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Aries PC

Brian Heywood puts the new Aries PC through its paces

Brian Heywood puts Watford Electronic's PC Compatible through it's paces

With the release of the Yamaha C-1 the attention of the music technology press has focussed more on the IBM PC family of computers. The PC tends to be dismissed as a music computer in Europe since it doesn't have any special 'music features' built-in (unlike say the Atari ST with it's MIDI port). However in the states there is more music software available for the PC than for any other type of personal computer.

It's also difficult to judge how good or bad something like the C-1 is unless you do so in context of what else is available that will perform the same task. So this issue we're looking at a system that could be used as an alternative to the C-1, within certain limitations. I suppose I should declare at this point that I'm very much a PC user in that my sequencing system is built around a PC/XT compatible computer and that I also write software for the PC.

Is there Life After Watford?

There are some who might say that Watford is the edge of the known civilized world, but this is where the PC being reviewed hails from. Watford Electronics have been in the business of selling computers for some time now, being one of the major players in the BBC Micro scene and stocking the subsequent range of Acorn machines. So I guess it's no surprise that they would bring out a range of IBM compatible PCs before too long. The machines are branded ARIES and appear to be made in Taiwan and since all the labels also have the Watford logo I presume that they are put together especially for Watford Electronics.

The Aries range of computers demonstrates one of the major advantages of the PC over other personal and home computers, you can always upgrade if you need a more powerful computing engine. All software that will run on the cheapest PC will also run on the most expensive, top of the range PC (only much, much faster!). And you can also get usable multi-tasking systems that make the high powered machines even more attractive.

Prices start at just over £500 for a PC/XT clone with a single 360K floppy disk drive and a monochrome graphics adapter, and go up to around £3,000 for a 80386 tower machine with all the bells and whistles. For a PC with a hard disk the prices start at just over £900. The PC-XTs can run a clock speed of either 8 MHz or 4.77 MHz and can be fitted with either a 8068 processor or the slightly faster NEC equivalent, the V20. The PC-ATs prices start at just under £900 for a single floppy drive box and the cheapest hard disk version costs £1145, the PC-ATs can be run at either 12 MHz or 8 MHz for IBM compatibility.

The Hard facts

The machine that was supplied for review was a PC-AT with a 40 megabyte hard disk and a VGA/EGA graphics card with a VGA multi-sync colour monitor. The list price for this set-up would be £1723.85 (including VAT but not delivery), incidentally the price of a system equivalent to a C-1 (without the MIDI interface) would be £1144.25.

The first thing that struck me about the machine is it's physical size, in short it is big. It's the sort of desk-top computer that takes up your entire desk top! In fact it makes the C-1 sitting next to it look rather like a toy. The case (or system box) is sheet metal and therefore sturdy enough to take the weight of the video monitor plus anything else you might need to have handy. I think I would probably put my Yamaha MJC-8 MIDI patch bay on top of the case if I were to use the PC for any length of time. One interesting (but useless) feature is a little seven segment display on the front of the case which tells you how fast the processor is running.

Also on the front of the system box is a lock which allows you to disable the keyboard which, although being superfluous in most situations, would be very useful in a recording studio where you may want to stop clients with itchy fingers from trashing your hard disk. The size of the unit would also be an advantage in this setting as I imagine a computer the size of the Yamaha C-1 could quite easily 'go walkies' if not bolted down.

The video monitor comes supplied with a swivel stand which allows the screen to be tilted and rotated to point in almost any sensible direction, although it is very fiddly to put on correctly. Just looking at it now, I notice that I haven't got the back tabs locked into the display properly, I think you may need two people to do it properly, however it appears to be safe enough so I'll leave it for the moment. Another problem with the display is that the power plug is somewhat loose in the socket so that when I first turned the machine on the screen didn't power up. This problem seems to be entirely due to the cheap power lead provided to connect the monitor to the power output on the back of the system box.

If all else fails, read the Instructions!

Although I am fairly experienced with the setting up of PC systems, I still like to have a flip through the manual just to see if there is anything special about the machine, it's sort of like reading the fine print on a contract. The Aries came with a slim A5 manual which said exactly nothing about how to set-up the PC, even a single page describing where to find the information in the Microsoft manual would be better than just a pile of boxes with no information. I would suggest that if you are a complete novice with computers that you should get a friend or colleague with some experience in PCs to help you out.

Throw the Switch Igor

On turning the power on the Aries PC seemed quite noisy, so I checked its Sound Pressure Level (SPL) against the C-1 and my PC/XT and was fairly surprised at the results. The measurements were taken in a quiet studio with everything turned off except the machine under test.

