C-Lab Notator SL: The Rolls Royce of Atari Sequencing

C-Lab Atari Notator SL ReviewC-Lab Notator SL: The Rolls Royce of Atari Sequencing
David Etheridge takes an In-Depth Looks at this Influential Program's Relevance in 2010

Like many other musos in the late 80s, I started sequencing on the Atari using a "industry standard" 24 track program. After the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth, I eventually settled into a love/hate relationship with it. I loved making up complete tracks and arrangements; I hated the bugs which meant I had to record on "yellow alert" saving after every change because it crashed at least once a day. As for the note editor, it was so user-awful that I eventually had to close my ears to the bum notes and pretend that they weren't happening. I believe this is known as "suffering for your art".

Then, one day, I got notes hanging on my DX5 master keyboard for no reason. I didn't know whether the Atari or the keyboard was at fault. The Synth Service Centre could find nothing wrong with the DX5, and the guy on the helpline for this particular program initially tried blinding me with science or telling me things about the program I already knew. In the end, he suggested I unsolder the outer pins from the Atari's MIDI ports. I wasn't about to bugger up a perfectly good Atari, and after getting a local computer tech to do this, I still had the same problem. Finally, the editor of Home and Studio Recording magazine (bless his name), suggested I try my keyboard with Notator. I went over and tried my DX5 with his program at his studio - no problems!

Changing back to my own program produced the stuck notes. So with a deal on Notator V.2.2 and Unitor, I became a fully functioning member of MIDI society. From that moment I haven't looked back, and I'm still using it today instead of the other "sexier", Technicolor laden, and "up to date" programs. Why? Well, let's have a look at Notator and what makes it so special.

In the beginning.....

In the beginning there was the Commodore 64, noted for unreliability, eccentricity and limited memory. But, this Ford Model T of the computer world had some redeeming features - it was cheap, there were loads of them about, and most of the affordable stone age MIDI sequencing programs of the time were written for it. Amongst the best of these was C-lab's Supertrack, written by Gerhard Lengeling (the man who gave us Notator).

By 1987, C-Lab released Atari Creator, followed quickly by Notator v.1.12. Notator was identical to Creator, but with the addition of a wonderfully comprehensive score writing/editing/printing program. No other program was so beautifully integrated. If you wanted similar packages from the competition, you had to buy separate programs or modules, or go up to more expensive platforms and programs. Remember, this was in pre Windows 3.1 days; most IBM's only had 640K of memory and ran in MS-DOS while Notator ran on a 1MB Atari ST. In fact, early Notator versions could actually run on a 520ST, providing you weren't expecting to record soundtracks of 20 minutes or more.

Notator in a Nutshell.

Here's a flying visit around some of the features in Notator. By today's standards some of them might seem very "oh yeah, so what else is new?", but the fact is that they were new at the time and most of them are still lurking in one form or another in today's versions of Logic.

Beginning with the main screen, one should notice the simple and straightforward layout which is similar to drum machine style pattern recording. From here, you can break your song down into sections (intro, verse, chorus, etc.) and work on each in isolation. Then, you can assemble your patterns into arrangements and you've got yourself a song. But wait, there's more!

C-Lab and Emagic Atari Hardware Add-ons including Unitor 2, Combiner, Human Touch, and Log-3Each pattern holds 16 tracks, but with the wonders of MIDI, any track can include any combination of MIDI channels which can also be merged and separated at will. You'd need to do this eventually, as Notator, with a couple of hardware add-ons, can happily run no fewer than 96 MIDI channels.  This capability was unparalleled at that time and even by today's standards is only exceeded by Mac and PC systems that use units from the likes of MOTU and E-magic.  Additionally, multitimbral synth expanders were only beginning to be available (e.g. the Korg M1 was only 8 channel and the Kurzweil 1000's 16 channel multitimbral MIDI controllable FX and mixers were still in their infancy). I can still recall some MIDI programs of the time raving away in ads about offering 200 tracks even though only 16 channels were supported. However, I suppose you could have 200 tracks of drums on just 1 channel.

Another great feature is that Notator automatically loads with 64 available tracks, as it can play back four patterns at a time in levels marked as A-D in the arrange box. For example, level A could be for verse, B for solos, C for SysEx and controller dumps, and D for tempo changes or anything else that you want.

Notator supports up to 99 patterns. On each one, you can name the pattern, each of its tracks, and which instrument is connected to which MIDI channel. From version 3 onwards, pattern names can be automatically duplicated in the arrange box or they can be overwritten. If 16 tracks in a pattern isn't enough, you can choose '"32 track" display, which combines pairs of patterns together.  This is often essential when importing MIDI files created on PCs or Macs with their typical superfluous or redundant tracks (e.g. ten tracks just for drum parts). The "Pattern Overview" lists names and numbers for when you get lost (as you will sooner or later).

