MusiCalc Software. The best software yet for the Commodore 64?
MusiCalc's programs for the Commodore 64 could be the most comprehensive music software developed for this particular micro. Chris Jenkins gets interfaced.
We've seen in previous articles that the Commodore 64 has much to commend it to the musician, with a wide range of software, and increasingly, hardware too, which makes it easy to utilise the powerful built-in sound chip and the large memory. Until now, however, the available software has suffered from a lack of any systematic approach.
The MusiCalc suite of disk-based software aims to change all this. For the first time you can use your 64 as a synthesiser, sequencer, compositional aid, educational work-station and music printer, using a range of integrated programs.
MusiCalc was developed by Waveform of California, and written by Richard Wolton. It comes only on disk, so you'll need a 1541 drive before you can begin. There are three main programs so far, each costing around £45. There are also two Template programs, at £15 each, with more to come. I'll explain their function shortly.
To recap on previous articles, the 64 has a very powerful sound chip, the Sound Interface Device, or SID. However, it's very hard to program due to the inadequate nature of Commodore Basic, With the help of SID-controlling software, however, you can make your 64 produce all the sounds of a reasonable monophonic synth — and as a bonus there are three separate sound-producing voices.
Once the MusiCalc 1 (Synthesiser and sequencer) disk is loaded, the user is presented with a screen display showing the various sound parameters — ADSR, filter settings, modulation and so on — and a colourful grid which displays moving squares synchronised with the score which is currently playing. There are 32 preset scores and 32 preset sound sets which are immediately accessible on loading. They give an excellent demonstration of the abilities of MusiCalc, since you can chop and change between different scores and sound sets to your heart's desire. The initial set includes Rock, Latin American, Bach, Strauss and so on. The Template disks, which I mentioned earlier, contain more of these example scores and sound sets, which can be modified in any way you wish. The first two Templates cover the Rock and Latin American fields — there are more to come which embrace a wide range of musical styles.
MusiCalc 1 has six major abilities, which I'll describe in turn. The first is sound synthesis, which is carried out in a straightforward and efficient way. By use of different QWERTY keys, parameters of ADSR, filter, volume and so on are toggled on and off or adjusted in stages until each voice is set to the desired sound. The setting is displayed visually in the form of bar graphs. Secondly, composition is carried out on a Score Screen, in which an enlarged version of the multicoloured box on the main MusiCalc screen represents the note positions for each of the 64's three voices throughout the composition. Scores are written by using the cursor keys to enter blocks on the grid, specifying pitch and octave for each one. In this sense MusiCalc is solely a step-time composition program, but the tempo and timing can be adjusted so finely that you would hardly believe this judging from the demo tunes.
The third function is keyboard play. In this mode the keyboard is played like a piano. Though there are some other software packages around that enable you to do this, none of them can overcome the basic difficulties involved. It's possible that MusiCalc's UK distributors may import two music keyboards, one mechanical and one touch-sensitive, which make playing the 64 easier. The keyboards were demonstrated at the June Commodore Computer Show, but unfortunately there is no sign of them appearing here yet. With the aid of the MusiCalc Three package, Keyboard Maker, you can define your own keyboard layout and scales — useful for more experimental compositions. This package can only be used in conjunction with MusiCalc 1.
MusiCalc 1's fourth function is to select a combination of the 32 sound/score presets included on the first disk, or loaded from the template programs. Unfortunately the manual, which is in other respects quite clear and comprehensive, was very vague on how to load the template programs — I eventually had to phone MusiCalc UK for help. Let's hope that when the MusiCalc programs hit the shops, fuller instructions on the use of the templates and MusiCalc 2 and 3 are provided.
The fifth function is the storage of sound/score sets to disks. You must have your own 5¼in. floppy disks for this function — you can't store anything on the MusiCalc disk itself.
The sixth and last major function is the calling in of other programs to work with MusiCalc. This I feel is where the packages as they stand fall down, if you'll excuse the pun. The manual provided is extremely inadequate, hinting at functions which are totally unexplained. For instance, MusiCalc 2 has the ability to display conventional musical scores or print them out (given a suitable printer). It also enables MusiCalc to be synchronised to drum machines, echo effects and so on — yet the packages I was given for review give no hint as to how this might be done.
It's difficult enough just working out how to stop the demo playing when you load MusiCalc, but in trying to progress any further you rapidly become bogged down in a morass of appendices, indexes, cross-references and tables. It's also confusing that the main MusiCalc screen has different types of functions indicated by the colour of the border — especially if you're trying to use it with a monochrome monitor or black-and-white TV.
It would be a great pity if the MusiCalc suite was marketed without proper documentation, since it is quite clearly the most powerful and versatile music software series yet released for a home micro. This almost inevitably leads to MusiCalc being difficult to use, but good documentation could alleviate the problem.
MusiCalc's greatest virtue is that it is a totally open-ended system. Not only-are there routines incorporated in the MusiCalc 1 program which makes it possible for competent programmers to write their own additional software, or make MusiCalc a part of an external program, but it is also possible to re-design the display; and as mentioned, supposedly MusiCalc can be synchronised with external instruments as well. If this is so then it will demonstrate once again that the Commodore 64 is the only choice for the budget-minded micro-musician.
At the moment MusiCalc is available through: (Contact Details).
Review by Chris Jenkins