The Commodore Amiga range of computers have been conspicuous by their absence from this magazine's pages - but not any more! The Amiga has always been a great graphics machine, but it is equally talented when it comes to making music. In fact, its onboard sound chip is one of the best around. Phil South delivers a quick guide to making music on the Amiga.
Phil South delivers a quick guide to making music on the Commodore Amiga.
What computer do you use for your music making? It's hard to think about computer music in the late 1980's and not immediately visualise an Atari ST. And this is as it should be, for the ST has been the best marketed microcomputer of the last decade. It was a very shrewd move on Atari's part to build a MIDI interface into even the most base level ST. They immediately had hundreds of software designers tapping away feverishly to take advantage of this new, sexy, 16-bit computer, and every musician running out and leafing out the nelson eddies for one.
Around the same time, Commodore very quietly released a computer called the Amiga. Admittedly the specification was high on paper, but it was untried, expensive (about twice the cost of an Atari), and it didn't have a built-in MIDI interface. The public thought the Amiga was great but at the pricing levels Commodore had set no one would buy one, except really case-hardened hackers. Musicians, well used to shelling out mounds of money on pieces of equipment, surprisingly shunned the Amiga in favour of not only the Atari ST, but also the Apple Macintosh - the computer for people who hate computers.
So now it's 1989. The world chip crisis and Amiga's recent drop in price have equalised the score, and the Amiga is being used by many more (mostly American) musicians as the nerve centre of their operations. So what's the Amiga got to offer?
The Amiga is a very special 16-bit computer. It comes in three flavours now, the A500, the A1000, and the A2000. The original model was the A1000, and this featured a main CPU box, with a separate keyboard and a monitor which sat on top of the main box. Then last year, the slightly bigger A2000 was released, with expansion slots and a hardware PC emulator. Then, to clean up on the games market, the A500 was born. This had a case just like a Commodore 128 or Atari ST, and was priced just above an ST. All three models had the same operating system, the same chips, and ran the same software. (Incidentally, the A1000 has since been discontinued, so you can pick these up reconditioned and working for about £350 if you shop around.)
The key thing about the Amigas is their quality of output. The built-in sound chip functions as a four channel synthesizer, sounding a bit like a Casio CZ or Yamaha DX9. The graphics offer high resolution 4,096 colour screens of up to 640x512 pixels. The internal 'blitter' chip (short for BLock InformaTion TransferrER) helps to move information around more quickly, and makes the Amiga the fastest 16-bit machine going. It performs 8-bit sampling and, as the hardware to do this is mostly built in, you only need an add-on box (between £25 and £50) to give you stereo sampling on the Amiga. A MIDI interface to run any of the music software packages costs just £25-30.
Now that the range of software for the machine is growing, the Amiga is starting to offer a real alternative to the, until now, dominant PC and Atari in the field of creative personal and professional music production.
As a creative environment, the Amiga offers possibilities greater than any computer I've ever owned. I've been telling people for years that the road to creative freedom lies with the computer's ability to extend our reach. But it's only since I got my Amiga that people have believed me. The Amiga offers other things besides great music production, such as computer graphics that would knock the spots off your boxer shorts, animation worthy of Channel Four, and ray-traced pictures that are so real you can taste them. The possibilities for setting up your own video studio are very interesting, and I might go into this another time, but for now let's concentrate on what Amiga music is all about.
Like many computers, the Amiga has a great many programs which play tunes from scores (the C64 has about a million!) like Pachebel's Canon, Bach's everything, OMD's Enola Gaye, etc, but the difference with the Amiga's toy music packages is that the sounds are sampled. For composing rough demos of your tunes, this can be an invaluable difference, as you can add samples of your own, to make the songs sound as close to the finished product as possible. Add to this synthesized sounds, and the music you can make on the plain vanilla Amiga alone can be very effective. Obviously the output won't be good enough quality to master from, but for a quick tape to play to the band, with the printed scores from the same programs, it can make getting your idea across that much easier. It's also good fun.
