THE COMMODORE AMIGA
You hear so much about (and from) the Atari ST that it's tempting to believe it's the only computer used for making music. Michael Brooke takes a look at a powerful alternative - Commodore's Amiga.
THE ATARI ST MAY BE THE MUSIC COMPUTER OF THE LATE '80s, BUT THE DEMANDS OF MUSICIANS AND SOFTWARE ARE PUSHING IT TO ITS LIMITS. WHAT COMES AFTER ST?
AS MOST ASPIRING bands gradually discover, success doesn't automatically accompany virtuous techniques and brilliant material; at some stage you've got to convince the record-buying public that you're worth their attention. And so it is with the computer industry - there's no point in having the most dazzling graphics and sound since Walt Disney if you can't convince people to write software to make use of them. The home computer's brief history has been littered with prodigies that couldn't overcome this basic hurdle. One machine currently battling its way out of this situation is Acorn's Archimedes, which features literally everything you could reasonably ask for - including an optional MIDI interface together with an operating system several times faster than anything in its price range. All it needs is the right software...
The situation isn't quite as bad for the Commodore Amiga, but the Atari ST has become such a familiar sight in MIDI studios around the world that it often seems surprising that anyone would even consider buying and using anything else. There's little doubt that the ST is by far the overall leader in the sheer quantity of MIDI software available, and there's not much doubt as to the reason for this - it's the cheapest of the holy trinity of the ST, PC and Macintosh, and thanks to inspired design (which seems obvious now, but revolutionary back in 1985) it features MIDI sockets already built in, meaning you could just plug it into your rack of hi-tech music gear and switch on. It has been the clear choice for the MIDI musician on a budget (and some that aren't) for a while now - such a clear choice, in fact, that it might seem like the height of perversity to opt for a different machine - in the case of the Archimedes or Amiga, a machine that isn't compatible with either ST or Mac in its basic form. But I've been using my Amiga for nearly two years and I wouldn't change it for anything. And that's not just blind sentimental affection - "Amiga" may well mean "girlfriend" in Spanish, but I don't speak Spanish. Just as well, probably.
This isn't an in-depth review of the Amiga; it's been around for far too long to justify that, and there's plenty of information available for anyone who's interested in its other abilities (mainly on the graphics side of things, where the machine's best reputation lies). What we're going to be looking at is the Amiga's potential as a musical instrument - both as the nerve centre of a MIDI setup and on its own with no additional hardware. In both these fields - particularly the latter - it's an exceptionally powerful machine, but the fundamental question must be whether it is preferable to an Atari ST, which, in addition to having infinitely more software available for it, also costs some £100 less.
I don't think anyone would seriously recommend another machine if all you wanted to do was control MIDI Instruments. On the other hand, the ST has several limitations in other areas, and in terms of hardware capability and overall potential the Amiga beats it hands down.
THE AMIGA CAME out at about the same time as the ST - back in 1985 but from the start it was seen as being a graphics machine; its considerable musical potential was virtually ignored while the ST cleaned up the market. The fact that the Amiga initially cost £1400 didn't help much - it was lumped together with all the other brilliant but disastrously overpriced machines of this world. It seemed to be destined to become yet another glittering casualty of the micro wars too expensive for the hobbyists and not enough software backup for the professionals.
"ANYONE WHO'S CAUGHT A GLIMPSE OF THE CHART SHOW OR THE LATE NETWORK 7 WILL HAVE WITNESSED AMIGA GRAPHICS IN ACTION."
But in 1987 Commodore cleaned up its act and started marketing the machine properly. The original Amiga 1000 was discontinued and replaced with the A500 for the home user and the A2000 for the professional - there are only a few basic differences between the two machines; the A2000 is more expandable and comes with one megabyte of memory as standard, compared with the A500's 512K although both machines are expandable to eight megabytes. The A500 was also considerably cheaper at £499 (it has since fallen to £399, thanks to the machine's success). At one point last year, it was actually the same price as the ST, which suffered an unfortunately-timed price increase.
