Big Blue Music
When IBM - the Big Blue - conquered the business computer market, music was the last thing on their corporate mind. Yet in 1990, the PC is gaining ground as a music machine. Ian Waugh reports.
GIVEN THE CHOICE OF COMPUTERS AVAILABLE FOR MAKING MUSIC, WHO IN THEIR RIGHT MIND WHOULD CHOOSE AN IBM PC? THEN WHY IS PC SOFTWARE MOVING FASTER THAN EVER BEFORE? WHERE DOES THE PC FIT INTO THE MODERN MUSIC STUDIO?
TOWARDS THE END of 1988, when it was time to look back over the previous 12 months and forward to the next, I wrote that 1989 would be the year of the PC music software boom. I was wrong. It didn't happen then and it hasn't happened in 1990. Now, I don't think it's going to happen in 1991 either but then I'm not Russell Grant. But what I do think is that PC music software is showing out and it will continue to do so during 1991 and for a good few years after that.
Some estimates say that the IBM PC and compatibles account for around 90 percent of all the computers in the world. Believe me, that's a lot of machines. Software writers write software for computers which have a large user-base. Around 50,000 PCs are being sold in the UK every month and if only a fraction of those are used for music, on top of the existing user-base, that's a pretty good market for software writers to sell into. That being so, one would expect the PC to be supported by the largest and best selection of music software. But it isn't. No, I'm not totally sure why either, but later in this piece I'll hazard a few guesses.
So what is the PC doing in the music market at the moment? Will it ever achieve fame, fortune, popularity and find true love? As I said, I'm no star gazer but let's check a few aspects, look at the opposition and see what we can forecast.
FIRST, LET'S DEFINE terms. What is "an IBM PC or compatible"?
When people talk about a PC they usually mean one of two things - a Personal Computer in general or an IBM PC (or compatible) in particular. Usually it's the latter.
The success of IBM's PC format led many other companies to produce compatible machines - clones. Well, that's the way of the world - the Japanese have made a fortune out of copying Western ideas. With the cheap labour in Taiwan, for example, it's not difficult for a manufacturer to land a PC clone in the UK considerably cheaper than IBM. It's called competition.
And the competition has been hotting up considerably over the past few years - and prices have been dropping accordingly. And we all know what that means: lower prices lead to more sales. Some companies, however - such as Acorn - stick resolutely to the belief that the public will pay a lot more for a little extra. Perhaps they will if they know exactly what they're paying for, but to most buyers a computer with pretty graphics is just a computer with pretty graphics no matter how fast it runs or how many bits it has to its name. Acorn's Archimedes could have wiped the floor with the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga if it had been marketed more aggressively.
The point of the analogy with Acorn is that, as the PC market has proved, people are quite happy to buy a non-IBM machine (or, to continue our analogy, a ST or Amiga) if it does a similar job. Enter Clive Sugars and the Amstrad clone factory. Although IBM - Big Blue to their friends - remain one of the major suppliers of PCs, sales figures for early this year showed that Amstrad are selling just as many. In fact, it's probably true to say that Amstrad have done more to popularise the PC in the UK - and reduce its price - than any other company.
A PC clone should run any software written for the IBM PC. Most do, although occasionally the odd irregularity will appear. The Amstrad 1640, for example, has its own mouse port which may not be directly compatible with all PC software. A case in point is MasterTracks Pro which requires a special mouse driver routine which seems to be one of the computer world's best-kept secrets.
THE PC FORMAT isn't just one specification either - it covers a multitude of sins. The system can be based on different processors which run at different speeds. The most common and popular ones are the 8086 (8-bit), 80286 (16-bit), 80386SX (32-bit chip with 16-bit data buss), 80386DX (full 32-bit chip) and the new 80486 (a 80386DX with 80285 cache controller and 80387 maths co-processor). A 80586 is under development and that looks like being based around a 64-bit chip.
The system can have different amounts of on-board RAM - 640K is standard although 286s usually have 1Meg and with a 386 you really need 2Meg or more. A range of different display resolutions is also available for which different monitors may be required. For serious applications - that includes music - you really need a hard disk, too.
The good news is that the individual parts which make up a PC are relatively inexpensive compared with similar parts for other computers - £200 for a 32Meg hard disk with controller, for example - eat your heart out, ST owners.
Although PCs are available for as little as £300, the smallest serious system will cost around £400-500 (without a hard disk) and you would need to pay £700-800 for something with more balls (based on the 8086) with a hard disk.
