Commodore 64 — The Soft Way, The Hard Way, The MIDI Way
Floppy disks and tape, Microsound 64, SCI Model 64
The Commodore 64 with its Microsound add-on cost £189 and £145 respectively, and with additional software the 64 really is becoming established as the poor man's Fairlight. Chris Jenkins looks at the hard and soft ways of making music on a Commodore and Peter Schwartz reveals how to latch it into a MIDI system and use it to control other instruments.
The Commodore 64, currently claimed to be the world's top-selling home computer, is an ideal introduction to music synthesis — if you know how.
Later in this feature we look at the Autographies Microsound 64 music keyboard, which enables you to use all the sound facilites of the 64, and play them on what is in effect a conventional synth-type keyboard. You don't have to go to that expense, however, since there are several software packages around which let you use the 64's QWERTY keyboard as a musical instrument.
The 64 was conceived as a cartridge-based games playing machine, at a stage when the computer companies were unaware of the level of public interest in learning programming. So through the 64 can make great sounds with its SID (Sound Interface Device) chip, actually persuading it to make these sounds is something of a challenge. Instead of using a simple Basic command like the Sinclair Spectrum's BEEP x, y, you have to POKE nine separate numerical values directly into the computer's memory. This is clearly not on, and several software houses have realised the advantages of taking all this strain off the hands of ambitious computer musicians.
The first package we'll look at is called Ultisynth 64, from Quicksilva, better known for their arcade games. Ultisynth costs £14.95, comes on cassette, and is packed in a video-style case with a small but perfectly formed instruction manual. Basically, Ultisynth allows you the user to access all the capabilities of the 64's SID chip in terms familiar to users of synthesizers.
On loading, you're presented on your monitor screen with a menu which allows you to change all the parameters of the SID chip's three oscillators. Most of the alphanumeric keys now become control keys, and each sound change is displayed graphically in a series of barcharts.
Twenty-eight of the QWERTY keys produce sounds directly, so that you can constantly check your sound as you're updating it. Though the layout of these keys is chosen to vaguely represent a musical keyboard, it would be a brave or foolish man who elected to try producing a recognizable tune by playing these keys — you 're much better off programming your tune step by step, and playing it back later. As you play keys, details of the last note played scroll across the screen, so if you hit a wrong note at least you know where you went wrong.
As for the sounds themselves, don't get the idea that just because a 64 is a computer and a Fairlight is a computer then a 64 sounds like a Fairlight. In fact, the kind of sounds you can get are comparable to a fairly simple monosynth, say a Jen or Transcendent, though you have a much wider range of octaves and the benefit of facilities such as sync and ring modulation.
Each of the three oscillators can produce a mixture of sawtooth, squarewave ("pulse") and triangle waveshapes, or white noise. There's a good explanation in the Ultisynth manual of the significance of these waveshapes, and also full explanations of ADSR, modulation and so on. This is also true of the Romik package we'll be looking at later, but I wouldn't dream of offending any reader's intelligence by offering any definitions here. Suffice it to say that the Ultisynth sound control menu lets you select the waveshapes for your three oscillators, then define the ADSR settings in increments from 0 to 15 — a little limiting, but that's the format of the SID chip rather than of Ultisynth.
Range of pitch is eight octaves, with four on the keyboard at any time. Oscillators two and three can be used to play preset or user-defined rhythms, a useful toy which sustains your interest just at the point when the initial complexity of the program might be getting to you. These rhythms, fortunately, aren't of the waltz/beguine/tango sort you'd find on a home organ, but in fact consist of heavy little riffs which might not be out of place at a Kraftwerk gig.
One of the most powerful aspects of Ultisynth is the filter control section — by combining different filter settings you can configure the filter as low pass, band pass, high pass, band reject, and so on. Coarse and fine adjustments mean you can choose your filter setting very precisely, and any combination of the three oscillators can be routed through the filter. Try filtering white noise then playing an autorhythm for a great backing drum track.
There are plenty more facilities which will be familiar to synth owners — pulse width modulation, ring mod, oscillator sync, portamento and pitch bend to name but a few. Once you've chosen the sounds you want, the fun's just beginning; you can produce sequences of up to 2048 notes, save and reload compositions, and using a feature called "Pretab" (which I found difficult to use, but finally rewarding) you can create a waveshape of 255 steps which can be used to control frequency, filter cut-off point, pulse width or filter resonance of oscillator one.
All in all, once you've familiarised yourself with all the key controls and the possibilities of the system, Ultisynth is remarkably good. The manual gives examples of sounds and special effects you can set up, and the program tape contains two demo compositions which should inspire you to greater effort.
