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Matrix Keyboard Tunesmith Instruments

Tim Conrardy finds a new way to look at music with the help of an algorithmic program called Tunesmith

Photo of Tim

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 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.

Screen-shot of Tunesmith

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 (Laurie Spiegel).

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 one note 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 play 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 [1] 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 EML instrument!

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 a problem.

Now follows a tutorial on how to create your own instruments:

Screen-shot of Tunesmith

How to Create Matrix Keyboard Tunesmith Instruments: Using the Matxscale library

  1. Open Tunesmith.
  2. Go to MENU on the bottom of the screen. Select EDIT SCALES.
  3. 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.
  4. The scale that the [Z] key belonged to shows up in the dialog.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. Continue in this fashion for all the Keys on the computer keyboard. This can include the numerical keys at the top.
  8. 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 Tunesmith Instrument!
  9. Select START, or press the space bar to Start Tunesmith.
  10. 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! Explore!

Final thoughts
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.

Demonstration files

  • TUNE030.ZIP
    Tunesmith (the program) versions for ST and 030 machines. To use on a floppy-only system, separate out the TUNSTUFF folder onto another disk.
    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 [1] through [\] cover the "black" keys for pentatonic relationships.
    A live performance of the DORIAN1 MKTI. No overdubs or tempo changes. GM-compatible
    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.


Useful contacts



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.

MyAtari magazine - Feature #6, June 2001

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