performance of your MIDI interface, by allowing multiple applications to address each port simultaneously. A useful 'Pipe' utility also lets you output MIDI data from one application to another. For example, you may have a synth editor such as Music Quest. The pipe utility will output the SysEx (or any other MIDI data) in real time to allow you to record the data within a sequencer — very useful. This set of utilities can be purchased separately from Lowrie Woolf.
SeqWin takes a lot of effort to master, but can be used effectively to create multimedia presentations, or simply to add samples to your sequences.
Seqwin Multimedia £129prosVersatile.Easy to embed wave files.Supplied with useful utilities.System Exclusive editor.consTakes a while to learn.Not the best package to edit MIDI data.summaryThis package has a lot to offer to someone who's hot on multimedia but isn't so well suited if you're
only looking for music‑orientated features.
Having used Cubase religiously since its release, I was very surprised at the quality of many of the packages looked at here. Sequencing on a budget no longer means having to opt for less facilities and usability. Over the last few years, I have reviewed many sequencers for the PC, and in general they have become far more reliable and stable.
General MIDI seems to be taking over the world, and is a feature remarkably apparent in the lower‑end packages. Audition GS in particular caters specifically for GM/GS instruments, and, combined with some useful scoring facilities, it represents a worthy introduction to sequencing if you're looking to work with traditional notation methods. At the other extreme, SeqWin MultiMedia offers a sackful of features, but is far more complicated to use — although it could appeal to the tech‑y multimedia freaks.
Two packages stand out from the ones reviewed here in terms of reliability and the features offered. They are Emagic's microLogic, combining excellent notation and piano roll editors with easy‑to‑use features at a good price, and Twelve Tone Systems' Cakewalk Home Studio, offering a multitude of clear and simple‑to‑use editors. Both packages are a steal in terms of price, and will appeal to different users. Although microLogic is restricted to 16 channels, it is a clear winner. Upgrading to the full version nets you MTC and multiple interface support, along with a wealth of other features, for an extra £235. Well worth considering.
Buying a PC can be just as confusing as finding the right mortgage, unless you understand the jargon and have a clear idea of what you need. To help de‑mystify the complexities, here are a few pointers on what to look for and who to buy from.
You will probably have heard of Windows 3.1 — this is the industry standard operating system (or platform) for the PC, and is usually pre‑installed on the machine. You may be offered Windows for WorkGroups 3.11 — this is faster on some machines, and provides 32‑bit file and disk access. It is recommended that Windows is run in standard mode for time‑critical applications such as sequencers, unless you have a highly‑specified PC. Windows 3.11 does not run standard mode, so be sure to disable virtual memory if your PC doesn't have the alloy wheels and go‑faster stripes.
Before buying a PC, calculate the cost of the sequencing software and MIDI interface(s) you intend to purchase, as this is often under‑estimated. Secondly, do not go for the minimum specification needed to run the software that is often stated on the packaging, as few software manufacturers are realistic when stating such requirements.
The two key elements to the speed of the machine are down to the CPU and amount of RAM installed. Judging the amount of RAM needed is simple: the more, the better. Most PCs are now supplied with at least 8Mb RAM, which is satisfactory to run any sequencing package featured here. It is rare to find machines with 4Mb RAM, unless you are buying secondhand or liquidated stock.
Choosing the right processor is more confusing. The most common processors in order of speed are as follows (slowest first): 486SX/25, 486DX/33, 486DX/40, 486DX2/50, 486DX/50, 486DX2/66 and Pentium. Note that a DX/50 is faster than a DX2/50. It is also important to note that a DX2/50 with 16Mb RAM is faster than a Pentium‑based machine with only 4Mb RAM.
Two years ago, a 40Mb hard disk was regarded as massive. Today, applications are much bigger, and require more disk space. If you plan to use your machine specifically for sequencing, 40Mb will suffice, but chances are you will want to install synth editors, librarians and other utilities, and possibly a word processor, in which case you'll need more like 130Mb — the typical size for most machines sold today. If you plan to set up direct‑to‑disk recording on your PC, bear in mind that one minute of stereo 44.1kHz sampled audio will eat up 10Mb of space. All modern hard drives use either IDE or SCSI interfaces. IDE will support up to two drives, while SCSI drives are more expensive, but are generally faster and capable of supporting up to seven devices.
When working with notation packages, it is important to be able to display your work at a high resolution. You should look for an SVGA monitor capable of displaying 1024x768 non‑interlaced, and a graphics card with 1Mb VRAM (Video Random Access Memory) minimum. Many machines today have graphics built into the motherboard, but faster cards can be installed at a later stage to increase performance. PCs with Local Bus or PCI architecture talk to the graphics processor faster than ISA, also adding to performance, but this again ups the price.
A good place to start off would be a 486SX/25 (check upgrade options) with 8Mb RAM and a 130Mb hard drive, SVGA monitor and a 1Mb video card. Ask about free 8‑ and 16‑slots, as you will need these to install hardware such as sound cards, MIDI and SCSI interfaces, and so on. Most machines have on average four spare slots, but some have few as two. If you intend to add a CD‑ROM or further hard drives, ensure the machine has spare five and a quarter inch drive bays accessible from the front.
'You get what you pay for'. This old maxim couldn't be truer for PCs. It pays to buy from reputable manufacturers who offer free technical support and good after‑sales care; you may pay a little more, but there's nothing worse than a poorly‑built PC with problems and no‑one to fix it. I would recommend Dan Technologies and Dell computers for build quality and good after‑sales support.
PCs with the above specification can be obtained for as little as £900, and are usually supplied with a selection of business and entertainment software. It is worth checking out magazines like Personal Computer World to see what is currently on the market, and ask for independent advice if you're unsure about the status of some manufacturers.