Dr in the House
Leading light in the world of Dr T. Al Hospers talks exclusively to John Renwick about future developments in the range
For the inside info on the future of music software, John Renwick spoke to Al Hospers of Dr. T.
Most of the best-known music software companies are based in Germany or the US, so it's rare for UK computer musicians to get fresh information directly from the people most concerned with the future of the market. It's certain, though, that big changes are coming, in the domestic, professional and educational markets. New ideas, new software and even new computers are going to usher in some major changes next year.
We managed to talk to Al Hospers when he visited the Personal Computer Show to talk with Commodore, visit his UK distributors MCMXCIX and check out the UK scene. A strikingly tall, energetic and enthusiastic figure, although Al isn't a household name among UK computer musicians, as the owner of Dr.T. Software he's one of the most influential figures on the scene. Top programmer Emile Tobenfeld gave his name to the company, but Al Hospers signs all the cheques. He's also an experienced musician, having played bass with Buddy Rich and Blood Sweat & Tears, and collaborated with Craig Anderton to produce an album created entirely by exchanging MIDI information via modem!
Dr.T. first came to prominence with the launch of KCS, the Keyboard Controlled Sequencer, which is now available on a range of micros including the ST, Amiga, PC and Mac. KCS has gone through a number of revisions and is now up to v1.7, which bears little resemblance to the early program, which was criticised for being graphically unsophisticated, though it had no shortage of features. But why write a text-based sequencer for a computer with the graphics abilities of the ST?
'What you have to bear in mind is that a MIDI music program has to be very fast to work accurately. In the early days we had some difficulty in dealing with the speed limitations of GEM, and it was faster to write a text-based program. Since then we've developed our programming, and we now have a screen redraw on KCS which is faster than that of Steinberg's Cubase or C-Lab's Notator. The problem now is that we've done all we can within the 8MHz clock speed of the ST, blitter or not, so the hardware is setting the limits of what we can do.'
The situation isn't much better with the Amiga, but there are alternative machines which Dr.T. is looking at closely. The company already has an STE, and has exploited some of its superior graphics and sound facilities in forthcoming products, but a move to an altogether superior machine is inevitable. The Amiga 2500 and Macintosh II, both of which have 16MHz clock speeds, the Atari TT workstation, Steve Jobs' Next computer, any of these might be the next standard for music production. Does this mean that we will all have to scrap our STs or PCs?
'It's a problem. It would be nice to have everything working on a true multi-tasking system, I think Steinberg would admit that the MROS system is a kludge for a machine which wasn't designed to be multi-tasking. The same applies to Digital Muse's Virtuoso. We won't kludge a multi- tasking environment like that, ideally it would be nice to use a real multi-tasking system like Unix, which I used when I studied programming at Columbia. But what are people supposed to do with all their old software when they upgrade to a non-compatible machine? About all we could do is to port X- OR, our universal patch editor, across to the new machine, so that at least they could use all their old sound patches.'
Dr.T. functions mainly as a publishing house, rather than having a large in-house programming staff, the company seeks out programmers with good ideas, works with them to develop a finished product, then goes through the process of converting to other formats. 'For instance', explained Al, 'our music manuscript program, Copyist, originally came to us on the PC. We converted it to other formats and made it compatible with MPE, our Multi-Program Environment. We do the same thing with programmers like Bob Melvin of Caged Artists who writes patch editors, and now we're looking at MIDIDrummer from Square Dance Audio, which is a UK product - so if anyone out there has any good ideas, tell them to get in touch!'
Hospers credits much of Dr. T's success to the range of micros the company covers, and the speed with which new products and conversions are brought out. 'For instance, Copyist is the only scoring program available on a whole range of machines.' In total there are more than 18 outside developers, most of whom are paid on a royalty basis, and two in-house programmers including Emile Tobenfeld, best-known for KCS. Hospers himself no longer has time to get involved in heavy programming, though he does work on the front-end of new programs. Much of his time is now taken up with liaising with hardware manufacturers.
'We work very closely with manufacturers like Roland, Korg, E-Mu and Yamaha, and they're happy to co-operate with us, for one thing because we tend to discover bugs in their instruments! It blows me away to think how much software programming goes into producing something like the Roland D-50, so if we find anything we let them know - one software company found some bugs in a synth's operating system and just put up a notice on the PAN bulletin board saying it was complete s**t! But what good does that do anyone? We help out the manufacturers and we find they respond to that.'
One of the most important results of Al's visit to the UK was an agreement with Commodore to package MRS, Dr. T's entry-level sequencer, with Amigas destined for the educational market. To start off, 1500 bundles have been put together, and a 'task force' of suitably-trained demonstrators will be aiming to sell the machines to schools, colleges and other educational institutions. MRS is ideal for this purpose, because, as Al explained, 'It's a full-function MIDI sequencer, but you don't have to use it with a MIDI synth. It can also play the Amiga's internal sound chip, so you can start using it right away without any additional expense, and get more ambitious later.'
For Dr.T., the UK market is third in importance, behind only the US and Germany, so Al is obviously keen to expand even further. Several new products and packages are on the way from UK distributors MCMXCIX, including a PC starter package featuring the Prism sequencer, Copyist Apprentice scorewriter and a MIDI interface, at around £225. Most exciting though is Tigercub, a 12-track sequencer featuring most of the graphic editing facilities of TIGER, and scheduled for release before the end of the year at £99. Tigercub will run on any ST, in colour or mono, and because it uses GEM it's compatible with all standard desk accessory programs. The program makes heavy use of big, easy-to-understand icons, and has sophisticated features like rechannelizing, quantising, automatic patch select, track grouping, drum pattern display, mutes and looping. Although the graphic editing facilities only allow you to work on one track at a time, (unlike TIGER which allows three), features like the one-step click-and-drag note entry system make Tigercub very quick and easy to use.
Also on the way is Quickscore, a music manuscript program which will transcribe and print out files from Tigercub, giving good results even on an inexpensive dot-matrix printer. It won't allow you to edit scores, but it will be as inexpensive as Tigercub.
With strong moves into the domestic, educational and professional markets, it looks as if Dr.T. will soon be as well-known in this country as Steinberg or C-Lab.
Supplier: MCMXCIX, (Contact Details)