This is what the sequencer page looks like in Helio, as of version 3. There are other pages besides this, but you’ll spend most of the time in the sequencer.
The UI is separated into these parts:
- the breadcrumb navigation control is on the top,
- the editor canvas is in the middle,
- the project mini-map is on the bottom,
- the track navigation tools are in the left sidebar,
- the editing tools are in the right sidebar.
They will be described below, but, before you dive in,
A bit of a history and a couple of silly excuses
This project was started out of the need for an advanced MIDI editor, something like Sublime Text for music.
I was also sick and tired of visual overstimulation, which most of the music tools out there tend to have more and more (just google some pictures for “digital audio workstation”). As one of the main goals, I wanted a tool that feels right: something with an uncluttered and non-distractive UI.
So generally, I’m always trying to avoid adding UI controls if there’s a way to do without them. As it turned out, though, there are a couple of challenges with that approach (for which I don’t see simple solutions, UX design is hard):
- one challenge is to keep the UI both simple or even minimalistic and not disorienting at the same time,
- another challenge is to keep the UI look and behave consistent across all platforms, especially desktop and mobile.
If something feels misleading to you — apologizes, feel free to report that to help identify the main friction points.
The breadcrumb control on the top is responsible for the navigation over the workspace.
The root node called
Studio contains links to all available pages and open projects:
Breadcrumbs are displaying a hierarchy of the current page you’re on.
Under the hood, all pages live in a tree-like structure like this:
- Dashboard for the projects list, a fancy logo, and a couple of buttons
- Settings for choosing a language, audio drivers, playing with UI flags, etc
- Orchestra pit for managing plugins and instruments on the stage
- Instrument 1 page for setting up audio/MIDI routing for all plugins in your instrument
- Instrument 2 page and so on
- Project 1 page for the basic project info: title, author, etc
- Piano roll for editing
- Pattern roll for arranging
- Version control page
- Project 2 page
- Piano roll
- ..and so on
Note that all items in the breadcrumb control have their own context menus:
Creating a Project
After starting Helio the first time you should have a simple example project already open in the editor. Here’s a couple of steps that can help you to get started:
- to rename the project, click
Example Projectin the breadcrumb control, and you’ll see the project info page with some details available for editing,
- after renaming, go back by pressing
Alt + Left Arrowor by pressing the back button on the top left, and you should get back in the piano roll page,
- note that you can only edit one track at a time: use right-click to switch to another track (or long tap on mobile),
- switch to the pattern roll by pressing
Page Down, or by clicking the uppermost button in the left sidebar, to play with arrangement,
- double-click any clip to return to the piano roll with that clip in focus; at this point you should get an idea how things work in the sequencer layout.
To start a new project from scratch, navigate to the dashboard by pressing the
Home key, or clicking the
Studio node in the breadcrumbs. There you’ll see the list of recent projects, and a couple of buttons:
- create an empty project,
- open a project (this also imports MIDI files).
Switching between projects
There are several ways:
- use the
/hotkey to show the projects list in the command palette,
- or hover the
Studioitem in the breadcrumb control, which shows the menu with all open projects (the most inconvenient way so far),
- back and forward buttons also can be useful sometimes, the related hotkeys are
Alt + Cursor Leftand
Alt + Cursor Right.
The most notable difference in the instruments management from the majority of DAW’s and sequencers out there is that Helio separates instruments from projects.
Each project only holds the instrument “references” (basically, the hashcodes of the instrument info), so that the instrument settings are not saved in the project file, but rather in the application workspace settings.
Instruments are also created and set up in a separate page, called Orchestra Pit.
The reason for implementing it this way was that in my workflow, I tend to use all the same instruments for all the projects. The app was designed primarily as a sketching and prototyping tool, and I usually have lots of sketches, so all the operations that involve switching between projects, opening and closing them, or checking out in the version control, were ought to be as fast as possible, and not eat up all the memory.
