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Atari Notes


Martin Russ ponders on software metamorphosis and the problems and benefits it brings for both programmer and end-user.


The theme this month is moving targets — the way that software and hardware are always changing. Attempting to keep up with the rapidly changing world of hi-tech music can be a complex task, so I have taken a couple of examples and used them as the basis for a few further thoughts on the subject.

FRACTAL MUSIC



SOS reviewed Datamusic's Fractal Music program for the ST in the June 1992 issue. In case you can't remember, Fractal Music is the MIDI File processor that lets you make all sorts of intriguing changes to the music — some useful musically by the pop arranger, some only for the adventurous experimenter.

One of the major advantages of registering a piece of 'interesting and evolving' software like this is the close contact you get — especially when the company is small. For example, Chris Samson, the programmer of Fractal Music, has just written to all registered owners with details of the newly-released version 2.51. With the way that MIDI tends to add useful little extras all the time, you need a responsive attitude to make sure that the program does not fall behind, and Chris has incorporated two such changes in this incremental upgrade: a MIDI Thru to make it easier to use a master keyboard with expanders whilst using the program; and a modification which stops the 'hanging/sustaining' notes that won't turn off when you stop the program in the middle of 'fractating'.

The second modification is interesting because it reflects the way in which many 'small-company' programmers write a program and then test it with their own MIDI equipment, and anything else they can beg or borrow. This usually means that they catch most of the potential problems for systems similar to their own, but that there is a chance they can overlook something — Chris admits that buying a Korg 03R/W showed him how a multitimbral expander could suffer from notes which would not stop playing. Lots of other programs have had similar problems. I have tested full versions of software from quite famous UK 'names' which could not cope with MIDI features like Release Velocity, non-Akai Sample Dump Standard sample dumps, or even using a Note On with zero velocity as a Note Off. Early versions of one popular low-cost sequencer always produced hanging notes whenever you stopped playback mid-song!

Though I'm always one to encourage home-grown software rather than sponsoring importers, a higher quality of product certainly seems to be needed. But how does a lone programmer check his program for compatibility with the large number of interpretations of the MIDI Specification? Trying to keep on top of the many quirks from the manufacturers is a difficult task, and effective communication of them is even harder. (For example, I only recently discovered that some Roland equipment has to have the Bank number multiplied by 128 to make Bank Selects work correctly. This makes creating MIDI Files which use Bank Select messages quite difficult because there are now two incompatible way of doing it!) The UK MIDI Association is an excellent source of information about these 'features' of individual instruments, but trying to discover all the exceptions to the rules that might apply to a particular piece of software is a daunting process.

One possible solution is thorough beta-testing — but who do you send the test copies out to? A commonly used method involves using the end user as the beta-tester, but this then ties you up in supporting irate rather than satisfied customers. Having done some beta testing for quite a few 'names', I could suggest that instead of using friends, relatives and acquaintances, programmers approach magazine reviewers and ask them to try the software. The problem here is that few reviewers have the time to look at more than one extra program a month — and looking at it actually costs them money. What is actually needed is an independent MIDI test laboratory, but given the co-operative/non-profit orientation of the controlling powers within MIDI, this seems unlikely in the near future.

Before SOS gets flooded with software to be tested, I should point out that any such programs and their accompanying documentation will be subjected to a very tough 'entrance exam', from which only the fittest will survive. Stamped, self-adressed Jiffy bags only please — and be prepared for a photocopied rejection letter. You will need to be very sure of your product before you let someone else try to pull it to pieces! You may also worry about exposing your hard work to hardened magazine reviewers. They tend to look very closely at the 'outer edges' of programs by stressing them with lots of clustered notes, masses of SysEx or aftertouch data and other strains, which is often rather different from the intended 'everyday' usage — but it certainly shows up problems. Reviewers also often have examples of brand-new equipment which is being reviewed, which means that they are frequently in a ideal position to check the latest addition to the MIDI Specification, and so they may well be one step ahead of the hapless programmer.

IN GENERAL



Once MIDI Files became established, all sorts of add-ons and enhancements became available to enable software and hardware to work with them. General MIDI is now going through the same process. Yamaha's ongoing software support now includes a set of voices for the very popular SY85 which allow you to play back GM files. The idea is very simple — you just program a set of voices and performances which have the correct sounds in the appropriate Program Number memories.

The difference with Yamaha is that the disk is available free from their Hi-Tech Public Domain library. An ST-based voice editor for the SY85 and TG500 is also due soon from the same source, and it joins the established library for the QY20, QY10, TG100, RY30 and others. With universal librarians and editors becoming the (expensive) norm, it is very refreshing to see manufacturers like Yamaha supporting their new hardware releases with accompanying software — usually for the ST, but with some available for other computers as well. (The QY10 program from Yamaha was featured in the Atari Column in the February 1993 issue of SOS.)

CONTACTS

FRACTAL MUSIC: Distributed by Oscar Music Productions Ltd, (Contact Details)

YAMAHA HI-TECH PD LIBRARY: Yamaha-Kemble Music UK Ltd, (Contact Details)

UKMA: (Contact Details)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR...

Martin Russ is the SOS equivalent of the 'fifth Beatle', having written for the magazine from its inception in 1985. He has been a staunch member of the DX Owners' Club, and now regularly contributes to the UK MIDI Association's newsletter. By day he works hard in British Telecom's R&D labs; by night he composes electronic music and scours the world's bulletin boards, programmes all manner of computers, solves complicated MIDI problems and still finds time for his family and playing the Bodhran at weekends!


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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Jul 1993

Topic:

Computing


Feature by Martin Russ

Previous article in this issue:

> Sound Bites

Next article in this issue:

> Apple Notes


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