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Choosing A Computer For Music (Part 1)

IBM PC-Compatibles & Apple Macintosh

Article from Sound On Sound, May 1991

Part 1: All four of the major computers can be used for musical applications, so which one should you choose? This month, Richard Elen puts the case for the Apple Macintosh whilst Brian Heywood advocates the benefits of the IBM PC-compatible.

The computer is the nerve centre of most recording environments, so it's important to choose the right one — PC, Mac, Atari or Amiga? This month, Brian Heywood proposes the PC, and Richard Elen puts the case for the Mac.


The IBM PC family of computers may not immediately spring to mind when you think of music and computers. This is actually somewhat surprising considering that the PC has been around the longest of the current batch of 16-bit microcomputers.

Perhaps this is due in part to the fact that the PC doesn't have any 'built-in' music hardware — unlike the Atari, Amiga or the Apple Macintosh, the PC doesn't have any specialised circuitry for making sound. However — also unlike the Amiga, Atari and most of the Apple range — the PC does allow you to fit internal expansion cards. Using these internal cards (or slots) you can customise the PC to perform almost any task in the musical environment (and beyond).


The music related cards available fall into three basic categories: MIDI interfaces; internal synthesizers; sound sampling cards. Quite a few of these cards have multiple applications. The Roland LA-PC multi-timbral synth card, for example, includes a MIDI interface (although you need an additional connector box to access this facility). Indeed the Sound Blaster card (from Creative Labs) manages to combine a synth, a MIDI port and an 8-bit sound sampler on one card.


Of course none of this hardware would be any good without software to drive it. There is a good range of software available for the PC, from the cheap'n'cheerful to the high cost professional music tool. Software packages range from scoring systems through MIDI sequencers and synthesizer patch editors to hard disk recording/editing programs.

Generally software compatibility is very good on the MIDI side; this is because quite early on in the evolution of MIDI Roland brought out an interface card that could be used with the PC. The MPU-401 was actually designed to be used with a number of personal computers, but it only really took off with the PC. The MPU has become the de facto industry standard for the IBM MIDI interface.

As far as synth cards go, the Roland LA-PC card can be controlled by any software that can use an MPU-type interface. The IBM Music Feature card (being an IBM/Yamaha combined effort) is not compatible with the MPU. The Sound Blaster and the AdLib FM synth card are partially compatible.


There are a number of MPU-401 compatible cards on the market, made by companies such as Voyetra, CMS and Music Quest. Some of these cards actually use Roland parts (to ensure 100% compatibility) and some emulate the Roland interface in software. These interfaces are fitted inside the PC with either flying leads or a connector box for the MIDI and other signal connections.

There are some non-MPU compatible interfaces around such as the Hinton Instruments MIDIC Processor and the Key Electronics MIDIATOR interface. Both of these use the PC's serial port (like the Apple Mac and the Amiga interfaces) and thus can be used on portable PCs that don't have internal card slots. Unfortunately, there is very little software support for these interfaces.


Although the Roland specification is adequate for most MIDI sequencing applications, it will only give you one MIDI output, and quite limited synchronisation facilities. The Yamaha solution to this problem was the C1 Music Computer, which is based on a standard laptop PC design. The C1 gives you eight independent MIDI outputs (ie. 128 discrete MIDI channels) and SMPTE/EBU timecode ports. This high level of integration of MIDI and timecode was arguably the first truly professional sequencing environment of any of the currently available personal computers.

The main drawback of the C1 was its lack of compatibility with the Roland MPU interface standard. Although most major software vendors produced C1 versions of their MIDI software, the Roland standard still has more software support, especially in respect of low cost and public domain (ie. free) software.

There is a new generation of interfaces from Music Quest and Voyetra which give PC MIDI systems considerably more scope while retaining a high degree of Roland compatibility. These new MIDI interfaces incorporate both multiple MIDI ports and timecode support. Whilst software written for the MPU will not be able to use the advanced features of these new cards, you will still be able to use your old software or packages that don't need either multiple ports or timecode.


Ten years into the personal computing revolution and nine into the MIDI revolution, the amount of software available is simply staggering. The software falls into three main categories: score preparation; instrument control; direct-to-disk recording. (We might also add a few related applications, such as those aimed at Audio Visual users).