This variety within a single format causes another problem both for the software writer and the user. What configuration does the writer write for and will the software you want work with your system? Have you enough RAM? Is the screen resolution high enough? Do you need a hard disk?
Fortunately, most PC software will run on a fairly minimal system and a lot of it is designed to take advantage of features such as extra memory and enhanced graphics should it be fitted - so you generally get the best of both worlds. Before use, you usually have to run through an installation procedure which configures the program for your setup. So pity not the ST or Amiga owner who only has to worry about whether or not the software will run in half a Meg of RAM.
THERE CAN BE few people left in the world who will openly contest the notion that the PC is not an easy machine to use. Actually, like any computer, it's not the machine which is easy or difficult to use, it's the software. PCs run under an operating system called MS-DOS which is old, creaky and decidedly unfriendly. This isn't just my opinion. I have sworn affidavits from dedicated PC users, too.
Once you get the hang of it, however, the average piece of PC software is probably no more difficult to use than software running on any other computer. Use does breed familiarity as well as a certain amount of contempt. You see, early PC software was command- and menu-driven and most of it has stayed that way.
Now while this may be fine for people who have used the software from its inception and for people to whom MS-DOS is a way of life, it really isn't going to attract many newcomers to PC music land.
I have used and reviewed what must now amount to well over 100 music software packages on a wide range of machines, and it's my opinion that a good graphic environment is worth its weight in manuals. Please feel free to disagree, but in the world of music (as opposed to the world of computers) I believe most musicians want to get on with the business of making music and a program with a WIMP (Windows Icons Mouse Pointer) environment can generally be assimilated quicker than one without. Plus, musos don't want to worry about installation procedures, batch files, graphics adaptor card compatibility and the like.
The good news, however, is that some software developers are now writing (and re-writing) their PC software to run in graphic environments (Passport's MasterTracks Pro, for example, runs under Windows) and I firmly believe this is the way to make PC music software more immediately useable and appealing.
SO WHAT'S HAPPENING in the PC music software market? Well, music software has been around on the PC for a long time - it was probably the first computer to receive major music programs. Like the business software, most were command- and menu-driven and it has taken developers a long time to update the user interface.
Just to make my opinion on this matter absolutely clear - I'm not against command and menu-driven programs at all, but I find it far easier to use a program which has a well-designed GUI (Graphic User Interface). I have no doubt that most non computer-literate musicians will find a GUI easier to use, too.
The user interface is not a stationary concept - it changes as developers learn more about computer-human interaction - and the software developers which stay ahead are the ones which note the changes and improve their software. If you need proof, ask any Mac user. One thing they all comment on is how easy the machine is to use.
One reason for the lack of GUI development which has been suggested by my tame PC guru is that PCs have only recently become powerful enough to support them. GUIs require a certain amount of computing power and a machine running at, say, 8Mhz or perhaps even 12Mhz may not give the instant response and screen updates which you get with a text-based display.
Also, it can't have escaped your notice that most PC music programs originate in America, where children are weaned on PCs. Consequently, the PC user-interface is second-nature to most American users. But if you want to run music software in America you buy a Mac...
However, PCs have certainly had the power for good GUIs for a few years, and the ST has shown what can be achieved in the way of music software in an amazingly short time.
The really hot news in the PC world at the moment is Windows 3, a GUI which even the detractors of Windows are saying nice things about. The feeling is that now, at last, we will see more PC programs running under GUIs.
BUT USER-INTERFACES AREN'T everything. What about quality, performance and features? As a reviewer, I'm in the fortunate position of being able to try out a lot of software. In practice I sometimes use the piece of software currently under review for a project although, as I'm sure you'll appreciate, it can take quite a while to become familiar with a package - and for certain applications I find myself returning to C-Lab's Notator which runs on the ST.
Along with Steinberg's Cubase (once it gets its scorewriter update which I haven't yet seen) Notator represents the state of the art in music software. There is no comparable program for the PC - a fact which was even echoed by one of the PC music distributors. If you think there is, please let us know.
Is there any kind of music software which you can get on the PC that you can't get elsewhere - and cheaper? Probably not a lot, and without a leading-edge program there is little incentive to buy a PC primarily for music.
THERE ARE EXCELLENT music programs available for the PC. My preference for a GUI leads me to suggest you look at anything running under one, but if you're not averse to menu-driven programs you'll find many other powerful pieces of software to choose from.
But before you can run any music software you need a MIDI interface. If you can pick up an Amiga MIDI interface for £25 and Atari can fit one to an ST free, as it were, how come PC interfaces are so expensive?
