of a Different Color
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.
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)
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.
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:
a note on channel P1. If repeated and
held, P2 if not
blank is the number of notes played after hold.
Note, but repeats at last time separation.
Note, but moving the mouse while holding a button
from one note to the next.
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
sequence if repeat is turned on.
NoteSeq, but always repeats.
NotSeqR, but tempo gets faster as mouse moves
up the screen
and velocity is sequence vel.
note is like NoteSeq, but dragging to the right
glissandos subsequent notes of sequence, while dragging
glisses the end of the sequence. P2 is
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:
- 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
- I wanted to
make an instrument that did not require great
physical dexterity to play well, in large part
because I lack great physical
- 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
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
is another MIDI-ax user who also performs live
with it. He offers us some tips and
insights into his use of the program:
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"
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.
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
Using the special
version of KCS and MIDI-ax.
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).
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
- 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.
- 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  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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
This chooses what sequence you will play. Try
choosing different sequences and seeing what
the results are in playing with the mouse movements.
- 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!
- 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
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.
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
Looping in MIDI-ax
Trond Einar Garmo
of the Atari MIDI forum has this tip for
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
Set up a loop
length in Menu > MIDI-ax Options > Recording
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
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 rightmlost 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
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
The H Loop will force a new loop point in your
Values of 127
and -127 in H Tempo will double of half the
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
is shareware, meaning if you like the program,
you need to (in good conscience) meet 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
AX to the future
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)
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
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.
bundled version of MIDI-ax
and KCS version 4
documentation for MIDI-ax and
Fingers in plain text and hypertext
format (for use in ST-Guide),
by Trond Einar Garmo
of the Atari MIDI forum.
Finger files (for use
with the Fingers part
of the program)
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
example of MIDI-ax in