If your setup implies always having different instruments or instrument settings for each project, or if you want the project file to contain the instrument details, Helio will make you suffer.
On the other hand, if you happen to have an instrument library you’re comfortable with (e.g. VSL or some selected soundfonts collection), and you want to set it up once and forget, you’ll probably like this approach.
Orchestra pit page
The orchestra pit page has two sections:
- all found plugins are displayed on the left side,
- all instruments on stage, created from those plugins, are on the right.
First, you want to scan for available plugins, there are two options in the orchestra pit menu:
- either pick a specific folder to scan (note that all subfolder will be scanned as well),
- or perform a global plugins scan: it tries to guess the most possible locations, e.g. Steinberg folders in Program Files, and scans them and all their subfolders.
Once you have a list of plugins, create an instrument using the plugin menu, so that it appears on the stage and can be assigned to your tracks.
Instrument details and routing
Double-click on any of the instruments to get to the instrument details page.
Most of the actions here, including audio and MIDI routing, are available through the menus.
Interacting with nodes:
- left-click on the node will create a plugin window, it it has one, or just select it, if it doesn’t,
- right-click on the node will just select it,
- use mouse drag to connect sockets representing audio and MIDI inputs and outputs.
While it is possible to set up a multi-plugin instrument with audio/MIDI routing in Helio, the convenience of the instrument page was not of a particular concern: the development is rather focused on the sequencer functionality. If you are running it under Linux, it might be a good idea to add Carla as an instrument, and use it to manage VST/whatever plugins and routing.
Editing and arranging
On the top of the editor canvas, there’s a timeline control. To interact with it:
- left click at the timeline to position the playhead,
- middle-click to start the playback from that position,
- right click to invoke the timeline events menu:
Timeline events include annotations, key signatures and time signatures, and they don’t affect the playback of your piece in any way, they are rather meant to provide a visual cue.
Manipulating the timeline events:
- click on any event to focus the playhead at its position,
- once focused, click again to edit or delete the event (displays a dialog),
- drag to move, or shift-drag to duplicate the event.
Annotations are just text markers with optionally adjustable length:
Right-click on the annotation selects all notes of the active track up to the next annotation.
Time signatures simply define the way the vertical grid lines are aligned in the roll:
Right-click on the time signature selects all notes of the active track up to the next time signature.
If you need to manage complex rhythms, see this page.
Key signatures affect the way the rows are highlighted in the piano roll, but this can be disabled.
Apart from that, arpeggiators and a couple of other tools rely on key signatures to figure out the current harmonic context.
If you have enabled the playback loop over the selected scope, timeline will display the repeat signs:
This sidebar is responsible for track navigation and UI control.
Most buttons on the sidebars have keyboard shortcuts, which makes them kinda redundant, but they are displayed anyway for the sake of having a consistent UI on mobiles or touch-screen laptops, where you don’t have hotkeys.
- — switch the editor view between the piano roll and the pattern roll (
- — zoom out (
Shift + Z), zoom in (
Z), and zoom selection (
Control + Tab),
- — jump over the timeline events (
- — toggle the velocity map (
- — UI flags that toggle scales highlighting and the note guides (
- — a simple waveform or spectrogram view.
This sidebar is responsible for editing tools and playback control:
- — toggle the playback loop over the selection (
- — edit modes (
- — some other tools - the chord tool and arpeggiators, if available,
- — copy and paste, undo and redo,
- — playback (
Enter) and recording (
The piano roll always limits the editable scope to a single track. You will see all other tracks in a semi-transparent ghost mode. Most common interactions with the piano roll canvas are:
- right-click on the inactive note to focus the editor to another track,
- right-drag the empty space to pan the canvas:
Interacting with piano roll also depends on the current edit mode:
- normal mode to manage selection and edit notes,
- pen mode to add and edit notes,
- alternatively, use it to delete notes or clips with right mouse button,
- knife mode: cuts notes in the piano roll, cuts tracks in the pattern roll,
- alternatively, use it to merge tracks or notes with right mouse button,
- drag-only mode: a kind of auxiliary mode, hold
Spaceto toggle it temporarily,
- selection mode is only displayed on mobile platforms.
