Frankfurt: Computers And Drum Machines
Tony Reed plans out his shopping list for the coming year
On the second day, claustrophobia hit. I'd been circling one of the two massive halls which host the appropriately named Music Messe for at least ten minutes in search of an exit. And I just... couldn't... find it! Aaah!
Bit like the drum machine situation really. Finding any genuine surprises at the show proved impossible though first-hand encounters with some of the models we'd been warned about were educational. Take Roland's TR505, for example. At £220, not only a downmarket 707, but a 727 as well. 48 preset rhythms, 48 programmable. Both capable of being used in six 'Songs' of up to 423 measures. 16 excellent PCM voices, taking in regular kit sounds, and Latin sounds — Timbale, Congas, Cowbells.
On the minus side, the Roland Sync socket is gone, making this a MIDI only baby. The excellent Graphic Display window of the 707 has gone too, in its place a cut-down version which displays instrument positions one voice at a time.
Casio's RZ-1, reviewed elsewhere in this issue, was certainly one of the hits of the show, though the unshielded pre-production models being used in the company demos were embarrassingly prone to forgetfulness in the magnetic fields generated by amps and speaker cones. One hopes this little matter will be cleared up before the machines hit the shops...
The only other really interesting new machines to be seen were on the stand of French company RSF. Their neat, compact MIDI units, the DD14 and 30 store (wait for it) 14 and 30 sampled sounds respectively, sport separate outs, all the usual programming facilities, and the DD30 also features high quality (12 bit, max 42kHz) user-sampling, tunable over two octaves, a maximum of six seconds sample time, and MIDI dump to disc. Eprom library sounds for both machines are also available. Present prices are roughly £900 for the DD14, £1350 for the DD30. No UK distributor yet, but a couple are said to be 'interested'. They should be, too. These machines are good.
Software fell into four categories: 'pro' MIDI sequencing (it'd be more accurate to call this digital recording); patch editing; 'home' orientated packages; and education. The first two of these dominated with excellent, well-thought out products from a wealth of companies, many of them American where the two most popular host machines for serious applications, the Macintosh and the Atari 520 ST, have strong user-bases.
Both machines support the user-friendly 'icon' approach, and it's fair to say that virtually all the editing and sequencing packages on offer for these machines do what they're supposed to. The issue becomes one of presentation, flexibility, and ease of operation. Special mentions on this count for Opcode's range of graphic synth editing packages for the Mac and CZ or DX synths; and for another US firm, Hybrid Arts, whose extensive range of Atari and Mac editors are available for the OBX-8, Prophet 5 and Drumtrax, Yamaha synths and drum machines and for the Mirage sampling synth.
Of particular interest: their DX Droid, a patch-editing program for the DX series of synths and the ST micro, which features 'artificial intelligence'. The program 'knows' editing, creating its own sound sets and interacts with you as you edit them to ensure that the result is usable. Clear display of parameters simplifies the process still further. Using the 512k ST up to 576 voices stored in 18 groups of 32 voices can be accessed, and any combination of voices and destinations can be loaded into the DX with a single keystroke. Perhaps the most interesting performance aspect of the whole programme though, is its ability to 'Glide' from one voice to another as you are playing, enabling very complex sounds to be created.
Also worth a mention is the same company's Miditrack III, a comprehensive, 16-track sequencer program. Why? Because the Atari 130 XE version of the program — complete with computer, disc drive and interface — sells in the US for less than $700.
And in the UK, the XE is being bundled with disk drive at ludicrously low prices. No UK distribution for Hybrid Arts yet, but they will ship direct... (Phone (Contact Details) for more info.)
My favourite on all possible counts was German company Steinberg's Twenty Four MIDI sequencer program for the ST, distributed in the UK by Oscar. Twenty Four gives you complete control over 24 tracks of MIDI information, using a pretty function page set up to look like a multitrack tape recorder. Additional 'pages' are accessed using the Mac-style pulldown menus. Want to record something? Use your 'mouse' to press the Record button. Fast Forward or Rewind, Overdub, Varispeed (pitch and tempo independently), Fade, Mute, and Solo tracks. Add, Delete — Copy or Rearrange anything from a second's worth of music to an entire song. Autocue drop ins, drop outs; you name it, you can do it. Better still, tracks can be quantized at anywhere between 4 and 384 ppqn, and offset, frame by frame, for MIDI echo and Flange effects, or for 'human Feel', a la SRC.
Less graphically impressive but still sophisticated is the same company's Pro-16, 16-track sequencer for the C64 and Apple IIe, on disk at £100, and on Eprom-plus-interface at £177.50. The program can also be linked to the TNS (Track-Note-System) software, allowing conversion of Pro 16 tracks into full musical notation, or vice versa, with printout of the result, again available on disk or Eprom for a further £100 or so.
