Presto, Change-o

NeXT's DSP capability comes of age with MIDI-sequencing software

by Lee Sherman

Presto, the first MIDI-sequencing software for the NeXT, has mastered the best tricks of its competition on other platforms and added a few of its own.

Like a lot of other entry-level sequencers, Pinnacle Research's product lets you record, edit, and play music using MIDI-capable keyboards or other controllers. What makes Presto unique, though, is sup-port for sounds generated by the NeXT's Digital Signal Processor (DSP). It is the first commercial music program on any platform to bring the power of software-based synthesis to the end user.

Presto lets you invent your own sounds and load them into the program. It also provides a rich collection of piano, bass, woodwinds, strings, voice, and percussion in-struments. DSP sounds can be used independently of MIDI or mixed with the sounds coming from your synthesizer.

Nothing up my sleeve
MIDI is the Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It's a system for capturing information about musical performances, such as when keys on a synthesizer are depressed and released, or how fast they are moving. Because MIDI files store only instructions and not the actual sounds, they take up far less room on disk than a recording would. And they are easily shared among programs and platforms.

Although NeXTSTEP comes with a MIDI driver, you need a hardware interface and a synthesizer that is MIDI-equipped in order to make full use of Presto.

Once you've put together the hardware, making music with Presto is as easy as using a tape deck. On-screen buttons labeled Play, Stop, Pause, Record, Tempo, and Rewind control the recording session. There are also controls for skipping ahead or backwards to a specific point in the track or looping individual sections indefinitely. The difference is that you aren't recording the performance itself you're recording a description of the performance that can be edited with a sequencer, just as a word processor allows you to edit text.

With Presto, you can create the illusion of having an entire orchestra at your disposal by layering different tracks on top of each other. You'll never be without musical accompaniment either, since you can play along with your recordings.

A-one-and-a-two . . .
The advantages of using a MIDI sequencer to record music become apparent when you begin to edit your performance. You can replace bum notes with those that are in key, correct imperfect timing, and enter instrumental parts one note at a time, speeding them up upon playback. You can even add parts that would be physically impossible to play, such as eight hands simultaneously playing a piano. You can also substitute one instrument for another with a wave of the mouse.

The Score window provides a graphic overview of your composition. Measures are represented by rectangles laid out along a spreadsheet-like grid, with each rectangle representing one measure of music. A dark-gray rectangle indicates that there is at least one note in that measure, while a light-gray rectangle indicates that the measure is empty.

Presto's measure editing is purely drag-and-drop, allowing you to move, copy, insert, merge, or replace groups of measures simply by picking them up and placing them where you want. You can even open multiple Score windows and drag measures between them. Unfortunately, the program doesn't support multiple views of the same score.

Presto provides visual cues so you can tell exactly where a measure will end up, and the window displays status messages that can keep you from moving a measure when you mean to copy it. Presto also provides an item dispenser, reminiscent of the one in Improv, for tearing off blank measures to be added to parts, and a recycler for clearing selected parts of notes.

Instead of the pop-up menus that clutter a screen, Presto makes use of inspectors for naming parts, selecting channel numbers and instruments, and deciding whether to use MIDI or DSP instruments. Double-clicking a measure in the Score window brings up the Part Edit window, in which you can edit the individual notes and controller events that make up a score.

For editing your music on a note-by-note basis, Presto uses piano-roll notation. In piano-roll notation, notes are presented as bars extending from left to right across a musical score. The vertical position of a note indicates its pitch, the horizontal position its rhythmic placement, and the length of the bar its duration. Editing a note's pitch or rhythm is intuitive: You simply grab the note with the mouse and drag it into a different position on the grid. To adjust duration, you click on a handle and resize the bar, much as you would do in a drawing program.

Although Presto simplifies editing by providing several views of your score, right down to the microscopic detail of individual notes, it lacks a phrase-block view, a common way of thinking about the over-all composition. This macro view breaks down a piece into sections that correspond to verse, chorus, and bridge, making it easier to shift around whole sections of a score.

Electronic music is more than just musical notes; synthesizers have controls such as pitch bend, modulation, and velocity, as well as the ability to switch instruments on the fly, all of which weren't anticipated by the inventors of standard notation. Presto shows these events in a split view in the Part Edit window. Alternatively, you can choose to view both notes and events in a list format using Presto's Event List Editor. What the List Editor lacks visually it more than makes up for in the numerical precision with which you can edit a score.

Musical transforms contain the real magic. Using the Transforms tool, you can transpose keys, adjust velocity, or quantize a selection to an exact musical value. Quantization allows you to shift recorded notes so that they fall exactly on the beat. If this sounds too perfect, you can use a randomizing option to maintain the human touch, a feature not typically found in sequencers in this price range.

This first release goes a long way toward satisfying pent-up demand for MIDI tools on the NeXT. An obvious addition to Presto would be support for sampling, either from the bezel microphone or an external sampler. You could then add vocal tracks and sound effects to your MIDI sequences.

Presto is also missing high-end features like algorithmic composition; automated mixdown; drawing tools for indicating events like pitch bend and fades; the ability to edit a score using standard musical notation; and support for SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) time code, so that multimedia producers can sync MIDI to video. Nevertheless, it presents the basics in a way that even professionals will appreciate.

Presto includes extensive on-line help its only fault is that it assumes too much knowledge on the part of the user. We'd like to see it expanded to include a discussion of MIDI basics.

By taking advantage of inter-application communication and multitasking, Presto will be able to leverage off the capabilities of other music programs as they begin to appear, sending the MIDI information you're recording directly to a notation program for formatting sheet music or working in concert with a sample recording and editing package to provide a complete desktop recording studio. Pinnacle has pulled a rabbit out of a hat.

Lee Sherman is a contributing editor to NeXTWORLD.


4 Cubes Innovative entry-level music program that combines MIDI sequencing with DSP synthesis. Professionals and hobbyists alike will appreciate Presto's uncluttered layout and inviting drag-and-drop approach to measure editing.


Pinnacle Research, 4725 E. Sunrise Dr. #435, Tucson, AZ 85718.

602/529-1135. e-mail: