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Those Musical Magical Arpeggiators!

MIDI arpeggiators are getting more popular in today's electronic music, the Atari platform is well-represented as Tim Conrardy explains


Recently I have been exploring the different software arpeggiators available on the Atari platform. Arpeggiators have been part of the electronic music scene for a long time and has been incorporated into most of the modern "retro-style" synthesizer workstations of today. Using an arpeggiator can often lead to almost "magical" effects which can also be overdone, or if executed tastefully can add another dimension to your music you never thought was there.

What is an arpeggiator? Basically it takes notes from a chord and strings them together as individual notes to form patterns. These patterns are usually played ascending (up), descending (down), both ascending and descending, or in some instances, in a random order. You can also adjust the speed in which the patterns are played. This allows the musician to perform arpeggiation effects simply by holding down a chord, or playing in some notes. This is very different to the auto-accompaniment consumer keyboards available in today's retail outlets.

Screen shot Arpeggiator by Richard Homme

ARPEG.ACC by Richard Homme
This is available on most Atari FTP sites and also on the Atari-MIDI file section. It is a desk accessory which means you can have it open  at the same time your sequencer is running. It has three directions: up, down, and an up/down combination. It also has settings for the range, speed, as well as start, stop, and reset. There are also settings for MIDI sync, velocity, start time, clock delay as well which MIDI channel will be transmitted. To use it, simply pull up the accessory from the desktop menu. Set the speed, direction and range. Select [start] and start playing individual notes on your MIDI keyboard. You do not need to hold down chords as in other hardware arpeggiators. ARPEG.ACC remembers the last note played and adds it to the line of notes already in memory.

However, if you want to select other options, such as change the speed, or directions, it stops the arpeggiation process when clicking into those fields. Fortunately it remembers the notes played. Clicking on [play] will restart the arpeggiation process. Then you can add more notes to the sequence that is already playing, which brings a nice real-time element into ARPEG.ACC.

Screen shot of Arpeggiator by Electronic Cow

Electronic Cow's MIDI Arpeggiator
Recently Electronic Cow's excellent music applications went freeware. Among these little jewels is an application called MIDI Arpeggiator. While its main function is to offer a step-time analog sequencer type environment, it also has a real-time arpeggiation function which is what we will be looking at.

After opening the application and the excellent graphics appear, you will notice a small "car" icon to the right of the graphic keyboard display. Clicking on this will activate the real-time arpeggiator. Now start playing your MIDI keyboard, but in this case, you will be holding down chords to achieve the arpeggiation effect. There are actually very few parameters you can change on this real-time feature. There are the [A] and [B] buttons under the car icon which change the type of arpeggiation. Also the large numerical [8] and [16] icons (in the tool bar above the keyboard display) change the quantize value from 8th notes to 16th notes.

On the SCALE section is a tempo parameter which can be changed by selecting the up and down arrow icons. However, with these few parameter settings, wonderful effects can be achieved. Try setting up your synthesizer with a mellow bell-like timbre with a slow echo delay and start using this appeggiator with those types of voices. There is something built into this application that is very "musical" even with the limited parameter settings. Just a few minutes of playing with this will bring you into another realm of magical musical beauty. Then again, change the patch to a percussive-type analog sound, and you got dance hog heaven!

Currently there is no way to record the real-time arpeggiator function of MIDI Arpeggiator, except by way of another computer with sequencing software, or hardware sequencer. However, some Atarian musicians have a PC/Mac that is used for digital audio/internet or a spare Atari computer, so this should not present a problem.

Screen shot of Cubase

The arpeggiator module in Cubase
Here is a little-known module that came with Cubase Audio Falcon (CAF). It is the arpeggiator module (ARPEGGIATOR MOD). It also works on Cubase Score (3.1) although there have been reports it does not work on a regular ST but does work on a TT030. The best thing to do is to try it and see if it works on your flavor of Cubase. It is available on the Atari MIDI file section as well as below.

After copying the ARP.MOD to your module folder and installing it using the "module" dialog on the main menu of Cubase, go into "modules" again and you should see the arpeggiator in the main module dialog. Clicking on it will bring up the arpeggiator module.

This beauty is actually four apeggiators in one! You will see a bar that says Activity. Below it are On boxes. Select the far-left one so a check appears in the box. The arpeggiator is now on and armed! Now play a chord on your MIDI keyboard. You will hear an arpeggio representative of the chord you are playing. Now the fun begins by experimenting with the many parameters available. Click on the Mode dialog where it says Normal. You will see many options such as Normal (the default setting), Invert, Up only, Down only, and Random. This last option offers many algorithmic possibilities not seen on other arpeggiators. Select Random and let's check it out. Click on the "16" of the Quantise dialog. You will see many more options than just 16th notes. The lower numbers create a slower arpeggiation, while higher values create faster arpeggiations.

Click on 32. Now play some chords on your MIDI keyboard. The more notes you choose as a chord structure, the more notes are played out in the arpeggiation process. Now, for some fun, let's click the second On button twice in the Activity row. Play some chords. You now have two arpeggiators going at the same time! One is set for 32nd notes at random selection. The second is set at the default settings of 16th notes and Normal settings (which is up and down patterns). Makes for a very nice combination. You can also set the second arpeggiator to another MIDI channel, allowing another patch (or sound) to be played.

To record your results to a track, select MROS in the Output window then close the arpeggiator (it is still running in the background). Select the track you want to record on the main Cubase arrange screen. Put Cubase into record mode by hitting * on the computer keyboard, or use the mouse. Now play your chords, and the arpeggiation process will be recorded onto a Cubase track.

There are many more possibilities that can be accomplished with the arpeggiator module. A text file in the archive explains all of its functions.

To arpeggiate or not to arpeggiate
As you can see from simple experimentation with these applications, it is easy to get carried away and just let things go into arpeggio land. It would be best to take a back seat and decide where a well-placed arpeggiation effect would sound most effective within the context of the piece. Of course, an arpeggio could be the basis for the piece, but give consideration where it is placed and also what type of voice/patch/sound should be used for the arpeggio process. Just remember that these are tools. Tools can be over-used as a means to an end and not as what they should be, a tool to help transform the music within you into a tangible form.

Useful files

    Contains the three arpeggiator applications covered here.
    A MIDI file created with the Cubase Arpeggiator module. I used two tracks with arpeggiation effects, along with the main arpeggiation track copied to a string part which was edited to bring out certain sections of the piece. Flute was added "by hand" to create the "human element". GM-compatible.


Useful links

MyAtari magazine - Feature #4, August 2001

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Copyright 2001 MyAtari magazine