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Book Reviews

Paul Overaa and Jez Ford browse through some of the latest literature of interest to Hi-tech musos

Paul Overaa and Jez Ford browse through a selection of the latest books on the subject of MIDI

Amsco Publications, which are distributed in this country by Music Sales Ltd., have just added another four books to their MIDI/music range.

First on the list are two new drum pattern books by Rene-Pierre Bardet. The books are related in that one is designed for drum machines of the Yamaha, Alesis, Korg and Casio variety and the other is the version especially prepared for Roland users.

Title: 40 Patterns for Roland Drum Machines
Author: Rene-Pierre Bardet
Publisher: Amsco Publications
ISBN: 0-8256-1210-1
U.K. Distributor: Music Sales Ltd. (Contact Details)
Price: £4.95

Title: 40 Patterns for Yamaha, Casio, Korg and Alesis Drum Machines
Author: Rene-Pierre Bardet
Publisher: Amsco Publications
ISBN: 0-8256-1209-8
U.K. Distributor: Music Sales Ltd. (Contact Details)
Price: £4.95

There can be few MIDI orientated musicians (or non-MIDI orientated musicians come to that) who do not, at some time or other, try their hand at writing drum parts for a drum machine - simple patterns are so easy to create that anyone from five years of age upwards can do it. Most musicians still prefer a live drummer in preference to a drum machine but to some extent this philosophy stems only from the fact that that many automated drum parts are repetitive, uninspired, or perhaps even downright boring.

This need not necessarily be the case but the trouble is that to be able to make a drum machine sound like a 'real drummer' you either need to be a good drummer yourself, or you need to be able to think like one. You also need to have an instinctive flair for the necessary programming. When you get such a person taking charge of the drum programming you notice the difference straightaway and the result is a whole new ball game.

These particular books are worth a look for two very good reasons. Firstly the patterns are provided not only in music score form but in an easy-to-follow block diagram notation which is ideal for step-time drum machine programming. This latter form makes it very easy to enter the patterns - I put over a dozen of the examples into a Yamaha RX-8 machine within half an hour of first seeing the books! The second reason is that books are going to be useful - some of the frills and variations offered are very good indeed, so for your money you'll get material that you can both use, adapt, and learn from.

The examples range from rock, funk and reggae to samba and jazz orientated 5/4 and 7/4 type material. Two examples in particular, and I'm not going to say which ones for obvious reasons, are really superb. The standardized block-diagram format used is also worth a mention because it'll be useful for recording your own patterns (some blank diagrams are provided at the end of each book especially for this purpose).

The third publication, 300 voices for Yamaha 4-Operator Synthesizers is directed at the DX-11, DX-21, DX-27, DX-100 range - and of course users of Yamaha's rack mounted TX-81Z module. It's been compiled and written by Derek Sebastian, 'K.S.', and Eric Noizette and is essentially tabulations of the parameter settings, i.e. the programming information, needed to produce the voices on offer.

Title: 300 Voices for Yamaha 4-Operator Synthesizers
Author: Derek Sebastian, K.S., and Eric Noizette
Publisher: Amsco Publications.
ISBN: 0-7119-1701-9
U.K. Distributor: Music Sales Ltd. (Contact Details)
Price: £9.95

The voices themselves are grouped into sections covering Organs/Pianos, Electric Keyboards, Basses, Strings, Brass and Woodwind, Melodic Percussion, Non-Pitched Percussion, New Wave Percussion and Sound Effects. For obvious reasons I didn't try all of the 300 voices but I did try quite a selection of them using a TX-81Z module. As might be expected... some were O.K., others were less impressive. A few of the voices which I tried (including one of the 'Fender Rhodes' sounds) were however very good indeed.

It's always difficult to review these types of books because everybody will expect something different from them - a friend of mine who is using an RX-21 drum machine with a DX-21 went straight for the extra percussion voices so that he could add cowbells, tambourines, rim-shots and bongos etc. to the limited RX-21 drum sounds. Some of the string sounds on offer are also useful and this was a relief because, to be honest, I've always thought that Yamaha's pre-set strings, especially on the TX-81Z module, left a lot to be desired.

Towards the end of the book there's some material for the 'techies'. Frequency-ratio data and notes on creating special effects such as LFO glissando and LFO vibrato at tempered intervals are covered, and there are details about creating harmonized timbres. There's little in the way of 'down-to-earth' explanation in this last section - especially as far as the meanings of the various frequency tables are concerned. Newcomers to FM synthesis will struggle here and it's a pity that a bit more information was not given. Having said that, it's as well to point out that you don't need to understand the frequency table material to use the voices presented in the book - it's just offered as an extra for those in the 'know'.

All in all this looks to be a useful book. There are plenty of ideas for new and improved voices and the material should keep you amused, occupied and productive, for more than a few nights.

Title: The Complete Guide to the Alesis HR-16 and MMT-8
Author: Craig Anderton
Publisher: Amsco Publications
ISBN: 0-7119-1707-8
U.K. Distributor: Music Sales Ltd. (Contact Details)
Price: £14.95

Last, but certainly not least, comes a new book by Craig Anderton, The Complete Guide to the Alesis HR-16 and MMT-8. The book is actually four separate books in one. Book 'H' is a complete guide to the very popular Alesis HR-16 drum machine and provides operating information as can be found in the HR-16 manual. Book 'M' provides similar information for users of the Alesis MMT-8 sequencer. The material is well presented and easy to follow so, if you're struggling with either of these units you'll find these parts quite useful.

