Tim's Atari MIDI World

Keep That Atari!


You're in the studio. You just got a new 2.2 GHz PC with 512 MB of RAM to run soft-synths and a new Apple G5 to run Pro Tools. You look absent-mindedly in the corner and see a dusty Atari 1040STE on a stand. You only got it to run Cubase when you were a teenager. Things have changed. The MIDI timing is a bit better now on PCs although you have to optimize it, but you can live with it. Why keep that Atari?

There are many reasons why you should keep it. Today is a good time to have an Atari, probably more so than in the past hey days of Atari. Why?

  1. The MIDI timing is still there! The main reason why musicians bought Atari was because of the built-in MIDI ports. Thus the software designed for it made use of these ports as no external box was necessary.
  2. There is a strong internet community for support. There are many forums you can join as well as news-groups to ask your questions and participate in exploring applications.
  3. There is now a wealth of software available as freeware or shareware. Treasures from the past as well as new developments. Let's take a look at some of the categories.

[Screen-shot: Cubase main screen]

You can still keep that MIDI timing and use the Atari as a MIDI sequencer driving your PC/Macs, or have the PC/Macs driving the Atari sequencer. Many are available such as Cubase: yes, you can still obtain Atari Cubase, which includes dongle and documentation. There may be cracked versions floating around the internet, but the real thing is much better! Cubase is still considered the flagship sequencer for the Atari platform. If you want to try it out, there is Cubase Lite as a free download now.

[Screen-shot: Master Tracks Pro]

However there are alternatives to Cubase. Treasures from the past include Master Tracks Pro, an excellent first-time sequencer as well as professional application. There are also things you will not find in Cubase such as independent track looping and a built-in SysEx dumper. You can also import standard MIDI files and use the editing tools in MT Pro to embellish them.

[Screen-shot: KCS Tiger]

How about the amazing Dr T KCS system which some consider the best sequencer on the planet! Modules include the PVG (Programmable Variation Generator), Open mode which enables you to play 128 sequences directly from the QWERTY keyboard, as well as system exclusive patch editors, all within the same program and running at the same time. There are also extensive editing modules such as Tiger (shown above) and event editing.

Hybrid Arts' SMPTE/Edit Track has also found a place in history by being used by the greats such as BB King, the Pointer sisters, Yes, Fleetwood Mac and Jimmy Hotz. An excellent choice for a sequencer as it can do things that Cubase cannot.

[Screen-shot: IMS]

An excellent Cubase-like sequencer is IMS 4.7, Intuitive MIDI System Sequencer. IMS in my opinion is very much like Cubase with the same keyboard shortcuts for the transport, but with some very unusual editors not found in Cubase (or any other sequencer). It also has some handy utilities which are usually seperate programs: a MIDI monitor, a 2D controller (like a joystick controller for controller mesages), a SysEx dumper and a tempo fader.

Another Cubase-like sequencer is Live Plus by Harold Plontke. Working with Live Plus is almost like working with Cubase. It uses the same keyboard shortcuts for the transport bar. It has a set of tools to work with in its "key-edit" mode. It also has the familiar arrange screen in which you can move around patterns, name them and assign MIDI functions, just like in Cubase. A good alternative to Cubase.

[Screen-shot: RealTime]

However if you want something completely different, then Eric Ameres' RealTime is for you! Combining algorithmic functions and a unique interface, RealTime allows you to freely experiment and combine sequences together. After "M" was produced and ported over to the ST platform by Eric, he decided to take some of the ideas of "M" and "UpBeat" with his ideas of an "Interactive Multitasking environment" and developed RealTime, the Intelligent Sequencer. This is the definitive algorithmic sequencer for the experimental MIDI composer.

Then there is the Rolls Royce of Atari MIDI: Notator SL. However, it is not freely available. You might be able to find copies on eBay and Atari forums. There is an excellent Notator resource at which is home for the Notator mailing list as well as downloadable versions of Creator and Notator SL. However, you will need a dongle for those to work. Some find the method of creating patterns more intuitive and easier than in a Cubase-like arrange screen.

Other freely available sequencers include Sweet Sixteen by Roni Music, Trackman Sequencer by Hollis Research and Music*Micro by Ron Recker. There are many more as well.

