Computers in Music
The Big Five
Paul Gilby opens our music software special with his thoughts on the 'big five' micros that are currently vying for the musician's money.
This month Sound On Sound brings you the biggest ever survey of music software to help you discover the vast wealth of sequencers, editors, score-writers, music composition, and utility programs that are available for the most popular computers of today. Paul Gilby opens this music software special with his thoughts on the big five micros that are currently vying for the musician's money.
The purpose of this article is to outline where the Atari ST, Apple Macintosh, IBM PC compatibles, Commodore Amiga and Acorn Archimedes fit into the hi-tech music arena, and to look at their cost, flexibility and future as the nerve centre of a music-making environment.
Today, the bottom-of-the-range Atari 520 ST is becoming less suitable for 'serious' music applications and its usefulness is limited to running non-current versions of the major programs. Its days seem numbered, as the major software houses are now finding it either too difficult to write programs restricted to 520K of memory or their programs will only run on a high resolution monitor. For those serious about their music, the days of buying a 520 ST and plugging it into your spare telly are over!
Even the 1 Mb 1040 ST is starting to appear a little inadequate for some of the new generation big name sequencers, which have been forced to rewrite the Atari GEM user interface in order to squeeze the extra performance necessary out of the standard processor chip in order to offer pseudo multitasking facilities. Why is 'multitasking' important? Read on.
There are basically two ways in which you can expand the usefulness of a computer: one is to add extra memory and a hard disk to the existing computer hardware (the costs of doing this for the Atari we'll go into in a moment): the other is to somehow make the computer perform more than one task at a time, such as running a sequencer whilst you edit a synth sound.
The first option is straightforward to implement, as you can buy an extra 512K (0.5Mb) of memory for your 520 ST for about £90 and upgrade the disk drive to a double-sided model for a further £75. Owners of the 1040 ST can expand up to 2Mb for around £250. Increased memory gives you the means to run bigger RAM disks (super-fast imaginary disk drives in the computer's memory) and program switchers - allowing you to hop from program to program without the need to load them in from a new disk each time. Hard disks are very useful, some would say essential, and offer two fundamental advantages over floppy disks: vastly superior program loading speeds and massive storage. A 20Mb hard disk will typically cost you about £400.
The second option I mentioned earlier was multitasking. This looks like becoming next year's buzzword, so let's have a look at the theory behind it. I say 'theory', because we're currently only just seeing the first signs of multitasking programs.
The concept behind multitasking is an exciting one and totally applicable to computer-based modern music production methods. Imagine this scenario: you are using a sequencer - whilst laying down the tracks you listen to the synth sounds and tweak them with your generic editor, letting the music play as you select the synth type from the generic editor list, click on your choice and start altering the sound. You then decide that you want to change the echo delay time of an effects unit, and so flip into another generic editor 'profile' that's controlling your MIDI-controlled effects unit. You now have three windows open on your computer screen, each one active, allowing your mouse pointer to move freely between them changing parameters. You decide that you want to print out a score. No problem. You just select the score printing option in your notation program and send the file to your trusty dot matrix or laser printer, which churns out the score in the background whilst your sequence plays. This is the power of multitasking - instant access to a variety of tasks all running in real time without any perceivable slowing of the operations. What this integrated approach means to the musician at home or in the studio is a vast saving of time, and much faster feedback and appraisal of the music.
Problem! To realise this dream we really need different computers with faster processing power and 32-bit data handling instead of the current 16-bit systems. True multitasking of the type just outlined is not possible on the Atari 1040 ST as it stands. The type of multitasking possible through custom operating systems, like Steinberg's MROS, is directly related to improving the time-sharing abilities of the main processor, and similar approaches are evident in many other areas of ST software - not just music. However, they do go some way down the road towards the dream and offer a variety of useful improvements over the slow GEM system employed on most music programs. Unfortunately, we are quickly approaching the limits of the ST's microprocessor.
The good old Atari ST has served musicians well but looks about ready to fall over under the pressure. This begs the question, where do we go from here? Well, the ST has probably got another year left in it. That's not to say that it is now redundant. Far from it. The ST is a very affordable and powerful worktool - it just won't do what the programs of the near future and musicians will demand from a piece of computer hardware. So what will happen? Well it appears we are going to have to look towards the PC and the Macintosh - or do we?
Announced this month, though not available until 1990, is the new Atari TT (see page 10 for details) with its new microprocessor, more memory, built-in hard disk, better colour display - the works! The most important aspect of the TT is its use of the faster, more powerful true 32-bit Motorola 68030 processor chip, which is currently being used in the Macintosh SE/30, IIex and IIx computers.
The Apple Macintosh has always been seen as an expensive computer in the UK. Apart from the great cost difference between it and the ST, Macintoshes have always been viewed as an 'American' computer running American music software.
Apple has historically aimed the Mac at businesses in the UK, and maintained high prices for its machines. But, since the introduction of the Mac II and SE range, the secondhand price of the entry-level Mac Plus machine has weakened and is now reasonably attractive at around £750. This month, Apple itself has finally slashed the retail prices by a huge margin. A basic 1 Mb Mac Plus, which last month retailed for £1355+VAT, is now down to £995+VAT and that means that secondhand prices will have to drop as well! As a music computer, the Mac Plus is a good workhorse capable of running all the major music sequencers such as Performer, Vision and Master Tracks Pro. As for the future and multitasking, the Mac is in a much better position than the Atari ST because Apple has a track record of continued support and upgrade offers to their customers.