Book 'A' (applications) moves away from the manual type material and shows you how to use the HR16 and MMT-8 in a system context... synchronization, uses with a variety of MIDI controllers etc., together with a couple of do-it-yourself circuits for interfacing the HR-16 and MMT-8 to older pre-MIDI gear make for some useful chapters offering helpful ideas.

Book 'B' covers MIDI and synchronisation basics. It's another reasonable introduction to what MIDI is and how it can be used. This type of material is available from many sources but if you are struggling with MIDI then the more 'introductory' type material you read the better.

There's an added bonus with this book because one chapter includes Michael Stewart's Feel Factor article, first published in October 87's Electronic Musician. I'm not going to give the game away on this one, other than to say that if you are serious about programming drum machines then you should make a point of reading this article. In '87 the ideas had a limited audience - they deserve, and hopefully this time will get, much wider appreciation.

Robert Penfold is pretty prolific with his processor and lately the world of MIDI music has been his principle topic.

These two volumes - Practical MIDI Handbook and Synthesizers For Musicians might be expected to contain a fair amount of duplication. After all a synth design these days is unlikely to get further than the down-town Tokyo trash tip unless it has a comprehensive MIDI spec to present to the punters.

How could Mr Penfold attempt to separate the two subjects without making both books a few quavers short of a full bar? Let us see.

Practical Midi Handbook

This volume attempts to be a catchall study of the MIDI standard and its applications. Most musicians would agree that the manuals supplied with a good deal of MIDI equipment leave much to be explained and - fun as discovery can be - a book to provide a knowledge base on which to build the machine specifics would be a valuable tool.

The book is aimed fairly low - musicians with only passing computer knowledge could follow what is going on. This does mean the inclusion of basic explanations of binary numbers, serial interfacing and so on. Much of this may be wasted space to Micro Music readers but will fill any gaps in your knowledge and provide a useful reference.

The first section examines the situation before MIDI came along. It describes in some detail the gate/CV methods of controlling remote keyboards, concentrating on the problems (this is a MIDI book after all!), the lack of sophistication and the mass of wires required (oh, but didn't it look great!).

The serial interfacing is then explained, the similarities to RS232C systems pointed out and then the different methods of interconnecting sockets are clarified.

The next two chapters are without doubt the meat of the book. The MIDI modes and channels are examined fairly briefly at first so that the reader can grasp the differences between modes and codes before explaining what different modes can do. (This is where you rush off to check if your synth is as wonderful and versatile as the man in the shop told you it was...) Penfold then goes into detail and describes MIDI message formats and header codes so that prospective MIDI software programmers can sink their teeth into the business of message making.

The rest of the book goes downhill somewhat. A basic explanation of microprocessors is followed by an attempt to offer advice on computer equipment - very risky in a book and already showing signs of getting dated. After examining non-keyboard MIDI controllers surprisingly briefly (only a half page on guitar controllers) the pace finally picks up in the summary as the kid gloves are removed. Unfortunately the book then stops.

But I'm not really criticising. The novice will gain a good solid grounding in the world of MIDI. The expert might feel a bit short on technicalities and specifics, but will nevertheless find the Practical MIDI Handbook a useful reference tool and teaching guide.

Practical Midi Handbook
R.A. Penfold
PC Publishing
Price: £5.95

Synthesizers For Musicians

OK let's be honest now, raise your hand if you know how Casio's phase distortion synthesis actually works? And Roland's LA techniques? Yamaha's FM synthesis? How about good old fangled analogue synths... do you know your DCF from your VCO?

This really is an excellent book, it sorts everything out and leaves you wondering why on earth the manufacturers didn't just say this in the first place. It starts off very basic with sound and pitch in general, then goes on to analogue synthesis. Although one might regard analogue as old hat (though don't say that in front of Mr Oberheim), an understanding of the techniques here teaches you how sounds are shaped and added together. Armed with this knowledge you can progress to 'modern synthesis' and it all falls together with startling simplicity.

The style, as with the MIDI Handbook, is easily read and in a non-technical form of address while imparting quite technical wisdom. Plenty of pics (from the Penfold CAD workshop) keep the clarity constant and you come out wondering why there was such a fuss about FM being hard to handle. Of course there is no substitute for hands-on programming and it is likely that when you return to your voice editing package things will still go wrong, but at least you may now comprehend the reasons why!

Penfold also tackles samplers with consummate ease but then wastes a chapter on how to choose the keyboard you need. The answer should be, simply to read the reviews in Micro Music but instead lots of features are listed. When this was followed by a description of different effects units I almost decided that the book had ended back with the samplers and the rest could be subtitled "Pad, pad, pad...". In actual fact the stuff on effects is most instructive, particularly with regard to the changeover from analogue footpedals to digital rack processors.

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Ensoniq VFX

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The Art of Noise

Micro Music - Copyright: Argus Specialist Publications


Micro Music - Dec 1989

Donated by: Colin Potter

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