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Music on-line (Part 1)

A Guide to Computers and Communications for the Musician.

Believe it or not, your computer can do considerably more than just go wrong! The burgeoning world of telecommunications offers the musician access to international 'electronic mail' and 'bulletin board' systems, free music software, information databases, help and sound advice. Richard Elen begins a new series that explores how today's top musicians are taking advantage of such systems and tells how you can join in.


Apple Macintosh - the 'friendly' computer.


All over the Western world, musicians are using computers to an ever-increasing extent. In earlier days, the omnipresent microprocessor was simply a part of your synthesizer or dedicated sequencer, which handled memory and functions and made sure that the right commands got to the right places and did the right things. Today, however, there is a general feeling that while dedicated sequencers are fine for convenience, especially on the road, they lack the sophistication and wealth of applications that are offered by a general purpose microcomputer system running suitable software. Several manufacturers are now offering comprehensive music software to run on a number of computer systems, handling such diverse applications as music sequencing (indeed, modern programs are sufficiently clever as to deserve the term 'MIDI Control Programs' rather than 'sequencer'), organising synthesized or sampled sounds into banks and editing them, music scoring and printing, and even mixing console automation.

The same technology has put users in touch with each other. Almost any modern computer system is capable, with the addition of a small amount of hardware and software, of being used to communicate with other users down an ordinary telephone line, either directly or via other computers. As a result, musicians all over the world can share their thoughts, news and observations on what's happening in the music technology field. They can keep in touch on the road with the office, the record company and even the lawyers. And, in addition, they can share files - containing programs, sounds and sample - with about as much difficulty as copying a disk.

THE HARDWARE



Before looking into the communications facilities available for the musician, it is as well to examine what you need to do to take advantage of such facilities. First of all, of course, you need a computer system. In theory, almost any computer will do, but in practice you need to use a system which will be the most appropriate for the application.

If you're on the road, a compact portable computer is the best bet. These come in several shapes and sizes, and are quite inexpensive. Favourite of many musicians is the Tandy (Radio Shack) Model 100 or Model 200 (or similar machines from NEC or Olivetti). Both these machines are small enough to fit into a briefcase or overnight bag, and include communications and word processing software. Slightly more expensive models also include a built-in modem (modulator-demodulator) which converts a data stream from the computer into a series of international standard tones which can be sent down the phone line to a distant computer.

The Tandy and similar machines are fine for sending and receiving messages via electronic mail (commonly referred to as 'E-Mail') but they are of limited use for handling sounds, music programs and samples, simply because there is no serious music software around which runs on these micros.

The majority of music software writers have concentrated on more sophisticated desktop machines like the Apple Macintosh, because of their greater flexibility. If you are going to be using computer telecommunications for specifically music-related applications (rather than sending messages), then it is best to look at the computer you are using for the majority of your music. If you haven't got one yet, and you anticipate making use of the services detailed in this series, then there are some points to be aware of.

The most common 'business computer' in the world is certainly the IBM PC and its clones and variants. But although there is music software for these machines, it isn't very common, partially because while these systems are fine for word processing, database management, and the usual run-of-the-mill 'automated office' functions, they are too unfriendly for the majority of musicians. And if they are made friendly by the addition of specialised software - like Digital Research's GEM system - they are often rather slow. MIDI uses a lot of data, and quite fast.

Instead, a great deal of attention has focused on the new generation of machines utilising the 68000 microprocessor chip. There are three such machines: the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST series, and the Apple Macintosh range.

The Amiga is a remarkable machine, but it is suffering a great deal from lack of software, especially in the music field: so much so that its future always seems to be the subject of doubt and rumour. And its comprehensive colour graphics facilities - which make it ideal for many computer graphics applications - constitute overkill for the majority of musicians and make it rather expensive for the job.

The Atari ST series offers almost certainly the most power for the money of any microcomputer on the market today. A complete system built around the Atari 1040ST, for example, comes in under a grand. And powerful music software like the Steinberg Pro-24 system costs only a few hundred pounds. Interestingly, however, the majority of music-related software for the Atari seems to have been developed in Europe: despite the work of such companies as Hybrid Arts and Dr T, the US market has yet to move in this direction. And as both the major communications services we will be discussing in this series are US-based, however good an Atari system maybe, you simply won't be able to use most of the material derived from these sources.

The introduction to 'DX-WIT', a 'public domain' random DX7 patch builder program downloaded from PAN.