So, why should the Amiga be worthy of any musician's attention, particularly since the ST seems to have the budget MIDI market sewn up? Well, the short answer is that the hardware is much more advanced. As we've already established, the Amiga's reputation lies with its graphics, but we're more concerned here with its sonic potential - what it can do without resorting to MIDI. After all, there are plenty of musicians out there studying reviews of MIDI equipment with intent to spend money, yet they can only afford one basic computer.
Virtually all computers these days are capable of producing some sort of sound, but most of them use an embarrassingly primitive system dating from Clive Sinclair's ZX81 days. I mention them because the ST, despite its apparent aural superiority, actually uses the same sound-generation chip as the humble Sinclair Spectrum and, in all honesty, doesn't sound that much better. This is because the ST is only capable of generating one basic waveform - a square wave - which creates obvious limitations. Admittedly, an IBM PC usually sounds even worse, but that's not saying much, and nobody in their right mind would buy a PC for the purpose of making music without the assistance of MIDI equipment.
The Amiga can produce four channels of sound without any extra hardware. The ST doesn't seem that far behind with three, but there the similarity ends. Whereas any advanced sound manipulation on the ST has to be handled in software - with a corresponding decrease in processing speed - the Amiga hardware allows the building-up of complex waveforms by means of sampling technology built into one of its custom chips. There are three of these, designed to handle the boring repetitive tasks concerning graphics and sound, which leaves the 68000 processor free to handle the more complex demands of the software - which is what makes the Amiga so fast. In comparison with, say, an Akai S1000, its sampling facilities are fairly primitive, as it's only an 8-bit system (the original Fairlight was "only 8-bit"), but it's versatile enough to reproduce most sounds - and they don't have to sound as if they came out of a computer. It also has a range of nine octaves, the audio output is in stereo, and the twin phono outputs kindly provided by Commodore are compatible with any reasonable amplifier setup. In addition, a large number of very cheap samplers are available to be used with Amiga - prices tend to be at around the £70-100 mark, allowing you to get into sampling without having to sell any of your internal organs. In addition, one of the best design features of the Amiga operating system is the provision for a standard format for storing graphics and sound on disk. If the software respects this - and most packages do - music and sounds can be ported from one package to another without going through the kind of insanely complicated conversion process that file transferring usually involves. Oh yes, and for people who can't resist pointless gimmicks to show off their computers, the Amiga also has a built-in speech synthesiser complete with text-to-speech conversion software and a choice of voices - male, female, robot and "natural" (?) - though as all the voices tend to sound much the same (like "computer" voices from old sci-fi films), the novelty fades after a while. It's great for impressing people with, though, and I daresay more than a few Amigas have been sold on the strength of the demonstration program.
"WITH A VIDEO RECORDER, SUITABLE GRAPHICS AND ANIMATION SOFTWARE, AND A CAMCORDER YOU CAN CREATE VIDEOS FOR YOUR MUSIC."
WITH THE ADDITION of a MIDI interface (there are several on the market; I use Datel's, which for £34 gives me a MIDI In, Thru and three MIDI Outs, thus neatly sidestepping the Atari's problem with the non-standard wiring of its MIDI Out), the Amiga is potentially the most powerful package you can get for under half-a-grand. Unfortunately, the problem that has plagued innovative machines since the micro was invented now begins to surface - will anyone write any software for the beast? Well, the Amiga does have one important advantage over many of its competitors - it uses the same 68000 microprocessor as the ST, which means that most software packages can be ported to the Amiga with very little difficulty - although it's generally fairly easy to spot an ST conversion, as they tend to ignore the extra benefits of the Amiga's hardware. Sadly, only a few companies seem to be taking advantage of this, with Dr T's the most prominent - you can get virtually everything they produce in an Amiga version, including the MRS, KCS and KCS Level II sequencers, the three versions of Copyist, and a vast range of patch editor/librarians. Most of these are identical to their ST counterparts in price as well as features, though the Amiga version of KCS can also use the machine's internal sampling to provide four extra voices if your MIDI equipment becomes too stretched. Its just as well KCS is such a powerful sequencer, because for a long time it was the only serious sequencing package available. Happily, this is about to change as more "quality" software begins to appear - Steinberg's Pro24, Passport Designs' Master Tracks Pro and the very promising Music-X from Microillusions (reviewed last month), a 250-track sequencer with built-in generic editor/librarian and SMPTE compatibility. All of these packages are available now, with more ST conversions on the way.
