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A Passport To Great Music

by Al Ferrier

 

It seems like an age since I started using my Atari 1040STE for music. Come to think of it, it's nearly ten years but I don't regret a single moment.

I wanted a computer that would easily fit in with my existing synth-based music system and the built-in MIDI ports were a major plus. If ever I needed a demonstration of just how good an Atari could be as the brains of an integrated MIDI system, my good friend Alan Platten provided it.

Over the course of about six weekends, I visited Alan at his home in deepest Kent, ostensibly to record some tracks I had written for a demo. Alan and I beavered away getting the tracks onto his Cubase set-up and they sounded great. Here was the flexibility I'd been after for ages. No more arduous step-time sequencing on my aged Korg Poly 800 Mk 2; the whole thing could be multi-layered and even editable!

Strangely enough, it wasn't Cubase that captured my imagination but a program that Alan had ceased to use. He recommended Passport's Master Tracks Pro to me; its graphic pages and easy editing a positive boon to someone taking their first tentative steps in Atari sequencing. Six months later I took the plunge and bought my Atari and Alan's copy of MT Pro. I've never looked back...

The beginning and the end
MT Pro was supported on the Atari by its Californian software developer Passport until 1989 when it decided to concentrate on the Mac and PC versions. I bought version 3.5 but soon upgraded to the final Atari version, 3.6, which is almost identical to 3.5. I soon found the page-based set-up andtape recorder recording interface a cinch to work with; it was as if the program was actively helping me to write interesting stuff and it even forgave the odd mistake I made with it. I couldn't have asked for better.

One of the first things I noticed as I got to grips with file sizes, desk accessories and Auto folder programs was the size of MT Pro's main program file: it's tiny! A mere 130 KB plus a few extra for the resource file is hardly anything and it meant I could experiment a bit when sorting out a combination of desk accessories that I was happy to run MT Pro alongside for maximum assistance. It's a very stable program as well.

MT Pro is a 64-track sequencer so there's loads of room for layering and overdubbing. Each track has solo, loop and mute selectors and you can record on more than one track at a time. A handy little feature is a text-box which enables you to enter a description of the track and what instrument is playing its notes. Add to this a little program change dialog beside every track and you can recall exactly what is playing what and what sound is being used.

This makes for an easy-to-use interface; something that has the power to handle all the hard work for you so you can concentrate on being musical. It's totally GEM-based too and doesn't go in for littering its pages with loads of options and buttons.

Programming is done over three basic pages, the Track Sheet which I've detailed above, the Song Editor which looks after the arrangement side of a song or piece and the Step Editor which displays the notes in each track on a piano-roll style grid.

Play to win
MT Pro has some features which were to become standard a bit later as software sequencing became the norm in amateur and professional studios. Several spring to mind but I must mention the librarian section and its versatility when synchronizing to various codes. MT Pro contains a useful system-exclusive librarian which gives you flexibility in saving and loading programs into your various bits of kit. You can even add comments to each SysEx file as you save it to remind yourself of just what that string sound or lead patch sounds like. Having a generic librarian built-in saves time and hassle quitting and reloading and can be a real help.

I should add that MT Pro saves and loads SysEx data in its own format so it's worth bearing this in mind when pulling down sounds for your kit from the internet. If you are keen to do that, MIDIEX is probably better as that handles raw SysEx data much better. Once it's in your kit, you can let MT Pro take advantage!

As I mentioned before, MT Pro syncs to various codes coming off tape as well as directly to MIDI when it can run either as a slave and as master time-keeper. In fact, not only does it read SMPTE and MIDI Time Code, it can "stripe" (generate) SMPTE onto multi-track tape as well. It's functions like these that make it a positive joy to work with when doing soundtrack work. There's a little sub-function called Markers which locks a certain event in the sequencer to a timecode position for enhanced accuracy and even a Fit Time variable which adjusts the tempo of a piece to fit a certain timespan. The scenario given in the (excellent) manual supposes a jingle composer who is told his music must fit into less than thirty seconds for a commercial. Fit Time makes the number-crunching a doddle and everyone involved is chuffed. You can imagine the scorewriter being well-pleased overall and it's not hard to see why.

So what's it like when it's running? The actual record/play/stop functions are hard-wired, as it were, to certain keys: the space bar plays and stops and the record function takes its cue from the [Enter] key. Apart from these, you can also remotely control the actual tape recorder functions from your master keyboard or other MIDI controller as play, stop, record are fully configurable when playing over MIDI. If it makes things easier for you to have your top C key start playback, then go to the dialog box involved, highlight it and just press the key. The sequencer has a built-in metronome which can also be configured to play over your monitor's speakers or over MIDI. You can alter the settings for bar, beat and MIDI channel and even the duration of those notes!

Rock at your own risk
Apart from all that I've mentioned above, there are a good number of features that only make themselves known to you as you get more used to working with it. Alongside the Track Sheet, Song Editor and Step Editor pages are separate pages for velocity, program change, conductor (tempo) and several other MIDI-definable parameters. These are quickly summoned with the function keys on the ST. They are fully zoomable too so you can go in close to see just when an event happens. These pages enable you to "draw" the velocity curve you need with your mouse for that snare fill or whatever and this can work a treat. It makes it very intuitive and takes out a lot of the maths involved.

MT Pro has an intriguing "jukebox" facility: if you decide that two songs sound great one after the other, just leave a few empty bars, put in your program changes for each track and paste the data from the second song onto the end of the first. The manual says that you could sequence up a load of songs like this but I reckon the eventual file would be too huge for most floppy-based systems and would take a fair while to load and save even with a hard drive. That said, I have done just that a few times and it is a useful method!

I believe MT Pro was one of the first software sequencers to handle different MIDI file formats. It has the ability to write a piece's data as either Format 0 (all data on one track) or Format 1 (all parts exploded onto different tracks). It can't convert between formats but I've often found Sequencer One or Breakthru is good for that. It's worth bearing in mind when saving and loading that MT Pro uses its own file format with the extender .MTS so it's not acceptable to any other sequencer. For those that work across different platforms and formats, it might be more use to save as a MIDI file instead.

Fade to grey
It's probably true what they say: each musician, arranger, remixer or producer gets to know only one particular sequencer very well. With me it's MT Pro but I know others that can't do without their Sequencer One or Cubase or even KCS. It's whatever you get used to using but, if you are happy with the method and what is produced, that's fine.

It's a shame that Passport passed up the chance to develop MT Pro further on the Atari but I knew some years ago that it was still supported on the Mac and PC with version numbers being as high as 4.8 (Mac) and 5.2 on the PC. I'd love to see how they improved on a masterpiece!

Al Ferrier
The author works in both electronic music and sports journalism. He has tinkered with synths, drum machines and other assorted technology since 1984 and continues to play live with his covers duo Souvenir as well as composing theme and soundtrack music with partner David McNamara. Both David and Al were members of early '90s London trio Company.

 

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MyAtari magazine - Feature #6, March 2003

 
Copyright 2003 MyAtari magazine