A Visit From The Doctor
Al Hospers, chief executive officer of Dr.T's Music Software in Boston, paid a flying visit to the recent PC Show during a whirlwind tour of Europe. Paul Gilby asks him about the past, present and future activities of this prolific music software house.
Al Hospers used to be a studio session musician, playing bass guitar around New York, and was on the road with Blood Sweat and Tears but gave up the gigging life after the birth of his daughter. "I wanted to be at home where I could spend more time with the family, so I ended up going back to college to study computers," Al explained. "It was there that I met Emile Tobenfeld, who actually is 'Dr.T'; he has a PhD in Physics. After a while I started selling his programs to people I knew in New York, and then later he asked me to come and work for him, and soon I became his business partner."
At the time, Dr.T were producing music programs for the Commodore 64 and Apple II, but things were about to change. "One day I saw the Atari ST and thought, 'Wow, this is a poor man's Macintosh!' It had lots of memory, colour graphics, and above all it was affordable. So we bought an ST and started writing a sequencer for it."
At this time, the USA music software scene was still in its infancy: Steinberg had yet to arrive in the States and Hybrid Arts had just released their first program. "After the sequencer," Al recalled, "came DX Heaven, our first synth editor on the ST. We went on to produce some other editors, and then things really started to happen!"
The next major advance came after Al read about a switcher program for the IBM PC, called Software Carousel: "To my knowledge, it was the first program of its type. It allowed several different programs to be loaded into memory at once, and then you could switch between them without having to load in another program off disk. From that observation we created the Multi Program Environment, or MPE module as it's known, some two years ago and have been constantly refining it over the years. Now we are taking the idea into a GEM-style version, which retains its fast update speed as well as the further benefits that GEM has to offer."
Dr.T's programs have until recently all been characterised by their text-based screen displays. I asked Al why they had adopted that approach in place of graphics-based screens, and whether the pressure of market forces would mean abandoning their original concept?
"There were originally two major reasons for the text approach. First, we felt that a user of one of our programs, like the KCS sequencer, should be able to walk into any studio and instantly be able to use another copy of KCS, even though it might not be running on the same computer as he had at home. Therefore we didn't use GEM on the ST, or the other graphic systems on the Mac and PC. Our intention was to make them all look pretty similar. The advantage was that you didn't have to learn another computer and its sequencer program.
"The second reason for not using GEM on the ST was that - at the time - people were coming out with icons for everything, and I really had a problem using some Mac programs, where the icons just didn't make sense. To me, I saw no logic in having an icon which didn't seem to represent anything I could obviously understand, when it was quicker to just read the word. So, we went more for text-based screens. Text is also faster to update, because you haven't got all that screen redrawing of graphic icons to go through. In avoiding GEM we were able to make our programs around three times faster than our competitors'. If you compare even our very early KCS sequencer with the latest Cubase, you'll see that our screens update much faster because we don't use the same operating system calls in our software. Now, with the new KCS Version 1.7, we have implemented a GEM-style approach but our experience has allowed us to keep it running fast through careful programming."
Screen update time is very important to Al: "When I'm using a sequencer, I don't want it to get in the way of my music. I know that as I change screen I want to be moving the mouse pointer over to a particular area, and be ready and waiting; it becomes a fluid motion. I don't want to have to wait a second, because my mind is thinking about the music, and I don't want to lose my concentration. When you become familiar with a program, you want to really 'move' - and that's when you start to become a 'power user' and use the keyboard commands all the time. I don't want to have to move my hands too much. I want to keep my right hand on the mouse and my left hand on the computer keyboard. As I move the mouse across the screen, I want to be hitting something like a Control T key command to select the Track screen. I don't want to have to move the mouse up to the menu bar, pull down the menu, and select the command or even click on a button. It's too slow - and when you really know a program well, it's the time that you have to wait between screen changes or command selection that really slows you down. I know what I want to do and where I'm going, and I don't want to wait for those screens to redraw!"
Dr.T are now upgrading their software not to a pure GEM interface - GEM alone is far too slow - but to a 'graphic interface'. KCS on the ST looks similar to the Amiga version but neither use GEM. Al outlined the reason for this:
"As our programs all had a similar text look to them, so our new graphic-based programs have a similar pictorial feel. Clearly, it is important to be able to move from one computer to another without having to drastically change the look and operation of the program. As for market pressures, we obviously take note of what the market is saying. If ten people say they'd like a little screwy icon for something, then I'll make note of it. If a thousand people say something, then you bet we look at it very seriously - but it's important that it still remains within our philosophy.
"We're now putting icons into our programs but we've also kept all those keyboard commands for the 'power users' - we don't intimidate the first time user, because everything is there in the menu and they can move around with the mouse real easy."