[Photo: AEX 2]

Algorithmic applications
Here is what I call the "left field" of Atari MIDI. Algorithmic applications. These include groove machines, analog sequencer emulators, MIDI file dicers, and composition systems. In my opinion, this is where having an Atari computer in the studio can shine. These types of applications are so unique, that you would be hard-pressed to find applications like them in the PC/Mac world. These include some newly coded applications as well as historical yet useable software. Let's take a look at a few:

M is a one-of-a-kind program. Developed by Intelligent Music in the '80s, it brought together ideas of an "interactive" program in which you actually use the computer in a compositional process. In the words of the manual:

    Your work develops in three stages. First you specify basic musical material as notes and chords. Then you determine the ways that your basic material will be transformed. Then you perform your music by manipulating screen controls, by playing control keys on a MIDI keyboard, or by "conducting" with the mouse on a multidirectional grid.

[Screen-shot: Music Mouse]

Laurie Spiegel's Music Mouse
This is an application which allows you to use the mouse as a musical instrument. Basically it takes mouse movements inside a grid on the screen (above) and transforms them into four moving voices that can be assigned different MIDI channels and sounds depending on what you do on the QWERTY keyboard. Other keys are live in real-time as controller faders and for playing with tempo, transposition, and a host of other features. In my application, I also use it to audition soft-synths on my PC as I am working on the sounds.

Matucana's ISEQ
A newly coded application, this combines several programs in one: a grid sequencer in which you select notes from inside a grid for playback, with many algorithmic functions for changing the notes and patterns and a multi-phase analog sequencer emulator (called the Rouge).

Neil Wakling's Pulsar
Pulsar is an analog sequencer emulator with lots of twists. You can also assign CCs (Continuous Controllers) for each note of its 16 stages. Imagine what you can do when controlling a soft-synth with this?

Dr Ambient's AEX
Another newly coded application, AEX combines algorithmic elements with analog sequencer emulation into a unique composition system. Completely keyboard-driven, you are able to change the overall sound, drum patterns, algorithms and so on, simply by navigating around the GUI with the QWERTY keyboard.

[Screen-shot: Tunesmith]

Jim Johnson's Tunesmith
Tunesmith is 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. This thing sounds great on soft-synths!

This is but a very small taste of what is available. Other programs include Brain Wave Lab by Marc Marc, CAMUS: Cellular Automata MUSic generator, Electronic Cow's Charming Chaos and Arpeggiator, Fractal Music Composer by Hugh Mcdowell, Datamusic's Fractal Music ST by Chris Sansom, MidiJoy by Harry Koopman, MSG: The Midi Sequence Generator, the MIDI AX: Algorithmic System by Dr T, Mozart's Dice Waltz, Patterner by Peter Kienle, the Hotz MIDI Translator and many more.

You can run these left-hand applications on the Atari and record directly into the PC/Mac running soft-synths for a unique sound and composition system. One of the best reasons to keep the Atari!

[Screen-shot: Caged Artist]

System Exclusive
You can also use the Atari as an on-line patch editor for the synths the Atari supports. These include the Caged Artist series which are now available. Using KCS, you can have the editors you need all load at once for a multi-tasking environment by editing the KCS.INF file within KCS. In my own application, I can have DX-Heaven, 4-op Deluxe with TX81z and FB01 editors as well as the MT-32 editor all load at once on start and I am ready to edit or choose sounds for all my synths.

[Screen-shot: DX Edit]

If you have a DX7 or DX family synth, it is well supported by many editors and utilities as well as the best patch library on the planet!

While the Atari does not support some of the new synths on the market, there is still a need to support older and still-used synthesizers. Having a dedicated editor for that neglected synth will breathe life into it again and thus find a place in the mix.

If you are lucky enough to have a Falcon, you can obtain an excellent soft-synth called ACE MIDI, sporting two oscillators with four kinds of synthesis methods and sample (WAVE and AIF) import, a resonant filter, two envelopes and a sequencer modulator, with 16 part multitimbral on a stock Falcon!

Also, Dr Ambient's AEX comes with a 256-color version for Falcon. There is also Quaderno Falcon which makes the best use of color I have seen in an Atari MIDI application. There are also many audio editing and recording programs available, as the Falcon has a DSP chip.

What if I don't have an Atari?
What's great about all these software releases is that it mostly runs under emulation on PC/Mac. STeem for PC and NoSTalgia for Mac.The MIDI implementations work well, however, the faster the machine you have, the better the emulation is. It is possable to run Atari programs and have a loop-back application connected to your favorite sequencer to capture the data. See link section.

Bottom Line: with all these great uses for the Atari, I would highly encourage to dust it off and set it up for dedicated purposes within the studio. Download some of the more adventurous software and try it out. Electronic musicians should take advantage of this opportunity to actually try some of this historical, yet very useable software. While it may not have all the graphic bang and whistles, they are very useable and will provide an edge that you may not have known about.

Useful links


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MyAtari magazine - Feature #10, October 2003

Copyright 2003 MyAtari magazine