Brian Heywood benchtests the latest laptop PC from Sound N Compute
The Altima One from Sound'n'Compute sets out to beat Yamaha at its own game. How? By producing a low(ish) cost alternative!
Ever since Yamaha introduced the C-1 Music computer based on the IBM PC/AT specification, people over here in Europe seem to be taking the PC more seriously as a music machine. Although the PC is very popular for music applications in the States, it's never really taken off in Europe. This may be changing.
The stated reasons for this lack of popularity are usually the price and size of the PC. Well the nice people at Amstrad have addressed the first problem, what about the size? A PC usually consists of a system box, a monitor and a separate keyboard, it means that it can really only be used in one place. It is quite easy to pick up a Mac or an Atari, but the PC is definitely not portable. This lack of portability has meant that musicians and producers have not favoured the PC since it's a hassle to take a PC into the studio.
Lap-top PCs are usually not suitable since they lack an expansion slot to fit the standard MIDI card (i.e. the Roland MPU-401). Yamaha has solved the problem by building advanced MIDI features into the computer, also adding a time code interface to give arguably the first 'complete' music system. There are, however, a few lap-top PCs that allow a single expansion card to be fitted and it is one of these that provides the basis of the Sound'n'Compute music system.
The Altima One music system is based around a PC/AT compatible 'lap-top' personal computer with a LCD screen and a 20 megabyte hard disk. The processor clock speed is 16 megahertz and has one MIDI In and Out port, FSK synchronisation connectors and an audio output for the metronome. For comparison, the C-1 has two MIDI in ports, eight MIDI out ports and SMPTE/EBU synchronisation and no external metronome connector.
Prices start from just over £2,700 for the basic sequencing system with a Roland MPU-401 compatible interface and Sequencer Plus (Mark I) software. If you require a music notation package then a system including Dr T's Apprentice and a 24 pin dot matrix printer will set you back around £3,162. If you already have a printer the system reduces to £2,788 saving you £374.
One of the advantages of the Voyetra and Dr T software is that there is an upgrade path, that is you can get more advanced versions of the software without having to pay full price. This means that you can improve your system to suit your needs, without having to learn a whole new software package or 'losing' your previous work because the file formats are incompatible.
How does this compare with the C-1? Well the £2,999 price tag of the C-1 gives you a dedicated sequencing system using the bundled CSQ sequencer. However the C-1's sequencer is a bit of a pig to use (even though it has some nice features), so you would expect to pay at least another £100 or so for a basic usable sequencer. I noticed at the PC show that the sequencer being run on at least one of the C-1's on the Yamaha stand was the Mark 3 version of the Voyetra Sequencer Plus, which is big brother of the Mark 1 supplied with the Altima. So the C-1 is around £400 more expensive for a dedicated sequencing system with comparable software.
The computer is an almost inevitable import from the far east and has a fold-up Liquid Crystal Display (LCD), a detachable 101 key keyboard and a 1.4 megabyte 3.5" disk. The PC's main feature is that it will take a standard IBM compatible expansion slot which comes fitted with a Voyetra V-4001 MIDI interface. There is one external serial port as well as a standard parallel printer port.
According to the manual, a two button serial mouse should also be supplied, I saw no sign of this. The LCD video adapter can emulate either Colour Graphics Adapter (CGA) or a Monochrome Display Adapter (MDA) and can drive an external monitor. The main disk storage is a 20 megabyte internal hard disk which has self parking heads, so you don't need to run a head park program before you switch off.
The computer comes with a Voyetra V-4001 MIDI card already installed, all you need to do is plug in the external metal box with the two MIDI sockets, the two FSK sync phono sockets and the metronome phono. You have to use a short extension (supplied) to fit the external box since the case of the Altima prevents the direct connection.
One interesting feature of the Altima is the in-built V.22 modem which unfortunately is not approved, so cannot be used connected to the British Telecom network (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). Obviously I was not able to test this feature, it's frustrating to have such a useful feature as the modem and not be able to use it. The extreme usefulness of a modem for software support and general communications could lead to the somewhat silly scene of attaching a modem to the external serial port while the internal modem sits and twiddles its electronic thumbs.
