Choosing A Personal Computer For Music
Having made your decision to opt for a software-based MIDI music system, which computer do you choose? Which is best? Are they all the same? Mark Badger considers the three prime contenders.
The boom in MIDI-equipped musical devices has encouraged the development of increasingly powerful systems for their control. There are so many applications for these systems - music production, composition, education, not to mention film and video - that many people are turning to the personal computer and appropriate software for electronic assistance with that control. Such machines can provide a versatile and flexible environment from which to exercise the will of the artist. This developing relationship between musician and machine is seen by some as an unholy alliance of art and science, destined to invoke tremendous change in the way music is created and appreciated by the acoustic consumers of our society. Others perceive the relationship more pragmatically, recognising the ergonomically sensible approach of having one machine perform several useful tasks, all with a degree of predictable precision that is simply beyond the capabilities of ordinary mortals.
For those wishing to reap the rewards of living in a modern world, the task of actually choosing which of the available computer types to make 'personal' can be a daunting experience. The number of different computers and software, the expertise of their marketeers and advertisers, the opinions of a multitude of writers such as myself, not to mention the actual wishes of the prospective purchaser, all vie with each other to have a hand in directing that choice.
So, for those of you who are sitting on a pile of readies which are destined to be exchanged for a 'benefit of the late Eighties' - a personal computer, I'm going to cut through the garbage and arm you with a few relevant facts upon which to base your decision. We're going to look at hardware, as opposed to software, and examine just what you can, and indeed should, expect when you go shopping for a computer.
First consider your needs .These are the most fundamental of all the considerations which you should base your decision on. Of course, you will find it impossible to forecast all of your future requirements, for there's no telling what you may get up to, but a clear idea of your current goals is a must! Try to set out in your mind exactly what it is that you hope to achieve when you get the whole kit and kaboodle home. Then find a system which will at least do that!
Keep in mind that the potential of any MIDI system is the sum total of the potential of each component part, not the parts individually. If you are looking for a personal computer to act as the basis of a MIDI sequencing system (which will probably be one of your first needs), you will find that most computer-based sequencers are easily capable of orchestrating more synths, expanders, effects, lighting rigs, etc, than you can possibly afford or find room for. However, all this potential is useless if you've no means of monitoring the sound or connecting all your equipment together. Thus a typical 'starter' system will consist of: a computer, software, hardware MIDI interface (if necessary), a keyboard, a means of monitoring the sound, and a whole mess of cables!
If possible, get a chance to watch someone actually performing the same sort of task which you hope to achieve, on the system you are considering purchasing. No system is completely 'transparent' in use, whatever the salesman tries to tell you. This means that you won't always be able to do exactly what you would like to until you are extremely familiar with your equipment. The compromises which the system imposes can affect the sort of music you end up actually producing. Just like the physical limitations of a conventional musical instrument, the computer system can impart the music created on it with a distinct flavour. You might attempt to discover which system(s) your favourite artists use, though remember that most 'names' employ professional programmers to do the drudgery for them!
Find a trustworthy salesman in a reputable shop. Ask your friends and associates who currently use computers to tell you about their experiences - you will probably find plenty of strong opinions! My own experiences have led me to believe that there is no such thing as a 'free lunch'; or to put it another way, you get what you pay for. If you run into difficulties simply trying to get the system to work properly - which will happen sometime - you will need assistance. Retailers have to pay the rent too, and the only way that they can stick around and provide back-up service is to make sure that they balance their profits against their expenditure.
In the wonderful world of computer-controlled MIDI systems, you will find that most musical instrument retailers have their work cut out for them to have a broad knowledge of computer systems, and vice-versa for computer dealers. While the Atari ST is now widely available in music shops, you will find that distribution of other computer types is mostly restricted to the domain of specialist computer dealers and High Street chain stores. This can complicate the issue of where to go when the going gets tough. If you possibly can, find a salesman in either group who uses a system at home, is local to you, and who inspires your confidence.
