Tim's Atari MIDI World

MIDI-ax: Mouse of a Different Color


[Photo: MIDI-ax live screen-shot]

This month we are continuing our review of Dr T products from last month's PVG experience to an unusual algorithmic system called MIDI-ax.

[Photo: Dr T]MIDI-ax was developed by Emile Tobenfeld, (Dr T) mostly for his own use and was not marketed as a commercial product. It combines elements from a previous Dr T program called Fingers and alternate mouse controller much in the same fashion as Laurie Spiegel's Music Mouse, however with multiple forms of control and playability. It is meant to work with Dr T's KCS (Keyboard Controlled Sequencer) system as an MPE (Multi-Program Environment) module.

[Screen-shot: Fingers screen]

The Fingers part of MIDI-ax is independent and is a complete algorithmic system by itself. With Fingers you can input four lines of pitch, velocity and duration as well as other controls for patch change, tempo, MIDI channel, transposition and more. You could see Fingers as a complex analog style sequencer that continually changes and can be "self similar" (much like fractal music) yet can be changed as the program is playing, thus making it an "interactive" instrument much in the same fashion as "M" (another interactive algorithmic application). Beautiful patterns of complexity can be created.

[Screen-shot: MIDI ax screen]

Here the alternate mouse controller comes into play. Each mouse button can be programmed to create different effects. In its simplest application, dragging the mouse across the screen (called a gesture in MIDI-ax language) plays notes and velocities. In its extreme application, you can create some wild effects by looping mouse gestures much in the same fashion as the "frippertronics" technique. Drag the mouse across the screen, and have it loop. Drag it again and that loops! You can keep on going ad infinitum. On top of this you can have Fingers playing in the background. You can also create sequences within KCS, and actually drag those sequences around the MIDI-ax screen. What a sound!

Here are some examples of the mouse gesture commands available:

  • Note
    Play a note on channel P1. If repeated and held, P2 if not blank is the number of notes played after hold.
  • NoteRep
    Like Note, but repeats at last time separation.
  • Gliss
    Like Note, but moving the mouse while holding a button glissandos from one note to the next.
  • NoteSeq
    Play the first note of sequence P1, on channel P2 if not blank. Whenever P2 is a channel, it can also be a sequence start event if Rechannelize Seq Starts is on. Continue playing sequence if repeat is turned on.
  • NotSeqR
    Like NoteSeq, but always repeats.
  • NotSTem
    Like NotSeqR, but tempo gets faster as mouse moves up the screen and velocity is sequence vel.
  • SeqGlis
    First note is like NoteSeq, but dragging to the right glissandos subsequent notes of sequence, while dragging to left glisses the end of the sequence. P2 is channel.
  • SGlsAbs
    Glissando taking pitch and channel of xth note of sequence and combining y velocity with sequence velocity. P2 is channel.

At first glance, this seems like another language. However, actual use clears up some of this lingo and it makes sense. Other facets of MIDI-ax include extensive keyboard combinations and a page in which you can program "sliders" to affect continuous controllers or other parts of the program which makes for an interesting in-depth system.

Dr T speaks
Recently I asked Emile Tobenfeld  (Dr T) why he wrote MIDI-ax. He gave me this response:

I had several motivations. Some that I can recall are:

  1. I was really tired of writing sequencing software and wanted to branch out - not (at least as it played out) a good business decision. One of the reasons that I was bored with sequencing was that in those mostly pre-techno days, people were mainly interested in arranging pop tunes for faux instruments, an application which did not appeal to me. I was always more interested in the interactive and algorithmic side of MIDI music.
  2. I wanted to make an instrument that did not require great physical dexterity to play well, in large part because I lack great physical dexterity.
  3. I wanted to explore the possibilities of using the computer for process oriented improvised music, and was particularly interested in the recursive possibilities allowed by recording a MIDI phrase and then playing along with it or modifying it.

So I started writing an engine for all this, using the whole screen as a scrub tablet, and making heavy use of the computer keyboard and controller re-mapping. I kept getting deeper and deeper into different ways this interface could interact with sequences and such (while the rest of the people at Doctor T's nudged me to get back to the commercial mainstream). I intended to eventually divide the screen into boxes, with some rough text-based visuals telling the player what each box did, but never got that far.

