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A Musical Language

SCOM under Steem on a PC


A Musical Language
Released as SHAREWARE May 2002

Trond Einar Garmo of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (and a member of the Atari-MIDI forum) has contacted the creators of SYMBOLIC COMPOSER, (SCOM) and they have now agreed to a shareware release of this remarkable software. Trond also prepared the package which includes all the documentation and a special excel file to convert Dr T's KCS files to SCOM files. See the download link below. It is a 6 MEG download due mostly to the size of the documentation, which includes a PDF and Windows help File.Trond has the files made to operate seamlessly under Steem, while of course you can run them on a regular Atari with at least 2 megs of RAM.A Hard Drive is recommended.

What Is It?

Because of its unique design Symbolic Composer can play many roles. Symbolic Composer is a production tool for making music with MIDI. Symbolic Composer is an expert-system for music composition. Symbolic Composer is a programming language for musicians based on Lisp. Symbolic Composer is a mapper enabling any data to become music.

In Symbolic Composer's terms music is thought of as a language expressed in melodies, rhythms, notes, durations, harmonies, tonalities, chords and intervals. This language is largely symbolic, lying invisibly behind sound and timbre as the inner substance of the musical message. No matter what style or idiom you work in the basic elements of this language are always present.

What It Is Not?

Symbolic Composer is not a MIDI sequencer or scorewiter. Symbolic Composer does not record material directly from your keyboard, but is able to analyse MIDI files for further processing. Symbolic Composer does not play back MIDI recording directly, but compiles all its data to MIDI file. You'll still need your favourite sequencer for handling MIDI data input and playing the results.

Because nothing quite like Symbolic Composer has existed before, there will be many features new to the MIDI community. As a sequencer-user you are already familiar with complex editing routines and organisation of your compositional material. Symbolic Composer pushes these concepts further.

Symbolic Composer is a programming environment. It contains an editor and compiler. Your scores are written in text within an editor window. This text is then evaluated and turned into a MIDI file.

What You Need?

You do need some experience with MIDI sequencing and a willingness to take time out to learn a new language. Symbolic Composer helps you develop a new and relationship with your music and understand more about the way its elements connect and interact

Symbolic Composer Atari v2.01

This distribution of Symbolic Composer Atari includes the full Atari version 2.01. This includes all the files in the folders SCOM, SCOMDATA and SCOMDOCS. The default setup on an Atari is to copy these folders to drive E:\ on the harddisk. More info on how to run Symbolic Composer on an Atari is found in the manual.

The recommended sequencer to run in conjunction with Symbolic Composer is Dr. T's KCS. Version 4.0 of this is downloadable from Tim's Atari Midi World at http://tamw.atari-users.net/omega.htm . Version 5.11 (full package with Programmable Variations Generator etc.) is still sold by Dr. T (Emile Tobenfeld). More info at http://www.foryourhead.com

The distribution also contains files made especially to run the Atari version on a Windows (or Linux?) machine using an Atari emulator. The best emulator available is Steem (or XSteem for Linux), downloadable from http://www.blimey.strayduck.com/ . Steem is still under development, and it is recommended to get the latest version.

The recommended text editor is TextPad, downloadable from http://www.textpad.com .

The extra files for running SCOM under emulation are:

Help files\Symbolic_Composer.chm - this is a standard Windows Help-file in html-help format. If installed in TextPad under the Tools menu, it will lookup marked words in your sourcefile. It contains the full Atari manual and parts of the Mac manual.

TexPad files\ - this folder contains clip libraries (*.TCL) and syntax file (SymbCom.syn) for use with TextPad.

Scom manager

SCOM Tutorial
This was prepared by Trond. It will at least get you started on the system.

You need to set up the program right. The program defaults to the E:\ drive on your harddisk, but many example files also saves the midifiles to D:\Songs. This can of course be changed in the sourcefiles. But, on the E:\ drive you should have three folders: SCOM, SCOMDATA and SCOMDOCS. Inside SCOM you should have the programs, plus a folder with the LISP image files. There are two ways of using the program, either inside a sequencer (KCS is best, but Cubase and Notator is also possible), or by using the Menu+ program. I would prefer the latter. If you start that program, go to the "file" menu, then choose one of the example sourcefiles (there are lots of tutorial files, I suggest the "step 1-8" files first). Then click on editor (not edit), and Everest will load with that file. (Edit is the old editor, which is very difficult to use - it is for datanerds only.) After inspecting the file exit Everest, click SCOM, and the compiler will compile the file to a MIDI file. When it is done, click ctrl+C to get out. Alternatively, click SC. You will then get a prompt. There you write (compose 'filename), then press enter. (This is what you have to do when you use it within KCS.) Last, click on KCS and load the MIDI file to listen to it.

