LEMI Future Shock and AMP 83
MIDI Hardware and Software for Apple II Micro
Last month we looked at six software packages, but not one of them was written for the Apple and its lookalikes. LEMI's MIDI system is one that is, as David Ellis discovers.
After months of Commodore, Spectrum and BBC MIDI domination, the Apple bites back with some new Italian hardware and software.
For some reason or other, the Apple II has emerged as one of the least popular contenders in the MIDI applications stakes. As last month's Software Surplus demonstrated, everyone's rushing around the Commodore 64 and Spectrum like bees round a honey pot, but for all the look that the Apple gets in the picture, you might be led to believe that it has as much going for it in the direction of advancing science as a ton of Golden Delicious descending on Isaac Newton's head.
In fact, the Apple makes a pretty good starting point for any MIDI system, purely and simply because it doesn't suffer from some of the failings inherent in much of the opposition. For instance, any disk-based software running on the Commodore 64 is beset with a gremlin-infiltrated disk drive and DOS that'd give even Stephen Spielberg nightmares about what Snow White and her dwarves get up to in the forest - and no jokes about poisoned apples, either. Returning to the (in)sanity of the Spectrum point of view, there's the dubious pleasure of its rubbery keyboard, dodgy edge connector, and erratic cassette interface. So, in contrast, the venerable Apple looks like a breath of fresh air, with a decent DOS that can be souped-up with some of the fast DOS options on the market, a thoroughly workable keyboard, and of course, those expansion connectors on the motherboard that lend the Apple to MIDIfication with the minimum of hassle.
The only thorn in the flesh is the cost of the thing, but there is some sign (at long last) that Apple may be bringing down the cost of the IIe to a more equitable level. And if not, there are always the lookalikes and secondhand Apple IIs (down to the cost of a BBC Micro these days) to consider.
Until recently, the only Apple MIDI card that's been available is that from Passport Designs in the States, along with their MIDI/4 4-track sequencing software (reviewed in E&MM September 84). The card alone carries the fairly hefty price tag of $195 (translating into a UK price of just over the £200 mark), which is pushing it a bit for something that's really just a handful of chips on a smallish PCB with a trio of dangling DIN sockets. Especially when you consider that what's on it is little more than the sort of RS232 circuitry that's being pumped out with gay abandon by umpteen clone manufacturers in Taiwan for less than £30 a go. And any hopes that Yamaha would produce their own Apple MIDI card seem to have been dissipated by the news that their software (when/if it comes out) will use the Passport card. So all in all, the Apple owner seems to be getting a bit of a raw deal.
Which is where the Italian firm of LEMI step into the picture with their package of MIDI software and hardware. The card in question comprises the usual assortment of ACIA, opto-isolator and parallel port, but curiously, it also incorporates a 2716 ROM, which seems to have something to do with the 'AMP 83' software that's also available for running with the hardware. What makes the LEMI card potentially more hard-wearing and professional than the Passport version is the fact that all the MIDI DIN sockets (3 Out and 1 In), together with the external clock and footswitch jacks are mounted in a separate chunky aluminium box that connects via a multicore cable to the MIDI card in the Apple. I heartily approve of this, but there's no doubt that it also adds to the cost of the hardware - a still reasonable £120 (in Italy, anyway).
...is the software, which in the case of LEMI's home-grown program goes by the bizarre title of 'Future Shock'. This costs £60, comes on a single copyable disk, and provides the capabilities of an eight-track, real time, overdubbable sequencer. There's also a manual, which is currently undergoing a painful transmogrification from the original Italian into the Queen's English. As LEMI point out, sequencers need to be easy to understand, and that's also true of the manuals that come with them. In fact, the Future Shock software meets this requirement admirably by using single-key instructions arranged in alphabetical order. So for instance, the command 'A' switches on auto-repeat, 'B' sets beats per minute, 'C' clears a track of notes,and so on to 'Z', which zeroes bars down to zilch. And to make all this plain even to Adam, there's also a Help page (accessed with the command 'H', not surprisingly) which lists all these commands just in case you've forgotten any of them.
There's actually only one other display page involved in the software (meaning that yours truly doesn't have to take any more of his customary appalling screen-shots...), and it's here that you do battle with the MIDI bytes. The first thing to note is that the serried ranks of MIDI events are shown as horizontal bars across the screen: A long bar means lots of notes (relatively speaking) on that track, and no bar means no notes at all. Down in the bottom right-hand corner, there's a counter which shows how many pages of memory you've used up: With all the tracks empty, it shows '92', which translates into something like 23K-worth of RAM. When a particular track is recorded onto (by pressing 'R' for record, '1 ' to '8' for the track number, 'G' to go, and the space bar to put everything in motion), whatever's left of those 92 pages will be 'dynamically allocated' (trendy term for 'every man for himself...') to that track. So, doing that on all eight tracks means you end up with a maximum of around 5800 MIDI events or 2900 notes (a figure that plummets downwards if modulation wheels and the like are engaged) spread around the Apple's memory.
Now, it strikes me that 2900 notes in 23K isn't inordinately generous by the standards set by other MIDI software packages. Passport's MIDI/4 software manages to find space for 4000 notes, for instance, and Siel's Live Sequencer (admittedly on the Commodore 64) quotes space for 9000 events. It'd be nice to see LEMI using data compression techniques to remove redundant bytes of MIDI data, or adding something along the lines of the compaction facility that's provided in the UMI BBC Micro MIDI package. Another obvious addition would be to provide the user with the option of using a RAM card for more event storage. As it happens a £40 16K RAM card (which the majority of Apple owners will probably have already) would open up space for another 2500 events, and I'm reliably informed that the next version of the software (out in January) will include this facility.
