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Music On The PC

Atari and Mac users have been known to look down on the PC as an antiquated device with little relevance to modern music creation. Brian Heywood puts the story straight with a look at the PC's past, present and future as a first-class music machine.

It's been just over 11 years since IBM introduced their 16-bit 'Personal Computer' (PC) in August 1981. Although there were already a number of similar systems on the market, the entry of the world's largest computer maker almost overnight created a de-facto standard for 16-bit computing based on the Intel family of microprocessors (ie. the n86 chips). The subsequent explosion in power and reduction in price of PC systems has fuelled the personal computing revolution, and placed high quality music applications within everyone's budget.

The PC was used for musical applications almost as soon as it was introduced. At that time, the main personal computer in use for music was the Apple II, which was based on the 8-bit 6502 microprocessor. To quote Bruce Frazer, chief software guru of Voyetra Technologies, "It was the first PC type computer that was like 'wow, you could do music software on this computer!'. So we threw away our Apples and started using these". Technically, the PC was faster, had more memory, and better video and disk drive performance than the Apple. Voyetra immediately swapped development of their sequencer software to the PC, and developed their Sequencer Plus package, the first professional sequencer available for any personal computer.

The IBM compatible PC has come a long way since the original 4.77MHz machine with 128k of RAM and a single floppy (or cassette interface). With companies like Dell now selling a 66MHz 486 PC, with a Super VGA (SVGA) screen, 4MB of RAM and a 170MB hard disk for just over £2,000, high performance PC power is within most people's grasp. And if you don't need this amount of raw computing power, there will still be a PC based system to suit your requirements and your budget — you could buy a reconditioned Turbo PC/XT system for as little as £150.


There are four different flavours of PC, based on different types of Intel iAPX86 series microprocessors, namely the 086, 286, 386 and 486. The original PC and XT were based on the 8088 — which is a version of the 8086 processor — running at 4.77MHz, although most clones ran at 8MHz and were thus called Turbo PCs. The PC was superseded in 1984 by the AT (for Advanced Technology), which used a 80286 processor running at 8MHz, and a 16-bit internal bus, as opposed to the PC's 8-bit bus. The AT bus design is the basis of most of todays IBM-compatible PCs, and is generally known as the ISA, or Industry Standard Architecture. IBM abandoned the ISA bus design for their own 32-bit bus standard, the Micro Channel, which is not well supported. There is a 32-bit version of the ISA bus called the EISA (for Extended ISA) — which is backwardly compatible with the 16-bit standard — for those companies that want to go to 32 bits without toeing the IBM line.

The PC/XT and 286 AT are now obsolete, the 386 and 386SX being the current mainstays of the PC population, although these are quickly becoming obsolescent as the prices of 486 and 486SX machines continue to drop. The 'entry level' for buying a new machine is usually considered to be a PC based on the 386SX microprocessor, running at 16MHz with at least 1 MB of RAM, a 40MB hard disk, and a VGA monitor. Processor clock speeds range up to 66MHz, which gives you power equivalent to a small minicomputer. It is a little difficult to compare processor power in absolute terms but, according to the Norton Utilities System Information program (Symantec (Contact Details)), my 33MHz 386-based PC rates 43.4, which means that it's over 40 times as powerful as the original PC released in 1981.


One of the reasons that the PC has proven so popular is undoubtedly its 'open ended' design, allowing you to fit expansion boards in its internal slots. The ability to add on any piece of hardware that you fancied made the PC a good investment, since you wouldn't have to buy a new PC if you decided you needed a new facility. So it didn't really matter that the original PC had a naff screen, or had no sound capability to speak of; you could always add a card later for a fraction of the cost of buying a new computer.

There is a wide variety of cards available for the PC — cards that enhance the PC's performance (such as graphics adaptors), extra memory, and even replacement processors. Alternatively, you can get card-based systems that simply use the PC as a graphic terminal to control their in-built functions. Examples of this can be found in hard disk recorders such as SADiE from Studio Audio ((Contact Details)) or the Audio Engine from Spectral Synthesis (Active Sounds (Contact Details)) The only problem that I find with this method of expansion is that I keep running out of slots!