After I bought a Buchla Thunder Controller, I developed an elaborate extension of the program that was designed to work with one specific patch in the Buchla. This combination, plus synths and other controllers, became my main instrument for a while. Eventually, I wanted to do stuff that was slightly more structured and moved away from it. Frustration with the Buchla as a physical controller had a part in this decision as well.

Currently, I spend most of my art time doing video, and most of the music I do is done with the Nord Modular and effects processors. Most of the sequencing is done with the analog sequencer emulations on the Nord, and this music feels more organic to me than what I did with MIDI-ax and Thunder. I never know when I might go back to them, though.

A MIDI-ax user speaks up
Eugene Martynec is another MIDI-ax user who also performs live with it. He offers us some tips and insights into his use of the program:

It took me well over a year to get something out of MIDI-ax. I found that the simpler the initial phrase or something like Noterep got me going. The ability to start, stop, transpose and change playback speed was to me a way that I could use the program and I could see ways in which that could be useful in an improvised situation. Also I enjoy using the "hold" feature and it's also useful to incorporate the keys that allow interaction with the "hold" (loop?).

By the way, the Fingers portion of MIDI-ax can be successfully used at the same time. It's fun to set up some isorhythms or loops that take a long time to repeat and then use NoteRep at the given tempo and wave the mouse about frantically. This being said the most important process is to marry a mouse gesture with a sound and use a short sequence as playback for the gesture and using both mouse buttons set to different scenarios.

Generally, General MIDI sounds pretty bad with certain gestures so it's a process of finding or making sounds that work for you. One must also be familiar with KCS and the Open Mode since that's where your mouse gesturing material comes from. I have also enjoyed using the gliss mode and have used it with harp-like sounds. MIDI-ax has interesting "gliss" modes where you can gliss through a particular sequence like a scale or arpeggio like chord. If you're not careful you might actually feel like a real musician since it's highly interactive and you can get the same buzz as playing the guitar or some other instrument. This is really what the challenge is. I also pre-orchestrate using as many as ten MIDI channels to set up a real-time piece that grows and changes over time. This allows me to play solo as well as in ensemble situations.

MIDI-ax tutorial
Using the special version of KCS and MIDI-ax.

This version of KCS (version 4) is configured to work with drive A. Unzip the contents without folders onto a 720 KB DOS-formatted disk (if you have 720 KB disk drive... otherwise use 1.44 MB disks if you have a TT030 or Falcon).

This version works well with a color monitor (ST medium resolution) and is recommended, although the standard monochrome is fine as well. The color scheme makes up for the lack of "graphics" that is common for most Dr T products and can be configured to taste.

If you want to use this on your hard disk, then just copy the files to a folder on your drive, then edit the KCS.INF file in a text editor with the correct paths.

  1. Click on KCS40.PRG. The program loads. KCS and Tiger loads and finally defaults to the MIDI-ax screen. MIDI-ax is Fingers and MIDI-ax together. What first appears is Fingers with a pre-loaded Finger file. You will see columns of letters and numbers. Note: Clicking on A.PRG will load MIDI-ax and the DEFAULT.CMB file into memory for use with this tutorial if you do not want to use KCS.
  2. Let's hear what Fingers sounds like. Hit the [Tab] key. Fingers begins to play its intoxicating patterns and you see some rather stunning graphics as numbers seem to go up and down the various columns. Select the [4] key on the numeric keypad. Hear Fingers transpose. Hit any of the other ten numeric keys to transpose the Fingers patterns to different keys. This is one of the interactive parts of Fingers. To return to the original key, hit [(]. Look on the very bottom-left corner of the screen below the word Edit. You will see a row with a line in the middle. Click in the row. This is actually a tempo slider where you can adjust the tempo of the playing. To stop Fingers, click on the XX symbol located at the bottom-right corner of the screen.
  3. Let's now get into the MIDI-ax part. First, look at the bottom-right corner of the screen next to the XX. You will see ME. This means MEnu. Clicking on this will bring up the MIDI-ax menu. You will see a selection called "Load", with three different file types to load: APP, CMB, and sliders. Select CMB. The file selector appears. Select the DEFAULT.CMB and select OK. The file loads. Bug report: if the screen does not redraw and you see a hole where the file selector was, simply go into the menu again and select MIDI ax Options or Fingers Options. The just select OK from there and the screen is redrawn.