As an alternative, you could try the Multisound Synthesizer program from Romik. This one, again on tape, comes in an even bigger video case, but still consists of just one tape and a manual. It's no insult to the Multisound Synthesizer to say that it doesn't add a lot to Ultisynth — it includes the same range of waveshape/ADSR/filter controls, and so on, and while it gains in some areas it loses in others. For instance, some of the control keys are badly chosen — there are three main menus, and to jump from one to two and back you can use the "U", but to get to menu three you have to use a different key altogether. Having said that, and also noted that the Romik program's graphic displays aren't as nice as Quicksilva's (and it doesn't have Pretab), it does have the feature of a graphic representation of a musical keyboard. This is one which is sorely missed by Ultisynth, and I'm sure a lot of musicians will go for the Romik package for this reason. The display shows which QWERTY keys relate to each musical note, and a flashing cursor picks out the note currently being played. Using this method I soon picked out a quick piece of Bach, and was feeling quite pleased with myself until I tried to access Multisound's preset rhythms. Possibly I simply missed the relevant part of the manual, but whatever I did I couldn't get dem riddums to play. Back to the manual, I suppose. In theory, the rhythms can be preset, or user-defined up to 85 notes. Of course tunes can be saved and reloaded, and a range of suggested noises is given in the manual. Overall, the best aspect of the Multisound Synthesizer is the graphic keyboard display, though I get the feeling that it may simply take longer to become familiar with than the user-friendly Ultisynth.
For those of you who aren t so interested in the complexities of sound synthesis, two programs are available which will appeal to the composer and the exhibitionist in all of us. For the composer (over-eager exhibitionists can skip this bit), there's Music Composer from Commodore.
This comes in the form of a cartridge which plugs into the rear port on the 64, so there's no loading time. The box is illustrated with a bizarre combination of blues performers and classical heavies grimacing with the effort of composition, but don't let that put you off.
Initially you're presented with a menu and asked if you want to hear a sample tune. Say yes, and you're rewarded with about a minute of Bach scored for three oscillators. It's very good, and though each voice plays the same harpsichord-like noise you can then opt to change each voice sound, choosing from a list of nine which includes flute, calliope, and a user-defined voice which can incorporate some of the by now familiar ADSR/filter/waveshape effects.
The program falls down when you come to compose your own tune, because despite the pretty scrolling multicoloured musical notes on the screen, it's really rather an effort to write any tunes — it's all done in a complicated code of numbers and letters which are easy to goof. Once you've finished you can hit RETURN to hear your three-part composition, then save it to disk or tape. There's also a limited form of looping, but this isn't really a package for the serious synthesist or composer — perhaps best suited to children with an infinite amount of patience.
Lastly (you exhibitionists can pay attention now), on to Dancing Feats, from Artie Computing. This one is a sort of do-it-yourself busking program.
The main menu invites you to select a bass line (jazz, rock, blues or boogie-woogie), a beat, a tempo and a style (in fact major or minor keys).
Having made your choices you press a key to begin, and the computer goes wild. A manic rhythm and bassline explode from the speaker, and you plug a joystick into the game port and make like Jimi Hendrix. Each twitch of the joystick plays a lead note — synchronised in key with the changing bassline, so you can't play a bum note. Fast runs can be produced with circular motions of the stick, single note by delicate movement. Press the Fire button and you drop an octave. You can store 15 minutes of this post-punk thrashing, or play without accompaniment, though your acapella performances can't be stored.
Your joystick gyrations are displayed on the screen as a series of flashing multicoloured bars, pretty meaningless musically but fun to watch. This program is astonishingly entertaining, and I wouldn't be surprised if the joystick soon becomes the favoured instrument of pop musicians everywhere.
To conclude, with the possibility of UK distribution for a series of powerful American programs called Musicalc from Waveform, it appears that interest in Commodore 64 music software is just taking off. Considering the capabilities of the computer for MIDI control of synths, and the add-on possibilities for keyboards, lightpens, printer-plotters and a host of other peripherals with musical applications, it looks as if the musical micronaut or the computerate musician could do far worse than to check out the 64's tuneful potential.
The distance between the computer user and the musician is becoming smaller with every passing day. Probably the greatest barrier to the acceptance of computers by musicians is the received impression of the difficulty of programming, and the only thing dissuading computer users from making music is the unconventional nature of music production on an alphanumeric keyboard.
Both problems seem to have been solved at one stroke with the introduction of the Microsound 64 keyboard from Autographies: one of a new generation of evocatively named 'MOPS' — Music Oriented Peripherals.