All notes, when edited, are aligned to the grid. The grid resolution (the density of barlines) depends on the zoom level and supports up to 1/64 notes. Tip: holding
Alt while editing notes disables snapping to the grid.
All edits are undoable; note that the last 10 undo actions are saved in the project and are still available after restarting the app.
All changes are saved automatically: on exit, and on a timeout after the last change.
The editor relies heavily on hotkeys; feel free to explore available actions by browsing breadcrumb control menus or command palette.
Adding new tracks
Add new tracks by duplicating the existing ones (
F5), or via project menu, or by cutting tracks with the knife tool in the pattern roll.
The velocity levels editor (toggled by
V hotkey) provides a way to visualize and draw gradual increase/decrease in note volume.
As well as the piano roll, the velocity map limits its editable scope to the active track. But in addition, if any notes are selected, the editable scope is limited to the selection, to make it easier to draw more complex ramps for different chunks of the track:
At the moment of writing, only linear ramps are implemented:
You can also change note velocities without this editor, just by middle-button dragging the note components on the roll.
The record button (
F12) will try to auto-detect the available and enabled MIDI input device, or provide a choice if there are more than one (the choice is “remembered” and can be changed later in the settings page):
If the recording mode is on, but the playback has not started yet, it will wait until it receives the first MIDI event and start recording & playback.
In the piano roll mode, it always records to the selected track/clip:
In the pattern roll, it either records to the selected track/clip, or, if no piano clip is selected, it adds one, once the actual recording starts.
You don’t necessarily need that editor. Helio was designed to be a hybrid linear-based/pattern-based sequencer, so you could just stay in the piano roll mode and treat your project as one big canvas.
However, the pattern roll is helpful for rearranging experiments:
Pattern roll also allows you to tweak some track parameters, like key offset of velocity multiplier. In future, it may shift towards more parametric sequencer features.
See also: track grouping
Pattern roll is also the place to edit various MIDI controller automation tracks - most notable, the tempo track(s):
The tempo track, as any other automation track, interpolates the controller value between nodes, and those tiny points are displayed at the exact times each new MIDI event is sent.
To interact with it:
- delete nodes with right click,
- use the pen tool (hotkey
2) to add nodes,
- use the cursor tool (hotkey
1) to drag nodes or to adjust the interpolation curve,
- click on the node to invoke the tempo dialog to set the exact BPM value, or to set tempo by tapping:
Tip: use the mouse wheel to quickly ajdust the tempo in this dialog.
Often, you only need one tempo for the whole song - for that, pick “Set one tempo” menu item in the tempo track menu, or project refactoring menu.
The concept of version control comes from the software development world. If you’re not familiar with it, you can think of it as of creating “save points” in your project, and tracking changes made since the last time you saved.
The point of having a version control is lowering the friction of committing changes: any changes can be reset if you don’t like them, any saved revision can be restored later. Helio was started as a prototyping tool, a playground for ideas, where you’d want to have several variations of your sketch — hence the idea of having a built-in version control.
Notable use cases are:
- saving a project state at some point, and resetting to any earlier saved state,
- resetting some of the recent changes (think of it as of another mechanism of undoing things),
- hiding and restoring back the most recent changes to get the idea of what have been done since the last commit,
- synchronizing projects across devices.
The UI of the versions page is split in two parts:
The left side lists all changes in the project, compared to the current revision. Items in the list can be checked and unchecked: both committing and resetting changes are applied selectively.
The right side shows the tree of all revisions that you have saved. Note a couple of icons under each revision: they indicate whether the revision is available locally, or remotely, or both.