There are three types of computer we'll examine here, all of which are capable of providing the sort of control you should expect in this day and age - IBM PC types, the Apple Macintosh range, and the Atari ST range (aggrieved owners of other machines please see separate panel).
These computers are all based on a family of microprocessors developed by Intel, the 8086, 8088, 80286 and 80386 chips. IBM used the 8086 chip in their 'PC' computer, introduced in 1983. This is by far the largest 'family' of computer types available. There are several reasons for this. IBM is easily the largest computer manufacturer in the world, their products are priced high, and the computers are built around an 'open architecture' which has facilitated the creation of a huge number of applications. These factors, together with the programmable nature of digital electronics, have stimulated the development of competing companies which produce operationally identical 'IBM PC' computers. These products are referred to as 'clones' or 'PC compatibles', and are typically a fraction of the cost of the 'genuine article'.
As there are so many different IBM PC clones available - the most popular undoubtedly being the Amstrad PCI 512/1640 models - that you can find several magazines devoted to sorting them all out, I'll leave a discussion of the ins and outs to them! However, here are some things that will apply to whichever machine you eventually decide upon:
- The existence of a vast market for IBM PC computer types means that there is a correspondingly large choice of software. If it can be done on a computer, you can almost certainly do it on an IBM, and you will usually find a broad choice of programs which get the job done. Note that I say 'job' though, for the choice is broadest where the application involves work, someone doing their business. Unfortunately, for the musician in search of a MIDI sequencer program, there is not quite such a broad choice in the UK. Excellent MIDI software does exist though.
- If you are looking for an IBM type computer which will be 'future-compatible', it's probably wise to go for an 'AT' clone or any model based upon the faster 80386 chip. These machines compete equally with what is on offer to you from Apple and Atari, and some of the 80386 machines even out-perform minicomputers (the machines we are looking at here are all microcomputers). Note that the bulk of the available PC software was designed for use on the older, slower machines and that there are only a few products as yet which demand the increased capacity of the newer models. You can also rely on the sheer size of the market to stimulate third parties to develop 'go faster' products which enable the older machines to keep up with the pack.
- Most IBM computer types are sold in 'parts', and you tend to need a lot of different boxes. Make sure you get them all! You'll want at least a 'system box' [with the actual computer in it), a video monitor, and a QWERTY (typewriter) keyboard. You may also need a 'video card' to drive the monitor. Due to the way in which the IBM PC has been designed, you may also choose to take advantage of its 'open architecture' and install special plug-in function cards, in order to further customise your system. These can be things such as internal modems, extended memory, hard disk cards, enhanced graphics adaptors (if you like working in colour, take a long look at EGA-style graphics) - you can even get a Yamaha FB01 on a card (only in the States at present) called the IBM Music Feature.
- IBM PC computers are arguably the least 'friendly' of the three computers we are looking at here. This has a great deal to do with the Disk Operating System (DOS) which IBM use, MS-DOS. IBM commissioned a company called Microsoft to write this software, which is sold as PC-DOS by IBM, and MS-DOS by the clone manufacturers. Though it is actually an integral part of your computer, sometimes it is sold as a separate package so make sure your computer price includes provision for it as your new toy won't work without it! This software provides all the routines necessary for dealing with memory management, the disk drives, and the disks themselves. It requires you to learn a number of command rules before loading the software you intend to use but, once loaded, most of the actual applications software which is available to the musician is quite straightforward in use.
- You will find very few local music shops with any experience of IBM PC music software and so it'll be hard to find a salesman with any relevant experience outside of one or two London-based companies. There are, however, a substantial number of professional MIDI software packages to be found if you look for them, especially if you are willing to purchase directly from the USA, where most (all?) PC-based music software originates.
Some IBM PC music software houses include: Bacchus, Dr T, Imagine, Jim Miller, Magnetic Music, Passport, System Design Associates, Voyetra Technologies.
- Note that you will also need a MIDI interface that is compatible with both your PC and any program(s) you buy in order to run MIDI software. The industry standard PC MIDI interface is the Roland MPU401 (or any of its clones!) and virtually all PC music software adheres to this 'standard'.
