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                +*Some random mutterings regarding ACEtracker*+

Since I was a little boy,  I've  been  obsessed with computers and sound.  What
started off as an innocent attempt to make  some weird noises on my ZX Spectrum
has blossomed into something  more  poignant  than  words  can describe.  These
days, music pretty much rules my life..  It  makes affects my mood, it makes my
limbs move uncontrollably, it pays my rent.

No doubt it was our beloved scene that  really  got me into making music - if I
hadn't become aware of trackers and  such  like,  I'm  pretty sure that I would
have continued through life enjoying music  from the outside, probably spunking
even more money on vinyl and CDs.  But  that didn't happen.  Instead I got into
making terrible hardcore .mods in tcb/audio sculpture/protracker, and that lead
onto Cubase (MCA crack of course ;-)).

A few years on and I got serious  -    I  worked  my ass off in a snidey petrol
station for a couple of years and blew some coin on a Falcon driven CubaseAudio
system..  Holy shit, I paid a  thousand  pounds  for a fucking 1 gig harddrive!
To be honest that era in my 'music' making history is one I'd rather forget.  I
suffered some nasty harddisk crashes and  lost  loads  of  work.  It got so bad
that after a year of strife, I returned  the falcon to the shop, and swapped it
for an Akai sampler and a little mixing  desk.   So I was back with my good old
ST and my wonky copy of Cubase.

For the best part of 4 years  I  worked away with my stfm/cubase/sampler combo.
Those were the days my  friends,  simple,  effective,  noisy!  But with the new
century came a notable change in  the  way  people were making music.  Software
was becoming more and more powerful  -  things like non-linear editing, virtual
instruments  and  plug-in  effects  were   allowing   the  home  user  creative
possibilities previously unheard of.  I'd put up  a good fight, staying true to
my trusty Atari, but  eventually  I  admitted  defeat.   I  sold  nearly all my
outboard samplers/fx/compressors etc etc, took out a  six grand bank-loan,  and
bought a ridiculously overpriced,  but  undeniably  sexy Powerbook.   I've been
using this setup for a while now  and  must admit I've become accustomed to the
joys of piling  on  plug-in  after  plug-in  onto  individual  tracks within my
'Logic' sequencer, I think I'll be happy  with this set-up for the considerable

But trends move quickly in electronic music  circles, and recently we have seen
yet another shift in thinking with  regards  to music composition.  People have
started to develop software with a much  more 'hands on' approach.  Some people
simply don't like  the  intricacies  and  complexities  of ultra ultra-powerful
sequencers such as Cubase, Logic, and Digital Performer, and as a response, the
software houses have started to develop apps  that offer the sonic potential of
such powerhouses, yet packaged in a more 'hands-on' simplified way.  The effect
of these new-skool wares has been  massive,  Fruity Loops, Reason, Acid to name
but a few, have allowed  more  people  than  ever  to  start  making music of a
reasonable production quality.  Now I  could  talk  for  hours about this issue
alone and the effect it has had on the music industry, but yo!  I'll keep those
thoughts for another time, I have  another  agenda  here and don't want to slip
even further off-topic ;)

Of course, if you're an Atari kid, things aren't quite as rosey.  We don't have
the same choice of software available to us  that our PC owning mates do.  Sure
we have a variety of classic music  applications at our disposal, but maybe the
average scener doesn't want to dive head  first into the intricacies of Cubase.
Maybe stuff like sysex dumps,  the  logical  editor, and the interactive phrase
synthesiser leave them cold!  Hmm I  can't  think  why ;)    Historically, if a
scener wanted to play about with making music  on his or her Atari, chances are
they'd load up either protracker,  octalyser  (hi  Stefan) , if they're feeling
adventurous, flextracker (easy Nils), or if they're KevH3, Graumpfhtracker, or
whatever it's called.   Sadly,  the  atari  scene  hasn't  really  kept up with
software trends of other more  mainstream  platforms.  But things have changed!
The mega-mighty Thomas   Bergstrom  of  New  Beat,  creator  of flextracker and
willie's adventures, has gone and  smashed  it,  releasing in my humble opinion
one of the greatest scene applications EVER!

Look at the spec kids, dual occillator synthesis with a choice of waveforms and
mix techniques,  sample  playback  (8  or  16  bits,  wav  and  avr), fantastic
amplitude and envelope  shaping  sections,  lfo  with  switchable waveforms and
destinations, analogue style step modulator,  pan, reverb, delay, comprehensive
tracker editor, automation of a  number  of  parameters  within the mod...   An
incredible spec, one that wouldn't really be  out of place in a contemporary PC
audio application, and here  it  is,  running  more  or  less  happily on a bog
standard Atari Falcon!  Ok, that's the  black  and  white facts, but what is it
like in practice?

