Autographies Microsound 64 Keyboard
Innovative UK manufacturers Autographies have come up with a music system that gives the synth player access to the Commodore 64 micro's SID chip. Mick Jones analyses its potential.
The Microsound system is designed to give the Commodore 64-owner access to the computer's internal SID chip and to bring it under the real time control of a conventional music keyboard. Mick Jones has been living with one for several months, and here outlines his impressions.
As a Commodore 64 owner I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a couple of firms had begun marketing relatively inexpensive computer-music interface packages. Although a great deal of smoke had been made about 64 link-ups by major synth manufacturers, for the most part I'd been unable to discover any real evidence of fire. The MIDI legend was in a constant state of flux, I'm far too mean to spend £1000 on a keyboard that's likely to be obsolete within a couple of months, and although SCI's sequencing cartridge was a possibility, I couldn't really afford a new Prophet 600 to go with it. I suppose I could have sold all my other keyboards and got round the problem that way, but that wasn't really the sort of thing I had in mind.
The Microsound 64 is unlikely to be a threat to the sales of DX7s and the like, but it it's something to be going on with while the synthesiser Big League sort themselves out. The system itself is hard to classify. On the one hand, comparisons with something like the Roland SH101 or Moog Rogue monosynths aren't particularly flattering since the Microsound is quite a bit more versatile, while on the other, the sheer difference in price between this unit and systems like the alphaSyntauri makes grouping of the Autographies design with its American counterparts a rather pointless exercise. Assuming you already have a Commodore 64, the Microsound will give you change out of £150...
Now, for that price you wouldn't expect lots of multi-coloured LED displays and the like, which is just as well because the Microsound doesn't give you any. What you do get however is a basic, lightweight four-octave keyboard, with two slider pots mounted on its left and a flat top suitable for mounting either the computer itself or a second keyboard instrument. You also, of course, get a load of software (in tape or disk format) and a well-presented user's manual that takes the form of a typed essay housed in a black loose-leaf ring binder.
The keyboard plugs directly into the two games ports on the back of the 64, giving the user direct real time control over the now (in)famous internal SID chip. No scanning is involved, so it's possible to play runs and trills at a speed that should satisfy all but the Oscar Petersons of this world. There's a choice of either monophonic or three-voice poly modes, and you can even select the in-between variant of two voices, should you find that prospect appealing.
The strongest part of the system - for me at least - is the clear and simple screen display that allows you to organise the various available parameters for each 'sound', before storing it on disk or cassette for future use. Autographies provide no preset voices or silly suggestions about how to make the sound of a violin (one of these days I'm going to see if I can play the violin so that it sounds like a Commodore SID chip...), which is undoubtedly a good thing.
A major hiccup is encountered when you switch from monophonic to three-note polyphonic for the first time - it rapidly becomes apparent that making use of any of the filter parameters switches off oscillator 3. This can be quite a let-down if you prefer to patch your sounds envelope first, filter later as a lot of people do: it follows that if you're going to fiddle with any of the filter parameters, you'll have to stick to just two oscillators. What also follows is that, unfortunately, you can only get true three-voice polyphony if you don't use the filtering, though there is some compensation in the form of a second screen display that goes by the name of 'patching mode'.
It's this display that brings the keyboard's slider controls into use - filter cutoff and pulse width can be assigned to either of the two controls, and can in turn be controlled by either the waveform amplitude or the ADSR of oscillator 3. It's also possible to turn this oscillator into a modulating LFO, again controlled by either slider.
One point worth mentioning however is that oscillator 3 can add a little background noise of its own even when it's being used for filtering of LFO modulation, and an option contained within the main screen display to mute the oscillator's output solves this problem. In general, I found the signal-to-noise ratio rather worse than would normally be acceptable in the context of a conventionally-packaged, self-contained synthesiser. I'm afraid that this (along with one or two other sonic shortcomings) is more an integral characteristic of the SID chip itself, rather than a weakness of the system under review: I'm sure Commodore themselves would be the first to point out that the chip was originally intended for 'home entertainment' purposes and not as a pro musician's tool.
The program loads in two sections, lasting 42 and 27 seconds respectively if you use a disk drive as I did. From tape, the whole process takes a total of about eight minutes. On the debit side though, the 100-note three-part sequence took longer to load from disk than the main program itself, which is a mite annoying.
Moving back to the screen display mentioned above, the first thing that strikes you when it appears for the first time is that there is a good deal of information packed onto it. You may already be aware that the SID chip has three oscillators, and the top left of the screen allows you to select these using a cursor up/down control: each oscillator can have triangle, sawtooth, pulse of noise waves assigned to it. Selection of the last mentioned automatically cancels the other three, but any combination of the non-noise waveshapes is possible. However, I found in practice that using more than one waveform per oscillator tended to reduce output level somewhat.
The oscillators can also be synchronised, ring modulated together, or filtered - each of these functions being switched into the chosen oscillator by toggling a particular key on the 64 on and off (5 to 8 for the waveforms, S, R and F for the others). Filtering can be low, high or band pass in character, and low and high can also be used together to create a sort of 'notch reject' effect. Still on the subject of filtering, there are also controls for cutoff frequency and resonance, these being adjusted by means of the 'C' and 'V' keys respectively, starting with a default value of zero and rising with each strike to the maximum of 15. Adding the shift key to the process gives a decrease instead of an increase, and in general I found this system quite logical as it isn't all that far removed from the slider controls synthesiser-players have come to know and love(?)