Macintosh computers (apart from the Mac II) are based on the Motorola 68000 family of microprocessors. The history of the Apple Computer Corporation is one of the most exciting success stories of microcomputing lore. Started in a garage, Apple has grown into a multi-national company which has a very high profile and a relatively expensive product range. The Macintosh series of computers were the first to introduce the friendly mouse and 'graphic' computing environment, with point-and-click control replacing typed commands. These features have since appeared for all the computers we are looking at, because they help make a computer immediately more approachable. Apple have spent a great deal of time developing the 'presentation' of their computers, and most Mac users will assert that their 'user interface' is superior to all others. Whereas IBM has become the dominant computer manufacturer through brute force, Apple has become a major player by way of careful thought and excellent marketing. The results are a large user-base of very loyal people who put their Macs to almost as many tasks as an IBM. There is, thus, a large body of good software available for the Macintosh computers, and you can barely have missed the Mac's 'desktop publishing' potential. Note that, as yet, there is only a small body of software available which can take advantage of the enhanced capabilities of the Macintosh II computers.
Once again, there are several considerations which you should think about when contemplating the purchase of an Apple Macintosh:
- The Mac Plus is being phased out, and will eventually be replaced by the Mac SE. The SE is appreciably faster though actually runs at the same clock rate. If you are looking to be 'future-compatible', see whether your budget will stretch to one of these newer models. It is highly unlikely that you will ever run into software incompatibilities between these models (however, with the Mac II you should check that the software you are intending to purchase runs OK). Apple is very strict with its retailers so prices tend to be pretty uniform, and there are no Mac clones around. However, if you've anything to do with an educational institution you may be able to secure a substantial discount.
- Macintosh computers come as a package and you can be fairly sure that the box you receive will contain all the bits necessary to get you up and running. Like IBM, Apple have used a disk-based operating system. This software has been the subject of numerous improvements over the years, so check that the MIDI software you have chosen works properly with your version of the Mac System software.
- Though only the Mac SE and II are truly expandable, several third party companies offer various upgrades for the Mac 512 and Mac Plus. Once again, you will be able to rely on the existence of a large user-base willing to pay good money to have their machine keep up with the times, so you can expect to see a variety of products in the future which extend the useful life of all Mac computers.
- The situation with experienced retailers is a little better with Apples, especially if you can get to London. There are several shops with machines on demo and each carries most of the available MIDI software. Make sure you phone first!
- When you purchase a new Mac you will now get a program called HyperCard thrown in for free. This product requires a review in itself but I must mention here that it is almost a reason to purchase a Macintosh in its own right, whatever the MIDI capabilities of the machine are. It promises to revolutionise computing and I thoroughly recommend that you try to arrange a demo to see it for yourself.
Some Apple Mac software houses include: Digidesign, Dr T, Intelligent Music, Mark Of The Unicorn, Opcode, Passport, Southworth.
- Note that, as with IBM PC computers, you will need to purchase a separate MIDI interface compatible with your chosen software in order to run these packages.
The ST range of computers are also based on the Motorola 68000 microprocessor, clocking just a weenie bit faster than the Mac and about the same as an IBM AT/Amstrad PC at 8MHz. These computers arguably offer the best value in terms of MIDI computing, especially in this country. This is largely due to the huge price differential between an ST and a Macintosh or IBM AT, a difference distended by the fact that the ST has a built-in MIDI interface. Atari have implemented a 'clone' of the Mac's mouse-driven user interface (GEM) and this makes the ST about as easy to use as a Mac. Unlike IBM PCs, this software is stored in the computer on a chip and loaded automatically whenever the machine is switched on. This makes the machines almost idiot-proof. The trade-off is that this GEM operating system has only been revised once, for the new Mega STs.
