Amiga - Theory And Practice
Article from Electronics & Music Maker, August 1986
David Ellis buys a Commodore Amiga and looks at the latest software written for it. The music is good, the graphics are better - but what does the future hold?
Commodore's Amiga is now in the shops after months of speculation, procrastination, and hype. But what's the software situation like for the musically inclined Amiga user, and is the long-term future a rosy one?
"The notational aspect of Musicraft is rather disappointing, and that's the fault of the Amiga's problematic high-resolution graphics."
Sound-wise, though, the synth simulation is on the noisy side, and lacks the sharpness that would be gained from a better output bandwidth from the Amiga's DACs. Interestingly, some of the demo sounds were real samples, but the version of Musicraft I saw didn't seem to have any provision for either user sampling or modification of the ones supplied. Also on the negative side is the complete absence of facilities for linking up Musicraft with MIDI equipment or using any sort of keyboard as a note input device.
"Mimetics have built a system around the Amiga's strongest point — the multi-tasking—rather than attempting to emulate the Macintosh's ultra-crisp display."
For a computer so well endowed with interfaces in one shape or form, it's curious that a companding ADC wasn't included in Paula to accompany the two DACs. Still, there's no shortage of companies ready to make up for the deficiency, with no less than four sound digitising packages already available or imminent. Two of these are slanted particularly at the Sample And Regurgitate brigade; the other two are more musically inclined.
The Micro Forge Stereo Sound Digitizer comes into the first category, but, at a UK price of £345 + VAT for a stereo ADC card with a handful of chips on it, which also requires an expansion system (a minimum investment of £250 for a single slot system, or £700 for seven slots) before it'll even make meaningful noises with the Amiga, it's pretty detached from any conventional notions of value for money.
Much better value, at $175, is the FutureSound digital sound recorder, from Applied Visions. This comes with a microphone, and simply plugs into the Amiga's parallel port, enabling high-quality sampling up to about 28kHz.
Given all this interest on the sampling side, it's not surprising that Amiga games are appearing which make good use of samples. Particularly effective is the game One-on-One, with sampled crowd noises, ball thunk, hot-dog vendor, et al. The only drawback is the game itself, which is a dreary (for me, anyway) basketball simulation. The excellent Arctic Fox is a further example of imaginative sampling, and it's a game written specifically for the Amiga, rather than just another Commodore 64 conversion.
From my admittedly short-term reading of the software situation, the brightest hope for Amiga music would seem to lie with Californian company Mimetics, and Music Sales' Mixdown system previewed in last month's E&MM. It's both of these that provide facilities for musical sound sampling.
"If the Amiga?s sound is good and its graphics are excellent, there's clearly scope for software that combines both... and that could help cross any boundary between the musical and visual arts."
Other video options on the horizon are the Live! frame grabber, which is claimed to digitise in real time at 20 frames per second, and a Genlock interface that should enable the Amiga to synchronise to any video source and superimpose text, graphics, or whatever. The last two add-ons are both from Commodore-Amiga themselves.
Standard graphics, however, are based on the low- and high-resolution modes. And it's here that the flaws in the mould start to appear.
The first unfortunate fact is that 400 lines on the Amiga's display can only be achieved by using a special interlaced mode that doubles the vertical resolution at the expense of halving the screen's refresh rate. As a result, any mode with 400 lines flickers terribly, which more or less puts paid to any ideas of constructing Mac lookalike displays with 16 colours. For me, that's a major disappointment.
The second limitation lies with the blitter's inability to cope with more than the Amiga's expanded 512K of RAM. Since it's the blitter that takes the lion's share of the work involved in animation, and since any really serious animation is likely to need more than just that 512K, the Amiga is going to come a little unstuck. It's said that the forthcoming Amiga 2 (what, a new machine already? - Ed) will both quadruple the amount of RAM and extend the blitter to cover it, but that's hardly any consolation for owners of the current Amiga.