Another point of interest is the announced introduction of a new version of the Mac operating system early next year. System 7, as it is known, will offer several features important to music applications, including 'MIDI Manager' - a dedicated aspect of the software put there by Apple itself, and designed to make data transfer between any MIDI programs as easy as possible.
Speed is the next item on the menu, and here Apple are already ahead of the crowd as they have been using the 68030 processor in their SE/30, IIex and IIx models to much acclaim. This chip is stunningly fast compared to the ST and Amiga's 68000 processors, and has opened the door to multitasking.
So, with the new drop in price and the upgrade path the Macintosh, which has always appealed to creative musicians, is now starting to look a lot more financially attractive too!
The last time you looked at a PC-compatible machine you were probably unimpressed when comparing its plain text-based screen to the seductive graphics-based offerings of the ST, Mac, Amiga or Archimedes. However, the PC - first introduced by IBM in the early '80s - has been dramatically enhanced over the last few years. The IBM PC has become the most widely copied computer ever (the copies are referred to as 'clones'; or 'PC-compatibles'), thus ensuring IBM's dominance in the future computer market.
When people say IBM are "big", they mean BIG! In 1988 IBM's annual turnover was $59,681 million with profits of $5,806 million, making them the fourth biggest company in the world - bigger than any UK or Japanese company! By contrast, Apple's turnover was $4,071 million with $400 million profit, whilst Atari were down at $705 million with a loss of $85 million! (Source: Fortune magazine.) In America the PC dominates the scene and is the reason why almost every piece of music software is written by US software houses. It is also the reason why the Yamaha C1 music computer is a PC-compatible; no MSX computer mistake this time around for Yamaha - it's follow the market leader all the way!
So how does the PC look from a music point of view? It looks very good. Gone are the boring screens; these days you can have music programs running under GEM that look and feel like those on an ST, and just emerging are programs that run under Microsoft Windows, which is a more advanced graphic interface that supports multitasking.
Price-wise, thanks to the clone makers, the PC is now very competitive. A basic 640K Amstrad machine with mono monitor starts at around £525, with a 30Mb hard disk model costing just £780. You can buy separate plug-in 32Mb hard drives for around £200. As you can see, the cost of a hard disk equipped PC works out much cheaper than the equivalent ST. The big advantage with the PC is that it is expandable by nature, having a number of slots inside the case which can house hard drives, extra memory boards, modems, MIDI interface etc. Interestingly, the 'open architecture' expandable box format of the PC is now being copied by the latest generation Macs and Amigas.
Musically, the PC has historically had one main drawback, the cost of the 'industry standard' Roland MPU401 interface. However, Roland and Voyetra, who manufacture a compatible interface, have both recently cut their interface prices - which now start at around £170. This is no 'dumb' MIDI interface though (unlike the Amiga and built-in ST devices). It has its own highly intelligent onboard processor, which helps generate rocksteady timing information for whatever sequencer program is running on the PC, the most well known being Voyetra's Sequencer Plus.
The Amiga has been around for some time now but has only just started to attract the serious musician. Like the Atari ST, very few Amigas have been sold in America. Both machines have had greatest success in Europe, which has meant that - apart from Dr. T, who ported across a range of their existing ST programs - the established American music software houses have mostly ignored the machine. Both Steinberg and C-Lab, who are largely responsible for the immense success of the Atari as a music computer in Europe, have been too busy keeping their major sequencer programs updated to focus much attention on the Amiga. Also, the machine has been a slow seller and is only starting to move because of successive price cuts by Commodore.
This is ironic, for as a computer, the Amiga offers far more power than the ST, with very impressive colour graphics, animation, a superior internal sound chip and multitasking built in. The cost of expansion and upgrades is similar to the ST but there's no built-in MIDI interface, though non-intelligent Amiga MIDI interfaces which connect to the serial port are available for about £35.
The first music program to fully exploit the Amiga's power is Music X (see page 32), which was first announced some two years ago and has only just started shipping in the UK. Other products are hard on its heels - Steinberg have already converted Pro24 into an Amiga version, and Passport's Master Tracks Pro is now in the shops. Without the support of good software a computer is pretty useless, and the widespread feeling now is that the Amiga is finally coming of age.
Like the Amiga, the Archimedes is a superior computer to the ST. Its lightning-fast RISC operating system, offering full-blown multitasking, and its high resolution colour graphics are appealing virtues. But it has not yet attracted the musician. This is due mainly to its high cost, lack of suitable software, and primary focus on the UK market. For unlike the other producers of computers, Acorn is not a world player - its exposure outside the UK is limited to a few European countries, and this has been insufficient to encourage international music software houses to develop programs for it.
However, this has not deterred Acorn from recognising the importance and size of the music software market, which they are addressing with enthusiasm. Earlier this year Acorn became the first computer manufacturer to exhibit at the British Music Fair, where they acted as an umbrella for companies developing Archimedes music products. These include EMR, who have the only sequencer currently available; Pandora, who are working on a range of synth editors and a professional sequencer called Inspiration; and Armadillo, who have a high quality 16-bit sampler. The latter products are aimed at the musician rather than at the education market previously targeted by Archimedes software developers.
By the end of this year several professional music-related products will have been launched, making the powerful Archimedes worthy of closer scrutiny by musicians. Certainly from a facilities point of view, it has super-fast processing power, colour screen and multitasking all ready and waiting - it just needs more software. As for price, the range of models has recently been expanded with the A3000, which includes an Acorn MIDI interface and costs £698+VAT.