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Acorn 500

better noises for the BBC

BLEEP BLEEP whizz doink parp. If that's your idea of computer-music, the Acorn Music 500 may be about to change things for you. The BBC-B micro is no longer limited to the Noddy xylophone sounds of the built-in sound chip; the Music 500 is a whole new kind of synth for your computer to play with.

Like Yamaha's truly wonderful CX5 music computer, the Acorn music generator is digital — none of yer old-fashioned analogue oscillators here. The system in fact resembles a musical instrument not at all. It's the size and shape of a disk drive, and featureless except for a 34-way ribbon connector, mains lead, on-off switch and DIN stereo audio socket on the back.

For your £199 you get the Music 500, software on tape or disk, and 150-page manual. Considering it doesn't have a lot of knobs, you may wonder why this epic instruction book is necessary, and in the explanation of this fact lies both the power and the problem with the Music 500.

The beast is entirely software-driven, and to get it to produce a single note you need to be able to program it in the specially-developed language, Ample.

For computer illiterates who can't even handle Basic, this may sound challenging. Well — it is. Don't believe idle claims that anyone can pick-up computer programming. It's not a matter of simple intelligence — there's many a graduate in socio-linguistics who can't tell a DEFPROC from a FOR/NEXT loop. You just have to have the right sort of mentality, plus a good deal of patience, for programming, and it's not at all everyone's cup of tea.

Specifically, I can't see many drink-sodden, spaced-out musos taking to the 500 — it's a programmer's instrument rather than a musician's microcomputer.

On the positive side, those who feel they can cope with Ample will have some heavy facilities at their fingertips. The synthesiser has 16 sound channels, arranged as up to eight stereo musical voices which can be defined in any way. Each channel offers individual control of pitch, amplitude, waveform, stereo position and envelope.

Frequency is from 0 to 20kHz (ten octaves), there are seven selectable stereo positions, separate main pitch and transposition pitches, and facilities for signal inversion. There are 14 waveforms available, each with 16 definable harmonics and 128 points. Full envelope control of pitch and amplitude is available, with 10-stage ADSR, each segment from 0 to 320 seconds in 10ms bits, and the system's clock allows an enormous range of tempos to be set.

In effect the Music 500 has many of the features of a conventional polysynth, some to much greater resolution. There's nothing you might call a filter, though the possibilities for modulation and syncing of signals are tremendous. Gone, though, is the fun of "twiddling the knob and seeing what noise comes out", once a pastime which could provide harmless entertainment for endless hours.

The language, Ample, is specially designed to cope with all this complexity in a relatively user-friendly way. Thankfully, conventional music notation is retained to some extent (you use ABCDEFG to define notes, not numbers) but there's none of the sticks-and-dots nonsense. Numbers are used for note lengths and other symbols for rests, accidentals, bar lines, key signatures and chords. A piece of programming written in Ample performs the music it defines when the program is run (if that makes sense), but marvellously enough you can break into the program and redefine it while the music is running, usually with only minimal interruptions.

Since Ample is a language rather than a fixed set of commands, there's nothing to stop you defining your own commands. For instance, if you wanted every first note on a bar to be accented you can write a routine which defines the accent, assigns it a key symbol, and inserts it at the correct places in the music score. Similarly, the instrument sounds for each of the eight "performers" can be defined totally, and parts of tunes can be looped, varied and repeated at your command.

The "interactive demo" provided with the system gives some idea of the abilities of the whole system; the demo piece "Starflight 500" loads and runs itself, starting off with heavy, chopping bass sounds and leading into string chords, thumping percussion and a tinkling melody. Typing in STOP halts the music, and PLAY restarts it; 750 TEMPO alters the speed, and 500 FAST "fast winds" forward 500 units. SCAN steps the music through a note at a time on pressing the space bar, and SCAN TUNE varies the overall tuning. Using *CAT you can list the contents of a disk, and SHOW lists the user-defined commands.

PLAY EDIT will get you into the definitions of the sounds and tunes, written like BASIC program lines, and allows you to edit them. DRUM EDIT would give you the definition of a particular drum sound.

Typing in 5 SHARE 1 VOICE would allow you to access the sound of Player One and change it, while SCAN AMP allows you to alter its volume, and OFFSET is used to introduce chorus and phase effects.

To play a series of notes all you have to do is to type in, say, CEGBC to play an arpeggio, or cCcccCCC for a drum roll (with the capitals representing an upward shift in pitch).

If all this doesn't put you off, it's worth checking out the Music 500 as an example of the way electronic music may well be going — digital sound production, total software control and nary a music keyboard in sight.

The audio fidelity of the sound produced is very high, and you can make some good synth-like sounds (though as with conventional synths you can just as easily produce unpleasant fartings — it depends on whether you know what you're doing).

Despite plans to expand the system with a music keyboard (plus a version for the Commodore 64 and other computers, developed by Hybrid Technology), the Music 500 strikes me as an interesting but ultimately sterile way to produce music. A synth's one thing — at least you can pose on stage with a strap-on keyboard. But the Music 500 takes the concept of electronic music too far towards disappearing up its own communications bus for my liking.

ACORN Music 500 BBC synth: £199

CONTACT: Acorn Computers Ltd, (Contact Details).

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African Guitar

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One Two Testing - Copyright: IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


One Two Testing - Apr 1985

Donated by: Colin Potter

Gear in this article:

Software: Music > Acorn > Music 500

Gear Tags:

BBC Model B Platform

Review by Chris Jenkins

Previous article in this issue:

> African Guitar

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> Shredder Goes To Frankfurt

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