But on to the graphics software that's actually available. The two main products that have so far appeared are Deluxe Paint (around $100) from Electronic Arts, and Aegis Animator ($140) from Island Graphics and Aegis Development.
Electronic Arts attached themselves to the Amiga Corporation right from the word go, so it's to be expected that Deluxe Paint should be one of the front-runners. Put simply, Deluxe Paint is a painting program. More than that, it's a program that can turn a non-artist (me, for instance) into a passable impression of an artist. It's also horribly addictive. The program allows you to work in any of the standard graphics modes, though the 640x400 mode is inadvisable because of the interlace flicker.
By pulling down a menu to select colour control, you can make up your own palette of 32 paints by adjusting the red, green, and blue hues. Available brushes include a good variety of sizes, but you can also use a spray nozzle for air-brush effects. Most wonderful of all is the facility that allows you to define any part of a picture as a brush and stretch, colour, and shape it accordingly. So, if you want to paint with King Tutankhamen's nose, no problem. And with the development of cheap, ink-jet, full colour printers, it's even possible to make hard copies of your masterpiece to hand out to adoring techno-art groupies.
Aegis Animator also incorporates a paint system - Aegis Images - that provides very similar features to Deluxe Paint. But as its title suggests, Aegis Animator is designed primarily for the purpose of putting together animated sequences.
Typically, you might start off by creating a backdrop with Images (a lunar landscape, for instance) or by using a low-resolution digitised image. This is stored on disk, and you can then start building up the various elements to be animated. These could be jets of flame, the dust thrown up when the Eagle has landed, or whatever else your imagination and artistic flair might conjure up.
"Unless someone can reprogram the output filters so that they cut off at a more reasonable level than 7.5kHz, the Amiga is doomed to emulating lacklustre Spectrum and CBM64 samplers."
So, if the Amiga's sound is good and the graphics are excellent, then there's clearly scope for software that combines both. One of the most eagerly awaited packages is the Deluxe Video Construction Set from Electronic Arts. Not only should this provide animation that's up to the pro speed of 30 frames/sec, but it also claims to allow the addition of music and sound effects, which can then be synchronised to the action with a sort of pseudo-SMPTE time code. The whole lot can then be recorded onto a VCR for dubbing and playback.
As I see it, the nice thing about this sort of combination software is that it crosses any conceptual boundary between the musical and visual arts. There are a great many musicians who'd love to integrate graphics with their music, but hitherto, they've had to find both a computer expert and a sympathetic artist in order to achieve any sort of realistic synthesis.
I don't pretend that the Amiga has actually gone quite that far, but it's certainly well on the way to being an exciting creative tool, and must be a foretaste of the future.
SUMMING UP IS RARELY EASY, and never less so than in the case of the Amiga. There are features that I love about the machine, and there are others that make me hopping mad.
If the Amiga was priced £475 cheaper, it'd be in direct competition with the Atari 1040ST, and there'd be no question about which machine was the better buy. But at £1475 plus VAT for the 512K version with a single disk drive, the Amiga is in an unfortunate no-man's land between low-price business machines and high-price home micros.
In the States, at least, much has been made (by Commodore mainly) of the Amiga's IBM PC compatibility. And while it's true that $199 or thereabouts will buy the US Amiga owner a package consisting of an extra 5.25" disk drive and some IBM PC emulation software called Transformer, total compatibility is an illusion. For a start, the only programs that will run are text-based ones like Lotus 1-2-3 and Wordstar. And once you've got them, they run so slowly it makes a mockery of using a powerful 68000-based machine for the purpose.
