This month an explosion of Mac tone modules and a Mac range restructuring exercise. Kendall Wrightson offers seasonal cheer for Apple admirers everywhere.
Over the past 13 years electronic musical instrument manufacturers have devised all manner of solutions to graft musical capabilities on to, in to, and underneath popular personal computers. In the mid-Eighties, the first wave of PC-based musical offerings were all American or European, as were the PCs they were designed to enhance. In an attempt to loosen the US stranglehold on computer hardware standards (and operating systems), an influential consortium of Japanese electronics giants unveiled a new consumer computing standard called MSX. Yamaha went as far as releasing their own MSX computer — the CX5 — which was bundled with an FM tone module and specially designed sequencing/voice editing software. Unfortunately (for the Japanese that is), MSX failed totally to catch the public imagination, standardisation being its only selling point amidst a deluge of exciting, though totally incompatible US and European models.
Despite this setback, the development and exploitation of a mass market for computer-based musical products has remained an important and strategic goal for many Japanese manufacturers. Their precocious confidence was not misplaced — the market for home PCs and keyboards continues to grow and has yet to reach maturity. Today, there are literally tens of millions of computers sitting in homes waiting to be fed with peripherals and software; a massive potential customer base that could, with the right music product, produce a veritable Mount Fuji of cash!
Over the past three years, Roland has led the field in nurturing this new market by targeting the home entertainment (games) and education sectors. For example, the LAPC-1 — an LA synthesis card (incorporating a MIDI interface) for PC compatibles — has become the de facto standard for many PC games manufacturers. Meanwhile the education sector has consumed vast numbers of Roland's CM series tone modules, thanks in part to Apple's success in usurping Acorn's BBC Model B as the premier education computer.
For their second generation of PC tone modules and cards, Roland (and others) solved the most significant problem limiting wider public acceptance — MIDI. Though the Musical Instrument Digital Interface is an agreed standard, it allows massive flexibility in terms of specification and user interface. While this offers diversity and welcome scope for experimentation, a simple task such as transferring sequencer files can evolve into a lengthy session of drum note remapping and program change renumbering. No problem for the experienced MIDI-head, but hell on earth for the absolute beginner wondering why Mozart's 'Clarinet Quintet in A Major' is being performed by two kettle drums, two saxophones and a bouzouki!
The solution came in the form of General MIDI (GM) System Level 1, a subset of the MIDI data format that defines a minimum hardware specification for electronic musical instruments and standardises sound locations, drum note mapping, pitch bend range, etc.
Agreed by the MIDI Manufacturers Association and the Japanese MIDI Association, Roland's Sound Canvas was the first tone module (and the SCC1-GS the first PC card) to use the standard. Roland's second generation GM tone module — the SC7 — removed a further obstacle to mass market success by incorporating a Mac (and PC) MIDI interface — normally a £50 experience. In May of this year, Roland delivered a truly plug 'n' play solution by bundling the SC7 with PG Music's Band-In-A-Box auto-accompaniment software and Passport's entry-level MIDI sequencer, TurboTrax. The result is a £335 package with the gorgeously euphonious name of the DTM7-APL.
As a simple and inexpensive entry into the world of computer music, Roland's solution — and, more specifically, the sales figures it has inspired — has led to a rash of similar products (see box). This is great news for the financially challenged — ie. most of us. It's also a bonus for the education sector, since schools, colleges and universities are better able to afford multiple units — enough to offer hands-on experience to all students.
In a fit of synchronicity, the low-cost computer music setup has arrived at a time of increased demand, both in general student numbers and in music technology related courses at all levels. The music software publishers have not been slow in recognising the new market. For example, Opcode's HyperCard stack The Book Of MIDI has been around for well over a year and has been followed up with Claire, an ear training, sight reading, music theory package that makes great use of the Mac's built-in microphone. Opcode also offer an 8-bit sample editing and playlisting application called AudioShop. It's fun to use and can give learners great insight into the nature of sound. (MCM: (Contact Details).) Meanwhile, the newly formed E-magic have combined their (formerly C-Lab) ear training and MIDI analysis packages into a single application, which has, as yet, no name. (Sound Technology: (Contact Details)).