Well, there's generally more to them. There's the plug-in card which, er, plugs in to the backplane and - and this, so they say, is the main reason - PC interfaces are "intelligent" in that they buffer the MIDI data, so relieving the software of part of the data-handling chore. Intelligence doesn't come free.
As you might expect in the PC world, there are several different interfaces on the market. It's most important to get one which is compatible with Roland's MPU-IPC MIDI interface - most are, but check. This has replaced the Roland MPU401 which used to be regarded as the industry standard. The good news is, the MPU-IPC is cheaper. (Hard to believe, eh?) The MPU401 cost around £250 while the MPU-IPC is £139. I know, you can buy almost half an ST for that. Still, the price is moving in the right direction.
Package deals are available at around £180-200 which bundle an interface with a sequencer and this can save you tens of pounds. Contact the PC music distributors listed below for details.
Most PC music software comes from America and, after running the gamut of all the various parties who need a slice of the action, they tend to end up on our shores costing the same number of pounds as they do dollars. Or perhaps the suppliers are charging what they think the market will stand. Software producers for other machines do, and PC software has always tended to be relatively expensive, primarily, I believe, because the PC has always been seen as a business machine and business means a corporate budget, which means big bucks.
Cynical? No, I'd say realistic. After all, these people are in business to make money. If people were prepared to pay £500 for your mega-blitz suite of office programs and you were achieving steady sales thank you very much, why would you lower the price?
But now, as PCs become more a part of the consumer computer scene and as this user-base increases and is seen to do so by developers, perhaps (fingers crossed) we shall see a reduction in prices. PC games, for example, are coming out at less than £30 compared with upwards of £40 not so long ago.
The last few years have seen the formation of specialist PC music software distributors such as MIDI Music, Computer Music Systems and Digital Music. All report that business is booming - well, they would, I suppose, wouldn't they? - and one, which also handles ST software, commented that ST music software sales seem to be taking a rest.
IF YOU WANT a computer primarily for running music software, the PC is not the one to buy. Not yet, at any rate.
Of course, if you use a PC at work or college you may prefer to buy a machine with which you are familiar, and which lets you transfer files between home and work.
Ask an honest PC user which system you should buy and he'll tell you to get one which will handle your current requirements plus any foreseeable ones - you don't need a 32Mhz machine with eight Meg of onboard RAM for wordprocessing. However, even for wordprocessing, I'd hate to run a PC without a hard disk - most PC users consider them essential.
Although we mentioned the 8086 processor earlier, most pundits would recommend you go for a 286 minimum. If you were already thinking that way, then look at the 386. You'll need a 386 to take best advantage of Windows 3. The price difference now is quite small and you get more power for your money as well as a degree of future-proofing.
If music is your main aim and you have a couple of grand to spend you should take a look at Yamaha's C1, a portable 286 machine with built-in MIDI sockets.
IN SOME WAYS the PC is an anachronism. It was introduced in 1981, and while the basic concept of PC-compatibility has changed little since 1983, the machines have leapt ahead power-wise by several orders of magnitude. It seems to survive by virtue of its own inertia.
The PC was, is and very likely will always be primarily a machine for business - a sphere of operation in which standardisation means more than innovation. But, in its many forms, it has a lot going for it. It comes in an enormous variety of configurations to suit all applications and pockets.
With the recent launch of the 486 chip (a 486 machine will currently cost you over £2000) and the promise of the even faster 586, the PC of the future looks rosy. Windows 3 will enable developers to write PC software to challenge the Mac and the Amiga - but perhaps not quite the Archimedes (Acorn where are you?).
As PCs are, literally, constructed from separate bits and pieces, the machines are upgradable. So when new technology comes along you'll be able to replace your 486 processor with a 586, plug in a new graphics card, add more hard disk space and so on.
But what about the music? Well, I'm still a little surprised that PC music software is lagging behind that for the ST - perhaps I'll be proved wrong any day now - but there's still a lot of excellent stuff available. Check out MasterTracks Pro, Twelve Tone Systems' Cakewalk, Magnetic Music's Prism and Texture, and Voyetra's Sequencer Plus. (Several of these have already been reviewed in MT - more to follow.) There is also a range of voice editors and even algorithmic composition programs - more details of these and other PC software can be had from MT's Software Bible which came free with July's issue of MT.
The only reason why the definitive music program is not available for the PC is that nobody's written it - yet. They didn't write it in '89. Or '90. Yet the PC is growing in popularity as a music computer. Perhaps '91 will be the year of the PC. Or '92...