Music Instruction System
Of the few computer-based music teaching systems available, Xanadu's Musicom - distributed by Roland - is one of the most versatile. David Ellis finds out if it's cheap enough to tempt fund-starved schools.
Roland's MUSICOM is a sophisticated computer-based music education system. What does it offer tutors and students that conventional teaching methods can't, and is it cheap enough for Britain's fund-starved schools?
AS THE IBM PC itself is limited to a feeble monophonic beep, the sound output for the MUSICOM system is arrived at by the addition of a MIDI interface (Roland's MPU401) and some sort of MIDI keyboard (preferably one that's velocity-sensitive). In addition, a card has to be plugged into one of the IBM PC's slots to connect the micro with the MPU401. Although Roland make their own IBM PC card for the MPU401, the MUSICOM system requires the use of a special card (the Xanadu IFM-PC) that adds on a so-called "pitch and rhythm detector" circuit. This takes the input from a microphone, inwardly digests it, and then sends extracted pitches in the general direction of the MUSICOM software.
But whereas the MPU401 retails for £219, the Xanadu IFM-PC card sells for a mildly ridiculous £660. So, even without any software, computer, or MIDI keyboard, the basic MUSICOM hardware already costs more than twice as much as the entry level Amstrad PC 1512 - or a quartet of secondhand synths that could be used to form the basis of a school synth band.
Luckily, the MUSICOM system doesn't seem to be too fussy about what sort of IBM PC it uses, and any compatible should do fine. What it does require is the Colour Graphics Adaptor card for the graphics display (the equivalent of which is already built into the Amstrad PC 1512) and a colour monitor. At a conservative estimate, a standard IBM PC compatible thus equipped for colour, with a couple of disk drives, will add on a further £1200 to the bill. And should you go for the Big Blue original, that figure will read more like £2200. Don't tell me I didn't warn you...
XANADU ORGANISE their music course into a number of blocks, each of which is available separately in beautifully presented ring-bound form, with the disks slotted into pockets at the back of the manual. But beautiful presentation usually costs an arm and a leg, and the MUSICOM packages are no exception to the rule. For the record, here are the various courses and their prices:
Course A1 - Ear Training and Sight Singing (£386).
Course B1 - Keyboard Fundamentals (£424).
Course C2/C3/C3A - Concepts in Two-Part Writing/ Triad Structure/Triad Structure (supplementary) (£534).
Course P1 - Rapid Piano (£415).
Course J1 - Jazz for the Keyboard (£360).
"The jazz software allows you to record your own version of apiece, reading from chord symbols and a bassline, and then compare this with the original."
The Ear Training and Sight Singing course makes particular use of the pitch detector, and requires the student to sing into a microphone whatever notes are displayed on-screen. To avoid the system glitching when attempting to detect pitches, this has to be done fairly deliberately and in strict tempo with a computer-generated metronome. This involves some acclimatisation, but the real-time display of notes and durations as they're sung is certainly informative, and definitely more valuable to the student than a rap over the knuckles from an irascible piano teacher.
One thoughtful feature is that the software asks you to sing your highest and lowest notes in order to determine your singing range before commencing the exercises proper. A neat touch.
The pitch detector also copes with the input from most instrumental sources (flute, violin, and trumpet, for instance), so students with no pretence at singing ability can also be catered for by this program. In fact, Xanadu have it in mind to produce programs specifically designed as tutors for particular instruments.
Keyboard Fundamentals comprises a set of four disks, and is designed to teach basic keyboard skills to children at (roughly) primary school level. It covers music notation, simple melody and rhythm, and playing notes on the keyboard. Undeniably worthy, but the course does seem a little on the dull side, especially bearing in mind the age of the children that are likely to be using it.
THERE'S NO doubt the MUSICOM system is superbly presented - both on the screen and in the manual. And although many teachers (and most students, I guess) will turn their noses up at the overly academic slant of the theoretical courses, MUSICOM gets through a huge amount of inevitable musical tedium efficiently and with a good deal of imagination.
But the course that stands out (for me, at least - I'd give anything to be a competent jazz pianist) is the Jazz course, which is not only fun, but actually leaves you with the feeling that you've acquired useful musical skills.
The biggest problem with this system is the choice of micro - for the UK market, anyway. A version for the Atari ST would seem to make a lot more sense for the UK and general European market, and that micro has the major advantage over the IBM PC of a built-in MIDI interface.
And as I've already intimated, MUSICOM isn't cheap by today's standards. True, buying an IBM PC used to cost thousands, and software companies could get away with charging hundreds for their products. But with the advent of IBM PC compatibles, and especially the Amstrad PC 1512 (no, I don't have shares in Amstrad - though I wish I did), the more streetwise software houses have seen the sense in lowering their prices to fit in with the change of fortunes in the hardware industry.
So as things stand, Xanadu are in exactly the same position as many publishers of business software for the IBM PC. Those that cut their prices will reap the benefit of a whole new market; those that hang on may simply sink without a trace, or be swallowed up by software pirates or copycats.
I think MUSICOM is worth saving from that fate. The fact that Roland are prepared to consider educational discounts certainly goes some way towards easing the pressure on the pocket, and it'll be interesting to see what path Xanadu themselves decide to take - both price-wise and micro-wise.
Review by David Ellis
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