Hybrid Technology Music 5000
Computer Music System
Noel Williams compares Hybrid Technology's latest BBC music add-on to its predecessor, the Music 500. Is it the friendlier beast its designers claim it to be?
The Music 500 offered the most flexible music production system for the BBC computer. Now the Music 5000 takes things a step further by making its features more accessible.
IN 1985, HYBRID TECHNOLOGY released the Music 500, their BBC Micro synthesiser. In 1986/7, they've added a zero to make it the Music 5000. The new box looks just like the old box except for the 0, but the new 5000 is compatible with BBC Master series computers, while the 500 (now discontinued) is not.
The synthesiser may look the same, but everything that supports it has changed. The manual is now bigger, more readable, more usable and more friendly, and the software has been redesigned with musicians - rather than programmers - in mind.
The package also includes installing software and a "jukebox" of demos, most of which are eminently listenable, though a couple are pedestrian and overlong. If you already have the 500, you can upgrade your software and manual to this new package for a paltry £69 - and it's worth every penny.
The software comes in two parts. Part 1 is the essential music control language, AMPLE Nucleus, on ROM. Part 2 is a set of disk overlays that provide friendly front ends to the language for those who hate computer languages, but like computer sounds. You can use a cassette system if you like, but I wouldn't recommend it; you'll be forever winding and rewinding to get the right overlay for the job.
AMPLE Nucleus is not at heart very different from the earlier version of AMPLE, AMPLE BCE. According to Chris Jordan of Hybrid, anything BCE can do, Nucleus can do as well. However, to make it do some of those things, you need an additional Programmer's Manual which is still in the pipeline. And it's this Manual that you'll need before you can start to tinker with the innards of sounds, since whereas BCE gives you several routes into sound synthesis, Nucleus, in its basic form, provides none. In particular, you can't create your own waveforms, amplitude envelopes or pitch envelopes. You will eventually be able to do such things, but not immediately and perhaps not easily.
So at first sight, Nucleus looks like a let-down for sound programmers. But for your average musician, Nucleus is an infinite improvement over BCE. BCE gave you 13 preset waveforms and 3 envelopes, without telling you what was what. Until you found your way around the system, it was hard to know which were pitch envelopes and which were amplitude, what they were for, and how they might usefully be combined. And you had no instruments to use until you managed to figure this out.
Nucleus gives you 14 waveforms, 17 amplitude envelopes and 17 pitch envelopes. Each has a descriptive name like "burst", "reedy" or "pow", which gives a fair idea of its properties and "proper" use. Each is also described in the manual, verbally and visually (so even bass players will be able to understand), with waveforms getting both a harmonic and a geometric illustration. These waves and envelopes give over 4000 combination sounds before you even begin to experiment with multi-channel instruments, stereo positioning, and the various available modulations (synchronisation, frequency modulation, ring modulation and phase setting, as with BCE).
BUT IF YOU want to, you can forget all this because you also get 14 preset instruments: cymbal (the weakest, too jangling), drum (a good drum-machine bass drum), elguit (electric guitar, convincing within a small range, and still interesting outside it), ironpipe (somewhere between a blown milk bottle and a steel digeridoo, very resonant), moog (yes, it is), organ (good church organ, extremely convincing in chords), panflute (evocative pipes), ringsyn (synthesiser using ring modulation, a good lead instrument), simpleins (a pseudo-instrument for experimenting with, but still pleasant), slapbass (slapped bass guitar), upright (upright piano, a la honky tonk, and surprisingly realistic), vibglock (a clear FM metal glockenspiel), wha (the obligatory silly human voice) and yakbell (a long-haired cowbell).
These can be used instantly and are always available.
There are 25 more listed in the manual for typing in, and the demo tunes provide another half-dozen that can be lifted into your own pieces.
For the price and versatility of this synth, I find the quality of some of the sounds unbelievable. And designing your own instruments is simplicity itself. Using the Notepad editor (one of the aforementioned user interfaces), you modify an existing instrument through pop-up menus and simple keyboard toggles, or you write your own from scratch using Notepad as a text editor which compiles your description into an AMPLE word.
Admittedly, it is hard to produce "full" sounds in a complete piece. Either you give the eight simultaneous "players" different two-channel instruments, in which case you get interesting variety across the piece but a sound space that is seldom full; or you create big chordal and multi-channel instruments which make magnificent sounds, but relatively uninteresting pieces because there are not enough of them.
