Electromusic Research MIDI Software and Hardware
for the BBC Micro
The first commercially-developed MIDI software for the BBC Micro is now being manufactured by Electromusic Research. David Ellis analyses its potential.
David Ellis takes a look at the first commercially-available software package for the BBC Model B, distributed in the UK by Rose Morris.
Electromusic Research is, of course, Mike Beecher, the ex-Editor of E&MM, whose sterling efforts at informing the world about MIDI must by now be obvious to just about any reader. He's still very much involved in journalism, but EMR represents his move into the commercial side of the business. It's always interesting to see what emerges when an acknowledged commentator in the field steps into the limelight of the commercial arena, but I don't envy Mike his invidious position of being a manufacturer and a reviewer at one and the same time.
For their first MIDI software release, EMR have concentrated on the BBC Micro and produced a six-track step-time sequencer along with an interface box. From an objective viewpoint, I'd say that the BBC Micro is a good choice for a MIDI controller because of its flexible interfacing options, fast(er) processor, and good operating system. But against these positive virtues, it should be recognised that clever graphics (a display of notes, for instance) are virtually out of the question if a reasonable amount of note storage is required. There are ways around this compromise, however, and I'll go into these at a later stage of the review.
The EMR package looks pretty good on first acquaintance. Everything is well-boxed, albeit with a little over-indulgence as far as Letraset typefaces are concerned. The interface is housed in a small white plastic box with DIN sockets at the rear for clock start/stop, MIDI In, MIDI Out 1, and MIDI Out 2, and ribbon cables at the front for connecting to the BBC Micro's User I/O and 1MHz bus. The doubling of MIDI Outs is a welcome sign after the austerity of SCI's Model 64 sequencer, so hats off to EMR for that. If two MIDI Outs aren't enough (greedy lot), there's always Roland's MM4 box of tricks or EMR's own MIDILINK, which turns one MIDI In into no less than six MIDI Thrus! Also at the front of the box, there's a couple of LEDs which tap into the incoming or outgoing bit stream to signify that MIDI data is streaming along the highway. Another thoughtful touch.
What's not quite so thoughtful is the shortness of the ribbon cables to the BBC Micro. Many complaints have been made about the positioning of the Beeb's I/O connectors (underneath the machine), and EMR's cables are marginally too short to enable the siting of the interface box at both the right and left sides of the micro comfortably. These connectors also need a bit of care to make sure that they're going where they're intended. Still, as the manual says, 'with fingertip pressure it should slide in...' (Well, this is an adult magazine.) Inside the interface box, everything looks well-constructed (like the Music Editor), but EMR's insistence on scrubbing off the chip numbers is somewhat childish bearing in mind that their respective IDs are as inevitable as one day following the next.
The EMR software is available on 40-track (80-track to special order) disk or cassette, and comes with eight photocopied pages by way of a manual - a bit on the mean side considering the total cost of the package (£159 inclusive of VAT). The first page of this is an introduction to the software and the MIDI in general, and it's here that I found more than a few bones of contention.
For instance, the introduction to the MIDItrack software says that 'traditional note input is entered from the BBC keyboard in order to avoid coding unfamiliar to the musician.' I don't quite understand this. Surely playing a keyboard is what one would rightly call 'familiar coding' for a musician, and anything else (including a BBC or any other micro keyboard) would appear unfamiliar?
Another point of disagreement is EMR's assertion that 'only the degree of MIDI control on a keyboard, for example, limits the number of notes played, the amount of manipulation of the instrument's parameters, voice presets, and other important setting-up functions like Mono/Poly, sequencer stop/start, etc.' The bald fact of the matter is that the speed of the MIDI itself restricts the number of notes that can be sent in a musically meaningful way, and EMR's further suggestion that 'your home computer (can) become a major 'control centre' capable of playing... even a full orchestra of MIDI instruments' is patently lacking in realism if a full orchestra means the same to you as it does to me - especially if you've only got six monophonic tracks to play around with.
