Acorn's MUSIC 500 hardware/software package for the BBC micro could be the revolution micro musicians have been waiting for.
Acorn's MUSIC 500 hardware and software system is the answer to Beeb musicians' prayers claims Jeremy Vine.
The BBC computer has long been recognised as one of the most versatile machines available and as if to prove the point further, Acorn Computers have now released the MUSIC 500, a computer-based music synthesiser. Its strength lies in the authoring language designed by Hybrid Technology for Acorn called 'AMPLE' (Advanced Music Programming Language). With AMPLE, musicians can easily control the structures which previously have caused confusion to the most talented.
But before I look at AMPLE a few words about the MUSIC 500. The package provides the musician with the software and hardware necessary to turn the BBC into a professional synthesiser. At £199 you get a box the size of a disc drive which connects via the 1 MHz bus of the BBC. The MUSIC 500 has an audio output via five-pin DIN socket for connection to an amplifier and completing the package is a tape with the AMPLE language, several demonstration pieces and a comprehensive user guide. So what's so great about this package? In one word, thought.
Someone has sat down and thought very hard about the kind of system which would minimise the complexities of programming but offer the design capabilities of systems many times more expensive. And I think they've succeeded!
The hardware offers 16 completely user-definable oscillators, outputting whatever you want (Square wave, sine wave, a lumpy wave with a hole in the middle) and 32 user-definable envelopes, a theoretical frequency range of -32 to +32 kHz (I know it sound odd, but think about it...) a dynamic range of 72 dB, stereo output, digital additive synthesis (a la OSCar) - and of course, every element of the system can be made to interact with others via the software. Indeed, the best way to explain its facilities is to consider how the software works, because AMPLE is the control element of its features. It takes time to get accustomed to and producing the more exotic sound variations requires a good understanding of the language but this is only to be expected. Starting out is dead easy. All the note words are entered as they are written (CDEFGAB) and the direction of pitch (ascending, descending) is shown by either lower or upper case lettering, where the former is going down and the latter up.
Altering the duration and tempo is just as easy and then the real fun begins. AMPLE has a set of built-in words which control the fundamentals of changing sound and allow the user to build his own definitions. And this is where the system excels, as a user can create his own effects, arrange a certain part, create new wave or envelope effects, instruments or note sequences and then call it up by name therefore defining his own procedure. This in effect becomes another AMPLE word which is executed in the same way as a built-in command.
So, what exactly can you control? The MUSIC 500 has 16 sound channels offering eight voices (ie up to eight notes simultaneously) and each voice has 2 channels initially assigned to it. Up to 13 waveforms can be stored by the system and harmonic synthesis can be achieved, by telling the 500 the strength of its first 16 harmonics or creating the waveforms geometrically, by specifying the shape of the waveform point-by-point.
Envelopes for volume and pitch modulation are not easy to construct but you've got to do some work! By combining channels different effects such as ring modulation, FM, and synchronisation can be achieved and the user guide that accompanies the system explains each of these with good examples. Besides comprehensive explanations, the user guide has an excellent reference section which should cover all anguishes.
And that's not all. The neat thing about the 500 is the ability to run events concurrently and this of course opens the door to multi-part music. And in keeping with the nature of the system the user defines the number of PLAYERS (the maximum number is eight performers) and the rest is plain sailing. Well, almost. As long as you've mastered AMPLE!
AMPLE has to be seen and used to appreciate the thought that has gone into its development. And it's this piece of software which transforms the hardware into a very manageable unit and allows the musician to experiment and be creative rather than spend hours attempting to understand the programming language.
Criticisms? Weil, very few. If you have a BBC then the MUSIC 500 is excellent value for money. If you're considering purchasing a micro and synth the only other strong competition is the Yamaha CX5M. On offer, there is the arguable desirability of an FM based hardware component; the CX5M software is more 'immediate' and transparent, and the suite of 'off-the-peg' plug-in programs that Yamaha have developed enhance user-friendliness through their exploitation of the machines graphics. MUSIC 500, however, is effectively a different concept altogether - an open-ended building-block system which can be tailored by the user via AMPLE to his or her specific needs - at the cost of a little more work.
I do feel it's a pity that no attempt has been made to incorporate the graphics capabilities of the BBC into the software. Even taking the BBC's memory limitations into consideration there is definitely room for such development though this may rely on a disc-based package.
The only other niggle I felt was the lack of keyboard which was not available at time of review. However a four-octave keyboard will be available shortly.
Overall I was more than delighted with this package, which theoretically offers some of the sonic possibilities previously the province of the Xpanders and T8's of this world. As a BBC user the MUSIC 500 is an answer to my prayers. For the first time I can seriously contemplate a synthesiser controlled from my micro. Its strength lies in the control language AMPLE and presents a standard for other manufacturers to follow. The hardware is equally as appealing and the sound quality is very high indeed. I love it! What else can I say but well done Acorn!
Review by Jeremy Vine