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Notator main screen


Sequencing and notation system

What would an Atari-MIDI site be without a page on the "famous" Notator? While I have the full program myself, I felt I could not comment enough on this deep and wonderful program to create a good page for it. David Etheridge comes to the rescue with an excellent article which he originally submitted to SOS magizine, but has now given permission to have on my site. Thankyou David! David is a member of the Atari-MIDI forum as well as the Notator forum.Screen shots are taken (with permission) from Hallvard Tangeraas excellent resource at www.notator.org(See links)

David Etheridge looks at this influential program.

Like many other musos in the late 80s, I started sequencing on the Atari using an 'industry standard' 24 track program. After the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth, I eventually settled down to 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' -save after every pass- because I found it crashed 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. It's called suffering for your art.

Then, one day, I got notes hanging on my DX5 master keyboard for no reason. Which was broken, the Atari or the keyboard? The Synth Service Centre could find nothing wrong with the DX5, and the guy on the help line for this particular program initially tried blinding me with science or telling me things about the program I already knew. In the end, his suggested master fix was to 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. Enter our esteemed editor (may Allah bless his name), who suggested trying my keyboard with Notator. I went over and tried my DX5 with his program at his studio: no problems. Changing back to the 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, in preference over other 'sexier', technicolour laden, and up to date programs. Why? Well, let's have a look at Notator and what makes it so special.

In the beginning..........

Was the Commodore 64, noted for unreliability, eccentricity and limited memory. But, this Austin Allegro 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 the beast. Amongst the best of these was C-lab's Supertrack, written by Gerhard Lengeling (the man who gave us Notator), and the SOS review of May 86 spoke glowingly of the hidden depths lurking inside what seemed at first sight a basic program.

By 1987, Creator appeared, followed quickly by Notator v.1.12. Notator is 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 seperate 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. Notator runs on a 1 meg Atari ST; in fact, early 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 in fact they WERE new at the time.

Look at the screen display. Quite simple and straightforward, as Notator conformed to 'drum machine' style pattern recording. Break your song down into sections (intro, verse, chorus, etc.) and work on each in isolation. Then assemble your patterns into arrangements, and you've got a song. But there's more, much more. Each pattern held 16 tracks, but with the wonders of MIDI, any track could be any combination of MIDI channels, which could be merged and unmerged at will. You'ld need to do this eventually, as Notator, with a couple of hardware add-ons, could happily run no fewer than 96 MIDI channels!! Unparalleled at the time, and even today only exceeded by Mac and PC systems that use units from the likes of MOTU for hundreds or even thousands of MIDI channels. Again, at the time, multichannel expanders were only beginning to be available (The M1 was only 8 channel, and the Kurzweil 1000 series 16 channel multitimbral -MIDI controllable FX and mixers were still in their infancy).

Some MIDI programs of the time would rave away in ads about 200 tracks being available- but still only supporting 16 channels (for that matter, I suppose you could have 200 tracks of drums on just 1 channel). To help things even more, from right from the beginning you had 64 tracks available, as Notator could play back four patterns at a time in 'levels', marked A-D in the arrange box. For example, level A could be for verse, chorus, etc., level B for solos, level C for sysex and controller dumps, and level D for temp changes. Or anything else that you wanted! Notator supports up to 99 patterns. On each one, you can name the pattern itself, each track, and which instrument is connected to which MIDI channel. From version 3 onwards, pattern names would be automatically duplicated in the arrange box, or they could be overwritten. If 16 tracks in a pattern aren't enough, you can choose '32 track' display, which combines pairs of patterns together. You need a magnifying glass at times though! A later 'Pattern Overview' lists names and numbers for when you get lost (as you will sooner or later).

Track records.

The track box on the right of the main pattern box gives info on each track: 1-16, but also subgrouped from A-F, giving 96 channels in all. Quantise gives a colossal range of options, from 4s to 798/1536 for super accurate timing. Indeed, the cognoscenti/ honest ones amongst MIDI users will still claim that Atari's timing beats both Macs and PCs hands down even now. Most importantly, all timing is NON-DESTRUCTIVE. All info is stored exactly as you played it, and Notator provides the quantising on screen. It can be changed days, weeks, or months later to anything else you wish.