The Track Box

The track box on the right of the main pattern box gives info on each track from 1-16 which is subgrouped from A-F thus giving 96 channels in all. "Quantize" gives a colossal range of options, from 4s to 798/1536 for super accurate timing. Indeed, the honest ones amongst MIDI users still claim that Atari's timing beats both Macs and PCs hands down - even in 2010. More importantly, all timing is non-destructive unlike some other "up to date" programs; all info is stored exactly as you played it.

Next, you can get groovy with groove templates. The presets are set as 16A-F, 8A-F (which by number crunching will move back progressively the last of each four in 16s, or the second of each two in 8s for swing). Then there's 4 against 3 (12-16), 3 against 2 (8-12), and 5, 7 or 9 in a beat! In addition you can set ranges in a track for different quantization values (say one beat with 5s or 7s - but you won't want a whole pattern of those unless you're in psychic communication with Frank Zappa). "Free quantization" is related to 16s, but lets you play subtle variations, from rigid to swung, all in the same track. If that's not enough, there's plenty of ability to create your own grooves.

There's many more useful functions to mention here too. "Transpose" is self explanatory, but also be aware that you can transpose entire patterns in the arrange box as well as individual tracks which is still easier than on some more "up to date" programs. You can also disable this function for drum tracks. "Velocity" lets you add/subtract from whatever velocity you played to set up overall track balances in a pattern. "Compress smooths out velocities; you can also select a minus value to increase the difference (expansion). "Loops" can loop any length of a track from one beat to several bars, and you can edit the time of the loop marker to a fraction of a beat just as you would a note. "Delay" can be used for delay effects (obviously); again a minus value will move the track ahead in time for sounds with slow attack times, but at the beginning of a pattern this will cut off the start of the note. You can get around this by adding an upbeat to the start of the pattern. "Lowest and Highest" sets ranges when dealing with keyboard splits (e.g. bass/piano). If you play any notes outside the set range, Notator ignores them.  Last but not least, the 'Ghost Of' function allows for virtual reality tracks. Basically, it looks like a regular track but reads the information from whatever other track you connect to it. This way you can double up on parts with other sounds. I use it all the time to save memory rather than copying tracks from one pattern to another - essential on a 1MB ST but even with 4MB you can keep things tidy and clean.

The Joys of Editing

By pressing the "Edit" button, you can go to any of four different editing modes: Score, Event, Matrix, and from version 3 onwards, Hyperedit. Score edit is for the music reading folks, offering any clef you might want (including alto, tenor, mezzo-soprano, octave transposition of treble and bass clefs and even a drum clef). Editing is done via the mouse pointer. Notes can also be written in this way, and if you want to delete them, just grab them and throw them off the page. To my mind it's much easier and immediate than the toolbox on Cubase and, for that matter, Logic (I personally feel it was a retrograde step adding the toolbox to Logic). There's a comprehensive list of score symbols available: keys, notation symbols, time changes, bar markers, even text and guitar chord symbols - all printable from humble 9-pin dot matrix to HP Laserjet printers. And while you might think that finding a compatible printer in the 21st century is impossible, members of the Notator Users Group have found that many printer configurations will work with more modern makes and models - it's simply a case of "try it and see". The Event editor is standard fare, and can be edited as to just what is displayed or filtered. The grid based Matrix editor will be familiar to all non music reading folks, and is the main editing page on Creator. Hyperedit was the revelation in the editing package; initially looking like a drum pattern editor (and indeed offering drum editing facilities), just about any continuous controllers can be edited on it: fades, velocities, and more.

Even more fun can be found in the RMG (Real Time Midi Generator) page. Here we have 16 assignable sliders for any controllers you care to mention. Most of the time you'll want to use them for volume, but you could try panning, expression, and even SysEx editing of FX (which was offered in later versions of the program). The faders can be grouped on a single track containing 16 channels worth of data allowing you to add extra RMG tracks for each type of controller data. There's lots of power available here!

The Joys of Synchronization

Sync facilities on earlier sequencing programs were basic, limited, or long winded. Notator's use of the C-Lab / Emagic Unitor for easy, bug free syncing was (and still remains) one of the best. The SMPTE sync page was implemented from Notator v.2 but only offered a single tempo. On later versions, you can clock a SMPTE reference from tempo data recorded in any track and in any pattern with as many tempo changes as you want. Even better is the 'Fit Time Calculator' that works out to four decimal places the correct speed for X bars over X mins, secs and frames. Display times can be set at bars/beats, or milliseconds, or frames (essential when working with video, and it's helped me get several soundtrack jobs!) . Obviously, this feature is standard on all of today's sequencers, but this was the original.