So what next? In most application areas, past experience has been peripheral migration — the flow of external hardware from outside to inside the computer. For example, Apple's new AV Macs have a powerful built-in DSP that could be employed to offer any type of synthesis, sampling and tapeless recording (in fact, the new version of Deck offers precisely this, with no need for additional hardware).
It seems odd that no manufacturer has yet struck a deal with Apple to supply sample-filled ROM chips of the type that drive the latest GM tone modules. Such facilities would transform the Mac's potential as a games machine (the other huge growth industry of the last few years). In fact, Apple employed an Ensoniq-designed audio chip inside the Apple IIGS, but further developments along this road were brought to an abrupt halt by legal action from The Beatles' record company, Apple Corp. The problem was related to a 1981 agreement between the two companies that prevented Apple Computer from releasing 'musical' products.
The case dragged on for years until the two parties came to an agreement. Unfortunately details of this deal have never been, and will never be, disclosed. Polite enquiries to either Apples on this matter are met with digital silence. As the latest generation of Macs are replete with CD-ROM drives capable of playing audio CDs, and a DSP chip offering 16-bit stereo audio recording and playback, it seems likely that the embargo must have been lifted. Let's hope so. Maybe Apple will take the opportunity to include a MIDI interface in future machines?
Every October Apple unleash a truck load of new Macs, and this year was no exception. While every new Mac offers more power for less money, the choice is bewildering for public and dealers alike. However, this autumn Apple have taken the opportunity to restructure the entire Mac range, targeting Performas, LCs and Quadras at domestic, education and business markets respectively.
With the exception of the 660AV, the Centris range — the 610 and 650 — have been rechristened Quadras, Apple taking the opportunity to tweak their clock speed from 20 to 25MHz (the 610), and from 25 to 33MHz (the 650). The new Quadras will also feature Ethernet as standard. Price-wise, the new Quadras are similar to the Centris models they replace.
Further up-market, the Quadra 800 (recently eclipsed by the 840AV) will be reduced to around £2300 or less (for an 8/230Mb configuration). Expect to see bargain basement prices for the now defunct Quadra 950 too.
In the midrange/education market, the Colour Classic has been axed after eight months, thanks to poor sales and new EC regulations regarding adjustable monitors. The LCII has also been dumped, reducing the 25MHz '030 LCIII to a mere £749, including Apple's new Performa Plus 14" Colour monitor (£225 on its own). Thankfully, the truly appalling Apple Basic Display has been dumped.
The LCIII is joined by the all-new LC475, a 25MHz '040 Mac offering 16-bit colour for displays up to 16" (with an appropriate VRAM upgrade). A 4/80Mb LC475 should retail for around £999, bringing '040 performance under £1,000 for the first time.
PowerBook-wise, the Duo 230 has been replaced by the Duo 250, the former's supertwist grey scale LCD being upgraded to an active matrix variety in order to eliminate tunnelling, submarining, and other supertwist oddities. The 33MHz 250 also includes a new battery, offering "up to six hours" of use. It's lighter, too, bringing the Duo 250 weight in at 4.2 lbs. A 4/200Mb Duo 250 will cost around £1,700.
The first colour Duo is the 270c, a 33MHz '030 device (with FPU) offering thousands of colours, the basic unit being a 4/230Mb configuration. Unfortunately, the 270c is 0.1 inch thicker than other Duos, so Apple have had to release a kit to modify the DuoDock.
For the first time, Apple have announced a PowerBook upgrade path for the Duo 210/230, though it's a display-only experience (to a 230 or 270c screen). Meanwhile, the now humbled Duo 230 "has six months" (and will be reduced to £949 or less), while the 165C is now discontinued in UK. Finally, the PowerBook 165 has been reduced to around £1100 (for a 4/80Mb), though bulk purchasing has seen 165 prices as low as £995).
Most importantly, Apple have guaranteed that all Quadra models will have an upgrade path to the forthcoming RISC-based PowerPC machines, though it looks like the first PPC Macs may now not be with us until mid-1994, not January as first announced.
Feature by Kendall Wrightson
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