Sixteen channels divided into eight voices might seem a lot, but it doesn't go very far. For example, a simple band could take, say, four voices for lead chords, one for bass, two for a drum-kit (on which only two instruments can play at a time, but several instruments can be available to play) and one for echo. All the voices are thus used up on a band whose sounds are still a little thin on the ground. On the other hand, where else could you get a fully-equipped digital band for under £170?
Talking of echo, this is one of several new features which are not built in to BCE, though they can be achieved if you understand AMPLE programming well enough. Both the length of the delay and the number of echoes can be controlled, up to a maximum of seven echoes (each echo requires a voice which is doing nothing else at the time). This enables a range of effects from simple reverb (short delay, single echo), to "tape loop" repetition or echoing of riffs across different instruments.
Other new effects are autopanning (automatically moving a sound across the stereo image) and pitch slide (over quarter-semitone intervals), which allows portamento and pitch-bend effects. Unfortunately, autopan and slide can't be used at the same time, though I suppose you can't have everything.
So you can have instant sounds and instant effects, both good and both a major improvement on BCE. But what about music?
YOU CAN ALWAYS use AMPLE to write your music. Those of you familiar with AMPLE BCE will know that "0: CDcDG" is a tune. Those of you trained to read music might not be so sure. Enter friendly user interface number two. Traditionally, music is written on a staff or stave. So the system offers a staff editor. This acknowledges Island Logic's Music System as a model, providing a visual editor of musical key signatures, time signatures, accidentals, notes and all the rest(s). Just about everything you could write on music paper is possible in the staff editor, including triplets, slurs and chords. It's also possible to incorporate additional AMPLE signs to do such things as add accents (another new feature) and write percussive scores (yet another).
Even if you have no real knowledge of musical notation, this is a very easy editor to use. The only difficulty with it (common with many computer music editors), is that it's not possible to see more than one part at a time. So if you compose at the keyboard rather than on the backs of envelopes, matching notes from different parts (eg. for harmonies) will probably involve some trial and error.
Scores written in BCE can, with minor alterations, be transferred to Nucleus, though they have to be treated as text files. However, non-score information cannot be transferred. So you can't, for example, define a waveform in BCE and load it into Nucleus, though you will be able to use tunes created on the Nucleus Staff Editor in BCE programs.
And there's more. Having written your piece of several parts, and designed the instruments to play it, you would normally want to assign parts to instruments, place instruments in the stereo spectrum, switch instruments during playing, experiment with tempos and tuning, perhaps tinker with different instruments, and mix the whole lot together with a finely tuned volume setting for each instrument, which may change dynamically. All this you can do, through interface number three, the Mix editor.
This is an excellent idea - a visual equivalent of an eight-channel mixer, with graphic seven-position "pan pots" and volume "sliders", and verbal or numeric indications of the instruments on each track, tuning and tempo. Naturally this "soft" mixer is not fully equivalent to a hardware mixer. There are no auxiliary sends and no equalisation, for instance. In fact, AMPLE and the Music 5000 support no fine-tuning of "tone" at all, which is one reason why it would be nice to tinker with waveforms, to boost certain harmonics, say. And while there is a small "flash" whenever a note strikes on a given track which varies in intensity and duration, it does not give as much information as a VU meter.
But this mixer is great fun to use, as well as being a versatile control system for the dynamics of your piece. It's possible to alter the piece as it plays, so given output to a tape deck, live mixes are possible. However, the mixer is designed primarily for experimentation towards a preferred mix, or a series of mixes, which become the program for the piece. Once compiled, using an AMPLE word called MAKE, these become the permanent structure of the piece. You can MAKE any number of different mixes under different names and string them together for a complete piece, or you can stick with a single mix.
PUTTING THIS ALL together, you get a computer music system which can be used at several different levels of sophistication. The lowest is the electronic jukebox - a disk of musical pieces selected and played from a menu. Next up, you can make your own pieces and mixes using the present instruments. More ambitious, you can create your own instruments at the toggle of a Return key. And when that is too simple, there's the complete AMPLE language to manipulate almost every imaginable musical feature. To give a few examples - broken chords can be timed to begin before the keynote, riffs can be transposed by a single command, dynamic and accent levels can be altered during a piece, and the gate period of notes can be modified.
It's hard to imagine a more versatile budget computer music system, and hard to see how it could be controlled more simply. Hybrid have combined a synthesiser, a mixer and a digital recorder, made them extremely easy to use, and capped it all by incorporating the kinds of sound home musicians used to dream about.
Price £161 including VAT