Pretty damn good.  For starters,  the  user  interface  is very very good.  The
various knobs are  easy  tweakable,  slidey  things  slide  well, buttons click
responsively.  It feels good, and given the  sheer number of knobs, buttons and
information on screen, that is  no  mean  feat.   I  was tweaking up ridiculous
sounds in a matter of seconds.  I  found  the synth section so intuitive that I
didn't touch the manual.  Try  it  for  yourself,  load  it  up, select a blank
instrument and start pressing letters on  your keyboard.  Now, while doing this
start twiddling any knob you  so  which.   For  immediate thrills I suggest you
crank up the VCF resonance  and  start  tweaking  the  VCF cutoff.  See, making
electronic music is easy!

I was really impressed by the sounds  that  the ace engine is capable of, going
through the  various  banks  I'd  downloaded,  there  was  a  whole  variety of
interesting  sounds,  ranging  from  sharp  leads  thru  fat  dirty  basses  to
ridiculous  sfx.   The  modulation   possibilities   are   quite  diverse,  and
particularly with the step modulator,  you  can  create  some bugged out noise!
(an English expression, read  as  'crazy   sounds';))   You  can  loose an hour
easily in the creation of mad  sounds,  which  I  guess is a good sign!   Sound
wise, it's more than a match for many PC/Mac softsynths out there.

But of course you're not only limited  to  the oscillators to make sounds.  You
can use your own samples as the  base  waveforms, and then proceed to twist out
your sounds using all of the sound shaping, filtering and modulation knobs that
you've been using  with  the  dsp  oscillators.   Fantastic implementation, top
marks for this.

It would have been  really  easy  for  Thomas  to  have  implemented the sample
playback in a standard kind of tracker way,  but  the fact that he's tied it in
to the main engine and allowed  it  to  be  controlled  in  the same way as the
oscillators is excellent. Ok it may require  a  little  bit of effort to get to
grips with what the envelopes and modulation  are doing to your sound, but it's
not too tough, and is a great way  to get your head round synthesis and shaping

Don't be afraid of all  those  knobs,  just  twist  em out and experiment!  And
remember Damo's number one tip for sound design, if it sounds crap, just drench
it in delay and reverb and you'll  be  OK.  By the way, the ace effects section
consists of two global settings of  reverb  and  delay, with an individual send
level for each patch.

If you're a bit of a  sound  freak  like  myself,  you can click on the 'patch'
button, and the bottom  third  of  the  screen  will  display  a nice graphical
representation of the waveform you're currently editing.  It's good to see what
Thomas's somewhat  unorthodox(!)  waveform  combination  methods  are  actually
doing, and if you're working on  a  sample  based  patch, this section offers a
nice and intuitive way of setting loop points.  I'd have liked to have a simple
cut tool to maybe do away with  unwanted  audio either side of the loop points,
but otherwise I found once again some serious  thought had gone in to this part
of the user interface.  As  a  wannabe  'coder',  I  am  full of admiration for
people with the patience to code this sort of shit.  It's hard enough coding a
bare-bones synth engine, but the GUI side of things gives me a headache just
thinking about it.

Ok so you've made a few sounds, now  you  want to sequence these babies into an
aurally pleasing combination of harmonies,  harmonics,  and rhythm.  So you hit
the 'track' button, and..

Initially, confusion.

But don't stress it, take a deep breath and have a look at whats on offer.  The
most striking thing about the tracking  section  of  ace is it's deviation from
the normal 'multiple  rows  of  tracks'  thing.   Instead,  we  get  one window
containing a solitary  'track',  and  a  window  next  to  it  with  a 'pattern
overview'.  You can tab  through  which  track  is  shown  in  detail while the
pattern overview gives you a kind of minature picture of the whole pattern.

Unconventional, but I think it's a cool idea.

You soon get used to navigating across  tracks with the keyboard shortcuts, and
I've got to say that the pattern  overview  RULES!  Imho the combination of one
detailed window and one overview screen defeats the traditional multitrack view
approach.  Purists, bring it on!!!   The  overview  window  allows you to get a
good picture of the -entire-  pattern,  and  its  much  easier  on the eye than
trying to ram 12 tracks onto one screen.  When you start playing about with the
block copying functions, the overview window becomes even more useful, visually
highlighting the block within the pattern.  It  works a treat, and you can rock
a funky beat.  I'm a poet and I  didn't  know  it.  I'm so lame, I should go to
bed in shame :)

Bloody hell, I never  realised  how  tough  writing  an  article would be!  I'm
gradually loosing my mind..  Oh well, on with the show....

Hmm other things about the tracker, well I love the fact that when you create a
pattern, you can specify it's length.  A nice touch, and good for kids who want
to maybe do alternative timings etc etc.   Similarly you can alter the the step
jump for each keypress.   Thumbs  up  for  that  also.   My  only wish for this
section is to be able to  adjust  the  frequency  of the emphasised 'bold' step
numbers. It's fixed at one every four,  I'd  like  to be able to change that if
I'm working in triplets for example, to one  every six steps..  I don't know if
I explained that very well, maybe someone out there knows what I mean.  Another
minor gripe, once  you've  created  a  pattern  of  a  certain  length, you are
committed to that length.  You can't change it.  That's a bit of a shame, but I
won't shed any tears over it.