As you can see from Table 1, the Aries PC is actually quieter than the Yamaha C-1. Whilst this is really a very unrepresentative sample of the three machines, you can see that there is not a lot in it either way.

The next stage was to install the operating system. The hard disk was already set-up so all I had to do was copy all the MS-DOS utilities on to the appropriate directory. The next thing I noticed was that this machine was very fast, so with Norton Utilities in hand I did another comparative test and came up with the results in Table 2.

Again the Aries out-performs the C-1 and all my computers (sob), but it's not surprising considering the relative clock speeds of the various microprocessors involved.

The Soft Spots

The machine was delivered to me with MS-DOS 3.30, GWBASIC-Basic, VGA driver software, a hard disk manager and a utility package called PC-Organizer which gives you a simple database, a diary, a word processor and some desk-top utilities. One excellent idea is that you get free 12 months worth of 'onsite' maintenance, which means that the machine will be repaired at your premises if anything goes wrong with it.

According to the Watford Electronics advertising you should also get a Logitek mouse and a Desktop Publishing package (worth about £300) included in the price. It seems to me that it would be more appropriate for music applications if they bundled something like the Voyetra MIDI MusicPack or the Music Quest Starter Pack.

Again there was no information about what's supplied and how it should be installed, just the bare manuals for the packages. Perhaps the customer support people at Watford are lonely and want you to ring up and chat to them! This is definitely not a job for the unskilled and/or faint-hearted, however all the information can be found in the manuals if you look for it.

One for the Money

This brings us to the point where we have to decide what extra equipment you will need to turn this PC into a music computer. There are quite a few MIDI interfaces available for the PC, but the de facto standard is the Roland MPU-401 or one of its clones. The most reliable MPU-401 compatible interfaces use the Roland chip-set, which apart from Roland include the Voyetra and the CMS interface. The Music Quest interface emulates the Roland interface using software so is potentially less reliable with software not supplied by Music Quest. The CMS interface can be picked up for around £100 (bundled with a virtually useless sequencer), the Music Quest Starter Pack costs £149 but probably the best value is the Voyetra MusicPack for £199 includes the much acclaimed Sequencer Plus software.

If you want to have sound generation 'on-board' you could try the new Roland LAPC-1 module (£379) which is essentially an MT-32 that can be mounted inside the computer. Another alternative is the IBM Music Feature card (£399) which is derived from the Yamaha FB01 sound module, this card also has a (non-MPU-401 compatible) MIDI interface. You can also add a MPU-401 compatible external interface to the Roland LAPC-1 for an extra £79 (which brings the total cost to £458).

Two for the Show

The basic piece of software required to turn your PC into a music computer is a sequencer, depending on whether you are just starting out in electronic music or are an old 'pro' upgrading from an Atari, your needs will vary. For the beginner the Voyetra MusicPack is probably the most cost effective way of getting a usable music system since it includes the interface as well. More experienced users will probably want to shop around and find the package that best suits their way of working, personally I use Sequencer Plus Mark III from Voyetra which suits my purposes admirably. Other packages for the PC worth a look include Texture from Magnetic Music, Cakewalk from Twelve Tone Systems and Concepts One from MIDI Concepts Inc.

One piece of software that would turn the PC into an integrated Music workstation when used in conjunction with the Roland LAPC-1 is called Ballade. Though originally designed to be used with the MT-32, this software will work with the internal card as well and gives you a sequencer, a voice editor plus complete control of the LAPC internal MIDI controls such as channel volume, pan and reverb. With this combination and a master keyboard like the Yamaha DX11 or one of the Cheetah controllers you would have an extremely flexible and powerful MIDI system.

So, as you can see, there are a tremendous number of ways to turn this essentially 'vanilla' computer into a MIDI programming tool, and I haven't considered scoring packages or voice editors. So all I can do is say how I configured the machine and how it performed.

Three to get ready

The next thing to do was to install the MIDI interface, which was an old style OP-4001 interface (from Voyetra) which I use for development work. This operation required that the lid be taken off the PC - accomplished by removing five screws from the back panel and sliding the lid forward (hint: remove the keyboard lock keys first!). The MIDI card was then plugged into one of the expansion slots, removing the blanking plate first, and then screwed into position to stop it flapping about. Then put the lid back on, reconnect the power and video leads and it's off we go.

Lets Go, Go, Go...

