Behind the Greengate
With the DS 3 - a sound-sampling expansion for the Apple II computer. Access to expensive sounds at a reasonable price.
Sam Hearnton samples Mainframe's Apple II based sound sampling package, the DS3.
Perhaps the last great rock'n'roll fallacy remaining is the popular misconception that, in the post-punk 1980's, money is no longer the ultimate arbiter of success as it was When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth (AD 1970-76). Nearly all the biggest-selling records today depend on technology that is out of the reach of even successful professional musicians. Both arms and a leg are required to own even the basic Fairlight system (a snip at £24,500) and is an Emulator really cheap at six grand? A new breed of Haves and Have Nots has emerged — the keyboard player who has or has not a digital sampling keyboard.
However, there is now a VDU at the end of the tunnel. Regular readers will remember up-and-coming band Mainframe, who were featured in the old mute ES&CM about a year ago. Having grown tired of using chiffs of white noise for percussion, they began looking at the real McCoy - digital drums. A quick perusal of even the Drumulator's price tag forced them to think again. They thought Apple. Mainframe were already using a couple of Apple IIs for computer graphics in their stage shows and videos and band engineer David Green soon realized that it might be possible to give the computer a sound-sampling capability.
The first physical manifestation of this was the DS1, a one-off prototype that enabled Mainframes to sample sounds, program and chain sequences together, which they used to great effect on their debut album Tenants Of The Lattice Work. So far so good, but the big breakthrough occurred when Greenfingers devised a way of giving four-voice proportional pitch control over the sampled sounds. Initially, this was via the Apple's rather clumsy and unmusical QWERTY keyboard but later an interface was devised to allow the coupling of a Casio-type keyboard to facilitate real time programming. By this stage, the commercial possibilities were obvious and Greengate Productions was formed to market the DS3 to you and me, Joe and Jane Public.
So what is the DS3 exactly? Firstly, you've got a double-sided PCB (glass fibre) which means that (a) it's very well designed and constructed and (b), nothing much to look at. Once this is installed into one of the Apple's famous expansion slots (the work of a few minutes) and connected to the Audio Box via the 9-way D connector and a disc loaded (one of 3 supplied), you've got some stunning sampled sounds to use straightaway and some pretty waveforms to look at, if that's what you're into.
The audio box is just that, a box with four ¼" jack outs. Five phono adaptors are also included so that Portastudio owners can plug in easily without any re-wiring hassles. A nice touch. Each of the four channels can be individually processed but a switch sets all channels to Mono mode if wished. This is intended for those people wishing to use the DS3 with hi-fi equipment and instructs all four channels to relay the same information.
Thirty or so sounds are supplied on disc with the package and these include four different bass drum samples, three snare, three toms, closed and open hi-hat, handclaps, cowbell, crash cymbal (looped, obviously), woodblock, breaking glass and so on. The sampled instruments include bass slap, bass synth, guitar, cello, harpsichord, flute, banjo and voice. An increasingly controversial issue is raised in the manual where Mainframe request that people using the bass and 'cello samples on their records give due credit to the players of the sampled sounds, Ed Poole and Mark Saxon. Somehow, I doubt anyone will bother.
Most of the sounds are very good indeed, though I have my reservations about the handclap and one of the bass drums. The beauty of the DS3 however, is that you can of course sample new sounds all of your own so my opinion of the 'clap' is really immaterial. No doubt as I write, some rogue has hired a Linndrum for the day and is busy sampling all those beautiful digitally encoded sounds.
Having installed the DS3 PCB and wired it up to your mixer, the Master Disc should be loaded into one of the Apple II disc drives. When the master menu is displayed, there are eight modes:
- 1. Sound Sample
- 2. Waveform Edit
- 3. Sound Play/Sequence
- 4. Sequence Develop
- 5. Keyboard Set-up
- 6. Create Song File
- 7. Create Performance File
- 8. File Exit
I'll spare you most of the boring and verbose programming details, suffice to say that the software was designed by computer-literate musicians and I didn't come across any serious system bugs or experience much difficulty once I had a little practice. Maximum sampling time is only two seconds but sounds can be looped. Strangely, there is no infinite sustain. Bandwidth is claimed to be 15Khz but I suspect it's somewhat lower than that and it is dependent on the length of your sample. There is also a forward/reverse sound capability which can be amusing/useful and a very interesting Waveform Edit function that I found needed a lot of patience.