From the UK point of view, it's all academic anyway, since Transformer isn't being released here. Commodore's alternative route to IBM PC compatibility is a hardware add-on called Sidecar. Virtually an IBM PC/XT in itself, with an 8088 processor and 256K RAM, this bolts onto the side of the Amiga and enables any IBM PC software to be run at the same time as Amiga software. That's a great idea, but at a price that's quoted as 'substantially under $1000', I wonder whether Commodore can really count on people buying Sidecar, given that IBM PC/XT clones have already broken through the psychological barrier of £500, and Amstrad are poised to do battle for even less come the September launch of their IBM PC compatible.
And then, of course, there are the basic hardware problems of the Amiga. Commodore UK have stressed that they see the Amiga selling to the business and specialised market areas, eg. music and graphics. But even though the latter are the Amiga's strength, they're also the areas which, paradoxically, show up the Amiga's hardware shortcomings.
Unless someone can find a way of reprogramming the output filters so that they cut off at a more reasonable level than 7.5kHz, the basic sound side of the Amiga is doomed to emulating the lacklustre samplers that have been doing the rounds of the Spectrum and Commodore 64 circuits recently. Depending on what you read, the to-be-released Amiga 2 may correct that bandwidth deficiency, but the 50,000 or so current Amiga owners are hardly going to thank Commodore for correcting a limitation so late in the day.
If the Amiga is to break into the business market, then its graphics presentation has got to equal the competition. Apple Macintosh-quality monochrome graphics are so standard now that they're what people are expecting 16-bit, 68000-based micros to look like. Slavish copying is hardly a good thing, but if the Amiga could produce monochrome screens that looked like the Digidesign software for the Macintosh, or the Steinberg Research Pro-24 MIDI sequencer for the Atari, I wouldn't be one to complain. But because of the ridiculous flicker in the Amiga's 640x400 interlaced mode, the highest usable resolution is 640 X 200, which means the clarity of the Macintosh (512 x 342) or ST (640 x 400) monochrome screens is totally out of the question.
To add insult to injury, Commodore's own future as a company seems distinctly shaky, a position that's hardly helped by the prophets of doom and gloom who continue to take vicarious pleasure in predicting its imminent collapse. Whatever happens, though, it seems certain that the widening Amiga user base in the US will continue to be supported. Whether or not the Amiga 2 ever materialises is more open to doubt. My gut feeling is that the prohibitive cost of updating all the custom chips in the Amiga will prevent the Amiga 2 from being an earth-shattering improvement on the current model, anyway. What I guess will happen is that third-party companies will work to extend the Amiga's open architecture with upgrades. But judging by current prices being charged for samplers, extra RAM, and hard disks, it's also a fair bet that enhancements will come at a price.
The final complicating factor comes down to the activities of the competition. Rumours are circulating on US bulletin boards of a new Apple IIx 16-bit computer that comes complete with a 32-channel sound chip. Interesting, obviously, but I'll believe it when I see it.
A more immediate contender is Atari. Under the bullish direction of Jack Tramiel, Atari have been transformed from a mid-market games computer company into an aggressive manufacturer of cheap but powerful 16-bit personal computers. My current hostility to the ST series is based on their appalling record of reliability (as discovered only too well by E&MM's editorial staff), a ridiculous design of key-top that turns a competent typist into a quivering wreck and which gives a new meaning to the term 'writer's block', and a vintage sound chip that will probably keep JS Bach turning over in his grave for the rest of eternity, poor fellow.
However, the next few months may well oblige me to change my tune. Not only is the new ST machine reputed to use the very powerful, 32-bit 68020 processor, with 2Mbyte of RAM as standard, but it's also kitted out with an Amiga-type blitter chip and a rather more classy sound chip. Whether this turns out to be quite like the Amy sound chip (64 oscillator channels with 96dB signal-to-noise resolution) originally intended for the ST series is anyone's guess, but the few advance speculations I've gleaned are certainly enough to make me think seriously about changing my allegiance.
It's certainly an encouraging sign of the times that computer manufacturers are at long last putting music on the top of the list of hardware priorities, but let's hope that they don't forget the owners of last year's models - the Amiga included.
Feature by David Ellis
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