While computer sequencing has the power, hardware sequencing had the reliability... Jeff Rona gets a sneak preview of a laptop computer that has the best of both worlds.
THE DECISION TO buy a computer or a dedicated hardware sequencer can usually be based on simple ergonomics (not to mention economics). Sure, computers are much more versatile than dedicated sequencers, but there is a big trade-off in bulk, weight, price and physical reliability. If you plan to do any gigs or even studio work, you may be better off with a dedicated hardware sequencer, right? Software sequencing programs are generally easier to use, but require bulky and delicate computers and monitors. While there is a wide selection of laptop IBM PC compatibles that can be regarded as being robust and portable computers, few can support MIDI interfaces such as the MPU401. Do you have an option other than hardware?
The option may have just appeared in the form of a small, inexpensive laptop computer that might just make the decision between dedicated and computer-based sequencers an easy one. It's the new STacy from Atari. The STacy is the functional equivalent of the 1040ST, which avails it of possibly the widest range of software currently available.
Having made an early appearance on Atari's busy stand at the recent Chicago NAMM show, STacy weighs only 15 pounds (which might be considered heavy for a sequencer but falls easily into the "portable" computer category) and its flip-up lid includes a large, high-resolution, back-lit LCD screen.
The briefcase-sized unit comes with one megabyte of RAM (expandable to 4 Meg) and a single 3.5" 800K floppy drive. Also included are a numeric keypad, a built-in (somewhat small) trackball, an expansion port similar to the one found on the Mega ST series (for connecting large-screen monitors and other peripherals), a standard ST expansion port, and connectors for a mouse, external floppy drive, external monitor and joystick. And being of particular interest to musicians, Atari's highly insightful built-In MIDI ports were not forgotten.
The computer is based on the 68000 microprocessor running at 8MHz, and is configured with an internal, low power consumption 20 Meg hard drive in addition to the built-in floppy. Atari claim that the unit will run on batteries for up to 35 hours, depending on the configuration of the machine and the type of batteries used (rechargeables run down faster).
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Atari's NAMM demo of the STacy was the software they were running. When I took a look at the machine, I saw a popular Macintosh graphics program as a small, third-party company is marketing a Macintosh emulator card for the ST that will run a number of Mac programs, claiming speeds greater than a standard Mac Plus. This device is called the Spectre GCR, and is available from Gadgets By Small in the US for $299.
To answer the question this raises in musical minds "no, the Spectre won't run Mac MIDI software, or any Mac software that requires any sort of special interfaces or extra hardware". Still, for Mac fans looking for a portable to take out of the house (especially in light of the estimated $7000 US price tag on the forthcoming Mac laptop), the prospect of running some Mac programs in addition to ST software is very appealing. Those who purchase the emulator must supply the Macintosh ROM chips, which are available as a replacement part from Apple service centres as it would be an infringement of copyright to sell the device with the chips included.
The STacy is expected to cost around £1500 including internal 2OMeg hard drive. There may be further versions of STacy without the hard drive but with expanded internal memory in the pipeline which will obviously be cheaper - but this is unconfirmed at the time of writing. Of course, you'll still need to buy software unless you're already running an ST rig but want something a little more reliable to cart about with you. Any drawbacks? Well, on the prototype version the LCD display was a bit smeary, making rapidly scrolling information hard to see. Sometimes the cursor would even disappear when moved rapidly.
With the long-awaited laptop Mac still unannounced, Atari are definitely getting ahead of Apple in the portable market. This computer could encourage even more musicians to jump on the Atari bandwagon. Hopefully, Atari will begin to support the ST (and the forthcoming TT) series as diligently as Apple have with new system and utility software as musicians need very sophisticated system tools to create a functional, reliable working computer environment.
The STacy promises to bring the world of computer-based sequencing closer to that of dedicated hardware sequencers, and take it some steps beyond. I'm not sure exactly where these steps will take us, but I'm looking forward to finding out.
Price with 20M hard drive, £1495 including VAT