Organ Master/Island Logic
An add-on sound board, and a comprehensive disc-based music system for the Beeb micro.
Chris Jenkins gets down with two new music packages for the ever popular BBC micro.
Though I'd have to admit to a bias in favour of the Commodore 64, the BBC B has clearly been adopted as the musician's micro in many home studios. With that in mind, it's heartening to see that both hardware and software manufacturers are responding to the demand for music products.
Obviously, most Beeb owners would be happier with commercial software than having to rely on their own programming efforts. In that field the latest products are Island Logic's Music System, and LVL's Organ Master.
On the hardware front, LVL also offers a full-size music keyboard and an amplification system, so let's look at them first, since no computer can claim to be a musical instrument without some form of interface other than the unplayable QWERTY keyboard.
LVL's Echo 1 keyboard is a full-size, three-octave unit. The action of the plastic keys is fairly similar to that of a Casio, and the casing is of sturdy metal and wood construction. Cost is £99, which I'd call reasonable.
The Echo 1 connects to the Beeb via a ribbon cable. It's difficult to fault the unit in the context of the Beeb, since the BBC sound chip is fairly limited; but should the unit be adapted for the Commodore 64, as LVL say it will be, it will not be in a position to make use of all the 64's sound modulation facilities, since the Echo does not have the control wheels found on the more expensive Autographies Microsound 64 keyboard.
Since the Beeb's internal speaker is pretty naff, you may wish to invest in the £4.95 Echokit output adaptor (which has to be fitted by a dealer, though I'm sure most soldering-iron fans could cope themselves) and connect up to a hi-fi or the £49.95 Echosound amp/speaker.
This pleasingly-designed wooden-cased unit has a six-inch cone delivering six watts, volume and tone controls, and requires separate mains power. It's a sensible buy if you don't want to invest a lot of time and energy in playing the keyboard, only to have disappointing results from the Beeb's speaker.
The Organ Master software, on tape or disk, comes free with the keyboard, and includes both preset and user-defined sound options. The screen display shows the 21 QWERTY control keys, each labelled with their preset sounds, plus the 7 function keys which introduce special features.
The preset sounds are limited by the Beeb's sound chip — which is fairly uninspiring — but include some goodies like Hawaiian, which twangs pleasingly when a key is released, and a reasonable violin. Everything else boils down to piano-type, horn-type or synth-type noises, the synth sounds resembling early Radiophonic Workshop wobbles more than anything else. Three-note chords are of course the maximum.
Special features can be introduced by hitting function keys; sustain, sub-octave, and various bursts of white noise which serve a questionable musical function.
In Synthesiser mode, use of the cursor keys controls the various Beeb sound parameters to be set; although there's no explanation of them in the LVL booklet, so you'll need the BBC manual.
Overall, the hardware is good, the software is reasonable, and the limiting factor seems to be the relative weakness of the Beeb's sound chip. Certainly a good fun package for committed BBC owners, though, and there's the promise of more LVL products in the pipeline.
For those of you happy to compose on a QWERTY rather than a music keyboard, Island Logic's offering is the Music System software package.
The first release from this offshoot of Island Records, The Music System tries to do everything possible with the Beeb's music capabilities in one go, and comes dangerously close to succeeding. A two-cassette package will cost £12.95, or the disk version £24.95. There's a possibility of a ROM version in the future. The system consists of six elements; Editor, Keyboard, Linker, Printer, Synthesiser and Song and Sound Library.
The manual runs to 96 pages, which should tip you off that this is not the kind of product you can get instant results from. Starting from the control screen, which allows you to change the colour of the displays to suit your taste, you can enter any section of the package. Since it's icon-driven — illustrated with descriptive pictures, like Apple's Macintosh micro — this part at least is straightforward.
The Editor allows you to write notes and rests on music staves, to store compositions and to save and amend tunes. It's easier to compose chords on the Editor than it is to play them on the "keyboard". There are four voices available, including percussion on the disk version. There are no user-definable white noise envelopes, since these are pre-defined on the Beeb. Each music note can have a different envelope though, and files of notes can be saved to disk. Fifteen sound envelopes, automatic transposition, numeric or conventional Italianate tempo notation, and automatic bar line creation option are also provided.
The Keyboard allows you to "play" the Beeb's QWERTY keys, as displayed onscreen, though the set-up isn't user-definable. It's a one-and-a-half octave layout transposable one octave up or down. Multitracking is the big feature here, with a metronome feature and "fastforward" and "rewind" functions, a "tape counter" and "tapehead indicator" to show you where you are in your composition.
The Linker, available only on the disk version, allows large compositions made up of many files to be played back as a whole piece of music, with all tempo and envelope settings supported. The Printer would be, for many users, sufficient justification for buying the whole system; it allows hard copies of four-part manuscripts using a suitable parallel dot matrix printer, which would cost you around £200.
Finally, the two-screen Synthesiser is the section in which you can define the sounds used in your creations. Up to 30 individual sounds can be displayed and edited at one time, in two banks of fifteen between which information can be duplicated and exchanged. There's full audiovisual interaction; as the sound changes, you see the relevant parameter changing on the bar graph display.
The default set of sounds include piano, harpsichord and special effects. A modulator routine has been included in software to supplement the limited hardware triangle wave modulation.
The Editor and Synthesiser sections can be used in conjunction to create complex sequences. Voice four has an individual notation method adapted to represent percussion sequences. Maximum resolution of the Editor page is at least triplets at 200 crotchets per minute.
The Beeb's Envelope and Playback commands have been totally re-written for The Music System, because they weren't reliable at high speeds.
The Sound and Song Library section is a collection of pre-defined sounds which you can use as the basis of your own efforts. Overall The Music System, like MusiCalc for the Commodore 64, provides, for those who are willing to put enough effort into it, the highest possible degree of control over the micro's music facilities. There are plans for a MIDI interface, though this will more probably be implemented for the forthcoming Commodore 64 version.
The Music System seems an essential purchase for the Beeb-using musician, but what a pity there's no possibility of LVL's excellent keyboard being used with the system — that would really be something.
LVL, (Contact Details).
Island Logic, (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
Review by Chris Jenkins
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!