The Copyist was one of the first comprehensive music notation programs around, and currently runs on the ST, PC and Amiga. It is also available as three distinct programs, from the low-cost Apprentice up to the high-powered Copyist DTP version. Al talked about the future of the program and also disclosed details about other Dr.T programs in the pipeline.
"The Copyist has been around for over two years now, and has sold over 8,000 copies. The latest version for the Atari now includes pulldown menus and a full GEM-style interface. We are always updating Copyist, and the future is going to prove very interesting."
As it stands, the program is really a music publishing product - rather like a desk-top publishing program but for the music world. Al sees its future development moving towards allowing direct editing of the MIDI data stream, like you can do on C-Lab's Notator.
"I think that Notator has almost reached the end point of where it can go as a music scoring program, because there is a trade-off in the way you have to do things. You see, if you are always editing the MIDI data stream directly, you can't move and manipulate things in the same way as you can if what you are dealing with is a graphic image. You can do a lot, granted, but there are limitations. With Copyist, we made the decision to make it a graphic format. What we're now doing is creating a new program, which integrates all of our knowledge and experience gained from developing Copyist, and producing a program which allows access to the MIDI data but still operates at that graphic level."
In the meantime, there is a scheduled update coming out around January, which will let users do a lot more with text and type styles. "Many users want to import text into Copyist from their word processor," Al revealed, "and so we're implementing a feature which allows any ASCII text files to be imported. Music teachers have really been the force behind this, because they want to write books which include notation examples, and write them in Copyist, not in a DTP package."
Talking of desktop publishing applications, Copyist can now save work in a number of file formats, including Tagged Image Format Files (TIFF) and Encapsulated PostScript (EPS), ready to import into any of the popular DTP programs. Still, it is good to find that Dr.T are listening to users' wishes, many of whom don't necessarily want to have to go and buy a DTP package just to add text files to the music examples they create with Copyist.
"We are also creating another program called Quick Score," revealed Al. "It's not officially announced yet but it's coming along. Basically, it allows you to do very fast and efficient transcriptions from your sequencer, and print it out."
Recent rumours suggest that this program may well be incorporated into Version 1.8 of KCS, but we shall have to wait and see... One new program Al did speak of is TIGER Cub, which is aimed at the beginner who's looking for something that's easy to use, has plenty of features, and is under the £100 mark.
"TIGER Cub came out of TIGER, which is a graphic editing program for use with sequencers such as KCS. TIGER is purely for editing, it isn't really a sequencer in its own right. The program has received a lot of praise, but many people have said that they wish it was totally integrated with a sequencer - so we have produced TIGER Cub. When we decided to write it, we didn't just want to produce another sequencer. We wanted to produce a program for the people who needed it most, so TIGER Cub is for the low end of the market. It's very much a graphic orientated sequencer that's a lot easier to use than our MIDI Recording Studio. It has 12 tracks, loop recording, a single track graphic editing page, and many more features. It'll be coming out for the Atari before Christmas and for the Amiga in the early part of the New Year."
One of the major concerns of many musicians at the moment is the validity of running one of the really powerful sequencer programs on the humble 1040ST. With this point in mind, I tackled Al Hospers about Dr.T's view.
"A few programs currently running on the ST have saturated the machine's capabilities and are really not going to develop much further. For there to be a real advance, a new computer platform is now required. At Dr.T, we may not have expanded our programs to the same extent as others, but we can see where the limitation in doing so will lead. We feel, in fact, that spending too much more time pushing the limits of the ST isn't really in our best interest. The new Atari TT computer will give us the room we need.
"We could take the ST a little further but it would mean that we'd practically be writing the 1040 model out of our market, not to mention the 520. Dr.T is one of the few music software companies that still supports the 520ST single-sided disk format. We don't feel it's right to pass this format by, because there are so many people out there with those machines."
Al Hospers knows what he likes and has strong opinions on the current state of the music software industry, so I closed the interview by asking him where he saw music software heading and what new computers Dr.T would be developing programs for in the future.
"We are continuing to evolve our existing programs on the current computers; we'll be pushing them a little further to take advantage of the new Atari STE, with its enhanced graphics. However, not only Dr.T but many of the other software houses are starting to recognise that the current machines are beginning to get a little long in the tooth. The ST has been upgraded wth more memory but it's basically the same machine, and the same is true of the Amiga.
"Atari is about to launch its new TT computer, which has a fast 68030 processor, and that offers us all the next generation of music software. You can be sure, too, that Apple is working on its next generation as well. Regardless of manufacturer, we are looking for increased speed and really super high resolution graphics, and I think there is something to be said for potentially going towards a UNIX-based operating system as well. That's also a possibility on the new TT, as Atari have announced that it will be available in a UNIX format."