Choosing A Computer For Music (Part 2)
Atari ST & Commodore Amiga
Part 2. Concluding our look at the relative merits of the big four music computers, Martin Russ puts the case for the Atari ST and its variants, and Paul Overaa explains why his heart belongs to the Commodore Amiga.
One of the perils of being known as a 'computer musician' is that people so often ask you the question: "What computer should I buy?" Rather than repeat my standard answer of asking what the computer will be used for, I will try to explore some of the reasons why I use an Atari ST for music, and perhaps why you should also consider it.
The first important issue to look at is the price. Although the Atari ST offered remarkable value for money when it was first released over five years ago, the situation has now changed. In fact, the amount of money you will pay for comparable computer systems seems to be very similar, almost regardless of manufacturer — the gains in one low-cost purchase for a system are usually cancelled out by another more expensive part. The result is that if you want a computer, then an Atari ST, a Commodore Amiga, an Apple Macintosh Classic or an IBM PC clone in any reasonably serious configuration (say 2 or 4 megabytes of RAM and a 30 megabyte hard disk) should cost about a thousand pounds. It looks like price is a non-starter for making a decision...
For most musical applications, a MIDI interface is essential on a computer. The Atari ST avoids most of the software compatibility problems by providing one as standard, but suffers from a peculiar and decidedly nonstandard way of squashing the Out and Thru together into one socket. Almost the first thing I did when I got my ST was to make a lead which splits the combined socket into the proper Out and Thru sockets — and it has been in continuous use ever since. The easiest way to make the splitter lead is to cut one end off an ordinary hi-fi 5-pin 180 degree DIN lead and rewire the exposed end to two plugs (see Figure 1).
If you will not be using the MIDI Thru then you can just ignore it, but make sure that you use genuine MIDI cables (they should not have any connections to pins 1 and 3) rather than hi-fi leads, otherwise all sorts of strange things can happen. Once you have these minor problems sorted out, the ST is definitely the easiest way to interface to MIDI.
The ST's wealth of peripheral ports have an added benefit in terms of MIDI interfacing with some sequencers — if you want to add an extra MIDI output, then the serial I/O port can easily be persuaded to provide a second set of 16 MIDI channels (Hollis Research's Trackman), and by exploiting the cartridge port you can create two or more extra sets (Steinberg and C-Lab). These extra ports can usually also offer synchronisation facilities, ranging from simple FSK through to MTC and SMPTE.
A colour display, which the ST can offer, is not really needed for musical use. Instead, the ST's high resolution mono mode suits the main requirement for showing lots of information on the screen, and forces you to use a decent quality monitor instead of a fuzzy TV via a video modulator. The extra information which can be conveyed by adding colour to a screen seems like poor value for money if the screen ends up half the size. I would prefer twice the area in black and white every time! And don't forget that the ST's high resolution screen is about 50% larger than a Mac Classic's.
Software-wise, the ST has arguably the largest and widest range of commercial and public domain music software. The Mac tends to be professionally oriented, whilst the Amiga seems to suffer both from scarcity and poor conversion of music software from other machines (Dr. T's seem to be one of the few companies with a serious commitment to the Amiga). The PC is a compatibility nightmare when it comes to displaying anything other than plain text, which often severely restricts your choice of programs.
For the serious experimenter, the range of programs ported to the ST by the Composer's Desktop Project means that with the addition of a video recorder and PCM convertor (and lots of time), it is possible to use the ST to explore areas normally reserved for academic research. Personally, the most convincing argument in favour of the ST over other computers is the availability of my favourite sequencer, RealTime from Intelligent Music (now owned by Dr. T's). It is only available for the ST, and no other program comes even close to my own way of working.