[Screen-shot: Sliders screen]

  1. Now go into the menu by clicking on ME and select Toggle Switches. On the left column, click on No Fingers so it is highlighted. Then click on OK. We are presented with a very simple uncomplicated grid to move our mouse around.
  2. Look at the second row from the bottom to the left where it is marked Edit. Following that to the right you see Note 1. This is the presets for the left mouse button. Following that to the right is another Note 1. This is the presets for the right mouse button (P1 and P2 in the manual). You will see these presets described in the manual. The one set up for us now will play a single note when you left or right click into the screen. Try it. You will notice if you click into the lower part of the screen, the velocity is softer. Going up toward the top, the velocity is louder. "Note" will play a single note with each mouse click.
  3. Let's play some more with the presets. Click on the left mouse preset symbol ">" where it says Note. It changes to NoteRep (by th way, the "<" and ">" symbols are called Arithmetic Icons in Dr T language and they're used quite a bit in his programs. "<" is decrease, ">" is increase. A very simple language). With NoteRep, click into the screen and keep pressing the left mouse button. You will hear the notes repeat at a tempo set by the tempo slider (previously discussed). Try adjusting the tempo slider, then left-click and hold down into the screen to hear the results.
  4. Let's try another preset. Click the ">" symbol again at NoteRep and it changes to Gliss. Now while pressing the left mouse button, slide the pointer across the screen. You of course hear a glissando effect.
  5. Now comes an interesting part. Click twice on the ">" symbol at Gliss so it changes to NotSeqR. Now left-click into the screen and hold it. Keep it in one position. You will hear a pattern, which is actually a KCS sequence that was loaded into KCS when you loaded the DEFAULT.CMB. This particular sequence contains many pre-recorded sequences created with Laurie Spiegel's program, Music Mouse (a mouse to another mouse!). Now that you hear the sequence play, try moving the mouse around the screen. You will hear the sequence change in pitch (or key). Try changing the tempo to very fast and slowly move the mouse from left to right across the screen for a cool effect. Now click on the "2" symbol next to NotSeqR. This chooses what sequence you will play. Try choosing different sequences and seeing what the results are in playing with the mouse movements.
  6. Now go to the right mouse presets. It is still on Note 1. Change it to NotRep Now press both mouse buttons down and click into the playing screen. You will hear both actions at once!
  7. Now let's try something different. At the very bottom of the screen is a row with letters in it. Click on the two H symbols so they are highlighted. H means hold. Now left-click and slide your mouse across the screen once (this is called a "gesture" in MIDI-ax). You will see a number 1 at the top-right part of the screen. Now slide across the screen twice in succession. You will see the numbers 1 and 2 alternately. Now let's right-click and slide and see what happens. Remember that the right mouse position (P2) is still on the NoteRep preset. Go across four times. You will see the numbers 1 through 4 on the top part of the screen. They are repeating the notes you just played. The tempo of the repeats is set with the tempo slider (if you want to adjust it). This will continue forever. This can get rather wild by using left and right clicks and sweeping the screen. Another trick is to left-click once, then left-click again in the same position. Keep on clicking and MIDI-ax creates a "round" of the preset sequence. To pause it, click on the P symbol at the bottom of the screen. Now clear the repeat/hold field by hitting [Clr Home] on the computer keyboard.
  8. Experiment by selecting different sequences to drag around (see step 8 above) and different presets for each mouse button (P1 and P2). Look in the MIDI-ax manual for further descriptions of these presets and what you can do with them. Now the program is not so much of a mystery and you are now free to experiment and create some music with this application.

Looping in MIDI-ax
Trond Einar Garmo of the Atari MIDI forum has this tip for MIDI-ax users:

The looping possibilities in MIDI-ax goes way beyond the possibilities in any sequencer program. It could also be a nice introduction to this powerful, but maybe confusing program. Here is what you can do:

Set up a loop length in Menu > MIDI-ax Options > Recording length.

Also click the bracket to the right of this to "play" or "play/record" In the toggle switches menu, you can choose No Fingers to get a cleaner screen, plus the option to choose patches for four MIDI channels.

Now you can start recording, by pressing the [Return] key. Stop the recording by pressing [Delete]. You can record with a MIDI instrument. In this mode you don't have to use the mouse at all, although MIDI-ax obviously is mainly a mouse play program.