For the less well-heeled, there are a number of excellent software packages at the cheaper end of the market that don't even require any MIDI equipment to produce impressive sounds. The best of these is Electronic Arts' Deluxe Music Construction Set (not to be confused with their Music Construction Set for the ST - the Deluxe version is so much more advanced that the two programs aren't really comparable), which for £50 gives you a notation-based sequencer package that can play sounds either through the Amiga's own hardware - it comes with its own set of sampled instruments - or via MIDI. The notation aspects of the system certainly aren't up to the standards of, say, Dr T's Copyist, but they're not to be sniffed at either - the program can handle triplets, slurs, tenor and alto clefs, lyrics, guitar boxes, and cope with most scores. Up to eight staves are possible, and each stave can have two separate melody lines. Scores can be printed out on any printer supported by the Amiga's standard printer drivers (most printers) again, the results can't seriously compete with a professional notation package, but the standard is well up to most of the budget notation programs reviewed in MT over the last few years. Notes can be entered either with the mouse, placing them at exactly the right point on the stave, or via MIDI, though not in real time, unfortunately - which means that you really have to be able to read music in order to get the most out of the program.
At roughly the same price is Aegis' Sonix, which has a similar function, though it's less powerful as a score editor. Its strong points are that it uses the Amiga standard SMUS format for storing files, which means they can be ported over to a more sophisticated sequencer at a later date, and that it incorporates a program that does a pretty good job of imitating an analogue synthesiser, thus giving you more control over the actual sound than DMCS. If you have both packages, you can create the music on DMCS and the sound on Sonix, to provide impressive-sounding music without needing anything other than a basic Amiga and an amplifier.
WHAT ABOUT THE Amiga's strongest selling-point - its graphics? And, more to the point, what has being able to perform high-speed three-dimensional animation of startling detail got to do with making music? Well, anyone who's caught a glimpse of The Chart Show or the late Network 7 will have witnessed Amiga graphics in action - those little multicoloured captions that come up over the videos. And you don't need a fully-equipped TV studio in order to use them - a simple £100 genlock unit is all that you need to overlay stunning graphics on your own music videos. The graphics really are stunning: 4096 colours, 640 by 312 resolution and the ability to "overscan" pictures, so they can stretch right out to the edge of the TV screen - all other micros produce their graphics within carefully-defined boundaries. With a normal domestic video recorder, an Amiga, genlock and suitable graphics and animation software, and a camcorder of the kind that you can rent for a weekend from most high-street rental chains, you have more than enough to create videos of your music that, while they might not be snapped up by MTV immediately, will be guaranteed to impress anyone who's ever had to sit through endless Super 8 home movies as a child. My own musical version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is still some way off, but I've got the basic tools.
The Amiga is now well past the stage of being an expensive toy for computer buffs, and more than merits serious attention as the centre of a music setup. For the budding MIDI musician whose ambitions are perhaps greater than his budget will allow, a basic Amiga and something along the lines of Deluxe Music Construction Set will create a genuine music workstation that will still leave change from £500. This basic MIDI setup can be improved as and when funds become available. In the meantime, who knows what software may be developed or how much more "affordable" the hardware will become?
If this was a proper review and I was given to using clichés, I'd say I was so impressed with the Amiga that I went out and bought one, but as I've already had mine for the past two years and been delighted with it in every way, it would be a little bit pointless. The only serious drawbacks lie in the availability of software, and this has improved dramatically over the past six months - I bought KCS when there were literally no other professional sequencing programs available, but now I'm spoiled for choice. Particularly significant is the long-awaited arrival of Music-X, which promises to be the first genuine Amiga sequencer - created and developed on the Amiga - and a program that (for once) really pushes the machine to the limits. This should be well worth waiting for.