As far as programming the ST is concerned, it shares the same Motorola 68000 processor as the Mac and Amiga, which should make machine code programming easier than with the PC's 80n86. There are some excellent high level development environments available for the ST, from several implementations of C to the easy-to-use Basic that I use for most of my programming, although none of these approach the subtlety and power of Mac MIDI applications like HyperMIDI and Max. Most of the professional ST developers use C as their language of choice, but for some music-specific uses dedicated languages like Dr.T's T-Basic can make customising your computing environment much easier.
In terms of actual use, the ST's GEM-based user interface is not as sophisticated as the Macintosh's, nor is it as fast to use, but it is certainly easier to incorporate into your own programs. The Amiga's multi-tasking operating system reputedly makes some programming tasks very difficult, whilst the ST has at least four different utility programs which provide access to more than one program at once: Steinberg's M-ROS, C-Lab's Softlink, Dr.T's MPE and various switcher programs. The official Atari-sponsored MIDI-Tasker from Intelligent Music still seems to be vapourware, almost a year after its announcement.
The ST's PC-like floppy disk format means that MIDI File sharing is easy between STs, PCs and the many hardware sequencers which can read and write MS-DOS disks (Yamaha SY77, Roland MV30 etc.). The new low-costs Macs with the FDHD drive can also read files from MS-DOS disks. Everything else however — mice, hard drives, memory upgrades, etc. — is specific to a particular type of computer.
For pure entertainment, the PC and Mac tend to be overshadowed by the ST and Amiga's huge array of games software, ranging from realistic and challenging flight simulators to violent shoot-em-ups. ST games are often slightly cheaper than Amiga games, which is probably an advantage when your main purchases are musical! Very few games work in high resolution mode, so a colour monitor is essential if you want the best picture quality — video modulators and ordinary colour TVs are a bit like a fifth generation bounce on a portastudio. If you use two monitors (one colour and one mono), you can buy switches which enable you to change monitor when you change resolution, without any cable swapping.
ST public domain software tends to be UK or European in origin, whereas similar software for the Mac, PC and Amiga tends to come from the States. Some of the PD ST software is wonderful value for money — the Henry Cosh Sequencer and Alchemie Junior both approach commercial quality. A few of my own series of articles for Sound On Sound have also included some PD software: Practically FM; System Exclusive; Adventures in MIDILand. The yellow pages in SOS give a good idea of the range of PD music software available for all computers, and the Goodman's PD Catalogue (£1.95) has a huge range of games, utilities, demos and other PD goodies.
Expanding the ST is easy. Its popularity as a games machine means that there is an active sub-culture of programming and hardware support and peripherals designed for the power user (typically programmers, musicians or bulletin board operators). Adding extra memory is easiest in the latest STE and Mega STe versions, but any ST can be fitted with simple-to-fit boards which let you use the readily available SIMM memory modules, allowing a maximum RAM size of 4 megabytes. A second disk drive should cost less than £100, although a hard disk drive could cost four or five times that, depending on size — 20 to 40 megabytes is a reasonable starting point (and you can always swap it for a larger one later!).
So, I use an ST for my MIDI work: using and writing programs and utilities. I also use it for all my SOS writing, and for playing the occasional game (and even some music!) when time permits. Apart from wanting more memory and a larger hard disk, it is almost perfect for my needs — a true workstation!
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Commodore UK first showed the Amiga computer in 1985. Most who saw, and heard, the demos were stunned. Here was a machine that offered brilliant graphics, high processing speed, lots of memory, and had the ability to multi-task (run more than one program at the same time). No one has ever doubted that the Amiga is powerful and, because of its graphics capabilities, that it was destined become a world beating games machine. What was less certain in those early days was whether it would attract the right amount of software support in other growth areas such as MIDI/music applications, desk top publishing, video work etc.
It became obvious early on that whilst a lot of Amiga software was being produced, there were some problems with it. Perhaps the most worrying of these was that much software crashed with monotonous regularity. There were exceptions, such as Electronic Art's Deluxe Paint graphics package and Dr. T's KCSMIDI sequencer, but on the whole serious Amiga users were less than impressed with the robustness of the software on offer. Before we get into our main theme, namely the position of the Amiga in the MIDI/music world, it is necessary to understand why the Amiga had such a shaky start on the serious software front.