So far the program behaves like any sequencer with a loop recording mode. Each loop is also recorded to open mode sequences if you use the program as an MPE module in KCS. But now the fun can begin, as each loop is played back as a "hold". Each loop is displayed in the rightmost column on the screen. These holds can be manipulated in a number of ways. Here are some:

If you click on a hold and then drag your mouse, it will change pitch in the x direction and velocity in the y direction. [Control]-click deletes the hold. [Alternate]-click mutes/unmutes the hold.

In the row down to the right of the screen you find the letters Q, F and N, with brackets to the right of them. The bracket tells how the QWERTY keys, the function keys and the numerical keys will work. Click on the right brackets. You will then get Hold Off, Hold Mute, Hold Grab and Hold Rev. Hold Grab means that you can drag the hold, and Hold Rev will reverse the hold.

If you click further on the Q brackets you will get some more options:

H shift, H Loop, H Tempo, Hold X, Hold Y and H T Set. The program will do nothing unless you first go to menu > Hold QWERTY Keys and set some values. The four rows correspond to the QWERTY rows, and allow you to control the first ten holds with four keys each. Obviously you would want opposite positive and negative values so that you could change back. The H Loop will force a new loop point in your hold.

Values of 127 and -127 in H Tempo will double of half the tempo.

[Screen-shot: Toggle screen]

If you think this is fun, you could go further and explore the sliders section. The holds can also be manipulated by sliders. And sliders can also be controlled in a number of ways, for example by MIDI messages. So there seems to be endless possibilities here.

MIDI-ax is shareware
Yes, MIDI-ax is shareware, meaning if you like the program, you need to (in good conscience) meet the shareware conditions.

The shareware condition for MIDI-ax is to purchase one of Dr T's (Emile Tobenfeld) videos that are available at his site. Having purchased one of his videos myself, I can vouch that they are excellent and show Emile's creativity. On one of the videos he does a "self portrait" which is worth the price alone. He also experiments with beautiful mandala style graphics. Original music is provided as well.

Please go here: 

There are pages to also review the videos with animations provided. Then go to the order page, print and fill out the order form.

Then send US funds and the form to the address provided with a note that it is the shareware fee for MIDI-ax.

If you have a CD or tape you have created using Dr T's MIDI products, send that along as well as the doctor likes feedback.

Please support Atari programmers.

[Screen-shot: Options screen]

AX to the future
While MIDI-ax seems somewhat complicated, once you start working with it, you realize what it can do. The Fingers section is also worth exploring if you are not into alternate mouse controllers, but would like a sophisticated analog style sequencer with much more to offer than notes and durations. Include into this KCS, which is the bread and butter of the system, and you have a composing environment that will keep you going for a long time, even in this age of 2003.

About Dr T (Emile Tobenfeld)
Software pioneer, composer, videomaker, and photographer (in no particular order), Emile Tobenfeld, was born and raised in Brooklyn, he holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University. His scientific explorations led gradually to a serious interest in visual arts in the late 1960s, and in electronic music in the mid 1970s. He has had an abiding interest in combining imagery and to create music that is both visual and auditory.

A photographer since 1970, he now has a library of 40,000 slides, including thousands of optically generated multiple images.In the mid 1970s, he began performing multimedia concerts that improvisationally combined his still photography with live music.

He started the pioneering MIDI software company, Dr T's Music Software in 1984. From 1984 through 1993, he wrote many music applications for professional and amateur musicians and composers, and also created unique tools for his own compositions.

He has been working primarily in video since 1995. He has created three hour long tapes of visual music, and performs frequently as a VJ with jazz, improvising music and new music ensembles in the Boston area. His current "day job" is writing innovative video effects software for Artel Software, publisher of Boris FX and Boris RED.


  • The bundled version of MIDI-ax and KCS version 4
  • The documentation for MIDI-ax and Fingers in plain text and hypertext format (for use in ST-Guide), provided by Trond Einar Garmo of the Atari MIDI forum.
  • Tim's Finger files (for use with the Fingers part of the program)
  • Here is a treat! Finger files by Dr T and Jim Johnson that were on the original Fingers disk! Also some Finger files by Jacky Scheiber of the CN-Fractal Music forum
  • An improvisation using MIDI-ax
  • Another example of MIDI-ax in action


Useful links


Top of page ]

MyAtari magazine - Feature #6, April 2003

Copyright 2003 MyAtari magazine