As the PC has developed, so has screen technology. When it was released in 1981, purchasers had the option of either a monochrome (text only) display, or a Colour Graphics Adaptor (CGA), which gave a maximum screen resolution of 640 x 200 dots (monochrome) or 320 x 200 dots (four colours). The current minimum standard is the VGA, which gives you a screen resolution of 640 x 480 dots, and either 16 colours or 16 shades of grey on a monochrome monitor. In fact, most video cards are capable of higher resolutions than this, with 800 x 600 being quite common, though you need a more expensive SVGA or multi-sync monitor to use this type of card. Screen resolutions can be higher still, but there is no commonly accepted standard. This is not a problem with Windows, as the driver takes the strain, but not many DOS music applications will be able to take advantage of the higher resolution.

Passport's Master Tracks Pro, running under Windows.


The PC has been used for music from its inception, and when MIDI was ratified it wasn't long before MIDI cards were being produced for the PC. Unfortunately, due to the design of its serial port, the PC could not be directly adapted to use MIDI, unlike the Apple Mac or Amiga personal computers. However, Roland ((Contact Details)) went one better than a simple MIDI interface; they produced an intelligent interface called the MPU401 which, in turn, became the de-facto standard for MIDI on the PC. Since then, a wide range of music-related cards have become available for the PC, ranging from synthesizer cards like the Roland LAPC, SCC1 and IBM/Yamaha Music Feature, through sound cards like the Sound Blaster (WestPoint Creative (Contact Details)), to high powered DSP systems such as the Turtle Beach 56K (Active Sounds) and SADiE (Studio Audio) hard disk recorders.

There has always been plenty of high-quality software available for the PC, due to both its popularity and its origins as the first of the successful 16-bit personal computers. Traditionally, most PC music software comes from North America, with sequencing software such as Voyetra's Sequencer Plus (CMS (Contact Details)), Twelve Tone Systems' Cakewalk (Sound Technology (Contact Details)) and Big Noise's Cadenza (Zone (Contact Details)), scoring packages such as Dr T's Copyist (Zone), Jim Miller's Personal Composer, and patch editors such as Dr T's X-Or (Zone) and the Sound Quest system. However, the PC does have an international presence, with Dynaware's Ballade (Digital Music (Contact Details)) from Japan and Musicator (Digital Music) from Norway.

The success of the PC and the MPU MIDI standard has also led to the availability of a large amount of 'shareware' and public domain software. I am always amazed at the amount of time which some musician/programmers are prepared to spend on creating these useful utilities, for little or no financial reward. Some of these packages do eventually end up as full commercial products, but in the main they can be obtained for free or for a nominal cost from on-line services such as Computerserve or CIX.


One of the main perceived disadvantages of the PC has always been its operating system MS-DOS. Microsoft's MS-DOS is an old fashioned 'command line' driven operating system, which presents a very unfriendly 'face' to the new user. Based on Digital Research's CP/M and written before the concept of a Graphical User Interface (or GUI) was practicable, MS-DOS places the smallest possible overhead on the PC, allowing software to wring the maximum power from the computer. There are several text-only user interfaces that are designed to ease the pain of using MS/DOS; Norton Commander and Bourbaki's 1DIR spring to mind. These DOS enhancers tend to be menu based and can take a bit of setting up.

The first true GUI for the PC was Digital Research's GEM user interface, which added 'point and click' facilities without losing access to the large amount of software available that only requires DOS to operate. GEM was a good compromise between using DOS and adding graphic capabilities to the PC, but was hampered by litigation by Apple. Microsoft attempted to compete in the GUI market with Windows but weren't really successful until the release of version 3.0, which has transformed the face of PC computing.


With the release of Windows 3.0, Microsoft were obviously caught on the hop by their own success. The product struck a chord with the PC-using public, making the computer more accessible and, above all, fun. The technical specification of the standard PC had improved to the point where the PC could cope with the demanding processing tasks involved with maintaining a full-colour graphic environment. In addition, applications like Excel and Word for Windows meant that users could take advantage of the added facilities from the word go. The other great strength of Windows is the fact that you don't lose anything by upgrading — you can still use all your old DOS applications.