If the Americans aren't using Ataris or Amigas, what are they using? The answer is the Apple Macintosh. A Mac is about one and a half times the price of a comparable Atari, but in the US that price difference is less important. What the Mac has - and especially the newer models, like the 1 Megabyte Macintosh Plus - is the performance and the right combination of facilities to make it ideal for many creative applications, whether they be graphics (monochrome only), music or desktop publishing. The Mac has established itself as the computer for the creative community, just as the IBM PC is the standard in business. And there's loads of software for every possible application.

The Mac was the first commercial machine to use a sophisticated graphic 'desktop simulation' as the basis of its 'user interface', making it the friendliest and easiest-to-use computer around. Digital Research's GEM graphics system, standard on the Atari ST and available for the IBM (ie. the Amstrad PC), is but a pale copy of the Macintosh operating system: it is both much slower and much less flexible. It's also less easy for the software developer to use.

Armed with a Macintosh as the centre of your computer music system, virtually every file on the communication systems we'll be talking about here will be open to you. Most sound banks - especially those for Yamaha systems - are stored in the Opcode format: Opcode sell editor and librarian programs for a wide range of synthesizers. Sample files are in the Digidesign Sound Designer format. Manufacturers like Southworth Music - the makers of the excellent Total Music sequencing software and interface package - post their latest software updates on-line for registered users to download, to save waiting for the disk to arrive.

COMMUNICATIONS SOFTWARE



To communicate from your computer, you will need a communications software package, and your computer will have to be fitted with a serial port to connect the modem. Most computers today have such a port, usually conforming to RS232 specifications. If not, you can usually obtain a communications card or interface from your dealer. The portable micros mentioned above have such facilities built-in, and MIDI software often uses built-in serial ports, so if you are already using music software on your system, it will probably possess such a port. If you're in doubt, check with your dealer.

Basically, a communications program enables you to type at the keyboard and have the stream of characters issued from the serial port, into the modem, and thus via the phone line to a distant computer - and back again to your screen.

Your dealer should also be able to supply a communications software package to suit your machine. These cost varying amounts - and do check that you don't have one already before you spend any money. Lurking on the utility disks supplied with your machine may well be a little program called 'Async', 'Terminal' or 'Telcom' - in which case, you need look no further.

If you have to buy a package, you may also find that there are very cost-effective programs available to get you started. These can often be obtained from user groups and some dealers, under the heading 'public domain' software or 'shareware'. Public domain programs are free, and should only cost you the price of the disk on which to store them. Shareware is an enterprising scheme that enables software to be distributed free of charge: but you are expected to pay for it if you like it and use it. The idea originated in the USA (where it's also known as the 'honorware' system) and it enables very high quality programs to be be made available at low cost. The disadvantage of the system is that many of the originators of the programs are in the States, and they expect donations in US funds. Shareware is a great idea, and shouldn't be abused: in other words, if you do like the program, do make the effort and pay for it. You'll find that many of the downloadable programs available on the US networks are shareware, and the same applies there. If you like them, pay for them or they'll cease to exist.

Here is a short list of communication programs for some of the common computers. I have deliberately excluded the more down-market machines: the services discussed here are not that expensive, but they aren't cheap. If you're not using computers in music professionally, they may well be out of your range.

The programs are those which I personally have found the most effective, but they aren't the only ones by any means. There is a case for starting off with a simple program that supports XMODEM, as it may well be possible to download excellent shareware or public domain programs from the networks to do the job (this doesn't apply to the BBC Micro, which is virtually unknown in the States, and there aren't any programs for it whatsoever on the networks).

ComputerProgramNotes
Atari ST ST-Term Public Domain: ask your dealer or friends with ST's.
IBM PC Crosstalk XVI Commercial: an outstanding program.
BBC Micro A free program is available from Esi (see later) for subscribers. Does not support download/upload.
Macintosh Red Ryder Shareware ($40). Excellent. Ask friends and dealers.
MicroPhone Commercial: includes YMODEM as well as other protocols.
Tandy 100/200 Computers include inbuilt 'Telcom' software.


THE MODEM



Armed with a suitable computer and software, the next step is to obtain a modem - a piece of hardware designed to enable your computer to talk to another via a phone line. There are many modems available, and several different standards by which they communicate with each other. In North America, the standard tone system is the Bell specification, which allows for communication at a number of different speeds. In Europe and most of the rest of the world, the similar CCITT system is used. Unfortunately, these systems are different in some respects, although the principle is the same. As a result, you need to look at where you're going to be situated when you make the phone call, before you decide which modem to buy.

