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Computers in Music - A Cheaper Option?

Nick Graham argues the case for musicians' micros

Why is it that a large number of the musicians I meet are still dubious about the value of computer technology to their art? At the very mention of the word 'computer', many people automatically assume that the music produced will necessarily be mechanistically inhuman — and yet it must be obvious by now to everybody that the information which comes out of a computer, be it musical or otherwise, is only as good as the information that's put in. Today's micros are capable, with the right software, of sampling real sounds and recording (via MIDI) the subtlest of musical nuances (resolutions of 45 microseconds are common), and therefore my own view is that if the music sounds unfriendly or inflexible then it's the programmer/musician — not the machine! What a lot of people don't realise, of course, is that all synthesisers, drum machines, sequencers etc. are computers too. These machines all use processing units which bear marked similarities (and in some cases are identical) to those in home computers, and if you own both then you may well be duplicating your electronic hardware. Computers which do only one job — a sequencer, for example — are known as 'dedicated' computers, and in this day and age are definitely on the decline. Of course I'm not predicting the immediate demise of musical hardware as we know it, but it's a fact that new equipment is tending to be software based; that is, a single piece of hardware with a powerful central processing unit which can be programmed to do a variety of different jobs according to the software loaded into it.

Computer programmers realised the significance of this a long time ago, and started to develop a range of programmes which would help musicians who owned micros. With the advent of MIDI, however, it became possible for synthesisers to 'speak' to computers directly, and the activity in this area increased dramatically. Couple this with the fact that relatively powerful workhorse micros like the Commodore 64 and BBC have become so cheap, and you have a situation where there is a vast range of sequencing/note-writing software available which, even if you have to buy the computer as well, can work out considerably more cost-effective than the nearest dedicated rival. Let me give you an example.

Take the Commodore 64 computer, which you can buy complete with disc drives for around £200 from any of the High Street electrical chains. Without mentioning names at this stage, an excellent sequencer software package will set you back about £100, and the appropriate MIDI interface for the computer about £50. (If you need sync to tape and drum machine, this will be another £40.) Plug the computer into your TV set and you have, for £350-£400, a very sophisticated real-time and steptime MIDI recorder. Not only that — you also have a very powerful home computer which can do all the things that computers do; games, accounting, storage of day-to-day data, etc. etc.

This, however, isn't where it ends. If you're prepared to invest another £300 in a dot matrix printer and a scorewriter/music editor type software programme, then you can compose and edit on the musical stave and print out the results, after listening to make sure it sounds O.K.! Even the sounds on your synths can be programmed from the computer and stored on floppy discs. For under £100 a time, software houses now market packages for editing the DX7, Casio CZ, Super Jupiter, Korg DW and more on a Commodore 64, and they usually come with upwards of 100 sounds already on disc. Being able to actually see the envelope shape of a DX7 on a screen does, believe me, speed the editing process up considerably; and if you buy any Yamaha TX series expander, sounds can be built up and edited without buying a DX7! Via MIDI, sounds can be loaded into your synths from data discs which cost about £2 each and can hold, as I've said, over 100 sounds apiece. Compare this with a Yamaha RAM cartridge costing £70 (approx.) for storage of 32 sounds, or Roland's M64C which stores 128 sounds for £85 RRP! What all this means is that, for a relatively low initial investment, you can now set yourself up with a computer control system which can be expanded in easy stages to form the heart of a sophisticated music system. When you compare the cost of dedicated sequencers which perform only one of the jobs that, potentially, computers can do, it becomes fairly obvious which way things are going. No previous knowledge of computers is necessary, either; all the programmes I've seen running have been based on a small number of easy-to-remember commands.

To explain matters I've used the Commodore 64 as an example, because it's one of the cheapest and most common computers around. However, there seems to be similar software for most makes of home computers, and if you already own a BBC or an Apple then there is definitely a software package to suit you. Several of the more up-market micros like the IBM PC/AT, Apple Macintosh and more recently the Atari 520ST have stupendous software which allows music composition to standards only previously available on instruments like Fairlights and Synclaviers — but although this type of software is extremely popular in the US, it's only just beginning to filter into Britain. Noticeably, major manufacturers of music hardware are beginning to sit up and take notice of what, only a year ago, they would have considered a 'cottage industry' and no threat to their business. Roland UK, for example, now market MIDI interfaces and a full range of educational and professional software for both Apple II and IBM PC computers, and Yamaha have considerably reduced the price of their CX5 computer music system, presumably to meet competition. All this points to greater usage of ready-made micros in a music environment; and the applications don't finish with control. The new Atari 520ST, apart from being the first home computer to have MIDI as a standard interface, also has a powerful onboard synthesiser chip; and everybody must be aware by now of the Greengate DS3 sampling hardware and software for the Apple II. There is no doubt that micros and synthesisers of all makes will be more and more to complement each other, and for that reason I intend to devote some reviews in subsequent issues of IN TUNE to computers and music software. Don't get the wrong idea — we're not going 'all technical' on you, but we can confidently predict that this area, while constantly expanding, will also get more and more confusing; and so I hope that a series of reviews on the various systems available will help you to choose what's right for you.

As competition hots up, software updates will stream on to the market. And for you, the user, this is the ultimate advantage of computer based systems; fewer outdated lumps of hardware. However, the pitfalls will also increase — so keep in touch with what's happening — watch this space!

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KMD's 100 Watt Combo

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Korg Sequencer

In Tune - Copyright: Moving Music Ltd.


In Tune - May 1986



Feature by Nick Graham

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> KMD's 100 Watt Combo

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> Korg Sequencer

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