The Altima One can be configured using DIP switches that are accessible without opening the case. These switches allow you to select the type of monitor the LCD emulates, the modem standard and various port options. There is also a SETUP program which allows you to configure the date and time, the amount of memory, video mode and disk information.
The machine comes supplied with 1 megabyte of RAM of which 640K is set up as base memory and the remaining 384K can be configured as either expanded or extended memory. Just above the keyboard is a little panel which, when removed, reveals sockets for Single In-line Memory Modules (SIMMs). These sockets allow the internal memory to be expanded up to 8 megabytes, which is probably more than you'll ever need. The only real use I found for the extended memory was to use it as a fast RAM disk and put the Sequencer Plus overlay and data files in it to improve performance.
The Altima One comes in a padded nylon carry bag with a detachable shoulder strap. The bag has ample pockets for all the manuals and any leads you may want to carry and the whole thing weighs in at around nine kilograms or 19 pounds. There is a slim A5 ring bound manual which gives clear and concise instructions on the operation of the computer and manuals for the Voyetra music software and hardware.
The LCD screen folds up to reveal the keyboard which is a 'scruntched' version of a standard extended keyboard, with the function keys along the top (above the number keys). As well as the LCD, the folding section has indicators for power, the disk drives and the modem state. There is also a light which is lit if the computer is in 16 MHz mode, which is the default clock speed.
The LCD has contrast and brightness controls and a switch that reverses the screen, so that you can have white characters on a dark screen or vice versa. There is also a natty little compartment which is ideal for storing something which is 3" by 5" and 1" deep (I'll think of something in a minute).
The Altima has one of the clearest displays I've seen on a lap-top, and the reverse video switch is a great idea. One of the big problems with lap-tops (including the C-1) has been the lack of contrast on the LCD, this is definitely not a problem on the Altima. I used the LCD configured as a CGA and ran several graphics software packages without problems.
The external monitor is selected by pressing the Ctrl/Alt/Shift/C keys all at the same time, the LCD can be selected again using the Ctrl/Alt/Shift/L combination. This sounds more difficult than it actually is since the Ctrl, Alt and Shift keys are next to each other. Only one screen can be active at a time so the external screen can't be used as a relay of the LCD screen for cueing purposes.
The keyboard detaches from the main section of the computer by pressing two small latches and then lifting it. It is attached by about half a metre of 'curly cord' cable which has a US style telephone plug on the end. This cable should ideally either be longer or have an extension to take advantage of this feature. There is provision for using an external keyboard, if you don't like the Altima's, I tested it with a PC/XT clone keyboard without any problems.
The first thing you see when you switch on the Altima One is a screen full of diagnostics which tells you (amongst other things) how much memory is installed. After about 15 seconds, the screen clears and you are prompted for a password, this feature could be quite useful if you need to leave the computer in a studio unattended. Once you've entered the password correctly, you get the opportunity to alter it, which you should do at regular intervals.
The Altima is not exactly silent, since it has a cooling fan and the hard disk makes a certain amount of noise. I don't think the noise level would be a problem in a normal studio control room situation. My initial feeling was that it is slightly quieter than the C-1, but not having a C-1 here at the moment, I have no way of checking this.
Once past the password, MS-DOS will take over and set up its own environment, and then give you the infamous 'C>' prompt. I really do think that Sound'n'Compute could have provided a simple 'front end' at this point to help out the first time user. One of the reasons that IBM PCs have such a reputation for being difficult to use can be laid at the door of the companies that sell them. If just a little more work was done before the computer hit the street then the customer (in this case the musician) could be up and running almost immediately.
As the system stands, the novice user first has to learn how to drive MS-DOS and then has to learn how to use the sequencer. A little batch file which allowed the user to choose between running the sequencer, the notation package or DOS would make all the difference for a first-time user.
