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A 2-page Paracetamol for your technical headaches.

MIDI, multimedia, DTD recording or analogue synths - Write to Grief, MT, (Contact Details).

QI am writing to ask your advice in setting up a computer-based MIDI facility at home. My budget is no more than £2500 - I was thinking of a Mac LCIII or the new LC520AV plus sequencing software, maybe Cubase, plus a secondhand sampler and MIDI keyboard. My knowledge of MIDI is pretty basic so I would be grateful if you could advise me on which computer, software, sampler and synth would suit me or whether my suggested setup is missing something.

This letter is not really intended for publication but if you do want to publish it please use my initials. I would appreciate it if you could answer me personally.

AWell, AG, as we've been saying for the last 37 years, we simply can't reply to letters personally. Part of the small print that goes with the service, you see. Jobsworth and all that. Sniff.

Anyway, hopefully some of your queries will have been answered by the 'Computer World' feature in our Jan '94 issue. However, you should really do some homework and bone up on computers, software, synths and samplers. We get many letters like yours and there's no way we can give a comprehensive answer short of writing a book, especially as the choice depends so much on what the user wants to do.

The new Mac LC475 - a better bet?

The current market would indicate that you should go for a PC or a Mac although you can buy an ST plus software much cheaper - and it's still currently the most popular music computer. Macs have a far better user-interface than PCs. The LC520 is not an AV machine; if it ever got released in the UK it was swiftly forgotten. In any event, it's rather under-powered and a better bet is the new LC475 (around £1050 with monitor and keyboard).

The same money will buy you a reasonable 486 33MHz PC (put any spare cash into a larger hard disk). PCs are made up from dozens of bits and pieces and you really need to know something about them before you let a high street store talk you into buying a machine (it's WH Smith time). In any event, you'll get a better deal by buying mail order. Many PC mags operate a mail order protection scheme to help protect readers from unscrupulous dealers (there are a few, but most are OK).

Dozens of sequencers exist for both the Mac and PC. Choice is such a personal thing that it wouldn't be fair to recommend one. Well, OK. Cubase has the name but the PC version certainly isn't as, er... complete as it should be. I've been using Notator Logic on the Mac and a PC version is due for release soon.

As for synths and samplers, you don't say what you want to do, what sort of sounds you like, what sort of music you want to make. Your best bet is to visit some local friendly music shops and get a feel for the things yourself. There are far too many to even list.

If you want to play third-party MIDI files you'll need a GM-compatible unit. Even if you don't, check their multitimbral capacity (the number of different music lines they can play at once) and polyphony (the number of notes they can play at once). The first should be 16 and the second should be as large as possible.

In the absence of any further information, I'd suggest you plump for a multitimbral synth and then add to your setup as you discover what other type of sounds you would like. You'll probably want to record your music, so you might also need to budget for a reasonable-quality cassette deck or a DAT recorder and if you have more than one instrument you'll benefit from a mixer, too.

Check the 'Warehouse' ads in MT for secondhand equipment and if you want a guide to features and secondhand prices, get hold of a copy of Keyfax 4 (£14.95 inc p&p from Making Music on (Contact Details)) which is the most comprehensive guide to keyboards ever published.

QI've just had a brilliant idea! I realise that by telling you about it I run the risk of everyone copying it but I need some information. With the phenomenal growth in multimedia there must surely be thousands of people putting presentations together who have no musical ability. What I have in mind is to produce disks containing music which these people could buy and use freely. They'd pay a one-off fee for the disk and could use the music for anything other than commercial resale.

What I need to know is the best music format to use and the best way to go about selling it, etc. Could you let me know quickly before everyone starts doing it?
BJ Stonehouse
Tyne & Wear

AThat certainly is a good idea, BJ, but I'm afraid you've already been pipped at the post. There are several companies producing copyright-free clip music for use in multimedia.

Still, there's nothing to stop you producing your own or trying to sell it to such a company. The music needs to be in Standard MIDI File format configured to GM and/or a digitised audio format - for example, if it's for the PC then it's usually Windows' WAV format. The vast majority of this is for CD-ROM - audio files sure are big - and some disks include images plus complimentary sounds. I think that for this purpose, floppies have had their day.

If you want to produce your own you're going to have to write an awful lot of music. But if you think you're up to it, I'd suggest you get in touch with the CD-ROM distributors who, if necessary, can put you in touch with the companies who create the CDs.

There are now dozens of CD-ROM distributors. Here's a few to be going on with: - Westpoint Creative ((Contact Details)), FOS-CD ((Contact Details)), Computer Bookshops ((Contact Details)), KimTec ((Contact Details)) and Optech ((Contact Details)).

You could, of course, produce a CD and market it yourself, but I tend to think that the 90% or so that the manufacturers, distributors and retailers take from the sale is worth every penny as you have no financial outlay and no marketing or advertising to do - these are real bank account killers.

If you do get a CD together, send it down and we'll do the decent thing. But I promise we'll listen to it first.

QOK, OK, OK I'm convinced! Direct-to-disk recording gives you far more control over your music than analogue tape. Me and some friends want to set up a modest studio using a computer-based DTD system. What I would like to know is can these 16-bit PC sound cards which everyone is raving about produce as good quality results as the professional DTD systems costing £3000-4000?