'Red Ryder'- an example of a superb 'shareware' comms program downloaded from the US Performing Arts Network (PAN).

Luckily, all the calls you'll make to a system like those described here will involve you in no more than a local phone call. To access an American system like PAN (Performing Arts Network), for example, from the UK, you will simply dial a local phone number and tap into the British data network, called PSS (Packet Switch Stream). This is a network much like the telephone network, but specifically designed to handle computer data. Other countries have their local equivalents.

All the major computer database and communications systems in the world - including those discussed here - have their own 'Network User Address' or NUA, equivalent to a phone number. To access them, you simply log on to the data network, enter your 'Network User Identity' or NUI - a kind of password to gain access to the network - and enter the NUA of the system you want. You will then be routed through to it, and be asked to sign on to the system you've reached.

Using such a data network costs money - 25p per minute for 300 baud, 3p per minute at 1200 baud - but it is far more reliable and much less expensive than an international phone call. It also means that if you are based in the UK or Europe, you only need to know about the CCITT tone standard, and not Bell. If you go on the road a good deal, however, and end up touring the States, you will need a modem that can handle both Bell and CCITT, or use a communications speed ('baud rate') and modem where both standards are just about the same (namely the Bell 1200 baud specification: see later)

BITS, BAUDS, DUPLEX & PARITY



Apart from the difference between Bell and CCITT specs, you need to consider the data transmission rate, and other aspects of data communication protocol. The faster the communication speed, the quicker (obviously) it is to transfer a file: so it's generally cheaper. But faster-operating modems are more expensive. The data rate is expressed in 'baud' (bits per second). Here are some of the different systems commonly in use:

Bell 300 baud. Commonly used in the USA. 300 baud, full-duplex (see later). Incompatible with CCITT: avoid unless you're going to the States.

Bell 1200 baud. Also common in the States. 1200 baud, full-duplex. Compatible enough with CCITT V22 (see later) to work internationally. Modems are cheap ($99 up) but they are theoretically forbidden to use in the UK, so you can't buy them here.

CCITT V21. The commonest system used in Britain. 300 baud, full-duplex. Cheap and effective.

CCITT V23. 75 baud send, 1200 baud receive. Commonly available in the UK (generally for Prestel). Great for receiving (1200 baud is four times the rate of 300) but slow to send (75 baud is same as telex rate). Can give problems with international networks.

CCITT V22. 1200 baud, full-duplex. Very fast and efficient, but the modems are expensive (£500 for example). If they were permitted, I would recommend importing a Bell 1200 model, but they aren't.

'7th Heaven' - a screen dump of an educational program available on PAN.

There are also other protocols, like 1200/1200 half-duplex. This is useful for transferring files between friends, but not much else. There are several multi-standard CCITT modems on the market, and they often offer this as an added option. Then there's the Bell 2400 standard, and CCITT V22bis. These both operate at 2400 baud, full-duplex - terrifyingly fast - but they are currently rather expensive here. Avoid them for the time being.

The terms full-duplex and half-duplex have been mentioned above, and they're important to understand. They apply primarily to your communications software. Half-duplex means that when you type on the keyboard, your words are displayed on your screen as well as being sent to the remote computer. You need half-duplex if you're talking direct to a friend's computer, but seldom otherwise. Full-duplex is more usual: you type and it is sent to the remote computer, which 'echoes' your characters back to your screen, thus confirming that the remote system actually received what you sent. Most networks operate this way. Most software will work in both full and half-duplex.

Then there's the number of data bits, the number of stop bits, and the parity. Parity is a simple method of error-correction: it can be odd, even, none or ignored, and in truth is of little use in our kind of application, although it must still be set correctly for communication to be effective. The number of data bits (usually seven or eight) determines the range of characters that can be sent. Seven is fine for messages (the standard ASCII character set contains all the letters of the alphabet, upper and lower case, and numerals plus punctuation, and still doesn't use up all seven bits) but to transfer data and program files, you need to have eight. Some British systems can't handle eight bits, which means they can't be used for anything other than simple text. This can be a problem (see later). Stop bits mark the end of each character sent or received: usually there's one of them.

When you contact a network, there will usually be information about the settings in your communications software that the network expects - generally found in the manual or user notes. The information will include the baud rate (although if you are accessing via PSS, you can take your pick), data bits, stops bits and parity. The latter three parameters are usually given in shorthand; for example: 8N1 means eight data bits, no parity, one stop bit (this is the most common setting); 7E1 means seven data bits, even parity, one stop bit (this is used to access Esi Street from the UK - see later - but 8N1 will work).

