to a different drummer
Back in the year
1996, a certain Neil Wakeling coded a unique
MIDI program for the Atari platform called Pulsar.
It has received many reviews from the UK's Sound
on Sound magazine. Today, 2002, it is still
going strong, with many new updates as the new
version was completed in September of this year.
We can now pulse to a different drummer as Pulsar
continues to be improved and expanded upon.
What is Pulsar?
Pulsar is a simple
riff sequencer, recreating analog-style sequencer
effects. It works on three channels at once,
each channel having up to 16 notes (individually
configurable). All note values and velocities
are fully alterable, and can be entered using
the mouse or from an attached MIDI keyboard.
Each of the three rows has an independent tempo
control, and playback of each row can be forwards,
reverse, shuttle, or random.
I have had the
pleasure of being beta-tester of the new version
of Pulsar. It was quite a thrill to be able
to suggest a change or idea and have Neil come
back with a new version implementing those ideas.
We have been working quite a bit the last several
months, which now has come full pulse with many
While in the
beta testing process, we exchanged several humorous (to us, anyway!) e-mails regarding the creature
Gollum from JRR Tolkien's epic, Lord of the
Rings (and now a major motion picture event).
Looks like some of this rubbed off into the
"About" dialog in Pulsar! There is
a grain of truth in the pocket statement. Every
time Neil sent me a new version to try
out, I would bring home the disk from work in
my front pocket. So you could say that Pulsar
was in my pocket!
I am now happy
to present a tutorial on using the new version,
which will explain many of the new functions.
- Starting the
on PULSAR.PRG. Pulsar loads. You are presented
with 16 steps for three pitch rows and three
control rows (for using continuous controller
messages such as volume, panning...). There
are parameters for first and last (how may steps
you want in the sequence), MIDI channel, transpose,
tempo and patch change (P). The control rows
contain parameters for MIDI channel, control
number, and depth amount.
- Using the mouse
You can change
these parameters using the mouse, which has
two set-ups: right and left click increments/decrements
by one. Holding down the [Shift] key and then
right or left clicking will increment/decrement
by ten (Shift-clicking). If Pulsar is stopped
(not playing) there are several pop-up windows
which make selection easier. Once Pulsar is
playing, only right and left clicks are accepted
so as to not interrupt the continuous flow of
Let's first try
to input some notes in the pitch rows. There
are several ways to accomplish this.
- Note input
by MIDI keyboard
First mute rows 2 and 3 so we can concentrate
on row 1. To do this simply press [F2]
and [F3] on the computer keyboard or deselect
them using the mouse right on the Pulsar
screen under [row on/off]
- Using the mouse, go to the Midi
menu, then Enter Noterow. A dialog appears
asking, "Which Row?" For this tutorial
select row 1. Another dialog appears asking
you to input notes from your MIDI keyboard.
Select Continue, then start playing your
MIDI keyboard. You should see the steps in row
1 fill with your selected notes. To hear what
you have input, press the space bar or select
Play on the Pulsar screen.
- Note input
method is to start Pulsar playing (space bar
or select Play) and using the mouse, simply
select and change the notes for each step right
on the Pulsar screen. The values can be changed
right above each numbered step. Having Pulsar
playing helps to hear what the sequence will
sound like in real-time. One trick with this
is to increment the Last parameter a few steps
at a time while you are selecting the notes
with the mouse. At this point
you can try changing some of the velocities
(volumes) of each of the steps. This will create
a rhythmic feel to the sequence. Values can
be changed right below each numbered step. The
value can be from 0 to 127. A value of 0 (zero)
will create a space in the sequence, which may
be desirable for more variation.
Now that we have
some notes in the first row, there is a trick
we can do to create even more variation and
this is the copy function.
Go to the menu
and under Edit select Copy Row. A dialog
appears to ask, "Which Row?" Select
row 1. The dialog disappears. The row data are
now in a memory buffer. Go back to the menu
under Edit and select Paste Row. Again,
the question is asked, "Which Row?"
Select row 2. After selecting you will see the
pitch and velocity values transfer to row 2.
We can now do the same for row 3. The data for
row 1 are still in the memory buffer, so all
we have to do is go back to Edit select Paste
Row and select row 3. All three rows now have pitch
and velocity data.
and live interaction
Now that we have
all three rows filled up with data, the fun can
begin! Un-mute rows 2 and 3 using the [F2] and
[F3] keys (or select the rows so they are highlighted
on the Pulsar screen). All three rows are now
active. Now press the space bar. All three rows
should be playing. However, they are identical
as we copied the same information to all the
To create variation,
use the [F4], [F5], and [F6] keys to toggle between
the different playing modes that Pulsar offers.
These include FWD (forward), shuttle (back and
forth), reverse, and random (which I call algorithmic
mode). You can also use the mouse for selection
as all three rows have these modes displayed
on the Pulsar screen.
One of the most
fun and interactive parts of Pulsar is the transposition
function. This makes use of the numeric keypad:
Keys for transposing
during play: - for 1-9
semitones and [(], [)], [/] for
10, 11, 12 semitones. Also the [Enter] key does the octave
keypad 0 for
back to no offset.
is playing, press any of the ten keys. Using
this method you can change keys so Pulsar is
not static. This idea came from Dr T products
such as Tunesmith and Fingers, which make use
of this method, so the tradition continues.
- Tempo change
With the new
version of Pulsar, you can now set the tempo
to 999! This makes for some really fast sequences!
There are several ways to adjust the tempo.
The easiest way is to use the [+] and [-] keys on
the numeric keypad. Another way is to use the mouse.
On the transport bar, (under Global) is tempo,
which you can click on with the mouse and adjust
to a desired value.
are global adjustments. Pulsar also allows you
to adjust tempo for each row, a function not
found on most software analog sequencer simulators.