The most popular home computers are the Sinclair Spectrum, the BBC, and the Commodore 64. The Spectrum is pretty much a wash-out musically, though it clearly has great potential as a controller of other sound-producing machines — specifically synthesizers, through MIDI. The Beeb micro is a little expensive at £400 — you could pick up a second-hand Juno 6 for that — and in any case its music facilities aren't as good as those of the Commodore 64.
The great drawback with the Commodore is that its Microsoft Basic language is notoriously difficult to manage. A machine with tremendous sound-producing capabilities has been blighted by the user-unfriendly nature of its programming. Instead of accessing the soundmaking sources through simple Basic commands—like the Spectrum's BEEP x, y — the CBM64 requires nine separate numerical quantities to the POKEd into its memory before it will produce a squeak, let alone a symphony.
Fortunately many software houses, realising the possibilities of the 64's SID chip (it stands for Sound Interface Device — but you can't help feeling that the name was coined to fit the acronym) — now produce programs which make it easy to use the 64's sound and music facilities, and the program included with the Microsound 64 keyboard is a good example of this type.
At around £189, the 64 represents good value for the micro buff or the musician, and since the Autographies keyboard comes in at a reasonable £145, it's hard to think of a better way to get into computer-aided composition and synthesis.
The keyboard itself is light and well-constructed, and has a full-size four-octave C to C board. Keyboard quality is fair, better than a Casio but not as springy as a real polysynth. From the back of the keyboard comes a cable which terminates with the two D-sockets which connect to the 64's two joystick ports. There's no need to plug the keyboard into the mains — it draws power from the 64.
The necessary software can be loaded either from tape or from disk, so you won't have to shell out for one of Commodore's charmingly unreliable 1541 disk drives if you don't want to. Once the software's loaded, the keyboard is immediately activated and the default value settings are initialised. That means you're ready to make noises!
The 64 has three sound-producing oscillators, each one of which can emit mixtures of sine, sawtooth and square wave, or white noise. There's also a comprehensive digital filter, ring modulation, and sync facilities built in to the sound chip — so in effect you have most of the facilities of a real synthesizer at your disposal. All that's required to make the difference is a music keyboard, and the Microsound 64 does the trick nicely. After months of POKEing fruitlessly trying to get noises out of the office 64, I had sweet music issuing from it about 15 minutes after receiving the packed Microsound keyboard — and that can't be bad.
After advising you to copy your master disk, the ring-bound manual embarks on an explanation of the capabilities of the control software. It's interesting to contemplate that, as with expensive computer synthesizers like the Fairlight, the capabilities of the system are dictated by software rather than hardware. Theoretically you could write software which would control the 64's oscillators in any way you wanted. We'll return to the Fairlight comparison later (mysterious, yes?).
The screen menu for the control program shows, for each of the three oscillators, the ADSR settings, filter status, waveform, effects settings, and so on. There's also a control guide which instructs you how to break into the Sequencer program, the Help page, and so on. The Help page, accessed appropriately enough by pressing "?", is an excellent feature which gives on screen a full list of the controls used in all the menus — theoretically you'll never need to consult the manual once the machine's up and running, although obviously some of the features benefit from a fuller explanation. Reference is often made to Commodore's "Programmers' Reference Guide to the 64", which is probably necessary for a complete understanding of the 64's sound facilities, but is riddled with mistakes and is by no means light reading.
Control of the sound parameters is achieved through a combination of toggle and incremental control. For instance, the oscillator you wish to manipulate is selected with the cursor keys. The three separate waveshapes can then be switched on with keys 5, 6 and 7, or switched off again using the same keys. This sensibly cuts down the number of control keys needed, and makes it easier to remember what you're doing.
The ADSR settings, which can only be controlled in increments of 15 units (a fault of Commodore's design, rather than the Autographies software), can then be selected, and the filtering patched in.
The 64's filter is a powerful one, consisting of Low Pass, High Pass and Band Combinations can be used to create Notch Reject filtering. In addition you can control the Filter Resonance and Filter Cut-Off Frequency. The manual explains what each different filtering effect does, but to the experienced synthesist this will be pleasantly familiar ground.
Oscillators can be synced to produce the harmonic wailing familiar to Moog Prodigy owners, and ring modulation produces clanging bell-like tones.
To complete the synthesizer imitation, the Microsound keyboard comes complete with two slider controls situated to the left of the keys. Although sprung wheels might have been more appropriate, since these are intended to act as performance controls, the sliders can be patched in a way few synthesizers could match.
