IBM PC Software
The gap between audio and video technologies closes - a recent crossover is software that allows you to generate fractal images from your music. Ian Waugh's PC gets psychedelia.
Using images generated using fractal mathematics and modifying them with information derived from your music, FracTunes represents a personalised visual accompaniment to your compositions.
Fractals certainly seem to be one of the flavours of the '90s. Fractal music programs seem to be iterating with the speed of, er, fractal generators. But if you've missed out on one of the most significant mathematical developments in years and are wondering what it can have to do with music, check out The Sound of Chaos in the July '91 issue of MT.
Bourbaki's FracTunes tackles the subject of "fractal music" from a different angle to Datamusic's Fractal Music. In fact, it doesn't compose music at all. Rather than use fractals to generate music, it uses music to generate images. Actually, it doesn't actually generate images, either, it alters the colour palette of pre-prepared pictures.
It shares similarities with Jeff Minter's famous Colourspace Light Synthesiser program (now available as Shareware for the Atari ST) except that FracTunes does react to music whereas Colourspace was a DIY job. But you can see some similarities behind the thinking of the programmers. FracTunes, incidentally, carries the subtitle "the 21st Century Light Organ".
FracTunes is so named because it was originally designed to work with fractal images created with FracTools and FracZoom, two other programs by the same software house. However, it will also work with any compatible PCX image which can be created by many popular paint programs. The complex nature of fractals, however, makes them particularly ideal palette-shifting fodder.
The program will run on virtually any PC although you need an EGA or VGA display and a hard disk. (There can't be any serious PC users without a hard disk these days, surely.) It's mouse-driven and this is definitely the way forward for PC music software, as Adrian Sutton showed in our October issue. MS.DOS hackers had better just get used to it.
You'll also need a sound system of some sort. FracTunes supports the Roland MPU401 standard, Sound Blaster and AdLib cards and the IBM Music Card.
The program is supplied on two 3.5" disks or four 5.25" disks - make sure you order the right size. Installation is straightforward (for the PC) although you will need to know your sound card's port and interrupt. Not going to tax you too much, is it? You need a hard disk principally to store the data - the files are compacted and expand to over two megabytes, although you don't have to install all the files initially.
When you run FracTunes, an impressive fractal immediately appears on the screen. A click on a mouse button causes a pull-down menu to appear on the top of the screen and operation is fairly straightforward.
FracTune works in two modes: Live Play and Slide Show. In Live Play mode the screen responds to MIDI data arriving at the MIDI In port. That is, you play into it live or feed it the output from another sequencer and the colours of the image on screen change in response to the incoming data. The screen goes black and, depending on the notes you play and any other MIDI data such as pitchbend entering the system, different parts of the display light up.
At first glance this may not seem mind-numbingly exciting, but you are given a fair amount of control over the proceedings. The colour changes are effected by swapping colour palettes and the first thing you can do is load palettes of your choice to give the picture, say, a yellow or cyan cast. There are 12 palettes supplied and you can create your own quite easily and in a rather neat way.
The pointer turns into a cross and as you move this around the screen a box attached to the cross highlights the current colour it is on. Clicking calls up a palette defining the colour, which you can change using RGB values. Although easy to use, the number of possible variations are pretty overwhelming. I guess a colour freak could get lost in there for a week.
Next you can animate the images using strobe and pan effects. Strobing causes the colours in the palette to cycle through the regions in an image (depending on what you're playing). Panning causes the image to move off the screen to the left, right, up or down. You can activate both horizontal and vertical panning and strobing at the same time.
These effects can be controlled from the PC's keyboard and happen even when there is no music playing. You can control the speed of the effects, too. At a fairly high speed of strobe, the image can appear to be moving, especially if you use the palette to colour swirls and such in different shades of similar colours. It's all quite hypnotic.
The next stage in your exploration will be to use Slide Shows. These are little programs which control palette switching, strobing and pan effects. They are written in relatively understandable English and saved as an ASCII file. Several examples are supplied and you can examine them and create your own using a wordprocessor or text editor.
There are around 50 words in the Slide Show language, all well detailed in the manual. Part of a typical program might look like this:
song = heavy
begin play loop
delay = 96
strobe = right
delay = 180
Slide Shows can load new pictures, too, so you are only limited - to paraphrase an old computer cliche - by the size of your hard disk. FracTunes uses PCX files, which is a fairly common file format used by many paint packages so you can create your own screens, too. You aren't limited to the pictures supplied.
As well as using Slide Shows with incoming data, you can also use them with standard MIDI files. The program reads them and plays them and two rather tasty piano demo files are supplied. Here you have greater scope for customisation as you can tailor a Slide Show to a particular piece of music, especially by selecting suitable delays to complement the music. I don't think the demos really make the most of the potential here.
There are several functions I haven't mentioned yet and these are all connected with IMG files. These aren't GEM IMG files which are created by programs such as GEM Paint, but files created by FracTools and FracZoom. They are, however, rather complex and contain within them data pertaining to their construction. This permits functions such as Maximum and Minimum Iterations and Iteration Range to be performed on them.
Other functions which are restricted to IMG files are Stained Glass, Dust Toggle, Colour Pour and Kaleidoscope. They appear to be the most interesting and spectacular of all the effects. Unfortunately, Bourbaki have chosen not to include a single IMG file with the program, so I can't tell you just how "spectacular" they are. Far Communications (FracTunes' distributor) were very helpful and sent me some sample files - but as the disk format wasn't compatible with my machine, the files had to be transferred from another computer, after which FracTunes wouldn't recognise them as IMG files. I confess to sore disappointment.
You can buy disks of IMG images and, of course, you could always buy FracTools or FracZoom but, c'mon guys, this isn't really on. Surely you could have included a couple of IMG files to whet our appetite.
The manual is well written and quite comprehensive. After a First Experiments section which gets you up and running very quickly, it runs through the menu options in more detail.
The words in the Slide Show language are well explained and I'd go so far as to say you could create your own Slide Shows without any previous programming experience. Purely for beginners, however, a few Getting Started examples would have been helpful.
Although you can alter the strobe and pan effects during play, you have to stop the music to load other pictures and change settings. It would have been better to be able to do this on the fly. We know the PC is not multitasking (but then neither is the ST) and the program can load new screens while playing so this would not appear to be an impossible request. That apart, Pause and Continue functions would have been useful.
When new screens load they scroll down the screen. An option to instantly switch screen would have been nice. All told, niggles are pretty petty.
I suppose the ultimate question is - what is FracTunes for? Well, first and foremost - it's a very enjoyable program to experiment with. If you can tie in changes to the pictures to specific MIDI data using Slide Shows, the results are incredibly satisfying. The program is quite easy to use, the displays are easy enough to customise and you can use it with your own music. You can use the Slide Shows to create displays which are not MIDI-dependent, too.
Apart from using it purely for amusement, it could be used live and in concert. Remember the move to put MIDI data onto CDs? Well, here's one use for that data. Large PC screen displays in your favourite disco?
What about digitising images, say of musicians at work, saving them in PCX format and giving them the FracTunes treatment? Could do some interesting video work with that. Well, it sounds interesting to me.
Whatever else FracTunes may be, it's certainly entertaining. You can find out just how entertaining it is by sending for a demo disk - yours for only a quid! My advice is to do it now, and don't forget to specify the disk size you require.
Price £70.50 including VAT plus £3.20 p&p
More from Far Communications, (Contact Details).
Feature by Ian Waugh
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