This can create polyrhythmic music. To try this
and to make it sound musical, set the tempos
100 BPM apart from each other. Example: Row
1: 120, Row 2: 220, Row 3: 320.
is to set them in small numbers offset from
each other. This creates a MIDI echo effect,
which can be quite effective. Try this: Mute
row 3, so only rows 1 and 2 will play. Put both
rows on FWD (forward) mode as well as the same
patch (try a tuned percussive sound like a
marimba or vibraphone: patch 9 on a General
MIDI module). Set the global tempo to 160. On
Row 2, go to the tempo parameter and change
it to 165. Press the space bar to start Pulsar.
You will hear a MIDI echo effect called "doubling"
which is very much used in Tangerine Dream's
music. A very nice effect.
- Patch change
Each row has
a patch change dialog which is activated by
clicking on the "P:" on the far right of each
row. Whatever values you enter there will be
sent as patch change commands. This enables
each row to have a completely different sound.
- MIDI channel
While this may
not be as obvious, there are many things you
can do with MIDI channel change. If you have
several MIDI modules, you can set them up with
different sounds, so by changing the MIDI channel
parameters you are also changing the sounds.
Another application is to use Pulsar to generate
percussion patterns by changing one or two rows
to channel 10 (or whatever channel you use
for percussion) while leaving one row open for
a bass pattern. Good possibilities here.
- Control rows
Now we come to
an interesting part of Pulsar and that is the
control rows, which can be used for further
timbre variations in the music using "continuous
controller" messages. These include volume,
panning, sustain pedal, modulation wheel, after-touch... Of course,
your synth needs to be able to
receive these types of messages to be effective.
Stop Pulsar if
it is playing. On row one, click on the first
step of the control row. A dialog will appear
with selections of the most used continuous
controllers (CCs). For the sake of this tutorial,
select Pan. You will see the number
10 appear for step 1 on the controller row
(10 for pan). Above the control row is a parameter
for the controller depth, or "how much".
In the case of a controller such as panning,
it will indicate left, right, or in-between
and center placements in the stereo field. Using
the mouse (and Shift-right clicking) change
this value to 127, which will place the sound
Now let's do a
trick. Click on the control number of the first
step you just created (10). The dialog comes
up again. This time select Copy. You will
see the panning control number copied to the
entire row! Now you can input different values
(amount) for each step so you will get a very
stereo effect when Pulsar plays. A value of
0 (zero) will be hard-left, 127, hard-right,
while anything in-between is toward the center.
Now let's do another
trick! Using the same method we used to copy
rows (step 4 of this tutorial) we can apply to
control rows. You will notice under edit on
the menu, [Copy Control Rows], and [Paste Control
Rows]. Just follow no. 4 of this tutorial but
substitute copy and past control rows. We now
have all the control rows and pitch rows filled
in with data. Press the space bar to start Pulsar,
and change all the modes for each row to random
( F4, F5, F6 keys) You will hear a stereo delight
as the control messages get sent. This works
well on General MIDI modules.
- Saving and
You will notice
under File on the menu the ability to save your
settings as Pulsar files (.PUL) as well as saving
control rows (.PLC). Once saved you can also
load them from this part of the menu. In the
Pulsar archive (see file section below) is a folder with many example PUL
files as well as control row files. Once you
have saved your creation (.PUL and/or .PLC)
feel free to load up some of these example files.
There is even a file called "ONTHERUN.PUL"
which is the sequence used on Pink Floyd's Dark
Side of the Moon album for the song, "On
the run" (of course). You may need to speed
up the tempo on Pulsar to get it to sound right
as well as use an analog bass type of sound.
You can also
save a file in the same directory as PULSAR.PRG
and name it DEFAULT.PUL, and it will load when
Pulsar is started up.
- MIDI clock
Going to the
"Midi" part of the menu you will see an interesting
dialog that says Midi Song Start.
If you select this, it creates a check mark
(that is, it turns this function on) so Pulsar
sends MIDI clock. This is handy if you are using
Pulsar to drive drum machines or to record on
external sequencers with a synchronization function.
A major addition to Pulsar.
- MIDI Spy
this archive is the program by Codehead Software
(and now released as freeware) called MIDI Spy.
When used as a desk accessory, you will be able
to record Pulsar's output and save it as a standard
MIDI file. From there you can import it to your
favorite sequencer software to further edit
Pulsar files and add to it. Highly recommended.
Read the documentation of MIDI Spy. Basically
you need to remember to go to configurations
and select the MIDI Max option and it will record
whatever you do in Pulsar. Very handy indeed!
We thought: why re-invent the wheel when this
application does a splendid job, so why not
best in ST high resolution. However it also
works in the color VGA modes of the TT and
Falcon. Perhaps a future version of Pulsar will
include a 256-color version with more colors,
but time will tell. Pulsar is also Steem-compatible.
the Analog Sequencer Simulator.
About Neil Wakeling
Born in the Highlands
of Scotland, Neil Wakeling has been interested
in, and playing music since his earliest memories.
As well as being
a successful and talented musician he is an
electronics engineer with an MSc in Music Technology.
He is gifted with a wonderful power of creativity
and a deep understanding of the technology and
science of sound. This unique combination can
be heard distinctly in his music.
The focus and
aim of Neil's music is transcendence beyond
ourselves. He does this through the use of the
sounds of nature combined with electronic composition
based on his knowledge of vibrational healing.
Neil has composed
a number of albums including soundtracks for
television. He organises traditional music workshops
as well as healing sound workshops and works
one-to-one as a vibrational sound healer.
version of Pulsar
(includes MIDI Spy)