In use, the machine appears to be extremely fast, even more so than the C-1. This is not surprising since the Altima has a faster processor clock rate than the C-1. I did a head to head comparison using the Norton Utilities, the results are shown in table 1.
As you can see, the Altima comfortably out-performs the C-1 and beats my studio PC/XT by a factor of ten (groan). The only time that you might find this extra speed useful is when you need to do large transforms in Sequencer Plus. At other times the PC will be sitting around waiting for the MIDI events to occur. Since the MIDI interface handles the timing for these events, the speed of the PC won't have much effect on the sequencer's performance.
The review machine came with the Voyetra Sequencer Plus Mark 1 software already installed on the hard disk. Voyetra has been in the music technology business for some time, in fact one of the first MIDI sound expansion modules ever made was the Voyetra 8 analogue synthesiser module. It's would be impossible to give a full review of the Sequencer Plus in this article, so I'll just give a few salient points.
The Sequencer Plus is a good solid piece of professional software which gives you easy access to the power of the PC/MPU-401 combination. The screens are simple and uncluttered and the sequencer's features can be selected either by simply hitting the appropriate key or by selecting the function with a mouse. For instance, to start recording a track you select the track with the cursor key, hit the 'R' key to go into record mode and then tap the space bar when you want to start. It's as easy as that!
The sequencer allows you to have up to a maximum of 500 'tracks' which should be enough for most people. You have a choice of clock definitions, either 192 or 96 pulses per quarter note (ppqn). The sequencer's time source can be internal, from the external FSK input or from MIDI (Song Position Pointers). The tracks can contain different time signatures both within a track and across a number of tracks, so you can use this package to write music with complex cross rhythms if you want.
The sequencer is set out as four 'pages', these are the Main, View, Edit and Network Organizer screens. There are also a number of 'pop-up' screen which allow to alter settings like the time base, clock source, files and screen colours. The Main screen controls functions that occur at playback, so you can manipulate whole tracks easily. In the View screen you can manipulate the sequence in terms of bars, so you can copy, replace, insert, delete and transform bars. You also get three memory buffers as scratch pads. The transforms allow you to alter the MIDI data in various ways such as in time (quantisation, offset), pitch (transpose, map), note velocity (set, adjust and crescendo) and also allows you to merge, split and rebar tracks.
The Edit screen allows you to alter any MIDI data recorded as well as enter notes by hand. The Edit screen displays a single bar of the sequence in 'piano roll' notation, this gives a semi-graphic representation of the notes. You can move between the notes using the mouse or the cursor keys, or by using the Tab to select the next or previous note. You can also display and edit MIDI controller data such as pitch bend, modulation and program changes using this screen.
The Network Organizer screen in the Mark 1 version of Sequencer Plus is not a lot of use unless you have Voyetra's Patch Master Plus program. However in the mark 2 and 3 versions this page allows you to upload, manipulate and download the patch banks in your synthesisers, drum machines and MIDI controlled outboard effects. The librarian supports over 90 different instruments and Voyetra is constantly adding new instruments as they become available.
If there was no such computer as the Yamaha C-1, I would have no qualms in recommending the Altima One a worthwhile portable music tool. But the C-1 does exist and as such this system must be compared with it. The funny thing is that the Altima beats the C-1 hands down in all respects outside the specific music hardware features. The Altima is faster, it has a better LCD screen, it has a detachable keyboard and comes supplied with a better sequencing package. The trouble is that the Altima only has one MIDI port while the C-1 has eight, the C-1 has built in SMPTE/EBU facilities, whereas if you needed this with the Altima you would need to fork out at least another three or four hundred pounds.
There are two ways to look at this, if you are looking for a professional sequencing system then I would suggest you spend the extra £400 on the C-1. If however you are looking for a flexible portable PC with a useful but not dedicated music facility then the Altima is a better bet. It's all a matter of approach really.
Product: Altima One
Prices: See Copy
Supplier: Sound n Compute (Contact Details)
Review by Brian Heywood