Dial M For Music
With the musical fraternity showing little interest in computer bulletin boards, the popularity of MIDI Song files could be well timed. Ian Waugh explains how to download music over the phone.
Bulletin boards - esoterica for computer buffs; MIDI song files - booming business for programmers. Put them together and you'll find bulletin boards are a huge resource of free song files.
It's amazing what you can do with a modem - and I'm talking about the printable options, here. The old adage about having the world at your fingertips is actually true, although they tend not to mention the threatening letters from BT and the hole in your bank account. But used wisely, comms has a lot to offer the musician and it needn't cost an arm and a leg.
If you're new to comms. a few words of explanation are in order, although a complete guide is beyond the scope of this article. Old hands can skip a few paragraphs.
Comms is short for communications and in this context it refers to two (or more) computers communicating with each other. To join in you need a modem and some comms software. The modem you have to buy (unless you're a North East ram raider) but there's a fair amount of comms software in the public domain for most computers.
The modem connects to your computer's serial port and plugs into your phone socket, if you don't have a plug-in BT socket you'll have to get one fitted.
Most modems have a thru socket to plug your phone into so you can use both phone and modem without unplugging one or the other. Alternatively, you can use a BT socket doubler.
Don't skimp on the modem. You want something which will operate at 2400baud at least and these tend to cost around £150. The faster you can transfer data, the less your telephone bills will be. Put another way, the more data you'll be able to transfer for the same amount of money. If you intend to transfer a lot of data, go for a 9600baud machine - though these typically cost in excess of £500.
Most modems are auto-dial, which means they can dial numbers under instruction from the software. They can also answer a call from another computer and respond to the speed and protocol settings. You may be able to pick up a manual-dial modem or one which only supports V23 or V22, for example, much cheaper, but the trade-off will be a lack of flexibility. It'll also be more cumbersome in use and leave you with a larger phone bill.
Comms software varies from program to program and computer to computer, but they all do the same job, which is to control the transfer of data between systems. The main features to look for are a phone book for storing regularly-used numbers and protocol settings and fast transfer protocols. Most services offer half a dozen or more transfer options although, when all else fails, good ol' XModem is a reliable standby. If the software only supports one protocol, XModem will be it. Other protocols are faster and more reliable, however.
More sophisticated functions include the use of macros which can automate the log-on sequence and take you to specific areas of the service you're connected to. A buffer will let you scroll through any messages and save them to disk after logging off, saving valuable time online.
There are two main types of on-line systems - commercial services and Bulletin Boards. CIX (Computer Information exchange) and CompuServe are probably two of the most well-known commercial services. They make their money by charging for the amount of time you spend online (that's on top of your phone bill). They both make a vast storehouse of information available to you but they are expensive to use on a regular basis, especially if you don't discipline yourself.
BBSs are usually run by comms enthusiasts. Most are completely free, although they tend to impose a limit on the amount of time you can log on in a 24-hour period. This is usually between 30 and 60 minutes. Some BBSs do charge a subscription fee, however. You may have to pay this before you're allowed access to the board, although with some boards the subscription gives you extra privileges such as access to non-public areas and permission to download more software and stay online longer.
Most BBSs cater for specific computers. The most popular by far are PCs although there are many ST and Amiga BBSs. The Mac and Archimedes also have their BBS operators although not in great numbers.
Several boards cater for a range of machines and you can still log on and take part in a predominantly PC BBS with an ST or Mac, for example.
Virtually all BBSs are divided into areas for different interests such as graphics, music, comms and so on. Many have special conference areas in which users can participate in discussions, ask questions and seek answers to problems they may have.
The greatest draw, however, is undoubtedly the files area, which may contain literally hundreds or thousands of public domain programs, free for the downloading.