The recording side of any MIDI software is a pretty mechanical operation - either the MIDI bytes get recorded or they don't, and if it's the latter, you soon know about it. Luckily this side of Future Shock's operation seemed faultless, in that what you get is precisely what you put in (as far as I could judge, anyway). The only problem is that using a Yamaha DX7 as the source of MIDI events demonstrated in no uncertain way how using aftertouch chews up those 92 pages of memory. Actually my own feeling is that the recording of MIDI frills like release velocity and after-touch should be options that are selectable on recording, or alternatively, you should be able to edit them out at the production stage (with something like the UMI compaction facility) if that's what you want. Again, this is something that's already occurred to LEMI, and a later version of Future Shock will have an 'O' (for options) command that allow the user to decide whether or not he or she wants aftertouch and mod wheel data to be entered into the Apple's frames of reference.
In fact, 'options' could be said to be the cornerstone of the LEMI software. For instance, a quantisation option (accessed with the 'Q' command) allows each track to be quantised independently at a particular level on playback. This is a much more musical way of going about things than the Sequential Circuits 64 Sequencer, which obliges you to set the quantisation level on record and live with the results. Furthermore, the 64 Sequencer only quantises forwards to the nearest note, whereas the LEMI software will quantise both back and forth depending on which is nearest.
Next, there's the 'D' (for disable) option which selectively cuts out tracks on playback - ideal if you're using sync-to tape from a connected drum machine to record each of the eight tracks onto a multitrack machine. Also on the menu is an auto-repeat facility which operates on each track independently. Thus, if you record a couple of bars on Track 1, you can auto-repeat them to form a riff basis for further tracks, with each of the subsequent tracks having their own assignable loopings dependent on how many bars are recorded onto them. LEMI are also contemplating adding a means of specifying over how many bars these individual loopings are to take place on each track, which should make this part of the software an even more flexible friend.
Also equally independent is the 'T' (for transpose) command, which allows each track to be transposed separately in semitone steps up to an octave above or below the original. In contrast, the equivalent function on the Passport MIDI/4 software requires all the tracks to be transposed at the same time. Another area where the LEMI package has a point of comparison with Passport's software is in the area of mixing tracks together. The beauty of the LEMI implementation is that when tracks are mixed together, they retain their MIDI channels. This facility also serves in a different direction - that of providing what LEMI call 'an intelligent punch-in/punch-out' facility. To start this editing process, the 'Z' (for zero) option is engaged to erase a certain number of bars on a particular track. Once that's done, another track is engaged with the same MIDI channel selected, the new notes put down in the gap left by the zeroing, and the two tracks then mixed together to recreate a new, (probably) faultless original. Now that's what I call intelligent. In contrast, the Passport 'punch-in' facility obliges you to re-record the entire track right from the point where you punched-in: in other words there's no punch-out whatsoever.
Other Future Shock options include seven different time signature modes, a bar counter at the bottom of the screen, a click-track box at the top left flashing and clicking away (with an over-sized flash and a louder click for the down-beat), plus all manner of disk operations that allow you to save or load tracks individually or en masse.
In addition to Future Shock, LEMI also market a software package called 'AMP 83', originating from the States and written by one O Z Flail. The approach this takes to MIDI sequencing is markedly different to that of Future Shock, Indeed, whereas the latter makes a virtue out of simplicity, AMP 83 positively revels in multiple menus and convoluted commands - not that the results aren't impressive, I hasten to add. The point is that this is one suite of programs where a manual is a necessity (no Help pages this time round...), so it was rather unfortunate that LEMI's sole UK market at present - Computer Music Studios - saw fit to nab the AMP 83 manual and not return it in time for the Editor's deadline.
Briefly, though, the AMP 83 software comprises both a step- and real-time sequencer, and a collection of-well, let's say more experimental - programs. The capacity for the sequencer is claimed to be 4000 notes, and these can be divided up over 16 soft tracks. As with Future Shock, quantisation options are provided, as are transpositions, editing et al. The editing facilities look promising (though the resultant display is of the column and row variety I'm afraid) but more than that I can't say, as I got hopelessly lost without the manual.
Of the other programs provided on the disk (but all accessed via a main menu), those of current interest are the ones that do unusual things with MIDI data - the 'Keyboard Echo', 'Random Notes', and 'Keyboard Tracking' programs. Keyboard Echo cunningly simulates a DDL with no regeneration, and the delay time can be varied between a matter of milliseconds and up to a minute or so - great for doing Robert Fripp impersonations. This seems an imaginative way of using MIDI, but unfortunately the effect only works in isolation, not within tracks of the AMP 83 program.
This singularity of purpose is also true of the other two programs. As far as Random Notes is concerned, though, that's no love lost - a monophonic random note generator is really pretty mindless, whether it's via MIDI or any other route - but the Keyboard Tracking is a good idea, as it allows (among other things) keyboard filter tracking and tracking program changes if you've got access to System Exclusive codes, and is certainly worth inclusion in the context of a sequencer program.
Taken as it stands, the Future Shock software is a pretty good real-time MIDI sequencer. With the additions that are in the offing, it should easily stand comparison with the best around at present - the JMS 12-track Recording Studio and the rather pricey UMI software, for instance. The Apple MIDI card also seems a good buy, but it remains to be seen what the Italian price will translate into in the UK. The AMP 83 software (also £60) is something of a hodge-podge of programs that seems designed more for the average Apple hacker than the committed MIDI musician, but bear in mind that that comment is made in the absence of any instructional assistance.
Still, the success of LEMI's products depends ultimately on how widely they're distributed, and like other companies outside conventional technological trading routes, the Italian firm are finding it tough going. In fact, LEMI would be pleased to hear from any potential distributors in the UK, Europe, America or anywhere else on the surface of the globe. The man to contact is Felice Manzo at (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
Review by David Ellis
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