Tim Conrardy finds a new way to look
at music with the help of an algorithmic program called
Back when I was first learning about
electronic music, I purchased an EML 200 system. This
came with an alternate controller called "The Matrix
Keyboard". It was basically a 4x4 matrix of 16
pads, with individual knobs for tuning each pad. It
looked like a telephone or calculator. Being a guitarist,
I created scales that could be played like a guitar.
I also experimented with different world system tunings
and created charts so I could recreate the tunings.
Recreating the scales was tedious work as each pad had
to be individually tuned. It was very experimental,
which was the reason I had purchased the system to begin
with. Through the years, the keyboard broke down, and
now I no longer have it.
Since then, I have ventured into the
MIDI world via Atari computers. One of the programs
I purchased was Tunesmith, an algorithmic phrase generator
by Jim Johnson (now at http://www.technotoys.com).
Tunesmith was one of the most fascinating algorithmic
programs to appear for the Atari, and in my opinion,
unequalled on any platform. With today's rave on techno
and pattern-based instruments (such as the Roland MC505,
Yamaha RM1X) Tunesmith would feel right at home. It
is capable of complex yet pleasing phrases of exotic
beauty with complete control in the hands of the user.
Algo-comp at its best.
Just a little background on Tunesmith.
It came out at the time when algorithmic programs were
the "big thing" - late '80s. Actually Dr T
kicked it off with the Algorithmic Composer package
for the Commodore 64. A certain Jan Hammer found out
about it and had to purchase a Commodore 64 system to
put next to his $30,000 Fairlite just to run Algorithmic
Composer! He used it on his Miami Vice scores. Then
Jim Johnson, the author, decided to upgrade his ideas
and the result was Tunesmith for the Atari. Also, Dr
T (Emile Tobenfeld) put out Fingers, another algo-comp
program. Both could be used as modules for the MPE system
on Dr T's KCS (Keyboard Controlled Sequencer). Also
"M" (Intelligent Music) and Ludwig (Hybrid
Arts) came out at the same time along with Music Mouse
From the manual, "Tunesmith is
a program for generating musical themes and variations.
Themes may be played using hundreds of different scales,
and an accompaniment generator allows the creation of
an infinite number of accompaniments based on these
themes. Themes can be linked to form a complete song."
Basically (in musical terms) it takes
a scale (such as a C-major scale) and creates a "theme"
from the scale using parameters you specify. Variations
of the main theme can be created as well. The theme
can then be transformed into a 5-part accompaniment,
with controls for patch change, octave, articulation,
velocity, with algorithms for harmony types and more.
The settings can be saved as presets for later recall
when you play the themes into a module called the Arranger
which makes it into a song. Much like taking patterns
in a sequencer and linking them together to form a song.
What makes it interactive is that you can click on any
of the parameters while it is in record mode and it
saves it in the arrangement. Much like "M"
which captures your performance as a "movie"
and saves it as a MIDI file. In Tunesmith's case, you
can save it as a Tunesmith file, or save it as a KCS
sequence file, or it operates within the MPE (Multi-Program
Environment) and records right into KCS.
Matrix Keyboard Tunesmith Instruments
After I discovered the structure
of Tunesmith, I realized a way I could reproduce in
software the concept of the EML Matrix Keyboard. In
Tunesmith, a scale is assigned to each QWERTY key as
well as the numerical keys. (The ten key pad is used
for transposition.) For example, a C Major scale can
be assigned to the [Z] key. Since each QWERTY key in
Tunesmith can be assigned a scale, I programmed only
across the scale, so each key on the QWERTY keyboard
is actually one note. Then I created a "scale"
across the QWERTY keys. Basically it allows you to actually
the computer keyboard as a controller. You can assign
whatever note you want to each QWERTY key. There are
46 keys that can be programmed with any note of the
scale, from numerical key  to [\] and [Q] to [/].
This allows you to look at creating music in a different
way and not as "linear" as a piano style keyboard.
The other exciting thing is that once
you program a scale structure or as I prefer to call
it, a Matrix Keyboard Tunesmith Instrument (MKTI), you
can save the entire thing as a TUN file for instant
recall. It sure beats tuning each knob on the original
Also, Tunesmith allows a separate
file extension for scales, so I was able to create a
scale library of individual scales for each note so
anyone can create their own Matrix Keyboard Tunesmith
Instruments. (The Matxscale library) This opens up this
system to explore different world tunings not limited
to the piano keyboard structure.
Playing the instrument
To play the instrument, you
first click on "START" in Tunesmith.
Tunesmith provides the rhythms which can be adjusted
and modified with the TEMPO, and ACCOMPANIMENT parameters
such as RHYTHM, DIVIDE, and HARMONY. You can also have
six different sounds at the same time (with a multi-timbral
synthesizer) with adjustments for patch changes, velocity,
accents, articulation and delay. Other variations in
rhythm can be accomplished with creating different THEMES
using the RHYTHM and VARIANT settings in the THEME and
VARIATION PARAMETERS window. Complex and pleasing rhythms
can be accomplished using these parameter settings.