Either slider can be made to control the filter cut-off frequency, the Pulse Width of the square wave oscillators, or the frequency of oscillator three. The slider can therefore introduce vibrato, filter tremolo, wah effects, pulse-width mod, and so on. In fact, the Patching menu, which controls the parameters covered by the slider, also lets you use oscillator three's ADSR to control the filter for twang effects, the pulse width for harmonic effects, or the pulse width of other oscillators for effects which I don't believe have any name!
Having designed your sounds using the Control and Patching menus, you can then select either Monophonic or Polyphonic modes. In Mono, you can of course set each oscillator to the same sound, in which case you get a considerably thicker version of the single oscillator sound. Or you can set different sounds on each oscillator, so having three sounds under one key — a useful musical effect.
In Poly mode, you can again have the same sound for each note, or a separate sound for each oscillator. Some points to bear in mind; in Poly mode, the sounds can be very thin, like say a Korg MonoPoly. In Mono, the sounds are better, but you really need to switch off the sound output of Osc three and use it as a modulation source before you get synthesizer-comparable results. Keyboard scanning can also be rather slow, and there seems to be some problem with re-triggering when notes are released — but that's true of a lot of duophonic synths.
Obviously there are routines provided to save the sounds you create to tape, just as you can save sequences. The routine used is called Sequencer One, which is a step-time sequencer. The manual implies that there may be a Sequencer Two routine on the way which would save realtime compositions.
Sequencer One is very easy to use, and stores up to 200 notes for each oscillator. After the sequence had been entered from the music keyboard, a graphical edit routine can be used to amend the stores sequence. The screen display shows the current oscillator, Page and Note number, and playing speed. Down the left-hand side of the screen are displayed the notes of one octave, and along the bottom a pointer indicates the current note. Pressing L on completion of your sequence immediately sets the computer to playing a loop of the notes you've entered. You can then delete notes, add pauses or new notes, or alter the speed. To achieve a reasonable playing speed, however, you have to switch off the graphical display.
With the display on, the speeds range from lethargic to very lethargic — without it, you can do Tangerine Dream impressions to your heart's content, with three sequences zooming along playing three different sounds. Start and end positions and number of repetitions can be controlled, so within its 200-note limitations the Sequencer One facility can be an excellent compositional aid.
There are a few little niggles about the Microsound 64, but nothing that can't be mended easily. Firstly, the sound quality over a television speaker is not of the best, and it might have been handy to include in the manual some ideas on how to link the audio output to a hi-fi. Secondly, there are no technical details in the manual on how the keyboard scanning works, so programmers skilled enough to write their own software using the Microsound will have to work out for themselves what input routines are used. Thirdly, as mentioned, the sliders might better have been replaced with sprung wheels, and lastly there are no facilities for tuning the 64's oscillators to any other instrument.
Having said that, the Microsound 64 is still under development, and there are a number of possible additions to the system which would make it even more exciting. On the back of the keyboard is a 25-way D connector port, which is intended for use with external triggering and digital sound sampling hardware. Again, no details are given in the manual of how this port might be used. Microsound engineer Glyn Williams claims, however, that 0.8 second monophonic sound sampling, with full pitch transposing capabilities, will soon be available for the system. Once this is developed, the CBM 64/Microsound 64 system will become a formidable system, presumably incorporating sequencing in step time and real time of sampled sounds. At the price, my earlier comparison to the Fairlight may sound ridiculous — but considering the possibilities of this system, who knows what the Microsound 64 might come up with next?
Musical instrument companies aren't stupid — generally speaking. Particularly in the last year or so, they've had the sense to realise that there are economies to be made in the field of computer music, specifically in using the integral memory capacity of a home micro as part of a musical instrument's facilities. The only problem is devising a system which could allow you to take advantage of computer memory is the necessity of developing a common language between micros and musical instruments, but now that MIDI is with us (a serial or step-at-a-time digital language ideal for interpretation by micros) the manufacturers at least have a set of standards to work to.
The Model 64 Sequencer from Sequential circuits is one of the latest and most promising of the instrument-micro interfaces. For that's all it really is — an intelligent translator which connects to MIDI synths at one end and the Commodore 64's User Port at the other. The reason for its price is the 'intelligence' aspect — a software routine which displays and runs all the sequencer functions which is burned into a Programmable Read-Only Memory (PROM) on the sequencer cartridge itself. What you're paying for is partly the development time for that firmware, and other cheaper interfaces will usually be found to add software on tape or disk only at an extra cost.