Next up, time to get groovy with groove templates. Preset ones are 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 added swing or groove. You can create Status Quo grooves, reggae hi-hats, etc easily. Then there's 4 against 3 (1216), 3 against 2 (8-12), 5, 7 and 9 in a beat! In addition you can set ranges in a track for different quantisation values (say one beat with 5s or 7s-you won't want a whole pattern of those unless you're in psychic communication with Frank Zappa). Free quantisation 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 scope to create your own grooves.

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 easier than on some more recent programs. You can also disable transpose for drum tracks (transposed drum tracks can give odd results-although you might like the results!).

Velocity lets you add/subtract from whatever velocity you played to set up overall track balances in a pattern. Compress smoothes out velocities; you can also select a minus value to increase the difference (expansion). Loops can loop any length of a track from 1 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; 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. Lowest and highest set ranges when dealing with keyboard splits (eg. Bass/ piano). If you play any notes outside the set ranges, Notator ignores them.

Last but by no means least, the 'Ghost of' sets up 'virtual reality tracks. This looks at any other track IN ANY PATTERN and reads the information on it. This way you can double up on parts with other sounds, but I use it all the time to save memory rather than copying tracks from one pattern to another.

Notator Editing Screen

The joys of editing.

Press the Edit button, and you can go to any of four different modes: Score, Event, Matrix, and, from version 3 onwards, Hyperedit.

Notator Score Screen

Score edit is for the music reading folks, offering any clef you might want (including alto, tenor, mezzosoprano, octave transposition of treble and bass clefs and even a drum clef). Editing is via the mouse and pointer grab/enter/delete: notes can be written in with the mouse pointer, and if you want to get rid of them, just grab them and throw them off the page. 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, allied to printer options from humble 9 pin dot matrix to HP laserjet. The Event editor is standard fare, and can be edited as to just what is displayed or filtered.

Notator matrix Screen

The grid based Matrix editor will be familiar to all non music reading folks, and is the main editing page on Creator.

Notator Hyperedit Screen

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. The faders can be grouped, and as the info will be stored on a single track but containing 16 channels worth of data, then you can set up extra RMG tracks for each type of controller data. There's lots of power available here! The joys of synchronisation.

Early sync facilities on sequencing programs could be basic, limited or long winded. Notator's use of Unitor for easy, bug free sync'ing was (and remains) one of the best. The SMPTE sync page was there from v.2, but only offering a single tempo. On later versions you can clock a SMPTE reference from tempo data recorded in any track in any pattern-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. Obviously, it's standard on Logic now, but this was the original. Display times can be set at bars/beats, or milliseconds, or frames. Essential when working to video, and it's helped me get several soundtrack jobs!

Hints and tips on the best of the rest.

I could go on for ages about the rest of the program, but space does no allow etc... However, here are a few observations, hints and tips.

I never got the hang of the Transform page. There, I've said it! This allows you to essentially 'transform' any kind of MIDI data to any other kind of MIDI data. The only time I attempted it (changing all the notes from one kick drum to another) it wouldn't work despite religiously following the manual, and 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 coming unstuck.

How reliable is Notator?

Very, very reliable indeed. Even using it full time, I use to have a crash about every six months, and I haven't had a crash for five years now (maybe I'm due for one). 9 times out of ten, if the program did hang, I could bash the 'Enter' button a few times, go and have a pee/ cuppa/ walk the dog/ etc 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) and 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! I was using a 1 meg ST, so perhaps 2 or 4 meg of memory would cure this problem. If anyone has any ideas, I'd appreciate comment on this.

Hints and tips.

If you're doodling along on your keyboard with a playback and play a phrase that you like, don't hit the stop button. Simply select and 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 on for editing.

