The Archimedes computer continues its bid for musical acceptance with Armadeus - a hardware/software package that allows it to sample sound. Ian Waugh goes soft on sampling.
Still looking for credible software to establish it as a musically useful computer, the Acorn Archimedes should welcome the arrival of this budget sampling package.
GIVE A PROGRAMMER a 16-bit machine and he'll produce a sampler for it - just notch up the number of sample programs available for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga and you'll see what I mean. So give a guy a 32-bit machine and what does he do? Yep, he produces a sampler for it.
Sampling requires lots of speed and a large memory capacity, and Acorn's Archimedes - currently the fastest micro in the world - is ideally suited to sampling applications. A new operating system called RISC OS has been developed for it (giving rise to many media puns about riscy business) which is a multitasking system with a WIMP front-end. Operation is mouse-based and you basically point, click and drag your way through a program. It's nice.
Armadeus is a pun on ARM (standing for Acorn RISC Machine). RISC is aa acronym for Reduced Instruction Set Computer and OS stands for Operation System, as you probably know. The bits deep down inside the machine which tell it what to do (the operating system) is made up of a smaller than average set of commands - RISC - which makes the computer work faster. Terrible when you have to explain the jokes, isn't it?
BUT BACK TO business. The software will recognise the Armadillo A448 and A448b sampling hardware, the Unilab A-to-D interface and the Wild Vision ADC 1208 board as well as its own sampler hardware (which, incidentally was designed by Wild Vision). The Armadeus board has phono line in and line out sockets and a microphone jack socket. It uses 8-bit A-to-D conversion and is mono in operation although the program has a pseudo stereo option.
The software comes on three disks: a system disk and two disks of samples. These aren't protected - my customary 11 out of 10 for this, Clares - which means they can easily be copied to your hard disk.
The programs are coded with serial numbers however, so play the game and don't give them away.
Let's start with some easy stuff. When Armadeus is activated, the Waveform window appears on the screen (under RISC OS, windows can be drawn, removed, resized, repositioned and so on). To play a sample you can simply double click on its icon or drag it to the Waveform window. When it loads, its waveform appears in the Waveform window - of course.
Icons to the left of the window let you play or record a sample and zoom in and telescope out of sections of it. You can easily mark parts of the sample by clicking and dragging with the mouse.
The program can load samples from EMR's Creations disks and those created with the EMR SoundSynth program. In fact, it will load any file as a sample although it warns you if it doesn't recognise it. It can even read an ST disk which is very useful (especially if you have an ST) as there are lots of ST sample demos around. It reads everything from the disk and you have to remove the non-sample bits - but that's no problem. Arch samples are stored in linear signed format and the program can convert the ST's linear unsigned format to linear signed. It can also convert logarithmic samples into Archy format.
THE STATISTICS WINDOW holds lots of useful information. Here you can alter the replay and sampling rates and the sample buffer size by dragging sliders across the screen (you can type in exact values elsewhere in the program). You can click on buttons to select 41.6kHz, 20.8kHz, 13.8kHz and 10.4Khz sample and replay times.
As you alter the values, you'll see the maximum replay and sample times change accordingly (calibrated in l/100ths of a second). Similar information is also given about any marked area of the sample.
Samples can be loaded, appended to the end of an existing sample, inserted at a marker position and overlaid onto an existing sample.
On playback you can listen to the whole sample or just the marked area, and both can be made to loop. Markers are easily set and adjusted and they can even be positioned with a mouse click during realtime playback. You can alter markers on the fly and looping helps you to position them accurately. The program doesn't give a numeric indication of where in the sample you are, so this is important.
An alternative playback screen allows you to see a FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) of the sample or a VU meter display. While in VU Meter mode, you can use the cursor keys to move backwards and forwards through the sample, and you can freeze it too.
"If you're into sound manipulation you can produce rap and scratch 'records' using the loop and song functions - there's a lot of power in them thar loops."
ARMADEUS USES THE standard RISC OS convention for accessing menus. When the mouse is in the Waveform or Statistics window, pressing the middle button causes the main menu to appear. Select an option by moving the mouse up and down and then move to the right to access a sub menu. Sub menus may have sub menus of their own which are accessed in the same way.
It's easy to find your way around Armadeus, although some of the sub menus seem to be in odd places. For example, a marked section is deleted from the Processing menu, not the Markers menu and the Trigger is set from the Miscellaneous menu, not the Sampling menu. Perhaps it's the way my logic neurones are connected.