Also, we already work with MIDI a lot so how easy is it to sync the digital audio to MIDI tracks?
Alex Benton

AWell, Alex, It's a sad fact of life that you get what you pay for. Nevertheless when a bandwagon appears - such as DTD - and people start lumping on it, prices do start to fall.

The pro systems include hardware, which is why they are more expensive and why they are designed to produce studio-quality results. But there's more to CD quality than simply sampling at 44.1MHz and 16 bits. (For more info about this refer to 'The Hard Edge' feature on DTD recording in our August '93 issue.)

PC sound cards lend to be jacks of all trades and include digital recording as only one of their features. But in spite of that, the quality coming from some of them is absolutely excellent, easily good enough for demos. Indeed, given that many people these days are actively pursuing the goal of lower-quality audio as an end in itself, who's to say it's not of production quality?

But then there's the software. It doesn't matter how good the hardware is, if the software is a pig to use or simply lacks the features you need, it's not worth an ice cream in a sand storm. And sadly, the DTD software bundled with sound cards isn't really intended for serious recording use. However, there are editing programs which will work with most sound cards so you can select a card and software separately.

To sync to MIDI, the recording software needs to receive timing information from a MIDI sequencer running within Windows or from a MIDI file. One of the most elegant solutions can be found in Session 8 (see review in November's MT) which has its own driver which you can select in a sequencer's MIDI Driver option (although some sequencers don't have this function).

Check out also Roland's Audio Producer (reviewed in last month's issue) which has excellent-quality recording, albeit two tracks, with a GM sound module and a superb interface. It lets you combine digital audio with MIDI tracks by dragging patterns around an arrange screen, a bit like Cubase. However, it plays them back at the same time rather than actually syncing them.

If you want to go a bit more upmarket take a look at the range of cards from Turtle Beach, distributed by Et Cetera ((Contact Details)). There's the Tahiti (£350) and the Multisound (£468 - this includes a Proteus 1!) - cards which you could use with SAW (£586), Software Audio Workshop. This is a pro-quality 4-track recording and editing system (soon to be upgraded to eight tracks). SAW will also work with a Sound Blaster card. We've a review of SAW coming up soon. It looks the biz.

In order to sync SAW to a sequencer you need a MIDI interface such as the MQX32M (around £200) which can handle SMPTE and MTC. Et Cetera recommend the Cakewalk sequencer which, of course, they distribute, which has the necessary sync hooks. That would give you a very powerful system and you'd still have all your arms and legs to make music.

Vince Clarke - analogue or bust.

QAs we all know, analogue is bigger than ever and Vince Clarke has proved that MIDI isn't the only answer, although we're not all wealthy enough to own half his gear. Sampler users should get his sample CD.

Anyway, I'm writing for Information on the 'analogue-ish' Ensoniq ESQ-1. I need to know three things:
1) If I bought one now would it be reliable as it's now quite old?

2) Could I use it as a stand-alone synth, as Adamski has been doing with an SQ-80?

3) I've had so many digital synths and was wondering if the sounds on the ESQ-1 were hybrid digital/analogue.

I'd be really grateful for any info you could give me. Also, is the Kawai K4 just a more expensive K1 with effects?

Yours in a world full of synths,
Alan Williams

The Ensoniq ESQ-1 - operationally challenged.

ANope, MIDI ain't the only answer. But then neither is analogue - as just about everyone except Vince has proved. Anyway...

1) The ESQ-1 was released in 1986 so it is of an age. No one can tell how reliable a secondhand one is going to be. Depends on how much use it's had, the temperature it's been stored in and how many times it's been dropped, among other things. There are lots of older synths still working - mainly analogue machines - and I suspect quite a few of those have had problems, too.

However, the ESQ-1 has been known to be, er... operationally challenged over the years. The good news is that Ensoniq distributors Sound Technology are well versed in the vagaries of the ESQ-1, so if you have any major problems they should be able to fix it for you.

You need to try any second-hand instrument thoroughly, making sure all the bits work.

Preferably try it from cold and use it long enough for the circuit boards to warm up. If you're going to buy one, best buy one from a shop which will give you a limited (usually 3-month) guarantee.

2) If Adamski can do it, why not you? The SQ-80 is a bit more performance-oriented with a built-in disk drive, aftertouch and a neat feature whereby when you change sounds the old one runs its course. But ultimately, it depends what you expect from it.

3) You mean you're considering one of these instruments and you don't even know what it sounds like Sheesh! It uses digital waveforms with analogue filters and envelope generators, and it has features such as hard sync and ring modulation. There are three types of waveform: analogue, digital and multi-sampled (complete with loops).

But you really must listen to it before buying one. It was certainly a ground-breaker in its day, but times, trends and technology have moved on...

As for the K4, it is rather more than a souped-up K1, although they are both based on the same general design. The K4 sounds and effects (effects only on the K1 mkII) are different and there is digital filtering and resonant filtering, too. Again, you should listen to them both, but personally I much prefer the K4 to the K1. In fact I bought a K4R (which has no effects but extra outputs) when they were being sold off for about £250-300 and it's excellent for creating layered sounds.

Yours in a world full of confusion.

Unfortunately, we cannot answer readers' queries on the phone and we are unable to reply individually by letter. All letters addressed to Grief will be deemed intended for publication.

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Mar 1994

Feedback by Ian Waugh

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