Much the same technique is used for controlling the ADSR parameters (these are independent for each channel), with the exception that you start with a default value of 10 for each of the 12 values. (Well, it didn't confuse me, so it shouldn't confuse you!).
Unfortunately, no pitch-bend or transpose facilities are available on the Microsound, but then again, how many synths under £200 can list three oscillators with independent envelope controls as part of their spec sheet?
It has to be said from the outset that the Microsound's sequencing is not as well thought out as the main control program: it certainly took me rather too long to get used to. Note-programming is possible only in step time, with notes coming from the music keyboard and rests being inputted via either the cursor right or '@' keys on the computer.
The graphics on this screen display are only average (I was really rather pleased to discover that switching off the display altogether facilitated higher speeds on sequence playback) but it must be said that the opportunity to store three 200-note sequences - or 200 triad chords - looped as many times as you like and at a wide range of speeds makes it well worth struggling with. By the way, the higher tempi need to be used with care since I discovered that the sequence would occasionally trip over itself if pushed too hard.
A further problem (presumably confined only to early disks like mine) came to light in the form of a 'blip' that inserts two notes (or spaces) when you only inputted one: I'm reliably informed that this bug is now better employed pushing up daisies, but it might be worth checking you've got updated software if you do decide the Microsound is for you.
The most serious omission from the program - in my view anyway - is the lack of a proper insert/delete function. It's possible to amend a particular note by replacing it with another one or with a rest, but you can't remove a note (or notes) and then close the gap and nor, for that matter, can you open a gap in which to insert new and/or omitted notes.
Development of the Microsound 64 is far from complete, and at present Autographies have two major projects in the pipeline - a piece of add-on hardware for digital sound sampling and an external trigger facility designed to be compatible with a number of popular keyboard systems.
As most readers will no doubt be aware, digital sampling has been - up until now - an extremely expensive business, but if Autographies' plans come to fruition, that situation could change very rapidly. If you're worried that the limitations imposed by the SID chip might get in the way of this sampling business, let me put your mind at rest - SID himself will not be involved, and as I understand it, the new hardware will be doing the donkey work, leaving the 64 to do what it does best, ie. organise and display. Like the Fairlight, the Autographies sampling system will feature a modifiable waveform display on screen, though apparently light pens are not favoured as they're considered not 'musician-friendly' enough.
The trigger unit, meanwhile, will obviously make the sequencer more worthwhile, even in its present form (you've guessed it, modifications are on the way). Assuming Autographies make the unit compatible with synths from the major manufacturers (Moog, Roland, Korg and so on) it could open up quite a sizeable market for them.
Reaching a sensible verdict on the Microsound 64 has to be done with considerable care, since normal yardsticks of synth reviewing are inappropriate. As I indicated above, on paper this system is not strictly comparable with budget-priced synths because its aims (and its methods of achieving them) are completely different. The worthlessness of such a comparison is confirmed by the results of a user test: on the one hand, the noise levels generated by the Microsound are far too high, while on the other, no commercially-available mono-synth has the potential to be upgraded into a digital sound-sampling device in the foreseeable future. Perhaps most important of all, as a performance instrument for live work the Microsound is a complete non-starter. What it needs is the facility to read a directory of sounds and sequences without leaving the program, while some space within the program to store 10 or 12 favourite sounds for immediate recall would also come in more than handy.
In terms of the quality of sound and facilities offered, the Microsound is of course more than a little outclassed by the likes of the alphaSyntauri and other Apple-based packages. However, whereas almost all of those transatlantic systems presuppose quite an extensive knowledge of music theory and the principles of synthesis on the part of the end-user, the Autographies system's clarity and ease of use should enable musicians of very limited knowledge to get to know it very quickly, and learn a great deal at the same time.
As the system stands at the moment, I would recommend it heartily not only to musicians like myself who are trying to get into computers before our children overtake us entirely, but also to computer buffs seeking a relatively painless introduction to the world of music-making.
Looking ahead a little, if the digital sampling add-on can be developed without too many problems - and the sequencing software brought up to the standard of the main control program at the same time - this system could well become strong enough to persuade non-Commodore owners to invest in a 64, and that's saying something.
Further information on the Microsound 64 system is obtainable from Autographies, (Contact Details).
As this issue of E&MM went to press, Autographies informed us that their sound-sampling add-on for the Commodore 64 is now fully developed. The hardware incorporates an input amplifier suitable for mic or line signals, programmable output attenuation and a 24dB roll-off low pass filter. Companding techniques are applied to input and output signals, and the unit connects via the cartridge expansion port.
On the software side, maximum sampling rate is 32kHz, the sound being stored in 30K of RAM. Timbre and amplitude of the sampled sound can be modulated via an on-screen waveform display, and resulting samples/waveforms can be dumped onto disk or cassette. Pitch and amplitude information can be derived in real time from the Microsound 64 Keyboard.
Cost of the basic hardware/software package (excluding controlling keyboard) is expected to be between £150 and £200, and further information should become available when the system goes on sale later this year.
Gear in this article:
Review by Mick Jones
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