But for making serious music, the Amiga's strength is growing, and with the release in October of Music Xfrom Microlllusions - a complete sequencing, MIDI, SMPTE, sample playing, library editing environment - it looks to be ready to set the pace.
So, coming up with the original ideas, that's the initial problem. And there's a plethora of Amiga solutions. Deluxe Music Construction Set (DMCS for short) is a staff-based program, where you play the 8-bit sampled sounds by placing notes on the staves with the mouse, or from the piano keyboard along the bottom of the screen. This is the most complex score-based program, allowing for the most accurate musical score production with slurring, legato, rests, alto, treble, bass and tenor clefs, triplets, key changing, transposing, etc. All the sticks and blobs you could wish for, in fact. The output from the program can be printed on any printer you have the right drivers for (gleaned from Bulletin Boards or on your Amiga Workbench or master system disk). Of course, it helps if you understand musical notation, and as I don't know it that well, I never really got on with DMCS. But my music theory correspondent tells me that it has everything to make real scores. Certainly the demo tunes, the usual classical fare, sounded quite realistic and tuneful even though the sampled sounds were a bit clicky. But all is not lost, because as well as plinking out your masterpiece in Amiga sounds, the program is MIDI compatible, allowing you to play the tune on 32 better sounding and more recordable MIDI voices.
For the classically untutored, like me, there are many less serious music notation programs which deliver the goods. Aegis Sonix is a more interactive proposition and my favourite; as I said before, my skills with minims and quavers are limited to hunt and peck guesswork. Sonix is easier to handle in the scorewriting stakes, due to being less accurate, but the sounds you play are much better quality due to being in their own RFF file format. Sonix allows 16 channel MIDI Out playback as well, but does not accept input from an external keyboard. Music Studio is a similar program, and has recently been upgraded by Activision to include 20 new sampled sounds and MIDI In, so that you can play the scores straight from your MIDI keyboard, guitar or wind controller. There's also a voice editor to edit instruments, sound effects and voices.
There are some more interesting compositional aids in the Amiga's arsenal which you may not get to hear about. Fractal Music is a program which generates four-note music from patterns created by fractal mathematics.
As Brian Eno would tell you, variety is the spice of life, and using this program you can create natural-sounding random progressions, which you can adapt and move around to suit your taste. A good thing for those moments when your muse packs its bags and goes back to mother. (Incidentally, the same programmer who created Fractal Music has created other programs called Protein Music, based on 20 amino acids, and DNA Music, which displays music and graphics based on DNA molecules. Cosmic!) Dr.T has Amiga versions of its KCS sequencer, voice editors for all the popular makes of synth, and also two programs called Dr. Keys and Dr.Drum. Keys is a series of chord progressions for loading into KCS and editing. A bit like a Sing-A-Long-A-Doc, it has jazz, rock, blues and classical, all in a ready-made mixture. Dr.Drums is similar, only it contains drum patterns.
Sound Oasis is a package which enables you to load Ensoniq Mirage sound disks into your Amiga and play the sounds from any MIDI keyboard. It also lets you save them as IFF (the Amiga's generic file format for all data) files for loading into music programs. This gives you access to a massive library of studio tested samples, which are bound to be better quality than home built ones.
But by far the most important basis for any music system for the Amiga has to be Music X. Developed by Microlllusions in the States, it is a full-featured MIDI/SMPTE sequencer, using a sort of histogram system instead of musical notation, which should suit most people with a little use. It will accept input from any MIDI device known to man, and it'll do it in real time. You can record sequences in edit mode and see the notes appear on the screen as you play them! You can play MIDI devices plus Amiga IFF and Sonix RFF samples and synth sounds at the same time. The amount of notes/events you can perform is limited only by memory. The program sits very well in the Amiga's multitasking environment, and features a non-destructive 'quit' procedure. Once you quit, you can get back into the program and continue editing.