You can also set some "tracks" in Tunesmith
to produce percussion patterns. This is accomplished
by setting some of the MIDI channels to channel 10 (Percussion).
You can sound like a one-man band, but very different
sounding to the auto-accompaniment keyboards of today.
Now that you have a rhythm going,
simply start playing/tapping on the computer keyboard.
You have 46 keys you can "play" with. There
are several possibilities and combinations which makes
it a "matrix" keyboard instrument. Look at
playing this instrument as "patterns". You
can go vertically, horizontally, up, down, across, v
patterns, x patterns. The other possibility is actually
playing WORDS! Try playing your own name, whole sentences
out of a book, your street address, your telephone number,
the possibilities are endless. You may or may not get
pleasing results with this method, but it depends on
the instrument programmed. Tunesmith also has a way
for you to transpose by using the numeric keypad. You
can change octaves on the fly while you are playing.
You can actually record your performance
using the ARRANGER window in Tunesmith. An alternative
way is to record into sequencing software either on
another Atari, PC/Mac or hardware sequencer. Tunesmith
also sends MIDI clock so synchronization would not be
Now follows a tutorial on how to create
your own instruments:
How to Create Matrix Keyboard
Tunesmith Instruments: Using the Matxscale library
- Open Tunesmith.
- Go to MENU on the bottom of the
screen. Select EDIT SCALES.
- 3. The EDIT SCALES dialog appears.
Click on SELECT SCALE. A dialog appears that says
"select the scale key" This means for
you to select a key on the computer keyboard that
you want a scale to be programmed into. For our
purposes, choose [Z], which will be the first "note"
of our instrument.
- The scale that the [Z] key belonged
to shows up in the dialog.
- Select LOAD at the bottom of
the dialog. The file selector appears. Go to the
folder that contains the MTXSCALE library. The scales
are named after the notes and octaves they belong
to. Choose an appropriate starting note such as
C2.SCA. The scale loads. You will see C2 in all
the scale positions in the dialog.
- Click on SELECT SCALE again,
and choose [X] on the computer keyboard for the
next Scale key. Click on LOAD again and select the
next note that you want for your scale (as above).
- Continue in this fashion for
all the Keys on the computer keyboard. This can
include the numerical keys at the top.
- When you are completed, click
on OK. You are returned to the Tunesmith main screen.
Click on MENU again and select SAVE TUN. The file
selector appears for you to save your Tunesmith
instrument. Type in an appropriate name, and click
on OK. You have created your first Matrix Keyboard
- Select START, or press the space
bar to Start Tunesmith.
- PLAY the computer keyboard as
if you are playing a real instrument. Adjust the
tempo of Tunesmith to an agreeable tempo. In tapping
or playing the computer keyboard you will notice
you can play in patterns that you cannot accomplish
using a traditional keyboard controller. Experiment
in sideways, horizontal and vertical patterns to
see how your scale structure works and to get used
to how it sounds. 10. Note: in creating your scale
structures, remember you are not limited to traditional
scales, but are free to experiment with any note
for any key. The mapping is up to you. This is a
new instrument. The Matrix Keyboard Tunesmith Instrument!
While this system may seem bewildering at
first, the best thing to do is load up one of the Matrix
Keyboard Tunesmith Instruments (via the LOAD TUN under
Menu in Tunesmith) and try it out for yourself. I would
suggest the DORIAN1.TUN as it is the most fun to play
(see description below). This file is ready to go when
you select START in Tunesmith. You will find it a lot
of fun to play. Even if you don't know music you can
still create some interesting "tunes" with
this "Technotoy" as Jim Johnson would call
it. Moreover, it represents a new way to look at music
that is in every step of the way "alternative".
A way to go beyond what the original software was intended
which makes this system unique. On a compositional level,
you can create music that would be impossible to do
on a standard piano-type keyboard controller and also
explore yet unknown territories in the world of MIDI.
Tunesmith (the program)
versions for ST and 030 machines. To
use on a floppy-only system, separate
out the TUNSTUFF folder onto another
Scale library to create
your own Matrix Keyboard Instruments
(MKTI). This also contains two Matrix
Keyboard Tunesmith Instruments. CHROM1.TUN,
a chromatic scale. DORIAN1.TUN, the
keys [Z] through "]" are the
"white" keys acending, while
the numerical keys  through [\] cover
the "black" keys for pentatonic
A live performance of
the DORIAN1 MKTI. No overdubs or tempo
It is multiple tunesmith
tracks recorded into Cubase using the
MKTI. I rather like it. All tracks created
with Tunesmith including the percussion.
Another live performance
of the DORIAN1 MKTI. GM-compatible.
Tim Conrardy is the creator
of Tim's Atari-MIDI World where he has made
it his quest to seek out lost Atari MIDI
programs by contacting programmers and companies
and making them available to the Atari MIDI
community. Tim is also the moderator of
the Atari MIDI mailing group for which he
is forever indebted for their support.