The over-riding reason for the problem was that programming the Amiga turned out to be quite a challenge to the software companies working with it. The Amiga's operating system is based on a layer of complex multi-tasking software. Amongst other things this shares the processor time and the system facilities between any number of programs which could be running simultaneously. The drawback of this scheme? Firstly, it makes the programming inherently more complex. Secondly, it means that software designers need to follow a great many rules to ensure that programs can run together successfully. Many early Amiga programmers and software designers either didn't know the rules, didn't follow the rules closely enough, or misinterpreted them due to the difficulty in getting hold of the right technical documentation.
The good news is that the situation has improved dramatically over the last few years, and there is now a huge body of Amiga-literate developers producing some excellent, robust, software (both commercial and public domain). Nevertheless, software houses seem, up until very recently at least, to have been rather wary of the Amiga MIDI/music arena, but even this area is now showing signs of greatly increased activity. Dr. T's now offer dozens of Amiga programs including sequencers, patch editors, notation software, and librarians. Steinberg, Intelligent Music, Passport designs, MicroIllusions, Blue Ribbon Bakery and many other companies are now working hard to add to their Amiga range.
On the hardware front, there seem to be several common misconceptions concerning the Amiga's MIDI capabilities and its lack of inbuilt MIDI ports. Perhaps the first point to make is that the Amiga's serial port chip (which is used for MIDI transfer) can handle high MIDI speed data with ease. However, since the computer does not have MIDI terminals built in, a separate MIDI interface is needed.
In itself the lack of inbuilt terminals is not a major problem — Amiga MIDI interfaces are cheap (twenty quid upwards) and the only real disadvantage is that with the Amiga A500 the interface has to be a separate box (always an untidy option). With the A2000/B2000 Amiga models you can use internally-fitted interfaces which provide flush mounted MIDI terminals on the back panel. Another hardware benefit of the Amiga is that it has been designed to handle up to 8 meg of RAM. Memory upgrades are relatively cheap, so the Amiga user has an easy path available for memory expansion.
Multi-tasking operating systems are nothing new — they have been used on mainframe computers for years, but the Amiga's claim to fame in this respect is that it provides this type of operating system at an incredibly low price. The Amiga, on a power/price basis, is very hard to beat. It is a computer destined to be around for years to come, which means that buying one is now quite a safe long term bet.
In the early days there was only one Amiga MIDI sequencer that was worth using, and that was Dr. T's KCS. A couple of years ago MicroIllusion's Music X and Passport Designs' Master Tracks Pro came on the scene. Following this we've seen Blue Ribbon Bakery's Bars And Pipes Professional arrive, and of course even more recently, Steinberg's Pro24 Amiga and Gajits' Sequencer One . All of a sudden, Amiga based musicians are feeling slightly more comfortable when confronting the Atari crowd. So what sort of choice is there as far as Amiga sequencers go?
Right from the early days the Amiga version of Dr. T's KCS proved to be reliable. KCS, as many of you will know, functions as a 48-track MIDI tape recorder. Recording and playback of MIDI data is a doddle, and you have the usual control over recording speed, input data quantising, punch in, count-in control, loop recording etc. The track editing facilities include lots of goodies including a calculator for estimating differences between bars in terms of MIDI steps, fully implemented cut and paste editing, pitch transposition, track shift, track splitting, note duration and velocity correction functions. If you add rechannelling, auto-correction, real-time and step-time editing, inversion and the ability to protect drum parts from transposition, you'll find that there's very little you cannot do with KCS. Nevertheless, compared to recent Atari ST and Apple Macintosh offerings, KCS is showing its age.