There is a great deal of MIDI software available for the ST, with seemingly more appearing each month, most of which is thoroughly professional. Though the range of non-music software is smaller than for either the IBM or the Mac, the situation is improving. Once again, here are a few points to consider before purchasing:
- If you are planning to use your computer for MIDI-related purposes only, there can be no doubt that the Atari ST is the machine you should consider. There is simply a great deal of superb software already available, it comes with a built-in MIDI interface, and there is plenty of support for the computer from MIDI software developers. What confuses the issue is whether you intend using your computer for non-MIDI applications or whether you have a requirement in your 'needs' list which cannot be fulfilled by any current ST software (eg. a blind person could learn to use a QWERTY keyboard to control their MIDI sequencer, but could obviously not select things with a mouse). If you are intending to put your computer to non-MIDI uses (such as word processing) then you'll have to make another 'needs' list for that application, and then scan through the computer mags to see if there's an ST package which will allow you to do it. The Atari versions of some classic software packages can be just as good (WP for instance).
- Some MIDI software for the ST requires at least one megabyte of memory to run properly. Remember to check that the software you choose will work with the machine you hope to run it on. Atari 520 STs come with half a megabyte (512K) of memory but can be upgraded to carry more RAM quite easily, the only drawback being that the machine will still only have its 360K internal disk drive, rather than the 720K version found on the 1040 ST and Mega STs.
- Atari only got it half right - the STs use a non-standard MIDI Out port. Pins number 1 and 3 of the socket carry a MIDI Thru signal from the input. Because these pins are usually unused, some cable manufacturers merge these connections with others. This can create all sorts of trouble. I recommend using Klotz MIDI leads, or carrying out surgery on the plug you use for your ST's MIDI Out.
- Finding an experienced salesman should not be a problem with the ST, as most of Britain's hi-tech music shops have cottoned on to the MIDI revolution and the ST in particular. You should even be able to find a local salesman who uses an Atari-based MIDI system at home and who can provide you with a great deal of experienced advice about MIDI related matters. This simple fact may be very important to you if your intended purchase will be your first brush with a computer - it can be a tremendous relief to talk to someone who knows.
Some Atari ST software houses include: Blank, C-Lab, Digidesign, Dr T, Drumware, Hybrid Arts, Intelligent Music, Passport, Soundbits, Steinberg, System Exclusive, Tigress.
- Any computer works a whole lot better and faster when fitted with a hard disk drive (as opposed to the standard floppy drives), though this may be difficult to appreciate until you are starting to search through huge collections of disks for the song you were working on yesterday. A hard disk can store much more information than a floppy disk and the computer can access that data much quicker. They reduce the need for constant disk-swapping and so make your life easier.
- Don't forget to consider whether you need a printer and, if so, to add that to your system price. If you are simply looking for a versatile machine for producing 'hard copy', go for a bog standard (Epson-compatible) 9-pin dot-matrix printer.
- Service and maintenance contracts seem expensive when you are adding them to the initial cost of the equipment. However, you may one day be very glad you spent the extra money. Just like any other piece of electronics, computers can break down. If you are making money from using your computer, you should consider insuring your bread-winner.
Well I hope you aren't feeling too confused. (You haven't seen how much software is out there yet!) I can summarise all of the above quite simply into a recommendation that you take a very long look at your requirements, then see if you can find a system which meets them. As with most of life's decisions, economics will no doubt play a large part. Scout around, make sure you've covered all the bases, there's nothing quite so frustrating as a few grands worth of gear waiting for a MIDI lead to go 'walkies'.
IBM, Apple, and Atari each make computer products which compete in a savagely competitive market and they are all subject to both sky rocketing technological achievements and their computer's acceptance by both software developers and end-users alike. Though each of their products are very different, all MIDI software which runs on these computers is oriented toward a similar goal: to help you make music with MIDI. Whichever computer you choose, you can be sure to find MIDI software products which do far more than merely assist you. Some are truly inspirational, just like a 'classic' musical instrument, a few you might find incomprehensible, but they can usually be avoided through careful consideration of your software needs. Good luck!
Feature by Mark Badger
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