The MIDItrack program loads up automatically using the Beeb's 'turnkey' option, ie. by pressing the SHIFT and BREAK keys together. Cataloguing the disk indicates the usual IBOOT exec file for this operation, but, aside from a couple of demo files (YESTERD and CARNIVL - note the limited file name length of Acorn's DFS!), all else is obscured from the user's eyes. Indeed, attempts to list the program merely resulted in a 'Bad program' error message. Considering that the BBC Micro is such a popular educational machine, I'd say that EMR have been over-enthusiastic in preventing their customers from seeing what's going on in the program. What they should also remember is that REM statements informing the nosy user that 'It is illegal to copy software produced by Mike Beecher' are a) incorrect (there is no legislation as yet), and b) merely conducive to people nosing even further.
The starting point of MIDItrack is a series of 'pages' for setting up the essential ins and outs of the system.
Page 1 (Track Assignment) is used to set the number of tracks (1-6). This has important repercussions when it comes to entering events, because unlike more intelligent software that makes use of dynamic memory assignment, this program simply divides up available memory according to the number of tracks being used. Thus, a single track has space for 6909 events, whereas six tracks can cope with only 1150 on each. From my own viewpoint of micro-based composing tools, I'd say this is being more than a little inflexible about it all. In fact, EMR would do well to take a leaf out of JMS' copy book (see review in E&MM July) and allow stealing from a fairly inactive track to one that's more in the thick of musical activity.
The next page (MIDI Channel Mode) concerns the setting up of the receiving ends of EMR's output so that they respond in one of four possible modes, ie. 1 = Omni on/Poly, 2 = Omni on/Mono, 3 = Omni off/Poly, 4 = Omni off/Mono. At least, I think that's the intention. The problem is that the manual doesn't make it entirely clear whether this page is just for setting up the receiving status or whether there's also an element of transmission mode selection involved as well. What makes the latter unlikely is the observation that the program also allows different modes to be assigned to each of the 16 possible MIDI channels, which isn't exactly what the MIDI transmission protocol would call cricket. So, if Page 2 is just setting up the receiving end of the MIDI link, that begs the question of how the user goes about setting the transmitting mode specifically. All a bit confusing, really. Oh for a simple life...
Pages 3 and 4 are less controversial and, respectively, allow each of the six monophonic tracks to be assigned to a particular MIDI channel (and, potentially, a different keyboard) and internal or external sync to be used. As the manual says, this can also be achieved by connecting one of the interface's MIDI Outs to the MIDI In of a MIDI-compatible drum machine - that's if you're fortunate enough to have one of those beasts, of course.
Page 5 is the Main Menu, which gives access to disk utilities (catalogue, load and save music files), scrubbing memory (Create MIDItrack), and note entry itself (MIDItrack Composer). Finally, Page 6 (Memory Free) tells you how much space is left on each track in use and Page 7 (Select Play Tracks) switches particular tracks on or off.
The crux of the matter with any steptime sequencer is how easy it is to use when entering a long and complex piece. Bearing this in mind, I put the composing page through a fairly strenuous assault course of various musical styles, just to see how much truth there is in EMR's assertion that it 'can be quickly applied to any kind of music style, from rock to classical'.
Let's start by looking at the way events appear on the screen for the first couple of phrases from Lennon and McCartney's 'Yesterday'
The first two columns are more or less self-explanatory. 'Value', on the other hand, can include voice changes, modulation control, rests, an end marker to signify the completion of a particular track, or actual notes. In the case of the latter, that requires individual specification of note name, octave (where C3 is middle C), and accidental (if used). Next, a dynamic value from ppp to fff (or 1-8) has to be entered using the function keys. 'Length' sets the duration of that event (from a demisemiquaver to a dotted semibreve) again using the function keys, and 'Style' sets the gate on time as a proportion of the event length.
Editing functions include 'I' (which inserts an event on a specified track in a specified position), 'D' (which deletes an event), 'R' (which replaces one event with another), 'C' (which copies sequences from one location to another, either on the same or a different track, and with or without transposition), 'L' (which lists a block of events on a particular track), and 'H' (which allows you to hear each event in turn). Finally, there's 'B' (Beat/Bar Count - for checking the length of notes and so on), 'T' (for setting the tempo of playback) and 'P' (for playing tracks back with a certain number of repeats).