I always put a silent bar at the start for patch and controller settings, and I turn the quantisation 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 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) if chords are playing on the beat. I've found that the patch change can occasionally be missed 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. Talking of which, DON'T use the 'New Song' facility, as it initialises the whole screen. You'll lose channel names, count in's etc. 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 (just which of the hundreds 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.

And finally: 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!

What place has Notator 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, very stable and reliable, with lots of add ons for up to 96 channels of MIDI and 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 4 meg system with hard disk, Log 3 and Unitor remains a very powerful and flexible setup that won't break the bank. All that's needed now is for an upgraded ST with more memory (say 6meg) and faster speeds for even better results, as has been done with Cubase (how about it, KMS?)


Notator doesn't just offer a superb program, but also some extra add ons to increase the capabilities out of all proportion. They comprise:

Unitor:-the perfect twit proof synchroniser-just plug it in and forget about it. This comes in two versions: The original C-lab Unitor had the program dongle built in (there are seperate Unitors for both Creator and Notator), whereas E-magic's Unitor 2 has a seperate port for the program dongle, and could also be used with Logic on the Atari for sync purposes. Unitor offers two extra MIDI ins (which are merged with the Atari's own MIDI in), and two independent MIDI outs, covering channels E1-16, and F1- 16. It also reads and writes SMPTE in all the usual formats. The level direct to tape on an R8 is exactly 0dB, so you don't need to go via the desk, or record at a lower level. It also seems to generate minimal crosstalk on tape (Steinberg's Timelock worked well, but was exceptionally noisy, bleeding across tracks even at -10dB or less).

Combiner: With 2mB or more of memory and running Softlink, you can run up to 9 programs with true multitasking. Combiner allows up to four dongle protected programs to be used at the same time, or switched in and out. Unitor plugs into the outer face of combiner.

Export: C-lab's MIDI channel expander that plugs into the RS232 modem connector on the Atari. This give an extra 48 channels of MIDI (B, C and D1-16). However, be aware that the modem port basically isn't fast enough for the job of running all 48 channels accurately. Port B will be okay, but the Notator manual suggests that you use ports C and D for 'non time dependent' (whatever that's supposed to mean) MIDI info. Export will also work with other make sequencing packages such as Dr. T's KCS program. To get round the problems, you'll need:

Log 3: this is the multiport expander and dongle for both Logic AND Notator. From version 3.21, the code in Notator was re- written, so that ports B, C and D are now routed automatically to ports G. H and I in Log 3. Timing problems are now eliminated, but, as far as I know, you can't run Log 3 and Export together with Notator for 9 output, 144 MIDI channel use (although it would be nice!!), contrary to some Internet claims, although they WILL work with Logic. NOTE: you can't use the original Unitor with Log 3, as they BOTH have the program dongle built in. Something's likely to go bang if you try it! For video fans, we have:

Steady Eye: a VITC (Vertical Integrated Timecode) which reads frame accurate time code even in freeze frame or single frame advance mode. Steady Eye will also generate phase locked SMPTE/EBU code, and can control VTRs via its sync out. It connects to Unitor via the multiport.

Human Touch: from version 3 onwards, this unit allowed you to sync Notator to audio tracks. You could take a tempo guide from say, a drum track, and Notator could then create a sync reference tempo map. You could even use the built in microphone and clap along to set the tempo!

And last but by no means least, the SOS bookshop may still have copies of the Notator Training Video left at 9.99 or thereabouts (I got mine a few months ago and it really is superb).


Here is a rough guide to the different versions of Notator, and some of the distinctive features in each one. It's by no means definitive!