Score preparation packages range in quality from budget packages like Songwrite and Laser Music Processor to the professional desk-top music publishing software such as Score, Music Printer Plus and Finale. Be warned, though: you have to be especially careful when selecting low-cost scoring packages as there is some dubious software on the market.

Instrument control covers most MIDI applications such as sequencers and patch editors/librarians. Again there is a wide range of prices and functionality. The market leaders in sequencing seem to be Voyetra with their Sequencer Plus, and Cakewalk from Twelve Tone Systems. Prism and Cadenza are also very popular. If you are interested in a 'computer music workstation' then the Ballade package combined with an LA-PC card is worth a look.

Low cost digital signal processor (DSP) chips have meant that it has become feasible to use a personal computer as a hard disk recorder, giving you the ultimate in control over a recording. Since the technology is still fairly new, prices are high and there is a relatively limited range of software available. On the PC, systems such as Turtle Beach's 56K Recording system are pushing the 'leading edge' of this new technology. You will need a fairly powerful PC to keep up with this sort of application.


At the moment the two big buzz words in computer based music are multi-tasking and multimedia. Multi-tasking is a way of getting more out of your computer by allowing you to run more than one program simultaneously, and multimedia is the integration of text, image and sound as a form of computer based presentation. The possibilities for multi-media applications in computer aided learning are immense, as well as in more mundane applications such as corporate audio-visual presentations (and of course games software).

Until recently the Amiga was the only music computer to be able to multi-task convincingly. However the recent release of Windows 3 by Microsoft has meant that there is now a standard platform for multi-tasking PC software. Microsoft have also defined a multimedia standard which should provide common ground for music software to interact with other packages and thus be able to multitask successfully.


It's always invidious to get into comparisons of different computers since the design criteria for each machine will have been different. Each type of computer has its own special strengths and weaknesses.

The PC's strengths are its relatively low cost and its expandability. For instance, for just over £500 you can get an Amstrad 1640 plus MIDI interface and a usable sequencer. If you work in a professional environment you will appreciate the simple upgrade path and the backward compatibility of the system when you do decide to upgrade. The massive amount of software available for the PC is also a big plus.

Traditionally, the main disadvantages of the PC have been the unfriendly software environment of MS-DOS and the inability of the computer to use large amounts of RAM effectively. Both of these shortcomings have been redressed with the release of Windows 3, with the added bonus of multi-tasking. This really just leaves the problem of having an extremely wide choice of both hardware and software to choose from.

If you have a PC and want to use it for music or are starting from scratch, the PC is a sound choice of a computing environment. It's not the only choice, but it's one of the better ones.


Computer Music Systems. (Contact Details).
Digital Music, (Contact Details).
MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).
Computers By Post (PCU), (Contact Details).


I was interested in the use of computers in music from the beginning and, watching the technology develop, I got into the new machines as they came out. I'd played with early hardware sequencers like the EMS Synthi AKS, later progressing to systems like the remarkably cheap Wasp/Spider combination, and then to what must have been about the first stand-alone sequencer, the Roland Microcomposer. But having also been into computers for many years it seemed very likely that computer-based music sequencing would become a reality — when there was a way of carrying the musical information that everyone could agree on. That agreement, of course, came with MIDI, and it was not that long after its introduction that computer sequencers began to appear.

The first computer we bought for our studio was a humble BBC Micro, running Lynton Naife's UMI software in ROM. It was a remarkable effort for the time, and indeed it had some facilities that took a while to appear on other machines. Being written by a musician, it had many 'musical' features that appealed to the composer with whom I shared the studio.

However, very soon we were running into serious memory problems. There simply wasn't the room to complete a reasonably complex piece of music — and from the beginning, what we were trying to achieve was to have a roomful of instruments playing live to stereo, rather than losing audio quality by recording them on analogue multitrack. I began to look for other solutions.

I had seen the Apple Macintosh and played with it in dealerships ever since it was introduced in 1984, and I remember being completely amazed by the machine and how different it was from anything else I knew — I was at the time using a CP/M machine running WordStar and other programs, little different operationally from an IBM-compatible without a GUI (Graphic User Interface) today. The trouble with the Mac, however, was that it was simply outside my range financially.

