Atari 520ST MIDI Computer
"Wow! Space Invaders!" says Jeremy Vine. Naff off, I'm a fully musical MIDI-capable micro, says the 520ST.
Computers and musical instruments have always had an uneasy relationship — that is, up until now. Atari isn't a name you readily identify with synthesizers and within the computermarket the name has been synonymous with games machines. But all that has changed. Atari's new state-of-the-art technology micro, the 520ST is of particular interest to readers of this magazine in that this is the first micro to include a MIDI interface as standard (the Yamaha CX5M doesn't count as it's already a synthesizer!).
This is something of a preview as the complete software for the machine hasn't been finished at the time of writing; nor have the MIDI packages which are now being written in the USA and UK. The specifications of this machine are outstanding. The ST is a full blown 16-bit 68000 micro running at 8 mHz (that's fast!), with 32-bit internal architecture and a plethora of external interfaces that will enable communication with almost any device you care to think of. The external ports included are for floppy disk, hard disk, RS232 (Modems etc), Parallel (for printing) and Joysticks. Bundled with the ST as standard is the GEM icon-window display operating environment with the now inevitable mouse controller. But more of that later.
The first machine to be generally available is the 520ST. This sports 512k of user RAM and will be part of a package that includes a 3.5inch disk drive (single sided), a high resolution 600x400 (pixels) monochrome monitor and software (LOGO, BASIC and GEM). In addition, two extra packages are included, a word processor — GEM Write and a graphics package, GEM Paint. Other versions of the ST will appear later this year in various combinations of memory size and peripheral packaging. There will also be available a medium resolution colour monitor. The real punch in this package is the price, £749.99, which includes everything previously described.
Comparable systems (ie Apple Macintosh) in terms of specifications are not even in the same league. Jack Tramiel, head of Atari, has promised ever since the micro was announced last year, that this machine would have the "power without the price". That it certainly has.
There is also a promised future expansion for a CD ROM unit, which is similar to an audio compact disc, except it is for data storage only. The incredible thing about the CD ROM unit is that it can hold Megabytes of information. A single disk can contain the entire contents of an encyclopedia with room to spare!
The two things which make this micro worth considering is the use of GEM and MIDI. First, GEM. The Graphics Environment Manager, to give its full title, is an operating system written by Digital Research. This is DR's answer to the friendly operating environment that took the computing world by storm when Apple launched their Macintosh machine. The essential difference between these two, is that GEM is in colour (providing you have the colour monitor). Most readers will probably be familiar with the idea of a mouse device to move a pointer over the screen display. In this way, almost any command can be effected by pointing and clicking the mouse button. This makes command entry by the user a doddle. Everything is presented visually — certainly a lot easier than multi-line command statements.
In the region of sound, Atari have provided the musician with two alternatives. The first is by use of a sound chip within the machine. Considering the specifications of the ST, the sound facilities are a tremendous let down. Atari have used the standard AV-3-8910 Programmable Sound Generator (PSG) from General Instruments which is found in a number of other eight-bit micros. The sound chip, although offering possibilities to use one of eight different waveforms and having user defined ADSR, is none the less a disappointment. In a machine which is on the leading edge of technology in so many other ways, it is a pity that Atari have gone for the simplest solution to providing sound. Atari's possible rival in the micro market, Commodore, will be launching in the UK in January their Amiga micro, which from all accounts could put a DX7 to shame (I'll believe it when I see it)! If and when further versions of the ST series appear I hope Atari will put some thought into re-designing the sound system.
Where Atari have excelled themselves is in having implemented MIDI on the ST as a standard interface. Situated at the rear of the machine are the two ports, MIDI IN and MIDI OUT (THRU). Beyond that, Atari haven't done any fancy tricks but their mere presence opens up a world of possibilities for the musician. It's the combination of GEM, MIDI, 512k of RAM and the speed of the micro which makes this a real treat.
As previously mentioned, software houses are already writing MIDI software specification for the ST and if it's anywhere near as good as the GEM packages already seen, then there will be no excuse for not using a computer. The Music Works package for the Macintosh is the kind of software I'd expect to see for the ST. An implementation of that program on the ST could knock spots off the Mac — the ST with MIDI and half the price!
The ST has the potential. It's for software houses to recognise that fact and get writing.
Contact: Atari (Contact Details).
RRP: £749.99 (inc monitor + diskdrive)