Computer Musician - Rumblings
Sinclair's Quantum Leap
Ever since the BBC's Computer Literacy Project took Acorn's design under its wing as the micro choice for the 80s, there have been mixed feelings on all sides over their treatment of Sinclair and his Spectrum. Wisely, Sir Clive didn't dwell too long on licking his wounds; instead, he's been airing a subtle taunt over the past year that he'd be launching a new micro (dubbed the 'ZX84' by the micro pundits) that would make the BBC Micro seem like peanuts. More importantly, bearing in mind the huge amount of revenue that has been directed in the direction of Acorn and the BBC's corporative coffers (by virtue of the royalty on every BBC Micro sold), the licensing deal for the BBC Micro is now up for re-negotiation, and it'd be a naive man that'd fail to draw any correlation between this fact and the imminent appearance of the so-called ZX84.
Well, all this is set to come to a head over the next few months when this new 16-bit micro makes its appearance on the market. In fact, the only thing that's common ground between the new Sinclair QL (short for 'Quantum Leap' - this absence of modesty no doubt being a sign of the hard sell to come) and the BBC Micro is its price - £399. However what makes the QL so exciting to all and sundry are the specs: 68000-type processor, two built-in Microdrives, 128K RAM expandable to 640K with a 0.5Mb RAM pack, analogue-to-digital converter, hard disk interface, RS232 interface, RGB output (very useful if the QL's destined for performing on the box!), joystick ports, modem facility, and a proper keyboard. On top of that, the QL will come equipped with Sinclair's QDOS multi-tasking operating system and four pieces of software, including a word processor, database, spreadsheet, and a business graphics package.
The multi-tasking idea is particularly interesting in the context of sound synthesis, where, for instance, you might want to re-calculate waveform tables at the same time as scaling vibrato and fetching pitch/duration bytes from memory. This mode of operation is also valuable for business software, and no doubt Psion's four QL software packages will use this feature extensively to provide 'windowing', where the output of several concurrently running programs are displayed in different areas of the display.
'What about the sound?', I hear you ask. All I've discovered is that Peter Zinovieff (he of EMS (Putney) Ltd.) has been involved in consultations with Sinclair Research. Whether that means that one of the custom chips in the QL is a special sound chip remains to be seen, but let's hope that Sinclair have been a little more ambitious than IBM with their over-priced and unimaginative PC Junior (or, to those in the vegetarian camp, 'The Peanut'), about which one journalist said, 'even if the Peanut is a lemon it does get a raspberry'...
As far as the future viz a viz the BBC is concerned, it'd take a brave man to predict whether or not the powers that be (and buy) are likely to be swayed by all these yummy specs. There's no escaping the fact that the BBC Micro is an excellent machine, albeit slightly overpriced in contrast to the competition. The real problem facing Sir Clive's crusade against the varlets of the Acorn camp lies with the educational side of the BBC's project. Given that more than 80% of micros in secondary schools are of the BBC Micro type (according to Acorn's advertising copy, that is), who in their right mind would switch over to the unknown territory of a new product - quantum leap or no quantum leap? I'll be watching what happens with interest!
At one time it looked as if Electro-Harmonix, the darlings of the footloose and fancy-free FX pedal industry, were about to collapse and end up pedalling to Skid Row. In fact, they've pulled all the stops out and gotten back into business with a new range of products catering for those seduced by the digital sampling bug. Though the cheapest of these, the Instant Replay, can hardly be said to fit into the normal scheme of computer musician things, what it does do it does extremely well, with lots of flexibility, and without forcing you to buy a micro and attendant hardware just for the sake of digitising sounds (as with the Apple/Decillionix, Spectrum/Ricoll, and Spectrum/Digisound systems).
Basically, what Instant Replay consists of is a box the same size as their standard FX pedals and an external, touch-sensitive drum pad. Pushing a button on the box puts the unit into record mode (with variable input and trigger levels), and it's then able to digitise up to 2 seconds of sound. Hitting the drum pad then replays the sound with whatever dynamics you choose to add and a pitch that's set by an appropriate knob on the front panel. A continuously looping replay of the sound is also possible. More than that, the Instant Replay also provides the option of external control of the sample playback, with trigger and CV inputs suitable for any 1 V/octave synth. And for those of the drumming ilk, you'll be pleased to hear that the unit comes with all the necessary hardware to mount it on Roto-Tom or cymbal stands.
And the price? Well, in the States, Instant Replay is going for $195. So, over here, you can bet on something like the same figure in £s. Still, if you want a monophonic sampling system that's controllable from your own synth's keyboard, rather than an uncomfortable Wasp-like thing (like the Mimic), that seems a pretty fair price to pay. (Contact Details)
Just in time for the Frankfurt Fair, Passport Designs (the people behind the Soundchaser system reviewed in the E&MM Jan 84) have announced several new software packages. First off is 'The MIDI Network', a package consisting of software, an Apple II/IIe interface card, and a drum timing generator. From what I can gather, the software mimics a multi-track recorder, with 'punch in' and 'punch out' facilities for editing. A real-time polyphonic sequencer, in other words. Of course, as well as the Apple, you'll also need a suitable poly synth equipped with the MIDI interface.
The other Passport offerings are what might be termed 'musical utilities'. 'Pickers' and 'Writers' are basically accounting/spread-sheet programs that aim to tell the musician what's going on in his bank balance. It doesn't take much imagination to surmise that the last of this trilogy. 'Tour' is for the musician on the move. Personally, I can think of more interesting ways of investing my hard-earned royalties... (Contact Details)
One of E&MMs more intriguing projects was the 'Alphadac', published way back in July '81. As it stood then, it was a good, if somewhat expensive, way of controlling multiple analogue synths, whether your own or Digisound's own (excellent) modular set-up. One failing was that no provision was made for saving or loading sequences to and from tape, which meant that memory was non-volatile only for as long as the power was kept on. However, Digisound tell us that they introduced a battery back-up RAM last year, and apparently this goes a long way to correcting this deficiency.
To bring things more up to date, the Alphadac system was recently demonstrated on TV, where long compositions stored on tape (or disk) were being played back. Presumably, this means that Digisound either have interfacing for other micros than the discontinued (by Tangerine, anyway) Microtan system, or that they've developed further interfacing for the basic system. In addition, the Alphdac development referred to above was demonstrated in a 'Microprocessors In Music Education' conference that was held at the end of January. (Contact Details)