The program reads SMPTE, alters keymaps with the touch of a mouse in up to 128 configurations, can hold 250 sequences in memory and can play up to 20 of them at once. And with multitasking, you can run other programs at the same time - how about having a modem receive sequence data from a client, and just pasting it right into the program? Or printing out the lyrics while editing the score? Music X is a professional tool, with a price to match. But the Amiga has been waiting for something like this to come along. Something which makes the most of its special qualities as an audio-visual tool for all creative people. Before I start reading the Gospel According To Commodore, I'd better move along.
There are many ways to get sound files and samples into the Amiga, but what do you do when you get them there? Well, if you're smart, you buy editing software and get stuck in. Audiomaster, again from Aegis, is one of the best all-round utilities for sounds, as it can convert freely between all the most frequently used file formats: IFF sample, RFF Sonix, and raw data. The big drag about Sonix is that as a synth it's a bit on the unusable side; lovely for sequencing, but lousy for editing sounds. So how about checking out Synthia?
Synthia is a synthesizer package, but it allows some pretty serious activity in the sound editing department. Its ability to treat samples is phenomenal, and it has one of the most easy-to-use front ends I've seen on any such package.
In the sampler/editor department, you could choose far worse than Eidersoft's Pro Sound Designer software. It is at its best in combination with their own sampler, but it can be used to treat samples from other sources. Like Audiomaster, it uses the mouse to control pixels on the screen representing the waveform of the sound, not unlike the Fairlight software which lets you alter the waveform with a lightpen.
On the subject of sampling, there are some interesting things to be had on the Amiga. The Pro Sound Designer device from Eidersoft is out now, but their Mouse Music enhanced sampler is due very soon on the Amiga. The device is already available for the Atari ST and features eight channel sound and a fab full-sized keyboard. The device is MIDI literate and is what Eidersoft call their 'mid-range' machine. What they mean by this is that a full spec professional Modular Music System is in the offing for next year, and promises to slap the Amiga firmly on the musical map.
Soundscape is less of a music package, more a way of life. The problem about Soundscape is that it's easier to use than describe, but I'll try to keep it simple.
Mimetics' Soundscape is a complete environment for the musician. Once loaded, you call up modules which take on the various tasks like sampling, MIDI and sequencing. That's about it, I think. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of actual modules available for it at the moment. But what it does have is a rather nice Digital Sampler (for around $99 dollars). The software allows you to save files in the Mimetics format, which permits a new sample per octave for up to 10 octaves. My favourite sampling related package has got to be Big Dollar Synths, clearly an American product, which has samples of Yamaha, Roland and Casio synths playing the synth patch greatest hits. You can load them into any Amiga package as the've been saved in IFF, RFF and Mimetics formats. Wacky, but loads of fun.
There are tons of sample disks on the market, but mostly in small ads in American magazines. They're worth looking for, as there are lots and lots of them wedged onto 3.5" 1 Mb disks.
And talking about big dollar synths, how about editing your Ensoniq Mirage samples via the Amiga? Blank Software's Sound Lab is now available for the Amiga, letting you design, edit and play the sounds, and using the screen and mouse rather than that piddly little LCD screen.
There's a new Amiga MIDI interface coming out weekly, so it seems, and cheaper too. The first MIDI box for the Amiga cost £60, but the latest one I've heard of is just £25 and the size of a pack of cigarettes.
The ECE model from MCMXCIX is much publicised, and is available through most reputable computer music outlets. Soundscape MIDI is one of the originals, and has a price to match. (Opto-isolated devices aren't that expensive to make, so don't take any bull about quality.) The best thing to do is shop around.
Let me just say that the Amiga has a lot of avid, devoted followers in the audio-visual arts, besides me and my Devilmusic audio-video project, that is. Andy Warhol had several and worked on them for months until his death. Wendy Carlos uses one, and so does Jan Hammer. Okay, so the machines are cheaper in America, and American programmers are producing more soft/hardware for it, but Eidersoft are proving that the Amy's on the move over here as well. Watch this space for further developments, especially an upcoming review of Music X.
Feature by Phil South
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