Windows 3.x is what's known as an operating environment, since it works in conjunction with the underlying DOS operating system. As DOS and Windows are both Microsoft products, they work together pretty closely. However, DOS is still essentially a 16-bit operating system, which can't take advantage of the 32-bit architecture common to 386 and 486 based computers. To address this problem, Microsoft are currently developing Windows NT which is a 32-bit version of Windows designed 'from the ground up'. Microsoft say that NT will be faster and more reliable than the current versions of Windows and will be able to run all current versions of your PC software. Windows NT will be a full-blown operating system, and will therefore replace DOS, although it will still be able to run DOS programs as well as Windows 3.x programs. Apart from Windows NT, Microsoft are also working on a version 4.0 of the current Windows, which will still use MS-DOS as the underlying operating system.

What will Windows NT give to the music user? Mainly, improved performance, but also true multi-tasking, so you'll be able to run multiple music programs reliably without worrying about sloppy timing or missed events. You may even be able to format a floppy disk whilst using your sequencer!


Of course you don't have to stick with Microsoft software when you use a PC; there are various other options. I've already mentioned Digital Research's GEM GUI, but you're more likely to see their MS-DOS alternative today, namely DR-DOS. This operating system is designed to be totally compatible with the Microsoft offering but has more features. Hard disk compression, task switching and a lower price are just some of the features on offer. Quarterdeck's DESQview, on the other hand, is a multitasking environment that works with DOS, allowing you to run multiple applications without having to move to a GUI like Windows.

Getting away from DOS altogether, there are a number of Unix-type operating systems that will run on the PC. Since there are virtually no music applications that run under Unix (Keynote from AT&T being the only one that springs to mind), this is of limited interest to music technologists. You may be able to run some DOS music programs under VP/IX, which is a Unix product, but I can't really see the point of doing this.

This leaves the other major contender in the operating systems stakes, IBM's OS/2. This — like Windows NT — is a complete operating system, dispensing with the need to use DOS. Windows and DOS applications can be run from within OS/2; compatibility is ensured by the fact that Microsoft have supplied the relevant code. However, OS/2 seems to be aimed more at companies with networks than the likes of you and me. I can't see all that many music packages being released to run specifically under OS/2, so you will need to use the Windows version. Unfortunately, the performance of DOS and Windows software running on OS/2 leaves a lot to be desired.


Most computer companies seem to agree that 'multimedia' is going to be the 'next big thing'. The main arguments seem to be that PCs are now powerful enough to display high-quality animated graphics as well as perform other tasks, such as playback of sound, display of text, and control of external devices such as video disk and CD players. The Multimedia Personal Computer (or MPC) standard defines the minimum hardware requirements for running MPC software, and the new version of Windows has multimedia facilities 'built-in' to the operating system.

The main aim of MPC is to provide a new publishing medium that combines the benefits of the printed word with the possibilities of the audio-visual world. Some good examples of this can be found on Microsoft's Bookshelf CD-ROM — for instance, the encyclopedia entry for CD technology has an animated diagram and some of the famous quotes have sound bytes of the original speakers. The hardware manufacturers obviously hope to create a new market that puts an MPC on every desk — and in the process sell lots of PCs.


The MPC standard is good news for computer musicians in two ways. The first is that it builds all the facilities required for music into the operating environment. So Windows 3.1 knows all about MIDI and treats the MIDI interface just like any other computer peripheral (a video card, for instance, or a disk drive). This frees the music software developer from having to design their programs to use a specific MIDI device — such as the Roland MPU401 — as the way in which the program 'talks' to MIDI is now defined by Windows, not the particular MIDI hardware. MPC is a mixed blessing for the MIDI card makers, since they now have to supply software drivers to interface their products to Windows, but it's also a great liberator, since they are no longer chained to the ageing MPU401 standard. The last year has produced an explosion of innovative MIDI cards designed to be used with Windows.

The second aspect of multimedia publishing that's good news for composers is that it's an entirely new market for music. Multimedia music has a lot in common with video soundtracks, and can include the replay of digital audio, either from a CD player or as sampled sound effects or voice-overs. No doubt it will take a little while for the MPC publishing market to get off the ground, but when it does there should be a big demand for soundtracks.

