Sunday, 24 July 2011

On sequencers.. and sequencing..

I've been playing with Music & Computers for a long while now.. for me, the journey started with an Amiga, with a serial port Midi interface. For many others it was an Atari ST, but regardless, that midi port is fast becoming the only connector that still has widespread use now, over twenty years on.

Back then, there was 'Music X' and 'Bars and Pipes' .. and 'Cubase' over on the ST.. and many many more.. all trying really hard to let you lay down recordings of midi data, and coordinate it back out to the device.. the concepts of VSTs far far away in the future.. Maybe you were lucky and had access to a nice synth, I got to play with a Kawai K1, a Korg M1, although I was limited to just a small Yamaha PSS780.

A lot of music progs fell into either midi, or sample based. The latter became really popular for programmers, as they let you create a simple tune with a low memory overhead, and package it up with some player code to embed into a game, intro, etc. The midi ones tended to try hard to be professional, and were experimenting with many of the user interface features familiar to today (think horizontal track based layout, piano roll editors etc)

Back then, it was still possible to consider music, both midi and sample driven, as 'block based', where the block could be a bar, a quarter of a bar, etc. Record a 12 bar blues bassline to a metronome, then simply cut & paste it, happy that the pastes will line up right.. Early versions of cakewalk had a track ui that placed black dots into squares showing data present for a bar..

Then PCs got fast.. and mp3 came around.. and PCs got faster, and disk space got kinda huge, and memory got even larger.. and I find myself staring at a multiple gigahertz processor, with gigabytes of memory, and terabytes of diskspace.. these are units I could barely have dreamed of when working back on that 7mhz Amiga, with just 1mb of ram, and 2 floppy drives making about 2mb of disk space.. that means the current PC is now umm. 300 odd times faster, 6 thousand times more memory, and some 2 million times more disk space.. ouch.

So, what can I do with this.. I could try running the modern versions of Cakewalk, or Cubase, which I had a quick look at.. "omg crazy complicated".. oh, and quite pricey too ;-) .. looks like they've integrated audio processing into the midi, and seem to have almost as many features as Word. When I need to underline and italicise my melody, I'm sure these guys can do it. Sure they offer home versions.. but they seem to just remove bits from the complex ones.. it's not clear if removing bits makes it easier to use.

I track down the modern version of a sample based prog.. back then, Soundtracker, Octamed.. now.. Renoise.. wow, nice interface.. I lost a day or so playing around in there =) many happy memories.. mp3 based instruments, decent audio editor, and vst fx chains to die for.. awesomesauce on toast with a pineapple ring. And yes, midi support.. but at its heart, its still a block based tracker, I'm not sure I'd use it to record something entirely piano based.

So I go googling for a simple sequencer.. something hopefully capable, but lightweight.. and find Cockos Reaper.. very very nice.. I've got about 28 days left to figure out if I get on with it.. but given its price is only 40 odd quid (if you meet the terms for the lower price.. which I do)... I'm pretty tempted already.

All of which brings us to VSTs.. where back when I was on the Amiga, you needed an external midi instrument to create the sounds for you, because the computer didn't really have the power, now the PC does.. I mean today's PCs have the power to completely emulate an entire Korg M1 (see the Korg Digital Legacy Collection).. or a half decent piano (TruePianos) .. or instruments so odd they are just awesome fun (Toxic Biohazard)... to instruments that seem insanely powerful (Omnisphere).

Where does this leave me? wondering how I can balance a small laptop ontop of the Clavinova.. and seeking for "that app".. the one that lets me record, but doesn't get in my way.. maybe I shouldn't fear the Reaper..

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