I tried the PC with a variety of MIDI packages including Voyetra Sequencer Plus Mark III, Ballade, Patch Master Plus and the POKE DX11ED patch editor (which is one of my products!). On the whole the machine operated seamlessly after a few 'teething' problems. At first, the PC occasionally 'locked-up' for no apparent reason. I tracked this problem down to the fact that I was using Borland's Sidekick (v1.5), when this was resident in memory, GW-BASIC (supplied with the operating system) doesn't work at all and other programmes crash intermittently. I have also observed this problem on other AT style machines, so it may be due to a subtle incompatibility in the keyboard handlers of PCs and ATs, a later version of Sidekick would probably cure the problem. The problem seemed to be cured completely by removing Sidekick from memory.

I don't usually use a colour screen in the studio, but I found that judicious choice of screen colours made the screens of various software packages clearer. Also, having the high resolution VGA screen gives the possibility of displaying a lot more information on the screen.

For instance Sequencer Plus and Patch Master Plus will show 43 lines of screen information and Ballade needs at least an EGA screen to work at all. The Aries screen is quite large as well, which means that it can be seen from further away, say from across the studio etc.

All the packages I ran on the Aries performed well (after I removed Sidekick) and loaded from disk noticeably faster than from my PC/XT. Once loaded, I didn't notice any particular improvement in performance, since this is limited by the speed of MIDI, rather than by the machine.

The Bottom Line(s)

I find it difficult to justify this much power in a computer being used for music sequencing, although if you do a lot of scoring using software like Passport's SCORE package then you will appreciate the extra power found by this system. And having the VGA screen is extremely nice, especially as my studio machine has a Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) since it is a 'luggable'. The C-1 can justify the power since it has the ability to drive eight totally independent MIDI ports, this is reflected in the measured performance index.

The other reason you may need raw power is if you need to multitask, so if you need to use a word-processor whilst you use your modem to access PAN and also play a sequence then you will find that you need this extra power. On the other hand, since human beings tend to be only capable of single tasking (you try get the bar man to serve you whilst he's nattering to his mates), you would probably find it cheaper to use a switcher system like Software Carousel and a lot of extra memory in a cheaper PC.

Just one parting shot, this computer is ideal if you are fairly flush with cash and you want to make your investment 'future proof'. In the next year or so I predict that you will be seeing more MIDI interfaces coming on the market with the kind of functionality found on C-1, that is, multiple MIDI ports and built-in SMPTE/EBU reader/generator. When this happens it will make true MIDI multi-tasking possible on the PC but require at least the amount of power found in the PC-AT, if not its 80386 siblings.

Product: Aries PC range
Supplier: Watford Electronics, (Contact Details)

Table 1.

Test Conditions Approximate Sound Pressure Level in dB
Ambient less than 40 dB
Aries PC-AT 45 dB
Yamaha C-1 50 dB
Walters PC/XT 50 dB

Table 2.

Machine Processor type Clock speed Computing index Disk index Performance index
Aries AT 80286 12 MHz 13.7 2.0 9.8
Yamaha C-1 80286 10 MHz 9.8 2.3 7.3
Amstrad PC V30 8 MHz 4.0 0.5 2.8
c/w Hardcard (NEC 8086)
Walters LCD Portable 8088 8 MHz 1.7 1.1 1.5


Price £
Voyetra MusicPack 199.95 Computer Music Systems 01-482 5224
Voyetra Sequencer Plus
Mark I 97.00
Mark II 228.00
Mark III 368.00
Ballade 195.00
Music Quest Starter Pack 149.00
Roland LAP C-1 379.00
LAP C-1 MIDI i/f 79.00 Soho Soundhouse 01-434 1365
Roland MT-32 350.00 Yamaha Pulse Music 01-734 5184
Yamaha C-1 2999.00 The Program Shop 01-316 7777
Yamaha MGC8 CMS PC MIDI i/f 115.00 Future Music (0245) 352490
Cheetah MIDI controllers ABC Music (0932) 840139

Technical Specification

Computer Name: Aries PC-AT (Watford Electronics)
Operating System: DOS 3.30
Built-in BIOS dated: Friday, November 15,1985
Main Processor: Intel 80286
Co-Processor: Optional (not fitted)
Clock Speed: 12/8 MHz (switchable from keyboard)
Parallel Ports: 0 (should be 1!)
Serial Ports: 1
Video Display Adapter: Video Graphics Array (VGA)
Available Disk Drives: A: 1.2M high density floppy disk
C: 40 Megabyte hard disk partitioned as
D: two 20 Megabyte drives
RAM: 640K supplied as standard
Extended RAM: Up to 4 Megabytes (not fitted)
Expansion Slots: 5 x 32 bit, 3 x 8 bit
Keyboard: 102 key (XT style)
Power Supply: 200 Watts

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MTR series III

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A Guy Called Gerald

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Micro Music - Oct/Nov 1989

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Computer > Watford Electronics > Aries PC

Review by Brian Heywood

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