When the Atari ST machines appeared I thought them more affordable, but I was severely disappointed in the way they actually worked. The 'Jackintosh', as Jack Tramiel's machine was dubbed, seemed to me a cheap copy of the Macintosh, and I wanted the real thing. I also needed reliability for professional studio work, and the ST just wasn't up to it.

It was at a Los Angeles AES Convention in, I think, 1985, that I first saw a sequencer program that promised to offer our studio what we needed, and it was no surprise to me that this application — Total Music ran on the Macintosh. I bought a system almost at once, and back in England we purchased the newly-released Macintosh Plus to run it. We've never looked back.

The Macintosh was the first machine on the open market which offered a graphic user interface, and despite imitators such as Digital Research's Gem, Microsoft's Windows, and the NeXT operating system, it still wins the prize for the most friendly interface in my book. When it came on to the market in 1984 the Mac was, by modern standards, a rather limited machine in memory terms, with just 128K. Soon the Fat Mac upped that to 512K, but in many people's minds there just wasn't enough power there to justify the high price, or to undertake a number of important tasks.

The Macintosh Plus, with its re-designed system ROMs, 800K disk drive, true SCSI port and a whole megabyte of memory, was regarded by most commentators as quite a different matter. It was still expensive, though, especially in the UK. In America, with higher disposable income and significantly lower prices for both hardware and software, the machine quickly caught on as a home computer and, more importantly, it rapidly became the computer of choice for the creative professional.

Most observers, excluding the odd Apple-basher who can never say anything good about the company, agree that the single factor that kept the Macintosh out of the hands of creative professionals in the UK was price. While in the States, innovative software and hardware companies sprang up offering sequencers, librarians and sample manipulators — companies like Mark of the Unicorn, Passport Designs, Digidesign and Opcode Systems, for example — their names were virtually unknown in the UK. Argents' in London's Denmark Street began importing MOTU's products, Performer and Composer, and single-handedly began to make a name for the Mac, such a name that until a year or so ago a lot of people in Britain thought there were no other choices. But only people at the top end of the market — primarily professional engineers, producers and musicians — could afford the Mac. The lucrative semi-pro and consumer markets went untapped in Britain and it was here that the Atari made its mark, securing almost 70% of the music market. The Atari was cheap; the music software for it was excellent (although there was little other software apart from games, and this is still the case); and it had a built-in MIDI port, which neither the PC nor the Macintosh offered.

It should be noted here that the Atari's MIDI ports are not the great bonus that they appear. Leaving aside the fact that they are wired incorrectly, the big problem is that there's only one of them. This is fine to begin with, but if you want to do any large scale productions, that single port will soon become clogged with data and cause timing errors. That's why professional Atari users will generally have an add-on unit to handle multiple MIDI ports, SMPTE/MTC and so on. Macintosh users have had to buy an interface from the word go, so sophisticated timecode-capable MIDI boxes were on the market very early on. They even had their sockets wired correctly, so MIDI Hell has been fairly unusual in the Mac music world. The down side of this, once again, was that it made Macintosh music systems even more expensive for the beginner or non-professional user.

Until relatively recently there was a clear delineation between the different computer systems. Each had its strong and weak points and it was relatively easy to advise someone entering the field which system they should buy — and the recommendation was only to buy a Mac if you had plenty of money. Today there is a wide range of Macintosh machines, however, and the situation has changed dramatically over the last few months. The Macintosh Classic, released in late 1990, for the first time offers true Macintosh features at Atari prices.

As an entry-level system, the Macintosh Classic is now entirely affordable, with street prices around the £550 mark for the 1 MB RAM, single high-density disk drive version (the FDHD drive which is now fitted to all Macs can read and write all Mac and 3.5" PC disks, storing up to 1.4MB). However, for all but the simplest applications the Classic/2 (with 2MB RAM, FDHD drive and an internal 40MB SCSI hard disk), is recommended. Expect to pay around £850. Some suppliers will bundle a quality MIDI interface and music software.

Next up in the range is the Macintosh LC, which features colour and a faster processor (the 68020, the same as in the original Macintosh II). This machine is both faster and more expandable than the Classic, but LC machines start at around £1200.