In order to save disk space and minimise the time taken to download data (you'll realise how important this is when you get your phone bill), most files on a BBS are compressed with an archiving utility. Obviously, it's important to make sure you have the unarchiver. There's nothing more frustrating than downloading some software only to find you lack the unpacking utility to unarchive it and you've used up all your online time. All good BBSs have a help or info section which will tell you what unarchivers you need and where on the board to find them.
One of the most popular archivers on PC BBSs is PKZip. ST users will be familiar with LHarc and Arc and Mac users with Stuffit. However, there are others. You can generally tell which archiver has been used by the file's extension. For example, a zipped file will have a .ZIP extension, a LHarced file a .LZH extension and a Stuffed file a .SIT extension. Some non-archived text files may be given a .TXT or .DOC extension and so on.
Unarchiving a file is generally straightforward, although it depends on which computer and unpacking utility you're using. PC users will know this with the tortuous command-line interface for PKZip. ST users have a far friendlier GEM-based front end in STZip. The GEM-based version of the LHarc unarchiver is easy to use, too.
It's worth checking out a couple of archiving utilities. As well as using them to pack programs before uploading them to a BBS, you can use them to save disk space by packing programs and files you want to put into storage.
If you haven't got a modem, archivers are available from all good public domain libraries.
Down to the nitty gritty - what's on the BBSs for you?
While many BBSs have a music and/or MIDI area, there are some devoted almost entirely to music. Three specialist music BBSs in particular have decided to link up to offer a local service to users in the Midlands, East Anglia and the North West. They are The Music Studio UK ((Contact Details)) in Warwick, run by Paul Urmston; Sounds Digital ((Contact Details) in Norfolk, run by Wally Beben; Compass ((Contact Details) in Liverpool, run by Barry Phillips. These numbers are the BBSs numbers, not voice lines.
Collectively, the boards call themselves the MFN - MIDI/Music Files Network. They are open 24 hours a day except for a short period when they shut down for housekeeping and to swap data between each other - which they do every night.
As well as keeping each other supplied with the latest music files, Paul Urmston has direct links with Australian and US MIDI and Music conferences and the MIDI/Music Distribution Network in America. He downloads files from them every week.
The MFN boards operate at speeds up to 9600baud. They use standard BBS settings of 8-N-1 which stands for 8 data bits, no parity and 1 stop bit. These are settings which determine how the software organises the data during transfer. You set these parameters in the configuration section of your software along with the baud rate.
There are two types of files on the MFN which will be of particular interest to musicians - MIDI files and music utilities.
It can't have escaped your notice that there's currently great interest in MIDI Song files, and there are many specialist companies producing and selling songs in MIDI File format. The MFN have over 350 such files, everything from modern rock and pop songs to classical pieces, all PD or shareware.
The intriguing thing about these files (and this applies to any standard MIDI file) is that they are not only transportable between different software programs but also between different computers.
The MFN standard MIDI files have been zipped and saved with a .ZMD extension. You should be able to unzip them on any computer which has an Unzip program. This includes the ST and Amiga as well as the PC and, I believe, zipped files can also be unzipped on the Archimedes. For the record, it's worth mentioning that some archived files don't like certain versions of unarchiving programs and you'll inevitably find a program which just won't unpack on your machine. That's the way it is with computers. If you do have a problem, check with the BBS Sysop to see what version of the unpacker you should use.
MFN files are as wide and varied as you can imagine. On Sounds Digital, for example, they're divided into areas such as contemporary, drum patterns, classical, ragtime and jazz. Pieces include the likes of Steve Miller's 'Abracadabra', Free's 'All Right Now', Phil Collins' 'In The Air Tonight' and Dire Straits' 'Walk Of Life'. There are also film and TV themes such as Alf and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
"On the Sounds Digital bulletin board, for example, MIDI song files are divided into areas such as contemporary, drum patterns, classical, ragtime and jazz."
There are lots of ragtime tunes and classical pieces including all three movements of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and the three movements of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. I can particularly recommend 'Rhapsody in Blue' which is certainly a labour of love and deserves to be heard.