Another great feature of the tracker is  it's  control codes, or as it is known
in this day and age, 'automation'.  A number of the knobs can be tweaked from
within the track, although sadly for me, not the most important ones, lfo depth
and lfo frequency!  As well as these  control  codes which are embedded in note
information in a traditional tracker way, each  channel has a column devoted to
automation of velocity and filter cutoff.   A  great touch, seperating the most
used control codes from the rest of the crowd...

Other things of note, well if you're  the  lucky  owner of some kind of digital
interface, you can play your creations out through that and even steal a couple
more voices while you're at it.  I don't own  one of these any more, but if the
opportunity arises, I'll be sure  to  pick  one  up.   More  power for ace, and
greater sound quality overall.

There's a few minor issues that I'm  slightly uncomfortable with, but these are
mainly a matter of personal taste,  stuff  like  the pattern length and the lfo
automation above.  Also, It took me a while to get my head around the myriad of
different ways to load/save patches/banks/whatever.   Also,  I'd really like to
see at a glance a list of the samples loaded into memory, currently you have to
actually audition a sample space to see if it is occupied,  and it's a bit of a
pain trying to remember what sample number  is what sample.  Oh yeah and before
I forget, may as well use  this  space  to  outline two issues, you've probably
sussed these out yourself,  but  just  incase,  you  need  to  be  aware of the

1)      Be aware that saving a  'mod'  saves  out  an optimised version of your
track, removing any unused samples (maybe  patterns as well, can't remember off
hand).  This is an excellent touch for  finalising your masterpiece, but can be
a bit of a shock if you're in the early stages of a tune and loose half of your
instruments you spent hours making!  Use the save 'work' to save every last bit
of your work in progress.

2)      In the early weeks of ace's release, a few people were saying that they
found the sample playback  to  be  somewhat  muffled  and  clicky, and indeed I
initially encountered this problem.  The 'problem'  lies with the default patch
settings.  The filter envelope  section  defaults  to  maximum  env depth, this
means by default the  filter  is  not  fully  open,  and  also the amp envelope
defaults to a fairly quick decay,  which  results in shaping a percussive click
over your sample.  All  perfectly  normal,  but  if  you're  wondering why your
sounds don't sound right, it's because of  these default settings.  It's no big
deal, in fact it forces  you  to  pay  attention  to,  and  to realise the huge
potential of these different sound sculpting options.

So to clarify, if you want  your  sample  to  playback as it was recorded, wind
down the filter envelope depth, and  wind  up  the sustain.  But of course, you
don't want to do that, you want  to  get creative with your sound design, don't
you? ;)  Incidentally, my little entry to  the EIL tracked music compo sufferes
from these problems.  I hadn't considered the amp or env envelopes in any of my
sample based instruments, and yet  I  was  wondering  why my samples sounded so
snappy and muffled!  Oops!

3)      Be wary of doing stuff like dialing  up  the  resonance of an instrument to the
max and then rapidly triggering samples  on  the same tracks.  You're gonna get
clicks buddy.  Sadly the  16mhz  of  processing  brawn  the Falcon offers can't
quite stretch to the  huge  polyphony  and  intelligent  note-stealing that can
prevent these sort of clicks.  With some clever planning, and a bit of bouncing
around between tracks, clicks can generally be  avoided, so once again, I'm not
gonna get moody about this.

Ok wrapping this lamo excuse for a  review  up,  well I can honestly say that I
was blown away by this release.  Thomas has  come  to the table with one of the
most stunning pieces of Atari software  ever.   Pretty much everything about it
is impressive.  If you  were  using  this  on  your  PC  or  your Mac, you'd be
impressed.  It's slick, it's user friendly, and it sounds PROPER!  And you know
what's the most amazing thing of all?   It's the realisation that all this hard
work and effort has been done for us,  this small community known as the scene.
Fucking hell it's free for gods sake.  I  don't know what we've done to deserve
it, but I think we should all let  New  Beat  know how grateful we are for this

So I beg you sceners, put protracker down for 5 minutes and get stuck into ace,
the greatest ever scene music tool,  period!   As  far as I'm concerned, with a
bit of patience, a digital interface, and some serious talent, you could easily
create commercially releasable  compositions  with  this  program.   And as for
demos, as soon as we get our hands  on  the replay source, I think we're in for
some sonic feasts within the next  generation  of Falcon prods!  And of course,
if we leave the samples out, we can get  the song file size down to as small as
a traditional chip track!

Thomas, you are the fucking daddy  mate!   I  take  my baseball cap off to you.
I'm really sorry for this pathetic attempt at a 'review', i've missed out loads
of details, hopefully you've got the general idea folks, I'm really really into
this piece of software :)  Right, I'm off for some acetracker action!  Later!


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