Indeed, Steinberg's entire range of software was of a consistently high standard encompassing patch editors for the Mirage, DX, CZ, and Korg DW6000 synths, and some well thought out home hardware/software packages (play-along stuff using a simplified tape recorder graphic control system, and additional hardware for synth and drum machine voices — a bargain at around £70.) Steinberg also do a couple of tutor programs, for guitar and keyboards, and they looked (from a distance) at least visually impressive.
Talking of impressive, prize for best patch editor must got to Digidesigns' Sound Designer, for the 512k Mac and Emulator II, Prophet 2000, and Mirage sampling keyboards.
Each version features a 'front panel' page specific to the instrument, allowing the machine's normal functions to be accessed, and a further list of editing pages as long as your arm. Using pull-down menus up to three sample waveforms can be displayed and edited on-screen down to 1/30,000th of a second!
You can 'zoom in' on any point of the sample, redraw it, or even create a new sound 'freehand'. Separate samples can be combined, crossfaded simultaneously with accuracy and looped. A Digital Mixer section can mix any part of a sample with any other, in any proportion, for sophisticated sounds which change overtime; and there is a complete range of high quality equalising options to make the most of the result. The Frequency Analysis page gives you that famous Fairlight look — a 3-D display of the waveform — and if you can't be bothered with samples, three kinds of FM synthesis can be used to create sounds from scratch, or recombined with existing sounds. Fortunately Icons keep everything simple.
The Sound Designer will be available from the instrument distributors themselves, at around £350. And worth every penny.
Akai S612 owners needn't feel neglected: Jellinghaus Musik Systems, of 12-Track Studio fame, have a simple editing package for the Akai and Apple II micro which enables two sounds to be displayed on screen, cross faded or merged. More importantly, it allows the 612 to multi-sample up to six sounds. A cheerful utility, and at around £100 from UK distributors Rosetti, cheap enough too.
JMS have also rationalised and updated the aforementioned 12-Track Recording Studio for the C64: Recording Studio II now gives you control over 16 tracks, all accessible from a single, well-thought out page similar to Steinberg's Pro-16.
Talking of utilities, JMS's Master Keyboard program for the C64 is a neat tool, enabling a single split-less synth to function as a MIDI mother keyboard, with a six way split, and up to nine voices accessible from each key in each section. Up to 80 performance patches can be stored or implemented from a single keystroke, and dumped to disk. UK price: around £65. Greengate's latest installment is the DS:4-8 8-note polyphonic 16-bit linear sampling upgrade to the DS which offers a choice of either 12 or 24 seconds sample time at the CD-quality rate of 44.1 kHz, built into a 1U high rack mounting case. At £1500 for the 12 second, and £1750 for the 24 second versions, the chaps are well within their self-defined budget for the whole system (ie it should cost less than the latest Fairlight upgrade!) with these present updates to be followed by the end of the year with a further upgrade to take these sample times to full 16-note polyphony.
Sad to report, the inventiveness and flexibility displayed by small companies is not matched by the majors. Roland's range of sequencing programs for the Apple and IBM micros are beginning to look somewhat 'unfriendly' against the new breed of icon-driven wunderkind. Muse is the honourable exception, a step in the right direction with an 8-track sequencer program operating on IBM, Apple, and at long last, the C64. Micro Music for the 64 looks like fun, too, a colourful but somewhat eccentric 12 channel sequencer program, capable of supporting full polyphony on only 4 of the available twelve channels.
A mysterious and non-functional prototype on the Roland stand may just point the way to Roland's micro future however — a standard Toshiba MSX micro fitted with Roland software on Eprom. Could Roland be going for a Yamaha-style integrated system? Only time will tell...
Yamaha themselves have reaffirmed their commitment to the CX5 with the introduction of the CX5/128, a revamped version of the machine with a 128k memory, an improved FM module and an FM Voicing program all included as standard. Two cartridge slots now allow the micro to supports further cartridge-based program and connection to disk-drive simultaneously.
With updated and improved versions of the 'serious' CX5 programs now available (FM Music Composer II, FM Music Macro II, etc) the CX5 is at last the professional machine it should have been when it first appeared.
Akai's oft-seen, rarely heard CPZ 1000 hardware-based 16-track recording system was handling the sequencing for the company's excellent demos. It's certainly as flexible as any of the competing software and the advantage of a dedicated system in the studio is clear. But given the open-endedness of a software-only system, and the high standard of software about now, does it really make financial sense to opt for the Akai? Perhaps the inclusion of a SMPTE generatoras standard might just tip the scales in Akai's favour...
And that's about it. Professional music software has finally arrived, in the range of programs now available for the Mac and the ST, to all intents and purposes identical machines from the musician's point of view. The Mac perhaps has the edge in ergonomics, the ST definitely on price (at half the price of the equivalent Mac!) Whichever machine you choose though, there is now a substantial and growing software commitment behind it.
It's good to see continued interest in the 64, too, with enough quality product at the show to ensure its presence in many home studios, if not on stage... High budget or low, there's now a computer system for your needs. Just take your pick.
For more info on new micro products see Musical Micro.