ATPL Symphony Keyboard
Add-on for BBC Micro
David Ellis casts a critical eye over a new music keyboard for the BBC Micro that controls the computer's internal sound chip and is compatible with Acorn's Music 500 synth add-on.
It looks like it's just mother package attempting to get the best out of a micro's internal sound chip, but the Symphony's interfacing possibilities make it an altogether more fascinating proposition.
It can't have escaped many readers' attention that one of the current crazes to have hit the more entertainment-orientated side of the micro add-on industry is the music keyboard that plugs into this or that user port on this or that micro. The BBC Micro has been far from unaffected by this sort of activity, and the Symphony Keyboard from Advanced Technology Products Ltd is among the current contenders aiming to turn musical keystrokes into meaningful realisations of Sound and Envelope statements.
So even though the advertising copy may claim that the ATPL product is an 'Electronic Keyboard' which 'provides simulation of a wide range of musical instruments and sound effects', you'd better have the Saxa ready between thumb and forefinger, because this is merely a 49-note keyboard of Italian extraction that uses the bog-standard diode matrix technique to send out a bit-code which subsequent software can then use as musical input to drive the Beeb's sound chip.
The major question, of course, is whether the cost of the keyboard (£125 inclusive of VAT and delivery) is warranted, given the limited capabilities of the aforesaid Texas SN76489 sound chip. Well, it is and it isn't, as we'll see, and it all really depends on what else you attach to the Beeb.
There's not really an awful lot more to say about the keyboard. It's a good one, but it's no different from just about every other keyboard that's been designed for adding on to micros. Which is hardly surprising considering that they're all made by one or other of two Italian companies who seem to have a monopoly in this field of endeavour. Mind you, one addition it does have is a jack socket for a sustain pedal, though it is an optional extra. Which leaves the ribbon cable to the Beeb's user port as being the only other item of hardware of mention, and there are no problems there.
The software that comes with the basic Symphony Keyboard system is available on both cassette and disk. There's also a manual that does what it should do pretty efficiently, albeit labouring the point when it comes to self-justification. The disk software runs under the Beeb's turnkey booting-up option, ie. the pressing of Shift and Break together. A few seconds later, the first menu appears, offering a choice between playing the keyboard, loading or saving sound files, doing various things with envelopes, and cataloguing the disk or tape.
And what you get from the playing side of the software is roughly what you'd expect - a range of sounds making a brave if thankless attempt at acoustic instrument imitations (accessed in banks using Shift and the f0-f9 function keys), a smaller range of fairly ineffectual sound effects, a display of all the parameters making up the Envelope statement, and a number of other features for setting up independent percussion sounds on the numeric keys, switching between three-note polyphonic and monophonic modes of operation, editing the Envelope parameters, and so on. That's just about it on the creative side.
Curiously, what's missing is any attempt to extend the limited synthetic capabilities of the basic Beeb with imaginative multitimbral mixings or sequencing effects. In fact, there's no provision for recording anything played on the keyboard whatsoever. Which leaves us with a good keyboard and unimaginative software under the misguided impression that it's really capable of turning the BBC Micro into a live musical instrument. Doesn't make much sense, does it?
Fortunately, there's a more positive end to the story. ATPL were quick to realise that Acorn's Music 500 box of tricks would be an excellent means of extending their system's synthetic capabilities, so they approached Hybrid Technology with a view to interfacing their keyboard with that company's Music 500. And the long and the short of this is that a common scheme of keyboard interfacing has been agreed upon (between ATPL and Hybrid, anyway), which means that the Music 500 now has a four-octave keyboard courtesy of ATPL's product. Hybrid will also be producing their own keyboard sometime in the future, but the agreement as regards keyboard interfacing means that Hybrid's own future keyboard-based software will be compatible with the product under review, regardless of what the future may hold. For the moment, though, it looks as if ATPL have got the market pretty well sewn up for Music 500 owners seeking a means of realtime input.
But beware. ATPL's keyboard won't work with the Music 500 without some software to interface with that product's programming language AMPLE. ATPL have produced some initial demonstration software (available on disk for £10) which turns the combination into an eight-note polyphonic stereo keyboard with function key selection of envelope, waveform, pitch offsets, rhythm accompaniment (of highly variable quality), and octave transposition. More interesting, from the point of showing what the Music 500 is capable of in the way of animated sounds, is a program rejoicing in the name JoyDemo. This uses the Beeb's four analogue input ports for joystick control of the waveforms, envelopes, and pitch shifts assigned to the ODD channel of each pair of Music 500 channels, together with the switching on or off of ring modulation and synchronisation. Good stuff if you're into real-time control of lots of synthesis parameters.
Good keyboard, dreary basic software, but lots of potential if you've already got or are thinking of getting a Music 500. It appears that more software will be added to the ATPL Music 500 demo disk as and when, so let's hope for more inspired attempts at sequencing than the current emulation of Japanese rinky-dinkism. The BBC Micro deserves better - so does the Music 500. But either way, the ATPL keyboard is good value at £125 - just don't fool yourself into thinking you're getting a proper musical instrument from the basic system.
Availability: direct from the manufacturers - Advanced Technology Products Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by David Ellis
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