V.1.2: The original version, supporting 16 channels, 64 tracks, and 99 patterns in 4 levels of arrangement (A-D).
V.2.0: Adds the RMG (real time MIDI generator) and Synchronisation page (no tempo changes, only single tempo). There's a notorious pirate copy of this in existence (as of Cubase)-it doesn't really work properly!
v.2.1: Adds a useful AutoGEM autoload accessory, and more score editing and printing options.
v.2.2: Very reliable version-mine just refused to crash, ever! Came with Virus killers on the disk (thanks, folks!), and a fully working sync facility via Unitor that would lock to individual tracks for multiple tempo changes. Drum layouts for Roland, Korg, etc. Softlink added, for full multitasking of up to 9 programs dependent on memory.
v.3.0 (now called SL): Not so reliable-some bugs reported. Hyperedit included, with drum layouts for Roland, Korg, Proteus, Yamaha, controller editors. RMG editors for Lexicon LXP1 FX, M1 FX, TG/SY77 FX. Fit time calculator (to four decimal places) for SMPTE sync-essential for video work-I'd be lost without it!
v.3.1: More stable again, and also adds graphic arrange mode- rather like Cubase display, but at right angles (up/down).
v.3.15 and 3.16: more scoring and printing improvements (as in most previous versions).
v.3.21: The last version (which will also work on the TT). More scoring and printing improvements. Compatible with Log 3 for the Falcon, routing ports B, C and D (from Export) to G, H and I on Log 3. Note that earlier versions won't work with Log 3, although 3.21 will work happily with Unitor 1. This version has no autoload file on it (Probably meant for direct copying onto hard disk). The program's just too big for anything else on the disk! With the later versions came extra disks with Demos, Fonts and Tutorials.

Example prices in 1992: Creator 3.1: 330. Notator 3.1: 550. Unitor 2: 390. Export: 132. Human Touch: 170. Steady Eye: 456. These are RRPs; many dealers offered deals with/without Atari STs.

Prices in 2000: Creator: 50-80. Notator: 80-110. Unitor: 90-150. Export: 30-50. Human Touch and Steady Eye: No prices reported. (Figures based on dealers and private ads. Combinations of the above may be cheaper eg. Notator and Unitor: 150.) Prices in 2002: even cheaper, dependent on where you are in the world. UK and European prices can be next to nothing (people are throwing STs away!), while in the U.S. of A, Ataris are rather rare by comparison. Check places like www.ebay.com or the readers ads at www.sospubs.co.uk and you could easily find a bargain!!


Notator's very well supported on the net, but not from the manufacturers! Webferret (on a PC) or Google will come up with hundreds of links, but the prime source for all Notatarians is the Notator/ Creator mailing list on:

www. notator. org.

This includes downloads of Notator 3.21, Creator 3.1, manual files, demos and much more. Note that these downloads are NOT hacked, and will only work with the real dongle. Also available here is C-lab's Director, a 9K accessory that routes ANY program to the B-F ports, so you don't need to do lots of replugging when using synth editors. You'll also find lots of hints and tips on revving up the system, fixes for any problems, and advice when working.

Some programs formerly under the C-lab banner have been released as freeware (notably Explorer 32 for Roland D50, D110 et al), but currently, E-magic show no interest in following suit with Notator despite demand from Notator users. Any requests usually meet with promo material about how great Logic is, and they no longer want to support the Atari (Sound Technology even recently admitted to me that they still get requests for the Unitor). C-lab have gone over to supporting Cubase via the Falcon Mk.X, and despite sympathetic noises, no action has been taken.

The irrepressible Hallvard Tangeraas (author of the Notator list) is also behind the Atari Launchpad on gem.win.co.nz/hall. This is the New Zealand location, which I find is quicker and less cluttered than the Norwegian and U.S. locations. Here you'll find essentials like copiers, compression/decompression utilities and much more, as well as links to just about everything you might need for Atari music making, including links to several manufacturers of Export 'clones' (in case you can't find one s/h).



The best resource for Notator / Creator users is Hallard Tangeraas' Notator site, Notator.org. Here you will find all the latest versions of the software. You will need your dongle for them to work however. Hallvard also has excellent FAQ pages as well as downloads for all Atari musicians. Hallvard is also the moderator of the Notator mailing list, so if you use Notator, feel free to join in on the fun! The complete archives of the list are available as well as searchable.Thanks go to Hallvard for all the work put into this invaluable resource.

Hallvards Atari Launchpad