The long-awaited Music X was said to be aimed at professionals and serious amateurs. It includes some sophisticated MIDI routing filters which allow transmutation of events, re-direction and so on, and it includes all the usual important facilities (quantising, group editing etc.). The package also has a librarian for synthesizer patches, SMPTE and time code facilities, and a high level protocol language designed to let Music X 'talk' to your MIDI equipment.
Music X is undoubtedly powerful, but I for one am unsure exactly how well it has been received. It doesn't seem to be popular amongst the musicians I know, but this may have as much to do with the Amiga MIDI/music marketplace as with the Music X package. Very few serious users seem to be opting for Amiga-based sequencing at the moment.
Passport Designs' Master Tracks Pro is another worthy offering — it is well thought of in its non-Amiga forms, so potentially it should be doing well sales-wise. The Blue Ribbon Bakery's Bars And Pipes package offers some very clever compositional facilities, and is well worth checking out if an innovative approach to sequencing appeals to you. Steinberg's Pro24 is the most recent Amiga MIDI sequencer. Having only recently reviewed it in these pages (February 1991) I am not going to repeat myself, but in short it is quite similar to the existing Atari version and is likely to develop a solid Amiga user base.
The Amiga's 8-bit sampling using internal sound chips is capable of producing some excellent playback sounds. It is, however, nowhere near as good as today's CD-quality sampling, which has limited interest in Amiga sampling for serious applications. For non-professional use, Amiga sampling has nevertheless caught on in a big way, especially since all Amiga samplers make use of a generalised sample format (known as IFF 8SVX). Sounds captured with one program can therefore be loaded and used with almost any other program. The best Amiga sampling package currently available is without doubt the RamScan Audio Engineer Plus which has a price tag of around £200.
I've got to put my cards on the table here: like a great many programmers, I am totally and utterly hooked on the Amiga. I've been playing live and recording with Amiga sequencers for years, and although I wouldn't hesitate to buy another for MIDI/music use, I do know that being both computer and MIDI literate has meant that it has been fairly easy for me to get around the odd software snags and restrictions which have cropped up over the years.
For what it's worth, I think that the Amiga is potentially very well placed to take over from the Atari ST, which (so everyone tells me) is showing its age. As far as the hardware goes, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the Amiga can fit the bill. On the software front the issues are slightly less clear, and the appearance of the new low cost Macs has added another dimension to the 'Which Computer?' debate. It's clear that at present the sophistication of much Amiga software falls far short of that seen on the Mac and the ST. The Amiga is catching up fast, but I'd be the first to admit that there is still some way to go.
So who is liable to choose an Amiga at the moment? Given the current state of the Amiga MIDI software, existing Atari ST, Mac and PC users are not, by any stretch of the imagination, likely to be tempted away from their machines on to an Amiga MIDI system.
If, however, you have chosen an Amiga for other uses, whether playing games, DTP, or graphics work, then opting for an Amiga sequencer would make a lot of sense. You'll be able to maximise the use of the hardware that you've ploughed your hard earned cash into. Depending upon your needs the overall advantages of this multi-use approach may well offset any limitations in the current Amiga software.
If you currently do not own a computer, then purchasing an Amiga purely for MIDI/music use is rather more risky. It depends so much on what you need, and on your expectations and experience with other MIDI software. You have to identify your own requirements, see how much you can afford, and then decide for yourself whether the Amiga road is the one to choose.
One last point worth mentioning is this: in the current economic climate, no-one is rushing out to change their hardware for the sake of it. Existing ST users aren't fighting to upgrade to Mega ST models or buy Stacy portables (despite the fact that the Stacy is a nice machine). So it's unrealistic to expect them to be swapping to the Amiga either. But underneath the inevitable Commodore hype, the retail trade, in general, is indicating that Amiga sales are increasing steadily. This is obviously worth keeping in mind — it was after all a high-growth Atari ST user base that attracted so many software companies into the ST market in the first place.
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