This is all pretty standard stuff. Lots of rows and lots of columns all trying to make their way into your consciousness in MODE 7 graphics. Certainly all the features work well enough, but there's absolutely no way that you can compare what's happening on one track with the events on another on-screen. As far as I'm concerned, multitrack composing stands or falls on the way in which it helps you to organise your ideas - and that includes letting you see how events on one track fit in with those on another. That needs really efficient and imaginative use of the available screen space, which regrettably isn't the case with MIDItrack. EMR would do well to look at some of the remarkable overlapping page displays in programs like 'The Incredible Jack' and 'Appleworks' for an inkling of what can be done.
The problem is that MODE 7 graphics can't cope with more than about 20 rows of MIDItrack events, which means that you're forever scrolling notes in and out of vision. Of course, there's nothing to stop you using a higher-resolution graph mode in this sort of application, but this immediately swallows up a large pro- portion of the BBC Micro's meagre 32K memory. The solution is to add on something like the Aries-B20 RAM board (which allows the programmer to use all the graphics modes and still retain memory) and use MODE 3 graphics in combination with fashionable 'windowing' techniques to make more efficient use of the micro's display capabilities.
So, the bottom line is that EMR's steptime sequencer is really no worse nor better than any of the others around. Personally, I think that the distinction between real-time and step-time sequencing is utterly bogus, and that we should now be moving on to a form of note input that's simply designed for maximum speed and efficiency.
For instance, why not provide the user the option of using a MIDI keyboard to enter the pitches, thereby reducing the three keystrokes needed to specify the pitch, octave, and accidental down to just a single keypress? One thing is clear: the 'column and row' approach so beloved of EMR, Roland (the CMU800 software), JMS (the Spectrum and Commodore 64 software reviewed last month), and PPG (the Waveterm) makes life very difficult for the user once event streams are stretching into the thousands.
My other complaint on this basic 'user interface' front is the total lack of defaults for event entry. The only way this sort of program can really be made efficient is for the previous key entry for a particular column to be 'remembered', so that keying RETURN (or whatever) for the next event automatically inputs that default value. For instance, applying that approach to the Lennon and McCartney example would have reduced the number of key entries required to input the 14 events from around 80 to half that number.
As things stand, EMR's software does automatically increment the event number but that's as far as it goes in the way of a helping hand. The infuriating thing is that the user even has to enter in separate values for dynamics. Why, oh why, doesn't the program ask whether or not you're using a velocity-sensing keyboard and apply a default accordingly?
What we really need to be able to do is enter the notes in a rough and ready fashion, getting the notes approximately oriented in time and space, see how the parts gel together both visually and aurally and then fine tune the parts, adding dynamics, modulation, gate duration (what EMR calls 'style'), and all the other command goodies that should make the MIDI more musical than regurgitative. To do all that, you need a damn good editor - a utility that'll let you get to where you want to make a change, edit, or whatever with the minimum of fuss and bother. The editing functions in EMR's MIDItrack program work fine, but they're fussy, slow, and rather unimaginative in execution.
In sum, I'd say that the MIDItrack program is OK as a starter, but it needs a good deal more work to turn it into a main course suitable for the more professional user. Looking at the home or educational end of the market, it's clear that there's vast scope for MIDI programs on the BBC Micro, but it's also likely that that market may not take too kindly to the high price of EMR's package when viewed alongside the excellent cost/performance ratio of so much BBC software. Still, at £159, MIDItrack isn't exactly a king's ransom for the average musician who expects to pay more for his musical tools. Indeed, the price falls bang in the middle between that for JMS' Spectrum package and the SCI Model 64 Sequencer.
So, provided that EMR improve the software and adopt a reasonable attitude towards software updates (ie. make them cheap), I'd give MIDItrack a cautious thumbs up.
Availability: from most synth retailers, or direct from EMR's distributors, Rose Morris, (Contact Details).
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Review by David Ellis
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