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Digital Music Archives Classical Collection

Classical music on computer sequencers has been on the cards (disks?) for years now it's happened, but does it work? Ian Waugh boots up Bach, Handel, Mozart...

IT SOUNDS LIKE a great idea, whichever way you look at it. How would you like full arrangements of famous pieces of music ready to load into your sequencer to play and generally experiment with? The thought must be an attractive one to many sequencer-users: a few readers may have toyed with the idea themselves.

Well, Digital Music Archives, alias Richard Gonski and Francis Monkman, have made several transcriptions of classical music available. A package includes sequencer files on disk in a variety of formats (see end of article) plus an audio cassette of the music and an Operating Manual. Implementation charts show the track numbers, MIDI channel numbers and instrument names. Details of tempo, tempo changes and where they occur are also included.

As the manual explains, the idea of using a computer to reproduce a musical work has long been considered, but it has only recently become a practical and financially viable idea with the advent of affordable multitimbral synthesisers and sophisticated sequencers. The object has been to produce a "perfect" performance played in absolute time and tempo and DMA's long-term aim is to create a comprehensive library of the Classical repertoire.

But turning these aspirations into reality has not been without its problems. Classical music is very exacting and most - virtually all - sequencers were designed primarily for the world of pop music. The transcription of fully notated and complex scores has not generally been a priority in software development although C-Lab's Notator probably comes closest to being able to handle the demands of classical scoring. In fact, the pieces were recorded with Notator and the review copies supplied in Notator format.

There were a few inconsistencies, however, due more to the nature of music notation than to either the program or the recording. All notes have been quantised to sit exactly on the beat (with the exception of grace notes and appoggiaturas). But traditional notation isn't specific about note durations (what's the difference between a quaver followed by a quaver rest, and a dotted crotchet?) and in some places the display does not correspond exactly to the original score. The manual is careful to point this out, however, so the purists know where they stand.

But - and this is for the purists - the scores have been adhered to as closely as possible and the result is a "score perfect" performance without the vagaries of "human interpretation". This idea opens up a whole can of worms so we'll transfer further discussion to the pages of Communique.

The purists may also be wondering about one of MIDI's major deficiencies - the lack of a slur command. Keyboards can't handle slurs (OK, the odd clever one can) and most keyboard players probably won't miss it, but it's a vital part of virtually all non-keyboard music. DMA are well aware of this but feel that the end result more than compensates for this lack.

The manual refers to yet another problem, one relating to synthesiser hardware and the quality of the sounds it produces. The problem is greatest when it comes to reproducing authentic orchestral sounds - the majority of instruments are designed primarily with modern music in mind, and are unable to cope with the demands of a classical score. The manual suggests using a combination of sampled and synthesised sounds. The cassette recordings, however, are a tribute to modern synthesis - and DMA - although they do have a "synthetic" edge. It would have been useful, I think, to have a list of instruments and the sounds used.

Although this whole idea is incredibly appealing, you may be wondering what the point of it all is. I half suspect that the project was tackled mainly to see if it could be done.

Apart from allowing you an insight into the music that no score or recording could possibly do, the pieces allow you to take an active part in the realisation of the music as orchestrator, conductor or participant. If you're a keyboard player or an instrumentalist, one obvious use is to mute your instrument's part and play along with your own orchestra. The pieces must attract a great deal of educational interest.

I enjoyed looking at the pieces, listening to them and generally playing orchestrator. I confess my major source of amusement came from trying various parts with different sounds. The Mozart and Bach pieces sent for review are a touch too straight for the Tomita treatment but substituting funky clav for piano, slapbass for bass viol and a few synthy sounds and choirs for brass and strings can make an unbelievable difference. Irrelevant perhaps, but fun.

At less than the price of most ST games I reckon you should have at least one in your collection. Now, once again from the top gentlemen, and a little more tutti from the horns, please...

At the time of writing, DMA have nine pieces in their library:

JS Bach: Concerto for Keyboard and Strings in D Minor BWV 1052, Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D Major BWV 1D50, five Organ Concertos Nos 1-5 BWV 592-596.

Beethoven: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major Opus 61, Symphony No 8 in F Major Opus 93.

Handel: Two Organ Concertos Opus Nos 3 and 4 in Bb and D.

Mozart: Piano Concerto No 24 in C Minor K491, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik - Serenade in G Major K525.

Three Works for Mechanical Organ - two by Mozart K594 and K608 in F and one by Beethoven W0331/1 in F.

Soon to be released are Mozart's Symphonies Nos 29 and 35 and Beethoven's Symphony No 3 (Eroica) and Piano Concerto No 5 (the Emperor).

All pieces are available in the following formats: Atari ST: Creator/Notator, Cubase 1.5, Pro24 version III, MIDI files. IBM and compatibles: Voyetra Sequencer Plus Version III, MIDI files. Amiga: MIDI files.

Support for the Archimedes is also being considered. Contact DMA for new additions and formats.

Price £19.95 each

(Contact Details)

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On The Beat

Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - May 1990

Review by Ian Waugh

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