Very few of the pieces come with read me files. It's always nice to know who arranged them and what equipment they used (if you upload any files, do take the time to include a read me file). Some pieces contain embedded program change commands - which is fine if they match your equipment, otherwise it's into edit mode to remove them or to the Output Filter page to filter them out. Many of the files have been configured to work with Roland's MT32. If you don't have this or a CM module you'll have to assign sounds to the various music parts to suit your own equipment.
As well as general music files, the MFN have around 200 music and utility files for the Amiga, around 200 for the PC, almost 100 for the ST and over 30 for the Commodore 64. The utilities include every conceivable kind of file from algorithmic composers to voice files. There are also over 200 Soundblaster .CMS files, over 30 Cakewalk .WRK files, over 60 voice banks for the SoundQuest Voice Editor (most for the MT32), 50 Sound card utilities and some samples and sample software utilities.
The total Sounds Digital file count according to the January files list is 1690 but the amount of software grows on a daily basis, so there will be even more files available by the time you read this. Compass has 5000 files, though not all are music related.
Of course, the great thing about BBSs in general is that they have programs of every description - word processors, DTP utilities, graphics, clip art and so on. Need a utility to convert a graphic file to GIF format in a hurry? Chances are there's one on a BBS.
When you go online, the BBS will ask you questions about yourself. Most ask for your, address and phone number along with the machine you're using and your areas of interest. The Sysop may check this to see that you're genuine but usually you will be allowed full access to the board after 24 hours.
You will be asked to choose a password so the system can recognise you whenever you log on. Pick something you'll remember and/or write it down. If you log on to several different BBSs, make sure you know which password you use for each of them. If you're not dealing with sensitive data or information, you could use the same password for them all - but far be it from me to encourage you into sloppy security habits.
Next, read any messages about the BBS and how to use it. Most BBSs have a file designed to familiarise newcomers with the board's operation and to help them find their way around. Many have a text file containing a list of all the programs it contains. This is an essential download if you want to save on your phone bill. The unarchived Compass files list is almost 400K long. The Sounds Digital files list is (at the time of writing) over 180K. A zipped version is only 49K long and its contribution to your phone bill will be only one quarter that of the unzipped version.
If you want to read any text files or the discussions in a conference area, it's a good idea to download them and read them off-line to save your phone bill. If you want to post a message of any length to the Sysop or another board user, you can prepare it off-line and upload it when you log on. Some comms software has special facilities to help with this.
Download files onto a freshly-formatted disk. Uncompact the files and check for viruses (thought they'd gone away didn't you?). I don't personally know anyone who downloaded a virus from a BBS but it has happened. If you do find a virus, tell the Sysop at once. That's the sort of community spirit we like to encourage, citizen.
Online time costs money. I'm gonna keep saying this till you take it in - you'll thank me later. Even if you only log on for a few half hours a week, the telephone bills soon mount up.
Do yourself a favour, if you regularly phone long distance, subscribe to Mercury. There's an annual charge of just under £9 but you'll find you can save up to 25% on your calls. And you get a fully-itemised bill. It's not designed for local calls, however. You can make enquires on a freephone number: (Contact Details).
If you're concerned about the cost, work out how much a program will cost to download. For example, at 2400baud it may take around eight minutes to download 100K's worth of data (which may expand to around 400K on unarchiving). Depending on the telephone service you use (BT or Mercury) and the distance of the call, this might cost you between 18p and 80p (an eight-minute off-peak long distance call via Mercury will cost around 35p). Compare this with the £2.50 or so a public domain library will charge for a disk.
Finally, you may wonder where all the software comes from. Well, it's uploaded by the Boards' users. Most BBSs maintain an upload/download ratio for each user which only allows you to download a certain amount of software before insisting you upload something in return. It's fair, and BBSs only survive by the active participation of their users. You know it makes sense so do the decent thing. Have fun. See you on-line!