Writing new music software seems to be the most popular current preoccupation for the world's music and computer industries. We take a look at six of the latest packages to hit the UK.
As more and more musicians become aware of the potential of the home computer, software companies large and small are releasing new music packages on an almost daily basis. Some of the software is MIDI-compatible, some of it limits the user to micros' internal sound chips, but almost all of it is well-designed and user-friendly. And the best may be yet to come.
The Commodore 64, now the world's largest-selling home computer, is ideally suited as an introduction to computerised music. It has a powerful sound chip, (the sadly much-maligned Sound Interface Device or SID), plenty of available peripherals, and a wealth of useful software. Until now, though, it's suffered, as have all home computers, from being unplayable in the strictly instrumental sense.
There are some products available that enable you to upgrade your 64 to a 'real' musical instrument. The Autographies Microsound 64 music keyboard (£169) and the LVL Echo 1 (£99) are just two examples. But for the less than fully-committed computer musician, what's been missing is a cheap alternative - enter the Music Maker.
This tastefully-named unit (obviously someone at Commodore reads all the right magazines) costs a mere £29.95, and includes a clip-on two-octave mini-keyboard, a software package on either standard disk or tape, a set of keyboard stickers and a music book. The book is from the SFX series by Music Sales, the UK's biggest sheet music publishers, who have been developing the Music Maker in conjunction with Commodore. It's especially designed for home keyboards in particular, and is thus quite appropriate for the Music Maker system, which provides a similar range of capabilities to the smaller Casio or Yamaha home instruments.
A clip-on plastic keyboard fits over the top two rows of the 64's QWERTY keys, and though it appears a little flimsy, it does its job adequately.
On loading, the software presents a menu from which selections are made using the function keys situated to the right of the keyboard.
You can start to play music right away, selecting a backing rhythm (with or without a bass line), and playing a solo over the top on the keyboard. Alternatively, you can go into Poly mode and play three-note chords, though since this leaves no oscillators free for modulation, the sounds tend to be a little on the sparse side.
What you must bear in mind is that the SID chip has only three voices, though filtering, waveshape and ADSR parameters are nonetheless highly controllable. Your 64 is never going to sound like a DX7 so long as SID is exclusively involved, but it will give good impersonations of a monosynth such as a Jen, a Transcendent, or a simple Casio. In fact, one of the major features of Music Maker is comparable to the system used on the popular Casio VL-Tone. In the sequencer mode you can enter the notes of a melody without any regard for timing, subsequently setting the tempo by tapping one key in sync with a metronome sound. It's therefore easy to build up convincing bass, rhythm and lead compositions with no musical ability whatsoever...
More adventurous users will probably want to experiment further than the 10 preset sounds allow, and this is achieved by the Voice Modify page. This allows most of the SID chip's internal parameters to be controlled. ADSR, in 15 steps; selection of triangle, sawtooth, pulse or noise waveforms; pulse width; low-pass, band-pass or high-pass filters; and resonance and cutoff frequency control: all modified with a simple function key selection.
Both voices and compositions can be saved to tape or disk, and there are three demo tunes included with the software package - 'Georgia', 'Snow Waltz', and, appropriately, 'When I'm 64'.
A couple of features of the system have obviously been incorporated at the advice of an experienced multi-instrumentalist. Take as an example the Tune function (controlled by the cursor keys) or the pitch-bend (accessed via the space bar) which makes the 64 sound a little like a MiniMoog, though not a CS80 - the bend doesn't work in Poly mode.
Three points to bear in mind.
First, Commodore have designed the Music Maker package to appeal largely to children who've become bored with zapping Space Invaders. Don't let this put you off. If the sequencing and synthesis facilities made available by the package are used to the full, there's no reason why they shouldn't be gainfully employed by serious musicians. Secondly, the actual quality of the sound output is never going to be anything special. The SID chip's audio output can be linked up to a hi-fi or other external amplification quite easily for better results, and guidance on how to do this is given in both the Music Maker literature and the Commodore 64 Programmers' Reference Guide. However, a significant amount of noise reduction will still be required should you wish to use the 64's built-in sounds for any serious home recording purposes.
Thirdly, if the facilities offered by Music Maker seem primitive compared to packages such as Waveform's MusiCalc, it's worth bearing in mind that Commodore are planning several other compatible software/hardware releases such as the forthcoming ProSynth and SFX packages. These will allow full use of the SID chip's facilities - including modulation, ring mod, sync and dynamic filtering - along with multitrack composition and graphic displays of music notation that can be converted to hard copy using a suitable printer.
Once these packages are available, Music Maker should represent a fascinating compositional synthesis set-up. Moreover, if you're still not convinced by the song of the SID chip, there have been tantalising rumours that Commodore have plans to introduce hardware that will allow the 64 to be synchronised to commercial synthesisers. Whether this means an implementation of MIDI, or something more individual from a company with a strong reputation for going its own way, time alone will tell.
But for the moment, the Music Maker system is an amusing and useful package that's cheap enough to be attractive and holds out the promise of better things to come.
Further details from The Commodore Information Centre, (Contact Details); or Music Sales, (Contact Details); or Siel UK.
Review by Chris Jenkins
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