The Model 64's existing firmware is a versatile composing/sequencing program, of which more later. As SCI develop further and more sophisticated programs (such as music scoring) it will be possible to load them into the Commodore 64 while the system's in use, and in this way the system will never become obsolete. MIDI of course implies that many synths can be controlled by the system, although the only computer suitable at the moment is the 64. Synths could include the Prophet 600, Prophet T8, retrofitted Prophet 5, SCI Six-Trax, Roland Jupiter 6 and JX-3P, Siel Opera 6 and Yamaha DX7/9.
The model 64 is pretty straightforward in use. As previously mentioned, it plugs into the computer's rear-panel User Port using a multiway edge connector projecting from its lower edge. There are two DIN sockets to connect up a synth (In and Out) together with a footswitch Start/Stop jack socket and another jack for a drum machine pulse. Because the Model 64 features various LED indicators, it needn't be used with a TV monitor, which could be very handy on stage. However, if you do decide to use a monitor you'll get various programming aids, displays and hints which will help in the studio when you're initially composing your sequences.
The Commodore 64 will give you around 4,000 notes capacity, and this can be divided between eight sequences, each of which can have six tracks (that is, an initial track and five overdubs). Every sequence can include, as well as note information, key velocity, pitch bend and modulation information if the synth being used is equipped to transmit it. For instance, a JX-3P couldn't produce velocity information, but a Yamaha DX7 could. If you're not using a monitor, as well as telling you if you're playing a single sequence or a complex Song (chain of sequences) and whether you're recording, playing back or overdubbing. The only other features on the cartridge itself are the miniature sliders which allow you to change the number of sync pulses needed from a drum machine; the standard setting 24 will work for the Drumtracks, Drumulator, Roland Drumatix and TR808 and most digital machines however, so you're unlikely to need to change the setting. It won't work with very simple drum machines, but if you've got a Commodore, the sequencer cartridge and a MIDI synth you should be able to afford at least a Drumatix anyway.
The bottom line is that if you haven't got a suitable drum machine, the Model 64 at present offers strictly realtime sequencing; that is, you can speed pieces up, but you have to be able to play them in the first place if only in several overdubs. If you do have a drum machine, the sequencer program will correct your playing by any one of eight Timing Error Correct values (from a quarter-note to a sixty-fourth note), so you can get machine-like step time sequences.
When you switch on using a monitor you'll get a neat SCI logo and a menu which will lead to a variety of compositional functions. There are plenty of screen prompts, such as 'Are You Sure You Want To Erase The Previous Sequence?', so there's little likelihood of making a serious mistake. Sequences are played on the synth keyboard and can be easily looped, at which stage you're ready to make an overdub if desired.
The Model 64 really comes into its own at this stage, acting almost as a multitrack studio which allows overdubbing, copying and correction to your hearts content. Sequences can be transposed over six octaves and chained together as desired to form Songs, which can be stored on tape thanks to the computer's dumping facility; the Model 64's LED display will confirm that Cassette (Store) mode has been entered.
A typical recording session could now start with the composition of a drum pattern and some vague ideas of the sequences you want to play. Switch on the Model 64, connect in the drum machine clock and decide how much of the sequence you can play in one go without making too many mistakes. Go into record mode, choose the Error Correct Resolution (high if you're fairly confident, low if you're not and it's a simple sequence), and play the sequence, looping it at the end. Provided you're happy with the sequence, enter Overdub Mode and replay the next part, adding up to five more parts.
At this stage you may decide to embark on an entire song, in which case you may well want to change the drum machine pattern (the chaining facilities on the Drumatix for instance could certainly keep up with the song capacity of the 64) and repeat the process for your chorus, middle eight or whatever. When all the individual sequences are done, enter Song mode and chain them together as desired, going back to make any corrections to phrasing beforehand.
Transpose the sequence if need be, and play back by simply restarting the drum machine.
The Model 64 doesn't come cheap — it's around £170 in addition to the £189 for the Commodore 64 and £45 for the C2N Datasette needed for storing programs, and of course being a MIDI system you're limited at the moment to around £635 for the cheapest MIDI synth, the Korg Poly 800. However, once you've got that system together you'll have a very professional composition and recording set-up which has little competition as yet. Admittedly there are a few rivals on the market — Roland's MSQ700 Sequencer is simpler to set up and use and has comparable abilities — you'll have to scan the music shop ads carefully and even then be prepared for a wait. If you already own a Commodore 64 and/or a MIDI synth, you'll almost certainly agree that the Model 64 Sequencer is the answer to your compositional patterns.
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