There are many ways of processing the sample once it's in the computer. You can process the entire sample or just the marked area. A favourite operation is to reverse it. You can add echo, too, and create fade ins and fade outs. There are cut, paste, move, replace and overlay functions, so editing is quite comprehensive.
Processing tends to reduce the volume of the sample and there are Scale and Gain functions which try to boost it up again. However, once a sample starts to deteriorate it's very difficult to recover the quality.
IF YOU HAVE a sample board you can create your own samples. You can set a threshold level which the incoming signal will have to reach before sampling begins. You can use the VU meter screen to set the level of an incoming signal before you sample it.
Once sampling starts, you can't stop it until the sample buffer is full. At silly (low) rates (in fact, as low as 3921Hz) and with a large sample buffer this could take 15 minutes - yep, one quarter of an hour's worth of sampled sound. At super rate - 41.6kHz - you'll get around 25 seconds.
The quality of the sample depends on several factors - sample rate, quality of original signal and so on - and with a little care you can produce good samples. There are high and low pass filters to help tidy things up. The low pass is especially useful for dampening unwanted noise.
There's a Resample function which reduces the size of a sample by reducing the number of sample points. In fact, if you're tight on space it's often a good idea to sample at a high rate and then resample down (it's a bit like oversampling).
A draw option lets you draw your own waveforms but, as sample-users know, this is of limited practical use. If you have a suitable printer driver you can print out the waveform.
ONE OF A sampler's most important functions is its ability to create a good loop. With Armadeus you can create up to 100 loops anywhere within the sample and each loop can be named and made to repeat up to 9999 times. Loops can overlap and you can alter the playback pitch of each one, although this is done with a slider and the deviation is shown in hex.
Each loop you create is put into a Song list and loops can be inserted and deleted within the list. When you play the song the loops play in order. The program doesn't actually help you to create seamless loops (for example, by letting you line up the beginning and end of a loop) so you may have some judicious clicking to do. But the looped sections need not run consecutively. You can create 'spaces' between samples and load several into memory to be played back according to the song list.
It's a very neat idea and it works well, although sometimes it would be useful to hear the section you're editing in context with the rest of the song/sample.
It takes quite a bit of effort to produce a good song but it can be done, and one of the demos is an absolutely brilliant example of looped song construction. Unfortunately, it uses music from a show hosted by one of the media's most obnoxious people - James Whale. Nice demo, shame about the source.
"The home studio owner could have fun with Armadeus, although it really isn't a substitute for a 'proper' sampler -but then it is about a tenth of the price."
IF YOU HAVE an Acorn MIDI interface fitted you can play the samples via MIDI. I must confess I found this didn't work very well. At the time of writing, nobody could shed much light on why this might be, though both Acorn and Clares are looking into it...
You can also play the sample from the computer's keyboard without any problems.
Output defaults to the computer's internal speaker, although you can route it through the sampler board's line out socket and into an external amp and speakers. The quality is vastly improved (with a much-improved bass response) and altogether quite impressive, although I don't reckon it's going to give Akai any sleepless nights.
You can't toggle external play on permanently, it must be selected each time you want to play back; an action which requires a total of three mouse clicks and movement through two menus. This is annoying in the extreme. External playback ignores a repeat play setting - which is probably just as well because once it starts you can't stop it - a real shame, as it is much better to work with sound when it's playing through a good speaker.
You can save all of a sample or a marked section of it and you can save a song, too. You can also create a Module from a sample or song. This can be loaded into any Archy software which supports Modules (such as the Maestro music program which is supplied with RISC OS) allowing you to create and use sounds of your own in other programs.
There is a helpful tutorial section in the manual which leads you through the basic operation procedures. The rest of the manual explains the functions of the various menu options and altogether it's quite friendly.
SO WHAT CAN you do with Armadeus? Well, you can create samples and save them as sound Modules for use in other Archimedes music programs. The manual includes a short example of how you can play them from your own programs in basic.
If you are into "sound manipulation' you can produce rap and scratch "records' using the loop and song functions - there's a lot of power in them thar loops.
The home studio owner could have fun with it, although it really isn't a substitute for a "proper" sampler (but then it is about one tenth of the price).
I can see educational establishments (schools, you know) having fun with it, too, especially as it's intrinsically easier to create music with someone else's bits and pieces (as our worthy Ed pointed out in November s editorial - see, someone reads it) than to create it all yourself.
In fact, I can see lots of people having fun with Armadeus. I had lots of fun with it! If you're in the market for a sampler for your Archimedes, Armadeus is one you've really got to see.
Prices Armadeus, £79.95; Armadeus software plus Sampler Podule, £149.95.