FM Melody Maker
John Renwick plays around with a revolutionary new cartridge synth expander system for the Atari ST from Hybrid Arts
A couple of years ago computer users had their first chance to control FM synth sounds in an inexpensive format; the FM Sound Cartridge for the CBM 64. Combined with a special music keyboard, it allowed you to turn your Commodore into a cheap yet powerful synthesiser.
The concept of the plug-in synth in a cartridge has been pretty dead since then, but now it's been revived for Atari ST owners at least by Hybrid Arts, best known for the MIDI Track series of software sequencers and ADAP hardware sampler.
The FM Melody Maker package consists of a standard cartridge with stereo audio out phono sockets, software on a disk, and a small but comprehensive manual. The review model was in fact a circuit board without the cartridge, but the finished product was launched at the Personal Computer show in September.
As you probably all know (but I'm going to remind you anyway), FM (Frequency Modulation) is the sound synthesis method launched to world-wide acclaim in Yamaha's DX-7 keyboard five years ago. Since then it's cropped up in endless variations such as the DX-100/21/27, the FB-01 and TX-81Z multi-timbral modules, numerous home keyboards and even synths from other manufacturers like Korg and Elka.
FM works by taking simple waveforms - originally, sine waves only and combining them into complex ones, which can then be modulated by further waveforms. Although the results can be very powerful, it's notoriously difficult to penetrate the FM jargon of operators, algorithms and carriers to create your own sounds. Fortunately, all the hard work is done for you in the FM Melody Maker package - the 78 available sounds are preset, and a very good selection they are too.
Plug the cartridge in, connect its audio outputs to your hi-fi, mixer, or a suitable monitor, and boot the Melody Maker software (which operates in hi-res mono or low-res colour), and after selecting English, French or German instructions you'll see a main display screen which features a music stave and several option icons.
The Melody Maker software looks simple, but it's actually a very intelligent "auto-composition" system which takes the notes and chords you enter, and uses them to generate fully-orchestrated accompaniment parts using the nine available FM voices.
The software is fully GEM-based, so there are no problems using it even if this is your first bash at micro music. Your first task is to select an accompaniment style from the pull-down menu. There are sixteen in all, including Rock, Pop, Disco, Reggae, Bluegrass and R'n'B. Each is programmed with authentic-sounding chord patterns, rhythms and "twiddly bits", so all you have to do is enter the melody and chords, and the software does the rest.
To enter a melody, select a note length from the part box below the staff, drag it onto the staff and slide it up and down. You'll see the note's name appearing next to it, and hear it playing through the FM cartridge. Octave switching arrows let you raise or lower the pitch by whole octaves, and if you make a mistake you can just click on the trashcan icon to delete a note. When you're happy with its pitch, click to place the note on the staff. You can then choose a note of a different length from the part box, again drag it to the staff, set the pitch and place it (the software automatically puts it in the right position according to the length of the previous note). The same principle applies to Rests of different lengths.
To check your handiwork you can scroll move, back and forth along the staff using the scroll bar beneath it. When you're happy with the melody, it's time to add the chords. To do this, you click on the Chord box, and from the display select the name and type of chord.
There are fourteen different types, from simple majors and minors to diminished and augmented chords, sevenths and so on. Having chosen, move back to the main display, and click to place the chord beneath any melody note. Although you won't see the individual notes of the chord appearing, a symbol will tell you where it is.
That's it if your tune is simple. You can insert Repeat and Loop symbols on the staff if you want to build up more complex pieces. Now is the moment of truth, as you click on Play to hear the finished product!
Assuming that your chords and melodies aren't entirely disharmonious, you'll hear an arrangement of your piece in the appropriate style, played using a preset selection of the FM instrument sounds, plus a rhythmic pattern consisting of FM Bass, Snare, Hi-hat, Cymbal and Tom sounds. Clicking on the Instrument Select icon allows to to make new choices of sounds. There's a varied selection, including some excellent basses, brass, string and percussive voices, synth effects and guitars.
If you click on the Mixer icon it's also possible to adjust the level of the melody, bass, accompaniment and percussion voices using a row of sliders. If you listen to each accompaniment line individually, you'll appreciate what a clever job the software does in generating the auto-accompaniment.
The whole composition including choice of sounds and mixer levels can be saved as a Song. Those are the basic facilities of the Melody Maker package. Just enough to help you to get a great tune out of the ST, without becoming too complex. But if you want to delve further, you can, for instance, compose 20 of your own 16-beat percussion patterns using the Drum Pattern Grid. You can use any combination of FM sounds and external MIDI instruments here, setting the pattern length and clicking on different squares on the grid until you get a nice pattern, then chaining them together on the Drum Song page into sequences of up to 40 bars.
As you might have guessed, Melody Maker also allows you to run external MIDI instruments from the ST's MIDI OUT. After clicking on the MIDI Output option, any Melody Maker voice (instrument or percussion) can be assigned to any MIDI output channel, given its own velocity from 0-127 and, in the case of percussion voices, assigned to a particular note. So, if you have a MIDI synth, ideally a multi-timbral expander with drums, such as the Roland MT-32 or D-110, Melody Maker will play that too.
Unfortunately, MIDI recording facilities are very limited. There's a real-time recorder which will capture and replay quite complex keyboard performances and save them as REC files, but you can't actually do anything useful with them, such as transferring them to the music stave and editing them. However, we're promised that later software releases for the FM Melody Maker system will include a better sequencer, FM patch editor, and music transcription programs.
The FM Melody Maker is a great little system as it is,providing hours of fun for either the beginner or the more experienced micro musician. As more software for the system appears, it will become an irresistible purchase.
Product: FM Melody Maker
System: Any Atari ST
Supplier: Hybrid Arts UK, (Contact Details)
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Review by Chris Jenkins writing as John Renwick
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