Above that is the IIsi, which is an open-architecture machine using the 68030 processor for enhanced performance. Above this are the IIci, a very fast, compact yet expandable 68030 machine, and the IIfx, a large beast which is top of the range and screamingly fast. (There is also a heavy, expensive, but very tasty portable machine which we won't discuss here).

As is the case with any computer system, some tasks are very demanding and require a lot of power to perform well. This is especially true of direct to disk recording and editing, and although virtually any Macintosh will in fact do the job, it is really advised to go for one of the 68030 machines (especially one with DMA) for best results — which immediately puts you into a higher price bracket. Also, some of the particularly attractive hardware/software combinations — such as Digidesign's Sound Tools, Sample Cell, Deck etc — use NuBus cards that can only be fitted inside a Mac II (the smaller machines do not have internal NuBus slots). However despite the price, the larger Macs have become the primary choice for a wide range of users, from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Abbey Road to little back-room studios.

Now that the new machines make the Mac range accessible, you'll be seeing a lot more of them around, and in more prosaic environments. Extrapolating from the UK sales figures to date, by this year's International Music Show (formerly known as the British Music Fair) in July, Macintosh computers will have become the choice of over 50% of the music marketplace, and in excess of 75% of production facilities and people who make their living from music will be using them.

In the past there was a great deal of Macintosh envy among Atari users — people who wished they could have a Macintosh but could only afford an Atari felt obliged to defend their forced choice with an unusual degree of vehemence. Now that both systems are equally affordable, it will be interesting to see what happens.

In my view, despite the price similarity, there will still be a 'right' system for a given activity. Music software for the Atari is quite as good as that for the Macintosh, and in fact manufacturers are increasingly offering the same software for both platforms. The cheapest Atari is still cheaper than the cheapest Macintosh, so it's likely that for home use the ST will still be the choice — although once again, good software for the machines will set you back more than the computer, and there are messy dongles to deal with.

In the semi-pro and low-end professional fields the two systems are neck and neck: some may prefer the sophistication and reliability of the Macintosh operating system and the machine's broader range of software and capabilities, while others may find the Atari's bigger screen and colour options more appealing, a colour Mac being a little more expensive than a colour Mega ST.

Further up the scale, the Macintosh comes into its own. While products like Digidesign's Sound Tools are available for both platforms, when it comes to CD premastering and PQing, systems like Audio And Design's excellent Atari-based Sound Maestro are hard pushed to keep up with Macintosh-based systems costing similar amounts of money, and neither compare with an application like Sonic Solutions' Sonic System. In addition, it is at this level that the smoother operation and capabilities of the Macintosh GUI over Atari's GEM come into their own.

Meanwhile, those who don't care too much for GUIs may well be beavering away on their PCs, safe in the knowledge that they have some of the best music software available for any platform. And Amiga owners may be rightly pleased that they can do things with video on their machines that cost a good deal more to do on the Macintosh (at anything less than the professional level). You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

Richard Elen is an engineer and producer who has been using computers for music from the beginning. Introduced to the Macintosh in 1986, he has been using them ever since and has produced over two dozen albums with their assistance. He is also Director of The Music Network, an on-line system for musicians using computers. As a special offer to readers of this magazine, you can obtain a free signup to the Music Network (worth over £45) simply by calling TMN on (Contact Details) and mentioning that you read this article. TMN will send you an application form and full details of the system and what it offers. (Offer applies to signup fee waiver only: normal conned charges apply.)


The Computer Warehouse, (Contact Details).
MacSyco, (Contact Details).
Soho Soundhouse/Turnkey, (Contact Details).
Argents, (Contact Details).


Computers and Music (Penfold), PC Publishing.
The PC Music Handbook (Heywood & Evan), PC Publishing.
Practical MIDI Handbook (Penfold), PC Publishing.
Introducing Digital Audio (Sinclair), PC Publishing.
C Programming for MIDI (Conger), M&T Books.
MIDI Sequencing in C (Conger), M&T Books.

Series - "Choosing A Computer For Music"

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EastWest Communications

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A Question Of Sex

Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

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Sound On Sound - May 1991


Buyer's Guide



Choosing A Computer For Music

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2

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> EastWest Communications

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