There will usually be a specific telephone number you dial to access a service at a specific baud rate. If you get garbage when you try to log on, it's usually either due to line noise (in which case you should see some recognisable characters - hang up and try again) or the wrong phone number for the baud rate you're set up for. Remember that the baud rate is set in the communications program and often in the modem: make sure they correspond, and that you've dialled the correct telephone number.

Another thing to note is the question of 'originate' and 'answer' modes. These modes select the tone frequencies used, and in any data communication you must be set to the opposite mode from the modem at the other end of the line. In general, networks operate in 'answer' mode, so you will generally use 'originate'. If you are contacting a friend with a computer, however, the pair of you must set your modems to opposite modes. Before switching in the modems, decide who is going to do what.

ACOUSTIC OR DIRECT?



Apart from data rates, there are basically two modem types: acoustic couplers and direct-connect modems. The latter are the more reliable - they plug into a standard British Telecom phone socket and often offer auto-dial facilities where the number is re-dialled for you if the phone line is engaged. But if you go abroad, or want to use a phone line that doesn't have a socket, you're stuck. Here, acoustic couplers are useful. These have a pair of transducers - essentially a speaker and a microphone - which issue and receive the tones, and you simply push the telephone handset (the right way round!) into the rubber cups provided. It works, but they are less reliable than direct-connect units - you suffer the vagaries of the handset's mic and earpiece, and you can lose data if these aren't kept in good condition.

Two of the most cost-effective modems on the market in the UK are the DaCom Buzzbox and the Epson CX-21. The former is a compact, direct-connect, battery-powered 300 baud, full-duplex (V21) modem designed for use in the UK with standard 600-series modular phone sockets. It is reasonably priced (about £90) and available from many high street computer dealers. Its only disadvantage is that it uses a DIN socket (unusual) to connect to the computer, so be sure to obtain a lead - or at least the pin-out numbering for one - from your dealer.

The Epson CX-21 is a portable acoustic coupler, which operates according to the V21 300 baud spec. And inside the unit is a switch which enables it to operate on the Bell 300 baud standard — useful for touring. It runs on an internal NiCad battery pack, so be sure to obtain a suitable charger if you take it to the States! It costs about £160 and has a standard 25-way 'D' connector for connection to your computer.

Modems for the other specifications listed above vary in price. Most interesting and cost-effective are probably those from Miracle Technology (Contact Details). Some of these feature both Bell and CCITT operation, but remember that Bell specs are only really useful if you are actually in the United States.

In Part 2 next month, Richard Elen details exactly how to set about going 'on-line', how to access the various musician's networks like PAN and Esi Street, and takes a look at what you can do once logged on.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

In evaluating communications software, look out for the following points:

- Avoid a program which only offers communication with Prestel. While it is possible - at least in theory - to access the US systems with a Prestel terminal, it's far more trouble than it's worth. None of the systems described here are anything like Prestel.

- Avoid a program that only works with a particular modem: this will limit your options. The exception here is the so-called 'Hayes protocol': this is a virtually international standard for computer-to-modem control, and all programs which offer 'Hayes compatibility' will work with non-Hayes compatible modems - you simply won't be able to use some of the more sophisticated functions, like auto-dial, which may be built-into the software.

- If you intend to download files from a system, rather than simply reading and sending messages, get a program which supports one of the several 'error-correcting' systems. These are methods of file transfer which enable the data being sent or received to be checked for errors as they occur, and correct them automatically (usually by dividing the file into 'blocks', and if an error occurs, sending the scrambled block again). The most common protocol is XMODEM, and this is available on most networks. Another is Kermit (!), but this is a little more time-consuming. Most effective of all-because it uses larger blocks, and thus incurs less of an overhead in terms of error correction versus data - is probably a system called YMODEM, but it isn't available on many programs or networks, so its value is limited at present.

- The program should also be able to download (capture from the network) and upload (send to the network) text files (generally called 'ASCII files' after the standard character description system used in computing) in the same format as your word processing program. This enables you to write messages with your word processor and send them to the network, rather than typing them 'live' on-line, which costs money in the form of connect-time (more about this later). Similarly, you can download interesting messages or E-Mail and read them at your leisure.


Series

Read the next part in this series:
Music on-line (Part 2)



Previous Article in this issue

The New Age Music Conundrum

Next article in this issue

Edits


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Jan 1987

Series:

Music On-Line

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2


Feature by Richard Elen

Previous article in this issue:

> The New Age Music Conundrum

Next article in this issue:

> Edits


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