Voyetra's Sequencer Plus, a leading DOS sequencer


One of the side effects of the introduction of multimedia has been the requirement for PCs to have the ability to replay sound samples and music. This has led to a new generation of sound cards — of variable quality — which will give you this and sometimes other facilities such as a CD-ROM interface. The market leader appears to be the Sound Blaster Pro from Creative Labs, which can replay 8-bit samples, has a very basic FM synthesizer section, a MIDI interface and a CD-ROM interface; this is followed in the popularity stakes by the Media Vision cards (P&P Corporate Systems (Contact Details)). However, these basic sound cards leave a lot to be desired in the sound quality stakes, and though both companies are producing cards that have 16-bit digital audio, the synthesizer sections are not being improved. The leader in terms of quality has to be the Turtle Beach Multisound (MCM (Contact Details)), which has 16-bit digital audio and a synthesizer section based on Emu's Proteus/1 XR. The Gravis Ultrasound (Optech (Contact Details)) should be a close second, with 16-bit digital audio and synthesis circuitry by Ensoniq, plus a SCSI interface for connecting your CD-ROM.


The success of Windows has caused a flurry of activity amongst music software producers, with a number of Windows sequencers being launched or announced. From the traditional DOS world, we have Cadenza and Cakewalk for Windows (Digital Music) and Voyetra (CMS) are working on a new Windows sequencer. A number of packages have also defected from other platforms. Passport have released their Trax and Master Tracks Pro sequencers and their Encore and Musictime scoring packages (MCM), Coda have their Finale and Music Prose scoring software (MCM), and Steinberg (Harman Audio (Contact Details)) have just released Cubase.

There are also a number of new pieces of software being released specifically for the Windows environment, such as Zone's SeqWin and Oktal's MULTItude. Cakewalk for Windows is especially interesting, as it takes the sequencer out of the purely MIDI domain into the wider world of multimedia, allowing you to control other sound devices. These programs are just the tip of the iceberg, and we should be seeing a lot more multimedia authoring applications in the next year or so.


Although the new Windows applications are very attractive, they won't necessarily give you more in the way of functionality than similar programs that run under DOS. In fact you will always get better performance out of your computer using a DOS program rather than using the Windows equivalent. The price of using any GUI is the addition of another layer of software which, when added to the overhead of painting a pretty screen, slows things down considerably. So unless you need to use one of the specific multimedia features only available under Windows, or you use a 'non-standard' MIDI interface, there is a good argument for sticking with DOS.

You don't have to worry about DOS programs going out of date either, since there are still far more DOS-only machines being used than there are machines using Windows. There are plenty of sequencers available, with Voyetra's Sequencer Plus and Twelve Tone Systems' Cakewalk leading the pack. You can even get graphic-based sequencers like Big Noise's Cadenza, as well as a large number of composition tools such as Sound Globs and Band In A Box (Zone Distribution).

A number of music notation programs are available for DOS; the good ones, like Dr T's Copyist, all implement their own graphic user interface. In general, however, I feel that Windows scoring packages tend to have the edge over DOS-based notators, due to the superior printer support and consistent graphic interface.


One of the most exciting recent additions to the armoury of sound tools available to the PC user is that of hard disk recording. Systems range in cost and capability, from around £1,300 for the DOS based CardD system from Digital Audio Labs (CMS), which gives you stereo recording on the PC's hard disk, up to the Spectral Synthesis Audio Engine, which simply uses the PC as a high quality graphics terminal. Other systems, falling into the midrange price bracket are available from Plasmec ((Contact Details)), Studio Audio, Turtle Beach and Digigram (Digigram UK (Contact Details)). The Studio Audio, Plasmec and Spectral Synthesis systems use Windows to provide their graphics, while the other packages run under DOS.


As usual, this will depend on your requirements and your budget. For most DOS-based MIDI sequencing applications, a 286 AT or even a Turbo PC/XT is perfectly adequate. The reason for this is that although MIDI is a pretty highspeed data channel, the normal rate of data transfer (or throughput) is actually quite low. As long as you don't use masses of pitch bend or mod wheel, you probably won't notice the difference. The same argument applies to patch editors, librarians and scoring packages. I ran Dr T's Copyist quite happily on an 8Mhz Turbo PC/XT for a number of years.

You can pick up reconditioned PC/XTs and 286 ATs for prices as low as £150 and £300 respectively; you may have to hunt around a bit, but this is by far the cheapest way of getting into PC computing. One source of these machines is Crystal Computers in St. Albans ((Contact Details)); look in your local press or PC computer magazines for any dealers local to you. Morgan Computer Co. ((Contact Details)) is another good source of cheap PCs — they tend to sell discontinued or liquidated stock, so don't expect any support. As far as new machines go, some companies still have 286 AT PCs at the bottom of their ranges, but the price difference between these and the 386SXs is usually so low that you'll virtually always be better off paying the extra £50 to get the 386-based PC.