Sampling a sound is surprisingly painless. You simply mic or DI the sound you want to sample (the DS3's input will accept either), and adjust the input level so that the signal doesn't distort or clip. Having set the Sampling Threshold and presuming that you're happy, the space bar is then pressed which activates the record mode when you play your sample again. It's worth bearing in mind that your sound quality is only going to be as good as the sample recorded, meaning that if you're going to sample say, a trumpet it's worth getting someone in who can play the trumpet properly and get a good sound.
After you 've finished, you may want to engage in a little digital engineering. If there's a click at the beginning of your sample never fear. There is a trim mode that enables you to edit or filter out the offending portion.
So, you've sampled that Frankie bassline off your Two Tribes 12" and you want to write a song. For this, you select no. 3 Sound Play/Sequence. This allows you to sequence your sampled sounds, steam hammer, tube train or whatever, into a musical piece. Sequences may be merged, so you're not limited to just one sound on each channel, you could have a whole rhythm section on just channel one! This really is a very sophisticated sequencer package and one of the DS3's best features. Most of you would probably prefer to enter your sequence using the DS3 keyboard. This is a cheap but cheerful four-octave full size manual of Italian origin. Optional extra but strictly necessary. Be warned.
Once you've recorded a song, it can be stored on disc and recalled by name after you have created a file for it. Make sure you make a back-up copy of your work — just how many floppy discs and expensive items of equipment has coffee ruined I wonder? When you've got a whole brace of songs you can chain them all together, so it's perfectly practical to use your DS3 on stage and a lot more flexible than the playing-along-with-a-Revox approach. The running order of a set can be changed quite quickly so if your voice goes mid-set you can bring forward an instrumental track while your tonsils recover and you go off to the bar for a quick drink.
Once you've got the hang of the software (and there's a comprehensive and amusing manual included), it's incredible the difference real sounds will make to your recordings. So what are the DS3's bad points? Thought you'd never ask...
I found that there was a lot of quantisation noise present on some of the samples supplied, the 'Cello in particular. This is not a fault peculiar to the DS3 but rather a fundamental problem with digital technology, something that is fast becoming as much a nuisance as the tape hiss it will eventually replace.
Also, as mentioned before, there is no infinite sustain, so the DS3 will not replace your synthesisers. However, the main problem for potential buyers will be the fact that it is Apple based. The Apple II is very much overpriced in the UK and while the expansion slots make it an ideal choice as others, like Alpha Syntauri have discovered, it does push the total package price up from the £520 for the DS3 (including keyboard) to £1,500 or so. If you already own an Apple this is no problem but for the man in the street who already has his £200 Commodore 64, this is a big drawback. There was talk of a version for the CBM but as '64 owners will know, the disc drives do leave a lot to be desired. As a writer, the Apple is attractive to me because it offers an excellent word processing package and as I also need a digital drum machine and sampling keyboard, the DS3 is a 'must'. Apple and Greengate won't like me saying this but if you know any one going to Hong Kong or the Far East you can pick up perfectly good — but illegal — Apple II copies for less than £500 including monitor and two disc drives. The choice is yours.
I think the DS3's brilliant and it's great to see so many quality and innovative musical products coming out of the UK after a dormant period. Reaction in the audio industry has been phenomenal. John Foxx, David Cunningham and The Fixx are just three of the many people who have seen the DS3 and found it works. Hear for yourself on the ES&CM cassette.This track was recorded entirely by the DS3 on a A3440 4-track! Look out also for the ZTT Piss-take sampler 12" by Mainframe Aka The Noise Of Art. As unwilling lead vocalist Peter Powell would say, ace.
Review by Sam Hearnton
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!