The compiler is not very forgiving if you have syntax errors in your source files. So I prefer to copy and paste the expressions. In Everest there are plenty of shortcuts also, but it is difficult to remember. And there are Harlekin macros that do the same. In Menu+ you can also access the "Yellow pages" files where you will find most functions. I had made a ST Guide hyp-file for the purpose. I am now working on a Windows help-file of the Symbolic Composer manual.

The basics:

You write a sourcefile where you define tonalities, melody, rhythm, velocity and expression separately for each instrument. You can define some basic material first, then do manipulations to that. You use symbols for melodies (a b c d etc.) Rhythms can be written in a number of ways, like 1/8, 1/16 etc, with ticks (dependent of your sequencer resolution), with formulas like -- -, etc. (With a tonality of C major and a symbolic melody like (a b c d e f g) you get a c major scale.) Last you compile it. There are two ways of compiling, either "compile-song" or "compile-instruments". The first use a time-sheet, which visualises when the instrument plays or not, and when it change tonality (---- plays, spaces is pause, and . is tonality change). It is a bit easier to use, but if you plan to write a long song and have a high resolution for control of tonality changes, you would get very long lines. The other approach is to use zones. There you would have to calculate more accurately your tonality changes, but it can be written like 2/4, 1/4, 1/8 etc. You have the choice of eiter saving a multitrack MIDI file or separate MIDI files for each instrument. If you choose the latter, it would be an advantage to use KCS and the Song editor to line up the instruments.

All of the parameters in a song (tonality, melody, rhythm, velocity, zones) can be generated by the program, and they can be manipulated la PVG. There is also a library of symbols that you can pick from. You can either use functions that work with symbols, or vectors that has to be converted to symbols afterwards. It takes some time to get into all of this, and to get the syntax right. But there are great possibilities. The whole point of the program would be to use the generators etc., otherwise it would just be a very difficult way of doing steptime-recording. In the example files you will find different kinds of music, both popular and modern classical. You can also use it as a kind of "band-in-a-box"-program, and pick drums and chords etc. for different styles from the libraries.

Just go ahead and try out the example files, and see if you like it.

I addition to asking the author about the release I have done two-three things:

1) Prepared the complete manual as a Windows Help-file. The printout of this helpfile was then converted to PDF, so you have both options. (The PDF-file looks ugly and is very big.)

2) I made a KCS-to-SCOM spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel. This analyzes and converts the printout from KCS tracks (via Steem) to Symbolic Composer symbols.

3) I made some files for the Windows Text editor TextPad.

(Plus I wrote some readmefiles about how to set up the program in Steem.)

My files was made to run Symbolic Composer smoothly in Windows under Steem, so Atari only users won't benefit from them. But the complete program in it's latest version is there for you anyway.

What is Symbolic Composer?
This program is in my opinion the most comprehensive composing environment ever written. It was developed on the Atari from 1987 to 1996, but was ported to the Mac in the beginning of the 90's. The Mac version has a much nicer user interface with menus etc. and is a quite different beast today, but the main set of functions are the same for both programs. A PC version is in the works also, but the project has been delayed a few years.

Symbolic Composer is a LISP based programming language. It kind of lives on top of LISP, although LISP functions can also be used directly in the source code. When you have written your sorucefile the LISP interpreter/compiler compiles standard MIDI-files. In the Atari version these files must be edited in a sequencer to add MIDI channels, programs, controllers etc. The best environment for the compiler and text editor is KCS with MPE, although both Cubase with MROS and Notator with Softlink can be used.

The program takes some time to learn fluently, but the package comes with good tutorials and quite many example files in a number of styles - rock, jazzrock, new age, electroacoustic and C20 classical style compositions.

I would highly recommend this program, despite the (lack of) user interface and steep learning curve. (For Steem users it looks a bit nicer, especially if you run the recommended setup with TextPad.)

Trond Einar Garmo
Norwegian University of Science and Technology


The Atari version of Symbolic Composer is downloadable from the Symbolic Composer homepage (shareware price is 39.95 EUROS):
Homepage for SCOM

For those that are interested in Musical Programing Languages there is a a program based on the FORTH language developed by Frank Rothkamm called IFORM.There are a few GUI add-ons to this as well. Follow the tutorial.
IFORM download and Tutorial