The CX5M music computer could change the face of the home micro-music market. We examine the first dedicated music computer to reach the UK
Will Yamaha's MSX standard computer with its extensive sound capabilities revolutionise the micro-music market? David Fox investigates.
The definition of 'computer music' is changing rapidly in the line with the increased affordability and compactness of computing power. Fifteen years ago computer music was the preserve of university composers with access to mainframes — ten years ago, that of dedicated experimenters — five years ago, that of professional musicians wealthy enough to invest in a Fairlight or similar system. All that's changed now, with the recent batch of micro-MIDI interfaces representing the most important recent development, but until now there has been no computer specifically designed for the domestic music market. The Yamaha CX5 sets out to correct this omission.
The CX5M will be just one of many computers turning up in the UK towards the end of this year using the MSX BASIC system. This is a modified, standardised form of BASIC development by Microsoft which has been adopted by many Japanese manufacturers, including Yamaha, Canon, Hitachi, Mitsubishi and so on. Each company will have a micro available at around £199 with similar memory capacity, video and sound chips, main processor (a Z80), screen performance and interfacing, to such a degree that it's going to be very difficult to make a choice between them! MSX games from any manufacturer will run on any MSX computer, but each micro does have a speciality — capturing still frames from video in the case of the JVC machine, it's thought — and of course the Yamaha has a much more extensive sound facility than the built-in sound chip common to all the MSX machines.
In some ways the CX5M differs from the other MSX models. Firstly, it's more expensive — perhaps £559 including the miniature music keyboard, of which more later — and of course it has additional circuitry to support the synthesiser element. Basically this is similar to the FM synthesis DX9, with 48 memory positions available, and so the CX5M offers you a very respectable set of professional quality sounds much more cheaply than a more conventional synth, with the computer facilities almost as a bonus.
Yamaha demonstrator Dave Bristow wishes the more conventional micro tasks (game playing and so on) could be played down, since he sees the CX5M as a very capable musical instrument in its own right. This would allow you to put an overlay for specific instructions over the keys to make it more user-friendly — not that it's by any means difficult to use as it stands.
It looks as if there will be two or three software packages initially available, each in the form of a cartridge which plugs into the computer's top port. The instruction CLOAD calls up the music functions; the initial packages will allow you to create sounds on the DX9 module, compose on a musical stave display, or use Music Macro to control the synth with BASIC commands.
Looking at the sound editor first, this will give graphic displays of the synth parameters — operator settings, frequency ratios, algorithm selected and all the established FM verbiage! — and will allow you to assign names to sounds, move them around in memory and so on. The CX5M will come with a miniature scale 3½ octave keyboard which plays polyphonically, and the package gives you fast access to several options including keyboard split (at any point, with one side mono and the other poly), Portamento and a realtime sequencer (unfortunately not externally clockable).
On the subject of external connections, the CX5M does have a MIDI input, but since this transmits information to the computer rather than to the FM module it works in a parallel, not series fashion. This implies a need for a parallel-series convertor before the computer can be linked up to other synths such as the DX7 but Dave has successfully achieved this and come up with some stunning sound combinations (listen to the tape).
The CX5M's composition package should be able to transmit to MIDI synths on different MIDI channels eventually, but as it stands the results from the six monophonic tracks using the built-in synth are very impressive. As you're composing, a musical stave appears on the screen and you use the cursor to select a note length and other options such as time signature. Notes are then entered on the music keyboard — remembering that you have to use the cursor if you want to change note value — until a track is complete. It's then easy to call up the next track and compose another line of music, although you can neither see nor hear the previous track(s) so a good deal of head arrangement is called for.
Dave has prepared a very impressive piece called Clocks which gives full rein to the FM synth's imitative and creative possibilites. The opening clock sounds are perfect examples of the sharp, metallic tones at which FM excels, but there is plenty of scope for imitative strings (much sharper and cleaner than conventional synths), brass, bass sounds and abstract effects.
The more complex numerical Macro Music cartridge compares to the Fairlight's Music Composition Language in operation, and so it's very much a system for dedicated number-crunchers. One advantage of the CX5M is that it has very impressive graphics capabilities, so if you feel like adding some visuals to your music it's possible to come up with some colourful displays.
Problems arise with the CX5M when we consider availability, which seems to be less than perfectly organised, and after-sales service, which would appear to be limited by the number of music shops with experienced computer buffs on the staff. In addition the user has to decide if he is purely buying this machine as a musical instrument — in which case it has some of the attractions of the DX9, the Roland MSQ sequencers and many other products — or whether it's going to have to act as a home micro as well. In the latter case, there are advantages and disadvantages to the MSX system; there'll certainly be a good deal of interchangeable software about, but it may all consist of inane games and the system itself is based on the Z80, which is hardly new technology any longer.
In fact incompatibility will be one of the major problems for anybody contemplating buying a CX5M. The existing form of the MIDI doesn't work, and all the recent developments in hardware and software from other companies will be lost on an MSX machine.
Since the CX5M is cartridge-based it'll be relatively difficult to develop new systems for it, and nobody but Yamaha is likely to put in any hours on music products. The delay on the machine itself has already put off many who have instead gone for Roland sequencers or micro-MIDI interfaces to the Commodore 64 or Spectrum, which represents a considerable investment.
Still, for something like £499 you're getting a reasonable example of the latest wave of home micros, combined with a damn good synthesizer and the chance at least of some versatile software. The CX5M is certainly going to present a challenge to the Roland line of thought — building computer power into more conventional instruments — and anything which gets the music business thinking has to be a good thing.