Paul Gilby takes a brief look at printer technology with particular reference to the Citizen HQP45 24-pin dot-matrix printer.
Over the past year the number of computer-based music notation programs has increased dramatically, presenting the musician with yet another piece of computer hardware to come to terms with - a printer! Paul Gilby takes a brief look at printer technology with particular reference to the Citizen HQP45 24-pin dot-matrix printer.
Technology has a wonderfully seductive quality about it, where everyone has a tendency to envisage the potential of a new product based on much hearsay and brief demonstration. What you imagine and what you actually get are often two entirely different things. The introduction of music notation programs is perhaps the best example of the seductive process taking over from the actual results on offer. This is not necessarily a fault of any particular software package, but more a result of throwing another potential problem into the equation; namely a printer.
Coming to terms with a computer sequencing program or a voice editor takes time. You have to familiarise yourself with a computer, disks, saving files, not to mention the music software! Coming to terms with a music notation package imposes the added problem and expense of buying a printer and learning how to use it. Obviously, there is little point buying a notation program if you don't actually intend printing anything out, so spending some time selecting a printer is just as important as assessing the software. Price, quality of image, type of printer, and robustness are all points to consider.
If you already utilise software and computers to make your music, you may also be aware of the four popular types of printer technology used in today's products. The old faithfuls are tine 'Daisy Wheel', which is similar to a typewriter but uses letters of the alphabet formed from plastic that strikes a ribbon; and the 'Dot Matrix', which uses a vertical row of wire pins to form a letter or graphic image.
More recently, there is the 'Ink Jet' printer, which spurts ink at the paper in a predetermined character shape; and finally, the 'Laser Printer', which is somewhat similar to a photocopier but uses laser light to expose the characters or graphic images onto a sensitised drum, then transfers the image to paper.
Dot-matrix printers, having traditionally been 9-pin systems, have now developed into 9-pin with Near Letter Quality (NLQ) and 24-pin varieties. As the phrase NLQ implies, the printed image you obtain is far better than the very 'dotty' 9-pin look, and goes some way to achieving daisy-wheel quality printout.
Technically, this is achieved by the print head making two passes across the paper. The second pass is slightly offset from the first, therefore filling in the white space between the dots. The disadvantage of this approach is that it slows down the printout time of any document or, in our case, music score. What is quoted as a print speed of 120 (cps) characters per second (draft mode) can fall dramatically to 20 or 30 characters in NLQ mode. Sure it looks good, but it takes ages. In fact, it slows down to the pace of a daisy-wheel printer which, although still superior in quality, can't be used to print out music and graphic images. Enter the 24-pin dot matrix printer with its two vertical rows of 12 pins.
The new breed of 24-pin printers can achieve NLQ results in a single pass of the print head and thereby maintain a high speed; typically in the region of 50 to 80 cps, and even faster in draft mode (around 150 cps for the majority of models). The Citizen HQP45 is very racy at 200 cps. However, we are more interested in quality, so we must focus our attention on the NLQ speeds.
You can clearly see the difference in quality between 9-pin and 24-pin machines from the example printouts in Figure 1. Here we have used an Epson LX800 9-pin printer and a Citizen HQP45 for the 24-pin example. The benefits of 24-pin are clear for all to see, yet so often the price differential can put you off because 9-pin printers are much cheaper and, yes, some of them can print in NLQ mode. But pause and think about what the purpose of using a music notation program is all about.
Your intention is probably to print out music scores for yourself and others to read. If you can't read the score easily, or there is some doubt about the actual note or wording, all the hard work of composing the music for the benefit of others to play is lost! It's rather like having to struggle to interpret someone's handwriting; reading a typed letter is always quicker and easier! If you ignore the importance of the final printing stage, there's arguably little point in starting in the first place. After all, you wouldn't master your greatest recording on a mono portable cassette player and hope to cut a record from it, would you?! Output quality is always important, whether it be sound or vision.
If you have already started using music notation software, you may have experienced the poor quality of printout that many packages give you on 9-pin printers. In order to allow for the complexities of the graphic nature of music, with its notes, beams, staves etc, many printouts of scores tend to be larger than expected and somewhat ugly in appearance. Lyrics or other text often breaks up into unreadable patterns of dots - this is due to the printer working in a graphics mode rather than printing alphabet characters. Most notation software is not generally capable of switching over from graphic print mode for the music to text mode for the lyric line. 24-pin dot-matrix printers overcome this problem through their higher resolution, and give far more readable results.
The Citizen printer featured here is a wide-carriage version of their HQP series, the HQP45 and HQP40 being identical other than the fact that one can take wider paper (or as the computer people like to put it, one is an 80-column and the other a 132-column printer).
I've already highlighted print speed as an important factor, and here the Citizen offers some pretty fast figures. It runs in three modes, and gives 200 cps in draft mode, 132 cps in correspondence mode, and 66 cps in NLQ mode. All of these are achievable with the resident typeface (font). If you intend using your printer for other purposes, like word processing, then additional plug-in fonts are available on ROM cards similar to the type used in the Roland D50. These credit card type storage devices are getting everywhere! What's more, the Citizen can be made to emulate many different popular printers by inserting a configuration card into a second ROM slot. This enables you to configure the printer to work like an IBM, Epson, Diablo, Qume or whatever.
In addition to the use of ROM cards for fonts and printer configuration (which are optional rather than standard), the Citizen HQP allows a great deal of direct manipulation via an extensive range of front panel switches. These control the print mode selection, the pitch (ie. 10 or 12 characters per inch), the chosen international character set (English, French, etc), line spacing, paper control, character buffer size (8K or 24K), and interface choice.
The good news is that the Citizen comes with both parallel and serial interfaces built in as standard, and you can control the protocol used at each interface. The inclusion of a serial port is unusual, as the majority of printers employ what is known as a Centronics interface, which is a parallel connection system. The fact that you get a serial port thrown in as well should be great news for Apple Macintosh owners who can't afford a laser printer and don't find Apple's own imagewriter dot-matrix printer attractive in terms of its quality, price or facilities. In a multi-user environment such as the SOS editorial offices, where PCs, Macs, Ataris and BBCs are in regular use, having both serial and parallel ports means the printer can be connected to any computer.
What quickly becomes apparent in use is that the Citizen HQP is very flexible, and very capable of 'cloning' many popular printers, whether parallel or serial. In addition, as you would expect, you can use either single sheets of paper for paged output or pin-feed fan-fold paper for continuous score printing - the choice is yours.
When assessing any printer for compatibility with your notation software, you must first examine the information in the software manuals that tells you which printer devices the program will drive. Some current software will only support very basic 9-pin printers or laser printers, and fails to give you any means of changing the driver configuration settings. This is where the Citizen HQP's emulation modes earn it extra marks, for it can act like a more basic printer when necessary.
Overall, the Citizen HQP not only offers excellent print quality but also great flexibility through software control and hardware features like the parallel/serial interfaces and ROM cards. There are admittedly several cheaper 24-pin printers on the market already, but they don't offer all the facilities of the HQP45 or HQP40. And, ultimately, that could mean that, having bought your superb new music notation software, you suddenly discover that your trusty old printer can't support all those nice new features that made you buy the program in the first place! Remember: forward planning can often save you money in the long run.
£688.85 (HQP45); £642.85 (HQP40).
Daryl Stickley, Hugh Symons Distribution Services, (Contact Details).