If you want to take advantage of the Windows revolution, you'll need to get at least a 16Mhz 386 SX with 1 MB of RAM and a VGA screen. You'll probably find that a full 386 with 4MB of RAM will be a more comfortable machine to use; even adding 4MB to a 386SX will improve performance considerably. Prices for this type of PC start at around £600 for the direct sellers such as Elonex, ALR and Dell. There is a price war at the moment between Compaq, IBM, and Dell, so you should be able to get some good prices. The best approach is to check out the PC computer magazines such as PC Direct and Computer Shopper and see who's giving the best prices.

Hard disk recording is probably the most demanding of all the tasks you could set your PC, and a fast 486 PC might be appropriate for this — prices start from just over £2,000. At this price you will usually be supplied with a large hard disk and a high resolution SVGA monitor. Again, the best way to shop is to get some computer magazines and check out the adverts. Prices are moving so quickly at the moment that the best deals change from month to month. If you plan to use your computer in a commercial situation, then it might be worth buying from a 'Value Added Reseller' (or VAR) like MMS in Milton Keynes ((Contact Details)). Prices won't be as low as the direct channel, but you will get far better support if your machine ever goes down; this could be important if your income depends on the PC being in working order.


Of course, you don't have to buy a bulky desktop machine; improvements in low power technology and LCD screens have made the notebook PC a very attractive alternative. These machines tend to be more expensive than the desktop PC of equivalent capability, and range in size from the older laptop portable — about the size of a small portable typewriter — down to A5 for the Suntec MiniBook ((Contact Details)). You can get LCD screen resolutions up to VGA in either monochrome or colour, and the PCs will often have connectors for external monitors and keyboard. Prices for notebooks start at around £1,800 for colour and £1,000 for monochrome, whilst portables can be picked up for a good deal less than this from places like Morgans.


Choosing the correct PC for music can be a complex chore, but that's because there is a lot of choice. The popularity of the PC as a business and personal computer means that prices are relatively low compared to computers of comparable power based on other technologies. With the introduction of Multimedia Windows, the major criticism of the PC — the unfriendliness of DOS — is no longer a problem. Things are looking up for PC music: check it out.


You are unlikely to be able to get an 'off the shelf' system complete with MIDI, so you'll probably have to buy the MIDI or sound component separately. Whilst a single MIDI port used to be adequate for most applications, with the advent of multitimbral synthesizer modules, one sound device can take up an entire port by itself. Roland MPU-401 compatibility is still a requirement if you are using DOS, and suitable interfaces are produced by Voyetra (CMS), Midiman (Zone Distribution), Computer Music Supplies (Turnkey (Contact Details)) and Music Quest (Digital Music). Voyetra and Music Quest also produce multi-port interfaces that are MPU compatible, some of which also have a SMPTE timecode facility. Computer Music Supplies (the Stateside CMS) also have a range of interfaces that are not MPU-compatible, some of which are multi-port; Music Quest, Midiman and KEY Electronics (Turnkey) have also announced new multi-port interfaces. If you want to MIDI up a portable computer, the KEY MIDIator modules attach to the PC's serial port and give you up to four MIDI ports. Some of the newly announced multi-port cards fit to the PC's parallel port and so would be suitable for a portable PC as well.

An alternative to a simple MIDI interface is the internal sound card — make sure that you get one which has a MIDI option. The Roland SCC1 and LAPC cards are synthesizer cards, with the SCC1 providing the better value of the two (available from CMS, Turnkey and Zone). Multimedia soundcards also usually have a MIDI capability, but only the Turtle Beach Multisound and the Gravis Ultrasound have the audio quality required for serious music applications.

Yamaha's new TG100 synth module is rather interesting in that it combines a synth (General MIDI) and PC MIDI interface in one small half-rack sized unit (Yamaha (Contact Details)). Whilst it can be used like any other MIDI expander, you can, alternatively, connect it to your PC's serial port. It can then be used alongside your regular MIDI interface card (effectively adding an extra 16 channels to your system), and can also add MIDI to a portable PC.

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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 - Nov 1992



Feature by Brian Heywood

Previous article in this issue:

> Drum Programming

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