Hints and Tips on the Best of the Rest

I could go on for ages about the rest of the program, however, here are the most important hints and tips you should know.

  • I never got the hang of the "Transform Page". There, I've said it! This allows you to essentially morph any kind of MIDI data into any other kind of MIDI data. The only time I attempted to use this function it didn't work, despite religiously following the manual.  Suddenly, when it did work, I couldn't remember what I'd done right (there's always something). Mind you, I've come across other users who swear by it. The point being that you can work with Notator on any level for years without ever mastering everything.
  • Notator is very reliable indeed. I've used Notator extensively since 1988 and it would typically crash every six months until 1996; since then, it hasn't crashed again (obviously, I'm long overdue for one)! Nine times out of ten, if the program did hang, I could bash the "Enter" button a few times, go and have a cuppa or walk the dog and when I returned, the program had cleared itself!
  • The only real problem I have found is when using very long patterns (say 100 bars or more) with multiple tracks on orchestral pieces. Here, when adding more tracks, I'd find existing tracks deleting notes for no apparent reason (the event editor showed "DELETED 127" instead of the note(s) in a chord). Even stranger, this didn't happen on mono lines like bass - only parts of chords. I'm guessing that the edit buffer relating to the pattern I was working on was being exceeded. The way round it was to copy everything to another pattern as a backup, but it meant that song files were double the size! However, I was using a 1MB ST at the time and since I changed up to 4MB, this problem has not occurred again.
  • If you're doodling along on your keyboard with Notator on playback and suddenly play a phrase you like, don't hit the stop button! Simply select an empty track and press 'Right Shift + Return'. Notator is always recording what you play, even if you haven't pressed the record button.
  • Watch out when mixing down multiple tracks and using multiple MIDI ports. Merging track data will preserve the original channel, but Notator won't be able to work out which port it was originally on. Only merge tracks with a common port (A1-16, F1-16, etc), otherwise you might end up with data meant for two entire different instruments being merged which can give unfortunate results (drums and strings for example). Any track can obviously be extracted later for editing.
  • I always put a silent bar at the start for patch and controller settings. I also turn the quantization off and set the times slightly differently to avoid any hiccups (eg. channel 1, prog 32, time 1/1/1/7; channel 2, prog 76, time 1/1/1/13, etc. When putting in patch changes or SysEx codes in the middle of a track or a pattern, put them a fraction before the beat (4/4/4/45) rather than on the beat (5/1/1/1), especially if there are notes playing on the beat. I've found that the patch change can occasionally be missed or interfere with the sound if there are lots of notes at the start of a bar (watch the overflow window for confirmation).
  • When editing a looped track, you can toggle back and forth between two versions without stopping playback by hitting "Undo".
  • Macros (chapter 3.2 in the manual) can be used to enter familiar  track names like drums, bass or lead. Create them and store them in the Autoload.Son. Speaking of which, don't use the 'New Song' facility, as it initializes the whole screen. You'll lose channel names, count ins, etc... Just reload Autoload.Son when you're starting a new song.
  • "Count-in" defaults to 1 bar whenever you change the time signature.
  • Use the notepad to store useful information for songs (e.g. which one of the millions of DX7 banks you used for a song).
  • You can record SysEx dumps into a spare pattern and load them into your synths before playing the song.
  • Use the "check duplicated notes" and "insert missing notes - off" facility all the time. You'll be amazed how much memory can be freed up this way!

So how does Notator rank in today's world of all singing, all dancing sequencers? It's still valid if you don't need hard disk audio recording (and you don't need the 'this program has performed an illegal operation' etc. messages). It's easy to understand and you're always one or two pages away from the main screen at any time so you don't get sidelined or lost.  Notator is very stable and reliable with lots of hardware add-ons for up to 96 channels of MIDI and full SMPTE sync. It's not in colour, and it doesn't have an environment page (which is one way of occupying a wet weekend), but it's great to use, and timing still remains peerless. A 4MB system with a hard disk, Log 3 and Unitor remains a very powerful and flexible setup that won't break the bank.

Download the original Atari Notator SL 3.21 disks or the cracked Atari Notator SL 3.0.  For further help and information, you may download the Atari Notator SL 3.0 Manual (incomplete), Notator Manual submitted by miguel, join the Notator SL User-Group, or post a question in the AMN Forum